Aug 032009

“It’s during long pauses such as these that we often grow philosophical and ponder the deeper questions of gaming…

Just where did that tiger keep those 20 silver pieces?”
~GM Hold music (

Lately I have noticed the discussion crop up on a variety of message boards over ‘Is Dungeons and Dragons really all about killing things and taking their stuff?”  The discussion invariably then delves into people saying “Yes, but it can be about a whole lot more” or “Well X edition was a whole lot more about killing things and taking their stuff than Y edition” or the people who stick up and say “Yes, that IS what it is all about.”  Yet one of the things I always notice about the discussion is that while gamers spend a great amount of time arguing how DnD can be so much more than killing things and taking their stuff or lambasting their least favorite edition while supporting their favorite no one stops to ask: is it OK that the game could fundamentally be centered on killing things and taking their stuff?

Everyone pussyfoots around it, like it is some dirty little secret that didn’t make millions of dollars for the video game industry.  But, despite me being a White Wolf loving, story-based, hang-the-rules sort of roleplayer, I’m going to tell you straight: there is nothing wrong with the concept of a game being founded on ‘kill things, take their stuff.’

Now before you rush out and go have a Mountain Dew rampage on how plebian I am, let me explain.  Let us, for a second; break down the basic structure of the “Kill Things, Take Stuff” plot.  In my mind it has 4 stages:

Problem (There are monsters)
Action (The PCs go find the monsters – usually in the form of a ‘dungeon crawl’)
Resolution (The PCs kill the monsters)
Reward (The PCs get stuff from killing monsters)

The Problem -> Action -> Resolution -> Reward structure is a primer for a successful RPG story.  It is one of the most basic, tried and true plotlines of DnD – or any other game.  It can be as simple as shown about or it can be far more sophisticated:

Problem (Innocent children have been disappearing from the PCs hometown, and last night the mangled corpse of a child was found in a dark alleyway)
Action (The PCs start a careful detective-style investigation into the shady elements of this city)
Resolution (After many clues and some random encounters the PCs decide that one of the respected politicians of the town is actually a corrupt wizard who is responsible for this atrocity, so they confront him)
Reward (Defeating their foe, the PCs find and release the surviving children.  The Lord of the city gives them a generous reward – or conversely they loot the dead wizard and take his stuff 😉 )

Either way and everything in between, the structure gives players what they crave: the chance to take actions that bring about solutions and give them rewards so they can go solve bigger and badder problems.  To reiterate: players want resolution and reward.  They put the work into solving the problems the DM presents them with, and in order to make the game gratifying to them, they want rewards for taking that action.  While setting up a problem is easy for most any DM, working the game through to a conclusion is more difficult.  Dungeons and Dragons sets up an almost fail-safe game structure where getting rid of obstacles (killing monsters, defeating traps, ect ect) grants reward and leads to a conclusion.  At the end, the DM can tally up all of the treasure and XP and reward his or her players.

I’m going to argue that the creators of the original DnD intimately understood what made the game fun, and that resolution and reward were an integral part of the enjoyment of the game.  That is why by-the-book you get treasure for slaying monsters and why the game seems set up to kill things and take stuff: it provides inherent rewards.  I will go so far to say that the DMG should be required reading for anyone who wants to lead any game system, because beyond the rules specific to whatever edition of DnD you play, the book is filled with a wealth of information on how to structure a basic game plot.  Don’t scoff at the seemingly simple examples.  Because it is far more gratifying and fun to play in a campaign with a very simple plot that keeps you engaged, active and rewarded than playing in an interminably complex plot where you just keep running in circles never reaching a conclusion because you’re either not smart enough to figure out the clues or the DM just hasn’t figured out the end yet.  (I see the latter happen most frequently in White Wolf STs, but that is the subject for a different rant.)

The DMG urges new DMs to start simple and if they and their players want to, they can refine the subtlety and complexity of their plots, as they understand the game and how it is played.  Or don’t – if your players get their jollies by mashing monsters and saving villages from orc hordes, let them!  Follow the basic rules of resolution and reward; and no matter whether your game is about complex political scheming or killing things and taking their stuff, you will be surrounded by a group of your friends who are all having fun and enjoying the game.

And in the end, getting together with friends and having fun is what Dungeons and Dragons is really about, no?