D&D’s Lore Struggle
Why does D&D struggle with lore? This is a question that has seen me type 5000+/- words in drafts over the back half of 2021 after Jeremy Crawford’s bombshell at D&D Live 2021. After I was provided a copy of Lost Omens: The Mwangi Expanse by Paizo for review purposes, the quandary deepened. How was Paizo rocking and rolling with lore while its senior in the genre of D&D Fantasy was struggling? Why was the Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft so threadbare? So this is it. Let’s dive into D&D’s Lore Problem.
ATTENTION: This post is speculation on my part, I do not have a special in with Wizards or the primaries who were involved with all this, so this is based on my observations of TSR and Wizards, their materials produced, and announcements to date.
D&D is a venerable game, and its lore problem dates to its time under TSR. The problem’s root came from conflicted assumptions by designers and writers versus the end users. Gary Gygax et al. assumed, at first at least, that everyone was going to play D&D like them (more or less). In particular, they figured that everyone would have the time, energy, and skill to create their own campaign settings. But people wanted a campaign setting. So Greyhawk kicked off TSR’s first big world building operation. It was a success, surprising Gygax et al. and setting the stage for the troubles to come.
The challenge that rapidly arose in TSR was that it was packed with creative people who could generate lore on an industrial scale; but for whatever reason, TSR never developed a culture of planning, direction, curation, or professional access for its rapidly accumulating lore. Sure, if you were in the building, you could access a “library” of material, but nothing was indexed or sorted. But it got worse, because for lack of controls and planning, where lore should have developed into springboards for adventure, it instead developed into a minefield for writers. Compounding this was that, for most of TSR’s tenure, settings were assembled or in Forgotten Realms’ case, modified, with parts out of the AD&D and 2nd Edition AD&D toolbox, resulting in settings that had setting specific mechanics and often lacked even the basic D&D Cosmology as a baseline. TSR was not unaware of this problem, and their effort to “fix” it came in the form of gentle homogenization. As the setting developed, they were brought slowing in line with the baseline of D&D as much as possible. The downsides were that the worlds became same-y feeling and it didn’t fix the lore issues.
With Wizards entry as the owner of D&D, things changed. They cut many worlds from the support list, choosing to focus on a Greyhawk-with-the-numbers-filed-off base world that had no official description and no canon lore past what was in the core books and core supplements, and the Forgotten Realms in 3e D&D. The latter finally had its lore sorted and codified in the Grand history of the Realms book, but that was by the end of the edition and unfortunately, Wizards had not learned to manage or use lore at that point either. And people were demanding old settings be returned. Which led to the 4e Reset.
The 4e Reset was Wizards’ first real attempt to fix its lore problem, and it backfired spectacularly. The decision, in so far as I can tell, was that codifying and cleaning up lore was too much, so they opted to hard reset campaign settings. They used time jumps on them to break them off from their 1e to 3e lore, and then cherrypicked what would move forward. What they didn’t anticipate, much like GDW discovered with their lore choices in MegaTraveller and Traveller: The New Era, was that people are very connected to the lore in the settings and sudden extreme changes weren’t welcomed with open arms. This resulted in a the retcon of a reboot in the case of the Forgotten Realms. But even with all the planning involved in the lore work for 4e D&D, and there was a lot, Wizards still saw lore as an obstacle to creativity, an attitude that would blossom in the next edition.
What’s Happening Now
Which brings us to 5e D&D. 5e’s lore is less developed and less substantive than a lot of the earliest works in AD&D. Why? What happened?
Foremost, Wizards appears to have created a specific target to write for. This is home DM who uses an established setting that they’ve modified or a homebrew setting, for whom canon lore is a burden. How is it a burden? It’s not really. These DMs are real and they just ignore and cherry-pick what they want anyways. But it’s a convenient target to write for because it means low effort on the part of Wizards when it comes to anything lore related.
The other thing that happened, as far as I can tell, is that Wizards lost its best world builders. Now stick with me on this. They still have top end adventure designers and writers. But the world builders, the people who could stitch it all together on the ground into a coherent whole? They’re thin on the ground if there at all. And the proof of that starts right away in the wisp of a book passing itself off as a campaign setting guide, the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. It’s the shortest book of its type in the 5e D&D lineup, and barely outlines one region of the Forgotten Realms. Then there’s the mess that was Chult in the Tomb of Annihilation. It was a great adventure that dropped every ball on the world building front. Van Richten’s? A strange patchwork of underdeveloped and inconsistent realms. But they all have one big thing in common. There’s virtually no deep lore. Everything is surface treatment only and there’s maximum effort going into a 4e style common baseline.
So now there’s only one canon for D&D. It’s anything in an official Wizards released D&D book in 5th Edition that isn’t in partnership with external groups. No movies, cartoons, novels, comics, graphic novels, or any previous editions count anymore. So that’s good, right? Problem solved?
Not really. The lore issue persists; just that like DC with its never-ending reboots of its comics universe, Wizards is locking themselves into a worse lore nightmare.
Wizards thinks they’ve solved their issues, but what’s really happened is that they’ve created a lore vacuum, and nature abhors a vacuum. Historically, both Wizards and TSR have been bad about developing their worlds evenly. This becomes more pronounced under the new plan because only micro-areas get actual development, and only in the context of the adventure they appear in. Without a developed campaign setting book, these other spaces end up literally forgotten because people pay attention to what they’re presented.
Have you ever wondered why on a world as large as Toril, or a half-continent as diverse as Faerûn, that people would say they are tired of the Forgotten Realms? Of the 38 5e D&D books/boxed sets published as of this post, 14 are directly in or directly related to the Forgotten Realms (36%). Of those, 12 are adventures, and 11 of those books are in the “Golden Triangle of Adventure”, consisting of The Sword Coast, the North, and the Savage Frontier. These little micrcosms get development, but only these microcosms. The rest to of the world is reliant on a paragraph in the SCAG book and on the old, non-canon, lore from the Forgotten Realms Wiki site or equally non-canon lore from the DM Guild. And to make matter worse, these areas are the easy mode of world building, since they draw heavily on well established Western European imagery, narratives, and psychological anchoring. But this is why people say they’re tired. The material presented to them runs over the same spaces again, and again, and again, and without even the courtesy of telling anyone which potential ending of these campaigns and adventures are canon.
And that’s the rub. Wizards is doing their level best right now to avoid establishing canon or lore, and at the same time are trying to cash in on the name recognition and established fanbases for its old campaign settings.
What does all this mean?
Essentially, Wizards, as an organization, lacks key skills and abilities to manage or use the lore they generate. Want an example? We’re five editions into Forgotten Realms now, and still no one has done anything with the dragon made super weapon that’s under the Hills of the Seven Lost Gods near Westgate. They have no indexed, organized, electronic library of their material. They have no guiding plan for development of old campaign settings or new ones; with the exception of Ravenloft at two books and Forgotten Realms with its books, the rest of the released settings follow a simple pattern: release book, AL material, DM Guild. And worst, they don’t appear to have the skill to take established lore and use it as a springboard to develop an adventure or the world it’s in. They can create all day and night, but the conditions they’re wanting to create in are those of a vacuum. Where there’s unfettered creativity for lack of lore; the problem is that they want to do that on a worlds that were, until recently, canonically drenched in lore.
What’s in the future?
To be honest, I don’t know. At this point, they’ve made their bed and appear determined to lie in it. They’re planning a new campaign setting release prior to 5e Evolved (5.5e? 5e Enhanced?) in 2024, so I guess we’re all waiting to see how they do. However, unless they develop these skills that they’re lacking now, it’s going to be a lot more of the same issues that have been dogging them through 5e D&D. Or it’s going to create a very bland, unengaging world built on D&D tropes and stereotypes; and still have these lore problems.
Wizards is in trouble. If they can’t learn how to manage lore, plan development for a world, and use the lore they create as a springboard, any creative endeavour they embark on in terms of world building or even campaign creation is going to be troubled. I say this because we’re already watching their diversity efforts flounder because they aren’t developing what they commission or create in house. We’re watching them focus their attention on the same chunk of land that’s been so overdone that people’s eyes glaze over when they hear “Sword Coast”. And in their nuclear option announcement last year, they threw the baby out with the bathwater in terms of sorting out the lore issues.
Now, obviously, I don’t’ think Wizards is in trouble in the sense that they’re looking at going belly up any time soon. D&D is bigger than it’s ever been, and the game shows little sign of slowing down as its 50th anniversary approaches. That said, they’ve talked a big game about diversity; but their current practices combined with an aversion to lore greatly undermines this. And I think that this diversity drive, and effort to clear out the problematic aspects of D&D will ultimately be hollow efforts for lack of lore in game. Without the lore to act as connective tissue between the new rules and mechanics and the campaign settings, getting the changes to stick will be harder. So I guess we’ll see where it all goes.
The person to talk to is James Wyatt – you can see his fingerprints on the decent 4e books (with Heinsoo) but then he jumped over to Magic and got them to approve his D&D Planeshift pdfs, all the “Art of” Books (which are the best lore compilations for Magic outside of fan wikis) and then got Guilds of Ravnica and Theros published. Worked on Van Richten’s too.
Mearl’s quote: : “It’s basically a thing James does for fun, and we don’t want to burden it with needing all the work required to make it official.”
So that’s the choice – do the hard work by prioritizing story first and consolidate, to make your invested story players happy (there’s a reason that Vorthos and Melvin, while important, are not in the core three Magic player personas) or keep pumping out “good enough” content to the mass market, which is what pays the bills. I can guarantee they’ve done market research for this and that’s what driving the current direction.
I say this working with IP holders for two decades now. If the IP holder has invested in making sure their documentation is internally consistent and maintaining a good database then all you do is grab whatever is approved – all your writers get the same info as well. See Leland Chee’s Holocron at Lucasfilm for the correct way to run that setup.
If there’s twenty competing canons and poor documentation, then it’s a minefield – and thankless work – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked with unorganized IP – it’s on you to fill all the gaps based on your own research and whatever documentation, interviews, emails to last known addresses, whatever you can scrounge up – only to have the publisher disagree with your direction (because despite having no proof of the creator’s original intent, they get to make the call)
Real life scenarios – when IP lawyers say “you can’t use that because we sold the IP”, or “we have someone else working on it already”,(regardless of whether that use will ever see the light of day) or “that was a mistake we don’t want that in official canon” WHILE it’s already out in front of millions of eyes already.
As a relatively new player who is just starting to DM, I had a lot of trouble finding and piecing together the lore of the forgotten realms. I’m kind of relieved to see that it’s not just me being bad at it and that the lore really is s mess
What was Jeremy Crawford’s bombshell at D&D Live 2021?
That all lore from prior editions was no longer canon, including game books, novels, comics, the works; and that only material from 5e, in official books with no partnerships, was canon.
I’ve noticed the same thing with the most recent Traveller editions, which is where I’ve jumped on: I know the game has an epic, rich history, but good luck finding any of it in the books Mongoose has put out lately!
Going back to fantasy, one reason I’ve become interested in Kobold Press’ Midgard books is precisely because of the rich lore: sometimes I want someone else to do the heavy lifting of world building, and Midgard scratches that itch.