If we're going to spend this much time talking about how to play, the question has to come up again and again - why do we play this silly game in the first place?
The first answer is going to be, "Fun." We all know the internet and we know that's the knee-jerk answer. I don't dispute it. But "fun" applies to a lot of things - there are a lot of ways to have it? Why this way? Why this particular game?
Doesn't it seem a strange way to have fun? After all, there are books that have to be read and reread, much like study, and sheets that need to be filled with details and notes, much like study. Sheets that get full and complicated and need to be reorganized and painstakingly copied, bound together in notebooks and folders, or collected into computer files to be tagged and edited. Much like study. What part of that would you normally associate with "fun"?
Don't say because its enriching and complicated, and therefore involving, because so is the law, chemistry, social history and a host of other subjects, which the gentle reader probably took in school and which were probably did not gazed over in near as much wonder as the papers from this game. I could be in error, but I don't see it nearly as likely that the reader rushed to his or her Friday study group with the eagerness with which a D&D session is viewed.
Very well, interaction then, with friends and cohorts. The reader does know, however, that it IS possible to have fun and interaction at the local pub, along with drink, music, attractive members of the opposite species and wet-tshirt contests. It's also possible to have all this fun without having to select one member of the group to be the Grand Poobah who gets to sit in smug judgement over others. It's nearly the same dynamic, except that pleasant creatures jump to your orders and bring you foods and liquor for which to slather your brain and inner body with (not to mention pleasantly steeping your liver).
Course, D&D is sort of cheaper. Chances are, where you'd drop $80-120 at the bar, at worst you'd drop $30 at the local Meyers or Safeway or Piggly Wiggly buying your cheezies and power drinks. So there's that.
But are we saying that the principal reason D&D is "fun" is because it costs less money? That seems an absurd justification of there being hundreds of blogs about the game, consisting of thousands of hours of people waxing poetically and somewhat onanistically about this game. Hm. I don't know. Seems a bit weak.
So maybe "fun" isn't really the right definition. People do pretty much everything in their off hours for merely fun. People eat pizza pockets for fun. One assumes on some level that if you're talking about something you choose to do in a special way, its because it provides a sort of fun that isn't available with three and a half minutes and a microwave. So what is it?
I have a theory ... but it is just a theory, mind. It considers that, given that there are tens of thousands of ways to have fun, and that many of these ways are both cheap and include interacting with other human beings, that this game offers to a select few something they can't get anywhere else.
The chance to be an asshole.
Oh, I don't mean the way your boss is an asshole. I don't mean lording your superiority over other people ... though of course there are people in the game who ARE assholes like your boss, and who do lord their superiority. I mean an entirely different sort of asshole. I mean the sort that doesn't give a rat's ass what anyone else thinks. I mean the really superior bastard or bitch who - whether he or she is saving the princess or smacking her around - just really doesn't give a shit about right and wrong. Right is whatever I happen to do with my sword that gets me out of this situation, and wrong happens when I fuck it up. And there ain't no Mrs. Grundy around to tell me what's so and what ain't.
A couple weeks ago some guy with a nick on one of the passive aggressive forums had the nick 'tanstaafl.' For those of you who are not familiar with Robert A. Heinlein, this was his personal code for get off your ass and do the thing yourself. It stands for There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.
In this day and age, it really takes a special sort of person to stand proud and slap people with those words. Heinlein got away with it in his personal life by having lived in a time when many, many people believed it. This isn't true anymore. I don't know about the rest of you - it could come from being embedded in the corporate sector, like a reporter in a war zone - but I can't move ten feet without banging into a charity of some sort or other. I can't turn on talk radio without being subjected to another sob story from someone who happens to come from one of a thousand social backgrounds - geographical, religious, political, academic, sexual - and the list goes on and on. The message is clear. These people have not got a free lunch, and they need one.
I am, fundamentally, a liberal. I don't believe so much in a free lunch as a shared lunch, rationally organized by a disinterested government in a benign and generous manner. To me, charity and sympathy aren't so much a plague on the culture as a result of those who are suffering, but as a result of the opportunities given to those prepared to exploit the suffering.
Exploitation is such a clear and easy thing in D&D. Kill the exploiter. Disregard the exploited. Be utterly, unaccountably selfish and aggressively ambitious. Wallow in it. Keep accounts and charts in order to measure the degree of one's own personal achievements, and fuck all the creatures who died to make those achievements remarkable and plentiful. There ain't no free lunch for anyone ... there's just the trough I've built with my sword, my fireball spell and my incessant willingness to kill without mercy.
But as I say, its just a theory. There might be something to the argument that D&D is really only gambling with an ersatz stake in the form of a emotionally identified quanta taking the place of an actual pile of money. But that's a post for another day.