There has been some talk about some of the recent releases for 5th ed. Dungeons and Dragons, such as The Wild Beyond the Witchlight and Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos. The former begins in a traveling carnival run by fey folk, and leads into adventures within the setting‘s realm of faerie. The latter is based in a wondrous school of magic and the dealings going on there, derived from a Magic: The Gathering release which in turn harkens back to a particular set of works by Rowling.
Compared to the dungeon-delving or planar traveling of other D&D releases, these releases have generated a bit of skepticism by certain sections of the fanbase. Notably, from what I’ve observed, it’s due to a shift from just action-heavy resolution of problems, with the all-too common combat encounters, to possible resolutions without any combat. And, in the case of Strixhaven, the incorporation of the mundane and routine as plot elements: classes, studying, extracurriculars, work, relationships, and the like. What’s so heroic and fantastical about that?
For one, I think that it’s a smart move to show how D&D can be used in a variety of story styles and settings, especially beyond the familiar tropes of sword and sorcery-style adventures. Many other supplements, current and past, released addressed other settings or styles that went beyond the fantastic medieval milieu: the magical tech of Eberron and Ravnica; the mythic and classic Greco-themed realm of Theros; the horror-steeped setting of Ravenloft; the apocalyptic weirdness of Dark Sun; the game of nations that was Birthright; the Tolkien-like war between the forces good and evil, but with more dragons, in Dragonlance; the plane-crossing exoticism of Planescape; the magical space fantasy of Spelljammer; and others.
Both the novel and the familiar appeal to an audience. Not every film out there is an action-packed blockbuster. Think of the appeal held by films like The Godfather, Animal House, The Breakfast Club, A Christmas Story, and so many others. They tap on things that we know or know of, if not experienced in some form or fashion. Blowing up the bad guy isn’t the goal of the narrative—it’s successfully navigating in the world they’re a part of. And that’s the appeal for an audience: to see it unfold for characters they connect to or even potentially see as proxies for themselves.
For some D&D players, their characters aren’t just pieces on a playing field—they’re defined beings. They’re characters that they’re invested in, just like any character from literature or film that they’ve made a connection to. And that’s something that is due recognition. The character is a character, and not just a specific piece on the playing field, much less an optimized piece on the playing field for that particular game. And living vicariously through that character can manifest in many ways, and not just some Grand Theft Auto-style rampage stealing and assaulting anyone and anything you feel like at the time.
If anything, it really is living up to the possibility of doing anything through the medium of a roleplaying game. Other games have used or created mechanics suited for their setting or genre, and some try to be all things to all players. However, I think it’s good that D&D is shown to demonstrate this diverse play style, rather than just saying that it’s capable of, yet not really showcasing this quality itself. I’m not asking for the game to be all things under the sun for everyone, but ultimately, I always appreciate the show of potential and application in ways that I or others may not have thought of.