Prescriptive vs. Descriptive D&D

The book Art & Arcana is probably the first of its kind: a history of the art of Dungeons & Dragons. Interlaced in the text is the history of D&D itself: its creation, rise to popularity, controversy, business changes, edition changes, fall in popularity, and apparent renaissance. The first generation to grow up in an age where D&D was popular have become the first elders of a tribe, transmitting for the first time the culture of playing D&D to a generation of players that is larger than any that came before it.

But what is D&D? Defining D&D has proven difficult for a long time, because the game is played slightly differently at every table, creating a broad spectrum of experiences that each claim, with basically equal authority, to be D&D.

Some are theatrical, with improvised acting, accents, or even props/costumes, where a disagreement between the dice and the drama should be resolved in the latter’s favor. Others are tactical challenges that dare the players to plan and execute character builds and combat tactics that will keep them alive in a meat-grinder of a dungeon with little grand design behind the function of presenting the challenge. Still other games are downright goofy, where characters are named after pop culture icons and the NPCs are there to be punchlines. Most games have a mixture of these. Some are even more esoteric.

This is still the most accurate statement of “What is D&D?”

On the other side of that experience, the books those groups are using might be different editions: there have been 5 official editions, but there were certainly more forms before 1st edition, 2nd edition had optional rulebooks that vastly changed the game, there was both a 3.0 and a 3.5 edition, a 4e and a 4e Essentials, etc. Depending on the mix of books at the table, the game worked very differently. Even if two tables used the same books, house rules can change the experience extensively.

Beyond that, there are a number of games built using the same building blocks as D&D: the six attributes, armor class, hit points, d20, etc., but which have never been called Dungeons & Dragons. Some of these used the material released under the Open Game License from 3rd edition days (and renewed to some extent in 5e), like the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, while others took the mechanical inspiration of later editions but reached back to the simpler, grittier gameplay of editions that predate the OGL, like Castles & Crusades, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and other OSR games.

One thorny issue in defining D&D is deciding what is not D&D. Is the use of the D&D logo the dividing line? The use of the OGL?

I want to explore the proposition that, at least for some purposes, all of them are D&D, from TSR, WotC, Paizo, or Troll Lord Games.

Professor Dungeon Master of Dungeon Craft put it this way:

“This is how I approach D&D…if I open a book, and I see Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Charisma, Constitution, armor class, hit points, roll a d20 to do stuff, roll high, I am looking at D&D. It may not say that on the cover, but that’s what it is…

“Several things that we have in the D&D rules as canon started out as house rules, like advantage/disadvantage and inspiration. Rules like alignment, morale, and THAC0, anyone remember THAC0, were all canon, and now they’re not, and that’s because D&D is a living game, like a living language, it’s constantly changing.”

What if D&D isn’t a product, but an experience? Dungeon Master, dice, abilities, attack rolls, damage, hit points, monsters, magic, and the shared fiction that is negotiated between all of that? What if playing that is D&D, and the rules are just a reference book to get you there?

So maybe different editions of D&D shouldn’t be perceived as different games, but as different points in the evolution of preferences, the way different editions of a dictionary aren’t different languages, just different snapshots in time of a single, evolving language. Now, evolution here doesn’t necessarily mean going from worse to better, but rather its Darwinian meaning: adapting to its shifting environment.

There’s a game for that, too.

The early editions certainly seem like that: an organic growth of a young game incorporating feedback as its audience grew. New monsters, new worlds, new ideas, new mechanics came from that burgeoning player base, through Dungeon and Dragon magazines, etc. 3rd Edition incorporated much of the Player Options manuals of late 2nd Edition as they proved popular. 3E also formalized a lot of aspects of the experience that before had been free-form, which overall proved popular, but at the cost of a steep learning curve to get into the game: it was enough of a shift that the Old School Revival began to kindle in the corners of the internet. WotC couldn’t simply expand the next edition to include all the new options. WotC had to choose the focus of the new edition.

Arguably, they chose wrong. Some elements of 4E were tested in later 3E materials, but when 4E was released, many felt it was not an evolution of what had come before. For largely unrelated business reasons, Paizo released their own iteration of the 3E ruleset, the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, which quickly became more popular in many gamer spaces than the officially supported D&D game at the time. That reaction baffled many, but it makes sense when you think of the games people call D&D as a living cultural experience and the rulebooks primarily as codifications of those experiences: the rulebooks are more descriptive than prescriptive.

Think about it: if a dictionary came out that standardized the spelling of various sounds (e.g. “phone” and “enough” spelled “fone” and “enouf”), it would not be recognizable as English, even though everything you say would remain the same and there is admittedly some elegance to the standardized system. Most people would simply use the old dictionary, or find a different one that didn’t change the system like that. When 4E tried to change too much at once, to prescribe a new rhetoric of the game instead of letting it grow there more organically, other company’s rulebooks were able to fill the void because it wasn’t getting too far ahead of the vernacular of D&D.

Pictured: Wizards of the Coast, circa 2008

5E was a course correction, getting back to where D&D games at actual tables were circa 2012-13: the OSR was in full swing and indie games like FATE and Apocalypse World had found success in repackaging adventure role-playing in streamlined rules that made 3.5 look bloated and cumbersome. Making a D&D ruleset that played close to what D&D was expected to play like, but was more approachable and intuitive for both new players and Dungeon Masters, was no mean feat.

Fifth Edition errs much more on the descriptivist rules side of the spectrum: there’s still no straightforward statement of, say, how stealth is supposed to work, even though three different paragraphs in three different parts of the Player’s Handbook address some aspect of it. But everyone seemed to figure out Stealth one way or another. It was never perfectly uniform before, remember? Maybe it didn’t need to be.

That’s the frustrating beauty of 5e: it’s simple, intuitive even, but incomplete. It doesn’t do everything you might want it to, but it invites iteration and homebrew, because the system as-is is not an intricate clockwork. You want a more comprehensive rule-set with stealth rules and individual scales of difficulty for different skills? You got it. You want to turn up the grim and gritty from the very mechanics up? You got it. You want to build strongholds, attract followers, and wage war? You got it. And that’s how the game is going to evolve: house rules, homebrew, supplements, trial balloons to see what catches on, etc. Most all the options that were released in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything had been previewed before, or were ideas borrowed from other games (cough, lifepaths, cough).

So what does this mean for players and DMs? Don’t feel like you have to strictly back up your playstyle by a rulebook reference. Do magic different, change how crits work, add a called shot or stunt system, use social from another game, whatever sounds good to everyone else at the table. The fiction isn’t the only sandbox that D&D provides; the mechanics are largely unexplored, too. Heck, I’m tinkering with a wargame-inspired overhaul of the combat system because I can. I guess what I’m saying is I relate more now with the eccentric players of D&D in the Penny Arcade comic at the top of the article than with cartoon Mike Mearls trying to pin down what D&D is. The rulebooks will catch up with what’s happening at tables, either in supplements or in new editions. You want to make your own fork of the rules because that’s fun for your table? You’re still playing D&D, just using different rules.

Just don’t call it that in anything you print. Copyright law is not nearly as liberal in its view on rhetorical meaning.

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