Tuesday, June 20, 2017

What is Generic Fantasy Now?

So, I have to somewhat disagree with this:

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.

This has not quite been my experience, though what was my experience may be leading me to split hairs.

Ok, I believed it, or hoped it could be, when I first started playing in the early ‘80s. My games were a mish-mash of Saturday-morning cartoons, Tolkien, Lewis, Robin Hood, and King Arthur. Problem was, the only part of that mish-mash that really worked was Saturday-morning cartoons.

Tolkien and Lewis depend on a setting where morality is literally woven into the landscape. The alignment system kinda helps to achieve that, but it’s a clunky tool that few love and fewer enjoy. Otherwise, TSR-era D&D was too enamored with looting and WotC-era D&D is too enamored with combat to map well to either Tolkien and Lewis, whose heroes spend most of their time avoiding combat whenever possible. And there’s waaaaaaay too much magic, even in early TSR-era D&D, to get anything like the Robin Hood or King Arthur feel.

I spent years trying to pound the square peg of AD&D into the round hole of Tolkien and A Young Boy’s King Arthur. Finally, in junior high, I played with a DM I hadn’t trained. He’d clearly read Fritz Leiber (which I hadn’t yet), and his adventures flowed smoothly, working in harmony with the rules. It was an eye-opening experience and completely transformed the way I played the game.

D&D has always been more of a Saturday-morning cartoon, kitchen-sink sort of assumed setting. In spite of everyone talking about “a quasi-Medieval world” the assumed setting described by the equipment is actually late Renaissance, with its pikes and halberds and plate-mail armor, lacking only the occasional arquebus (which was in 2e’s basic equipment list) to complete the picture. And variations far from that theme have always been a part of D&D, from the spaceships and lasers of “Expedition to the Barrier Peaks” to the katanas and ogre-magi of “Oriental Adventures” to the genie-folk and mamluks of Al-Qadim to the pseudo-Victorian slang of Planescape to the steampunk art-deco stylings of Eberron.

Still, the author is correct in that most folks don’t want those out-there settings. They want something more familiar, more plug-and-play with everyone’s expectations. However, those expectations have little to do with Tolkien or the Arthurian legends. Yes, there are some trappings lifted wholesale from those sources, but they are only two sources, and they look nothing like our games. As the author says:


So, which taverns did King Arthur and his knights hang out in? Trick question; they didn’t. They stayed in the castles of other knights when they were not roughing it in the wilderness in magical silk pavilions that provided for all their needs. The only tavern I can remember being mentioned by name in any of the Middle Earth stories is the Prancing Pony. The only dungeon is Moria (maybe Shelob’s lair, though the movies made far more of that than the book did). The Knights of the Round Table almost always met their foes in the open, at crossroads or on the list field. They dared the occasional magical castle, but these looked far more like old-school funhouse dungeons, with bridges made of swords and fighting animated statues.

Orcs and goblins are found in profusion in both Tolkien and D&D, but they bare only surface resemblance to one another. D&D’s orcs completely lack the metaphysical implications of Tolkien’s twisted elves, and have morphed into a weird, green caricature of British soccer hooligans, slow-witted jocks, and tribal Nazis with maybe a sprinkling of noble savage.

Dragons are few and far between in Tokien’s popular stories, having only one in The Hobbit and being completely absent from The Lord of the Rings. You find few in most tellings of the Arthurian legends.

As for treasures, D&D’s generic gold pieces, swords +3, and healing potions are blandly utilitarian compared to storied blades like Orcrist and Excalibur, enchanted girdles that protect from all harm, the Arkenstone, the Palantir, Morgul blades, Isolde’s love potion, or the Holy Grail.

What most folks expect in a D&D game isn’t Tolkien or King Arthur, but instead a brand new thing sometimes called “gaming fantasy.” It’s pretty much what you find in World of Warcraft and the like, and it’s heavily based on the bare-bones, utilitarian basics of D&D. It’s also got a healthy heaping of Ren Faire tropes, Greek and Norse mythology, and an endless parade of Tolkien knock-offs that were pale imitations of the original (Shannara, I’m soooo looking at you). These are worlds where combat is frequent, looting bodies is a steady job, and anti-social behavior is shrugged off, so long as the “right folks” are doing it.

And yes, it’s so cliché as to be boring now. But if you want to escape it, you could just simply run something with more fidelity to Tolkien or the Arthurian myths. But after my personal experience, I’d not suggest you use D&D in those games.


Scott Anderson said...

Despite the racial archetypes, I don't think D&D has much in common with Tolkien. Tolkien is high fantasy, save-the-world stuff. Old D&D is survival horror, and newer D&D is a lot of tactical simulation with a little elf talk over the top.

Anonymous said...

Agreed. People sometimes claim the Hobbit is a DND style Slay Monster-Loot Dungeon Adventure. But for Bilbo and the it's definitely a one off adventure. The Dwarves regain their kingdom and wealth and Bilbo goes home with his share. The End. No plans to do it all again next year.


Geoffrey McKinney said...

I make a distinction between A) The Hobbit and B) everything else Middle-earth. I know from personal experience that a successful AD&D campaign can be conducted in The Hobbit's Wilderland (whereas Tolkien's other works do not lend themselves well to AD&D). In his adventure, Bilbo just happened to run into goblins and giant eagles and to find a ring of invisibility. He might have instead ran into gnolls and a gelatinous cube and to have found a bag of holding.

To me, The Hobbit's Wilderland is the perfect AD&D campaign world.

trollsmyth said...

Geoffrey McKinney: yeah, I can totally see that. The politics between dwarves, spiders, and elves has an almost Caves of Chaos feel to it.

Margrave said...

Whereas most other RPG systems present the players with a specific setting, entwined with the rules, I have always considered D&D (any edition) to be more of a toolbox-type game. It provides you with everything you need to create almost any type of fantasy world you require. However, the caveat is that you don't (and probably shouldn't) have to use all of it.
The problem I see nowadays, is that most people can't be bothered to create their own settings anymore, and publishers like Paizo, for instance, continually put out new rules and supplements that they want people to use. As a result, you get a generic world where samurai rub shoulders with vikings, gunslingers and half-dragon pirate ninja's - in short, a tasteless literary gruel devoid of identity.
Use D&D as a toolbox to craft your desired setting and you won't be disappointed.