This week’s Legends & Lore article by Mike Mearls discussed the core of Dungeons & Dragons – the mechanics that make D&D feel like D&D rather than some other role-playing game. Here’s the list that Mike and the R&D team at Wizards of the Coast came up with:

  • The six ability scores—Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma—as the categories for measuring a character’s abilities.
  • Armor Class as the basic representation of a character’s defense.
  • Alignment (Law v. Chaos, Good v. Evil) as a personal ethos and a force in the universe.
  • Attack rolls made using a d20, with higher rolls better than lower ones.
  • Classes as the basic framework for what a character can do.
  • Damage rolls to determine how badly a spell or attack hurts you.
  • Gold pieces as the standard currency for treasure.
  • Hit dice or level as the basic measure of a monster’s power.
  • Hit points as a measure of your ability to absorb punishment, with more powerful characters and creatures gaining more of them.
  • Levels and experience points as a measure of power and a mechanic that lets characters become more powerful over time.
  • Magic items such as +1 swords as a desirable form of treasure.
  • Rolling initiative at the start of a battle to determine who acts first.
  • Saving throws as a mechanic for evading danger.
  • “Fire-and-forget” magic, with spellcasters expending a spell when casting it.

Overall, I agree with most of the items on the list, but my list would be a little different. Personally, I don’t consider alignment or gold pieces to be essential elements of the game even though they’ve been present in most versions of the game. I’d also expand a couple entries on the list. For example, I think Armor Class as a defense isn’t the full story; instead, in order to feel like D&D, AC needs to make a character harder to hit rather than acting as damage resistance of some sort. Finally, I’d add the idea of a mechanical split between types of magic: arcane, divine, and psionics.

While story elements seem to have been out-of-scope for Mike’s list, I think they’re also essential to the feel of D&D. Here’s my quick list of what story elements that I feel contribute to D&D’s core:

  • Tolkien-inspired races: humans, elves, half-elves, dwarves, and halflings
  • Rich menagerie of monsters from a wide range of sources: mythologies from around the world, folk tales, Lovecraft, gothic horror, etc…
  • Multiple planes of existance
  • Pantheon of gods: not a particular set of gods, but instead the concept of picking one to worship from a wide pantheon
  • Dungeons throughout the world and the underdark beneath it

Since reading Mike’s list I’ve also been brainstorming what the essential mechanics are for other games that I’ve played? For instance, what would the lists for Dragon Age or BattleTech look like?

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3 thoughts on “To The Core

  1. Am I the only one who partially misses THACO? Ahhhh the good old days of inverting number scales in one’s head… Or on the little over/under chart you made at the bottom of your character sheet.

    To me, Ability scores, AC, Hit Points, Saving Throws, & Initiative are the pillars of D&D lore.

    1. Despite starting D&D with THAC0, I definitely don’t miss it. I was really glad to get ascending AC in 3E. That said, any other game using THAC0, or a similar system, would definitely remind me of D&D.

  2. I agree with you on the Tolkien-style races. When playing 4E I have a hard time getting into some of the newer races like Dragonborn and Devas. Since I’ve been playing Since The Old Days (before the time of THAC0 even!) I agree that elements of clerical magic vs. wizard magic do also make these games feel very “D&D-ish”

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