I’ve been thinking lately about the promise of D&D. By that I mean I’ve been thinking about its ‘product promise’ or ‘brand promise’ or whatever the latest buzzword for the concept is — that any product carries with it a promise to its consumer: Consume me, and… some certain thing will happen.
It’s a little weird to apply this to something like entertainment and RPGs, but I think it relates to what theme (or Premise, if we want to drag Egri into this, and of course we do) will be expressed. For example, I might offer that the promise of the romance novel is that true love will prevail over all obstacles. Can this be applied to D&D? Let’s see…
Let it be resolved that: The promise of D&D is that all the important problems in life can be solved with violence.
That’s sort of a big bold statement, so let me carry on with immediately backtracking and clarifying.
Look, if your own personal D&D game involves 90% of the time spent talking to people, or peacefully marching through the wilderness, or otherwise not sticking sharp pieces of metal into squishy bags of meat, that’s just fine. I’m not trying to tell you you’re playing D&D all wrong or missing the point or anything like that.
I might suggest that D&D, as a system, doesn’t offer as much support as several other systems for problem-solving methods beyond the immediate application of stabbing. But you probably already knew that, so let’s move on.
And if you solved a couple of your big important D&D problems without resorting to violence, out of dozens, that’s fine too. I don’t believe D&D promises that you must solve all your important problems with violence — merely that you could, if you felt like it, which you probably will.
So let us proceed with assuming, at least for the moment, that I might just be on to something here. Does it tell us anything useful? I think it might.
The Pacifist Character: What happens when someone wants to play a D&D character who isn’t really all that motivated, or perhaps even capable, of applying violence to their problems? I would suggest to you that there is an inherent, mostly intractable problem with this, and it’s never really going to work out all that well. About the closest to success we can get is the pacifist healer, who spends all his time ensuring that his violent friends can continue applying violence to others without suffering too greatly from the violence being applied to them. Which, yes, is some brand of pacifism, in theory, but it does look quite a bit like violence-by-proxy.
The Economic Campaign: It’s possible to set up the party as merchants, almost always some brand of importing, exporting, or otherwise transporting merchandise, disregarding monsters and acquiring wealth. How likely is this sort of campaign to flourish? If there’s lots of violence involved, the odds are good; if there’s not, the odds are not good.
The Political, Diplomatic, Chatty Campaign: A campaign can start with, or eventually evolve into, a series of peaceful conversations between the player characters and everyone else. These can flourish particularly well if the experience affirms Carl von Clausewitz’s adage (and its reverse) that “War is the continuation of politics by other means”; but they often struggle otherwise.
The Natural Alignment of the D&D Character: Every once in a while someone smart asserts that most D&D characters drift towards evil, or it’s easier to run a campaign for evil characters, or something of that sort. I’ve never quite agreed with them, but I’ve never quite been able to entirely dismiss the notion either.
I think what we’re getting at here is a relatively profound statement about the human condition: people who believe that violence solves their problems are, to some degree and definition, evil; the more problems they think violence will solve, the more evil they are.
Please note that I’m not trying to assert that all or most or many D&D players — the real-life human beings — are, in fact, evil, or even have evil tendencies. The allure of the dream, to pretend to be in a world where the good guys can solve all their problems with violence, stems precisely from the moral unwillingness to pursue that approach out in the real world. And it’s a powerful dream — I would suggest there’s lots and lots of examples in every sort of media which offer up this same basic promise.
This is a considerably more controversial statement to make about humanity than just some theory about an RPG, so I think I’ll just leave it here as an object to contemplate upon.
I now really want to tackle other RPGs and figure out what their Promises are, but I think this is a good start.