Wednesday, April 24, 2019

There Are Two Competing Urges in the Heart of D&D

One one hand, D&D possesses an impulse toward taxonomy; the urge to classify, categorize, and label is built into the structure and assumptions of the game. This is perhaps a place where we see some tangent of the "colonial accusation" made apparent: even if we turn our eyes from the looting of the Other, we see that the style of play rewards learning about the capabilities, origins, and defining characteristics of the Monstrous. We know that demons are different from devils; all things are sorted to their place, and this is useful information for surviving an encounter with of the Lower Planar type. Murderhobos on one hand, taxonomists on the other, shaking hands forever. 

On the other hand, there is an urge to accumulate and preserve the evolving folklore; it is the mania to track changes and deviations rather than set, unchanging categories. We know that Kord was in a god Greyhawk, and then a slightly different god in Nentir Vale, because we've collected the oral tradition--often in pdf form, ironically enough. Think of this as D&D's version of Deleuze & Guattari's arboreal model versus the rhizome. Or, if you want to be all Appendix N about it, it's the internal battle of law versus chaos as guiding principle. Taxonomists & mythopoets, glaring at each other across the Maginot Line of the Blood War.

One of my favorite things about D&D's hypothetical ur-text is when those two impulses come into conflict. Tiamat, for example, is the queen of the evil dragons. Or maybe she's the god of evil dragons. But when you check her most recent stats, you see she's actually a fiend. But not a devil (even though she lives in the Nine Hells) because she's chaotic evil. But she's probably not a demon either because she doesn't speak the language (1)

That's the accretion of Tiamat's story working at cross purposes with her place in the taxonomy. Neither is wrong. Neither is right.

We can use this as grist for the mill. This is potential. No need to tweet at Crawford for clarification, and then at Mearls when Crawford doesn't say what you were hoping to hear. The confusion or undecidability at that nexus means that she could empower your cleric (she's a god!) and also make a pact with your warlock (she's a fiend!). Ultimately, Tiamat unites us all and we'll never know who would win in a fight: the Lady of Pain or the Raven Queen.

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(1) - My favored take is that whatever she was (god or dragon), Tiamat has been changed by her time in Hell--the nature of a fiend is acquired, rather than natural fact.