Exploring the "Why" of D&D Mythology in 'Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes'

Todd Kenreck: One of the most important things about the D&D multiverse and its mythology is not necessarily the how things work but rather why, and that's what one Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes really delves into.

Mike Mearls: Yeah, and we're basically building a mythology of D&D. We're going back and saying, "Why are things the way they are?" And I use mythology very specifically. We think of these things as the foundational building blocks of the D&D cosmos. Why do dwarves act the way they act? That's the question we're asking. And we're then taking that and saying, given what we know about dwarves, if they act this way and now we know why they act this way, what does this say about how they might act in the future? So it's all about giving you as a dungeon master a framework within ... which you can work and both lay out, here's the pass of my campaign, but here's where I think my campaign might go. I know that dwarves are essentially homebodies. They don't like to leave their fortresses. They like stability. They like reliability. So now when I'm portraying a dwarf that have these big truths in mind, I can make up any dwarf I want, but what is hopefully interesting is you then contrast that dwarf to dwarf culture. If I have a dwarf who's chaotic neutral, how did they end up that way? What does it mean in this character's relationship to other dwarves and what does it mean for how they might act in the future? If I have a lawful evil elf, what does that mean?

And instead of saying here's all these very specific points - dwarves have six toes and dwarves always put their beards and braids to look like this - we focus a lot instead on giving you the bigger, more far-reaching truths, like dwarves like stability, because I think, my hope is as a dungeon master or writer or whoever's working on the game, you can take that truism and think about how it affects a specific character. So we don't wanna tell you what each specific dwarf is like. We wanna tell you in the generalities of dwarves backed up with mythology that says, here's their mythology and that explains why they are this way. Because D&D is a mythic universe. The gods exist, they're there. You could meet the person who made all the dwarves. Morden exists.

So mythology is incredibly important and it's very vivid. Basically D&D doesn't have history, it has mythology. And then once you know that, you have a framework which a lens you can use to understand things, and then start changing it. You can make now, I know what dwarves are in general, now I'm gonna make a specific dwarf with that knowledge and then I can play a contrast, I can lead into that, I can do one tweak, things like that. So one of the things that falls out of this is dwarves really like toil. They like to work. They generally enjoy working. You can imagine a red dragon somehow taking over a dwarf stronghold and the dwarves actually growing to like the dragon. What if the dragon gave them security and gave them purpose? Sure, you can obey all your customs. I just ... you can imagine a very clever dragon doing this. Just think of me as the king of this clan now. And I will now owe you everything that a king owes to you, but you will owe me everything that is owed to the king in turn. And you can imagine dwarves who happily serve the dragon. The dragon protects them and keeps their enemies away, so now they have stability. The dragon's very smart. The dragon makes good decisions. The clan is prospering.

What does that look like in your world? You've made something which might be really interesting to play with in your campaign, and you can see why it's this kind of warped arc of dwarves, but you can see how it fits in. You can imagine in a human kingdom, the elf character, the elves, who live next door to the human kingdom, might support the Robin Hood-esque figure who's trying to lead an insurrection against the king. Cause the elves just believe everyone should be free and happy. Why do you need this king who's collecting taxes? That's just wrong. And then the elves end up with the human kingdom over that. You're supporting the insurrection. Of course they would. That's just elves ... and even within that elven society, some elves might say, "We should help these humans," other elves like, "No we shouldn't," and then you start seeing that friction evolve. It's all about building mythology that asks more questions than it provides answers.

The only guideline we have is we will tell you about the mythic past. We will try to do it in a place that isn't judgmental. Because actually someone online got kind of fussy about it. The mind flare entry in Bolos. Oh, this is [inaudible 00:04:28] mind flare is the good guy. No. We're not saying anything. We don't say there are good guys or bad guys. We'll throw in a line in on people, say lawful good, lawful evil. But we try not to be judgmental because we tell you the mythic past, but the future is yours to write.

So that's why we try to do things like rather than say, "Dwarves are good. They love puppies and they help old ladies cross ... because they're good." No no no. We say dwarves are lawful good. Dwarves are nice to each other and they are nice in general to the world, but really what they like is stability. That's what they want. So that's how you end up with a dwarf clan ruled by a dragon, because they like stability and the dragon's offering stability. And that, to me, is why ... and why do they like stability? And you then trace it back. Here's the mythology. Here's the mythic foundation of dwarves in their society. And that's, I think, a big change for D&D. It was really funny. I never thought about it this way until we started doing a lot of research. D&D used to have this very scientific approach to world building. You'd ask, how do things work? How does this work? How does a dragon fly? Physically, how does that happen? How does a dragon's breath weapon work? What glands does it have, its organs? And now we ask why. Why do dragons fly? Why don't they just crawl or burrow? Why do dwarves live in mountains by themselves? Why haven't the elves just taken over every world in D&D? They live the longest. They're the eldest and they have powerful magic.

So we ask a lot of why, and invariably it's because here's the myth. Here's what happened. And that's what set these people on the course. So rather than look at biology, we look at culture. There's a thing, orcs act the way they are because that's the culture because there's a god Gruumsh who literally lives in the outer plains who tells them what to do and he has a plan. And then lurking behind Gruumsh is Uluthik, who she has a smarter plan. But if you took an orc and raised it in human society, it would just be like a human. Obviously it would be orc biologically, but it would just ... there's no reason why an orc couldn't be raised by ... but in an orc society and be like a dwarf. I just like toil and I like work and this is what I was taught. Because then you're talking about something which is much more morphible. You just say dwarves are Good no matter what, oh, these dwarves are ruled by a dragon. Must be a silver dragon. No, it's a blue dragon. Well how does that work? That's impossible. No, but instead you focus on that mythic layer. You focus on cultures and societies and asking lots of questions. I like to think we ask a lot of questions and we provide just enough of the answers that you can answer the rest of the question yourself.




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