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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Three Pillars, Three Levels

B/X Blackrazor argues that The Three Pillars of D&D are not "exploration, roleplaying and combat" (as Mearls/Cook claim,) but "challenge, reward and escape". I'm not going to analyze the rightness or wrongness of their individual choices, but I would like to point that they are talking about two different levels of meaning. JB is talking about the thematic level (what the "story" of an adventurer looks like.) Mearls/Cook, if you read the excerpts closely, are talking about the purely mechanical level. In other words, they're really talking about the skill system, the social/reaction system, and the attack/damage system.

There are other levels of meaning and other perspectives, so we could analyze D&D in entirely different ways that don't agree with either JB or Mearls/Cook. And we could use various non-game-related schemes as a point of comparison. For example, the Drama Triangle specifies three dramatic roles (Victim, Persecutor, Rescuer,) which we could actually almost line up with JB's thematic pillars, with some tweaking: characters start vulnerable (Victim,) are challenged by the arrival of a threat (Persecutor,) and with luck and skill reverse the roles, rescuing themselves, at which point the characters face some new challenge, beginning a new cycle.

Of course, if we analyze it that way, we're not so much talking about either the higher, thematic level or the lower, mechanical level, but the middle, functional level. Here's a different structural level analysis:
  1. Character (role concept)
  2. Adventure (setting concept)
  3. Resolution (interaction of role and setting)
  4. Expansion (elaboration of character and setting)
Character starts with the assumption that the player interacts with a fictional world via a role (fictional person;) character creation is a way of distinguishing characters. Players describe their characters, and someone (traditionally, a GM) describes a situation (adventure) as a response (what the fictional world is doing around the character.) This back-and-forth interaction between Character and Adventure requires a resolution system or at the very least an agreement as to how to decide which side wins when the two clash. As the two elements interact, characters can advance in level, gain new abilities, acquire wealth and possessions, or explore wider areas, while the setting expands in its own way as the GM (or whoever's responsible for setting up adventures) adds more details to the fictional world.

So, there you have Four Pillars of D&D. They're no better than any other set of pillars, but they illuminate a certain way of looking at the way D&D works.


  1. Of those four, the expansion pillar is most often ignored, and thus left for hobbyists and referees to discover on their own. Think about all the great tools for adding setting detail, either zooming in or zooming out. Wandering monster tables. All the great tools in The Underworld & Wilderness Adventure. Vornheim and associated Zak tables. Your quickie dice tool and methods for generating wilderness areas. Victor Raymond's Wilderness Architect articles.

    These really are one of the most important (and practical) aspects of D&D, speaking for myself. They allow one to play detailed and surprising settings without years of setting design, without the cumbersome investigation into someone else's setting (and all the canon problems that entails), and without all the problems inherent in infodumps.

    These tools are not unique to OD&D (e.g., Moldvay has rules to populate dungeons, AD&D has a random dungeon generator, almost all versions of D&D have random encounter tables) but OD&D actually seems to take the spirit of this approach the furthest. Who rules this stronghold we just discovered? Roll for it!

  2. One of the weaknesses of WotC's "pillars" is what I just pointed out on JB's blog: they leave out Logistics. Anyone who thinks that logistics is not a significant part of adventure gaming is in the wrong hobby. Writing stories is probably more what they want to be doing, plus it pays better.

  3. I would say logistics is part of the exploration pillar (but I'm not following WOTC too closely, so,the context may be off).