One D&D, Two Covers

The two images illustrate the fundamental split over what players think Dungeons & Dragons is for


When wrote my first post about the new edition of D&D a few years ago, I planned on writing a running series on the announcements and developments of the edition. But alas, the series never fully materialised. I have a half-drafted post covering the protracted licensing drama around the OGL and the core rules, which I’m sure I’ll post at some point – but that’s not what I want to talk about today.

I’d like to compare the recently announced main and alternate covers from Wizards of the Coast for the new β€˜One’ edition of Dungeons & Dragons. These covers provide a useful springboard to discuss the schism over play style and game interpretation that has been present in the game since its inception.

This split is exhaustively documented in John Peterson’s excellent 2022 book, The Elusive Shift from MIT press. The essential question boils down to: Is Dungeons & Dragons a combat simulator, or an engine for telling stories?

The two cover illustrate the play styles perfectly:

Main Cover: Image credit: Wizards of the Coast/Tyler Jacobson (via Game Informer)
Alternate Cover: Image credit: Wizards of the Coast, Wylie Beckert

On the left, the rulebooks main cover shows barbarians, dwarves, and other rogues in heroic fighting poses. It’s a dynamic composition with vibrant storytelling, giving you a real flavour of what the game might be about – a group of adventurers engaging in daring deeds, facing unknown horrors just out of sight.

The central focal point of the painting, however, is not the heroes, but the imposing dragon looming above them all.

On the right, we see figures quietly sitting in a cave, presumably after a hard and tiring adventure. The interactions between the characters and the dragon suggest camaraderie and peaceful coexistence.

From just the cover alone however, you might be led to believe as Paul Cezge said on Mastodon recently:“The art on the cover of the collectible 50th anniversary Player’s Handbook makes it seem like it’s a cozy game about having tea with a dragon.”

The first image is all about action and heroism, with vibrant colors and dynamic poses depicting a tense battle against horrors out of the frame that we can only imagine. In contrast, the second image has a more relaxed vibe, with a circular layout and softer colour pallet. Showcasing a peaceful moment between characters and a friendly, golden dragon. The intense lighting and dramatic poses in the first picture create an exciting, high-stakes atmosphere, while the gentle lighting and calm poses in the second give off a serene, reflective feel. These two images capture the wide range of experiences that the audience imagines take place in the world of Dungeons & Dragons.

However: These two images illustrate the fundamental split over what Dungeons & Dragons is for

Is it a combat simulator – a mechanism for resolving actions, statistics, and probability in a coherent enough way to term as β€œplaying at the world”? Or are you β€œplaying in the world”, using the system’s physics to sequentially generate narrative and drama?(See my talk on Making Mechanisms for more on where narrative comes from inside of systems)

But here’s the thing: while these two covers illustrate the two approaches to play, there’s something that keeps nagging at me.

Imagine you are a young person only familiar with D&D via shows like Critical Role. You go by feel with your purchase, using only the vibes that the covers convey. You are basically looking at two completely different games.

The game on the left is clearly a fighting game. And that is exactly what you’re going to find when you open the book – pages and pages of rules to resolve combat.

But the one on the right?

Narrative play might have emerged during the late 1970s amidst East Coast players familiar with the work of Viola Spolin and Keith Johnstone, but as far as I’m aware, there are no rules in any edition of the Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks that discusses rules for narrative, story, etc. At all.

There’s a long discussion about this on Systems are Beautiful blog back in 2019

What does D&D do with its rules? To answer that, just look at what the rules govern. The domain of the rules imply the values of the system, so the more a game stipulates on a particular thing, the more the game becomes about that thing. Rules are suggestive of the game’s expectations of its players. While players theoretically have unlimited freedom, in the practical case the rules have a way of pointing players at particular solutions to their problems.

So it should come as no surprise that the most important thing in a D&D game is fighting. It’s readily apparent just from the content of the books. Over half of the page count of the Player’s Handbook from any edition is dedicated to class abilities and spells. Add in skills and feats (just more abilities, really), equipment (modifiers to abilities), and the general rules of combat itself, and you’ve easily got three quarters of the book or more. Now take into account the sections on adventuring, a Dungeon Master’s Guide that talks about making dungeons or other suitable locales, huge sections on magic items and other loot (often the largest part of a Dungeon Master’s Guide), and rules that dictate how much stuff your character can realistically carry with them, and it’s crystal clear what D&D wants you to do. The game is most at home when players are killing things and taking their stuff.

More importantly, the more you aren’t telling that story, the more you really aren’t playing D&D.

I was recently chatting to Paul Cezge about the above cover art and D&D’s lack of rules for generating story – rather than just for resolving combat – and he reminded me that D&D is a statistical system built around progression (number go up).

I asked him if he could name (or recommend) any games that have rules explicitly around story and the production of narrative. Here’s what he had to say said (reproduced with permission)

There is no good answer to that question.

Other games don’t work against you having the experience with their mechanics and procedures and reward systems like D&D does, but usually rely a lot on players mostly figuring out the best practices for the experience themselves. They may have good advice, in a general sense. “Be a fan of the player characters” is good gamemastering advice. But then you have to figure out what that means as a moment to moment activity yourself. Fall of Magic is a beautifully presented game that doesn’t work against you, but it’s not easy for a group to figure out its intended experience if they haven’t seen it somewhere else. PBtA games try to draw their intended experience out of the players with their character playbooks and moves, and it works pretty good, but I can’t think of one I’d recommend to RPG curious teens that delivers the vibe of the cozy collectible Player’s Handbook cover. They tend to be darker in their view of humanity.

It’s hard to write rules for story, we can only create systems that do a better or worse job at ‘sense making‘ the events that emerge from them.

PBtA in the above refers to ‘Powered by the Apocalypse‘. A system created in the 2010’s. Its major innovation was to cast player actions as ‘moves’. Which creates a physics different to worlds powered by D&Ds ruleset. I’ve never played a PBtA game, but I have read the rulebook – because I’m a nerd. Because ‘moves’ and actions are resolved by the player, the DM (or MC in the games lexicon) doesn’t role any dice. The worlds physics is created on the fly by the player and their choices rather, than kept coherent by the DM and the rulebook a la, D&D.

What this results in is the MC asking lots of questions of the players rather than stating facts about the world.

The MC also names everything so that all NPCs gain a semblance of substance… but never so much that he gets to hesitate to get them killed, maimed, destroyed at the players whim.

The game’s fuel is the MC’s questions to the characters (not players).  Those questions (and answers) build the world and shape where the action goes.  Many (if not most) of these questions should be embedded in the MC’s moves or in response to players Moves/questions (i.e. turning player questions back to the group).

Chatty: You’re reading this awesome review, What does it remind you of? What does it make you feel like?

Exactly like that.

If you want to play D&D as a narrative engine, a la Critical role, it is solely incumbent on you to meet the right kind of players – as otherwise you’ll be completely off the map, outside of what the Dungeons & Dragons rulebook actually provides you. To the point where you might as well look for a different system to play entirely.

I don’t want to say the alternate cover is dishonest; in fact, it’s been received really well online by many players in the community.

But if I, as a teen or tween, wanted to play a game that involves the production of a well-structured story involving drinking tea with a dragon with my friends around the kitchen table and got given the new ‘One’ Edition of Dungeons & Dragons for Christmas, I would find myself …. disappointed.

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One response to “One D&D, Two Covers”

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