With over 40 years of history behind it, Dungeons & Dragons has changed and evolved as much as anything else in that time. Under the umbrella of five distinct editions of the rules, plus the original basic (or BECMI) set, the Rules Cyclopedia, the current basic rules (that are totally free online) and a literal universe of settings ranging from Greyhawk to the Forgotten Realms, Dark Sun to Dragonlance, Ravenloft, Spelljammer that takes adventurers into outer space, and countless others, there are limitless possibilities to explore.
Just as varied as the rulesets and settings are different styles of play. From kick-in-the-door dungeon delving to intricate plots woven into a socio-political stage, players have been finding their niche at the gaming table for decades.
Whether you’re a first-timer or a seasoned vet, finding the style of play that works for your group can be a challenging experiment. Group dynamics apply as much for players of fantasy roleplaying games as they do in any real life scenarios. Team cohesion depends on the interplay of individuals’ wants as needs from the game, through a social contract aimed to allow everyone a chance to enjoy themselves. This includes the DM as well, whose duty is to manage all of the players’ expectations and steer them towards a fun experience.
The playstyle for your D&D group isn’t something that needs to be set in stone or decided upon beforehand. The fluid nature of a game can change over time or even from session to session. If you’ve never played before, or you’re playing in a newly-formed group, there’s no telling what your game might evolve into.
A good DM, beyond having a decent grasp of the rules and an ability to keep the play moving forward, would do well to note the sorts of things their players enjoy and the times when it feels like a slog. Learning what your players like makes a DM’s job much easier. For example, players who have a blast exploring caverns and fighting monsters, and never engage with the elaborate storylines a DM spent hours developing, can better serve up a fun experience by spending their prep time making a few maps and populating them with fantastic beasts and magical treasure.
That being said, the beauty of D&D as a shared storytelling game is that whatever story the group ends up telling is never written ahead of time – it’s only after the group plays that the story emerges and comes to life. Classic dungeon delving adventures will, over time, tell their own tale through the memorable moments that the players create.
Here’s a few different playstyles that i’ve experienced in my years of D&D gaming
- Kick-in-the-door: The simplest way to play, this is the one i started with as a kid. Many classic modules (published adventures) lend themselves to this style. There is often a plot, but this is glossed over as the introduction to the adventure. Essentially these are dungeon delves, with the set-up being done “off camera.” For example, one of my favorite classic adventures, White Plume Mountain, has the DM inform the players that three magical sentient weapons were stolen. The weapons’ owners received taunting messages that their weapons are located in a wizard’s dangerous dungeon at White Plume Mountain. After the DM reads through the introduction, the adventure quite simply states “Start: The party has arrived at White Plume Mountain…” There’s no town to explore ahead of time, no NPCs for the players to interact with, no negotiation of payment for the job (although the wealthy collectors have promised to grant them whatever they desire). A straight-up dungeon crawl that includes some cool puzzles, challenging terrain and a lot of different monsters including one of my all-time favorites – a manticore. This style of play is a lot of fun and gets right to the action. Kick-in-the-door adventuring is great for groups that get together sporadically, have different players all the time, or aren’t all that interested in creating a tapestry story over a long period of time.
- Deep immersion: In contrast to kicking in the door, this playstyle is great for those who want their setting to feel like a real place. NPCs are complex individuals that the party interacts with and there’s a sense that things are taking place in the world beyond the party’s adventures. Kingdoms rise and fall. Remote settlements are razed by hordes of orcs while the party explores a dungeon miles away. Players can spend an entire session hanging out in town, meeting shopkeepers, carousing at a tavern or learning about the local economy, politics or society. This style is great for players who imagine their characters as fully-fleshed out beings with needs and desires, hopes and dreams. Players might be just as likely to talk their way out of a fight, or discuss whether a course of action is good or evil, or “what their character would do.” This style of game can present a lot more work for the DM, with players expecting memorable encounters and NPCs anywhere they go, and maintaining consistency between sessions. If they visit an alchemist and meet Snilor the dark wizard who runs the place, when they come back months later they’ll be expecting to encounter Snilor again. (Snilor is one of my go-to NPCs who is really a sort of goth hipster who does indeed study dark arts but he’s not evil.) DMs can mitigate a lot of prep work by using online resources like donjon that generate things like NPC names, city names, tavern names, random treasure and even entire dungeons! (Make sure to take notes of the names you use for future reference.) Practicing and honing improv skills also helps a great deal, as it can be difficult to plan ahead for what the players might do and being able to come up with NPC reactions on the fly is extremely important.
- Sandbox: This is my favorite playstyle. Sometimes called open world, this kind of game is similar to video games like Grand Theft Auto, Just Cause, The Sims and Minecraft. There is often an overarching plot that players can engage with, and outside of that the world is theirs to explore as they wish. Roaming is encouraged, and the DMs task here is to populate this exploration with encounters. Maps play an important role in this style of game. The players can be shown a map of the region where they live or even an entire continent (or planet, or solar system, etc.) They decide something looks interesting and set off to check it out. The behind-the-scenes trick here is to have things ready to drop in where they seem appropriate for the party. On their multi-day journey to check out a volcano they noticed on a map of the region, the DM might describe a ruined tower they come across, with a small scenario in reserve ready to go. Uninterested, the party passes it by, and they later discover the site of a caravan raid, with ruined carts and a few bodies left behind, with tracks leading off into the woods. Maybe the tracks lead to a bandit encampment the DM has prepared. In the campaign i’m running now, the players were completely shocked to discover a spelljamming ship and leave their planet behind. i have no idea what they’re going to do, so i keep an ever-growing list of things they might encounter in space, interesting NPCs and places to explore. There’s also a bulleted list of things related to a much larger plot that i can sprinkle in whenever it feels appropriate. If they pick up on those clues, that’s great and one day they may find themselves with important roles in that plot. If not, they can still have fun taking on jobs and traveling around wildspace.
- Long-term campaign: If there’s a standard playstyle these days, this is it. A compelling storyline leads players from one adventure to the next, with increasing difficulty as they rise in power. There is a balance of combat, exploration and social interaction with NPCs. There is some degree of shared commitment from players and DMs here, who work together to progress the story through various adventures that can last months or even years to come to fruition. This style works best for groups that can get together regularly. Not only does it keep the momentum going, but it keeps the story fresh in everyone’s minds. Starting a long-term campaign, but only getting together once or twice a year, will likely be pretty unsatisfying for everyone. Wizards of the Coast, the publishers of D&D, have adopted the long-term campaign as the default style of play for the products they produce. About once a year they publish a long-term campaign book designed to carry players from first level to somewhere between 10-15 in grand storylines. These are all pretty high-quality products with different flavors to appeal to different groups. There’s one focused on dragons, one on giants, one on demonic underground forces, one on undead and one on elementals.
- Completely random: Perhaps the strangest playstyle, this one leaves everything to chance so even the DM doesn’t know what comes next. The 5th edition Dungeon Master’s Guide devotes a significant amount of space to creating adventures, and part of that includes random adventures. Everything from villains, plots, treasure, significant world events, and dungeons can all be generated on the fly with various tables and some dice rolls. New DMs in particular might find this playstyle very useful, as it takes a lot of the guesswork and uncertainty out of designing adventures for players. Even experienced DMs can make use of these resources though, whether for an unexpected session they weren’t prepared for or when the players go off the reservation into an area you didn’t anticipate. i really like their inclusion in the DMG. Randomness is a nice way for everyone at the table to experience some spontaneous adventure and, even though the random results might not make sense, they can nevertheless make for some memorable gaming moments.
Those are just a few of the playstyles that D&D lends itself too. It’s entirely possible to have a group that utilizes all or more than one of these at the table. Finding the style that’s best for your group is part of the fun of D&D. Groups grow and change just as the game itself has, and even a long-term campaign can break things up with a single-session random dungeon.
If you’ve never played D&D before, which playstyle sounds fun to you? If you’re already a D&D gamer, which style of play does your group most enjoy?