All I Really Needed to Know About Games I Learned from Dungeons & Dragons

By Lewis Pulsipher [08.18.09]

 Robert Fulghum's essay All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten has inspired people since the late '80s. With compliments to him, here is, in expanded title --

All I Really Needed to Know About Designing and Playing (Video) Games I Learned from Gary Gygax's Dungeons & Dragons.

As a designer:

As a player:

This makes a rather short article, so I'll break the poet's rule and explicate:

Many writers have pointed out how much video games owe to Dungeons & Dragons. I confess it didn't teach me all of these things, as I'd been playing games for many years before I encountered D&D, but the game nonetheless well illustrates these points.


As a Designer

You don't need high-level technology to make an "immersive" game.

What has been called "techno-fetishism" sometimes dominates the ranks of AAA-list game creators. The idea is that you have to use technology to make the appearance of a game highly "realistic" in order to let the player feel like he's really there.

I suppose this is partly because video game creators, for so many years, consisted of programmers who became game makers. In D&D, however, we could feel like we were really there, at times, with nothing but a simple board and 2D pieces. It's the game, not the technology.

For human/psychological games (as opposed to computer-mediated challenge games), players enjoy the journey, not the destination.

When people play the interactive puzzles that we typically call one-player video games, their objective is to meet all the challenges posed by the designer(s), to "beat the game", and then to stop playing! I sometimes wonder if the player enjoys the process. In human-oriented games, the idea is to enjoy the journey, not the destination. In D&D there is no destination, just a journey that continues until the campaign ends or you (the player) die.

 Some people like to be told stories; others like to make their own.

D&D is very flexible. Some referees like to tell stories through the game, what I call "leading people by the nose." As a player I hate it, it's a game not a novel, but many others prefer it.

I liked to set up a situation, perhaps with a specific objective, and let the players work out what to do -- to make their own story. After all, I found, if I tried to predict what the players would do, I'd often be wrong.

The objective is to make the players think their characters are going to die, not to kill them.

So many bad D&D referees get tied up in "holding up the side", as the British would say, in making sure that the bad guys make a really good showing, that they forget the point. The point is not that the bad guys do really well, it's that they do well enough to give the players a scare -- and then lose.

We all like to improve.

D&D was the first major game to include experience levels and "continuous improvement". It was also one of the first to include lots of interesting individual loot. All this lets the player's character improve himself, and that's a major objective in many, many video games.

User-generated content enriches a game immensely. (In this case, adventures, monsters, classes, etc.)

D&D was the perfect non-electronic medium for user-generated content: monsters, magic items, scenarios/adventures, even character classes. It was easy to incorporate such material; in fact, at first, the referee just about had to make up his own adventures.

Yes, sometimes these additions were pretty awful, but sometimes they were outstanding. As company-generated video game content becomes more and more expensive in the 21st century, studios need to find more ways to enable users to modify the games and increase their enjoyment.


 As a Player

It's more fun with more than one person.

Traditional video games have been one-person affairs, playing with/against a computer, for decades. Now we're starting to change that, to where more than one person is involved, all but the most solitary or anti-social are going to learn that games were originally social affairs, and video games are now joining that tradition.

Cooperation is required for survival.

In the real world, of course, one person on their own in a dangerous situation is often a dead person. The same is true in D&D.

Think before you leap.

So many poor players seem to have their brains turned off. Nowadays some video games don't give you time to think, but many do -- use it.

Get organized!

So many adventuring parties fail from sheer lack of organization. D&D showed how much difference "having your stuff together" made.

Don't run headlong where you've never been.

Well, duh! But it was (and is) amazing how many people would "run away" in a direction they'd never been -- and regret it.

Keep track of the stuff you've got; otherwise you may forget something that could save your butt.

When things go bad in D&D, it's time to look at what you're carrying, at your magic items and spells, to see if there's something that will help; otherwise you'll sometimes forget what you've got.

Always have a viable "Plan B".

Duh! again. Yet, so often, players have none. No reloadable saves are available in tabletop D&D, so we had to "do things right the first time" (which could, itself, be a lesson learned).

Always have a way out.

See above. The fundamental Plan B is getting away to fight another day.

Don't depend on luck.

When I first saw D&D, I said, "I hate dice games." But I discovered that it wasn't a dice game, played properly. It is a microcosm of life: do everything you practically can to avoid having to rely on a die roll to save your bacon. You won't always be able to, but you can minimize the number of times you have to life-and-death roll the bones.

My favorite example of failure: high-level characters faced a poison-cloud-breathing iron golem. By swapping items, the party enabled two clerics to have saves of "2" -- that is, only a 1 on a d20 would be a failure. Advice to have only one cleric go in, so that the other could neutralize poison if necessary, was ignored.

Both rushed in, the golem breathed, both rolled "1's". Fools. And there was no "Plan B". Others killed the golem without further loss, but both clerics were dead.

R.I.P. Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson.

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