Postmodernism in Dungeons & Dragons
Recently, Megan posted an article about how to reconsider evil characters the same day a video with Nate, Scott, and Kyle talking about whether the alignment system was still viable was uploaded. Along with a conversation I had with the Nerdarchy staff writers about postmodernism, I was inspired to write an article about applying postmodern principles into Dungeons & Dragons.
As a quick warning, I’m going to have to talk about a lot of philosophy, literary theory, and political science, but I promise I’ll always bring it back to Dungeons & Dragons.
Also note that I’m condensing a lot of history and philosophy into the tiniest space. A lot of larger context is necessary to fully understand everything. Entire academic careers are built on even more specific arenas than what I’m going over here. Please don’t think this is the definitive source of information. It’s not. It’s barely scratching the surface. I’m doing my best to fit in as much relative information as possible, but please be aware there’s a lot more than this.
The Grand Narrative
The Grand Narrative, otherwise known as the Metanarrative, is a concept that essentially started with postmodern philosopher, Jean-François Lyotard. All of history, culture, and knowledge are parts of the metanarrative that are controlled by the hegemony. What is and isn’t, is dictated by those who are in power, who are usually political and religious leaders.
The reason why I started at the end is because the metanarrative is the driving force behind everything. It’s a fundamental element of everything, because the metanarrative is what defines societal norms. This isn’t limited to any one era, because if there are people communicating, then there’s rhetoric. If there’s rhetoric, that means there’s a narrative. All narratives compete with each other until one prevails, which becomes the metanarrative. Even postmodernism is in itself a metanarrative, albeit a decentralized one dictated by critics and philosophers, but if there’s a name for it, then it comes with a narrative.
Dungeons & Dragons is a codified and mechanically engineered metanarrative. Every element, especially the alignment system, is designed to convey a specific set of norms and narratives. Dwarves are this way, Elves are that way, Humans are the dominant race, etc. Good is like this and evil is like that. Paladins work this way and rogues work that way. Even if you homebrew a game and dictate different dynamics, you’re still creating a metanarrative. The difference between Dungeons & Dragons and the real world is the level of absolute control.
A Historical Root of Modernism
The Modern Era
The Modern Era began approximately around the European Renaissance, with the notable events of the rise of capitalism and the Reformation. These two things, in my opinion, are the most significant triggers of the modern era, because they did something important: it gave rise to the middle class and empowered them with economic mobility. Secondly, the invention of the printing press created an unprecedented spread of information, and with it, knowledge, bringing about the Age of Enlightenment. The American and French revolutions, along with the Industrial Revolution, brought about disruptions in power and political dynamics which led the way into the late modern era.
Romanticism came out in the late modern era, preferring Middle Ages sensibilities over the Classic Era ones preferred during the Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment. It was partially a reaction to the sensibilities of the Industrial Revolution, embracing nature and beauty with works like the works of Jane Austen, Frankenstein, Moby Dick, and medieval folklore, while rejecting urban sprawl, the abandonment of religion, and scientific abuse.
J.R.R. Tolkien was heavily influenced by romanticism. He wanted to see more English mythology, which he felt was lacking, especially in comparison to Norse and Celtic mythology. He did what was is often considered the definitive translations of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the former of which heavily influenced The Hobbit.
Dungeons & Dragons is heavily influenced by romanticism and the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, the later of which Gary Gygax eventually admitted was a significant influence. Elves and Dwarves of the Middle Ages are significantly different than those of the Romantic Era, especially those re-imagined by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Modernism, like romanticism, sought to reject enlightenment thinking. Unlike romanticism, however, modernism largely rejected religion, and it was aware that it needed to adapt to the new industrial society. Modernism rejected Realism, which was itself a counter-posing movement against romanticism. Aware of literary and social traditions, modernism sought to reprise, revise, and parody through the works of the past.
It also sought to improve society and culture through a re-examination of every facet of life. ‘Modernists of the postwar generation felt that they were the most important bulwark against totalitarianism, the ‘canary in the coal mine,’ whose repression by a government or other group with supposed authority represented a warning that individual liberties were being threatened.”
Literary Modernism broke with the mainstream culture, experimenting with unreliable narrators and irrationality. They were heavily influenced by thinkers like Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was a scathing attack on colonialism in Africa and a fictionalized account of the very real atrocities committed there.
Following World War I, modernists began to question the rationality of humanity. J.R.R. Tolkien didn’t come out of the war unscathed, with combat throughout The Lord of the Rings mostly relegated to relatively less detail, especially when compared to other events of the novels. It took Frodo four chapters to leave the Shire and two for Tom Bombadil (who didn’t even make it into the movies), but the Battle of Helm’s Deep was one chapter, and little of that covered the actual combat.
Modernism in Dungeons & Dragons
Dungeons & Dragons owes a lot of its roots to literary modernism. Perhaps as much as romanticism. While the connections with romanticism are obvious, there is significant influence from modernism.
First off, there is a significant break from religion, or at least a break from traditional religions. Dungeons & Dragons allows for, and even encourages, all sorts of deities and pantheons. It puts all religions, including homebrew ones, on the same level. It does concede the significance, and perhaps the importance, of religion, making it an essential element of the game. If, as Nietzsche argues, we killed God, that doesn’t mean that religion went with it. In fact, the gods are very real, very tangible, and can set foot on the prime material plane.
Another significant element is the way it manifests creatures. Evil is snarling and ugly. It’s dark and festering. Good is beautiful and illuminating. Except that’s not always the case. Good and bad can be lawful or chaotic. The fey wild is home to creatures who can be good, neutral, or bad, who are often chaotic in nature. However, in the majority of cases, good and evil, lawful and chaotic, are visually identifiable. The alignment system is clearly defined. Lawful good follows a specific set of rules.
Lawful good doesn’t mean lawful nice, but it’s not chaotic good, and it’s certainly not lawful evil. Humanity knows what is good and what is evil, even if we are capable of a great many evils when we lose sight of our rationality. The alignment system is a reflection of that, and we can use it to clearly identify good and evil.
In postmodernism, there is no moral universalism or objective reality. There is no universality. In essence, each of us experiences the same things in completely different ways. Not everyone thinks like you or has the same beliefs as you because each of us have vastly different experiences from each other. The end result is moral relativism.
Scott Garibay defined moral relativism very succinctly in our group chat when he said: “It seems like good and evil are not even defined concepts in your chosen world and that means each day you could be looking at the task of defining or redefining these huge concepts by yourself and then having to deal with everyone around you also defining and redefining those huge concepts differently than you.” Each of us has to make our own moral decisions based on a great many factors. Some are rational, while others aren’t, and most come from different places. Most people don’t make decisions they believe to be amoral, either.
At the end of the day, no one really wants to be the bad guy. We make the decisions that we make based on what we feel is right. If our actions hurt other people, we’ll justify them because we don’t want to be responsible for harming others, but that doesn’t make us evil. Each of us, of course, will respond in different ways, whether that means we fight back against our perceived threats, we try to do things to appease our consciousnesses, or something altogether different. What moral decisions we make, and how we choose to respond to them, alongside our environment, affects our reality.
That’s why a postmodernist will argue that there’s no absolute truth. That the metanarrative isn’t real, because it only exists because of the influence and the domination of the hegemony. That the reason why people react differently is because those different experiences in concert with our different moral choices work together to create different realities.
Of course, there’s more to it than that, but that’s largely the important part of this particular conversation.
Adding Postmodernism into Dungeons & Dragons
If, in postmodernism, morality is relative, then so is the alignment system. Good and evil are the constructs of the metanarrative, only in relation to what the hegemony has dictated. Evil is evil because it’s greedy, and it takes. But, what if the truth is a matter of perspective? What if my greedy is you acting in your self-interest? What if you take because you, or your family, need to take to survive? What if the only opportunities that you have in life are the ones you take? In that regard, evil isn’t evil, but what’s necessary for survival, and entire races that are aligned evil are actually those who’ve been put in hundreds, or thousands, of years of systemic abuse. What’s good is also no longer a societal norm, but the extent by which you are self-giving in relation to what you can afford to give.
What about lawful vs chaotic? If laws are an extension of the metanarrative, then internal codes of conduct are the basis of that system. How can we apply a code of conduct that everyone would consider that they’re following? After all, no one wants to be a bad guy. We must then turn to another marker. Since everyone wants to do good, then it’s the way that we choose to do good that matters. Therefore, lawful vs chaotic becomes the means vs the ends. Those who would otherwise be aligned strictly as lawful would say that the ends never justify the means, where those more on the chaotic side would say that the ends can justify the means.
Finally, the last category is the equivalent to neutral, which is the nuanced approach. According to postmodernism, there are no moral absolutes, so those that are more neutral don’t look at everything with a strict code of the means vs the ends, or self-interest vs self-giving. They would weigh each situation individually, and make the best call they feel they can make in any given situation, hoping they made the right one without any strong conviction. Most of us, I believe, would fall in that category.
When you’re thinking about characters, NPCs, enemies, or even quests and missions, using postmodernism you can look at it from the perspective that everyone is going to have a motive that isn’t going to be evil or wicked, but fall somewhere on the sliding scale. Postmodernism would also highlight that you can’t always assume someone’s motivations match their decisions. Their good deeds may be for purely selfish reasons, such as a mayor who hires the heroes to clear out trolls in an area where a lot of swing voters reside. The trolls die and people are saved, but he’s not justly motivated. It can also be revealed that areas that are generally full of voters that are deeply in opposition to him get fewer adventurer contracts. Or maybe consider that urban sprawl is cutting into territory that’s long been the homeland of an Orc tribe. Perhaps they do kill to drive out people, but in their eyes they’re defending their homes, and open combat is part of the nature of their culture in the defense of their lands.
I hope you enjoy this, and take it into consideration when planning your next session. Until then, have fun and stay nerdy!
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