Tortoise Tuesday: Key Terms in Dungeons and Dragons

Call me a geek, but since last summer, I’ve become steadily more obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons. Yes, that’s the role-playing game of Stranger Things fame. Over the course of a campaign, D&D players narrate actions to their DM (Dungeon Master) and roll dice to see if the actions succeed; DMs narrate the results and shape a story. Since 1974, the game’s been through five editions and millions of players. Naturally, then, it’s accumulated quite a lot of jargon.[1] I won’t subject you to a detailed explanation of why metagaming is bad or how you should choose a dump stat. But I do think that this kind of D&D jargon—and the process of habituating players to it—can teach one a lot about effectively using key terms. I have in mind three particular lessons from my first campaign

1. Start with the basics—and only the basics.

Say that you’re a brand-new D&D player, like me. When you build your first character, you need to understand a select few terms: for instance, class[2] and ability score[3]. These, after all, are terms that are directly relevant to building your character. At this early stage, you don’t need to know what a luck check is or what DC stands for. If your DM tries to explain these terms to you now, you’ll likely forget. The terms have nothing to do with building your character, so your focus is elsewhere.

Introducing key terms in a paper is much the same. When you decide what to define in your introduction, think about what the reader absolutely needs to know. If you’re a philosopher arguing that a diagnostic interpretation of the Florentine Codex is wrong, you’ll likely want to explain what the Florentine Codex is and what a diagnostic interpretation might say. You don’t need to define the key term that supports the second premise of your argument and only shows up three pages in. Doing so will make your introduction overly lengthy and probably confuse your reader.

2. Add in subsidiary key terms as needed.

Of course, this isn’t to say that you, a new D&D player, will never need to know what a DC[4] is. In fact, you’ll need to know almost as soon as you roll your first die! Throughout the game, a good DM will anticipate your confusion and define new terms when they become relevant.

Unsurprisingly, you should do the same in your papers. Since you often won’t define all your key terms in your introduction, you’ll likely have to explain some at the start of a section or a paragraph. When you get to the second premise in your Florentine Codex argument, for instance, you might want your reader to know the Nahuatl word tlazolmiquitzli. While the term wasn’t necessary for the reader to understand the broad gist of your argument, it will be necessary for them to comprehend your specific analysis.

3. Consider the evolution of your key terms.

As you progress through your D&D campaign, some terms will take on meaning beyond your DM’s original definition. For example, when you chose to play as a bard, your DM might have explained that bards were performers who had access to magic. Through your rolls and your DM’s narration, though, you’ve realized that bards are also very bad at close combat—they get hurt very easily. Because they are great at performing, persuading, and deceiving, they often serve as the “face” of the party. Over the course of the story, then, the term “bard” has gained additional meaning for you.

Likewise, key terms can (and often should) take on new meaning over the course of an argument.  Admittedly, some key terms are static: your reader won’t get much more out of “Florentine Codex” at the end of your essay than at the beginning. Others, however, are dynamic; this is especially true for key words that are crucial to your thesis. Your reader’s understanding of “diagnostic interpretation” at the start of your paper should progress as you explain what would be necessary to support such an interpretation and why those conditions do not obtain. An effective argumentative arc will make this key term evolution clear—no luck check[5]necessary.

-Natalia Zorrilla, ’23

[1] Seriously, a lot. Check out this glossary for some examples: Or just read the paragraph above!

[2] Your character’s main job, like being a bard or a cleric. Some classes use magic, and others are just really good at fighting.

[3] A number that determines what your character adds or subtracts from dice rolls. For instance, if you have a Charisma ability score of 8 (very low), your character will subtract a lot from rolls that determine whether people like them.

[4] Short for Difficulty Class, this is the dice roll you need to succeed in an action. A DC 15, for example, means you need a roll of 15.

[5] A dice roll that determines how lucky your character is. With a high roll, good things happen.