Dungeons and Dragons

I know this is an OLD topic, but I feel I must defend my avocation (and profession).

Regarding the question “What’s the deal with Dungeons and Dragons?” Cecil wrote:

>There are two main problems: (1) there are
>one billion rules, and (2) the game requires
>nonstop mathematical finagling that
>would constipate Einstein.

>The rule book is laden with such mystifying
>pronouncements as the following: “An ancient
>spell-using red dragon of huge size with
>88 hits points has a BXPV of 1300, XP/HP
>total of 1408, SAXPB of 2800 (armor class
>plus special defense plus high intelligence
>plus saving throw bonus due to h.p./die),
>and an EAXPA of 2550 (major breath weapon
>plus spell use plus attack damage of
>3-30/bite)–totalling 7758 h.p.”

>Here we have a game that combines the charm
>of a Pentagon briefing with the excitement
>of double-entry bookkeeping. I don’t get it.

It’s not surprising Cecil doesn’t get it, considering the source material he’s using.

As usual, Cecil isn’t wrong (Cecil is NEVER WRONG!!) but the source he used to obtain this information is both outdated and nonrepresentative.

Dungeons & Dragons may have been one of the first roleplaying games, but there were two major problems with it: 1) there was way too much jargon and 2) there was way too much math.

The current D&D rulebooks do most of the math for you beforehand; in the example above, in the current D&D game you’d just look up “red dragon” in a book and it’d say 7758 xp right there.

Even now, though, D&D is still widely criticized for its lack of “transparency” – another jargon term basically meaning that you have to do too much math. More modern games like Vampire: the Masquerade and Legend of the Five Rings barely require math at all past simple counting, so you can use them for more complicated games than just “wander into a cave, whack some baddies and take their stuff.” A roleplaying game is never gonna be Tolkien, but at its best you can tell a fantasy story that’s easily on the level of, say, Anne McCaffrey.

The other key point is that roleplaying games are more like baseball than they are like Clue; yes, there are billions of rules, but most of them will only come up once in a blue moon. The designers generally figure that it’s better to have a rule than to have ambiguity, so there’s little stupid rules (like checks for communicable diseases, formulas to figure out how much weight you’re carrying, the gestation period of an elf, and things like that) on the off-chance they’ll come in handy someday. I’ve been playing D&D and other roleplaying games for nigh on twenty years now, and I’ve never once referred to anything as obscure as the rules cited in the article.

Roleplaying games basically come down to Cowboys & Indians, with dice and rules thrown in purely to avoid the “I shot you!” “No you didn’t!” kind of disagreement so prevalent in the schoolyards of the 1950s.

Of course, whether you need to buy $60 worth of books to play a game whose actual working rules could probably be written on both sides of an 8 1/2x11 sheet of paper is debatable.

I used to play D&D back in High School. I went to a role-playing convention once. Asked to describe the event, I replied, “There were a lot of characters there.”

Ultimately, D&D is only as good or exciting as your DM (Dungeon Master) allows, as in how good, quick and creative (s)he is. A good DM really can make the game addictive… A bad one will make you wish you played checkers instead real quick.

Brian O’Neill
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IMHO, the difference between a good GM (GameMaster) and a great GM is how much attention they pay to the rules. This goes for whether you’re playing (A) D&D, Vampire, Marvel Super Heros, or any of the hundreds of other role-playing games out there.

A great GM will follow the rules, and go by what the dice say, for exactly as long as this lets the game be fun. There’s no such things as a perfect set of rules. In almost any game, there comes a point when a too-lenient rule allows a player character (PC) to become overly powerful, or a too-restrictive rule arbitrarily prevents the group from doing something they reasonably should be able to.

There are innumerable skills involved in just being average as a GM, but one’ll never be more than average without knowing when to close the books and wing it.

I actually think the strongest skill of a Game Master is NOT how well he/she knows the detailed rules. Instead, I’d pose:

  • story-telling skills (what things to do to move the story along in a way that’s fun and exciting, and what things not to do)
  • how well he/she knows how to run improvisational theatre games

Yes, there are players who love to get enmeshed in whether the +2 for their magic sword is in addition to the +1 for the magic aura around the sword, but that stuff seems, to me, to slow down the story. I prefer a game that moves, that tells a story, that gives me a strong fantasy picture of what’s happening, rather than a game that follows the tiny details of rules.

That doesn’t mean leniency with the players (well, usually doesn’t), it means knowing how to keep a drama moving along.

Serena Wakefield wrote:

A long time ago, I wrote a text-only game for the PC, based on strict AD&D rules. I called it – I’m not kidding here – “Hack Up the Monster, Steal its Treasure, and Proceed On to the Next Room.” Or HUtMSiTaPOttNR for short.

I liked it so much that, when I started learning the Modula-2 programming language, it was HUtMSiTaPOttNR I used as my first “porting project” to that language.

Only problem with the game was that it was impossible for your character to advance past 1st level. It made it really interesting when (s)he met up with a Chromatic Dragon. :wink:

CKDextHavn wrote:

I do agree with you on this statement. The point of my post is that the GM must know when to follow the rules, and when to ignore them. (In one of the best campaigns I ever played, the GM barely knew the rules at all, but that’s neither here nor there.)

The skill of storytelling is of course very important; a GM without it will probably never be rated above 2 (on a 10-point scale). But over the years, of all the campaigns I’ve seen that could have been truly epic (but didn’t manage it), most shared the mistake of paying too much or too little attention to the rules.

A good DM, regardless of the game, uses the rules to insure consistancy within the game. The right of the Dm is to adjust the rules to fit the world in which the action takes place. But players expect, and have a right to, consistancy – it’s okay if the sky is orange and the people are purple, as long as the sky is (under similar circumstances) always green and the people are always purple.
A responible DM NEVER, EVER adjusts the rules to take advantage of players. But (s)he may “tweak” them quietly from time to time for the benefit of game playability.
Usually, the story is everything. The players will respect that and enjoy the game as long as they see the rules as consistant and fair.

I used to play D&D years and years ago, before I got my drivers license (1981). I always found the proliferation of rules which were ever more detailed kind of funny. I mean, the purpose of a game is to have fun, isn’t it? If your DM is talented enough to improvise or to amend the rules, then more power to ya. We always wondered what would happen if you didn’t do something exactly the way Gary Gygax had pronounced that you should. Would the TSR police kick in your door and confiscate your polyhedral dice? Would they make you go out and get a date?

In my view, if the players involved agree on what the rules of the game are, that settles it. The official version was nice as a starting point, but if you felt bound by those official edicts you were some kind of toady or something.

OK, now everybody throw a d20 to see if you’re saved from the Confusion spell I just cast.

President of the Vernon Dent fan club.

I don’t think we’re disagreeing here. The point is that an excellent GM doesn’t need to know all those looney rules (checking for disease, for instance) unless they further the story-telling (such as, if he WANTS the players to have wandered through a villiage full of bubonic plague.)

OTOH, especially when playing with teens, there’s always a Monty Hall-esque element to what they try to get away with by knowing the rules. I usually cut that short by saying, “That may be Gygax’s rules, but that’s not how it works in this world.” Players don’t need to know how everything works in order to have fun – in fact, I argue they have more fun if they DON’T know how everything works.

CKD: I agree – I hated it when players would go out and study the Monster Manuals so they would know everything about a creature they just ran into.

Me: “Your first-level fighter sees a creature that looks like…”
Them: “Aha! It’s an X – We have to run to the forest, grab some sticks from an Oak Tree, form them into a spear, and shove it through the X’s eye to kill it!”
Me: “Uh huh… And you know this how?”

In high school I played with a guy we called “Monster Truck,” because he tried to be all things at once.

[[The point is that an excellent GM doesn’t need to know all those looney rules (checking for disease, for instance) unless they further the story-telling (such as, if he WANTS the players to have wandered through a villiage full of bubonic plague.)]]

Now see, that sounds like the most fun part of the game, to me. Not that I’ve ever played it.

As always, The Straight Dope recommends you see your doctor when you have been exposed to bubonic plague.

Considering the fact this material originally aired prior to 1983, I think this observation invalid unless you can show us the rules and nomenclature Cecil used were “outdated and nonnrepresentative” at the time of writing.

Jill - wash your hands before and after checking players for disease, please.


but the source he used to obtain this information is both outdated and nonrepresentative.
Considering the fact this material originally aired prior to 1983, I think this observation invalid unless you can show us the rules and nomenclature Cecil used were “outdated and nonnrepresentative” at the time of writing.
Darnit, you’re going to MAKE me actively disagree, aren’t you? Well, there goes my shot at getting into Heaven … :slight_smile:

Depends how far before 1983 in the first case, but there’s no argument on the latter. Trying to draw conclusions about a game by looking at its most outrageous contingencies doesn’t work; there are all sorts of crazy rules in nearly every major game and sport that very simply never come up, and which would give a very disorted view to someone who’s never played it.

Because roleplaying games are ultimately story-based and dependent upon the DM’s or referee’s judgement, the best way to determine what RPGs are really about would be watch one in action, not judging the game by flipping through the rulebook.

I could also point out that the quotes given are from the 1979 Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide, which I have here in front of me – communicable diseases from pages 13-14, red dragon quote from page 85. The fact that it’s the “Advanced” version should have been a tipoff, and so should the fact that it’s the Dungeon Master’s Guide … the book for REFEREES, not for PLAYERS. The Player’s Handbook is about half the size, and most of THAT is lists of spells.

Yes. In every edition, the Player’s Handbook has consisted almost entirely of character creation rules, equipment lists, and magic spell descriptions.

You don’t even have to know the rules to be a player; all you need is at least one person at the table who does. I can’t count the number of people whom I’ve seen introduced to roleplaying by a pickup AD&D session. “Okay Ed, now just roll your twenty-sider. No, it’s the purple one. Oh good, seventeen, you hit…”

Long post follows. Sorry, but if I don’t get to play, I can at least pontificate.

CKDH – I agree completely with your statement: [ul]“Players don’t need to know how everything works in order to have fun – in fact, I argue they have more fun if they DON’T know how everything works.”[/ul] Some of the most fun I had with gaming was in 1979 or thereabouts, when I just started and knew precisely squat.

The tremendous proliferation of “optional” rules works against the storytelling process, IMHO. AD&D, RoleMaster, Hero system (to some extent), and others all suffer eventually from trying to make too much reality fit into an unrealistic situation. Don’t get me wrong – I love playing all the above, and more when I can. The worst offender is AD&D, look at the DM’s Option and Player’s Option books out there now – they amount to about $100 of extra books to make the game system into something it isn’t.

AD&D is what experienced gamers call a “beer and pretzels” game. You know it’s a simple system, you grew up with it, you can accept its shortcomings and just roleplay around the rules failures. Too much realism and too many rules kills a game – I tried to design a game that modeled everything as close to the real world as possible, including where each shot from an automatic-fire burst would land. It worked well, but it was no fun.

In the end, it’s the story, and the character interaction, that makes a game, not the rules. Rules help you tell the story, and should be invoked as little as possible. When used, they should be used consistently. Experienced gamers will let reason and drama win out over what the dice say. Rules are more important to solve disputes. With reasonable players, and a gamemaster who isn’t actively trying to make his players suffer, there are very few disputes.

So I guess what we are saying here is the information Cecil used to describe the game came from a rulebook, but not the rulebook everyday players would use, and the rules stated therein were rarely invoked?

I suppose I could draw an analogy from my recent bout of Monopoly ™ playing with my eight-year-old son and adults friends.

The adults came up with a plethora of nonexistent rules, (“all the money from fines goes into the middle and anyone landing on free parking gets the pot”) reasoning “that’s the way we always played, that’s the way everybody always plays.”

The trouble being they could not agree on which way “everybody” plays, and my insistence on adhering to the rules met with much wailing and gnashing of teeth.
As it turns out, NONE of the adults involved knew what the rules were, especially in terms of bankruptcies and auctioning of properties.

They were stunned when the game turned out to be quite different than they remembered, and many of their youthful strategies went down the toilet, leading many to exclaim “This is no fun” while handing all their dough and properties to an eight-year-old.

I know Monopoly cannot be compared to D&D, but I guess my point is one cannot be faulted for making a judgement on a game by reading the rulebook, even if those rules are largely ignored or altered or added to by the actual players of that game.

After all, Monopoly tournaments don’t rely on anarchic principles, do they? Cecil was using the one real tool he had to describe the game without consulting every single coven or sect or denomination or whatever you called those groups for their version of events.

The whole point of gaming is fun, n’est-ce pas? I D&D’d in my University years, and for a short while afterward (c. 1981-85), and even did some DM-ing.

Played with good friends, and the key to things moving along smoothly was not to take it too seriously, and not to get obsessed with numbers.

I recall with great fondness one of the other players, whose character was an illusionist-thief (or something), called “Reveen the Impossiblist”, who gained a familiar (an owl), which he named Glove, and would address it in the voice of the Blue Meanie from Yellow Submarine. Same guy found a Trumpet of Sounding, on which he would play the opening notes of the “Tonight Show” theme.

IIRC there was also a bent old man with a trunk who was mercilessly slaughtered, but all the trunk contained were travel brochures from the fabled land of Wis-Con-Sun.

I do have to admit that the 2nd edition of the AD&D rulebooks makes for better reading and better games. The 2nd edition has more introductory paragraphs for each section, reduces the attack roll to a simple formula (rather than a bunch of charts with a huge discontinuity in them at “20”), got rid of the “monk” character class and psionic powers (neither of which really belongs in a D&D universe), and best of all, is NOT written by E. Gary Gygax.

When I read Cecil’s answer to the DND question in “The Straight Dope” it cracked me up. It was exactly what a person who has not played would conclude, but everyone was playing it. Why?

The cool thing about DND is its flexibility. This is not evident from a cursory reading of the rules. However, in the Afterward in the “AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide”, Gygax himself writes:


When I was DM, I tried to keep the game balanced and moving. I only went into the details when a player asked about them. If a player began to get too much into the minutiae, he would begin to find that he was getting answers that were not advantageous. Subtlety, not heavy-handedness, was the key.

I had a friend that liked to build adventures with every detail accounted for. He would spend days rolling dice, and doing stuff that would take me seconds. This would have driven me nuts, but that’s what he called fun. DND allowed for this kind of diversity.

BTW, I found that DMs enjoys games much more if at least some of the players have had some time being a DM themselves. After I quit being a DM, I played a very strong, very dexterous, but not very wise, or patient Viking warrior. He was accustomed to splintering doors while the thief was attempting to pick the lock. Although it was usually NOT the wise thing to do; it was in character, and the DM loved it.


As was posted, Gygax himself said


When I was DM, any rule that a player could demonstrate was flawed, illogical, contradictory, or whatever, we changed. The rules evolved, and the game got better and better. Mostly, having the rules avoids arguments and endless debates - if you simply tell the players “You all rush in to kill those wimpy kobolds, and succeed, but several of them team up in desperation, and one of them gets in a lucky blow and kills Gord Skullcrusher before it’s all over” they’ll go ballistic - but if you play the whole battle out and roll the dice where the players can see, sometimes you can get just such an improbable result, and no one will have grounds for complaint. It’s generally important that the DM is perceived to be as objective as possible, and that’s where the rules come in, even to the one Cecil quoted, having to do with how much experience a monster is worth - any DM who seems to be making too many arbitrary decisions is likely to face a lot of annoyed players, and for a lot of us, D&D was mostly a chance for some fun socializing, not antagonism.