Friday, February 10, 2012

Three Pillars of D&D

"Much has been made of late in the online community over a post on Wizard's of the Coast's "Rule of Three" about the "three pillars of Dungeons and Dragons". On 2/7, Rodney Thompson wrote in response to the following question:

"I frequently have games when throughout the entire session we go without any combat whatsoever. What can I expect from the new edition in regards to this style of play?"

Rodney responds in part:

"Over the course of the last year, we've distilled the essential experiences of D&D down into three general categories: exploration, roleplaying, and combat. We believe these form the three main pillars of gameplay in D&D, and, while broad, they can help guide our design...

The goal, then, is to support all three of those elements in the design of the game in such a way that the individual gaming group can choose its focus and have a satisfying game experience. This doesn't mean we necessarily need the same amount of game mechanics supporting each; obviously, combat has tended more toward detail and more rules support, and that may well be true going forward, but we also want to make sure we're paying a similar amount of attention to the other two experiences...

This philosophy is something we want to extend beyond just character design; it should affect adventure design, monster design, setting design, and every other aspect of the game. Our goal is to make it so that you make choices for your character that speak to your preferred play style, and that it's OK to do so even if other members of your party make choices pointing toward a different play style. Adventuring demands a certain amount of competence in all three areas of the game, but when you customize your character you might push yourself more in one direction or another."
So, what are they actually talking about when they mention these three pillars or aspects? Can the game stand one one or two pillars at at time? Is it possible to play the game using none of these pillars?

What are they actually talking about when they mention these three pillars or aspects?

I believe the pillars can be broken down more or less like this:

1) Player vs. Monster: Combat
2) Player vs. Environment: Exploration
3) Player vs. NPC or Player, or Self: Roleplaying

Keep in mind Monsters and NPCs can be interchangeable. For clarity in this article (if you'll forgive the tautology), I'll define a monster as something you fight, and an NPC as something you don't, even though they may be the same entity.

To be clear, the reasons for engaging in combat, in exploration, or with other characters are all part of the larger umbrella of roleplaying. It is as if ROLEPLAYING is the foundation upon which these three pillars sit. To that end, I think "roleplaying" is a poor name for one of the three pillars. But rather than get in an uproar over semantics, I think it would be more productive to discuss what I think they are actually talking about, rather than the word they use to describe it.

One way to explain roleplaying as Mr. Thompson uses it is by exclusion. If it isn't combat, and it isn't exploration, it is roleplaying. (However, this only serves to define the three pillars in a tautological way).

"Combat" would include rules for chances to hit, chances to be hit, death, and most forms of physical or psychic damage. Specifically in D&D, Armor Class, Hit Dice, Hit Points, Damage, Saving Throws, etc...

"Exploration" would include rules for mapping, searching for secret doors and traps, detecting secret doors, traps, slopes, or structural anomalies, etc...

"Roleplaying" would then include rules for "everything else". Alignment and class behavioral restrictions, reactions, loyalty, followers... basically social interaction. To that end, I might have chosen "social interaction" (of the characters, not the players around the table) as the name for the third pillar, although this falls short to me.

Can the game stand one one or two pillars at at time?

It is certainly possible to run a game of D&D without combat. I don't know exactly what that game would look like, as I've never played in one. I have however, had game sessions without combat, just as the poster of the original question has.

Is it possible to run a game without social interaction. The game can be essentially a hack and slash, where you "kill first, ask questions later". Later as in after the game session is over.

It is possible to run a game without exploration. A game can be a series of set pieces. Rather than wandering around either on land or below ground, players can be presented with a series of battlefields. The entire relevant playing field is in view the whole game. Once a scene is resolved, jump to the next.

It seems by further reduction that you can stand a game on a single pillar, rather than two. A game with no exploration and no social interaction becomes tactical combat (something like Warhammer or Chess). A game with no combat or exploration becomes like improv theater. A game with no combat or social interaction would be like the video game Myst. Any of these options can make for a fine game. But it wouldn't be like the D&D I know.

Is it possible to play the game using none of these pillars?

Certainly if you use the tautological definition that roleplaying is anything that isn't combat or exploration, playing without using any of the three pillars is impossible. But if the third pillar is essentially rules for social interaction, at least that provides a question to explore.

What might such a game look like?

There would be no combat.

There would be no exploration; each scene would be presented in toto by the DM.

There would be no social interaction.

I think a game like Candyland fits the bill. (Games like Parcheesi and Sorry have an element of combat)

Edit: I think the game Stockmarket might fit the bill. As I recall, there really is no way to harm another player, besides by a random roll of the dice. It is an unusual strategy game in that regard:

I for one am willing to buy into the three pillars as identified by Mr. Thompson. Although I think they could have done a lot better job in choosing the name for the third pillar. But since I can't come up with a perfect name for it, I'll concede their choice.


  1. I think you explained this much better than they did.


    I think the thing I (and many others) originally got stuck on is the meaning of pillar. I was reading it as sine qua non. As in, that without which it could not be. But if you see the pillars as optional (in that case why call them pillars?) then I agree that all three of these things represent important aspects of the game.

  2. How about three pivots? As in... if you are a three legged stool, you can dance around on any of your three legs, or combinations thereof. But hopping on one leg for too long will wear you out and bore your partner.

    Again, I think the reaction is more to the words they used, rather than what they meant by those words.