Sunday, April 29, 2012

On Playing D&D

Recently, somebody told me that I clearly just play Dungeons & Dragons wrong.  It was something of a peculiar experience, since so much of the discussion recently has been "How you play D&D is the right way."  To have somebody so handedly dismiss me and my idea of the game was disturbing, to say the least, insomuch that it left me rattled for at least a day and I considered canceling all of my D&D games in response.  For whatever reason, I took it very seriously.

In resolving the issue, I had to spend a lot of time thinking about why my D&D experience was different than the apparent norm.  My experience with D&D, and tabletop role-playing, followed a slightly different course from some but I do not think it was such as to be considered "wrong."  I thought it would be appropriate to write a little bit about it here to provide some prospective.

Red Box Awesome!
I picked up my first D&D set, the Red Box Basic Set, in 1988, shortly after moving away from Los Angeles.  At the time, I was eight years old.  I was familiar with the idea of D&D as some family friends in Los Angeles played AD&D every now and then and I got to watch.  I knew what the idea was but I never got to play.  Now, armed with my own set, I could build the kinds of adventures and whatnot that I had seen and heard of from my friends and older brother.  Or, so goes the plan.

Years passed without me ever finding a group to play with.  I had kept up, getting books and sets here and there, even exploring the bowels of AD&D 2nd Edition.  My brother got involved with a group in high school and I would hear exciting tales of his games.  It was not until late 1992 or early 1993 that I finally cobbled together a group of people to play with.  For five years, all I could do was read and hear about how great a game this was without ever getting a real chance to play.

Gargoyles. They look evil.
Why is any of this relevant to how I learned to play D&D?  It is important because before I ever really played D&D, my perspective had already been colored.  From 1987 to 1991, I spent a fair amount of time playing the Ultima series on my home computer.  By the time I played Dungeons & Dragons, I already had fixed ideas about what a role-playing game would entail.  Most significantly, Ultima IV, V, and VI had impressed upon me the idea of what a fantasy world would be.

As to how this relates to the idea of me playing D&D wrong relates to the notion of monsters, alignment, and sentience.  By the time I played D&D for the first time, Ultima had already affected my perspective.  Ultima VI: The False Prophet taught me the importance of considering and understanding alternative perspectives.  The gargoyles, who appear to be a race of monstrous humanoids at first glance, are a legitimate race of sentient creatures with just as meaningful a claim on survival as humans.

Only evil monsters sacrifice the Avatar, right?
The gargoyles of Ultima VI are monsters when you begin the game, pure and simple.  They are Chaotic Evil (or, perhaps, Lawful Evil) monsters that seize holy sites across the world and kill people with reckless abandon.  They even try to sacrifice you in the introduction sequence.  As you play, you soon determine that these monsters are in fact civilized and have a developed culture.  However, they see you as the ruthless monster.  You, the hero, tore into their world, stripped them of their holiest artifact, and left their world to deteriorate slowly into nothing.  In D&D terms, you were the Chaotic Evil champion and humans were nothing more than monsters to kill or be killed by.  The importance of understanding perspective was huge in completing the game.  By the end, you have created a world where humans and gargoyles must work together to share in the wisdom of the holiest artifact (the aptly named Codex of Ultimate Wisdom).
But Meepo is friend!

When I finally got to playing D&D, the lessons of "The False Prophet" still resonated.  Goblins, orcs, and the rest of the intelligent races of D&D Land had just as valid a claim to civilization as any other.  So, when I read that a monstrous race was "always Evil," it bothered me.  It seemed very small minded, very ignorant to assume that a race was "always Evil."  The idea that Goblins or Kobolds were something you killed on sight, not because they attacked you first but because they're an evil race, did not correlate with my worldview.  I could not help but try to rationalize it in a modern view: "Yeah, we kill those goddamned <your_least_favorite_race_or_nationality> because they're evil!"  It did not settle well with me.  It bothered me that people would want a fantasy setting where killing people because of their race was acceptable (or, to a certain extent, desirable).

This... is... D&D!
So how am I playing D&D wrong?  Because goblins and orcs are there to be killed.  They are an evil race and they are there to be defeated.  That is how D&D has always been.  To try and apply big-headed philosophical notions of good and evil to a game about exploring dungeons, killing monsters, and getting treasure is just ridiculous.  In short, D&D has always been the original Munchkin.  It is nothing other than that.  To play it otherwise, in the opinion of this person I spoke to, was to play it wrong.

Obviously, after some consideration, this opinion is neither true nor universally held.  If Eberron taught us anything, it's that a D&D game can be complex, interesting, and morally ambiguous while still fitting within the framework of Dungeons & Dragons.  D&D did not have to be the mindless hack-and-slash and treasure-gathering that Gary Gygax's original adventures back in the late 1970s and early 1980s seemed to be.  Although Dungeons & Dragons may have its roots in a tactical combat game that developed into an adventuring game, the modern D&D has become much more than its progenitor.  But it does not have to be, if the group wants it to be simple.  Really, it's the game you want it to be (as long as you want a primary method of conflict resolution to involve violence).

I acknowledge that D&D started within a certain framework.  I also acknowledge that every group, every player, shapes the game into the game they want to play.  For me, it was complex.  It was ambiguous.  "Good" and "Evil" are relative terms and practically meaningless.  Goblins and orcs held just as valid a title to life and society as elves and dwarves.  This is how I play and this is how I continue to play.  The words of one close-minded player will not change that.


  1. It's interesting how many people, apparently, don't consider the verisimilitude of the creatures in this game--a game held up as being an immersive, role-playing experience. Especially now, much fantasy is judged based on its ability to world build or "make sense" that to ignore the basic purpose of WHY something would or would not be here seems blasphemous in its own right.

    Great stuff, sir. Well said.

  2. Well, consider that a lot of people approach it from the perspective that there is an objective good and evil and that certain creatures are closely associated with that moral viewpoint. Truthfully, I still have a problem because I don't comprehend the idea of objective notions of good and evil. But it's important to understand that when you consider it.

    Classically, some of this is raised as the "Orc children" question. Suffice to say, I always fail in this discussion.

  3. Hear! Hear! I refuse to play something so one-dimensional. After all, if our PCs have hopes, dreams, faiths, families and minds of their own, them why not other creatures? Great article!