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A theory about why D&D settings look that way

   
A theory about why D&D settings look that way

So, I was reading TVTropes, like you do, and was browsing through the Reed Richards Is Useless article, and began pondering it's application to D&D.

D&D generic settings are perfect examples of that trope in action, as there's almost never any lasting progress, despite the presence of reality altering magic and even technology, occasionally. Now, we (rpg players at large, in my experience) tend to chalk that up to limitations of the system, or unwanted holdovers from previous editions, but what if that weren't the case?

After all, you can say magic is rare and difficult all you want, but the mechanics really don't back that up. Whenever a fact fails to exert a mechanical influence on the game, it can be difficult to even remember it's there at all. It's like telling a player they lost an arm in a fight, but you don't want to arbitrarily penalize them for it, so you tell them not to worry about it and no penalties beyond being unable to hold two things at one time. After a while, it's almost like it didn't happen.

Anyways, this all got me thinking about why that trope seems to be true in D&D settings (at least those that don't put forth special effort to avoid it; IE Eberron).

It occurred to me that all the power in the world comes from high level characters, frequently player characters, or NPCs that used to adventure, or the deities themselves, therefore, this must be where the problem lies. Why don't these entities exert more influence on the world, and make real, lasting, positive change?

I decided that, on some level, they must not want to. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

A few base assumptions before I continue:
(1)D&D 3.5
(2)This is primarily based on the most generic of D&D settings (adventurers are rare, and most people in the world have no more than adventurer few levels in NPC classes
(3)Cosmology-wise, I'm assuming a finite number of divine sparks, that can be taken from a deity by killing them. This has happened many times throughout history, but not often in quick succession.
(4)The primary way to gain xp is by killing other creatures. While the rules do allow and encourage rewarding xp for noncombat encounters, the lack of specific rules for it (whether these rules could ever be viable, understandable, and fun notwithstanding), tend to mean it is also neglected in actual play.

On to the idea.

All characters with significant levels of mechanical power in D&D are insane. They are driven to carve up those around them to steal their life force, and take their belongings. Furthermore, they are discouraged from making real, positive change in the world, and instead consolidate their power either in themselves, or in generating new power structures to keep themselves in control. (This also handily explains the prevalence of murderhobos)

Why are they like this? The gods. The gods require worship and believers, and prevent scientific or societal progress in order to keep populations fearful and dependant on their power. They do this by maintaining the status quo via influencing the player characters and some NPCs. Anything starts getting too powerful, it starts looking like a tasty target for someone looking to make their mark on the world.

Additionally, the more I think about it, the less I think the gods are consciously aware that they are doing this. I think it is just part of having a divine spark, and the associated portfolios. When you kill a god and absorb their powers, you also absorb their portfolios and responsibilities, as well as the inclination to perform them. This new god is different than the previous one, to be sure, but they are still the god of X, and must perform those duties. However, they also unknowingly drive conflict in the world, and unwittingly exert influence on the powerful to prevent significant change.

[Less concrete musings begin here]

Maybe the divine sparks are actually separate entities from the individual they reside in, and are really the ones that require worship to survive, driving new deities to do their deific jobs, and powerful mortals to be greedy and bloodthirsty.

[Musings end]

What of it, you ask? Well now I'm thinking of a campaign where the players begin as your regular adventuring party, and are being (not literally) haunted by a rival/nemesis who seems to be insane, and obsessed with killing the gods. As the campaign progresses, this nemesis keeps leaving clue and questions, making the players start to wonder about their role in the world, and why they do what they do. I'm imagining a relationship somewhat similar to the one between Batman and the Joker, one driving the other to answer hard questions about the nature of reality, and "the way things work." As the campaign drives further, the players begin to discover this rival may be on to something, and they have to start deciding what to do about it all.

Thoughts?

Tldr: Murderhobos are real, and the gods made them do it!
OR
Why D&D settings are always stuck in a pseudo-middle ages, vaguely tolkienesque times. Aside from lazy writing.

Because this is presented as a theory, I'm approaching this from an academic viewpoint. I'm finding this somewhat scattered and lacking in strong evidence. A lot of it comes across as opinion. This would then make it a weak theory.

To me, the campaign idea seems to sit at the heart of the entire article. The article flows in such a way that the ideas build up toward that campaign idea. If this is the case, then the entire article makes more sense, in that campaign setting information is being presented and developed to serve as foundation for the campaign.

The Campaign IdeaWhat of it, you ask? Well now I'm thinking of a campaign where the players begin as your regular adventuring party, and are being (not literally) haunted by a rival/nemesis who seems to be insane, and obsessed with killing the gods. As the campaign progresses, this nemesis keeps leaving clue and questions, making the players start to wonder about their role in the world, and why they do what they do. I'm imagining a relationship somewhat similar to the one between Batman and the Joker, one driving the other to answer hard questions about the nature of reality, and "the way things work." As the campaign drives further, the players begin to discover this rival may be on to something, and they have to start deciding what to do about it all.

This sounds similar to how Michael Moorcock plays around with his concepts of the Cosmic Balance and the Eternal Champion. It is reminiscent of the novels involving Elric the Sorcerer-King and his sword Stormbringer.

The Eternal Champion fights a nemesis that is attempting to recreate all of Existence according to his ideals, encounters the reality behind Existence and recognizes the importance of the Cosmic Balance, and then finds it within himself to battle both Law and Chaos so neither side truly reigns and thus the Balance is maintained.

This is a good idea for a campaign. We've run something similar on tabletop, including concepts such as alternate realities, time travel, multiple dimensions, an Ultimate Power That Governs All, and the like.

Quote:
Originally Posted by MAdgryphon View Post
Why D&D settings are always stuck in a pseudo-middle ages, vaguely tolkienesque times. Aside from lazy writing.
For me the answer to this is simple. I like the pseudo middle age feel of D&D. High fantasy, dragons, magic, monsters, etc.
That's what drew me to the genre 32 years ago when I read the aforementioned Lord of the Rings Series and was then introduced to Dragonlance and Forgotten realms. For me, I don't want to play in games that are close to real life, in age, time, or weaponry. I live in that world already and fantasy gaming is my hobby/escape from what real life is, that's the draw for me and it's really that simple and doesn't need much in depth extrapolations.

Quote:
Originally Posted by TheRoot View Post
For me the answer to this is simple. I like the pseudo middle age feel of D&D. High fantasy, dragons, magic, monsters, etc.
That's what drew me to the genre 32 years ago when I read the aforementioned Lord of the Rings Series and was then introduced to Dragonlance and Forgotten realms. For me, I don't want to play in games that are close to real life, in age, time, or weaponry. I live in that world already and fantasy gaming is my hobby/escape from what real life is, that's the draw for me and it's really that simple and doesn't need much in depth extrapolations.
For me, the question is less, why play in that sort of setting, than coming up with an explanation for why so many of them are so similar.

Honestly it's probably more a combination of #1 and #9 as presented in the article.

No, a typical D&D makes no sense - but most people don't want to be consistent with the rules... otherwise you end up with something more like the Tippyverse* than the very cliched but much-beloved swords-and-sorcery thing. D&D was designed to be like Lord of the Rings, and the mechanics sort of evolved away from that to a point where they don't suit it at all (hence Epic 6**). Plus, yeah, lazy writing.

Now, as stated, as an idea for a setting... that's pretty awesome. All high-level characters are insane? Great! I once started up a game using (a homebrew version of) UA's sanity rules and my plan was that most high-level Wizards would really struggle with insanity (the price for their overpoweredness ) and it would be a major feature of the setting that a high proportion of them would just crack and go crazy now and then. Hence, a) there wouldn't be very many of them about and b) everyone would distrust if not outright hate them, and magic would wind up being quite tightly regulated. It sounds like your setting would feature something similar (albeit with the divine angle, too).

*The Tippyverse (Google it) is, in essence, an attempt to create a setting based upon a) the rules of D&D 3.5 as written and b) logic - it doesn't really work, honestly, because the RAW don't actually make sense, but it certainly makes you think - and a realistic setting governed by anything like D&D rules (even with a liberal dose of common sense) would almost certainly look a lot more like that or like Eclipse Phase or some kind of magical John le Carre/Cyberpunk mash-up than Lord of the Rings.

**You know, Aaragon and Gandalf needn't be any more than L5, etc.

@TheFred, yeah, I'm a fan of both tippyverse and E6. This was mostly a thought experiment to try and make sense of the generic setting as written. As you note, it breaks down pretty quickly. Even the "goodest" characters around, Book of Exalted Deeds types stuff, only give to the poor when they have to, exceptional roleplayers aside. I can only recall a handful of times that good characters did something selfless and good unrelated to fighting evil or completing a quest. So, I wanted to know why that was, in universe. Out of game, it's because players do things they either enjoy, or are incentivised to do. And while I try to remember to reward them for things other than combat, it's really hard.

I don't agree with some of your assumptions, but let's engage with the premise and make a campaign pitch.

I dislike meta, so contextualize it. I think you don't start as adventurers -- you start as goblins or Kobolds or some other nothing monster. The game begins just after a party of adventurers have blown through your settlement, killing everyone else you know. As the party ventures forth and struggles to survive, it eventually comes to light that this whole world exists to let certain races -- Humans, Dwarves, Elves, Halflings -- get more powerful and eventually (around lvl 20) ascend to the heavens and become divine champions and go do other things for the powers that be. Your races were only ever intended to be a speed bump on this journey, and no matter how powerful you become there is no afterlife or celebration for you and your kind,. Only death and torture for the purpose of the gods.

Do you accept your place as a cosmic plaything? Or do you rage against heaven and by resisting, o'ercome it?

Quote:
Originally Posted by RedRajah View Post
Kinda like the motivation of the Dark One in Order of the Stick?
I don't know if this would explicitly end with "Monster Pantheon gets to help build the next world." I was picturing more of a general titanomachy.

Instead of medieval, most D&D settings should probably be most like the Burnt World of Darksun: surface of the entire planet ravaged by magical apocalypse, wildlife completely alien, sorcerer-kings and queens divide whatever civilizations survive among themselves and rule as absolute tyrants.







 

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