A Focus on Power Fantasies Ruins TTRPGs For Everyone

I saw someone post on Twitter that Dungeons and Dragons is all about power fantasies and, as a result, most people play characters that are like them in an effort to roleplay situations that make them, personally, feel powerful. I have a lot of mixed feelings about this idea and a WHOLE lot of thoughts about how it can play out in actual games. Part of the problem, of course, is that making any blanket statement based on your personal experiences shows your personal biases, privelege, and frequently overlooks the experiences of people who aren’t like you. I’m going to try to avoid making any such statements here by talking about my experiences specifically, but I will have to generalize a bit unless I’m going to write an entire novel. Which has a certain appeal, but this isn’t really the medium for discourse at length.

Assuming Dungeons and Dragons (and all TTRPGs, for that matter) is about personal power fantasies opens the door for some incredibly toxic gameplay. Most people who say stuff like that qualify their statements by saying that the caveat is that no player’s power fantasies should be allowed if they come at the cost of someone else’s comfort or ability to play out THEIR power fantasies. The best takes I’ve seen even go so far as to encourage conversation about what power fantasies people want to play out and to work outside the game to make sure every gets what they want in the game.

Personally, though, I think TTRPGs are about telling fun stories. At its most basic, what is the point of playing a game if the people playing it aren’t enjoying themselves? And I am specifically avoiding words like “good” because sometimes it is really fun to put your character in a bad position and to play through the consequences. There’s a whole group of roleplayers out there who love nothing more than watching their characters fail and struggle. They don’t care about the story structure or “good” triumphing over “evil” so much as they enjoy working their character through some difficult situation to explore how they’d respond and enjoy the ensuing roleplaying drama they’re a part of.

If you go into a TTRPG with the understanding that it’s about playing out power fantasies, it makes it incredibly easy for people to insert their issues into a game. While TTRPGs can provide a good setting for working through some of these things, it requires an incredible amount of work on the GM’s part and the part of the players to do it in a healthy way. Unless it is done in a purposeful, thoughtful manner, it will invariably blow up on the game in what will frequently be an incredibly damaging way. I’ve been on both sides of this, as a player and as a GM, and I can say that nothing sucks the fun out of a game as quickly as a player accidentally setting themselves up as the powerful actor in a situation that once traumatized them. Done unconsciously, it plays out like generational trauma. It just gets passed on to someone else as a person replays the situation that traumatized them rather than working to change the narrative.

I’ve seen people respond to comments like that one with “this is what safety tools are for” and while I agree that safety tools can be used to prevent things from getting worse in this kind of situation or maybe prevent any of the other players from being pulled into a player gaming through an unhealthy situation, it is better to prevent these things from happening than to treat their symptoms. Including safety tools specifically so you can pull the plug after a situation gets toxic so you don’t have to do any work to avoid toxic situations is also incredibly unhealthy for the people at your table. And I’m not saying traumatized people with power issues shouldn’t be allowed to play TTRPGs, of course–I am one of those people, after all–but I don’t think they should be encouraged to play out their power fantasies as default objective of any TTRPG.

I’ve seen what happens when a player starts a game with that mentality. Even if they work with the DM in the beginning to avoid bringing too much of their trauma and personal issues into their character, so long as they believe the game is about exploring power fantasies, it will always work its way into the game. I’ve had personal triggers hit despite the behavior being explicitly forbidden as a player suddenly escalated a situation, I’ve had to adjudicate bad blood between players when one played out their power at the cost of another’s, and I’ve had to play counselor as players have had to deal with feeling ignored and devalued because someone talked over them repeatedly. I’ve even had all of these things happen in a single game. Which is where my three-strikes rule comes from, actually.

As long as the players believe the game is about finding ways to make them feel powerful, there is the likelihood that someone will do so at another player’s expense. And sure, some players might work out ways to take turns and get everyone a bit of the power they want, its still the single-most common way I’ve found to rip a group apart. Eventually, someone feels like they’re paying the price of someone else’s power too often and things will begin to escalate.

Of course, none of this is a problem in a group that’s close, emotionally mature, and capable of talking things through in a caring and supportive manner, but I’ve never seen a single one of those groups develop from a power-fantasy group or even engage in that kind of power-fantasy behavior as their primary objective at the table. The best I’ve seen is people working to make each other feel powerful without sacrificing their own power, the kind of group cooperation seen in a lot of the more successful TTRPG streams, but most of those groups aren’t working with the idea that their game is about power fantasies. They’re getting together to have fun.

And that framing, that the purpose is fun and ejoyment rather than power, makes a huge difference.

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