Dungeons & Dragons, pt. 3

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by Randall S. Frederick

Continued from pt. II

In 2017, Antero Garcia published a study that examined inequality in non-digital games. He notes that “understanding the foundational depictions of race, gender, and power in a nondigital gaming system highlights how cultural-historical approaches to understanding learning within systems must begin with an understanding of the implicit biases of these systems.” His work builds on Cole, Goncu, and Vadeboncoeur who assert in a previous study that “cultural-historical [approaches] and activity theory are approaches that investigate the past, as well as the present.” As O’Conner, Peck, and Cafarella propose, “culturally mediated spaces are constructed from the primordial soup of human knowledge and social biases. Despite the thousands of pages of rules (or millions of lines of code in digital contexts), these are systems made by individuals and for individuals.”

Garcia continues,

gaming systems create spaces for cultural production that are safely ensconced from the rest of the world; Huizinga (1955) described this space as the “magic circle,” noting that play stands “consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious,’ but at the same time absorbing the player utensil and utterly” (p. 13). Salen and Zimmerman (2004) elaborated on this concept, noting that this magic circle is “a special place in time and space created by a game” (p. 95)… As both a part of and beside traditional cultural norms, the magic circle inscribes a space that is culturally productive and built on the foundation of past production. Missing in most analysis of the magic circle is the interloper within the space: the gaming system itself. As products of the specific cultural and temporal locations in which they are produced, games carry with them their own ethics and values. As systems that dictate these values, games are “social technologies” (Flanagan, 2009, p. 9). Like the technologies that mediate today’s “networked society” (Castells, 1996), the social technologies of gaming do not remain static. Their systems are updated and iterated upon such that they reflect changes in contemporary society’s relationship with these games. D&D, for example, has gone through a dozen systemic “editions” that have refined, altered, or clarified what play within the system entails.

Said simply, games are not merely a fun experience on a weekend afternoon. They are, instead, a reflection of culture (social), what we value (communal), and a product of the subconscious (specific and individual). The games we choose to play often depict the world as we really see it rather than the projections we make to sustain our sense of self-identity or use to negotiate our place (or “image”) in the public sphere.

In parallel to D&D, my father’s favorite game is Chess because, as he put it to me when I was a little boy and as he continues to maintain today, “there’s always a winner and always a loser. The goal isn’t to be the best or show how smart you are, it’s to make sure the other person loses.” For this reason, he says, he has never enjoyed gambling or card games because “I want to win.” As a child, I was frustrated that he never wanted to play games like Guess Who? and, as I entered my teens, thought videogames were “stupid.” For him, games were an assurance of winning in life. The complexity of narrative was entirely lost on him.

When I got into Dungeons & Dragons a few years ago, it was because of the worldbuilding. I was fascinated with the diversity of how magic worked in different realms and the influences that the creative teams, plural, had brought to the game over the decades. Each time I bought a new guide or campaign, I felt like I was diving into a new experience. Curse of Strahd, the first one I purchased for 5th Edition, was gothic horror, your classic vampire longing for his dead wife and enacting revenge against local villagers as part of the grief process. Adventurers were tasked with finding Strahd’s victims and defeating evil along the road to storming his sinister castle. Other modules went underground, navigated the politics of cities, and over time, I gained an appreciation for the modules that did not interest me, those where adventurers had to avoid toxic mushroom people or fight demons. The ones where players were expected to “grind” for loot didn’t interest me as much as those that imaginatively played with familiar tropes. I would learn that these players are referred to as “munchkins“.

The Munchkin is the Tabletop RPG player who plays the game to win at any cost, even if that isn’t the point of the game. Perhaps the most ridiculed player archetype of all time, this player is rarely interested in the story behind the game. Indeed, his characters are little more than extensions of his own personality or whatever personality would give him the most bonuses. He sees fighting monsters and solving puzzles only as a means toward more power, more gold, more stuff, more pluses. A Munchkin is not satisfied until he can kill a god.

This is the kind of player my dad would be, if he were into D&D, but as Astrid Johnson opines, this is the worst way to play the game. There is, after all, a reason why Dungeons & Dragons continued to revitalize and tweak their rule system with each edition, if not entirely overhaul it.

Some tabletop roleplaying games are boring if you powergame, while others are designed with powergaming at the forefront. This isn’t the deciding factor in how good or bad it is. Sometimes, the point isn’t to game a game’s system; it’s to have an immersive, creative and authentic experience… Doing the thing that’s fun and interesting is equally as important – nay, almost always better than – doing the thing that’s optimal and efficient… Now look, yes, fighting and killing are undoubtedly a big part of Dungeons & Dragons. But if this were real life, and I had to choose between doing a certain percent more damage with my attacks, or to have the ability to open up a squelchy portal into the void so that tentacles dripping in slime can ooze out, squeezing and dissolving my foes to death… well, I’m going to go with the existential murder tentrils, because that’s a lot bloody cooler. You know what? There’s a chance that you, reading this, would prefer to choose the former option. That’s fine! You’re valid. Incorrect, but valid. What isn’t valid is declaring Dungeons & Dragons a “bad game” because the way it’s designed makes playing in that style boring. Nor is chastising another player of the game for not voluntarily backflipping into the maths-based prison mines… Put down the calculator, stop being scared and do some roleplay.

I was there for the story, not the action, the setting of the world rather than the minutae of critical rolls, stats, and character customization. And I suppose this says what kind of player I am inside of a game as much as it does what kind of person I am in daily life. When I play open-world videogames, I often enjoy just going for a walk or focusing on sidequests in a village. Recently, while playing through The Witcher, I noticed that I had 30 sidequest tasks to every main quest task. I was delighted! Two years after “completing” Skyrim, I am still occupied with sidequests and discovering new areas on the map. That’s the kind of player I am, I suppose – or at least the kind of person I tell myself I am, to call back to the studies mentioned above. With every new publication, my library grew and I was pointed toward older modules from the previous editions. I came to learn that many of the campaigns for 5th Edition were revamped versions of older campaigns, tweaked for the new rule system. I began to pay attention to online chatter and interviews with the writers, artists, and contributors to 5th Edition, blogs that speculated what was coming next and articles discussing the source material. I felt I was learning the history of the game along the way.

One of my favorite settings from the older editions was Krynn, the world of the Dragonlance modules. In Krynn, adventurers could ride dragons and the visual aesthetic was unapologetically vintage Eighties nostalgia. Colors contrasted. The art was epic. The great warriors often wore headbands and had phallic weapons, women’s hair was long, large glamorous bouffant and permanent waves. If this sounds like arrested development disguised as fan service, it is. I’ve accepted my inner child. It is what it is. I’m quick to excuse it all as nostalgia, but the truth is, some part of me is still stuck in childhood and feels comforted by the familiar imagery. And I noticed I wasn’t alone. Many fans feel the same way. They want to go back to what is familiar and enjoy the modules Wizards of the Coast have released that return them to those modules they played as adolescents, teens, and young adults. Which is why, I think, the anger I began to notice first creeping and then dominating online forums felt misplaced. It was as if fans (like myself) felt Wizards of the Coast owed them something and, whatever it was they weren’t being given was intentionally denied to them.

Michael Schulman, writing for The New Yorker, observes

“Fan” is short for “fanatic,” which comes from the Latin fanaticus, meaning “of or belonging to the temple, a temple servant, a devotee.” The vestal virgins, who maintained the sacred fire of Vesta, the goddess of hearth and home, were the Beyhive of their day. But “fanatic” came to be associated with orgiastic rites and misplaced devotion, even demonic possession, and this may explain why fan behavior is often described using religious terms, such as “worship” and “idol”… At its core, fandom is a love story, like something out of Greek myth; it’s Pygmalion falling in love with someone else’s statue. Like romantic love, it can range from gentle companionship—cosplay and curtain fic—to deranged obsession. The psycho stalker fan is its own archetype—Robert De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin, in The King of Comedy, or Kathy Bates in Misery, based on the 1987 Stephen King thriller, about a romance-novel fanatic named Annie Wilkes, who kidnaps her favorite author and makes him tailor his latest novel to her liking.

Annie Wilkes, King told me recently, was inspired in part by Mark David Chapman, who assassinated John Lennon hours after getting his autograph. As an author, King is familiar with fan enthusiasm gone awry. “There was a lot of backlash about the way that the Dark Tower books ended,” he told me, referring to his multipart fantasy series. “Those fans were absolutely rabid about those books.” Not long after Misery came out, King and his son were at a baseball game when a man broke into his house with what he said was a bomb, claiming that Annie Wilkes had secretly been based on his aunt. “My wife ran out in her bare feet and called the cops,” King recalled, “and the guy was cowering in the turret of the third floor of our Victorian home.” The bomb turned out to be a bunch of pencils in a rubber band. Still, it unnerved King: his novel about a stalker fan had summoned a stalker fan. “People have gotten invested in culture and make-believe in a way that I think is a little bit unhealthy,” King said. “I mean, it’s supposed to be fun, right?”

The anger many players feel galvanized around the release of Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount. With the inclusion of setting into the canon, it became clear that Wizards of the Coast no longer wanted to entertain their fans with updated modules or retreads of familiar maps. Wildemount was something new. Unlike Ravnica, which was met with confusion and disappointment, Wildemount is entirely “other.” It is its own culture. Ravnica presented a significant expansion to the game, allowing for technology that surpasses discussions of gunpowder and the hint of gunfire. It was excused because it was familiar, a realm in Magic: The Gathering, the other tentpole holding up Wizards of the Coast as a company. But Wildemount wasn’t that. It wasn’t just apocryphal, something gamers could be vaguely aware of and dismiss because it was only part of test plays online. There it was, in full color, taking over. In January,

D&D PR chief Greg Tito noted that internal metrics indicated that the upcoming Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount had the most pre-orders and general excitement since the release of D&D’s core rulebooks for Fifth Edition five years ago.

Although Dungeons & Dragons has experienced a huge resurgence in recent years, Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount quickly separated itself from other D&D book releases by reaching the #1 best-selling new fantasy book on Amazon nearly two months before its release…

Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount is a new campaign setting book that explores the continent of Wildemount, a world created by Matthew Mercer for the popular web series Critical Role, a series in which Mercer and several other professional voice actors play Dungeons & Dragons. D&D’s upswing in popularity has correlated with the rise of Critical Role, which raised over $12 million last year on Kickstarter to fund an animated series based on the show’s first campaign.

The news that their new sourcebook is trending to be D&D’s bestselling book since the core rulebooks is just the latest sign that the “Critter community,” as Critical Role fans tend to call themselves, are a force to be reckoned with in geek culture.

Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount has also led to a surge in pre-orders on D&D Beyond, a D&D character builder and longtime sponsor of Critical Role. Developer Adam Bradford noted that Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount had quickly become the most pre-ordered book on their service as well.

And it wasn’t the fast, rules-based gameplay. Embracing Mercer and the Critical Role team, promoting their work from fun but tertiary experience into the canonical, telegraphed an intention that the company would be leaving the short and nostalgic adaptation of older modules to focus on long-form storytelling that could take an entire year, if not longer to play. It also telegraphed that Wizards wasn’t going to sit back and allow racism, sexism, and xenophobia to continue unabated.

Christian Hoffer writes that Mercer made significant “adjustments” and tweaks that may help correct the long history of racism within the game. Noting one instance of how orcs are portrayed (and played) in the game,

The “Orcs of Exandria” race found in Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount specifically notes that orcs are not bound to commit acts of evil by nature, nor do they have a supernatural power that drives them to kill or commit acts of violence. That’s a major difference from the playable orc race found in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, which claims that orcs have a blood lust and only have a limited capacity for empathy, love, and compassion.

Why are these changes important? Orcs have had a problematic history that traces back to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, who used orcs and goblins as footsoldiers for the forces of evil. Many saw Tolkien’s orcs as a representation of the “Other,” especially in the context of World War I and World War II. As orcs were dark-skinned, brutish, and had slanted eyes, some consider Tolkien’s orcs to be caricatures of non-European races, particularly of the Japanese. In fact, Tolkien once described the orcs as looking like the “least-lovely Mongol types.” Although Tolkien’s other letters give no evidence that he was consciously racist, he was seemingly affected by the prejudices and misconceptions of his time.

Regardless as to whether Tolkien intended for his orcs to represent a certain group of people, his depiction of orcs as a humanoid but evil race was a popular fantasy trope for many years, one that is still reflected in Dungeons & Dragons today. And portraying any “race” or group of intelligent people as inherently evil feeds into the notion of harmful stereotypes, even when orcs are portrayed as distinctively different than humans. Additionally, deciding that orcs are inherently less intelligent than other races also touches upon harmful topics of eugenics and the belief that some people are less intelligent solely due to their genetics and not a variety of socio-economic factors that starts from the moment of a person’s birth.

Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount takes an important step in specifying that no race of intelligent creatures in inherently evil, nor are they inherently less smart than other races. While many still see the idea of “race” in Dungeons & Dragons as problematic, Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount at least removes one of the most problematic aspects of that part of D&D, making it easier for players to craft whatever sort of orc character they want to play as.

It’s not just orcs, however. Dungeons & Dragons has long been criticized for favoring whiteness in their art. The origins of “dark elves” in the game feels similar to the “curse of Ham” in conservative Christianity and the theology of the Latter Day Saints, where a formerly blessed son is “cursed” with darker skin. However, the creators were more indebted to Tolkien, who himself was indebted to Norse Mythology where dark elves dwelled within the earth and were dark-skinned and had questionable if not antagonistic motives for their behavior.

This isn’t to say that traditional players are munchkins or racists, but there’s certainly a correlation and given the global popularity of the game in its resurgence. A 2019 study revealed that Dungeons & Dragons accounted for 54% of all tabletop roleplaying games. The second most popular roleplaying game was, Pathfinder, a D&D Third Edition derivative and it only commanded 6.5% of gamers. A study of character sheet applications conducted by Burak Ogan Mancarci revealed that, when building a character before playing the game, humans are the most prevalent race chosen in the game and although this does not indicate racism explicitly by any means, it is a telling look at the ways that players choose to experience the game. A large disgruntled fanbase is nothing to dismiss uncritically.

For those willing to adapt, the game provides new opportunities for meeting new players and even provide a new stream of revenue. John Clark, a studio department head for Paramount, began moderating online gaming groups a few years ago. He stopped after the birth of his daughter, but when he returned his group of 950 members quickly doubled to 1,700 members including celebrities.

Noticing a demand for a higher level of DMing—more personalized, immersive, with a greater variety of performance techniques and more detailed plot development—he realized that his professional acting skills from his pre-executive career could be an asset. “You can’t just work for Cheetos anymore,” he says. “You have to have more value than that. If you don’t have the ability to do 10 different accents, be the life of the party. … I’m going to show up with the fun factor, and it needs to be super, super high.”

Earlier this year, Mercer and the Critical Role team developed the latest D&D setting, Wildemount, in their Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount. The setting is familiar to fans of Critical Role, as it is where Mercer and the cast have adventured for over a year in the most recent campaign of the show. The setting for the first campaign, Tal’Dorei, had previously been published by Green Ronin. With the publication of Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount, fans of the show have a complete world to sandbox their own home brews. But despite the large built-in fan base, the continued popularity of roleplaying games brought about by the show, and the general interest in pop culture, many players of Dungeons & Dragons were genuinely angered that Wizards of the Coast would “insult” them by publishing “trash” like the kind Mercer produced. This was not simply a difference of taste, they argued, but a central flaw in the efforts Wizards of the Coast was making to improve gaming. Older versions of the game allowed for brutal violence. And orgies. And shorter, modular play unlike the years-long, expansive, side-quest fueled, densely layered, and nuanced campaigns typical of Critical Role. As with any technology, perhaps it is attributable to the complexity of learning something new when the familiar “worked just fine.”

In terms of the most obvious differences, the utter lethality of OD&D will likely shock many players raised on newer rules. Fifth Edition casts the player characters as heroes from the very first moment of play – while first-level characters have limited HP, it takes three failed death saves for any of them to die outright, and they can take short rests to heal themselves during the adventuring day. (A long rest of eight hours restores all your health.) In OD&D, even studly fighting-men can start with as few as one or two HP; once you hit zero, most dungeon masters (or, in the OD&D parlance, “referees”) would tell you to start working on your next character. This simplicity also has its perks; while creating a new Fifth Edition character past third level requires moving around stats, picking a subclass and learning a litany of class powers, OD&D’s process is extremely straightforward. Simply roll three six-sided dice for each stat, in order, pick one of three classes (Magic-User and Cleric join the Fighting-Man) and your race (human, elf, halfling or dwarf) and you’re pretty much off to the races.

The older versions of the game lacked diversity or nuance, had clear expectations, and straightforward play dynamics. Simple. Clean. But even creator Gary Gygax agreed there was a lot of room for improvement. After all, D&D began as an optional set of rules for fantasy in war games, where the objective was to win at all costs and decimate one’s opponent, not discover new worlds or get bogged down in local customs, law, history, and coinage exchange rates. Gygax forsaw a game that was more than a simple modification; he wanted to build a game that could include and surpass Tolkien, Howard, and Jordan. More and more, new players wanted these things also and the game kept migrating away from the core concept as it expanded over a decade with Gygax’s imagination. However, as Michael Witner, Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, and Sam Witwer acknowledge in Art & Arcana: A Visual History,

Newcomers to Dungeons & Dragons might sit down to their first game with two reasonable expectations: that it would include both dungeons and dragons. But how many early modules or campaigns pitted players against dragons – and among those few unlucky adventurers, who would live to tell the tale? Dragons were great for book and box covers; in games, they were impractical. There simply wasn’t a playable D&D framework for including dragons as a regular feature… a world called Krynn would soon take shape.

Dragonlance significantly expanded on the limits of D&D and was the first real effort for Gygax and his team to create a multi-platform experience. Dragonlance was not just a trilogy of modules but a new setting, a series of novels, an anticipated movie and television series. Gygax wanted to build something that would rival Game of Thrones thirty years before Game of Thrones existed. He oversaw a cartoon project that ultimately failed because cartoonists, publishers, gamers, and investors did not share his vision, instead wanting to divide the franchise as it was just starting. Part of this involved marketing a softer, more family-friendly side of the game to children. Part of this involved tie-ins with Robert Howard’s Conan the Barbarian and Marvel Comics Red Sonja. But the jewel was supposed to be Dragonlance, a campaign set in

a world of opposing polarities, where natural-born enemies were tasked with working together to maintain cosmic balance and avoid total destruction. The concepts of good, neutral, and evil were represented in the gods, the races, and even the main characters, who fans would read about and play.

Personally, I would prefer Wizards of the Coast return to multiple tie-ins. I would like to see them publish a setting in Eternia, the world of He-Man and She-Ra. I would prefer an official inclusion of Tolkien’s Middle Earth that had a greater alignment with the sourcebooks of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings than the one published by Cubicle 7, Adventures in Middle Earth (which failed miserably with fans as much as the Tolkien family since it was an overpriced and a republication of previously lackluster materials). I would absolutely love to see the characters of Disney become officially sanctioned adventurers! And with the release of Wheel of Time on Amazon next year, I would like to see this included also. Above all, I want a game that is not limited by just my imagination. Dragonlance would be great, sure. It would signal a return to the glory days of the game. But, like many players, I know this is already possible in home-brewed games. I do not need to wait for the permission of Wizards of the Coast because they have spent years encouraging players to use their imagination and change the rules where necessary to fit those goals. Wizards of the Coast has been quiet, in fact, even as Kobold Press and Modiphius continue to secure substantial funding for new 5th Edition projects. They’ve even promoted Kickstarters through their social media accounts, welcomed content creators on their official podcast, and promoted “retired” writers from previous editions who have returned to their craft. Wizards of the Coast has even released guides to convert Dragonlance (Advanced 2nd Edition and Edition 3.5) to 5th Edition. As Astrid Johnson points out,

In the 1980s, US pasta sauce brand Prego hired psychophysicist and market research specialist Howard Moskowitz to analyse the opinions of Americans on whether their pasta sauce should be chunky or smooth to make it the perfect pasta sauce. His paraphrased conclusion, which revolutionised the food industry, was: “There is no such thing as one perfect pasta sauce; only multiple perfect pasta sauces.”

The problem with angry fans is not the limitations of the game; the game is expansive and massive. It has been for decades. The company encourages innovation in homebrews and has even given winks to players in the art of the books themselves. The Monster Manual, for example, includes a discussion of lycanthropes (werewolves) beside a painting of a red-shirted man with black hair fighting off a Beast with castle vines around them. It’s not the rules, because even older gamers will admit (sometimes reluctantly) that 5th Edition is easier to play. Rather, as Christian Hoffman puts it,

Dungeons & Dragons has capitalized on its recent resurgence by releasing a variety of products meant to appeal to new fans. In the last 18 months, we’ve had product tie-ins with Stranger Things, Rick & Morty, Critical Role, and Magic: The Gathering, plus several new products meant to appeal to new players that have never played D&D before. This strategy is to help keep D&D relevant for another 45 years by building the next generation of tabletop RPG players, but some fans feel that this push for new players has come at the cost of keeping the game’s current players sated. These players wonder why D&D is dedicating resources towards Ravnica (from Magic: The Gathering) and Exandria (from Critical Role) instead of dusting off classic campaign settings like Greyhawk or Dragonlance or Dark Sun, worlds that are mentioned in D&D’s core rulebooks but haven’t gotten any kind of strong focus.

Some of these campaign settings predate the Forgotten Realms, D&D’s current “home” campaign setting, and have alternative classes, alternative races, or even entirely different types of play. Spelljammer is a “space fantasy” setting where players travel between worlds on giant ships fueled by magic. Dark Sun is a post-apocalyptic world with psionic abilities that saw a resurgence of popularity during D&D’s 4th edition. And Dragonlance and Greyhawk are beloved “classic” fantasy worlds with wildly different political structures, factions, and backstories than what we see in the Forgotten Realms. Even the Forgotten Realms has areas that haven’t been explored in 5th Edition books, such as the One Thousand and One Nights inspired Al-Qadim. Likewise, the Shadowfell and Ravenloft also have many more areas to flesh out, spots that haven’t been touched over the last five years.

With every new book that tries to draw in new players and appeals to fans of shows like Critical Role, Stranger Things, and Acquisitions Incorporated, the players wanting more material set in older campaign settings grumble a little louder, complaining that Wizards of the Coast’s publishing strategy is alienating them, the players who have kept the game afloat since its inception. Some of this is just gatekeeping, with players upset that D&D isn’t catering to their specific interests. But it is true that D&D isn’t supporting as many campaign settings as they did in earlier editions – D&D had supported five different campaign settings during 4th Edition, while they’ve only supported four settings in Fifth Edition, two of which are brand new to D&D. By this point in 4th Edition, we had campaign setting books for the Forgotten Realms, Dark Sun, the Shadowfell, Eberron, and the Underdark. By comparison, we’ve gotten campaign setting books for the Sword Coast and Eberron, along with Ravnica and now Wildemount.

Part of this ongoing issue surrounds Wizards of the Coast’s deliberately slow publication schedule, with the D&D team formally releasing about three books a year. One of these three annual books is a full length campaign, which leaves two publishing slots to publish new rulebooks, updated adventures, and other supplementary publications like campaign setting books. To help keep up with demand, D&D has also published several collaborations over the past three years, which is how Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica, Acquisitions Incorporated, and presumably Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount were all added to the schedule in addition to D&D’s three annual publications. Personally, I think D&D’s emphasis on quality over quantity is good in the long run, but today’s society has a culture of immediate gratification, and there’s a thin line between stoking demand for more material and causing frustration among fans who feel like they aren’t being heard.

So – what’s the solution to a problem caused by having so many fans looking for so many things out of D&D? I think that some of these issues could be solved by peeking into the pipeline and getting some confirmation that more campaign settings are being worked on. We know that D&D is developing a ton of new subclasses, many of which seem to have ties to different planes and worlds that aren’t the Forgotten Realms. D&D released a “living document” for Eberron over a year before Eberron: Rising From the Last War came out, and I think that more documents like that would serve as a solid olive branch and give all D&D fans more of the content they crave.

The latest announcement, following Wildemount, was that Wizards of the Coast intended to revisit one of their realms from Magic: The Gathering, Theros, a world of mythical gods and super-powered weapons perhaps in appeal to gamers who want their characters to rival a god, if not reach godhood themselves. Considered one way, Theros will continue the tradition of crossplay Wizards of the Coast has started with shorter guides to the Magic realms and the release of Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica. Considered another way, including Theros in the canon of D&D is a recognition of the complaints of angry fans. “You want to play god?” Wizards seems to be baiting. “Here you go. Play god.” Writing for Nerdarchy, Doug Vehoec expresses a similar position, unsure why players are so upset in the first place.

There’s a lot of D&D players out there who see these M:tG settings crossing over with D&D taking away from the game and giving short shrift to campaign settings of the past they’d like to see updated for 5E D&D. According to Wikipedia there’s nearly 30 official D&D campaign settings in the game’s history, last updated March 14, 2020 to include Exandria…

Perhaps the strangest reaction to Mythic Odysseys of Theros and Guildmasters Guide to Ravnica isn’t the call for revitalizing older campaign settings in lieu of exploring new ones. What strikes me odd is the wish not for new mechanical versions of classic settings but updated lore (emphasis added). More than a few times I’ve read comments expressing sentiments about the crunchy bits being the easy part to update, something these Dungeon Masters enjoy. If I’m honest, I don’t understand this perspective. The games we play in any setting very quickly become personalized to our groups, and in many cases the thrust of adventures and campaigns results in even more changes to the setting customized to each gaming group as a matter of course.

I completely understand the desire for official content to support a favorite D&D campaign setting. But I’m not going to let it slow me down from creating something new from what we already have. And if you’re not so inclined, there’s an excellent chance someone already did it for you.

Hoffman, like Vehoec, points out that that the campaign setting published by fans as part of the DMs Guild, an officially endorsed website to complement the game which allows players publish (and profit from) their own content using the open gaming license that Wizards of the Coast has granted.

I also think opening up some more campaign settings for use in DMs Guild publications could help sate demand. D&D already uses the DMs Guild to sell digital offerings of older sourcebooks, and they allow third parties to publish material on the DMs Guild set in the Forgotten Realms, Eberron, and Ravenloft. I think there’s enough demand to open up other campaign settings as well, especially ones that aren’t very high on D&D’s list to reboot or update. This at least gives the fans a chance to “vote” with their dollars, and show the D&D team that there’s money to be made on some of these older settings.

A lot of this boils down to patience. Wizards of the Coast is a business focused on profit, and no one should be surprised or upset that they’re looking to make products that get a maximum return on their dollar and time. At the same time, I think the D&D teams knows that they have plenty of great campaign settings in their back pocket and are either actively developing more settings or have ideas for them further down the line. The success of Fifth Edition means that there’s not a rush to publish material before it becomes obsolete, and that means that the timeline that D&D books will come out is a lot slower. I think we’ll get a lot more of the D&D material ALL fans want, but some fans might need to wait a bit longer than others.

As a result, it needs to be acknowledged that this anger may simply be maladaptive affection, the darker side of fandom that Stephen King and his wife experienced years ago and the danger that all celebrities experience at some point, just directed at the game instead of an individual like Mercer and the Critical Role team.

Studies show that individually, a fan can become dangerous. Without a community to police their behavior and cushion their aggression, redirect it, the individual’s only relief is the object of their attention – the game, the book, the movie… or its author. They can become so fixated that reality and the fantasy begin to blur. But the group does not offer protection. Extremists find one another, whether online or at the fringe of social gatherings. And it is here that the anger and that blurring or worlds begin to create something else, as Michael Schulman observes.

A glance around the pop-culture landscape gives the impression that fans have gone mad. In May, viewers of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” revolted against the show’s final two episodes, in which the dragon queen, Daenerys Targaryen, took a turn toward the genocidal. Some critics accused the showrunners, both of whom were men, of propagating the idea that women in power are inevitably crazy. Others complained that the personality change was too implausible, or that the whole season was rushed, or that it simply sucked. More than 1.7 million people signed a petition on Change.org to “remake Game of Thrones Season 8 with competent writers.” At a press conference, HBO’s programming president, Casey Bloys, turned down the request, though he acknowledged the fans’ “enthusiasm and passion.”

The outcry bore similarities to the fan uprising against “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” released in 2017. Much of the backlash had to do with Luke Skywalker not acting quite like Luke Skywalker, now that he had rematerialized as a sour middle-aged hermit. Like Daenerys, he wasn’t the hero that fans had long held him to be. Some fans were also mad that Rey, the orphaned heroine, was revealed not to be secretly of noble lineage, undercutting two years of carefully worked-out fan theories. Detractors swarmed Rotten Tomatoes, posting bad reviews, and petitioned Disney to strike the film from the “official canon.” (Again, no dice.)

Some of the crankiness had a Trumpian cast. Many of the new “Star Wars” characters were women and people of color, and the Asian-American cast member Kelly Marie Tran was harassed online so violently that she quit social media. The episode echoed previous fan wars such as Gamergate, in which male video-game fanatics targeted feminist gamers, and the troll campaign against the all-female “Ghostbusters” remake and its black star, Leslie Jones.

Most people are fans of something, whether it’s the Red Sox, “Hamilton,” or Agatha Christie. But the nature of fandom seems to have morphed in the past decade. In the old days of sci-fi conventions and Bobby Sherman fan clubs, fandom was a subculture reserved for the very young or the very obsessed—or, in the case of the Grateful Dead, the very stoned. As fantasy and comic-book franchises have taken over the entertainment industry, nerd culture has become mainstream. Now that couch potatoes have social media, they have risen up and become active, opinionated participants. As a result, movie studios and TV showrunners have to cater to subsets of diehard devotees, who expect to have a say in how their favorite properties are handled.

The ramifications can be loud and, occasionally, expensive. This spring, Paramount released the trailer for “Sonic the Hedgehog,” a movie based on the vintage Sega character, featuring live action and C.G.I. Fans were so disturbed by the title character’s creepy human teeth that Paramount postponed the release date three months to give him a dental makeover, at great cost. (One person wrote on Twitter, “I’ve thought about Sonic the Hedgehog’s creepy lipless mouth and his horrible human teeth more times today than I want to in my entire life.”) “That’s the power of fandom,” a producer who worked on the 2014 reboot of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” told me. That film weathered its own fan blowback, when Michael Bay, another producer on the movie, implied, in an interview, that the turtles were aliens (every fan knows they were mutated by toxic ooze) and then had to walk back his comments. For the sequel, the producers incorporated everything the fans said they wanted—among other things, making the villain Krang, a talking brain—but the movie earned less money than the first one. The producer I spoke to said, “The question we always ask ourselves in the room is: Is the fan base so strong and such an important part of the box office that we have to change something to keep them happy?”

Other fan movements are more sinister. Right after “Avengers: Endgame” was released, in April, Taiwanese media reported that a man in Hong Kong was beaten bloody by a crowd of moviegoers after he stood outside a cinema shouting out spoilers. Four months earlier, fans of the pop star Ariana Grande—the Arianators—relentlessly targeted her ex-boyfriend, the “Saturday Night Live” cast member Pete Davidson, after her breakup anthem “thank u, next” hit No. 1. Davidson, who had spoken publicly about being bipolar and having suicidal thoughts, responded in an open letter: “No matter how hard the internet or anyone tries to make me kill myself. I won’t.” Grande tried to call off the hounds, writing online, “i feel like i need to remind my fans to please be gentler with others.”

One of the most belligerent—and embattled—fan phalanxes belongs to Michael Jackson. In July, three fan groups announced a joint lawsuit against James Safechuck and Wade Robson, the two men who detailed horrifying child-molestation allegations against Jackson in the documentary “Leaving Neverland.” The suit was filed in France, where tarnishing the image of the deceased is a crime. Each fan group demanded a nominal payment of one euro, and their lawyer, Emmanuel Ludot, called the allegations a “genuine lynching.” Frivolous as it seems, the suit gets at the heart of modern fandom: an attack against a celebrity or a beloved character is an attack against the fans, and it is their duty to retaliate.

Fan dustups are often proxy wars for larger social conflicts, like changing demographics or post-#MeToo feminism. The language of fandom, in turn, has invaded politics; supporters might “fangirl” Beto O’Rourke or cheer on clapbacks from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (A recent Twitter prompt: “Stan Elizabeth Warren, but make it poetry.”) The rise of Donald Trump, who was a pop-culture icon before he was a politician, neatly overlaps with the rise of toxic fandom, and Trump has pronounced himself “not a fan” of Jeffrey Epstein, the Vietnam War, and cryptocurrency…

Fandom, Jenkins told me, is “born out of a mix of fascination and frustration. If you weren’t drawn to it on some level, you wouldn’t be a fan. But, if it fully satisfies you, you wouldn’t need to rewrite it, remake it, re-perform it.”

Further Reading

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