What Dungeons and Dragons does well

As many of my gaming friends know, I’m not a huge fan of Dungeons and Dragons. I don’t particularly like fantasy settings, which is a problem. In addition, I found the system to be a bit cludgy when doing anything that isn’t combat. When 4e came out, that problem got even worse, and I signed it off completely. Despite my own prejudices though, there is something D&D is very good at, which may be one of the reasons it continues to gather such a huge market share despite the polarizing play style and loud criticisms from players.

Dungeons and Dragons is built upon characters advancing through a series of encounters, and being rewarded by a combination of treasure and “experience”, which is used to represent an increase in power as characters increase in “level”. This may seem linear and simplistic, especially to a GM who styles themselves a storyteller. However, the rigid system of challenge/reward in D&D has one huge advantage: GMing Dungeons and Dragons is quite possibly easier than GMing any other game on the market.

Making a statement like that just invites counterarguments, but bear with me. When 3e came out, the beginning of D&D’s departure from the “old school” style of improvisational gaming, there were no real competitors for a structured GMing system. Though we now have the Plot Points of Savage Worlds settings, random story generators in ORE systems like A Dirty World, and any number of less direct lifepath systems, only D&D provides lists, charts, and equivalences to ensure that players get the right treasure at the right time, and that the GM knows just how challenging the next encounter will be.

Everyone by now knows of GMs who kill their players, or ones who provide boring, easy encounters. D&D doesn’t prevent this from happening, but there are numbers that show you where encounters should be for “average” difficulty. There are tables for coming up with different dungeon rooms, making new crawls easy to come up with on the fly. And if the characters should happen upon a town, there are charts for random populations, and even what professions can be found.

I’m not saying this is the best way to go. However, it makes for a great environment to learn how to write an adventure and structure an encounter. I cut my GMing teeth on D&D, and to be honest, it was probably the only way I wrote anything halfway decent when I was 14. It also helps you find what you like about running. Though 4e annoyed me with the heavy combat-centric design, 3.5 is more flexible with regards to non-combat encounters, and 4e isn’t completely devoid either. And if you do get frustrated with the lack of options in D&D, you can tell it’s time to move on.

Despite the preponderance of books out there designed to give guidance to aspiring GMs, it’s remarkably hard to figure out how to run a game and get other people to have fun. Though there is no magic formula for a given group, Dungeons and Dragons has a set of equations that do a decent job. Inevitably you’ll have somebody like me who begins to bitch and moan about D&D after 9 years of playing something else, but for every fogey like me there’s a 14-year old out there who wants to send his friends on a magical adventure, and doesn’t quite know where to start.

[tags]role playing games, dungeons and dragons, game mastering[/tags]

5 thoughts on “What Dungeons and Dragons does well

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  1. I agree. I’ve long loved D&D, and still do via Pathfinder, but I’ve begun to branch out into different systems (Savage Worlds comes to mind). However, if I hadn’t played all the D&D that I have, I don’t know how receptive I would be to other systems.


  2. “However, if I hadn’t played all the D&D that I have, I don’t know how receptive I would be to other systems.” Was that a subtle knock at D&D?

    I KNOW that if I hadn’t played all that Palladium as a kid I never would have tried other systems. But I try other systems because I grew up and got tired of munchkined games who’s classes all seem to end in “-boy”.


  3. I started gaming right after AD&D 2nd Ed. came out. My friends and I played that, Star Wars, and the Marvel and DC rpgs out at the time. Then we moved on to Shadowrun, Dark Conspiracy, Rifts, and various other systems. We always stuck with AD&D though. There was generally one of us running it throughout our playing time.

    I find myself really wanting to run the new 4.0 Dark Sun when it hits, but I cannot get over the miniatures based combat. I’ve always hated minis.


  4. It’s not surprising that the system doesn’t work in certain situations. If nothing else, 4e has re-introduced improvisation into the game.

    Outside of an encounter (be it a Combat encounter or a Skill Challenge), you’re not supposed to use “the system” at all, just judgment on if you can or cannot do something.


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