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What is Dungeons & Dragons, Anyway?

This is part one of a new article series called “Chaotic Good: A Christian Guide to Dungeons, Dragons, and Tabletop RPGs.” Writer Jaclyn Parrish set out to examine the mechanics and ethos of D&D and other tabletop RPGs, providing a rationale for why and how Christians can enjoy RPGs as not only a morally neutral, but actively redemptive pastime. In this first part, she introduces the basics of what D&D is, how it’s played, what makes it unique in the gaming world, and how it fits within the broader history and scope of RPGs in general.

Just because something’s illegal doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

At least, that’s what a “chaotic good” character might argue in Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). According to the D&D Player’s Handbook, decisions within D&D are measured on two axes: one describes a character’s morality (good, evil, or neutral), and the other describes the character’s attitude toward society and order (lawful, chaotic, or neutral). Combining these two traits creates a total of nine different categories that describe each character’s “alignment.” For example, the Player’s Handbook says that a “chaotic good” character will “act as their conscience directs, with little regard for what others expect.” Their motives are “good,” in the sense that they are altruistic and benign, but their methods are erratic, unpredictable, and often at odds with their community’s code of ethics. Like the Underground Railroad of the antebellum South, they don’t wait for the law of the land to catch up with their own moral expectations. And Dungeons & Dragons, the game itself, is a chaotic good phenomenon.

The possibilities in tabletop RPGs are limited only by the players’ imaginations (and the DM’s willingness to put up with tomfoolery).

D&D was designed with benign motives and altruistic intent, but its methods can seem strange, unsettling, and possibly even dangerous. As such, the game D&D, like chaotic good characters, is best evaluated with a clear understanding of its intent and an accurate assessment of its methods. My hope is to enlighten those with no knowledge of D&D, reassure those with serious qualms about the game, and encourage those who already love and play tabletop RPGs to continue doing so with renewed enthusiasm and confidence. But even if, in the end, the “lawful good” among you must ultimately part ways with this erratic sprite of chaotic goodness, then I hope you will make that choice based on truth, and not the misunderstanding and misinformation which has so often plagued the world’s response to tabletop RPGs.

What is D&D?

Dungeons & Dragons is a (1) tabletop (2) fantasy (3) role-playing (4) game, published by games company Wizards of the Coast. D&D is a game, or, in the words of Wizard of the Coast’s Mark Rosewater, “a thing with a goal (or goals), restrictions, agency, and a lack of real-world relevance.” The object of this particular game is more complex than that of poker or chess, but D&D does have a concrete goal, with rules that govern what players can and cannot do to reach it. It is, moreover, a role-playing game, “in which players are characters in an ongoing […] story.” The story of D&D takes place in a broadly medieval fantasy world, populated by fantastic creatures and featuring magic in many forms, but unlike digital RPGs such as The Witcher, D&D is not played on a digital console. Rather, it’s played around a table, like other board—or tabletop—games.

An example of a wargame ready to be played at a convention

Dungeons & Dragons holds a position of unique influence within the gaming world because it was the first of its kind. Before tabletop RPGs, there were wargames. A wargame, in brief, is “a model of a military situation which players can control.” Then, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson developed a new kind of game which melded medieval wargaming with role-playing. Instead of controlling entire armies in combat, players each controlled a single character in a party of adventurers, and while combat remained a key feature of the game, players also were invited to simulate conversations, investigations, parleys, exploration, and so forth. The game (today in its fifth edition) has evolved significantly over the years, but has consistently maintained the mix of adventure and strategy, dice-rolling and storytelling which characterized its original version. As Gygax biographer Michael Witwer explains, “D&D effectively created the role-playing-game industry—clear-cut D&D derivative games, and in fact all RPGs, came from this influential work.” For the RPG initiate, therefore, a working knowledge of Dungeons & Dragons provides an excellent frame of reference for understanding tabletop RPGs in general.

How to Play

There are two main roles in a game of D&D: the Dungeon Master (DM), and the players. (Note: In other tabletop RPGs the DM is often called the Game Master, or GM.) The DM creates and controls a fantasy world, and the players each create and control a single character in that world. Characters are created by choosing a race or culture (human, dwarf, gnome, elf, etc.) and a class or vocation (fighter, sorcerer, cleric, druid, and so forth), as well as other characteristics such as goals, motivation, flaws, personality, and moral code. Then, as Vox Media’s Carlos Maza says in his video, “Dungeons & Dragons, explained,” “The DM’s job is to create an adventure that’s exciting, fun, and challenging, [. . .] the [players’] job [is] to work together to survive those challenges and explore the world the DM has created.”

Characters from Stranger Things playing D&D

As for game mechanics, Maza says that “at its core, all of D&D is just three steps: describe, decide, roll.” The DM describes a scenario, the players decide how to respond to it, and then dice are thrown to determine the outcome of their choices. The rolls add an element of chance to the experience, but outcomes are not wholly random, because different races, classes, and equipment grant characters bonuses to their rolls for particular abilities. A knight might add +4 (add four to the result) to their “strength” rolls, whereas a rogue might add +4 to “stealth” rolls. The knight will then be “stronger,” but the rogue will be “stealthier,” and parties must therefore strategize their decisions in light of their collective strengths and weaknesses. Additionally, the more adventures characters have, the more skilled and powerful they become, requiring the DM to incrementally increase the difficulty of each successive encounter.

A “full” game of D&D is rarely over in a single sitting, so the game is played in consecutive sessions, with each session carrying the story forward, like chapters in a novel or episodes of a television show. Moreover, unlike digital RPGs, which allow players only a limited number of options and prescribe them a particular storyline, the possibilities in tabletop RPGs are limited only by the players’ imaginations (and the DM’s willingness to put up with tomfoolery). Characters have as much agency within the world of D&D as their players have within the real world, but as Maza points out, “D&D doesn’t just give you the freedom to choose—it asks you to own those choices,” because decisions made within the game have attendant consequences within the game. If the party’s rogue decides to lift a purse in town, for example, then the team could find themselves bailing their sticky-fingered friend out of jail, or even collecting their corpse from the hangman.

Why to Play

Every game needs a goal. In Monopoly, for instance, one wins by bankrupting the other players. However, as Maza says, “There’s actually no winning in D&D.” The party might emerge victorious from one or many encounters, but they have not “won the game” anymore than Bilbo decisively “won” by returning safely to Bag End. In the same way, a tabletop RPG team might survive every encounter their DM presents, reach the maximum level their characters can achieve (twenty, in D&D), and never “win,” because there will always be more of the story to tell. Victory in tabletop RPGs, like victory in life, is ambiguous. But just because tabletop RPGs lack specific victory conditions does not mean these games have no object—that object is simply more fluid and subjective.

The goal, the objective of Dungeons & Dragons, is to “attempt to create an aesthetically pleasing, engrossing, and exciting story.”

In his groundbreaking research on fantasy RPGs, Gary Fine identifies two broad categories of motivation, which he dubs “gamers” and “players”: “The gamer plays the game as himself, while the player […] plays the character.” Fine’s “gamer” appreciates the more mechanical aspects of the game, where success can be objectively measured, and is more likely to speak of their enjoyment in terms of “winning—gaining treasure and conquering monsters.” Fine’s “players,” on the other hand, enjoy the more explicitly narrative aspects of RPGs, and “are concerned whether the actions necessary for their character to survive can legitimately be fitted into their character’s persona.” A “gamer,” in Fine’s terms, approaches each encounter with the question, “How can I win?”, while a “player” will approach the same encounter with the question, “What would my character do in this situation?” Fine notes a similar dichotomy among DMs, and suggests that the “referee […] either identifies with the player-characters fighting against the world he has created, or he identifies with the world itself.” Those who identify with their players tend to be more willing to hand out treasures and victories, whereas those who identify with the world they’ve created are more willing to present their players with steeper challenges.

Art from the D&D Player’s HandbookWizards of the CoastUsed with permission

However, while individual players and DMs will inevitably lean one way or another in their view of what makes the game enjoyable, these objectives exist on a spectrum. Fine even notes that within every player “there exists tension between the requirement to role-play and the need to succeed.” Even dedicated role-players feel the emotional strain of “watching” their characters behave in ways consistent with the character’s personality, but at odds with the other party members or even their player’s own morality. And even the fiercest of Fine’s “gamers” feel the need to “win” by role-playing well, since role-playing is the central mechanic of the game. This constellation of motivations is consequently held in tension by players and DMs alike, and the work of balancing these conflicting desires is a key element of the tabletop RPG experience. For in the end, this conflict is not so much over what the goal of the game is, but rather over how that goal is best and most effectively pursued.

The goal, the objective of Dungeons & Dragons, Fine says, is to “attempt to create an aesthetically pleasing, engrossing, and exciting story.” The clash of motives described above is the inevitable result of differing perspectives of what makes a pleasing, engrossing, and exciting story. Some prefer comedies. Some prefer tragedies. Some want an invincible protagonist, others a vulnerable one. Some want clear-cut combat and victory, while others relish moral ambiguity and intrigue. The glorious thing about D&D is that there is space here for all these stories, for tabletop RPGs are a unique narrative medium, a storytelling space like no other.


Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, by Wizards of the Coast
What is a Game?“, by Mark Rosewater, Wizards of the Coast
New to the Game: What is D&D?“, by Wizards of the Coast
What Is Wargaming?“, by Decision Games
Forty Years of Adventure,” by Jon Peterson
The Gygax Effect,” by Michael Witwer, Slate
Dungeons and Dragons, explained,” by Carlos Maza, Vox Media
Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds, by Gary Fine


This article was adapted from “Chaotic Good: A Christian Guide to Dungeons, Dragons, and Tabletop Roleplaying Games,” a symposium presentation at Dallas Baptist University, Fall 2018.


Part Two: How D&D is a Unique Storytelling Medium—and Why it Matters

Featured image “dungeons-and-dragons-4413051_1280_crop” by Mitaukano (Pixabay License, cropped and resized from original).

Jaclyn S. Parrish is the associate director of digital marketing at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can follow her on Twitter.

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