Jokingly, a lot of people commonly reduce D&D to the phrase “kill people and take their stuff.” This has sort of become an expected description of the game — both from people who like it, and who dislike it. For a long time I myself uncritically accepted it. D&D worked best to me when there was less “fluff” in the way. Who cares about the social structure of the elves? And it’s true, D&D sort of works best this way. The game is at its smoothest and most efficient a vehicle to fight all sorts of different people and ultimately abscond with their goods, so you can fight the next batch. Consequences of these actions are best reduced to “which group of people is mad at you for what you did, and how will you defeat them and take their stuff?” You start with Kobolds, you work up to Orcs, then Trolls, then Giants, and you then leave your universe and fight the red people in the City of Brass in the Plane of Fire. This is kind of unsettling to me, and it has been for a long time. I just tried not to acknowledge it much. D&D as a whole just kinda screams at you to turn your brain off so you can enjoy it properly. But lets think.
D&D in essence is a game about working outside of community and dismantling it.
Not your community though, because your characters never really personally have a community. Your characters are always special outsiders who are wise in the ways of surviving the unending onslaught that constitutes existence in the world of D&D. You can fight off the wild-life, kill off the “bad races” and survive on your wits and strength in a way that 99% of the population cannot. You’re not “the peasants” and in fact association with the peasants is considered a very filthy theme in the minds of gamers — it is a sign of dullness and weakness when the glorious D&D character can only do something at an “average” level of proficiency (of course, the level of proficiency of an average person is wildly underestimated, such that “average” is actually “completely helpless and incapable” and “good” is “60% success rate”). Even in the old days when D&D characters died from the same amount of stab wounds as the peasantry (one or two) they were framed even more strongly as unfamiliar and asocial outsiders. D&D characters must always exist above the mean in some way. They’re like weird aliens.
So you don’t have a home, and if you do then you don’t really have any point of commonality with its people. You live in a different sphere from the rest of them, and you always will. And there are precious few people who share your lot — you can probably count them in one hand and indeed you will probably meet them and go adventuring, this being a requirement of the game. When you do, you will inevitably go around dismantling other communities. D&D doesn’t really have “good communities.” It’s at best got some benign monarchies and at worse it’s a lot of gleeful feudalism and fascism. I once told a friend that it was interesting how many third party products for D&D I saw that took it for granted that slavery just happened all over in D&D, and that furthermore it would be a moral dilemma for the characters whether to respect the law or free the slaves. D&D creates a lot of situations where the best answer is to burn the world and make a new one. And even when the community is benign you don’t really have mechanisms to leverage this. Maybe shop prices will be a little bit lenient. But since your characters are never borne out of a culture or community and are set apart by working outside it, there’s precious little gain from a “good community” in D&D. The game, as a whole, encourages characters to live outside community, to not think much of the people within community, and if community gets in their way, to destroy it.
And maybe those people were kinda shitty. Maybe the Orcs did do bad things and maybe to save one bad community you have to smash a worse community. But this is a conscious decision that could be changed — kobolds could eat way less babies and Orcs could enslave way less people (I’d like for it to be “none” on both accounts but I can’t always have my way I guess). The People vs People conflicts in D&D tend to look incredibly skeevy because the Orcs are a “race” upon whom you can make a blanket generalization that essentially advocates their elimination. Almost literally D&D can become a game about hunting people, whom you’ll refer to as “monsters,” like they were wolves who came in to eat your cattle. Better clear the mountainside because all wolves eat sheep; better destroy the Orc camp that just sprang up nearby because all Orcs murder humans.
D&D and its mechanisms choose, whether consciously or not, to promote these kinds of outcomes. Kill the bad guy is a simple motivation that can make for cathartic entertainment, but it becomes revolting when the Bad Guy is an entire race of people reducible down to the phrase “Always Chaotic Evil.” One of the chief ways that this is promoted is by oversimplification. Tabletop RPG writers struggle for clarity, simplicity and page space. It’s simpler to understand a phrase than it is to read about a culture. It’s easier to create that phrase than to flesh out that culture. And it’s even easier when the majority of your fanbase will scream about the fungibility of your page space if it’s not chock full of numbers they can add up to other numbers. “Orc Culture”? You could’ve written like 20 feats in this space! I know, because I was that guy. D&D helps us all become that guy. After all, you really have no mechanisms by which you can employ Orc Lore to do anything the game deems important. You could probably make something out of those 20 feats in the gameplay, even if it ultimately sucks.
This is why I think it’s important to work on culture and community as a basis for the human elements of a fantasy story or game. I think it’s okay to want to wargame, and I’m not against People vs. People conflicts in games. But I think they have to be much more thought out than they are right now. I’m really not okay anymore with games where the Orcs are just bad, because they’re bad. In Lord of the Rings there is at least a bit of a point to this — the orcs are people reduced to that level by a monstrous industrial movement that can literally make them out of dirt to perpetuate itself, so okay, whatever. In D&D Orcs are just Bad because their God is a Bad Guy who likes murder and hates the non-Orcs of the world and teaches his people that Might Makes Right. I don’t know why he isn’t also the god of most D&D characters, because they’re all very alike in a lot of ways.
People vs. People conflicts should, in my opinion, be either personal or petty. Not petty as in casual or thoughtless, but petty in the grand scheme of things, like a theft, or a disagreement. When someone hires assassins to get you, it should be personal. There should be motives. There should be names and histories. There should be commensurate consequences, for both sides. There should be something to think about. When large groups of people fight there should be more to it than nameless, faceless animosity. You can have a war, but put names and ideologies on both sides beyond memetic genocide. “Your God is a bad guy” can only get you so far in explaining why your whole history has been an exchange of depopulating events. Seriously think about (and think about it again, because your ideas might be offensive in a whole universe of ways that are not the focus of this post) what is happening and flesh things out. Fighting people should not function the same as hunting weird fantasy animals. When you’ve chosen to grant sentience to an adversary you should start thinking bigger.
People vs. People conflicts are a matter of context, and you have to provide the right cultural context for them. This does not just apply to the enemies. Characters should come from a culture. They should have a community. Community is not just a hindrance or a system of draconian laws that keep you from having fun. You’re writing fantasy, and D&D is a really goofy game that never correlated one to one with the time period people so fervently desire that it adhere to. You can think big here, and you can make cultures that they’ll want to participate in, protect, and share with others. However, and more importantly, this also requires you to make these things matter to the game. I can’t tell D&D how to do that, because it’s a massive undertaking that is currently, essentially failing in public to make much of a change or expansion. But other games and gamers can take it as a point of reference. Look at what D&D does about this — and don’t do that.