LEGACY SOCIAL MECHANICS AND CONTEMPORARY DUNGEONS & DRAGONS
Alignment x Reaction x Asymmetry x Faction PDF
This summer I wrote a series of threads about the ways that certain legacy rules, often disfavored in Contemporary Traditional rulesets like Dungeons & Dragons' 5th Edition work to mitigate tendencies towards racial essentialism (the idea that a people is defined by a specific character - laziness, rigid adherence to duty, inscrutable cunning, religiosity etc) and colonial fantasy (fantasy that replicates and uncritically includes elements of colonialism) within the game. The issues are concerning for many players who are put off by the Good v. Evil and the assumption that the goal of Dungeons & Dragons adventures is the slaughter of various humanoid "races" such as Orcs. Colonialist and even genocidal themes are certainly present in early editions of the game, and Gygax himself spoke in support of the idea that humanoids in Dungeons & Dragons could be understood as a metaphor indigenous people and that the proper form of play was to massacre them in the manner of colonial conquest.
This is obviously not something that most people want to emulate or bring into their games, and it comes up in the context of modern Dungeons & Dragons because despite overt gestures towards a more inclusive game, Wizard's of the Cost continues to use humanoids that are sometimes described in terms that echo colonialist stereotypes of non-white peoples. This oversight is compounded by the way that 5th edition elevates combat as a solution to most obstacles, humanoid 'monsters' included, and designates most many 'races' of humanoids as wholly, irredeemably, cosmically evil.
I see and acknowledge these trends in various of Dungeons & Dragons, along with the distasteful beliefs of Gygax and many other early creators, but I I don't believe that a game of Dungeons & Dragons must be a colonial or exterminationist fantasy. From long play it seems to me that many of the solutions to these issues are found within the older rules in the places that they step away from simple, linear, heroic narratives and towards interrogating the morality of Fantasy adventure by offering the players themselves choices. The mechanics to do this existed in early Dungeons & Dragons, the way the game offers players the chance to take stances and imagine actions at odds with their own morality - to weigh what evil looks like and contemplate how expedience can lead to wrongdoing, even within the simple structures of fantasy adventure gaming, is one of the types of play unique to and attractive about playing RPGs.
These mechanics are: Reaction Rolls/Morale, Asymmetrical Encounters and Faction Intrigue.
Beyond any desire not to include disturbing, uncritical echos of colonial history and subjugation in ones game, or even for hobbyists who reject this argument (please still consider it and remember that you might not see what isn't a threat to you)these mechanics are fun and support a specific play experience. They encourage more complex roleplay, player planning and non-combat solutions to obstacles. With these chnages classic social mechanics and design principles make for a better open world games, and generally promote player engagement with the setting because role play and negotiation themselves become paths to mechanical success, combat becomes more risky and 'fluff' or 'lore' become useful for understanding NPC/Monster motivations and goals.
Recently, Wizard's of the Coast seems to have adopted some of these principles - emphasizing, if not providing mechanics for, parleying with monsters in Tasha's Cauldron of Everything and giving various humanoid factions goals and values beyond "Be Evil" in Rime of the Frostmaiden. Morale rules (complex and and a bit of an afterthought) have always existed in 5th Edition's Dungeon Master's Guide but they are rarely if ever mentioned. These are positive signs, both that Wizard's is taking concerns about representation and themes in its game seriously and that the company open to play styles beyond linear story arcs in support of tactical combat.
I've attached a PDF of my thoughts on these legacy social mechanics: how they work, what they accomplish and how they can be implemented.
Alignment x Reaction x Asymmetry x Faction
Thanks to Warren D. of I Cast Light for the compilation and editing of these threads.