Why Is D&D the 800 Pound Gorilla of RPGs?

I keep coming back to D&D. I'm not committed to it, and I have no professional or monetary stake in D&D other than the rulebooks and supplements I've bought. I love other RPG systems because they let me tell different stories or play out conflict in different ways, but when I want to start a campaign or knock some imaginary heads I always start with D&D.
Quest for the fountain of youth?

Why? Why do I keep coming back to the sweet siren song of my first roleplaying game, even though the rules have gone through revision after revision, each one effectively spawning a new play experience? Am I trying to recapture the nostalgic "first game" vibe in some misguided attempt to recapture my youth? Possibly... But I think there's a more objective reason that D&D has remained popular through almost four decades and countless edition wars.

D&D Gamified Gaming. And it did so 30 years before Gamification was even a word.

Pointlessly redundant? Maybe, but stick with me for a bit.

Yes, D&D was the first commercial role playing game, spawning a whole new game industry. It was fresh and exciting and a whole new way to play games. But it was just a game, as fresh as it was. What made it different from Avalon Hill wargames? We played it incessantly, but we'd have to be in the right mood to set up a Panzer Leader game. Why? The D&D rules were just as arcane, and there was no physical representation of the action to fall back on. In fact, D&D may not have survived the controversy, the infighting, and the legal troubles if it didn't tap into our psyches and keep us coming back for more. But how?

For those of you unaware of gamification, it's the practice of infusing game elements into something to make it more engaging and fun. For more, start with the Wikipedia entry. It's the tip of the iceberg, but it'll get you a decent baseline. You can take a few minutes and watch this TED talk by Seth Priebatsch talking about the Game Layer, and you can also watch Jane McGonigal's TED talk on making a better world through gaming.

First one's free...
Certain ideas keep popping up that attract us to games. And now companies use these concepts to make their interactions with us more compelling so we buy more of their stuff or remain loyal to their brand. Here's how D&D used gamification ideas even from the first white book edition of the game to hook players and keep them coming back for more. Other games may have had one or two of these elements, but D&D hit 'em all in one shot.

Achievement Levels: Character levels have been around since the very beginning of D&D. Each level has a strong package of character upgrades in the form of more spells, better bonuses, new abilities, and more hit points. Rewards act like a good drug, producing feelings of contentment and satisfaction. They also make you want more rewards, so you're immediately hooked into playing again. First level up's free...

Progression Dynamic/Progress Bars: A character's XP total provides an easy progress bar to let us know how close we are to the next level and its dopamine-inducing rewards. If the DM uses adventure modules, completing one in a series can strongly compel players to come back and finish the rest of the series just to see how the story ends.

Status/Achievement Badges: Whatever you can brag about fits this bill. Level 20 Lord? Groovy. Your party beat up Lolth? She kicked our butts, so good for you! You found Excalibur? Dude! What does it do? D&D provides endless potential because it doesn't provide a fixed list of badges. In this case, it's even more compelling than electronic games since you never have to wait for the next rev of the game. And if you want actual badges (even though we don't need the stinkin' things), check out Stuart Robertson's GM Merit Badges over at Strange Magic.

Appointment Dynamic: This gamification idea has been in place since families have had game nights, so it's actually been built into games prior to D&D. When is your next game? If the game is important to you, you'll make time for it. And if you have the next one scheduled as you're ending this game, you're hooked into coming again.
Party of Awesomeness found on Reddit.

Collaboration/Communal Discovery: Everyone needs to work together to overcome challenges, achieve goals, and unlock bigger rewards. Solo adventures work, but the soul of D&D requires a party that works together for the greater good. D&D assumes this collaborative behavior or the adventures will overwhelm the party. This collaboration also manifests socially. When you discover another gamer, you have an immediate ally with whom you share an entire vocabulary of gamer terms that you could never use at work without alienating some of your coworkers.

Challenges Between Users: I don't mean Player vs. Player here, though if everyone buys into the challenge that works. I think of friendly rivalries, like a race against time or a Gimli vs. Legolas "Most Orc Bodies Wins" challenge (see that scene on YouTube). A larger version of this manifests in a...

Leaderboard: XP totals serve this purpose in a game, especially when characters get personal ad hoc XP awards for roleplaying or side quests. Way back when, the RPGA maintained point totals for members and ranked them at a national level, but the minmaxers took over and discouraged the practice.

Sadly, it's all virtual.
Virtual Currency: This can mean gold and treasure, or it can mean other game currencies like magic items or even spells known in a wizard-heavy game. Anything which gives the player control over the game world counts as virtual currency, as I mentioned previously in The 3 Types Of Loot.

Trust: When the characters undertake a quest, the NPC questgiver implicitly trusts the characters to execute the mission. On a metagame level, the DM trusts the players to run around the world and not burn the whole place down, and the players trust the DM to respond rationally and consistently to their in-game actions. Feeling that trust from others makes the game experience very compelling, especially when compared to real life where temporary employment rules the labor force, probationary periods make you work hard to prove yourself to others, and you need to demonstrate that you don't need a loan before a bank will give you one.

Challenge Level: DMs have access to all sorts of metrics that keep challenges from being too easy or too hard. Character level and party size contribute to how much punishment a party can take and how big a monster they can defeat. Even if the metrics fail, the DM can modify an encounter on the fly to change the level of challenge. Can't hit the demon? An NPC or god gives the characters a boon to make life a little easier. Elementals dying too quickly? Oh, look - they call another batch of reinforcements.

That's what this steaming mugfull
of liquid does when I drink it...
Instant Positive Feedback: When you try something in D&D, you get immediate and very clear feedback on how well it worked. Did the silver sword do a better job hacking through the hordes of critters than the Flame Tongue? Did a sip of the potion heal you? I wonder what this steaming mugfull of liquid does if I drink it? Once something exists in the game, it typically has a numerical bonus so it's crystal clear what something can and can't do. Rewards tie into this as well, since you get XP and (usually) treasure for every monster you defeat as soon as you defeat them. That sort of feedback rarely exists in the real world. You typically need to wait years before finding out how well you invested.

Control of the World: When playing RPGs, you typically play the part of a hero saving the world from desctruction. You have access to powers beyond the imaginings of mere mortals. You're a 9th level Cleric? Congratulations, you can now bring people back from the dead. You control countries and decide the fate of the cultists who tried to summon the Eater of Worlds. We don't usually get such planetary-scale opportunities or decisions in real life, and thinking on such a broad scale empowers us so much that it can be frustrating to go back to the mundane grind of the real world. The superhuman powers don't hurt the buzz either.

With all of these gamification concepts compelling us to play again and again, is it any wonder we're hooked on D&D and RPGs in general? Who knows if they were intentional in D&D's design, but they certainly worked on me because here I am still playing D&D 30 years after my first taste. And now we can learn from D&D about how to keep people playing games even if the rules are arcane or contentious as we move forward with designing new games. Here's hoping we're just as successful.


  1. Think you must have covered everything which makes D&D the greatest of games (even if that greatness is hidden beneath a veneer of... not so greatness sometimes), thanks for the enjoyable read!

  2. There are more reasons - these are just the ones that fit under the broad term "gamification".

    I'm glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading and commenting!