Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Dungeons & Dragons Doesn't Have to Follow the Traditional Foundation Laid by Tolkien.

As far as I am aware it has long been established that the game worlds of any Dungeons & Dragons game is essentially a quasi-Medieval world wherein the concepts of Arthurian and Tolkien fantasy hold sway over the possibilities available to the players. Knights, dragons, trolls, and whatnot rule the landscape with legendary quests on every horizon. Over the last few years, though, I've begun to wonder if this isn't only a partial picture of the game worlds available to us as colored by the overriding appetite of the average Dungeons & Dragons consumer of the early years and TSR's need to fulfill that hunger. 

Unknown title by Melvyn Grant

I started thinking about this when I first read the introduction to the Appendix N of Gary Gygax's Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide: ". . . Inspiration for all of the fantasy work I have done stems directly from the love my father showed when I was a tad, for he spent many hours telling me stories he made up as he went along, tales of cloaked old men -who could grant wishes, of magic rings and enchanted swords, or wicked sorcerors and dauntless swordsmen. Then too, countless hundreds of comic books went down, and the long-gone EC ones certainly had their effect. Science fiction, fantasy, and horror movies were a big influence. In fact, all of us tend to get ample helpings of fantasy when we are very young, from fairy tales such as those written by the Brothers Grimm and Andrew Long. This often leads to reading books of mythology, paging through bestiaries, and consultation of compilations of the myths of various lands and peoples. Upon such a base I built my interest in fantasy, being an avid reader of all science fiction and fantasy literature since 1950 . . ." (Gygax, pg. 224). The list he then provided to the reader stretched from the fantasy works of authors like J.R.R. Tolkien, to pulp authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs, and genre defying authors like Jack Vance. 

1920 - Warlord by Jakub Rozalski

Over the years I've read stories from the early days of the hobby where Dungeons & Dragons players played in games that defied what has become known as the fantasy genre. Tanks, laser guns, machine guns, rocket ships, aliens, and B movie monsters made appearances. They pushed the boundaries of their imaginations and went wherever their fancies took them whether it was up an elevator or down a water slide into a mountain of treasure. So why did that stop? Why did we go from having a game that jumped the shark at every opportunity into one that dogmatically declared that you must play in a quasi-Medieval world where magic was in the ascendancy and technology was languishing behind?

Snail Mail by Jean-Baptiste Monge 2016

My suspicion is that as TSR continued to publish adventures and supplements to meet the ravenous appetites of Tolkien's fan base that it steadily pushed players who wanted to do other things to wayside. Instead of riding rocket-powered, mechanical, flying horses and chasing space pirates across the night sky in Dungeons & Dragons they moved on to other games; and as they left so too did the wilder, pulp, and genre defying side of the game. The fantastic Medieval world became the standard genre and for a lot Dungeons & Dragons enthusiasts the literary exploration of Gygax's inspiration begins and ends with the fantasy authors of Tolkien, Moorcock, Anderson, and Leiber. The games become homogeneous and the stories we tell are nothing more than trite rehashes of the same adventures people have been having for the last forty years. We don't make new things, just re-imaginings of past glories; and it leaves us all with a boring wasteland of mediocrity as a result. 

Tavern,
Dungeon,
Orcs,
Goblins,
Dragons,
Treasures,
Repeat.

Repeat.

Repeat.

Over and over, and over, and over, and over again. 

It's past time we start breaking that cycle.


Works Cited 
Gygax, Gary. Official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide. TSR Games, 1979. pg 224

21 comments:

  1. Over on Google Plus +Juan Ocha, who you should totally follow if you aren't, brought up Tekumel as both an example and answer to this situation. I cannot disagree with him.

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  2. I bet you’ve already read it, “Playing at the World” by Jon Peterson takes a bit of deep dive here it comes to how D&D ended up being what it was when it began. Some of the things touched on in that book still ripple through what people think of as D&D today.
    Though I feel (without any real proof,) that the WotC embrace of Tolkien style fantasy is sales driven. D&D is the gateway RPG for players. Before a player gets into all the possibilities of RPGs a good touch stone is helpful. Tolkien style fantasy is a kind of “every one knows it” safe zone, that D&D has embraced as it’s own. They will sell more books with a dragon or giant on the cover than if the books had a Modron floating around on the jacket.
    I agree that D&D and RPG’s in general can and should stretch way beyond the ideas in Tolkien. I just don’t think WotC is going to take the dive on things like Dark Sun, Council or Wyrms, Spell Jammer or even Eberon again any time soon. I hope I’m wrong.
    Now I would love to get a look into peoples home games because I bet there’s a metric ton of strangeness out there.

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    1. I'm hoping your wrong too. I'd love to see Wizards of the Coast jump into Eberron or Spell Jammer, or Planescape again.

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    2. BTW, I second the Playing at the World recommendation. Very good book about the origins of D&D and gaming in general.

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    3. Actually reading it now - ish. It's my nightstand book so I tend to read a few pages before bed at night. Eventually I will finish it. Eventually.

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  3. Although Tolkien's influence is definitely there, I always felt that AD&D presented more of a Disney version of medieval fantasy, compared to (real) medieval history and stories. If you wanted to play a campaign true to the spirit of Tolkien's Middle Earth, AD&D is not the best way to do it. I don't think it's a coincidence that some of the darker and grittier roleplaying games, portraying a more realistic medieval Europe than what AD&D does, have a strong European fanbase.

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    1. Interesting conclusions Phil, but I find that they are leaving me with quite a few questions. Are you arguing that there is not a strong fanbase for darker, grittier settings in the United States? If you are, what are you basing that conclusion on? How are you comparing AD&D's fanbase in Europe to the D&G games?

      Why do you call AD&D a Disney version of medieval fantasy?

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    2. W.r.t. Disney reference: I was talking about style, and this was not meant as a derogatory comment. But I do feel that AD&D always portrayed an idealized, romantic, polished version of medieval fantasy (cfr. SCA). When you live in Europe, and you very much familiar with real medieval history and stories, you crave for something else. Rules like the original Warhammer FRP tapped into that feeling, by presenting a more grim world. Of course there are fans of both styles on both sides of the Atlantic, but it's a sentiment I have heard multiple times during my roleplaying life. But it's based on anecdotical evidence, so I have no further figures to back this up :-)

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    3. And to add some more guesswork: perhaps it's not a coincidence that fantasy roleplaying originated in the US, and not in Europe, where (subconsciously) there might be less creative freedom to play with history, because medieval history is part of the culture and upbringing.

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    4. I gather your meaning now. I'll have to mull this over for a bit.

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  4. The early TSR got way into this kind of thing. As a kid, I remember playing Star Frontiers at least as much as we played D&D, and they had a module back in the late 70s that was a dungeon delve through a crashed spaceship--Expedition to the Barrier Peaks.

    Full disclosure: I had to look that one up: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Expedition_to_the_Barrier_Peaks.

    Also: http://dnd.wizards.com/articles/features/you-got-science-my-fantasy

    I'm all for more of the genre mashing, BTW. Michael Moorecock's stuff in particular would make exceptionally interesting subject matter.

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    1. That bottom one talks quite a bit about converting black powder weapons to D&D--another thing I remember from back in the day. I'll note that I think those sorts of weapons are fine for the game, up until you get to the invention of rifling. Rifled muskets have too much range and would do too much damage, thereby breaking the math.

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    2. Thanks for that article from Wizards Dan! I'm really looking forward to reading it.

      Also, about Moorecock, I've never been able to get through any of his books. I've tried to read the Elric stuff but just become bored. Do you have a recommendation for me to try besides that line?

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    3. I'm hardly an expert. I discovered his stuff via Kindle sales. A lot of it is short, though. I'd start with some of the stories.

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  5. This was written back in 1986 about pulp fantasy, but applies to pretty much all pop culture:

    http://ansible.uk/Ansible/plotdev.html

    Bottom line is that publishers are selling more of the same because that's what most of the customers seem to want. The customer may not always be right, but the customer is always the customer.

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    1. I'm on mobile right now so it will be a bit before I can read the article but thank you in advance for sharing it with me. I'm looking forward to reading it.

      "Bottom line is that publishers are selling more of the same because that's what most of the customers seem to want. The customer may not always be right, but the customer is always the customer."

      True enough.

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  6. I agree with what others have said about market forces driving this trend more than anything else. If more people wanted Gonzo Fantasy WotC would probably be publishing Gamma World 5th edition right now instead of Dungeons and Dragons. As a side note, I don't mind the implied default Dungeons and Dragons setting so much? From a design standpoint I think "ease of use" was high on the list of priorities for Wizards of the Coast, and the tight focus on what you define as "Tolkien Fantasy," made it easier to create a set of rules that are simple and concise. Quite simply, Dungeons and Dragons does what it was designed to do and what I expect it to do. Games that offer a broader focus exist, but they either require more rules, like Savage Worlds, or broader rules, like Fate Core, to give a couple of examples. Other side note: I have both of those other games I just mentioned, but I have found it impossible to get games of either one off the ground with the current players I have access to. Conversely, the whole lot of them would play Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder at the drop of a hat.

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    1. Interesting. I always want to play Savage Worlds but my wife hates it with a passion so, since we game together, I don't get to play it.

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  7. Doesn't Paizo attempting to do exactly that?

    As for me, after few unsuccessful attempts to get into D&D scene, few highly enjoyable iа very specific WoD games, I embraced the paradigm of weird and to some extent implemented in all m campaigns, starting from Risus and contuning with Fate.

    Weird, gimmicky, cringy epic, mysterious and egdy my game with varying degrees try to break the usual paradigm of Medieval Fantasy.

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    1. "Doesn't Paizo attempting to do exactly that?"

      How so?

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