Dungeons & Dragons
| Why? For the glory|
of Satan, of course!
|God's own scapegoat|
|A devilish plan|
What D&D is actually like
D&D can best be described as a cross between improvisational theatre and a board game. Like most tabletop RPGs, D&D basically looks like a bunch of nerds sitting around a table and talking about orcs. This is moderately true, though as one Cracked article pointed out, this being a social gathering already puts it a step ahead of most nerd pursuits.
One of the players is the "Dungeon Master", or DM (sometimes called a Game Master or GM, or simply the "referee"), whose job is to explain what is happening, set various challenges for the other players to meet, and move the plot of the story (referred to as a "campaign", "scenario", or "adventure").
The other players are the "party". Each player in the party creates an avatar within the game, called a "Player Character" (PC) by the players who prefer the board-game side or an "Adventurer" by the players who prefer the improv-theater side. But by 1981 the game eventually came in two flavors: the boxed sets (D&D) and the books for the Advanced version or AD&D for short. Realizing that having two lines of the game was confusing (the boxed set had Basic and Expert editions if things weren't confusing enough) TSR dropped the D&D box line in 1991.
The main factors determining the powers of the PCs are their "race", usually selected from fantasy archetypes like elves, dwarves and gnomes, and their "class", selected again from fantasy archetypes like monks, wizards and clerics. One other factor in character creation (which matters more to some players than others) is your character's moral alignment, which is a rough guide to how they will behave in a moral dilemma. In D&D, characters' alignment was a straight line of Chaotic, Neutral, and Lawful while in AD&D, a character's alignment fell on a Cartesian plane, where one axis goes from "good" to "evil", and the other goes from "lawful" to "chaotic". The addition of a "neutral" middle ground to both scales creates 9 possible alignments.
In theory, these alignments were supposed to be absolutes but some DMs treated them as relative. The problem was that alignments as absolutes resulted in situations like that described in Roger E. Moore's Dragon #51 (July 1981) "It's not easy being good" where the player was basically hosed regardless of their choice (kill the Talbot-like werewolves and your Paladin does penance because due to their split personality he killed 'innocents'; let the Talbot-like werewolves go and your Paladin still does penance because he did not stop 'evil'). The "alignments as relative" view had its own set of problems as anything that pinged 'evil' could be fair game to be slaughtered by 'good' characters—a situation carried to its logical extreme in the satire character Kore the Paladin in the online comic Goblin who can kill anything he deems 'evil' and retain his Paladin status. Because of this inconstancy Alignment became one of the most maligned (ha ha, see what we did there?) things in D&D with articles like Paul Suttie's "For king and country" (Dragon #101 September 1985) suggesting alternatives.
Because it grew out of the medieval miniature wargame Chainmail, D&D has always been strongest with combat and weakest in other RPG elements like seducing wenches or even navigating an unknown area. In the TSR days it was obvious that all non-combat options were put into the game as an afterthought and even now the game is still focused towards combat, since it's combat that makes you gain experience and level up, but most non-evil DMs will also award experience for non-combat things (like finding clever solutions to thorny challenges).
D&D uses various dice as a random chance generator, mostly to determine the outcome of fights with monsters and villains, but especially the most recent iterations of the game can be played virtually entirely by chance with the use of tables and dice. Early versions of the game tried to focus on the players figuring out how to do things they wanted their characters to do, but by the avent of third edition, most attempts to perform special tasks were handled by specific rules and the outcome determined entirely by die roll. For instance, in 1st edition the DM might ask a player how he planned to search the floor for traps (he might tap with a staff, check for cracks in the floor, etc.), while in later editions the character would simply roll against his/her character's "perception" skill. In gaming circles this is often termed "roll-playing" as opposed to "role-playing".
The dice for each player typically come in a 7-piece set, and are designated by how many sides they have (a standard cube-shaped 6-sided die, part of balanced breakfasts everywhere, is designated "1d6"). For D&D, the set being 1d4, 1d6, 1d8, 2d10 (to generate a random percentage, both are rolled), 1d12, and, the most commonly used of the dice, 1d20. While all the other dice are primarily for table generation and damage rolls, d20 can simulate virtually all actions except damage; because of this, the extremes of 1 and 20 are known as critical rolls, of failure and success, respectively. Depending on player needs, the set can reduce to one to as many as twenty dice, simplifying what could be one of the most intimidating parts of the game for newer and older players alike.
D&D and the religious right
For some reason, D&D has always been the target of considerable belligerence from conservative Christians, reaching its height in the 1980s. Some of their many absurd claims have included:
- Roleplaying games make the participants more prone to suicide or mental illnesses.[note 1]
- The inclusion of magic and supernatural creatures such as devils and demons makes roleplaying equal to practicing sorcery and witchcraft, or at least promotes such activities.
- The alleged emphasis on accumulation of wealth and personal power in the game is incompatible with the Christian message. (Huh. Now how did Phyllis and Andrew Schlafly become so rich?)
- The rule books contain "pornographic artwork".[note 2]
- The inclusion of polytheistic deities worshipped by the game characters is blasphemous.
- And so on and so forth.
The irony of this (or at least part of the irony) is that D&D actually builds on elements from the Western Christian cultural heritage to a considerable extent. Besides the obvious elements, such as inclusion of "angels" and "paladins"[note 3], this is probably most apparent in the game's very naïve worldview, which presents a system of overly simplistic moral absolutes that categorize a character (or even whole races or societies) with one of nine different "alignments" by placing them on two different axes of morality: Good/Evil and Lawful/Chaotic. By comparison, most other role-playing games are much more morally ambiguous, such as White Wolf's various World of Darkness products or Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu RPG, or at least prefer to consider the individual personalities and motivations of the characters, rather than placing them in the hopelessly optimistic dualistic good vs. evil moral matrix found in D&D.
Despite this, D&D has always been the favorite target for the "concerned" people, probably due to a combination of the game's status as the archetypal RPG, and ignorance that the other games even exist. BADD, a (now thankfully defunct) organisation opposed to D&D, is an example of this. The makers of D&D even acquiesced to some complaints, such as renaming Hell as "Baator," demons as "tanar'ri," and so on. Most of the criticism fell by the wayside in the 1990s, when D&D both declined in popularity and began catering to older players, and by 2000 the game reverted to its previous terminology ("demons", "Hell", etc.), no longer concerned with the opinions of a few fringe kooks.
In any case, it is quite clear why the game has attracted the level of hostility that it has. After all, it almost goes without saying that any game that teaches such skills as...
- Vocabulary[note 4]
- Social skills
- Group management and group dynamics
- Game theory
- Other basic math concepts (such as percentages and simple accounting)
...must almost by necessity find itself the target of widespread fear and loathing from large parts of the religious right. Why, the young people might start actually thinking for themselves!
D&D vs. its own players
During its tenure as the flagship product of TSR, Inc., D&D was the undisputed king of the role-playing world. However, the market changed and TSR became notoriously *ahem* protective of its trademarks and system, often suing those who dared adapt D&D rules to their own products without TSR's permission with an almost estate-of-Tolkien-ian zeal (rather ironic, since Gygax had lifted massive amounts of the Lord of the Rings mythos wholesale for his settings, not to mention the works of Robert E. Howard, Fritz Lieber, Poul Anderson, Jack Vance, and Michael Moorcock). Anything TSR even felt violated its copyright no matter how nonsensical (such as claiming no one else could use the world "dragon") might as well have painted a big bullseye on it. It got so bad that it was suggested that TSR really stood for "They Sue Regularly".
At least a few D&D players felt varying degrees of contempt for TSR given its rapid and zealous attacks and threats of legal action against people in the game community who dared to use any term relating to TSR without copyright and trademark symbols, yet TSR never seemed to go after anyone who attacked them outside the game community. They never sued anyone like Geraldo Rivera who slandered D&D by saying it was responsible for deaths it was clearly not responsible for. Some gamers felt that TSR was a big bully in the game world, but didn't have the guts to fight anyone outside it. Worse, TSR had become incredibly hostile to everyone, not just fans; business partners and even former associates had to deal with micromanaging of every bit of detail in licensing agreements. It didn't help that at times TSR seemed to demonstrate all the social awareness of a rock; how else can one explain the 1986 cover for GD 1-7 Queen of Spiders which depicted the Drow (evil elves with dark skin) as if they had just fallen out of the Shaka Zulu miniseries?
One theory as to why TSR ended up in the ground is that they had developed a Many Buckets Theory, resulting in a "lot of product lines" which "instead of supporting the main Dungeons & Dragons line, fragmented the marketplace." So the players were still giving TSR the same amount of money as before but now there was this additional financial burden of creating, producing, and supporting hundreds of products outside of the main line. Worse, "As the settings grew more popular, they began to diverge from one another, advancing along their chosen philosophical paths, essentially becoming their own separate games" until "players had stopped identifying themselves as D&D players and were instead identifying themselves by the setting they played in. A Planescape player was very different than a Forgotten Realms player, and their rule systems were beginning to become incompatible with each other. More significant from the company's point of view, though, was that players would never buy a product set in any other setting than their own. Far from catching more money in their small buckets, TSR was actually making the audience smaller!" 
This is why, after TSR collapsed and Wizards of the Coast bought the smoldering remnants, WotC lightened up, creating the Open Gaming License (an application of open source well outside its traditional stomping grounds of software design) and releasing the fundamentals of the rules as the d20 system SRD (System Reference Document), essentially the rules from D&D third edition with the serial numbers filed off.[note 5] as well as taking many settings (such as Ravenloft) and licensing them to other companies or (like Spelljammer) effectively making them open source.
The d20 Modern game -- stylistically sort of a cross between D&D and the modern goth-horror games of White Wolf's World of Darkness -- is derived directly from the D&D 3e rules and has its own SRD.
The d20 SRD is a great document to have for the gamer running a campaign on the cheap, or for a game designer who likes D&D rules and wants to create their own setting. Unfortunately there's one thing that is inescapable -- you still need all those goddamned dice, and a d4 by any other name still hurts like hell when you step on it.
WoTC ran its "Dungeons & Dragons D20 System" for eight years - three of them under the title of "Third Edition", and then five more as "3.5", with a complete relaunch of everything they'd done under hopefully improved new maths. Come 2008, they felt that the time had come for a new edition, one hopefully improved with lessons learned over seven years of complaints about clunky mechanics, lackluster balance, and other such difficulties. This, of course, was not to be received favorably; the switch-over from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons to the D20 System had elicited a huge backlash amongst the fandom, for much the same reason that fans of specific settings had (theoretically) started to become incompatible with each other, as mentioned above, and so of course the same thing happened with the announce of a switch to another new edition.
The changeover from 3rd edition to 4th was much worse in terms of reception that the 2nd edition to 3rd edition switch, or at least appeared that way. The problem was two-fold. Firstly, the far more developed state of the internet allowed people to share complaints, rumors, and blatant misinformation with far greater ease than had been the case when the main source of communicate was chatrooms and monthly magazine letter columns. Secondly, 4th edition was to be a very different beast, with mechanics that were a great change from any of their forerunners - in contrast to 3rd edition, which still seemed fairly closely based on late-publication AD&D at a casual glance. The result was that internet became an echo chamber for a clarion of arguments that would be run out time and time again, from one corner of the fandom to the next, mostly focusing on a mixture of complaints at the complete severing from many traditional "lore" aspects (such as the cosmology or default assumptions of available races) and comparisons to Massive Multiplayer Online RPGs such as World of Warcraft.
Although some legitimate complaints were made, most notably the lack of the much-loved open sourcing of the rules, many of these were spurious at best. For example, the widespread complaint of "Class Roles" being an attempt to make the game feel more "videogamey"; as the developers themselves pointed out in a pre-release "teaser" book called "Wizards Presents: Races & Classes", these actually stemmed from a study of the game's iconic theme of a party consisting of a Fighter, a Thief, a Wizard and, usually but not always, a Cleric. As these design notes point out, classes in Dungeons & Dragons have always been orientated towards doing one particular thing; break-downs in acknowledging that led to the infamous "Class Tiers" of 3rd edition, where various classes were considered to be either hugely overpowered (Clerics, Druids, Wizards) or horribly underpowered (Monks, Paladins). By making Roles an explicit part of class design, the edition sought to prevent this and make it more accessible to new players, who might not realize the unspoken assumption of old that you needed a defensive character, an offensive character, a healer, and an artillery character.
But the facts were not enough to drown out the emotion-based hostility. It perhaps says something about the human psyche in that it was noted throughout 4th edition's print-run that many "haters" had never played it but simply refused to play it because somebody else had told them how bad it was online, and so they took it on faith. There were also quite a significant number of reports of people who actually tried the game and found they did like it after all. Though, being fair, there were people who legitimately gave it a shot and found it didn't suit them, but these individuals tended to be less prone to rabidly denouncing the game than the "fandumb" who merely glanced at it and refused to try it.
After a six year period - although it bears mentioning that, contrary to popular rumor, 4th edition sold very well and generated a steady profit, and at six years it outlasted both 3.0 (3 years) and 3.5 (5 years) taken individually - WotC announced the ends of 4th edition and the release of the new 5th edition. This time, they took a a very different marketing approach. Electronic polling and interviews were used to essentially let the D&D fan community beta-test the affair, and once it was released, Wizards chose to not only re-open the rules sourcing that had made 3rd edition such a juggernaut, but actively sought close ties with a website, the DM's Guild, to support fans in producing and selling home-made 5e rules materials, such as adventures, new classes, new races and other sourcebooks.
Did this work? Well... yes and no. 5th edition did have a much more positive initial reception than its black sheep predecessor, and was carefully calculated to appeal by appearing as more of a throwback to AD&D in design and feel. However, the new mechanics have themselves elicited complaint - many now complain that 5th edition has actually brought back some of the flaws of 3rd edition, to say nothing of complaints at the very slow release schedule (one adventure and one sourcebook each year). Ironically, with hindsight and the ability to compare it to something else, 4th edition has actually seen a surge in popularity, with many fans admitting they didn't give it a fair chance to begin with.
But that is just the nature of fandoms. One needs no psychic powers to foretell that the cycle will repeat itself all over again when WoTC ultimately decides to shake things up again and release 6th edition.
D&D and religion
Interestingly, if someone believed D&D mythology as being real, and that their books & commands are real, they would be called an outrageous nerd, possibly insane, and if they even entertained hurting others based on those books, outright insane.
On the other hand, when religious nerds believe certain books & mythologies are real, it is called "having spirituality". Worse, acts of hurting someone based on those works are often sugar-coated as "religious freedom" & "beliefs".
The funny thing is that the game's co-creator, E. Gary Gygax, was a devout Christian himself. He even refused to allow angels to be published as "monsters" in the game because allowing players to kill them bothered him. (He did include/allow the angel-like "devas", but that's beside the point.) The difference between Gygax and those who believed he promoted Satanism was that when Gygax pretended to be a righteous crusader against evil, he knew it was all in his head. Of course, during the whole satanic panic about D&D, he refused to publicly mention that he was Christian. This may seem like a callous treatment of his fans and the community he had helped create, but is much more understandable (if still unethical) in the context of denying the religious argument any legitimacy.
The biggest laugh is the claim that D&D (and later AD&D) allowed one to cast "real" spells. The reality is that to avoid using any real-world magic system, D&D effectively borrowed the memorize, cast and forget magic system (known in RPG circles as "Vancian" magic) from Jack Vance's The Dying Earth, which has gone through modifications in each edition, with other magic systems (such as sorcery, chi and psionics) added to complement it. And while the game did list material components necessary for many spells, it never gave instructions for how to actually cast a spell—maybe because D&D magic was never meant to be mistaken for real, honest-to-God magic spells that could be cast in the real world.
- Dungeons and Dragons website
- The WotC d20 System website, including the System Reference Documents for d20 fantasy and d20 Modern
- The Paizo Publishing website for Pathfinder, the current version in all but name of 3/3.5e (often called 3.75e)
- Much of this seems to come from Patricia Pulling
- Examples include the 1995 edition's female wizard in a yellow platemail bikini and AD&D 1e's scraggly-looking bare-chested succubus with a bad facelift. Penthouse it's not.
- Modeled on the knights of King Arthur and other parts of the Chanson de geste tradition, especially characters like Parzifal and Lohengrin.
- Admit it, D&D was the first place you ever heard of a glaive-guisarme or a codex.
- Oddly enough, the System Reference Document to the d20 system is enough to run a pretty decent D&D campaign all on its own, with maybe a second-hand copy of a second edition Monster Manual to fill in the blanks.
- See the totally (unintentionally) hilarious "Dark Dungeons" Chick tract
- See the Wikipedia article on Alignment (Dungeons & Dragons).
- Magic & Memories: The Complete History of Dungeons & Dragons - Part III page 3 Gamespy
- Magic & Memories: The Complete History of Dungeons & Dragons - Part III page 2 Gamespy
- Magic & Memories: The Complete History of Dungeons & Dragons - Part III page 2 Gamespy
- (2008) D&D 4e’s Out… And It’s Awful. Here’s Why Fear of the Geek Planet
- Let's Read: Wizards Presents: Races & Monsters SongOfTheBlade
- [Gary Gygax on gaming and faith]
- "Dungeons & Dragons destroys peoples lives", Destructoid. 20 April 2013