Check for Traps

The New Oral Tradition


Roleplaying games exist as an oral tradition. While many roleplaying books are in print, most of these provide new rules and systems for use in play. You can look up the spell, feat or ability that your character’s class or race might use. One can argue that these descriptions are the whole game, and the only thing that needs to be provided by the game’s designers. But that essentially ensures that all books written about roleplaying games are merely rules manuals. And if you’ve ever read the instruction manual to a new board game, you know that these rules don’t always provide an accurate picture of exactly what the experience around the table is like and how to play it better. Therefore, the only way that the roleplaying experience is communicated is through play, handed down from generation to generation.

Wizards of the Coast is trying to change that.

In previous editions of Dungeons & Dragons, there was a section at the beginning of the Player’s Handbook that re-produced a short portion of a roleplaying session. Presented in script format, the players and the dungeon master spoke as if they were exploring a dungeon. The jokes were hokey and the conversation was overly simple, but, before I played regularly, it was my favorite part of the book. This was how the game was played! In many ways, the 2 page script illustrated how the esoteric components in the other 300 pages should work.

The problem was that the script was too simple and assumed too much of the first time reader. Since it was in the Player’s Handbook, the script was player-focused and did little to instruct the dungeon master. It didn’t cover complex situations like inter-party quibbling or the dungeon master unknowingly (or knowingly) railroading the action. Even future players could be potentially confused. Why were the characters in that dungeon to begin with? What if I don’t want to play a dungeon crawl? And who the fuck is Lidda?

Explaining how a roleplaying game works to a non-gamer is not an easy task. “It’s a game, but no one wins. You say that you do stuff, and then roll some dice to see if it works. You play a character, but it’s not acting. Why am I an elf? I don’t know, you kind of just have to be there.” A simple script was the best way to show a typical session, and to give an overview that might answer some of those questions. But there is so much more to role-playing than what can be explained with that method. Older editions depended on the oral tradition to really pass on the game to others.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide for the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons approaches the problem a little differently than just providing a short script. The first 30 pages frankly discuss how roleplaying works, without ever throwing mechanics out there to complicate things. Granted, it’s skewed more towards the dungeon master, but an accurate description of the various types of players and how to engage them is a wealth of information even if you never want to step behind the DM screen. What motivates you to play D&D? Are you an explorer, who enjoys investigating the history and game world? Are you an instigator, always pushing the action forward? Or are you just a watcher, perfectly content to observe the game with little interaction on your part? After reading that section in the DMG, I realized that, when I roleplay, I display elements of each of the above types. Knowing that about myself has allowed me to enjoy the game more.

The best part was that much of this knowledge was applicable to all roleplaying games, not just D&D.


While the 4th Edition DMG does a fine job of setting to paper many of the ideas about roleplaying that existed in the oral tradition, there was still a large hole in the written knowledge. How to be an effective player, one that is successful in his attacks, but also has the courage to try new and daring stunts, is not always apparent. It can be difficult for a new player to choose feats or traits that will give his or her character the talents to perform a truly adventurous task. In the past, this information was only learned over time. The more you played, the better you got at it as you absorbed the oral tradition.

The recently released Player’s Strategy Guide for 4th Edition D&D wants to fill that hole. It has detailed guides on how to create a character within the 4th Edition system that excels at a particular task. If you want to be the fastest character in the party, the specific feat, race and class that you should take are all provided. The book was written like a Prima Strategy Guide for D&D.

But I think that’s the book’s greatest failing. I don’t think that it’s a good idea to further associate 4th Edition with videogames than its critics already do, but here Wizards of the Coast has essentially provided the Guide to Powergaming.

Powergaming is the term used to describe players who spend most of their time thinking about their D&D character like a puzzle that needs to be solved. If I choose X power with Y feat, then I have created an unstoppable force that my DM will never be able to beat. Powergaming isn’t bad necessarily, and a perfunctory knowledge of what classes and powers will create an effective party is invaluable, but it’s not the motivation that inspires every single roleplayer. Of the 8 types of players that Wizards outlined in the DMG, over 75 percent of the Player’s Strategy Guide will only appeal to 1 or 2 of them (Powergamer and maybe Slayer).

That being said, the Guide does codify many things about creating a character that is not provided anywhere else, to my knowledge. In some ways, Wizards achieved its goal of cementing some of the oral tradition that surrounds roleplaying. Many gamers end up powergaming, and in the past they were forced to research on forums or other websites. Now there is a book that tells them how to do it, and I think that’s a step in the right direction.

The Player’s Strategy Guide offers a few tips on how to be a good roleplayer, but, in contrast to the DMG, there are just a few pages and they feel tacked on at the end of the book. There are brief guidelines provided about how to share treasure and how not to hog the spotlight, but I feel like these should be expanded and be the focus of such a guide. Because honestly, even veteran players need to be reminded that playing a paladin doesn’t mean you can be a dick or that working together to find creative solutions to problems can be just as much fun, if not more, than being the best at killing monsters.

I just want someone to write a definitive Guide to Roleplaying, preferably one that doesn’t have “dummy” in the title. Until that happens, I am content to continue the oral tradition.

Greg Tito wants to give a shoutout to former members of his roleplaying group in NYC who contributed to the Player’s Strategy Guide. Despite my words here, nice work, Tavis and Eytan!

About the author