Friday, January 1, 2010

Whither D&D?

Previously, I took a look at the inspirations Gary Gygax gave for D&D. Looking at the game as constituted we see things not found in the Vance/Leiber/REH/ DeCamp/Lovecraft works, or in any of the Appendix N sources--at least not in the same permutations or proportions. Many of these elements, and later elements that evolved from them, have gone on to form the "implied setting" (as the kids call it these days) of D&D, and indeed so many of its fantasy rpg offspring.

It could be argued that some of these elements are merely artifacts of D&D being--you know, a game--rather than literal characteristics of the world it emulates. After all, who would take Monopoly's rules and structure as an accurate reflection of Atlantic City or the real estate market? How much does the game D&D really tell us about the world(s) of D&D?

A fair question. I think it becomes a more debatable point depending on how finely you want to comb the rules (rules that have changed through various editions, admittedly). I may want to comb them very fine in the future, but for now I'll enumerate the broad characteristics that have real, "in game world" influence:

1. A moral axis ("alignment"): In the earliest editions of the game this is Law vs. Chaos which comes from Poul Anderson's Three Hearts, Three Lions but then gets de-Christianized and becomes a Sword & Sorcery staple through Moorcock's eternal champion cycle. Later AD&D adds a perpendicular "Good vs. Evil" axis (generating, then, nine alignments by combining the two). This allowed for mechanics to drive the Song of Roland-by-way-of-Anderson virtuous paladin class, and the cleric.

The cleric resembles the orders militant of the Crusades, but they have a big role with the undead--which betrays their true origins--the class reportedly being inspired by Van Helsing in the Hammer Dracula films. This implicitly Christian (even more so than the paladin) character seems at odds with mostly pagan, polytheistic S&S. But it fits comfortably on a moral axis.

2. Common nonhumans: Elves, dwarves, halflings, and half-orcs--in other words, every species appearing in Tolkien--get ported over with only the slightest tweaking, for a clash with the human-centric world of the pulp fantasy. This also goes for monstrous adversaries which are way more common than in most pulp fiction.

3. Emphasis on group rather than individual action: Adventurers travel in packs, likely because of the social nature of games, but also because of the high lethality of the adventuring life to folks not gifted the "plot immunity" of fictional protagonists.

4. Emphasis on equipment and "tech": Like in the real world, adventurers need the right tool for the job. Fictional protagonists get writers to write them around needing extra stuff, but adventurers need 50 ft. of rope and 10 ft. poles. And also...

5. Magic items: In a world where magic items are regularly found and manufactured, they would become indispensable accouterments. In fiction, items are rare or whisked away by the capriciousness of plot, but not so in more "naturalistic" game settings.

The first two points seem to be related to a clash of influences. "Pulp fantasy" was the primary source, but not the only one, so there was bound to be some dissonance. (Need there be dissonance, though? How would Lord of the Rings work if it had been writen by Robert E. Howard? A question for another time, perhaps... )

The other points can be summarized thusly: adventurers seem more like somewhat reckless professionals than typical heroic protagonists. Ironically, though their power-levels and abilities are often great, their approach to things is decidedly more prosaic and "business-like." They rifle through the clothing of fallen foes, pry gold fixtures off walls, and check every room thoroughly for secret doors. Its like the difference between a real group of bank robbers and Ocean's 11.

Now perhaps nothing in the rules expressly states it must be this way--but it seems to be an emergent property arising inexorably from detailed equipment lists, trap-filed dungeons, gold equating to experience, and (often) high mortality.

There are other differences as well. The rigidness of class-defined abilities, the interaction of alignment in play, and strong classification of various sorts of fantastic beings into a kind of taxonomy. But these may be areas where we move into artifacts of simulation rather than real world details. Still, the existence of know alignment spells, or the ability of rangers to use crystal balls can surely raise "in game world" questions which would be best dealt with with an "in game world" answers, it seems to me.

It's interesting to me that with all the D&D fiction written, while most (perhaps all) of it shows the traces of these "D&D-isms," none of it I've ever read (admittedly, a small sample, but hopefully representative) actually tries to rationalize or explain these phenomena in the context of the story.

I think that's a missed opportunity.

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