On the Adverserial dynamic enforced by D&D

Okie dokie, apparently this morning will be taken up by writing a essay-thread-thing on the dungeons and the dragons. I decide to wake up and jump right into riling up that there D&D community. 

I want to talk a little bit about why, rooted in D&D mechanics, I feel the above is true despite lots of people arguing to the contrary.

D&D is mechanically and deeply rooted in an adversarial role between DM and Player. (oooh… you thought I was gonna say racism? Colonialism? Ableism? Classism? All true, but not what we are here to talk about today.)

Lets cut right into the front of the 932,553 reply guys i’m gonna get saying “You can play D&D however you want! So it doesn’t matter!” I will get them if they, somehow, haven’t already been blocked for using that argument in threads where people are attempting to de-colonize D&D or make it anti-racist, or advocate for safety tools. If you are here to say that as some sort of gotcha, you are in good company of the above.

Yes you can play any RPG “any way you want” but at some point, some point very early on it stops being that game when you make house rules or make too many rule deviations. I’m not saying that doing either of those things are wrong, but it’s important to know that if you change fundamental rules of a game, you are no longer playing that game. Any attempts at discussion of a game while using examples of a house-rule or rule-deviation is clearly done in bad faith. Its the same thing as coming into a book club to discuss the book and supporting your arguments by pulling from Fan Fiction. There is a time to discuss house rules and rule deviations, just like there is a time to discuss fan fiction, but now is not that time.

This adversarial role is layers and reinforced by several layers of mechanics which frame and encourage this dynamic. The first is established and deliberate power imbalance.

It’s nothing new, “The DM is God and can do anything they want” is a historic thing as old as the franchise itself, and while this seems normal enough that no one ever questions, it is the first layer of that dynamic, reinforced strongly by the rules. Anywhere the “you can do whatever you want” rules and guidance from D&D comes into play, it comes with the very specific caveat that the book is addressing the DM, not the players.

Page 6 of the Player’s Handbook says “you should check with your DM about any house rules that will affect your play of the game. Ultimately, the Dungeon Master is the authority on the campaign and its setting, even if the setting is a published world.”

Page 4 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide says “And as a referee, the DM interprets the rules and decides when to abide by them and when to change them.”

Page 4 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, again, says “The D&D rules help you and the other players have a good time, but the rules aren’t in charge. You’re the DM, and you are in charge of the game.”

We can keep going, I’m not going to look through each and every book for every single instance where it reinforces this, but it’s there.

In fairness, page 4 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide does follow these up with the caveat “That said, your goal isn’t to slaughter the adventurers.”

Well of course not, that’s not fun, you must be a sporting god.

So yes, technically all your screaming about how you can play anyway you want is directed at best ¼ to ⅙ of the table. Maybe if the DM is nice, they’ll let you have some input on this situation, but that is purely if they are feeling benevolent. A player having any input on how rules or judgements are determined are purely a house-rule that is not supported by the game.

I will take a quick hop skip and jump to point out that a significant portion of abuse that is found in the community is assisted and reinforced by this directive, I’d say (purely anecdotally) that more than half the abuse i see referenced in the community is facilitated by the enforced notion that the DM has the ultimate power within the game.

Now that we all understand the Power Imbalance of the situation, let’s look at the mechanical effects in the situation.

A well designed game will focus on a goal, that goal will likely be meta in nature, it will push you to play in a certain way or to tell a specific story, it may just tell you this, but what’s better is it will reinforce that choice and decision with mechanics that affect the game in important ways to further that goal, it will reward behavior that furthers the story it’s meant to tell. D&D is a combat simulator, it pretends to be other things, but in its roots and its core it’s a combat simulator, 4E was D&D at its purest and best form, because it unashamedly owned what it was. 

Despite selling itself as a game where it is a “three pillar” system, where the game can be anything from combat to social to puzzle games, most of these things are just words. In the end the mechanics of the game still reveal it to be only one thing. A combat simulator. Because of this, the only consequence that is reinforced is hit points, the only outcome that really matters is death. Everything else is fleeting and immaterial mechanically, and we can argue whether death even matters because of easy access to resurrection magics. 

Your game might have other consequences, maybe Uthar the Great is heartbroken because Orlak the Doombringer didn’t feel the same way about him, maybe someone is worried for their family, there are a myriad social and story-based consequences that can come from a game, but those are not D&D, those are something you have added to D&D and those are consequences that can be created with any game or system or none at all. Because those games don’t have any system-based ways to enforce or reinforce those, ymmv.

This isn’t a post calling out or shaming people for the different ways to enjoy a game, I know people that love playing combat, and many of those people have no interest in connecting with the game on a narrative or story level. I know people that don’t particularly care for combat but love the narrative and story-aspects of the game. If you take all of these people throw them together where they are both playing D&D, they will share one aspect of the game, that is the game, the rest is just additives. Play the game you want, unashamedly, play the game you like, how you like, but don’t try to argue that it’s something else.

The mechanical focus of the game is avoiding 0 Hit Points, avoiding dying, in the end, it’s one of the only real consequences of the game. The only other real consequence in the game is the complete removal of player agency, D&D sure does love mind control, and 99% of the time, the mind control is asserted with zero consent or consideration of the player. 

Even if you are, personally, concerned about social or story-based repercussions, chances are good that ye olde 0 HP is still your number one fear in the game. The only real threat to the character is death, which means even the best intentioned encounter designed to challenge the players is designed to do only one thing, kill them, even if you hope they don’t die, that is still the goal of the encounter, because to challenge a player there must be consequences, and in a game where the only real consequence is death, well you do the math.

So you have the rules telling the DM that they are absolute authority to do anything in the game, the hierarchy of who has a say in the game is:

  1. The Dungeon Master
  2. The Books
  3. the players… i guess… maybe…

You have mechanics that really only provide and enforce one type of storytelling, the race to 0 HP.

Finally, third, you have the unofficial force that maintains this dynamic and that is the community culture itself, which fully and completely welcomes the “DM is God” mentality which is, as previously mentioned, often used to assist in abuse and harassment of people in the community (especially marginalized folks). The community that supports and encourages this dynamic keeps it prominent and may not even realize that it is adversarial because they think rooting for their players means that they’re not being adversarial.

When you are rolling dice, hidden behind a screen for no reason, you are not weaving some intricate story, you are not looking at interesting ways to engage with them or the story, you are simply making them consider and wonder in which way you are going to try and take their HP away, drive them closer to death, especially since almost any time dice are scary it is when those dice will be used to eventually reduce your HP, or maybe remove your player agency.

That makes rolling dice unbidden “to increase drama” an adversarial act. 

Now here is the kicker, when I posted that tweet above, I got a ton of people decrying that they do that and aren’t adversarial with their players, and I’m gonna throw back, you are… but so what? Here’s the thing, I decided I didn’t want to be adversarial with my players, I decided I didn’t like the way a game feels when I play that way, hell I don’t even particularly care for combat in games anymore. But the way I decided I wanted to play, is not better than the way you enjoy playing. If you and everyone at your table enjoys an adversarial dynamic at the table, fucking play on and have a ton of fun, but its important you consider that, because its something you should be up front of so people know what they are getting into if they are joining your game.

And just something to consider if you’d like to think about “pointless dice rolling for suspense” is something you do, this doesn’t mean you have to or even should change, it’s just maybe something to consider:

Afterthought: The above paragraph is not meant to indicate that a non-adversarial game is the default, and someone should be up front about that part of their play style if they are adversarial. I think that someone should be very up front in recruitment and/or session 0 about what they intend to get from the game and the type of games they like to play, whether that game be character focused, Role play heavy, combat-focused, adversarial, supporting player agency, and any of a million other options. Just communicate what you are all looking for.

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