Thinking back it seems almost stupid that I hadn’t realized this previously…
That and the title are probably hyperbole. My memory isn’t what it used to be, so I might very well have had this epiphany before and just forgotten it, or I’ve even written about this, but in a different context or approaching it differently. He goes anyhow.
I was watching this CardMarket – Magic video:
It’s a game of Commander with Universes Beyond decks (if I remember correctly, D&D was specifically not part of Universes Beyond, but is also canonically outside of the Magic universe – Universes Beyond being various IPs being used to produce cards and sets for Magic). In the game, we have Warhammer 40000 versus Doctor Who versus Lord of the Rings versus Dungeons and Dragons.
Now, I’m not a big fan of any of these, but then again, I tend not to stan IPs anyhow. I’m more into people or as I wrote in a recent author’s bio “[..] always prefers to side with the humans”. Still, my enjoyment of art or media is generally based on the themes and whether I can identify with them.
My experiences with Doctor Who is from the Eccleston era to the Capaldi era (I did want to watch the Whitaker era, but as far as I know it’s no longer available on Finnish Netflix, so I couldn’t), so my views are based on this timeframe. There are clear themes here: While he might not always be right, The Doctor always strives to do the right thing. He often meets people, who have made mistakes in life and are looking to fix them, which mirrors The Doctor’s own past. The Doctor also always looks to let make people make choices about their own lives, which often puts him into an anti-authoritarian position.
The writing process for Lord of the Rings might have started before WWII, but the books weren’t released until mid-1950s. While Tolkien denies it, it seems very obvious that the war affected his work, but I also think that’s simplistic. This was a man, who had been at Somme in The Great War. The books are about this cyclical nature of the world: The Good always need to be ready to fight the Evil, as the Evil will never be completely destroyed. Other themes include the effects of rapid industrialization on nature and cooperation between disparate groups to reach a higher end.
Of these IPs, I’m the least aware of WH40K, but even with only a surface level understanding of the game and the world, I can tell that it’s about the corrupting effects of power. At the same time, it is also clearly a take on Fascism. The world is also in a state of a perpetual war, which is in itself something some fascistic states strive to do. Like the Nazis were building a society, in which the women were tasked with raising a new generation of soldiers, who would go on to take over more and more land in order to gain more and more resources to build more and more tools for war.
In each of these cases, these are just the most obvious ones (to me) and there’s plenty of others to talk to.
So, what is D&D about?
Nothing. Yes, you can argue that it is about the most banal of all themes: good versus evil, but that’s not true. It handles good and evil almost like two political parties and despite the names for these alignments, the system is largely very neutral about them or very simplistic, as if there ever could be a spell or magical ability to tell who is evil as if there was some kind of a scale. Also, murderhobo memes haven’t come from nowhere.
Yes, you can argue that it’s about exploration, but if that’s so, it fails massively against other RPGs. Other RPGs actually support this by allowing players to take more control, so that there is actually something to explore.
Yes, you can argue that a roleplaying game doesn’t need to be about anything and that the DM and the players will build their own meanings. After all, any meaning behind those previous pieces of media is just a construct in my mind anyhow, right? They don’t have inherent meaning. Any kind of meaning is just something I or someone else came up with.
But at the same time, D&D comes from a very different place. It’s- from just some guy, who wanted to have named character in his wargame. The game reflects this. While it may have ambitions about being a “roleplaying game”, it’s just a tactical simulation. I don’t mind those, but if they try to claim to be something more and aren’t I’m not going to like it. Also, when I do want tactical simulation, I would rather have an opponent, who is roughly on the same level as I am (or little bit higher, preferably, or have multiple opponents) instead of someone purposefully designing the situation in a way that I should be able to come out on top.
And the lack of theme isn’t a function of being a roleplaying game. Many other games have managed it. Take Blades in the Dark. There are definite themes embedded into the system. The line of work the characters are in causes them stress and if they put themselves through too much of it, they will be inflicted by trauma, which will affect their behavior. Fiasco is about the unpredictability of human behavior. It encourages players to mess theirs and their compatriots lives up in whatever situation they are in.
Then there’s games like Dungeon World, which doesn’t really have a theme (outside of the exploration, which it does much better than D&D), but it does actually encourage roleplay, which in turn encourages character development. Not advancement. Development. The way it should happen in fiction to make characters more interesting.
D&D just… fails. It’s a game for people, who are afraid to put themselves out there. It’s a game that has failed to grow in a meaningful way with the larger culture of roleplaying games.