Wrong About Dungeons & Dragons

Wednesday , 10, May 2017 21 Comments

Dungeons & Dragons is easily the most interesting thing on the internet. But in spite of the unparalleled amount of resources available today for people that want to delve into the topic, people still managed to get it wrong. In fact… so few people get anything about it even remotely right, it’s positively baffling.

Cecilia D’Anastasio’s recent article for Kotaku is par for the course in this sort of thing.

Storytelling was never the same after Dungeons & Dragons. When players, guided by a dungeon master, knit a dense narrative whose many threads are each supported by their neighbors, it makes the case that many voices are greater than one. This is the pitch on which Dungeons & Dragons stakes its brand.

What she is talking about here is of course a valid premise from which to develop an “indie” style role-playing game. But it’s not the one that Dungeons & Dragons is derived from. The bedrock of the franchise is the sprawling mega-dungeon that the Dungeon Master was originally required to develop himself. To be sure, the “wilderness” of the wider world in its vicinity held a significant role, as did the spectacle of the miniatures battles played out with entire armies of figures. But the dungeon has always been and always will be the defining element of the game.

It’s no accident that the game has a “Dungeon Master” rather than a “Story Teller”.

Now… the question of what Dungeons & Dragons stakes its brand on is itself inherently stupid. In the first place, Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t do anything. The people who own the property do. And they don’t really grasp what matters about it anymore than Disney comprehends Star Wars. So Dungeons & Dragons today means whatever it has to in order to move a bunch of product.

A much more interesting question is what did Gary Gygax stake the game’s brand upon when it was first published. I’ll show you:

These rules are strictly fantasy. Those wargamers who lack imagination, those who don’t care for Burroughs’ Martian adventures where John Carter is groping through black pits, who feel no thrill upon reading Howard’s Conan saga, who do not enjoy the de Camp & Pratt fantasies or Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser pitting their swords against evil sorceries will not be likely to find DUNGEONS and DRAGONS to their taste. But those whose imaginations know no bounds will find that these rules are the answer to their prayers.

From the beginning, imagination was the central element of the game. And that is why TSR is to this day synonymous with “Products of Your Imagination.”

How do you know if you have the sort of imagination it takes to get into the game…? Well that’s easy. There’s this set of books that I refer to collectively as the fantasy and science fiction canon. Gygax mentions some of its exemplars in the introduction to the game. If you are insanely enthusiastic about the awesomeness of these books, then D&D is the answer to your prayers.

Though I suppose times have changed somewhat. D&D is a big time brand while the novels and stories that served as its impetus have lapsed into obscurity. For people that are intrigued by classic editions of the game and that want to know more about how it came to be and why it is so strange to contemporary eyes, then the books of the fantasy and science fiction canon are the answer to your prayers!

As to the rest of the article, it would take an entire book to explain everything that is wrong with it. And it is irksome. After all, you don’t see websites dedicated to redefining hobbies like fishing or needlework. It’s bizarre, really.

  • anonme says:

    Kotaku being wrong about something? Consider me shocked.

  • Cecilia D’Anastasio: “Today’s Dungeons & Dragons adventures ask more of the player and less of the dungeon master. Scenarios are open-ended.” The last sentence is almost the reverse of the truth.

  • Carbonel says:

    After all, you don’t see websites dedicated to redefining hobbies like fishing or needlework

    Hahahahahahaha. Seriously, you’d write that in (current year)?

    Google “social justice” and “knitting”

    And the enviro-weenies have been after hunting and fishing since forever.

    No question that it’s (literally) tiresome as all get out. Making everything political, everything a source of outrage and activism is one of the weirder aspects of the whole SocJus project.

    I’m like Jane on this one, scratching my head and wondering, “where’s that get fun?”

  • Bryce Byerley says:

    It’s funny…I was listening to Tim Kask talk at GaryCon this year and he shared the stories of Gary and him getting the same complaints back in the 70s. Luckily, they refused to budge.

  • instasetting says:

    Cecelia wants to exalt the players; you want to exalt the canon of books Gygax loved; and I exalt the DM.

    Or, nice to have good players; nice to have a deep understanding of important things; but it is essential to have a good gm.

    Vampire:the Masquerade got played in a couple of different ways. One was basically Gangbangers with Superpowers. The thing is, neither way was what the books told you to do. No one played a tragic, doomed vampire struggling ultimately futilely to cling to his sanity.

    So, one time I tried to do that. My players did not like it. If MY, he said with quite a bit of a lack of false modesty, players in MY game did not like it, then it was bad.

    Now, I’m not utterly opposed to what you’re doing. I’m checking out Pulp. I have the Moon Pool and Conan on my Kindle. Perhaps your theory of the greatness of Pulp is correct.

    One of the great misunderstandings you have is that the Inventor Controls his Invention. Not in the least. Inventions are frequently a rock tossed out that bounces all over the place, usually does nothing, and when it does something often does something totally different than its inventor every even thought of.

    The inventor of the Gatling gun wanted to make it to make peace. The fax machine was invented in the 18th century I think.

    You’d do better to say ‘hey, you can make better games this way’ instead of ‘this is the Right, True Way’ because the first is accurate, but it is less dramatic, less trollish.

    • Hooc Ott says:

      Hypothetically you can just put up a 2 hour scroll of text on the silver screen and you can call it a movie.

      You could also fill a 200+ page book with pictures you took of your back yard and call it a novel.

      But why?

      RPGs by their very nature uniquely facilitate emergent adventure.

      Why bend that all out of whack to do something which is more easily communicated and better done in a different medium?

      “you want to exalt the canon of books Gygax loved”

      Yeah no.

      1. Appendix N is not a list of books Gygax loved.

      2. N contains solely books which inspired the adventure Gygax wished to capture in his games.

      3. In a way those books on their own fail at doing what can be done in an RPG. They simulate adventure in linear text. An RPG by following the medium’s nature actually does it if you let it.

      “I exalt the DM.”

      Just be a story teller then. You don’t even need dice and you don’t need to trick people into an activity they didn’t sign up for.

    • Jeffro says:

      The DM is nobody special. He’s just a referee.

    • Jaycephus says:

      It’s all about the DM you say?


      • instasetting says:

        Sigh. I wrote down a nice reply and the computer ate it. So, in short…

        Jaycephus, bad GM proves my point, and I hope someone writes an OMH book.

        Jeffro, you’re trolling.

        Hooc Ott….you are attacking someone who is not me, and nitpicking.

        “RPG’s by their….” is correct.

        Point #3 is correct.

        I am not a storyteller. A mentor told me that the most important things in a game were player freedom and game balance.

  • Turd Ferguson says:


    “… it makes the case that many voices are greater than one.”

    All I see here is someone warming up their pro-Diversity pitch. Maybe she does, maybe she doesn’t. I won’t know because all I need is a sample piece of Mandatory Fun HR Training boilerplate to know that I don’t want anything to do with her.

    • Vlad James says:

      Oh, that quip was unquestionably part of her diversity/socialist Narrative. I noticed it right away, too.

  • DanH says:

    Cecilia D’Anastasio “I am a diehard D&D fan who seriously dislikes Gygax and his legacy.” (from the comments in the linked article.)

    No surprises here.
    But then D&D is Gygax’s legacy.

    • Vlad James says:


      “I’m a diehard Dune fan who seriously dislikes Frank Herbert and his legacy.”

      These people are insane.

  • Bat says:

    Is this real or parody? This reads like an article by someone with absodamnedlutely no idea of what they are writing about.

  • It’s interesting to see arguments develop over playstyle without any real questioning of the actual history which most of these books seem to be getting wrong.

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