Just Playing 4ED D&D

I was a holdout.

I loved 3.5 D&D. I really did. I was an active poster on the min-max forums. I had lots of work – I mean huge amounts of work – set aside for running 3.5 D&D campaigns. I was planning, in an odd and roundabout way, to make my living selling 3.5 D&D stuff, never once considering the transient nature of that industry period.

I remember sitting down and trying to make my case that 4ed D&D removed too many options from me, it made me do all this work all over again to make characters I liked, and now I didn’t even know if there was anything cool I could connect to. I even said ‘it doesn’t feel like D&D.’

Then at the table, one of our players – working on her research thesis – simply told me that the game let her play. The game meant there was less time for her spent correcting things, researching things, and that she could just play. The game’s dungeonmasters’ tools were there to make it easier to grab monsters, put them together, and just play.


I wound up falling into 4ed pretty hard after that. The first thing is that min-maxing 4ed is pretty good and fun – and I had misunderstood the aim of optimising. The thing is, optimising isn’t about making the most powerful thing you can hypothetically make – it’s about making the most powerful thing within the confines of the game. That’s optimising, it’s building to your limits!

With that in mind, 4ed D&D had really good DM’s tools. It structured enemies and their abilities as if you might have to gauge them. I don’t know who remembers what it was like learning 3.5 encounters but sometimes you’d have to double a monster’s HP on the fly as players spiked it out in one shot, or cut their lifespan in half because players couldn’t punch through their highly technical defenses. Enemies were designed, now. They were designed, not eyeballed!


Do you remember how 3.5 D&D monsters even worked? So many outliers! So many creatures that were ‘technically’ fair, because they were balanced around frustrating either/or mechanics, like the Grick. Remember the Grick? The Grick was a creature with 8 hp, and DR 15/+1. That is to say, they ignored the first 15 HP of any attack from any weapon that wasn’t enchanted at +1 or more. Which meant a Grick was, when you had your first magic weapon at level 4 or so, an absolute laugh – 8 damage was almost nothing to a character who knew how to try to do damage, but 23 damage was a lot for an early play. Dealing 16 or 17 damage five turns in a row was pretty tricky at level 2 or 3, and Gricks, you could fight four Gricks at level 3!

Without a magic weapon!

Anyone sensible would fix that, but 3.5 D&D kept these dang things more or less the same, which was extra irritating! They had a chance to fix them!

So on the one hand you could see D&D 4ed as a major enema on the DMing system, allowing the tools to be a lot more useful for people who were DMing the first time. But it wasn’t just that.


The other thing is that the 4ed ruleset had a very broad, permissive attitude to things in the skill and story system. There’s this chart in the Dungeonmaster’s Guide about why you might want to make a story point a conflict – and it shows a story arcing in two directions: that you should only really make failures about sending the story in other, different directions, which is super interesting by comparison.

The Skill system – which is simplified, it’s true – represented a major change as well, where skills were made a bit more vague, so players could interpret their methods of solution. Suddenly, you could Arcana Things in the dungeon to make obscure systems stop working, but you could also Dungeoneering them or Endurance them to represent sustained effort to break them.

When a player wanted to run a game, when they wanted to sit down and represent the way that their story worked, nobody had to explain it to them. They could read the books, look at how the books talked about running scenarios and stories, and then, those players could make those choices as they started to run the game for the first time.

The Dungeonmaster’s books focused on giving you toolsets, and explaining them well. It was not about creating intricate systems that you had to feed data into, instead focusing on showing you results of those systems so you could easily grab them, but then also giving you the information of how those results were generated.


Then there’s class roles. I know some people hate these, and those people are fine, but those players can just be wrong at me all they like. Class roles already exist in other games; they’re ways that two characters choose to make themselves different to one another so in any cooperative situation, they’re not just replicating each other’s efforts. I’ve done that in games – I’ve been the one player who could replicate another player’s efforts, and I’ve been that player worse when I could replicate another player’s entire character with a class feature of mine.

Class roles are a formal structure for enabling players to build cooperatively. They’re also mostly focused on combat, not on other toolsets; you can reliably point out that Clerics have access to healing type utility powers and skillsets, and Rangers have access to naturey type utility powers and skillsets, and Bards tend to have access to every single thing.

What about the handful of utility goofiness, like magically summoning up birds to talk to or stuff like that? Well, the game doesn’t even tie those things, those special abilities to characters’ classes or roles. Those are now rituals, which means if you want to have access to that kind of special ability, you can just have it if you’re willing to invest in the skills to do it!


You might notice so far I haven’t really been talking about the way this game’s combat system worked, per se. Oh, sure, the monsters as DM’s tools, but not the combat system as players deal with it. I mean, it ties into the combat roles – but you can run a combat-less 4ed game-

Yeah, you can.

Don’t look at me like that.

I don’t know why you’d want to, the tactical combat in this game is one of the fun things it does well – but you don’t have to use it.

The thing is, the combat system, that? I totally understand if you want to take it or leave it. There are lots of games that don’t do combat well, and do other things really well, and you could totally use those. But I like running around stabbing baddies with my Paladin’s big honking axe, and I also like the downtime between those combats spent solving big puzzles and meeting strange people and managing my resources and yes, occasionally flirting with demons because that’s all very complicated.

I like 4ed because it plays well. It’s big, it’s solved, it’s searchable, and you can have a lot of fun playing it. If it doesn’t work for you and your group, that’s fine too. Nothing wrong with that.

But acting as if 4ed D&D is inherently bad? That’s really foolish. It works. It plays. It has inclusive rules that can handle a wide variety of things. DMs are rarely left with the answer ‘I have no idea’ to the question ‘hey, how could I do this thing?’

It just plays.

This blog post and subject was suggested, as above, by @Kassil on Twitter. If you’d like to suggest stuff you’d like to see me write about, please, do contact me!

Let’s Dismantle Bohnanza

Every game you play is a toolbox of mechanisms that you can use. When you play a game, you learn how that game works, and you learn how things like that can work. You build a repertoire of mechanics, a library, a toolbox. With that in mind, let’s look at a game and take it apart, to see what systems it has in place we have to work with.

Continue reading

Ludonarrative Dissonance in Card Games

Here’s a question: How hard is it to create ludonarrative dissonance in tabletop games which are primarily represented in the players’ heads?

The Concept Of Ludonarrative Dissonance

Crash course! Ludonarrative Dissonance is the idea that the way a game plays or the play experience of a game may have some sort of contradiction to the narrative or perceived theme of that game. That is to say, it’s an idea that crops up whenever you’re playing a game and feel that what the game says and what the game has you do don’t match up. It’s something of a whipping horse in the games discourse, a place we often go to. Myself, I find it a bit too smug as a concept to really deal with, and the people who first coined the term in academia aren’t wild about how it ran wild and was used as part of a wedge to create an implication of some sort of war between Ludic and Narrative elements.

Myself, my thesis – literally, I did a thesis on this – is that the experience of play is creative, and any individual interpretation of the plot and the play is yours and therefore it’s a bit hard for you to say ‘these two things are at odds’ as much as you can say ‘I found these two contrasting things when I played it,’ but that doesn’t make it wrong. So here, some reference material:

Myself, I find the term has a bit of that smug snottiness of ‘you’re posting about socialism from your iPhone.’ It’s very easy to find Ludonarrative Dissonance complaints crop up a bit like…

By Matt Bors

One of the common sources of the conversation was Bioshock where a game that was ostensibly about complaining about the mechanisms and solutions of objectivism was at odds with the gameplay experience of a game where you hoarded money so you could maximise your personal survival at the expense of others. That particular observation, for example, does sort of beg askance of yes, but the society you’re hoarding money in is a collapsed hellscape full of people stabbing you with knives, but it tends to come down to how you interpret the themes and the metaphors of the play, rather, necessarily that they’re about some objective value within the work.

Wasn’t that great? Alright, moving on!

Where Games Are

The important thing is can you have that kind of dissonance in a card or board game? After all, card and board games are doing most of their work in your head, and it’s not very common you’ll have someone presenting a game mechanic that’s genuinely and obviously at odds with the themes of the work, at least, not anywhere it’s caught my attention.

One example of something that may seem that way in one interpretation is the game Chinatown, which is a fantastic little economic game of deals and trades and math at high speeds. The game’s own manual however, juxtaposes these two lines:

You’re here to achieve all you can and hopefully reach the American Dream.

The winner is the player who collects the most money.

Now you could see this as two lines in contrast with one another, but it’s much easier to read it as just being really cynical, isn’t it? There’s a similar thing in some city manager or economic games, where playing like a purist liberterian may make the game state flat out fail. There’s also the complexity of any game where there’s another player, where you might not perceive a failure in the game’s systems to explain its ideology as a byproduct of that other player hecking things up.

This all makes this pretty hard to put our finger on, but I’d like to point to one example of a card game, that, for me, kinda doesn’t really work that well.

Our Example: CLANK!

CLANK! is a game that’s reasonably well-regarded by players and critics; it won several awards for ‘most innovative’ kind of responses, for example. What it is, in essence, is a dungeon crawler, where you, the players, are moving your little meeples through a dungeon, and picking up treasure and recruiting assistants. This is a well-worn design space, and we have a lot of mechanics for it.

The thing that sets CLANK! aside is that it uses a deck-building mechanic to handle its loot and recruitment. And at first this seems like kind of a good idea; you can make it so that your cards all represent loot jiggling around in your bags and going clank against one another, and you can even treat it like going bust in Blackjack – you flip too many cards, you have to start again, so each turn has the chance to push your luck and so on.

Myself, I don’t like this.

Specifically, what I don’t like about as CLANK! executes it is has a board and the deck. This means that when you’re moving around, you’re also moving your cards – essentially meaning that your characters have two different abstractions for space. Is this a terrible idea? Probably not, but it does make me wonder about the deck. Deck builders are great for things that grow – but the deck has made itself so that the game sort of represents your personal effects? And as it grows you’re actually unhappy with it? At the same time, the fact that you can get dud draws or draws that aren’t helpful isn’t actually useful, or used for anything necessarily?

Now I want you to understand: My dislike of this mechanic is theoretical. I have not played CLANK! and I’d be happy to find I was wrong if that’s possible. But it still strikes me as an example of where the feel of the mechanics doesn’t work for me in the feel of the game’s style.

This blog post and subject was suggested, as above, by @JulienKirch on Twitter. If you’d like to suggest stuff you’d like to see me write about, please, do contact me!

The MTG Data… Thing

If you know about this, you know what it’s about. If you don’t, boy howdy, trust me, it could scarcely matter less.

Here’s your rough outline: Wizards of the Coast have revised one of their web features, where they released ten decklists that had gone 5-0 at a League that week. Instead, they said, they’re now going to release five decklists, and instead of letting randomness pick them out, they’re going to let a people do it. A people!

Look, on the face of it, people who are unhappy about this, I am actually on your side: In this case, you had More Data, and now you have Less Data. That sucks! That is straight-up a bummer, and if you like Data, less of them is worse than more of them!

And then, the Magic Community had to go and be.

Alright, let’s talk about the goony-as-heck reaction to this, and by inference, the rolled-in reaction to the change of Friday Night Magic because these two things just run straight into one another in the worst hecking way. So! Wizards are now giving you Less Data, which means the correct course of action is to form in large, ridiculous, conspiratorial groups on Reddit and fume at one another about how it’s impossible that Wizards of the Coast functions as a company, because they’re clearly awful and stupid and bad, and let’s throw rocks at them. You should also pen large articles that refer to this as DATA HOARDING and also, while we’re at it, refer to it as INSANITY because that’s classy, especially when the article gets to sit alongside confessional stories of how Magic: The Gathering helped the writer overcome their suicidal depression. Good look.

The use of Hoarding is a fun one too, because Hoarding, we recognise, is a Bad Thing. We know Hoarding is bad and it’s a loaded word because it implies that someone is keeping more than their share, for a foolish reason, that really should be a right to everyone. This is like how America has a Health Hoarding problem, I guess. Point is: You don’t call it Data Hoarding if you’re not trying to imply Wizards of the Coast are sitting on a giant pile of Data like dragons on coinage.

The argument is that Wizards are terrible for this, that they’re witholding the data for nefarious purpose. Now, I’ve also heard that Wizards have asked Starcity Games and MTG Goldfish to stop publishing full tournament decklists, but also done so in the context of asking people. The notion is that Wizards feel an excessive array of decklists in an environment make it too solvable, and they’d rather people write about their decks rather than let people do amateur economics to a huge pile of data points. The people who benefit from huge swathes of decklists are Pro players, people with testing environments, as well. In essence, Wizards have said People in general don’t know what to do with data, and too much data benefits people who are already in position to win.

Next thing: Wizards have also decided to stop giving away FNM Standard Promo cards, and instead replace them with foil two-sided tokens at FNMs. FNM is Friday Night Magic, basically a store initiative to get you  to play the game and bring people together to enjoy the game together. FNM has broadened massively in the past few years – it used to be Standard, or Draft – and now it’s so varied that players can wind up playing Conspiracy or Commander or old formats or Pauper of all things. They’re still going to give away the FNM standard promo cards, but only for the Standard Showdown format they release. People asked for ways to get the tokens, they provided, and they moved the standard promos.

And how do these two things hit each other?

Wizards have said they chose to do this after checking data. And that means we get to watch the highest tier of internet intelligentsia arguing that they need more data to make decisions, but also Wizards doesn’t have data necessary to make this decision. Wizards were asked – via Mark Rosewater’s blog – how much data they were basing it off, and if it could possibly be statistically significant. Wizards’ response was all FNMs since the program started. If you wanted a better demonstration of the MTG community’s amateurish assumptions about how they could handle data vs how Wizards could handle data, you could scarcely ask for more proof.

Bonus: Then people demanded Wizards release that data. Because how else could they believe Wizards of the Coast, if they didn’t provide literally years of data about FNM attendance in every location, along with all the qualitative research and questionnaires they’d done.

In all this, one thing Wizards have said is the leading thing that encourages people to be and hang around FNMs is the environment being friendly and nice. That is, it’s not the incentive to play for the special cards that draws people in, it’s something else. It’s the social environment. And imagine, just imagine, and if you’re the kind of person who gets mad about Data and invents conspiracy stories about the company it might be you don’t make the environment friendly. I’m not saying this was targeted, but I am saying if you’re the kind of dickhead who brags about sharking the most casual FNMs you can find to scoop up the FNM standard promo cards, maybe you’re not good at recognising other people’s incentive systems for wanting to avoid playing with you.

I don’t know. Honestly, I do see the problem with giving people too few data. I do see the idea that trying to dissolve the cloud of decklists for raw data scrapers is a fool’s errand because the people who scrutinise that information aren’t, generally, going to necessarily actually notice that they’re not yielding useful results with their predictive models.

The main lesson though, the one thing we can really take away, however is Being kind and friendly helps your FNM.

Storytelling in Non-RPG Games

This is a bit of a tease of a subject, because if you’ve ever heard me explaining games in general, there’s this phrase I’m fond of using: A Game is a Machine to Make Stories. Not tell stories, to make stories. Every game you play gives you a story, and you may not think it’s a great story or not, but you will always walk away from a game with a story. Since stories are one of the fundamental things that change how people think, it seems to me that this is a pretty powerful tool to put out there!

Plus, there’s the question of What’s a non-RPG game? Consider if you will Assassins Creed II – a game that exists in the Ubisfot mould of A Big Open Thing You Just Do Stuff In. In this game you’re explicitly rewarded for behaving the ways the game tells you Ezio Auditore does; when you match with his memories of an event, for example. You are, simply put, trying to be as much like Ezio as you can. Is that a RPG?

Most folk will say no, and I’ll happily concede that, because ‘RPG’ is a bit of a nebulous term. So for the purpose of this conversation, what I’m going to do is try to define what people might mean – generally – by the term ‘RPG.’

An RPG for this purpose is a table-top game where the game primarily gives you the tools to create characters and scenarios for a human to mediate. That’s a rough outline, but it’ll do; because we know what we really mean is stuff like Dungeons & Dragons or Blades in the Dark or Breakfast Cult.

With that in mind, let’s talk real quick about three simple, small examples of Storytelling Techniques in non-RPG Tabletop Games.

The Missing Parent

If you’ve heard me talk about Betrayal At The House On The Hill, you know I’ve had this metaphor well-prepared; in a lot of ways, Betrayal is like an absentee parent. For a portion of the game, it sits around silently, letting you entertain yourself – and then someone trips some meter, some amazing thing happens and suddenly, the game presents you with this bounty of mechanics and storytelling and two different books you need to check through, and look in the box, this one scenario has special cat counters look!

I have problems with how it’s executed and how it makes the first part of the game dull, but this tool system is really good, if hard to implement. In the case of Betrayal, it gives you a set of possible semi-random dials that determine what a thing might do, and then the game makes sure that every thing the game might do is cool, and interesting, and stands apart.

This is a great device, a good mechanic, and you should steal it except, here’s the problem: This is hugely effort intensive and it will eat you alive if you don’t keep it contained. Simple fact: Storytelling like this gives you dozens of slots to fill and you can’t make any of them too similar. In this way that opening dull half of a game is a big value for this game; it gives you enough time to forget the exact way the other versions of the game are, and it slows you down enough that you won’t rush to find two identical or similar game modes easily.

The mechanism in summary is randomised set of variables determine a huge number of tailored possible scenarios. The problem with it is it takes a huge amount of effort to make interesting.

The Obtuse Expander

Next up we have the Dead of Winter Crossroads system. Here the system is in summary: At the start of your turn, another player draws a card from a deck, and that card has on it a trigger condition for the event to happen. Could be as simple as ‘visited the Mall’ and can be much more sophisticated.

The Crossroads system is really nice: particularly because a human interpreter, in secret, keeps track of the info, and the fact the system is being deliberately obscure means you can have it do weird things – like it can actually ask you to search for cards in the deck to set up secondary events, or it can lead to you referencing another deck altogether, or it might even do nothing, leaving a player sometimes eerily afraid of a thing that doesn’t do anything. Plus, because each other player looks at a Crossroad card from time to time, they each learn the kinds of things that can happen but never be sure of what will happen.

Dig this system. It is also effort intense, but not nearly as effort-intense as the brutal weight of the Betrayal book.

The Golden Child

Inevitably, this was going to come up; The Legacy model of games. Legacy games are great, because they let the game have a story arc by dint of adding mechanisms or removing them, transforming the experience of how you play this game. You can’t access that city any more because it is Lost, for example.

Problem with Legacy games? Well there are lots, but it combines problems from the Crossroads games’ level of effort and production values, but it also runs the risk of being unrepeatable. Oh, I suppose if you wanted to combine the Betrayal model you could also make your board game incorporate dozens of permutations of this, so every time someone buys it they might not get the same model of the game’s legacy as the first one but good gracious what the heck are you thinking about.

Applying It For Yourself

With that in mind, here are my three pieces of advice if you want to do this as an indie developer:

  • If you make a Legacy game, make it Print-And-Play. Let the pieces be destructable.
  • If you make a Crossroads game, hire an Editor. You will need to make this bulletproof.
  • If you make a Betrayal game, understand the need for the first arc of the game to be interesting.

Now that said, what about what I’ve done in this vein? Well, the closest I can think to a novel storytelling tool is the game Jiāngjú, which is meant to represent the close of a Hong Kong action movie, where everyone has a pair of finger-guns pointing at one another.

In Jiāngjú‘s largest mode, each player has a hidden role that gives them different values to other players. On the other hand, they know this gives them value to enemy teammates, too. In this case, players have to use their very limited time trying to express a vague idea about who they are to one another in a way that other players can get – while still not giving too much away to their enemies.

In essence, the way to play this form of the game is as if you’re recapping the plot of a long movie, yes-anding your friends as you try to avoid giving away too much of the wrong kind of information. This can mean arguing about who was truly someone’s best friend, trying to find out the edges of who you are, find the edges of what you can give away and not – within three moves of a gun.

This blog post and subject was suggested, as above, by @PracticalPeng on Twitter. If you’d like to suggest stuff you’d like to see me write about, please, do contact me!

Amerimanga Covers

There’s a super specific genre of shitpost I do on twitter that I can only really describe as deeply sarcastic fake Amerimanga cover art. I’ve done enough of them now that I sort of feel I should archive some of them in one spot. Here’s a fold! Continue reading

Choices In Narrative

A little writing advice, for those who struggle with the idea of larger works which are themselves composed of many smaller works. It’s easy to imagine sequences of action and reaction, but it’s harder to render cause and effect. Here is a simple thesis about how to view goals in storytelling; the beginnings and endings of acts, things that determine the consequences that shape each stage of the plot.

An act concludes when a character the act pivots around makes a choice that cannot be undone.

This logically presents a challenge for time travel stories. The point is that these things represent necessary gates on a characters’ story, a point where the story has to accept and render permanent a new state.

I find this is a good way to think of stories and it can help to isolate why so many stories – especially those in heavily franchised works – don’t actually feel like they matter much. In any given Sweet Valley or Christian Ripoff Of The Same story, any individual misunderstanding will be solved by characters just explaining things and talking it out and maybe praying and talking to the pastor. It’s a useful rule of thumb for marking points where stakes reside: The way tomorrow is different from today.


The Impossible Spectre of Balance in 3.5 D&D

I recently went back to some old content I made for 3.5 D&D and found myself considering that the flavour, the tone, the purpose were all sound –

A quick aside.

When I say the flavour, I mean the way the game objects are designed to represent things in the universe; a ranged attack that deals a decent chunk of damage and requires an action to refresh could be easily flavoured as a gun;

when I say the tone, I mean the kind of other things in the universe that are necessary for the thing to exist; guns don’t work in a setting without advanced metallurgy, for example, but they also don’t work in a setting where you want fights to be back-and-forth exchanges of force;

When I say purpose, I mean what mechanical end I want this object to fulfill in the world; this gun may work as a way to give players with less physical stats a meaningful ranged attack and to show this region as being more focused on distributable technology than on magical advancement

– but that without a lot of refamiliarising myself with the rules I could not say for sure how balanced they were, or were not, in a D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder game. I went back to read the Tome of Battle and Tome of Magic, two books I love but which have

Let’s say problems.

3.5 D&D was a game with a fantasy of balance. It had a lot of systems for creating ballparks, and if you bothered to explore all those ballparks you could wind up finding one where all your players could play together. You had to avoid the situation where one player was playing a totally different sport in a different field, but it wasn’t like you were being fundamentally reasonably by limiting sources. The whole problem of the CoDZilla (“Cleric Or Druid”) of 3.5 was that in the core book alone they were still totally broken and other sources only made them moreso.

There were other systems totally weirded up; like the Sunder mechanic was either useless or amazing, and its side effect of destroying treasure was either dreadful or meaningless. The trip and grapple systems could be pushed to breaking, the summoning system had its narrow holes, and every single expansion or splatbook you can find only adds either new options that are too weak to make any difference, or totally new broken things.

This is the conundrum of 3.5: Nothing is balanced, but things have gravity. Things suck together, and you can find a balancing point acreted around one general family of busted stuff. This is something I really found comforting about it in hindsight, but is also a trap: If players were not in a position, skill-wise, to pull towards those same common spots, if they were drawn towards other thematic thing, that player was set up to have a miserable time.

So what’s the solution?

My gut is to make it so the broken options are easy to get. To allow for elegant, simple power. Make the four-prestige class stack-em-ups a bother to get. Make small rules tweaks that keep those kind of complicated builds being total upgrades, but don’t try and push players away from the powerful toys that are cool.

Towards the last of my 3.5 days, the builds I looked for to make were, as an ideal, as few classes and prestige classes as possible; as a designer, if someone brought me a character splashing a single level of four or five classes on the way to a prestige class, I was left considering that the jankiness was a problem. When your build was full of different stuff that you picked up because there was no investment to do so, it meant your play experience slowed down (hang on, do I have a thing to do with that?), and it also meant the costs for joining a prestige class or taking a level in another class were too low.

Overall this is heartening though: I don’t think I can make anything that’s too overpowered, especially ‘overpowered’ is a moving target.

Blacklist’s Twist’s Piss


I’ve watched all of the Blacklist that’s available on Netflix Australia right now, which is to say up to the end of Season 4, and I did so only, I can assume out of some sense of ridiculous obligation. Blacklist is a TV series that establishes itself with a strong premise, a robust opening, a promising cast of initial characters, and stands back, arms spread, saying watch this unfold.

I have now after all this watching, some information for you which must come after the fold, because somehow someone out there might be fancying No, I want to watch this show, without that knowledge, so it can surprise me. If that’s the case, friend, please, first of all, brace for disappointment, but, for your sake, here is the fold: Continue reading

The Pathetic World of the Lion King

The morality of the Lion King is a fascinating thing because of the assumptions of the world, and specifically, how we interpret those assumptions.

Let’s get this out there, right away: Every single interpretation of The Lion King is unrealistic. We can’t kid ourselves on this: These are animals that do not communicate with one another, do not socialise with one another, there are no complex legal systems or societal boundaries to animals in the way we understand them, and birds don’t give mo-o-o-rning reports. It’s a story for kids. And that means we’re going to be talking about a diegesis that is already fundamentally fantastic.

Nonetheless, there is a popular line of conversation that forwards that Scar wasn’t so bad, and another that forwards the movie is similar to Hamlet, in which Scar, as Claudius, is very bad. I find both of these interpretations really tiresome but that’s okay, because I find the fact people are making them to be more interesting. I want to do a real quick unpack of something that the story outlines, and how people interpret that.


Here’s the rough thesis, presented from the affirmative:

Scar is a leader who wants to encourage a unity of all peoples, and the outcome of his ideology is meaningless, because a drought ruined Pride Rock and that’s something he has no power over

And the same idea, from the opposite position is:

Scar’s failures tie into dealing with a drought that hit his territory, and how he responds to it shows he is a bad leader.

Now, these are both, I feel, internally cogent positions. After all, you can point to the fact Scar beats his sister in law for comparing him to Mufasa shows him as thin-skinned and she evokes as if they’d had a lot of conversations about this same topic, suggesting that he wasn’t listening to (potentially) useful advice; at the same time, it’s possible that he was also heavily stressed by his position, and this one conversation isn’t proof of other conversations, so he might have been lashing out in a weak moment, and so on. In each case, there is enough flexibility in the text to interpret them.

But there is also the assumption in this that the drought isn’t anyone’s fault. There’s even a fan theory that Mufasa’s actions of segregation caused the drought, and another that, as a spiritual force, he made the drought happen in order to restore Simba to his throne (which, if true, heck to you Mufasa, people – or at least animals, or maybe even lions –  probably died in that drought). The point is, the idea is that The Lion King is a story where there is a natural procession of events, and the actions of the protagonists merely exist as interruptions, disruptions in the normal regular pattern of reality as it was going to transpire anyway, and we therefore interpret the behaviour of those characters as they respond to circumstance.

On the other hand, we could point to the storybook tropes, and framing, the definitively unique nature of protagonistic characters (there are not other Warthogs, there are not other Meerkats, Simba and Nala are visually signified as being of Different Type), and the way that events only matter as they immediately pertain to individuals (look at Rafiki’s tree when he first gets wind of Simba – the tree is fine, even if the surrounding area is rough). You could very reasonably say that this world is pathetic in the most fundamental way: That the world is perceived as its relationship to human entity, in this case, even the animals are human entities – the way Zazu hangs out with lions even as the opening does make it clear that Zazu is pretty much just prey to them. There is a tension between the reality of these animals and the humanity of them – a tension the story doesn’t really want to do anything to collapse. They’re human because we perceive their humanity.

With that in mind, even the environment is human; the canyon feels huge and imposing as Mufasa falls backwards into it; the Savannah is small and local enough that everyone can quickly journey to it in time for the announcement of Simba’s birth. And with that humanity, the world that suffers shows us that Scar has a drought because Scar is a bad king. It is an inherent response of the environment to reflect the king, even in ways that it is impossible to make true.

Anyway, these are just interesting different interpretations and none of them are wrong. It says a lot about how much attention was spent on making this narrative feel whole that there are these many different interpretations, and that none of them requires too much suspension of disbelief.