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What is Dungeons and Dragons Role-Playing?

Updated on February 25, 2019
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The author began playing Dungeons and Dragons in the 1970s and still plays today.


Modern MMORPGs vs. Classic Role-Playing

Dungeons and Dragons started out as a basic board game, created by a man named, Gary Gygax. It evolved from European war games that were using sophisticated combat systems, miniatures, and maps. What Mr. Gygax did was take the basic war battle idea and meld it with the fantasy genre. Why? Because there were millions of people like him, who believed it was much more exciting and enjoyable to battle a dragon than it was to battle the rather mundane opposing soldier. Those games were focused on tactics and strategy, and the individual combat units were bereft of any imaginary identity.

D&D may have started out as a combat game but it evolved into something much more fantastic. Much like today's online fantasy role-playing games, players grew attached to their characters. But unlike today's game, they were far more apt to start assigning imaginary personality traits to their characters. A fighter, who had a high strength and low intelligence statistics, could become a heroic warrior known for his amusing lack of wits. And a frail magic user who was weak and quiet, was capable of unleashing powerful magic in time of need. The game brought upon itself a quality of realism experienced in a fantasy setting. This realism is much more easily attained today with high graphics video games; this was not the case among games in the 1970s and 80s - when Dungeons and Dragons was at it's peak of table top popularity.

Medieval Fantasy Role-Playing

Role-playing, where Dungeons and Dragons is concerned, is not only assigning and developing personality traits to imaginary beings, it is acting them out during game play. That is, my incredibly unintelligent fighter acts incredibly unintelligent. The human player controlling a certain character would make his or her character act according to what makes sense for that character to act. Just like a feeble wizard wouldn't advise rushing into battle like a barbarian, a fighter would have little interest in trying to solve a quest with mental mettle.

The game is part of the fantasy genre, but you could go one step further and call it medieval fantasy. The equipment and settings are still today based on designs from those old medieval combat games. That being the case, some players eventually found their way to using medieval terminology whenever their character's would speak in the game. It's definitely a form of play acting, and role-playing became hugely popular among players of many types of games that came after D&D.

Players didn't gain more treasure or more power from taking on the roles of their characters. They did it, and still do it today, because it was a way to add enjoyment to an already enjoyable gaming format.

A Green Dragon miniature.  Players used these figurines, and still use them today, in the table top version of Dungeons and Dragons.
A Green Dragon miniature. Players used these figurines, and still use them today, in the table top version of Dungeons and Dragons.

People Haven't Stopped Playing Dungeons & Dragons

With the advancements made in computer technology, games today are exhilarating experiences that appeal to our senses. Seeing a computer dragon breathing fire at you requires far less imagination than having it read to you by someone. This is why there is the perception that the old table top game must have faded away. That is not true.

There are groups, and even organizations, of people that have bonded together to form a kind of behind-the-scenes gamer world. Because the game is social, and is most fun when playing with friends, D&D players do tend to use care when deciding who they will let into their games. This is also true with the computer version of the game, Dungeons and Dragons Online. At higher levels in that version, players are very selective as to who they allow to join their adventuring party.

The reason behind such selectivity is because playing Dungeons and Dragons is a serious time investment. The Dungeon Master, the player who moderates the game, sometimes creates his or her own adventures in preparation for the gaming meeting(s). And the other players take great insult to having another character senselessly cause the death of their character, by doing something unnecessarily reckless.

Short Exerpt from a Typical D&D Meeting

The Dungeon Master (DM) has brought a group of his friends together to play Dungeons and Dragons. He has designed an adventure particularly for this group of players. This is how their time together started:

DM: Thanks for coming everyone. We can start soon.

**DM takes a moment to set up screens to roll dice behind, and to arrange papers and manuals to his liking**

Player 1: I'm going to get something to drink; anybody else want something?

Player 2: I'll take a cola.

Player 3: Me too.

DM: Yeah I'll have one, too, please. Okay, we can start when everyone is ready.

**Player 1 returns with refreshments and takes his place at the table**

DM: We left off last week at the Adventurer's Inn, where the party had returned after successfully fulfilling their contract with Bretta Bowerhouse. After meeting her in the inn, and receiving your reward for clearing out Pinewood Forest, she directed you to another opportunity. She now tells you that an ancient dwarf will be arriving in town later this evening with another contract that might be of interest to you all.

Player 1 (party leader, unofficially appointed as such by the other players she has adventured with many times before) confers quietly with the other party members as to what they should do next.

Player 1: I ask her if she has any more details about the 'opportunity'.

DM: Bretta Bowerhouse smiles at you, momentarily flashing a few yellowed teeth, and says (DM uses falsetto voice), "I know enough to know that there are a hundred other adventurers who would be willing to do just about anything to receive one of my paying contracts."


Player 1 (in character): Ok, Bretta. Will you allow us to buy you something from the bar while we wait?

**This is a clever attempt by the group to cause the Dungeon Master to expedite the beginning of the actual quest. Their last meeting the DM had made it clear that Bretta would be in control. She had stormed off, and they had needed to find her in town, after player 3 tried to bully her into telling them more about a previous quest.**

DM: Bretta agrees and asks for a Rewberry Ale; at one gold piece, the most expensive drink in the tavern.

Player 3 removes 1 gold piece from their character sheet.

Player 3: I pay for it.

DM: As you wait for the dwarf to show up, several people come and go. The night wears on and the merry-making gets louder. A group of three halfling pipers step boldly forward to entertain the crowd. Patrons stomp their feet, sing, and dance, but there are no fights; at least not yet. The ancient dwarf finally appears, stumbling into the tavern from the night. He curses at an inebriated dancer that steps on his foot as he passes on his way to your table.

He strides up to your group and says (DM in gruff dwarf voice), "You lot better be real heroes. Because I have learned of a place where diamonds lay on the floors like dust. Interested?" He sits down and awaits your reply.

Role-Playing is Not for Everyone

There are tens of thousands of players that enjoy playing Dungeons and Dragons without role-playing. They enjoy games like DDO; and they still get to enjoy a certain social aspect. Party adventuring in huge MMOs (Massively Multiplayer Online) is an exciting experience. Very few people take on the role of their characters in DDO, mostly because the majority of players don't use any sort of voice communication while playing.

If you are a gamer looking for a D&D role-playing experience, you will need to search for a group in your area, find a role-playing group online, or start a group of your own with some friends. Finding a group that suits you and will accept you may be a challenge, but having that weekly gathering to look forward to makes the effort worthwhile.


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