What’s the point of Dungeons and Dragons?

What’s the point of Dungeons and Dragons? Believe it or not, someone asked this question the other day. I had an answer right away, of course. To me, and many others, Dungeons and Dragons is all about storytelling, adventure, and hanging out with friends – or at least people who share some of your interests. In this article, I’m going to try to describe the various ways Dungeons and Dragons is, and is not, about these things.

I know I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: I am not the ultimate authority on Dungeons and Dragons, nor on the subject of playing this game. I have been playing this game since 1982, and I have run games since 1984 or thereabouts. Over the years, I have been exposed to some of the most legendary practitioners of the game, and I have also encountered literally hundreds of players. I have seen just about any situation that is reasonably likely to come up. I have also made a fair number of mistakes, things I did wrong that I wish I had done better. To some extent, I have tried to learn from my mistakes and to pass those lessons on to you, the reader.

With all that in mind, I want to answer the question – What’s the point of Dungeons and Dragons?

D&D: The Birth of a Legend

Dungeons and Dragons started as rules for a miniature wargame. These rules were called Chainmail. After being used for a while by a group of people with an interest in wargaming, they soon thought about what would happen if the soldiers and creatures went on other adventures. Thus, D&D was born. (Learn more about the D&D History Timeline!)

Over the years, D&D went through many changes, but one thing remained the same. Namely, it was always about storytelling, adventure, and having fun with friends. While the rules may have changed, and the worlds may have changed, and the mechanics may have changed, the heart of D&D has stayed the same throughout its history.

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Today, there are millions of people who play Dungeons and Dragons. Many of them play in groups that get together on a regular basis. Some of them play with groups that meet on a weekly basis. Some of them play in groups that get together once a month or so. Some of them play with groups that only get together when someone in the group has a particular game in mind. Some of these groups are made up of friends who have known each other for years. Some of these groups are made up of acquaintances who come together for a session of D&D, then go their separate ways. Some of these groups are made up of total strangers who met for the first time at the game table.

While some of these groups may have a particular focus, there is one thing they all have in common. Every )good) D&D group I have ever encountered has fun together. Sometimes the fun is slow and subtle, but it usually gets there. Sometimes the fun comes in a flood, an endless stream of good times. I have been in groups that were super serious, and groups that were super silly. I’ve been in groups that played one-on-one with the DM, and groups that played six-on-one with the DM. I’ve been in groups that loved winning, and groups that loved to lose. I’ve been in groups that were happy to deal with whatever came along, and groups that planned every detail of their campaign before they ever sat down to play.

The only thing all of these groups had in common was that they had fun together.

A Party with a Purpose

When you sit down to play Dungeons and Dragons, it is important to remember that you are playing a game, and that there is a purpose to the game. To put it bluntly, the point of the game is to have fun. I know you may want to believe that there is some higher purpose behind your quest, but the fact is that there is not. Like it or not, the game is mostly just a way to spend some time with friends. In a way, the game is a kind of joint storytelling, where you are telling a story that no one else could tell quite the same way.

No matter how much you get into the game, the game is not life. There may be real magical swords, and there may be dragons, but this is not real life. You are not saving the world, you are just having fun with some friends. (For more information about having fun with your friends, check out A DM’s Guide to Good Friends.)

The Players

In a typical D&D game, there is a Team Leader, a DM, and a bunch of players. This is the situation I am going to describe first, since it is the most common, but it is not the only situation you may encounter.

Together with the DM, the players take on the role of heroic adventurers. The DM proposes a challenge for the players to overcome, usually in the form of a quest. The players agree to the quest, and the game is on! In a way, the DM is a kind of storyteller, and the players are the characters in the story. While the DM has a great deal of control over what happens in the story, the players have some control as well. Actually, I should point out that the DM has some control too, but that is beside the point.

In order to make the game fun, the DM must maintain a reasonable degree of control over the action. While the players may be the heroes of the story, they should not be able to do anything they want, whenever they want. For example, if the players have a great idea, it’s reasonable to let them try it out. If it doesn’t work, then it is reasonable to let the players try something else. If it does work, then the DM should be able to find a way to keep the action moving, either by introducing a new problem or by changing the rules of the game.

The Dungeon Master

The DM should also be having fun! Yes, some of that fun comes in worldbuilding and creating narratives for the players to explore, but they should also have fun and not dread when game day comes around.

The Ten Commandments of DMing

To help with this, I have developed the following “Ten Commandments” of DMing. (Some of these are adapted from other sources, and some are the result of my own experience.)

Thou shalt not make promises that cannot be kept.

In order to make a game fun, the DM must have some control over the situation. Making promises you can’t keep is not a good way to keep control.

Thou shalt not make thy players wait.

This is a corollary to the previous commandment. If you say you will have an adventure ready on such-and-such a day, you had better have it ready. If you must delay, the best way is to let the players know.

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Thou shalt not make thy players guess.

If a player wants to know if they can do something, let them know.

Thou shalt not be ashamed to say “I don’t know.”

You can’t be expected to know everything. If the players ask you a question that you just don’t know, say so. If you can find an answer, say so, too.

Thou shalt not use thy players’ characters as foils for thy favorite NPC.

The characters in a D&D game were not designed to fight each other, they were designed to fight monsters.

Thou shalt not bore thy players.

Sure, telling a good story is hard, but if your players seem bored, try to tell a slightly different story.

Thou shalt not confuse thy players.

If a player does something that clearly contradicts the established rules of the game, don’t let it go.

Thou shalt not kill thy players’ characters without reason.

This is a corollary to the Second Commandment. If you kill the characters, you had better have a good reason for it.

Thou shalt not make thy players do the same thing over and over.

If the players realize that the only way to get gain XP is to fight the same monster over and over, they will get bored.

Thou shalt not forget that this game is supposed to be fun.

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This is probably the most important commandment of all. If it’s not fun, you’re doing it wrong.

The Point of D&D

As I mentioned, the main reason people love playing D&D is that it involves multi-person storytelling which can be a hell of a lot of fun when done right. Despite what some people seem to think, this is not the only reason to play D&D. In particular, I am often told that the reason people play D&D is because of the thrill of battle with fantastic creatures (who are frequently up to no good). This is an aspect of D&D that I don’t understand well because I don’t play in games where the only thing I am allowed to do is fight.

I am often told that my games are boring because I spend too much time describing the setting and less time fighting. If someone is just looking for a D&D experience that is like a second-rate martial arts movie, I’ve got the wrong group for them. If someone has watched Spiderman and loves the idea of swinging through the city, I’ve got the wrong group for them.

I think the point of D&D is to have fun. If a player really wants to have an experience like the one I described earlier, they should play a game where the DM and players work together to make the experience happen. That’s not to say D&D shouldn’t include that too, but the real point of D&D is to work together to tell a story.

And that’s the way it should be.

Paul Bellow

LitRPG Author Paul Bellow

Paul Bellow is a LitRPG author, gamer, RPG game developer, and publisher of several online communities. In other words, an old school webmaster. He also developed and runs LitRPG Adventures, a set of advanced RPG generators powered by GPT-3 AI. Here at LitRPG Reads, he publishes articles about LitRPG books, tabletop RPG books, and all sorts of DND content that's free to use in your personal tabletop campaign - i.e. non-commercial use. Enjoy your stay and reach out on Twitter or Discord if you want to make contact.