Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

But You're Not Doing It Right...

How often do we hear that online? Gatekeepers are hardly an endangered species, and they absolutely thrive in certain environments. This stuff rarely interests me; but it came up in a friend's feed last week, and since it involved something I am interested in, original Dungeons & Dragons, I couldn't resist tossing my hat into the proverbial ring. My friend, it seems, was fighting the right side of an argument with an anonymous online other, an argument about the pastime and its rightful execution. You know, the gatekeeper's refrain... 

Specifically, they argued that since OD&D saw itself as a fantastic medieval wargame, miniatures and map boards were mandatory. Theater of the mind stuff was wrong because a free and open-ended game demands restrictions, apparently. I call this indefensible (and decidedly wrong-headed), but there's a lesson here for fantasy's gatekeepers. First though, this argument can't go unanswered; and believe it or not, the stakes couldn't be higher, especially in a hobby where literally everything happens upstairs.

While D&D (in all its flavors) is a fantasy simulation, that's not really what made it great or allowed it to grow beyond its wargaming base. It certainly helped. A lot, actually. But it was its open endedness that allowed it to become more than some niche pastime known only to a wargaming subculture. Gygax saw its potential immediately, so much so that he brought it up, the ultimate hint, in his Foreword. You'll have no shortage of players, Gary promised, which included those not by any stretch of the imagination ardent wargamers. Spot on...

And you can't get past the Introduction before finding out that miniatures were optional, although recommended. To quote Gygax, miniatures are not requiredNow Outdoor Survival, for its gameboard no doubt, completed the list of required items, suggesting that counters, cardboard or otherwise, were an assumed element. But common sense was enough to know that Gary wouldn't tether his cash cow to another company's product forever. Anyway, our requirements are down to a lot less than our online gatekeeper thought.

Now it's almost certain that miniatures figured prominently in many early games. There's the famous (if not legendary) plastic dinosaurs (not even in a loose sense) that inspired D&D's now-ubiquitous owlbears and rust monsters. But not everyone could afford miniatures, which weren't yet available in the variety of later years, leaving many groups to forego even their cardboard substitutions. Where I grew up, D&D was catching on in so-called gifted classes at school, where non-wargamers were drawn to its potential sans-accounterments...

It quickly became theater of the mind, and why not? Of course, this speaks to the evolution of D&D away from its original wargaming roots, validating the gatekeepers who might rightly observe that the game was no longer being played as originally concieved. Except that Gary, a practical creative, made the tentative nature of any so-called requirements certain from OD&D's opening pages. At any rate, playing the game differently is another thing completely, especially given how obviously accomodating Gygax and Arneson were.*

Take away D&D's miniatures, and you take away an option. But take away the ability to tailor the game and make it your own, and it's reduced to Monopoly with Avalon Hill influences doomed to nerd subculture obscurity. Anyway, I can't imagine denying our hobby that which sets it apart. The gate swings both ways, and it has no guardians, only clever custodians bringing their active imaginations to life. Appropriately, OD&D ends offering one final nugget of  wisdom: decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way...

*Gygax would later clamp down (hard) on his creation; but this was pureblood OD&D.


  1. There are advantages to both ways, theater of the mind and using miniatures, and I've done both, often in the same play session. (Back in the day, our "miniatures" were mostly buttons from my mom's sewing boxes, with numbers painted on them so I could tell which monster had how many hp left. I kind of miss that, actually.)

  2. any old bit of rubbish and a few toy comic book flat romans from my toybox graced my first game Dm'd by my dad on Christmas Eve, 1980.

  3. I mean you did mention Arneson once in passing, but geez man lets remember that Gygax was not the only mind at work in the creation of the game.

    1. Absolutely! Gygax wrote the foreword, so we focused on him; but you're correct, Dave Arneson was D&D's co-creator and deserves his due...