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The Guys From Tabletop: What the heck is Dungeons & Dragons? (fifth edition)


The Guys From Tabletop: What the heck is Dungeons & Dragons? (fifth edition)

Shaun Cordingley

Welcome to the once a month "The Guys From Tabletop" article where Jeremy Verkley tries to answer the question “should I play this game?”
Or is the question “why should I play this game?”
Maybe it is “is this game any good?” or “who is this game for?”

Regardless, once a month, Jeremy is going to answer A gaming question, and this month our question is:

What the heck is Dungeons & Dragons? (fifth edition)

Why look at this game?

There are any number of reasons to start here, but I’ll start with the obvious one: Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is the most widespread and well-known tabletop RPG in the world. It’s the game most people encounter in their first tabletop experience, and it’s the touchstone gamers use to tell people what their plans are for the night after they look confused when a gamer says “I’m playing a Tabletop RPG”. Everyone and their grandma has heard of D&D.
So why specifically ‘fifth edition’? Well, the quick answer is that it is the most recent iteration of the game, but that’s not the best answer, so don’t choose it on the multiple-choice test. Fifth edition is the most approachable version of D&D for many reasons which I’ll get into in the bulk of this article. For now, accept this short answer: it lies in the middle of almost all possibilities, giving it broad appeal, and educates about the hobby as a whole; the skills you can learn playing D&D translate to almost every other tabletop RPG, and as this is the first article I’m doing, I might as well start at the center.

What type of game is this?

I know what you’re thinking: Jeremy, it’s a tabletop RPG, why do you need a section on this? Well, there are a lot of different games to look at, and many of them are designed to hit a niche market. If you’ve listened to our player tips podcast  you may have noticed that I said that D&D fell in between the three extremes of the genre as a whole (those being simulation, narrative and abstract storytelling). Let’s take a look at what this game does in each of these areas:

Fifth Edition (5E) D&D approaches the simulation aspect of a tabletop RPG with three tools. First, it has a broad simple rule set. Are you trying to do anything with a chance of failure? Roll a twenty-sided die (d20) and apply the relevant modifier, if the roll is high enough you succeed. There are also specific skills to specialize into, but everything from attacking, to climbing, to talking is accomplished with the roll of a d20. This provides a general sense of realism as a character’s statistics will determine what they are good and bad at.

Which brings us to the second tool for simulation: the statistics for your character. Each character (including monster and other NPC’s (non-playable characters)) has six stats: Strength (how strong a character is), Dexterity (how nimble and agile a character is), Constitution (how hardy a character is), Intelligence (how much information a character can process or retain), Wisdom (how aware and considered a character is), and Charisma (how much a character can use their personality to affect the world around them). There are very few grey areas between these six statistics, which means that at any time during a game, it is easy to tell what you need to roll for any sort of check.

The third and most crucial tool is Game Master/Dungeon Master (GM/DM) adjudication. You may have noticed that in the above text I mentioned that if you roll high enough you succeed, but what is rolling high enough? In 5E D&D the GM sets the difficulty: there are tools and charts that provide guidance for the level of difficulty, but really it is all up to the GM. Anytime there is a grey area in terms of what statistic you will need to roll for a check, the GM decides. As such, there is a little wiggle room for how realistic the game is, as a large part of it relies on each individual Game Master. Because of the broadness of its system rules and flexibility of GM adjudication D&D isn’t light or heavy on simulation; it sits right in the middle.

To run away screaming from a monster, a GM could ask you for a Dexterity check to take the stairs safely, or maybe a Constitution check for other, grosser reasons

To run away screaming from a monster, a GM could ask you for a Dexterity check to take the stairs safely, or maybe a Constitution check for other, grosser reasons

 So how does the game handle narrative storytelling? Well, to be frank, it takes a hands-off approach.
If anyone wanted to, they could play the game as a strict combat simulator with little-to-no story, as heroes mow their way through dungeons and hordes of monsters (there are other games designed specifically for that), or you could play as a group of farmers trying to get the best out of their crop while building a family (but probably go play Harvest Moon for that kind of experience). It’s entirely up to the players and the GM. The game sits best in a balance of the two extremes, and the familiarity of its main fantasy setting helps push the game towards this middle ground.

“Hold on Jeremy”, you might be saying right now, “what about, or what even is abstract storytelling?”
Well, there might be a better word for it, but it’s the part or kind of story that falls outside of realism. Magic is an abstract, insanity is an abstract, but also non-linear time perception. In other words, it is all the weird stuff, and often it’s what truly separates one game from another. The way 5E D&D tackles this is by quantifying it. An easy example is magic: there are things the players can and cannot do, but really the GM can do anything so long as it doesn’t break your game. Another (more complex) example is the different planes of existence it can represent: The Far Realm is a place of madness where the rules of reality don’t apply, the Feywild is a place where no moderation exists (a land of black and white), the Shadowfell is a world where decay rules supreme. Any type of place you need that breaks the rules of the normal world either exists, or can be created, it just lies outside of where the majority of people will play.
The reason 5E D&D sits in the middle for the abstract narrative storytelling is that again, it is up to the players, and (mostly) the GM, but the majority of games for the majority of the time reside away from the abstract. In other words, usually, these elements are used as highlights rather than keystones.

The Setting

D&D always has and always will be focused on JRR Tolkien’s version of high fantasy. If you want to play The Lord of the Rings, this is your game (they’ve even released a supplemental rules book if you want to be as authentic as possible). One of the biggest advantages D&D has it that its settings (that is right: multiple settings) have been built upon for decades, making them detailed, expansive and almost unending. If you love deep lore, history and intrigue, D&D is great for you as most of the work is already done. However, this has come at the expense of mystery, as anyone can go out and get a book, or search the internet for explanations as to what is going on, or what something means. However, it is very easy to come up with your own setting (should you have sufficient time to build one, and sufficient ideas to flesh it out) which can build the mystery back in. I could write more on specific settings, so if you want me to, communicate your desires, but the most popular is the Forgotten Realms setting, so if you are interested in an expansive fantasy world, it is a good place to start.

What you Need to Play the Game

 What’s absolutely necessary to play the game is a Players Handbook and set of polygonal dice for each player--that’s a D4, D6, D8, D12 and D20 for the uninitiated. If you are going to be the GM, getting the Monster Manuel, and the Dungeon Masters Guide is a good idea as well. If you can only get one, get the Monster Manuel. My suggestion is starting with a group of four players (five max), and one GM.

You can easily get a full set of polyhedral dice, in almost any colour or pattern (like these from Chessex) 

You can easily get a full set of polyhedral dice, in almost any colour or pattern (like these from Chessex) 


First-time Player: Plenty of other people have started here before, there isn’t a reason not to, but it isn’t for everyone. If you don’t like fantasy, or want something more focused maybe look elsewhere.

Experienced Player: I’m sure you’ve done this before if you liked it then… Etc, if not there is a ton of other stuff to look at. Check out your FLGS (friendly local game store)

First-time GM: I would caution you to try and play the game first to get familiar with it first, but it’s not overly complicated, and remember you are trying to build a story with and for the players.

Player Becoming GM: Start with a pre-made adventure to lessen the load on yourself, and remember: you are trying to build a story with and for the players.

Experienced GM: If all you’ve done is D&D it might be time to branch out, but my guess is that you know what you want, but thanks for reading.

Hey everybody, thanks for reading this article, I’m grateful for any feedback you can provide.
If you have a request for games to cover let me know, and I’ll do my best to track them down/write about them.
If you would like me to write about the history of a game, game design, board games, or anything else tabletop gaming let me know, as this will be an evolving process.

You can reach me on twitter @MightyThews (linked below) or the regular GuysFrom channels

-J (@MightyThews