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  • Writer's pictureleodoulton

Fascistic Fantasy: On Avoiding State Violence In D&D

In addition to my theatrical work, and at the beginning of a week of blogs around cosmic horror, I thought I’d delve a little into game design.

A fairly established premise in the TTRPG space is this:

1. Dungeons and Dragons is the ‘lingua franca’ TTRPG.

2. Dungeons and Dragons is designed for stories that, one way or another, are about violence.

3. Stories about violence are often designed to entrench imperialistic, often authoritarian, values of domination and cruelty; other narrative forms are often more important to modern values.

In my experience, there are three broad forms of violent narrative for D&D.

Classic Authoritarian Imperialism

In which a group of adventurers go out and kill the uncivilised, typically gaining power and strength, and thus authority in the world as powerful heroes.

Others have written extensively about this topic, so I want to progress to two possible solutions.

Pseudo-Revolutionary Extremism

One answer one often sees is that violence is acceptable, if targeted at the right goals.

Since the critique of Classic Authoritarian Imperialism typically comes from the left, this fantastical violence tends to be directed towards authority figures - kings, tyrants, and fantastical stand-ins for them.

I am very fond of revolutionary narratives. But I do not think, in this instance, they substantially avoid the problem.

Revolutionary TTRPG violence rarely foregrounds the actual work of revolution: community support, negotiating the future, and finding a way to that future. Red Carnations On A Black Grave does this work remarkably well, showing the hollowness in the fantasy that a well-intentioned violent coup by a small group might somehow make a better world, rather than violence at the periphery of a broader movement.

While one could view that as the start of a broadly Bolshevik model of revolution, ultimately it reinforces many of the ideals of power fantasy, individual domination of others’ lives, and hero-fantasies that are a problem in the classic story.

What Cosmic Horror Justifies

The other path commonly offered is a campaign where the violence is justified, not against sentients, but things that are sufficiently powerful to be a threat, while also non-sentient or utterly alien in ways that make them inevitably opposed to humanoid interests and values.

I thought I was being terribly clever with a cosmic horror campaign, avoiding the problems above, until I started reflecting for a moment about the worldbuilding.

For Dungeons & Dragons cosmic horror offers a terrible enemy out there that can only be defeated with violence and force.

In a cosmic horror setting, either there is no state and all are vulnerable, it is failing in the face of the enemy and needs force to back it up, or it constantly requires extreme force to keep its borders safe against horrors beyond.

Each of these reinforces the idea that there is a terrible enemy out there that can only be defeated with violence and force.

The core lie of fascism is this: that there is a terrible enemy out there that can only be defeated with violence and force.

In reality, that is a lie. Whatever minority or imagined elite is targeted, they are not actually a threat, merely a justification for the growth of state authority and force.

Dungeons & Dragons almost always requires the lie to be true.

And as long as one plays the game within its core design purpose - for narratives ending in violence - it is almost impossible to avoid what hollowness lies at the core of narratives about violence.



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