You’re probably playing D&D wrong. (1/3)

Gary Gygax says:

The ultimate aim of the game is to gain sufficient esteem as a good player to retire your character — he becomes a kind of mythical, historical figure, someone for others to look up to and admire

I’ve been spending the past few weeks reading a lot of OSR stuff. A lot of it. If anyone checks my Internet history at work, they’re going to be confused about terms like “Philotomy” and “fantasy Vietnam.” The sharp realization that I’m full of shit and have been playing D&D improperly for years is a bit humbling.

If you complain about any of the following issues, you’re playing D&D wrong:

    • Magic item dependency.
    • Low magic games.
    • Vancian magic.
    • The fifteen minute workday.
    • Hit points.
    • Linear fighters, quadratic wizards.
    • Armor class.
    • Magical healing.

And that’s probably not your fault entirely because, like me, you started playing D&D with 3e, and 3e is a bad system because the designers did not understand exactly what they were doing when they wrote the game. Pathfinder continued all the bad things from 3e, and so did 4e, and now 5e is trying to pare them back, but you’d have to take a hatchet to the rulebook to make D&D right. When Wizards of the Coast snatched up the D&D license and churned out the 3e rulebooks, they didn’t fully understand their own game. They had good intentions: standardizing races and classes, streamlining the system, codifying rules. But mistakes were made, as the phrase goes.

D&D is a very focused, tightly balanced game based on a miniatures wargame. It is not supposed to be a system of epic quests. It is about normal people adventuring into dungeons, retrieving treasure, and going back for more. There are little bits and pieces of something more, but the game is oriented toward dungeon running. In D&D, characters descend into dungeons, acquire treasure, then return to the surface. They level up, restock their supplies, and then delve deeper into the dungeon. That is the core of the game. If you are running the game with visions of Lord of the Rings running through your head, you need recalibrate your expectations. While D&D has rules that provide a veneer of Tolkien fantasy (dwarves, elves, and hobbitses, oh my), D&D is not a system designed for epic quests and characters. It is more geared for a high fantasy sword ‘n’ sorcery style play, where the characters are after treasure and may occasionally engage in heroics.

Before delving into anything else, let’s set the standard here: D&D is a game about resource management. You have hit points, spell slots, and magic items with charges. These are resources. You have saving throws and equipment, which prevent you from losing resources. As you level up, you get more of these resources (and you are less likely to lose resources because of a failed save, as saving throws are static). The more resources you have, the longer you can stay in the dungeon. The longer you stay in the dungeon, the more treasure you find, and the more treasure you find, the more resources you get from leveling up. Ultimately, it’s a simple, well-designed system that fosters a very specific style of gameplay.

The trouble arises when you take a game about dungeon crawling and shoehorn it into Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones and whatever other fantasy literature is popular nowadays. Why aren’t there rules for diplomacy? Why aren’t there rules for injuries? Why aren’t there rules for X, Y, and Z? You may as well ask chess why it doesn’t have rules for rolling damage. D&D has rules for things like breaking doors because D&D is about forcing open locked doors…in dungeons…to get the treasure behind them.

Naturally, you can create rules to make D&D run those things a little better, but then you run into these long, boring debates about hit points and realism. If you’re thinking in those terms, you’re not understanding D&D.

The core of D&D is the dungeon crawl. It is resource management. Once you move away from those things, you dilute the essence of the game, and you encounter problems with “the fifteen minute workday” and “magical healing is dumb.” (Hint: magical healing is the conversion of one resource type to another. Makes more sense when you think of it that way, doesn’t it?)