Why did the guys that wrote up things like the bag of devouring or those insta-kill flesh-boring worms hate DnD players so much?
(With reference to this post here.)
That’s actually a really fascinating question whose answer touches on not only the history of Dungeons & Dragons as a game, but some fairly fundamental issues regarding the tabletop roleplaying hobby as a whole.
Folks who have only casual contact with the tabletop roleplaying hobby tend to have a pretty standard idea of what’s involved: enter dungeon, kill monsters, get treasure, rinse and repeat.
For some games, Dungeons & Dragons among them - as its name suggests - that’s broadly true. However, there can be substantial disagreements between games - including the various editions of Dungeons & Dragons itself - regarding how players are expected to go about achieving these goals, and even what the basic process of play is supposed to look like.
Naturally, individual groups can play the game however they want. By nature, however, even the simplest game rules encode a vast array of assumptions about how the game ought to be played. For brevity, I’m going to call this body of baked-in assumptions a game’s default or assumed mode of play.
As noted, different editions of D&D have very different assumed modes of play, to the extent that Dungeons & Dragons basically isn’t one game, but half-a-dozen completely different games that just happen to share a title and a handful of common terminology.
Of course, the fundamental activity of D&D generally remains “enter dungeon, kill monsters, get treasure”, so the question of what D&D’s assumed mode of play is reduces to a more focused question: what is a dungeon? There are about five different answers to that question, each reflecting broad trends in the tabletop roleplaying hobby as a whole.
1. A Dungeon is a Logistical Puzzle
Though D&D has a lot of superficial trappings lifted directly from Tolkien, at its inception the internal nuts and bolts of the game were much more strongly informed by the swords-and-sorcery fiction of the 1960s and early 1970s: writers like Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, and Jack Vance.
One of the common threads in the genre is that your typical swords-and-sorcery adventure is basically a heist narrative: a group of highly skilled professionals, each with their own signature specialty, must combine their talents to break into a secure location and steal some desired object without being apprehended. Think Ocean’s Eleven with evil wizards.
Early D&D - or OD&D, for brevity - followed largely in these footsteps. Each dungeon was essentially a logistical puzzle: how can the party marshal their resources to extract the treasure from the dungeon as efficiently as possible?
Unlike many later tabletop RPGs, experience points in OD&D were awarded primarily for recovering treasures, not for killing monsters, so combat was something of a failure state - a high-risk, low-reward activity to be avoided wherever possible. It was preferable by far to trick, sneak or fast-talk your way past the monsters; indeed, the desire to have fast-talking always be an option is the reason that most D&D monsters are intelligent and capable of speech, even the really weird ones - a quirk that would carry forward into most later iterations of the game. Out-of-combat activities had a formal rounds-and-turns structure, just as combat did, creating a constant time pressure with the threat of the dreaded Random Encounter Table hanging over players who might otherwise prefer to dally.
The drawback to this heist-style mode of play is that it’s extremely demanding on the GM (that’s “Game Master”, for those just tuning in - i.e., the person who’s running the game); in order to play this style of game effectively, scenarios need to be very carefully designed, and running them demands keeping track of a great deal of information. Among many groups, there was a natural tendency to de-emphasise the logistical big picture in order to focus on overcoming individual set-piece obstacles, which leads us to…
2. A Dungeon is an Obstacle Course
In order to fully understand how this mode of play developed, you have to bear in mind that Dungeons & Dragons started out as a hack for tabletop wargames - the earliest rulebooks explicitly positioned it as a fantasy roleplaying “overlay” that could be added to your wargame of choice, rather than as a standalone game - and for the bulk of its early history, wargaming clubs remained its primary venue of play.
It’s for this reason that, once D&D had become popularised, the question of how to play it competitively arose. This might sound like a very strange notion to modern gamers - competitive roleplaying games? - but it seemed perfectly obvious at the time.
In order to avoid damaging the game’s party-based structure with infighting, rather than having individual players compete against each other, the approach that was eventually settled upon was to hold tournaments at gaming conventions, where several groups would be run through the same adventure in parallel. Some tournaments emphasised speed of play, while others awarded points for completing specific objectives, prefiguring the ideas of both speed-running and video game achievements by some decades. However, the variant that emerged as by far the most popular was the survival module.
A survival module was a pre-written adventure that, unlike others, was not actually expected to be completed. A typical survival module consisted of a relatively linear series of extraordinarily deadly obstacles, many of them blatantly unfair, intended to kill player characters as quickly as possible. Each player would typically be allocated more than one character, with replacement characters dropped in as the current one expired (e.g., like lives in a video game); the tournament’s winning group would be the one whose last surviving character’s corpse hit the ground furthest from the dungeon entrance.
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition (which is actually the third iteration of the game, owing to its somewhat muddled early chronology) was the child of this era of play. It’s here that the screwjob monsters and magic items discussed in the previous post came into their own - and in context, it’s easy to see why! Many of the era’s infamously deadly pre-written adventures were originally survival-based tournament modules, repackaged and sold in hobby stores with no indication of their original purpose, which inadvertently helped to popularise that style of play among players outside the tournament scene.
Further developments aren’t strictly germane to the question, so I’ll touch on them only briefly:
3. A Dungeon is a Story Path
The “dungeon as obstacle course” mode of play would remain dominant throughout the life of the game’s 1st Edition and into the early part of the 2nd. However, changing trends in the tabletop roleplaying hobby - brought on in no small part by the unprecedented popularity of White Wolf’s “World of Darkness” games (i.e., Vampire: The Masquerade et al.) - created demand for more a narratively focused gaming experience. By the mid-1990s, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition had shifted to adventures structured less like obstacle courses and more like Choose Your Own Adventure novels, with each room in the dungeon serving as a decision point in a branching narrative. Of course, not all adventures were created equal; many were derided for their penchant for “railroading”, essentially reducing the player characters to passive spectators to a story whose outcome was already determined.
Toward the very end of the 2nd Edition’s tenure, another shift began that leads us directly to…
4. A Dungeon is a Simulated Environment
If you’re playing a game where the walls have hit points, you’re playing this. Coming into its own in the game’s 3rd Edition, the major impetus of this mode of play is to provide a single, unified set of game mechanics that allows the dungeon to be treated as a simulated environment - a sort of Sim Dungeon, if you will. This unification extended beyond characters and monsters, to the extent that everything up to and including individual ten-foot sections of dungeon walls would be assigned its own traits - hit points, elemental resistances, etc. - to govern basic interactions. Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition was also the first iteration of the game to post-date mainstream Internet access, so this is where theorycrafting and competitive character-building - facilitated by the game’s emphasis on mechanical rigour - really took off.
It wouldn’t be Dungeons & Dragons without an abrupt shift in focus every few years, though, which is how we get…
5. A Dungeon is a Series of Tactical Set-Pieces
Motivated partly by a dissatisfaction with the 3rd Edition’s perceived tendency to emphasise theoretical character-building over actual play, the game’s 4th Edition pulled a hard 180. Returning to D&D’s roots as a modified tabletop wargame while incorporating elements of modern board games, this mode of play reenvisions a dungeon as a series of tactical set-pieces: carefully constructed combat scenarios that focus on heavily stylised map-based play with no pretence of simulating anything in particular. The GM’s role shifts from that of a supervisor or referee to that of an opposing player, and the tone departs from high fantasy to become more like that of a kung fu movie - the kind where people are leaping and being hurled all over the battlefield and calling out their special moves by name.
(This was, needless to say, a controversial move. Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition was perceived as hostile to its online community in many circles, and was widely derided as being too video-game-like in is execution - though ironically, most detractors compared it to completely the wrong genre of video games, failing to recognise that most of the elements they decried as MMO-isms had been borrowed by MMOs from earlier iterations of D&D in the first place. In practice, if video game comparisons are unavoidable, it plays more like a tabletop implementation of Disgaea or Final Fantasy Tactics.)