What Is “The Game” of Dungeons & Dragons?

I’ve been reading some of the comments across various social media and internet forums about my essay You Only Have One Ass. The post has been retweeted a number of times (Thanks!) and has garnered some commentary.

I will paraphrase a few of the criticisms of the post I’ve seen in various places.

Focusing entirely on the mechanics of the game is boring.

A good DM can do both story and game and if they don’t it’s not fun.

I addressed these criticisms up to a point with the post on Emergeant Story .

My “horse” metaphor has limits, as do all metaphors. It was intended to be an emotional whip with the intent to spur thought. Today, I will be more precise and less metaphorical. This post is also much longer than I would like it to be.

I’m trying to be a clear as possible. I have probably failed. We will see.

Another criticism I saw was, “Dungeons and Dragons is a bad game to begin with and you can’t get a story out of it.” I consider this to be the gaming equivalent of “The earth is flat and the serpent people from the hollow earth are trying to impose a new world order.”


Most of what I write is for the niche of gaming that is the Old School Renaissance; whatever that means on a given day.

The central underlying premise of my thinking about tabletop roleplaying games and specifically Old School RPGs (what I often refer to as classic adventure games) is that a tabletop role-playing game consists of a two parts. An “Open” system and the “Closed System.”

Robert Kuntz led me to this understanding though I had to suffer three readings of his incredibly opaque monograph entitled Dave Arneson’s True Genius.

This underlying premise led me to one of my greatest heresies. Gary didn’t play Dungeons and Dragons.

The Closed System

The closed system is what most people think of when they think of the word “game.” Board games, card games and video games are closed systems.

It is the rules, procedures, and mechanisms. This is all the parts of a game that we consider to be immutable and without change. Rob Kunst calls this the mechanical apparatus.

Games that are purely Closed Systems don’t allow players to add anything, take anything out, or alter it in any way once the game commences. The players of the game agree to the rules and the game is played by those rules to its conclusion.

The queen can move in any direction. The pawn can move one space forward except when taking another piece. The system is closed. It is predictable and deterministic.

Computers can beat humans at Chess and Go because these are closed systems.

Usually, these games have clear winners and losers.

The Open System

An open system is a system that is dynamic. It changes.

This is improv theater’s, “Yes and…” statement.

Games with open systems, such as tabletop role-playing games or Freikriegspiel, allow the players to change objects within the game. You can add, subtract, or modify the game in the middle of play because someone thought of something that did not explicitly exist in the game before the game started. In role-playing games, a lot of objects exist implicitly.

In a video game, your character may be walking through a forest. Unless the game designers explicitly allows you to make a fire from fallen branches, you can not do it. Video games are closed systems. Once you download the game and start it, that’s it. You can’t add anything to it. It is closed.

In a table top RPG it is implicit that you can stop and make a fire if that is what your characters want to do. The game master may not have intended for you to do this. The game designer may not have included a mechanical apparatus for you to do this. The tabletop game is open to this possibility even though that is not what the designer or game master intended.

The open system has permeability. It allows things from outside into the game. Those things reside in the minds of the players and are brought into the game as play progresses. The idea might have originally come from the mind of a writer, a filmmaker, a poet and wandered through time and space to show up at your table.

The best example of open systems in games are the wonderful imagination games children play. They have almost no boundaries and the whole reason for playing is to play, and to get more people to play with you.

Kunst calls the “open system” the conceptual framework in his book. I prefer the slightly different term conceptual model.

Why RPGs weren’t invented by storytellers.

Surely, if tabletop role-playing games are “collaborative storytelling” then wouldn’t it be the case that people who had a great deal of experience telling stories in a collaborative fashion would be the very people most likely to invent such a game?

Why not improvisational theater?

Why not novelists trying to create believable characters or surprising plot lines?

True tabletop RPG’s are not collaborative storytelling. They are collaborative story-making. They are events that we tell stories about afterward.

If the Dungeon Master knows the story of the player characters before the players sit down at the table, then they are running an interactive narrative and not a game.

Those are different things.

Why wargames?

Tabletop role-playing games were discovered (some say invented) by wargamers in the upper midwest. Why? Because wargames have the one of the fundamental pieces you need for a role-playing game. Mechanical apparatus. The closed system.

Stories do not. They are open. The storyteller can decide that whatever happens, happens. The wargamer must reckon with reality. This provides a constraint. I can’t decide my character can dodge bullets like Neo. I have to make a roll. That constraint is a problem I have to overcome. I hide behind cover.

Wargames for entertainment are derived from the wargames for training designed by military and political strategists using mathematical models to ask a host of questions that have massive consequences when you get the answer wrong.

These serious games must be based on and model reality. The purpose of the serious wargame is to determine if the participants understand the reality the game is modeling and can act appropriately when a real situation takes place.

As warfare became more dependent on technology in the 18th and 19th centuries, mathematical models were developed that helped commanders make decisions. There are many known facts in modern warfare. The range of a weapon. The burst radius of a mortar shell. The amount of time it takes an aircraft to arrive on station. These calculations can be used to create complex models of combat.

Your humble author during his misspent youth. Practicing the art of killing people with trigonometry.

These models can be used by military professionals to “game” a scenario. Wargames utilize these calculations to create a simulation of tactics and strategy that can be used to train officers, test strategic theories or… pass the time during a cold Minnesota winter.

The great leap of the Twin Cities gamers.

The discovery of role-playing games by the Scenious in Twin Cities of the late 60’s and early 70’s can be distilled into a single question, “What do you do?”

One problem the wargamers had was that playing miniatures wargames one on one requires that each player has perfect information for the game to be fair. With a referee, you can institute “fog of war” where each player can do screened movement. Secret information and timed events can be revealed by the referee when it is appropriate. Through these experiments, they learned that miniatures wargaming was more fun if you had a referee who allowed you to do things that weren’t specifically spelled out in the rules but made sense in a simulation of a battle during Napoleon’s wars.

The great leap they made was that if you combine the closed system and the open system you get something new.

This is what Dave Wesley was experimenting with when he came up with Braunstein. The Twin Cities gamers all knew when they showed up at Wesley’s place that if you rolled a “6” that was a hit. What they didn’t know is who was playing the French spy.

The conceptual model was the town of Braunstein, the spy, the students, the burgomeister, the troops garrisoned there and all the rest. By adding the open possibilities of what the players imaginations could bring to the closed systems of combat, Dave Wesley created something new.

The first fantasy role-playing games (Blackmoor, Grehhawk) have mechanical apparatus that have some basis in reality. Swords kill. Arrows can be shot at certain rate of fire. A man in plate armor can move a certain distance.

However, they are asking the question, “What if dragons were real?” This alters the conceptual model pseudo medieval Europe and adds the fantastic. This created a feedback loop. Dave had to reason what that meant for both the mechanical apparatus of the game AND the rest of the conceptual model. He had to ask, “If there are dragons, then people would need to have some way to protect themselves from dragons so maybe somebody made a magic sword for fighting dragons. What does it do? Who made it? How did they make it?” And so on.

It is fun and engaging (immersive if you will) to ask those questions and have a trusted referee decide the answer.

In Braunstein and Blackmoor, Wesley and Arneson combined mechanical apparatus and the conceptual model.

You have to have both or it isn’t a roleplaying game.

The game of Dungeons and Dragons is not, merely armor class, skill checks, and feats. That is merely the mathematical model; the mechanical apparatus that we use to resolve events and actions which are predictable and deterministic.

The game of Dungeons and Dragons requires both the mechanical apparatus of the rule set and the conceptual model.

The game of Dungeons and Dragons is the combination of those mechanisms AND Faerun/Eberron/Krynn/Athas/Sigil/Oerth/Tekumel/Dragons’ Bend or your homemade setting.

I can throw down the GURPS, D6 System, Savage Worlds or any other generic system and that will be inadequate. Without the setting in which the game takes place, it’s just rules and die rolls.

We say, “I’m running a D6 game for my group.” What we are actually saying is, “I’m running a game for my group that uses the mechanisms from West End Games D6 System.”

It is the combination of the Closed System/Mechanical Apparatus (D6) and the Open System/Conceptual Model (Star Wars) that makes it a role-playing game.

When we then say, “I’m running D6 Star Wars.” Then we are describing a game.

It would be like a person playing a video game saying, “I’m playing a Unity game.” That would be practically meaningless. Unity is just the software the designer used to build the game. If I said, “I’m playing Rust.” You might know what I’m talking about.

Without both the mechanical apparatus and the conceptual model, you don’t have a functional role-playing game. You have a rule set but no context where that rule set has any meaning.

Embedded Story + Game Play = Emergeant Story

In my post about embracing emergeant story, I presented the above formula.

Let’s change up.

Conceptual Model + Mechanical Apparatus + Player Choices + Game Master Adjudication = The Game

This is where I think a lot of people get confused. The think the model is “their story.” It is not.

The Conceptual Model is the Embedded story. I called this the embedded story because conceptual model is the context for the encounter or adventure.

It is the conceptual model, the shared mental construct that we all have in our minds when I describe a dungeon room that is 20×20 containing a group of goblins drinking sour ale and throwing daggers at a captured halfling for sport. There might be a story there.

How did the halfling get there? What’s his name? Where’s he from? Does he have any skills that the party could use if they save him? Or, he might just be something I pulled out of the air a minute ago and there’s no story until I make one up. Either way, he provides a point of interest and maybe a reason for the player characters to fight the goblins.

The mechanical apparatus+ player choices + game master adjudication = game play.

The players interact with the conceptual model and make choices. The Dungeon Master applies the mechanical apparatus of the game’s rules and procedures. All of these things in combination is The Game of Dungeons and Dragons.

The Game produces a series of events. After those events have been resolved, there is a narrative.

This narrative has emerged from the game and can now be told as a story after the events have occurred.

That is a critical distinction between a game and storytelling.

You can only tell a story once the story exists. The story of the player characters doesn’t exist until after you have played the game.

If you have planned all the major events of the campaign and their outcomes; intend to fudge dice, alter encounters, drop clues and plot points into your players laps when they otherwise miss them so that you get to tell “your story” then you are a damn liar.

You told your friends they were playing a game and you lied to them. They are characters in your story not player characters in a game.

The game is an event. The story is the narrative of those events.

If you know what the events are before you start, then you are riding the Story Horse. You are offering your players an interactive narrative. If they think they are playing a game, they are going to be confused and probably angry when events occur that nullify their decisions because you have “your story” to tell.

If you know what the story is after the events, then you are riding the Game Horse.

In military language. The game is the exercise. The after action report is the story of the excercise.

When Robilar adventured to the Temple of Elemental Evil, after a great deal of bloodshed and destruction the Lord of Green Dragons discovered Zuggtmoy, a demon. Robilar thought there was too much good running about and needed to balance things out. He released Zuggtmoy into Oerth.

Gary was not happy. Gary didn’t expect Robilar to do that. Gary didn’t plan it. Gary didn’t intend it. But he allowed it and there were consequences. The forces of good chased Robilar all the way back to his castle and took the joint over.

Because that was the game. After it was all over and the dust cleared, we have the story.

This is why the OSR exists.

The OSR uses the mechanical apparatus of Gary and Dave’s rule set but apply our own conceptual models. This works because the original ruleset has enough open-ness (permeability) to allow you to create scenarios and settings that aren’t completely wrapped up with the mechanisms.

This is the understanding that led me to realize that Gary wasn’t playing Dungeons and Dragons.

He was playing Greyhawk. Gary’s game, Greyhawk was the mechanical apparatus of Dungeons and Dragons plus the conceptual model of Oerth and the many adventurers that strode across the land fighting battles and casting spells. Take that out and you don’t have Greyhawk.

Take Greyhawk out and you still have the mechanical apparatus of D&D that you can still apply to many different settings. Take the Greyhawk out of D&D, replace it with your setting and you can get a much different game experience.

That’s what the OSR is on about. This is why you can get OSR games in nearly every conceivable genre and style. We’ve figured out, long ago, the mechanisms matter and the setting of the game matters just as much, possibly more.

I think I’ve beat those poor horses to death…

Well, that is it. An overlong explanation of what I think it means to play the game.

You may disagree or have a refinement and I’d enjoy getting your take. Please feel free to comment below.

The next few weeks I’ll be slacking off and drop much shorter blog posts.

If you like these sorts of in depth analysis of what it means to play games. Sign up for my monthly newsletter. Subscribers get access to a cache of essays that don’t and won’t appear on the blog.

5 thoughts on “What Is “The Game” of Dungeons & Dragons?

  1. ““The earth is flat and the serpent people from the hollow earth are trying to impose a new world order.” But this is where you are wrong. The Earth is flat, and the Serpent People are plotting to impose a New World Order on the warm-blooded surface-dwellers.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. > They are events that we tell stories about afterward.

    The rest of the post is good, but this sentence is brilliant.

    Just a question, out of curiosity (and probably a bit outside of the scope of the post): why do you prefer “conceptual model” over “conceptual framework”? I’m struggling to understand your point here. I’m sure there are some semantics that elude me (and Wikipedia didn’t help enough).


    1. A conceptual model is a representation of a system.

      A conceptual framework is an outline and less developed.

      In the specific context of an RPG that means that the model is the setting as a whole. You can imagine that opening a portal to the Abyss and a flood of demons pouring through. Such an event would produce a certain reaction from the gods,the heros, the villains, the monsters the average person. You can model or simulate the responses in your mind.

      A framework is more of a two dimensional mental model. The same event would have context but you wouldn’t have a clear idea about how a god might respond. It is just a notion that you could have a portal to the abyss open in the world. That would give you a starting point building a model.
      The framework is more of a filter or set of constraints for, “Can this exist here?” Where the model is answering the question of, “If this happens, how does the world respond?”

      That’s the way I think about it anyway. Others might have better thoughts about than I do.


  3. Pingback: Why Do I Love Swords & Wizardry? – Grumpy Wizard

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