I recently encountered this post by M D Presley on ‘The Four Cs of Fantasy Worldbuilding,’ and it sparked my imagination. Specifically, the idea of a fantasy conceit: a way in which a fantastical world deviates from our own (real) world.
Presley points out that a fantasy world need not have many conceits to hold our attention. The Wizarding World of J K Rowling has maybe three:
- Magic exists
- Otherworldly creatures exist
- Ghosts exist
In all other respects, Harry Potter’s world is really not that different from ours. But what about the world of D&D?
D&D has quite a bit of worldbuilding already ‘baked in’—the way magic works, for example—but it’s up to you how much of it you choose to stick with. Subverting one or more of the game’s ‘conceits’ can be a good way of making your world unique.
So, what are the conceits of D&D? I counted seven, but let me know in the comments if I’ve missed any. For each conceit, I’ve also considered what your game would be like if your world was different—what TV Tropes calls an ‘averted trope’. Again, share your own ideas about this in the comments.
(By the way, the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide kind of covers this at the start of Chapter 1 in the section on ‘core assumptions’. But not all of these assumptions are technically conceits, some I’m doing my own thing.)
1. Magic exists
Arguably, it is this more than anything else that defines fantasy as a genre. No magic, no fantasy. And as it happens, there are several types of magic in D&D: wizardry, sorcery, pact magic, divine magic, music magic, psionics, ki, and in some worlds, artifice. That’s at least eight types of magic, each with their own way of working, and we could probably include magic items as well.
Averted: a game without magic would be very, very different. Very few of the core classes would exist, and the game would essentially become low fantasy (something I’ve written about here). Healing would become more challenging, and there would be a greater focus on mundane equipment. It might lead to a darker, more horror-themed world, or it might put more of a focus on politics, intrigue, and exploration. Frankly, other systems might work better for this style of play, like Forbidden Lands (my review), Symbaroum, or Fate Core.
2. Otherworldly creatures
It could be argued that this is a third of the game! In every edition, the Monster Manual has been packed with strange and wonderful creatures for Dungeon Masters to populate their worlds with. It’s often the book that new players most enjoy flicking through.
Averted: a world without monsters would be a very different D&D game. I imagine it would feel much more like Game of Thrones: very human-centric, perhaps with more of a focus on politics or investigation. It might affect how some classes work quite substantially. Consider all the abilities that revolve around fiends and undead, for example, or the ranger’s favoured enemy feature.
3. Planes of existence
By default, the world of D&D—the ‘prime material’—is one of many. As a bare minimum, there are elemental planes, an ethereal plane, the Feywild, the Shadowfell, and a world of demons and devils, and probably something like the Astral Plane or a plane of celestials as well. In some campaign settings, like Planescape, the game world is the Planes. Chris Perkins recently described how the Multiverse is the implied setting of 5th edition D&D, and at high levels, it is more or less assumed that the party is hopping around constantly between worlds.
Averted: to my knowledge, all of the core D&D settings have other planes of existence in some form. In some worlds, like Eberron, they are not necessarily set up as places to visit, but they still exist. A D&D setting without a multiverse would essentially be limited to a single, physical world. Many monsters would need to be radically reimagined (eg, fiends, fey, elementals) and there could be big implications for classes like the warlock (who are their patrons?) and wizards (where do summoned creatures come from?). That said, it could lead to richer worldbuilding, a greater emphasis on the prime material, and perhaps a more grounded or realistic setting—which for some players, might be more to their taste.
4. The Underdark
The concept of a cavernous world beneath the earth is pretty much baked into the game now, to the extent that the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide specifically lists ‘Underdark’ as a monster habitat. Previous editions sometimes used term like ‘underground’ instead, and individual settings had their own names for the place (eg, Khyber in Eberron), but I think the official D&D settings all have some kind of analogue for it.
Averted: the Underdark is a useful conceit because it gives DMs an excuse for the existence of dungeons—which, after all, are 50 percent of the game! Without the Underdark, several fantasy species would need to be explained with a new backstory or would just cease to exist (eg, drow, duergar, svirfneblin etc). And without the Underdark, adventures would take place on the surface, where things are generally a little less bizarre and alien.
5. Divine interaction
I have to be a bit careful here as there are, of course, many, many people who believe this to be true in our world. But the key word here is believe. In our world, whether or not you believe in the divine and its influence is ultimately a statement of faith, and not a matter of universal agreement. But in most D&D worlds, the gods are explicitly real and known, and their power is made manifest every day through the answered prayers of clerics and other divine spellcasters. In some settings, like the Forgotten Realms, gods have literally walked the earth.
Averted: I touched on this in a post a few years back (here) where I use the character of Aerith in Final Fantasy VII as an example of a healing domain cleric in a world without any direct mention of gods or religion (other than the ambiguous concept of Lifestream, perhaps). Gygax himself was originally quite blasé about the gods of his world, and was more than happy to let the players do their own worldbuilding in this regard, only inventing his own gods as something of a jokey afterthought (‘St Cuthbert’). A godless D&D world is perfectly possible, but it would obviously have an impact on the nature of religion and divine magic, as well as some creatures and mythical beings (eg, angels). And all of this, in my opinion, could be rather fun.
6. Life after death
As with point five, above, I must caveat this by pointing out that this is something that many people in our world know to be true, and I am not here to disabuse them. But again, it is faith position and not universally agreed. In the UK, only a third believe in life after death, and among men this is barely a quarter. But in the worlds of D&D, the existence of an afterlife is unarguable. Spells like raise dead and resurrection are clear proof of this, as are the existence of undead creatures like ghosts, vampires, and liches. You might not believe in souls, but D&D definitely does.
Averted: apart from the obvious game implications of removing resurrection magic, there would be other ripple effects from averting this trope. Life after death would become a matter of faith, as in our world, and we might have to think again about cosmology and the existence of fiends, angels, etc. (What are devils for if people don’t have souls?)
In the earliest days of the hobby, alignment has been a real, tangible force in the world of D&D. ‘Law’ and ‘chaos’ even had their own languages! A creature’s moral/ethical stance could determine how spells worked or which classes they took. This is much more muted in 5th edition, but there are still echoes of it. For example, a paladin can still detect evil and good with their divine sense ability, and there are occasional references in published adventures to alignment-specific events (eg, a suit of +2 plate armour in Curse of Strahd—but I won’t tell you where).
Averted: many groups already play without this, or handwave it. I’ve written about alternatives here. I largely use it as a shorthand to help me roleplay NPCs, and otherwise don’t care for it. WotC themselves have experimented with getting rid of it. Of all the conceits on this list, this one is the easiest to remove completely from your game, and your game might even be better for it.
Have I missed any conceits from the game? Are there any you would choose to avert (or subvert) in your world-building? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
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