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Understanding Eucatastrophe: The Grace-filled Optimism of D&D

All Hail Gary Gygax, King of the Nerds!

Have you ever heard the term ‘eucatastrophe?’ Joseph, the resident J.R.R. Tolkien expert of Nerds on Earth, is familiar, but eucatastrophe is a word that is admittedly a deep cut. Eucatastrophe is a term actually coined by Tolkein, who used it to describe an unexpected turn of events in which the protagonist is saved from certain doom.

Eucatastrophe is the inverse of a catastrophe, and we see this play out in the stories we love all the time. Right when all looks hopeless, the hero saves the day against all odds.

Applied to roleplaying games like D&D, a eucatastrophe is the opposite of a TPK. It’s the hopeful, optimistic worldview of players who deep down in their heart of hearts knows they’ll get that sweet, sweet natty 20 roll right when they need it most.

The legend.

The concept of eucatastrophe–the good guys being the good guys and winning in the end–isn’t in vogue and hasn’t been for some time. This sense of hope dropped out of favor in comic books in the 80s, with Alan Moore and Frank Miller deconstructing everything. Heck, their stories rarely had a hero at all, choosing instead to have an “anti-hero” run supreme, a protagonist that could hardly be classified as good on the D&D alignment scale.

Gark Gygax was a Tolkien devotee, so early D&D adventures had a sense of eucatastrophe. Religious Studies professor Joseph P. Laycock notes that, “D&D, and particularly classic campaign settings like Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance, generally assumed fantastic worlds in which evil is powerful but never triumphant, and the ability of the heroes to succeed in not only possible but likely.”

Nowadays the running joke among DMs is how excited they are to serve up a TPK. Hope and silliness has been replaced with seriousness and cynicism. The Shadowrun setting, for example, serves up the cynicism and anxiety of the modern world but with magical cybernetics.

But the culture shifted away from eucatastrophe long before even Shadowrun and other grim settings. Nineties games like Vampire: The Masquerade served up a sullen, moody RPG that became the ultimate anti-hero tome, featuring a playstyle where characters battled their inner demons more than they battled outer ones. There were no heroics or solutions offered in the game, merely a general contempt for humanity.

This isn’t wholly surprising. Vampire very much reflected on the experiences of Gen X, the OG gamers who had suffered through the Satanic Panic for only wanting to play a game. You could forgive them for not having a deep internal sense that they were destined to win in the end.

But even as an avowed Gen Xer, I confess that I still hold a certain hope for eucatastrophe. The spark of Tolkien will forever be buried somewhere inside of me. And I concede that most of the other Nerds on Earth writers think I’m crazy for this. While I keep spouting “with great power must come great responsibility,” they’re largely digging on Deadpool.

Perhaps it’s because I’m also informed by Tolkien’s theology of grace, the idea that the universe is on our side, treating us better than even we deserve. Maybe it is because I read the news each day and I want to believe–I need to believe–that the good folks will win in the end.

But as I come to the end of this article, I don’t know if I had anything important to say here other than I believe D&D can give us hope.

But D&D is just a game, after all. It can simply offer a respite to a person’s daily struggles. But I’ll take even that. So, although I genuinely support people playing how or what they want to play, I’m cool being the Paladin or the Cleric, playing with a sense of eucatastrophe. And I fully hope to win in the end, even if few others expect the same.

Join our Character Sheets Facebook Group (which is dedicated to D&D 5e) and share your story of eucatastrophe.

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