2022-10-10

Because-Dragons Is a Bad Argument

Dragon holding scales of justice
Is this a hot take?

In the D&D discourse, you'll see a common piece of rhetoric, and it goes like this. DM Alice says, "I don't want to allow X in my games; I think it's unreasonable". And DM Bob calls out Alice like this:

Alice says that she doesn't permit X in her games. But Alice accepts Dragons in her game! So that doesn't make any sense!

I call this the "because-dragons" argument. The next most common variant of this argument is, of course, "because-fireballs".

Here's the thing: The space where this argument usually plays out is in the field of features that a player character can opt to start out with. And, to put it briefly, there's lots of stuff in my fantasy world that I would not want players to have on their side at first level.

I'm not even essentially talking about power issues (although that can be a big factor). I'm talking about the background texture of the milieu where player-characters come from. The classic D&D that I fell in love with -- like the pulp fantasy and horror that inspired it -- is well-described by something like Joseph Campbell's theory of the hero's journey

The Hero's Journey

Note that there's a key separation in the structure between the "Known" world -- the place the hero starts at -- and the "Unknown" world -- the challenging region they travel into, before returning to their initial home.

Whether you're playing this as modern mythology, fable-making, or horror (especially that: and recall that HPL is foremost among the Appendix N authors), the most compelling dynamic is that of player characters coming from a (mostly) completely mundane place, and adventuring into a space of unimaginable terrors. By having the "Known" world rooted in reality, we get to comment on things that might be connected to our own world. We get to explore transformations that may reflect possibilities for the players themselves. We can practice how a normal-person can best respond to scary challenges or setbacks. We can use the liminal space between normal and abnormal to test the boundaries of what it means to be people like us. And casual players can more easily interface with how our games start and begin playing with us, too. 

There's a pulp-fantasy gesture I'm very fond of in which the narrator, the normal-human population, and even the protagonists themselves, are essentially skeptical, and disbelieve that supernatural events are occurring around them. There's a nifty play there about whether that fantastic stuff is even real (and of course: it simultaneously is, in the fiction, and it is not, in the real world). The real magic is indeed "Unknown", maybe constitutionally incomprehensible, to the normal-folk from which PCs originate.

Simply put -- Dragons don't belong in the starting "Known" part of the story. This model of the monomyth only makes sense if they are cordoned off in the "Unknown" part of the world. Same goes for Fireballs. And a whole lot of other stuff in the game. The hero does not get to start with that stuff. It would dismantle the meaning of their hero's journey if they did.

I mean, obviously you can play a totally "wahoo" anything-goes-out-of-the-box game if you want. But that's not where the game originates, it's at odds with the most compelling model of the monomyth, and it's simply not for all (or I'd argue most) players.

So it's not inherently incoherent to say there's a "Known" world of mundane things where PCs are born, and an "Unknown" world of fantastic magic and terrors which is separate from that. In fact, it's arguably the strongest structure for fantastic storytelling.

And therefore the "because-dragons" argument (particularly in terms of the what-can-PCs-start-with-in-my-game question) is an epic failure.

(See also H.G. Wells: Nothing remains interesting if anything can happen.)

Thumbnail image courtesy of Craiyon.

10 comments:

  1. In Star Wars it's the "space wizards" argument.

    I read a C.S. Lewis article recently (might have been "on Stories" but it's definitely in that collection) where he argued against the idea that fairy tale logic is arbitrary just because it's not reasonable to our standards. If you switch out Sleeping Beauty's spinning wheel for a sword or a pin or any other sharp object it changes the story in a fairly radical way. I think it's fair to say the same of fantasy games.

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  2. I couldn't agree more, and this is why I've never been interested in any of the official D&D settings.

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  3. It would be like in Lord of the Rings if the Gaffer was a retired adventurer who had snuck into the treasure vaults if Barad-Dur, lived to tell the tale, and retired to the Shire.

    "Why sure, Gandalf old buddy, I'd be happy to take Frodo to Mordo. I'll stop at Rivendell, Elrond owes me 20 gold pieces. We'll go by Moria and deal with that balrog, too..."

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    1. Yes, Lord of the Rings would have been so different if there had been an older, experienced adventurer hobbit who maybe found a magic ring before sneaking into and stealing treasure from a dragon's lair...Oh wait!

      I kid, of course. If there had been more adventurous hobbits than Bilbo, it really would have changed the nature of the Shire. No argument there.

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  4. I've never seen this argument in the context you seem to be describing. The "because fireballs" argument that I'm accustomed to seeing is in response to people who rail against feats/maneuvers for fighters or anything else they see as "unrealistic" for the martial characters. The argument boils down to this: if a 5th level mage can throw a fireball, shouldn't a 5th level fighter be able to do something similarly impressive? This can, of course, be extended back to 1st level with a sleep spell instead of a fireball, or to higher levels with even more impressive powers.

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    1. I recently saw the "because-dragons" argument in a YouTube video interpreting alignment languages as magical powers that all aligned PCs have. You're right of course that the arguing-against-class-asymmetry is a bit of a perennial head-scratcher. :-)

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    2. In that context, I would say it's a reductive argument for a legitimate point. I think that a special form of communication or other "neat trick" is actually very typical of heroes in myth and folklore. Being able to speak to animals is a very common ability among folklore archetypes. Modern pop cultural versions have also adapted it, as seen by Bilbo talking to the thrush or Luke being able to understand R2-D2. Alignment language might be a bit too broad and sweeping as written in OD&D, but the basic concept doesn't seem to me to interfere at all with having a satisfying narrative.

      A whole separate discussion would be that there are plenty of satisfying stories that don't follow a "hero's journey" type of template. To a man, the Greek heroes were simply born-and-bred badasses, though some of them had to be told or otherwise discover it later in life if they were abandoned at birth for whatever reason. At the even more extreme end, Gilgamesh is two-thirds god, and Enkidu is specifically created by the gods to challenge him. Or on the lower end, Beowulf is introduced as a great warrior who is confident in his own ability to destroy the monster plaguing Hrothgar's hall. For modern examples, anything with James Bond or Jason Bourne follows the same kind of trajectory.

      Personally, I enjoy both types of stories - in gaming as well as in non-interactive fiction.

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