D&D 5E Book idea to broaden the scope of D&D: Thematic Toolbox (listen up, WotC!)

Mercurius

Legend
With all of these conversations around race, theme, murderhobo-ing, colonial narratives, underlying assumptions, etc, I'm of a mind to think about how this can be used as an opportunity to expand and improve the D&D game, regardless of what your particular views on any given hotspot are.

This will be a longish post, so bear with me.

First, the Hegelian dialectic. The basic idea is that you start with a "thesis," or basic idea, perspective, or--in the case of D&D--a trope; there is a reaction, or "antithesis," that opposes or rejects the thesis to some degree; finally, a possible solution, or "synthesis." The key here is that the synthesis usually takes a best-of-both-worlds approach. It seeks to resolve the tension between thesis and antithesis through honoring the truths within both perspectives. This isn't always the case, as sometimes all or most of the thesis needs to be done away with. But in general, and except in extreme cases, there are elements of truth on both sides of most conflicts. The problem, of course, is when adherents on both sides--the "thesists" and "antithesists"--double-down on their side, not recognizing the truthfulness of the other side. Polarization and tensions increase.

I started a thread based on this premise: that both sides in the ongoing arguments had valid points to bring to the table. What resulted was a mixed bag; some doubled-down further on their side (whichever side it was), while others began to (slowly) come together and find common ground.

My own view is that the best (if imperfect) solution to these various problems is an expansion of game options: broadening the thematic possibilities of D&D. It may involve clarifying language and careful (surgical) removal of a small number of ideas, but only in rare cases (e.g. drow are dark-skinned because of their curse), but for the most part it preserves the traditional archetypes of D&D, while at the same time broadening the scope to allow for more diverse usage of various creatures and races.

There has been another related conversation brewing that deals with the underlying "colonialist" assumptions of D&D. A band of intrepid adventurers go off to a land or dungeon inhabited by Others, kill them and take their stuff. This assumption is derived from the wargaming roots of D&D, and is supported by a central theme in most action and adventure media--from video games to movies to books to tabletop RPGs--that the main way to resolve conflict is violence. And of course it is just fun to roll dice, to fight monsters, to accumulate treasure...but the degree of emphasis in ttrpgs seemingly is sourced in some of the basic underpinnings of our civilization, a "conquering mentality."

Now I have argued that this is not inherently problematic in the context of a fantasy game--no moreso (and maybe even less so) than the predatory capitalist underpinnings of Monopoly. So rather than say, "this is wrong - let's take colonialism out of D&D," I'd offer a more Hegelian approach which results in a broadening of the game, facillitating a wider range of underlying assumptions about what the game is primarily concerned with, and an emphasis on campaign-customization, but at a deeper level than just which pre-fabricated ideas to use in your homebrew.

People already do this in their campaigns, to varying degrees. D&D has been, since its inception, a game that is intended to be tinkered with and customized. We all emphasize each of the three pillars--combat, exploration, and social interaction--to varying degrees, prioritizing them to our liking. But the game rules themselves, and the accompany default fluff, do encourage a certain colonialist--or at least "quasi-colonialist"--paradigm. Combat remains central.

So here's my suggestion, a possible creative synthesis: A new toolbox book that focuses on alternate approaches to the D&D game. Now of course this is part of many books, especially supplements that expand the core rules. We've had Xanathar's, various DMGs and PHBs; we had, in ages bygone, the original Unearthed Arcana. But what I'm suggesting is something bigger, something more radical: not as much rules modules, but thematic modules (with, of course, accompany optional sub-systems and rules). Some examples include:

  • Humanoids as player characters - with a wider range of depiction, and guidelines on how to adjust the dial on civilization-and-savagery, as well as deeper explorations on the internal viewpoints and beliefs of different species.
  • Variant goals and campaign assumptions.
  • Ways to de-emphasis combat as the primary modality of conflict resolution.
  • Greater coverage of the non-combat pillars: exploration and social interaction.
  • Expanding beyond the three pillars (e.g. games that focus on cultural exchange, civilization-building, ideologies, spiritual enlightenment, etc).
  • Re-emphasizing and clarifying customization of campaign assumptions.
  • Cosmology-building.

Now you may be thinking, "I'm not interested in any of that--I just want to hang out with my friends and kill monsters." No problem. I'm not interested in everything on that list, either. I have my own prioritization of the three pillars, and I prefer my games to de-emphasize real world socio-cultural dynamics and remain in the general category of "heroic fantasy." But the point is to expand the possibilities, not reduce or change them--not to emphasize or sell any specific approach or configuration of tropes, nor to replace traditional D&D in any way. The point is to broaden its scope to better facillitate creative customization and playing not only with the parts of D&D, but the underlying assumptions.

It just so happens that WotC has not yet really explored a major thematic region of D&D tradition that would align with such an approach: the planes (including Planescape). The planes provide a great opportunity to explore different thematic material, even within a single campaign. Imagine a story arc in which the PCs travel to different worlds, each with very different underlying assumptions. Perhaps they travel to a world in which violence of any kind is not tolerated, and the rules reflect that: PCs are penalized through use of violence. Or perhaps they travel to a world in which the basic assumptions of their homeworld (say, the Forgotten Realms) are completely turned over: the world is ruled by despotic elves, with various humanoids existing as an oppressed under-class; dwarves are enslaved miners, humans are in hiding due to being the target of genocide by the elves. Etc. There really is no limit to possibilities. Some campaigns already range widely like this, but the rules provide little guidance beyond the core set of assumptions and tropes.

Let me be clear: there is nothing wrong with traditional D&D, be it the centrality of combat, the archetypes of races and monsters, or the focus on the three pillars. What I am advocating for is an expansion, not a replacement. Traditional D&D--in all its glory--would remain untouched, but there would be more tools for alternate approaches. This is also practical, in that most people probably just prefer the convenience of a default world and set of assumptions to follow, which would largely remain untouched. Meaning, this approach suggests that rather that focus on altering the traditional tropes of D&D, instead expand on the nature of what "D&D" means, and what sorts of worlds can be explored, and what sort of game you want to build and play.

Some people might not touch the book, others will love it. But I would guess that most would at least draw upon it for inspiration, taking it in the spirit in which it was intended: as a toolbox to play with the great game of D&D, beyond just the tropes themselves, but the underlying "sub-strate" of themes and assumptions.
 

log in or register to remove this ad

I agree with You, DnD offer a frame to explore a wide set of possiblities yet to come.
A close look a chapter one and two of the Dm guide give a lot of path to play unusual fantasy style, or use different pantheon, planes assumption, form of government.
The hints are right there, just use them now.
 

Mercurius

Legend
I agree with You, DnD offer a frame to explore a wide set of possiblities yet to come.
A close look a chapter one and two of the Dm guide give a lot of path to play unusual fantasy style, or use different pantheon, planes assumption, form of government.

Yes, and this book idea would essentially be an "accordion-expansion" of that kind of customization. The DMG provides a lot of paths, it just doesn't explore them adequately. So, in a way, I'm suggesting a DMG 2, but by a different name and as a fleshing out of those areas relatively un-explored.
 

Yes, and this book idea would essentially be an "accordion-expansion" of that kind of customization. The DMG provides a lot of paths, it just doesn't explore them adequately. So, in a way, I'm suggesting a DMG 2, but by a different name and as a fleshing out of those areas relatively un-explored.
maybe The overall market is still looking for conservative assumptions.
Those who can afford to explode planes assumption, alignement system and others may not need that much external help.
 

I sort of skimmed, but aren't these ideas that people can, and probably already have, write and sell on DMs Guild? anything not specific to a setting that is still locked should be fair game.
 

aco175

Legend
It is a worthy goal, I can see some of those ideas being useful to a lot of people and some to only some people.

I think that if these are in small DMsGuild books I may buy some of these ideas, but a large $50.00 book is something I would likely pass on for an adventure book directly.
 

I think, if specific themes and tropes become less likely to be published by companies, it could be that the Core Books become more of a toolbox that leave out many of the assumptions that are described in the current ones. If that's the case, the game would be well served to have a book that helped DMs and players create the themes and Monsters they want for their game.

It could become an important Core book along with the DMG and MM for a DM. I think it's a good idea.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/They)
Now I have argued that this is not inherently problematic in the context of a fantasy game--no moreso (and maybe even less so) than the predatory capitalist underpinnings of Monopoly.
My dude, Monopoly is a work of socialist critique of capitalism. You know how how everyone jokes about it being a miserable experience to play? That’s by design. It’s meant to be satirical.
 

Mercurius

Legend
My dude, Monopoly is a work of socialist critique of capitalism. You know how how everyone jokes about it being a miserable experience to play? That’s by design. It’s meant to be satirical.

Really? I didn't know that. Anyhow, it doesn't change my point: I find it more off-putting than killing things in D&D. That might also be because D&D is collaborative.
 

Mistwell

Crusty Old Meatwad (he/him)
Would this be for it's own book, or just inserted into another new book which has other stuff in it?

My concern, and it's a mild one, is that there isn't enough demand to support these things as a book on it's own. And if the sales of such a book were to bomb, you'd be sending a strong message this isn't what the audience wants. Even if the audience does want some of it - just in addition to other stuff like subclasses, spells, magic items, etc..

I can say for myself that your list is interesting, but it's not something I'd buy. That doesn't mean I wouldn't like it if I read it along with other stuff in a book. But it's just not enough, for me, to want to buy a book based on that theme.
 

Level Up!

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top