How D&D Differs from Other Types of Game


What do people even DO when they do D&D?

If you’ve never played a tabletop roleplaying game like Dungeons and Dragons before, you may not be aware of some of the major differences between this style of game and other types ( board and video games) or even other types of storytelling media (e.g. movies, books, etc). A lot of these differences arise due to its improvisational structure. This allows D&D and other similar games a high degree of customizability.

Tip #1: There is no 'Winning' in D&D

Whereas most games have some kind of objective or win condition pre-defined in the rules, Dungeons and Dragons does not. In Tag, your goal is to not be the most-recently-touched. In Monopoly, your goal is to have all of the properties. In Call of Duty, your goal is to accrue the most points by killing enemies. Contrast these with D&D where your goal is to tell a story. 

There's no "winning" in D&D, unless everyone has fun. Everyone sets out to tell a story together, in a collaborative fashion. The rules of the game exist to create a kind of "engine" for storytelling that everybody gets to tinker with. 

This "engine", or iterative process, goes like this: First, the "Dungeon Master" describes what the other players see. Next, the other players say what their characters want to do. Then the DM (or the dice) decides what happens as a result of the players' choices, rinse and repeat. The game is just iterating that process while pretending to be the main characters in a story. As far as what you incorporate into your story (magic, monsters, locations, etc) or how you tell it - that's all up to you!

All of the other rules in the game serve this purpose, by either making suggestions to handle common situations, or by explicitly reminding you that they are mere suggestions. The so-called "Rule Zero" of D&D is that if a rule is getting in the way of fun you can change it or ignore it. Many other popular games lack either the ability or the express written expectation of the designers to change portions of the rules that interfere with the intended experience - the enjoyment of the player. 

Tip #2: D&D isn’t just one hobby, it’s the intersection of many.

Dungeons and Dragons is a game that is secretly about thirty other hobbies in a trench coat, pretending to be one game. No one sane person tries to master them all, and most people just elect a few of them that give them the most enjoyment. It’s this diversity of experience within the hobby that both attracts so many different types of people to it and gives them a common goal - to tell fantastic stories together.

When asked what people who play Dungeons and Dragons enjoy most about it, you’ll hear about a few of the many sub-hobbies. Some love mapmaking, others love inventing new characters, some love performing voices and accents. Still others love improv, tactical combat, miniature painting, creative writing, drawing, making dice, worldbuilding, or meeting new people. There can also be elements of game design, acting, LARPing (live action roleplay), crafting, costumery and cosplay, 3-D sculpting and printing, or songwriting (for those talented bards out there), even knife forging. It’s pretty much impossible to enumerate all of the things that bring millions of enthusiastic D&D players into the fold.

Personally, I love painting monsters, fighting those monsters, drawing maps, and making up silly characters. However, if you’re new to the hobby I encourage you to try as many new things as possible because you might be surprised what you can get into. I’d recommend anyone starting D&D, getting back into it after a hiatus, or even veteran players who’ve grown a bit bored to experiment with new ways to engage with the game. If you are coming to D&D with an established hobby, there’s probably a way to incorporate it into the game already!

Tip #3: So much more narrative freedom

When we read books, watch movies or plays, or listen to podcasts, as an audience, we’re completely at the mercy of the content creator. There is a very tangible barrier between the content creator and the content consumer (us): Regardless of how our own experiences and knowledge may color our interpretations of the content, it can only begin and end in the way it was designed to do. Even with other popular vehicles for narrative content, like video games, hardware and software constraints limit the possible ways in which the audience can interact with the world that’s presented.

In Dungeons and Dragons and other tabletop roleplaying games, thanks to some very handy 35-100,000 year old hardware (and software) - our brains - the narrative potential is practically infinite. When you are presented with a choice by your fellow players, your choices are only constrained by what you can imagine. Can’t we all recall a moment in a movie where a character does something completely contrary to rational thought,  and we clench our hands anxiously as if trying to will them into another course of action? Well, in D&D the players are both the audience and the content creators - you can do whatever helps to make the story more fun or immersive for you and your friends as you weave the story together.

When you play D&D you can have an influence on the characters, the setting, and the genre. You can make characters however you want - warrior or wizard, elf or human or talking cat, brave or cowardly. You can borrow or adapt your favorite movie or book characters or give your character a personality trait you’re curious about in real life!

In terms of settings, D&D doesn’t have to be generic Lord of the Rings style fantasy either! I’ve played D&D in futuristic space traveling universes, modern Earth, old-timey 1920s Prohibition United States, and many more. Fans of the game are constantly adapting settings from other popular franchises into D&D. I’ve seen people play in a Harry Potter-type world, a Star Wars-like setting, and in the lands of Avatar (the Last Airbender).

It’s worth noting, however, that sometimes those franchises have their own games with rules better adapted to the nature of the setting. What D&D can do and what it can do with minimal effort are sometimes quite distinct - Anything too different from swords-and-sorcery style fantasy will need a bit more effort. But don’t let that dissuade you from trying D&D or even trying other fantastic roleplaying games that suit your aesthetic preferences (Cyberpunk, Star Wars RPG by Fantasy Flight, Good Society (a Jane Austen inspired RPG), etc).

And for genre, while my personal preferences lean into Gothic and cosmic horror, ‘Tolkien-style’ fantasy, and Monty Python-style comedy, there’s room out there for many different sorts of game. D&D can be as light-hearted or serious as you want. It can have as much magic as you’re comfortable with. It can tell stories about epic sword-play, or kung fu, or romance, or mysteries, or horror. It is immensely flexible and the only constraint is the combined imaginations of the players and the dungeon master.

D&D has an (honestly well-deserved) reputation for sitting among the top rungs of the "nerd culture" ladder, but it's really as nerdy as you want it to be. (I promise I'll leave this horse alone in a second). A lot of celebrities you might never expect have gone on record as fans of D&D: Dan Harmon (of Community and Rick & Morty fame, but I bet you knew this one), Anderson Cooper (with CNN), Stephen Colbert (of the Colbert Report), Vin Diesel (the actor), Aubrey Plaza (actor), Deborah Ann Woll (actor), Terry Crews (okay, a lot of actors play D&D), Tim Duncan (Spurs player), and many more! D&D caters to an incredibly diverse community of players with equally diverse interests. 

Tip #4: It is what you want it to be

There are relatively limited ways to interact with books and movies. Netflix’s Bandersnatch may be pushing the envelope with that these days, but for the most part how you interact with the story is constrained by the medium.

There’s an old philosophical thought experiment called the Ship of Theseus and it goes as follows: Suppose a dude named Theseus goes to get one of the parts of his boat repaired, they take a piece off and replace it - is it still the same boat as before? How many of the ‘original’ planks can be replaced before the boat becomes something metaphysically different from what Theseus had before? Well, Dungeons and Dragons invites us to ask a very similar question. There have been many iterations and spinoffs from the original D&D released in 1974 (which was itself a fusion of several different games at the time). Every table has their own idiosyncrasies of play with house rules and extra options for characters. There’s so many supplemental books and accessories like fancy dice, dice bags, miniatures, playmats, terrain sets, custom character sheets, custom game settings and more.

But none of it is strictly needed. Everyone differs on where one draws the line between D&D and something else. For many, the deciding factor is the usage of polyhedral dice sets to adjudicate the success (or failure) of actions in the game. For others it is the tone of the game - relegating D&D strictly to the domain of pulpy high-magic pseudo-medieval fantasy. But no two people have a fully coincidental understanding of what it means to play “D&D”, but we all have fun doing it together nonetheless! You don’t need to spend exorbitant sums on fancy dice, expensive books, or closets full of painting supplies - all you need is a group of willing friends or strangers to sit alongside you while you collectively invent a fantastic new world to inhabit for a time. Rules can be found for free, free apps exist to simulate dice, and there is a wealth of content out there in movies, books, video games, and music to borrow from to enhance your creations. Some groups play without dice!

Moreover, where you play it and with whom can also affect the experience. In the Before Times, when in-person play was more manageable, groups might play with elaborate foam terrain setups with intricately painted models of their characters and the buildings and monsters they see. Some forgo the terrain, but still use the models. Others play in a format called “Theater of the Mind” where no physical assets like maps, terrain, or models are used and everyone collectively imagines the story as it happens. There are many other ways to play, so the first step is asking yourself what you like!

So With All That Said...

If you have been curious about getting into D&D, were wondering what it even is, or wanted to know what it offers its players then I hope this post has been useful to you. As a long time "D&D-vangelist", I'm always encouraging people to at least give the game a shot. I think that, as humans, stories are an integral part of our lives. They strengthen our communities, hold fast our traditions, and actively forge new bonds among us. No matter what stories you want to tell, or how you want to tell it, I encourage you to do so. If not in D&D, then in some other form. But D&D is certainly among the most flexible, fun, and popular storytelling games out there with new fans every day. 

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