This is both a general response this sentiment and a direct response to some assholes about what DnD should & shouldn’t do, can & can’t do, and a potentially a whole slew of other contentious issues in the RPG hobby, community, and industry.
To begin, I am not against what are called narrative tools or the use of narrative language, discussions about how to construct games and sessions to foster certain kinds of stories or basically all the things that some folks derisively call “storygame shit.”
I’m not against them in DnD and OSR games.
I am not against them period.
What I am is against the declarative statements of what DnD should be doing, and should be including. I will dig through all the ways DnD already explicitly does many of these shoulds.
I also do not play 5e DnD. The last edition of I played was 3.5. So I don’t have a “working knowledge” of the most current edition, which to be as germane as possible is the one I will be using; I do happen have the books so I will try to minimize the amount of talking out my own asshole by pulling out passages from the core rules, which also to be germane to this topic I am restricting myself to.
Here are couple of direct quotes of why I am responding to:
D&D is clearly a combat focused game, where combat and violence shape the narrative naturally by its very inclusion and focus in the books, inarguably that's a narrative shaping going on there, but D&D raw doesn't tell a GM *how* to use that violence to tell a story besides its broad themes of Kill Stuff Good. It doesn't educate a player on how to build drama into their characters, it doesn't explain what kind of plot beats go best with which kind of monsters, dungeons and traps (tho some editions and third party content def. have spent some time on this).
This is the prime focus as I see it. That DnD doesn’t do something that they see it needing to do. They want or think that DnD should be teaching the players (and I always include the GM/DM/Referee etc under this umbrella) that these are things they need to do. Which first means, that DnD needs to teach the players what these things are. And to do so explicitly rather than implicitly. I would say clearly DnD needs this else there wouldn’t be essays and books on applying these concepts to DnD and RPGs broadly. But maybe that’s not clear. I will say that such topics aren’t appropriate for the core rules of an RPG because we have multiple assumptions going on here. What I see as the biggest assumption is new players picking up of the newest edition of D&D need ALL of these tools. They are new to the game, with the further assumption they are new to RPGs period. The books need to explain what an RPG is, what the dice do, the language of D&D, and the rules of the game. That’s just how to play. Still need monsters, because this is D&D. To reiterate. This is D&D. It is its own genre of fantasy and RPG, and has been forever. Still needs advice on how to GM the game as a game, and how to design adventures and monsters. Because this is a game.
It tells you how big a dragon is, how much health it has, how much damage it does and how to kill one, but very rarely does it give examples of what a dragon can *mean*. It's missing a very important element of passing down these storytelling tools - the education in their proper usage.
So part of this is the “DnD is about combat because that’s where it’s rules are” discussion that will never die. To short, DnD is about combat. But it’s also not about combat. It’s more about about combat. Even as the editions have put more and more emphasis on the granularity and mechanics of the combat portion of DnD, the culture of DnD as I’ve seen it for decades, especially now on Tumblr and Twitter, is about the stories that happen around or because of combat. Also, this whole “be gay tieflings and do crimes” (as a combination of multiple and congruent sentiments I see expressed in a certain segment of the player base) is a thing. But because DnD is about about combat that's where a lot of page space is used.
It’s a game. A game ostensibly about dungeons and dragons. A game “about storytelling in worlds of swords and sorcery” (PHB 6). Which is an interesting statement in light of where rpgs as a hobby has shifted over the years. Storytelling is a loaded term for the entrenched hobbyist. But is it for new players?
So, do we as fresh players need to know what a dragon can mean? i.e. dragon as metaphor. I’ll say no. This is not the same as saying that this isn’t a question to answer, but I’d like to first assume that folks picking up DnD already have some ideas, second that they can think for themselves, third that it is much more interesting if groups create their own meanings, and fourth, this is from the 5e Monster Manual:
Creatures of Ego. Chromatic dragons are united by
their sense of superiority, believing themselves the most
powerful and worthy of all mortal creatures. When they
interact with other creatures, it is only to further their
own interests. They believe in their innate right to rule,
and this belief is the cornerstone of every chromatic
dragon's personality and worldview. Trying to humble
a chromatic dragon is like trying to convince the wind
to stop blowing. To these creatures, humanoids are
animals, fit to serve as prey or beasts of burden, and
wholly unworthy of respect.
This is only a single paragraph on the half page on chromatic dragons in general. Each dragon type has its own half page of flavor text that tells you what that dragon is about. This is not including their lair actions and regional effects sections which also show what these dragons specifically are about. Aside from saying green dragons “take special pleasure in subverting and corrupting the good-hearted” (pg95) what more could you want regarding what a dragon can mean? That green dragons present the sweet corrupting influence of the untamed forest?
Either this person is unaware of what DnD actually contains, which is possible, or finds even all of that to be insufficient and wants the books that should be for teaching and reference the game of DnD to also be a creative writing text book. A more uncharitable reading would be that they are deliberately obfuscating the content of DnD to highlight the virtues of their own indie storygame.
Continuing on. And I will avoid addressing the aggressive misreading and attacks directed at me by some storygamers.
especially given the increasing popularity of story-focused d&d actual play, i think a LOT of gamers are picking up d&d specifically to tell those kinds of stories - and many that i've talked to find themselves disappointed that they can't sit down and just have a critical role or an adventure zone or whatever just Happen, and talked to GMs who feel an immense pressure to build those stories lest they get lambasted as a bad GM despite not having the tools in the book to do that. i think its reasonable for games about playing roles of characters to have conversations about how better to give players the tools to tell the kinds of stories they want to tell?
This is a very good point. Especially because of Critical Role and The Adventure Zone being extremely popular Actual Plays centered around 5e DnD and evidently being the cause for a massive influx of new players (which is a good fucking thing). But let’s look into the 5e books and see what we can find regarding whether or not GMs have the tools to in the books to do what Mercer or McElroy have done. Hint those are skills acquired through years of playing DnD and being a voice actor in the case of Mercer and I don’t even known what exactly all the McElroys do something involving a million podcasts and being entertainers. It should suffice to say that these folks have developed skills over years if not decades, and that is what is being witness by their audiences. Any dissatisfaction or disappointment on how the first sessions go isn’t going to be a correctable with a text book on creative writing or theater or whatever. Have you ever read folks first works of any kind of creative writing, fiction, non-fiction, poetry? They are all “bad” and have multitudes of flaws because they are beginners. No book is going to magically provide players with the skills to apply what they have.
Now, let’s dive in the 5e DMG to see what good old WotC has given the new players to work with. I will jump straight to Appendix D: Dungeon Master Inspiration (pg 316) which has several book listed on the subject of creative writing and storytelling. This along with Appendix E: Inspirational Reading (PHB 312), with its large list of fictional works to read (the DMG also has a fair amount of fiction listed) should for the new player offer a bounty of different books the both put the game in a context but also provide insight to the implied deeper meanings, if any are actually needed, of things like dragons.
While I believe this is alone sufficient to begin playing DnD with an eye towards emulating what they see in CR or TAZ, which are also resources in this, I’ll acknowledge the desire to have these tools in the core rules.
In fact, I will argue that the didactic relay of how to construct meaning, insert drama etc will strangle creativity by creating a list of shoulds because it has. There are still tales of woe involving GMs attempting to fit their games to narrative constructs. Because first of all DnD is a fucking game. It doesn’t need to construct, as someone has written “DEEP MEANING,” because the most important meaning is that of folks getting together to have fun.