Thursday, November 05, 2020

Quantum D&D

A funny thing happened to D&D in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s: it got popular.  It went from a game everyone learned from someone whose knowledge of the game could be traced back to Arneson or Gygax, to a game people were trying to learn how to play from the three different boxed sets released between ’77 and ’83.  And we got a lot wrong.


I fully and heartily mean to include myself among them.  I made all the classic blunders, from only giving EXP for kills and ignoring henchmen, to treating AD&D as a set of add-on rules for B/X.  And I fully blame the books we read.


Fantasy exploded as a genre in the late ‘60s and by the ‘70s was, with sci-fi, a sizeable portion of your local bookstore and frequently dominated the spin-racks of paperbacks you’d find in newspaper shops and drugstores at the time.  And between the heyday of reading for Gygax and Arneson and my personal Golden Age of sci-fi/fantasy, things had drifted.  A lot!


Here’s the thing: when I started playing D&D, the only author from Appendix N I’d read was Tolkien.  The authors who informed what fantasy was to me were C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, combined with a collection of Robin Hood stories, the Young Boy’s King Arthur, some historical fiction like Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Black Arrow, and a collection of fairy tales my grandmother owned that still had the creepy bits like Cinderalla’s sisters cutting off parts of their feet to try and get them to fit into the glass slipper. I’d read all the Greek and Norse mythology in my elementary school library.  I’d poured over the sections on knights, Vikings, Roman legions, and ancient Greece in the illustrated encyclopedias in my classrooms.  I’d seen a handful of Harryhausen flicks, the Rankin-Bass Hobbit and Return of the King, and I had the Marvel comic book versions of the movies Dragonslayer and Clash of the Titans (which I’d failed to see in the theater). 


And later reading didn’t help matters.  I read Dune and Le Guin’s Earthsea and a few of the Xanth books and Alan Dean Foster’s Spellsinger, as well as Kurtz’ Deryni novels, The Once and Future King, The Crystal Cave, and Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series.  I read a handful of novels that modernized the legends of the ancient Celts.  Much of the ‘80s fantasy was of the epic quest sort, and fantasy authors openly wrestled with the fact that pretty much everything they were making (at the time) could be accused of being a pastiche of Tolkien.  Even the stuff that made some passing attempts to deconstruct the sub-genre of quest-fantasy, like Hambly’s Dragonsbane and McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, didn’t deviate much from the formulae. 


And I did read some books that harkened back to the pulp traditions.  Brust’s stuff, for instance, was much more Leiber than Tolkien.  But the point stands; I was reading fantasy that fit poorly into D&D’s mold. 


It looked like it should fit great; pretty much all of it was some flavor of bildungsroman set to an epic backdrop of clashing kingdoms and fantastical monsters. 


But there was a lot missing.  For instance, nearly all the heroes in these stories were some flavor of reluctant; they didn’t choose a life of adventure, but got chosen.  Many were from our world and got tossed into the fantasy world.  Even the locals were not looking for wealth or power, or to topple the status quo, but rather to secure or restore the status quo threatened by a great evil.  It was all very World War II.


And these heroes didn’t hire help.  There were no trains of porters and native guides, no link-boys or stevedores.  They rarely even had bands like Robin Hood’s Merry Men.  It was usually the hero plus a handful of others facing all the evil in the world, and often in the final confrontation, the hero stood alone. 


So as much as I loved D&D, it also frustrated me. 


D&D wanted to give me The Tower of the Elephant; I wanted the adventures of Sir Gareth or Bilbo’s travels through Mirkwood.  D&D gave me Cudgel the Clever and Captain Kronos; I wanted Gandalf and Morgan la Fey and Circe.  I wanted an epic quest against the forces of evil; the closest D&D came to that was grubbing through the catacombs of the Temple of Elemental Evil. 


And I wasn’t alone in this, and that gave us first Dragonlance, and then the bizarre pseudo-adventures of DUNGEON magazine during the 2e era, and finally 4e, where D&D really was about combat just like everyone had accused it of being. 

Because if you stare at D&D hard enough, and play it enough and talk about it enough, you can warp it into something different.  Every new edition of every RPG likes to boast that many of their changes are just things people have houseruled for years. 


Unfortunately, it never did become the game I was looking for (which was probably Pendragon, but I was too cheap back then to find that out).  Which is mostly my fault; B/X just begged for the type of kit-bashing that could turn it into an epic quest game.  But back then, I barely understood what I had my hands on as it was.  Warping it to my own desires was beyond my (literally) elementary skills.


It took 3rd edition to make me realize that what I thought I wanted wasn’t what I really wanted.

UPDATE: Grognardia chases a different thought up the same tree.  Also: Monopoly is always right! ;)


Hector Frankenthal said...

Ahh, this post takes me back to the early 1980s. Friends in my circle had picked up the PHB, MM, and DMG AD&D volumes and we were off. All of us had read The Hobbit and most of us The Lord of the Rings (I did not tackle it until the summer after graduating high school), and we had our own influences: one friend was a Stephen R. Donaldson fan, another introduced me to Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun series, and I had read through Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories (although I wasn’t fond of L. Sprague de Camp’s pastiches). The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, The Sword and the Sorcerer, Dragonslayer, and Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings were among the films in our Appendix M(ovie). We adventured through whatever AD&D modules we could find at our local bookstores, adapted Basic and Expert D&D modules and those from Dragon and other magazines to our campaigns, and created our own dungeons. We all took turns DMing. The party broke up when we went to different universities and I moved on to “hard” science fiction. Many decades later and many hundred of miles away, I was invited to join a 3.5 edition campaign; I enjoyed the social aspect of playing with this group, but it felt like my character was over-/superpowered. The 3.5 edition PHB seemed… corporatized? It definitely lacked the personal touch of the Gygax-era books and modules.

Stephen Wendell said...

I identify with what you say, Trollsmyth. For years, I kept looking for a way to create a novel-like experience in D&D. I think it was when I fully embraced the sandbox concept that I finally said to myself, “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun to play this game as if it were a game and not a manuscript?”

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I've been playing in a 2nd Ed campaign, and it has made one thing abundantly clear: Gygax and Arneson and company were not professional game designers. They were enthusiastic amateurs who had no idea what they were doing. Newer editions benefit from the fact that we have a couple generations now who have grown up playing RPGs, and have advanced degrees in game design. D&D grew organically from a smattering of roughly repurposed wargaming conventions. Games now are meticulously crafted for exact purposes, and it shows when talented professionals work their magic.

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