What is DnD?

For me, when I write or talk about “DnD” the term stands in for a particular play experience. That play experience is a “classic” or “old-school” mode of adventure gaming, with a fairly high “game-y-ness”.

What the game is about, its main themes, are right there in the title of the original game: this game is about dungeons and it’s about dragons. Put another way: it’s about exploration, and it’s about problem solving.

The particular rules system used is less important, but most of the time it’s probably something descended from Dungeons & Dragons.

Lots of folks have written lots of words about what that experience is like. Check my Links for a good selection. Meanwhile, here’s my take:

Playing DnD is about dungeons and it’s about dragons. Yes, it’s sometimes literally about those things, but those two icons are also exemplars of the two central reasons that we play this game (they are the fun bits).

A dungeon, traditionally, is an underground complex, usually laid out on a square grid, and occupied by strange monsters. It’s a horrible place: the doors are all stuck, but the monsters can open them, it’s maze-like and there’s no map unless you draw it yourself, and if you stay too long some monster is going to stumble upon you.

What do you do in a dungeon? You explore. You carefully try this door and that, mapping as you go, avoiding monsters as best you can. The goal is to get to know this imaginary space that has been created for you to play in, in order to find treasure.

Dragons are massive, powerful, ancient creatures, with fiery breath, fearsome claws, and supernatural powers. In the classic tradition, dragons are extremely powerful. You cannot beat them by force. But you want their treasure. So you must find a way to trick them or beat them by guile, instead. Each dragon is a problem to be solved.

Now, in DnDish games, not all the problems are dragons, and not all the explorations are of dungeons. The tricks, the traps, the enemy factions, indeed, all the monsters & challenges arrayed against you: they are not a battle to be won but a problem to be solved.

And “the dungeon” could easily be an above-ground fortress, or a fairy kingdom within the top of a hill, or a dark & twisted forest filled with bandits. Indeed, the meta-dungeon is the entire world that somebody has dreamed up. Each of these is a venue to explore.

And in case you missed it, the goal both of solving problems & of exploring is to find and claim treasure. Dungeons hide it, dragons guard it. In may be piles of gold coins or it may be a magical sword, it may even be something you can’t touch, like a patent of nobility, but your characters are searching for something extremely valuable.

In a way, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is an archetypal DnD adventure.

To me this old-school style of roleplaying gaming is all about those two pillars: the exploration & the problem solving, the dungeons & the dragons, and the implied third pillar of finding something valuable & useful as your reward.


Further reading:

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This page last updated: 2019.01.12