D&D as Genre Emulation
I want to start a series of posts talking about first edition Dungeons and Dragons as the “ur-game”, or the game to be used in multiple genre’s or settings. Think of GURPS, one role playing system that encompasses multiple game settings or themes. People think of D&D as exclusively a fantasy game, but it is so much more than that.
D&D has an image as being somewhat “medieval” English/Germanic, knights and wizards and all that. The game emerged from medieval wargaming roots in a game called Chainmail, so the connection is pretty intuitive. The genre, essentially medieval warfare with magic grafted on top, is often referred to
as “high-fantasy”, think Tolkien. Harry Potter has purloined some of that mystique and wrapped it up in postwar English class consciousness, but the dressing is still there (suits of armor and such at Hogwarts, dragons, elves, etc.) for a medieval setting. There is a line for some people from Tolkien to D&D, call it the “high fantasy” line, and it makes them expect D&D to be a particular flavor.
Tolkien and high fantasy have obvious impacts on D&D, the presence of orcs, elves and dragons for example (dragons transcend Tolkien, but there were clearly part of his genre), as well as powerful, high level magic and mythological beasts (medusa, harpies, hydras, cyclops, etc.) Mythological magic and monsters are part of the high fantasy literature, and they are definitely influences on D+D.
However, D&D was meant to be much wider than that. The literary influences that shaped the game were not just “high fantasy”, but veered into at least four other related genres, sword and sorcery, sword and planet, horror and western. None dominate the game, but all are there, and they make D&D more than just a medieval combat game with magic grafted on top.
There are two impacts of this decision to use the game to emulate multiple genre’s, one: the play of the game is shaped by these influences, and two, D&D can be thought of as a base or “ur-game” for use with multiple genres, not “just” a fantasy game.
Game Play Influences
1. Sword and Sorcery
The sword and sorcery literature is grittier, more dark and violent, think Conan versus Bilbo, Elric versus Prince Caspian. Often the magic is rare (as in Conan) or more violent and horrific (both Conan and Elric). Morality is less clear cut, though to be honest even gritty heroes like Conan and Elric did end up doing the “right thing” where possible, their motivations were not always noble. Then there is Fritz Leiber, who added some humor to the mix, I’ve laughed out loud reading Leiber.
Sword and sorcery heroes were often anti-heroes, Elric is a famous example, An albino, he is weak unless he consumes a bevy of medicinal drugs to keep him strong, and his sword drinks souls to give him strength. Elric is tortured by this in the books, and is a tragic character as all who love him meet grisly ends.
So sword and sorcery characters are in a deadly environment, and they are somewhat more morally variable than high fantasy heroes.
D&D emulates these two features in game. First, deadliness, early edition D+D is notoriously deadly – there are a host of things that can kill you outright at any level (poison, falling, assassination, petrification, to say nothing of regular damage at low levels). Second, moral variability is captured in the alignment system, lifted almost directly from Moorcock’s work. Most high fantasy characters are essentially lawful good or close to it, D&D offers a range of alignment options for “anti-heroes” and anything in between.
2. Sword and Planet
The next flavor of literature that influenced D&D profoundly was the “sword and planet” genre, Edgar Rice Burroughs is the standard bearer for this kind of fantasy. It was science-fiction, but with swords as well as ray guns, floating boats as well as floating cities. Heroes were bold and not afraid of physical violence. John Carter is a great case, he retained most of the nobility of a high fantasy hero, but without the overarching “good versus evil” arc (John Carter’s main motivation was rescuing his love, not saving the planet or destroying some evil artefact) and with a tendency for wild heroic antics. John Carter was not afraid to fight with his fists if he had to, against any sort of monster.
The sword and planet literature is similar to the sword and sorcery literature, in that it is deadly and somewhat amoral. But in addition the sword and planet literature gave D&D some of its swagger, sword and planet heroes were swashbucklers at heart. It is the source of “feats” and wild, cinematic action that drives the game. These aspects of the game are captured by the ability check, hit points (most of which are non-physical and represent luck, dodging and the favor of the gods) the saving throw and the initiative system, all of which allow for heroes to do things that regular people simply cannot.
The second important area of influence is horror and horror themed fantasy, here I’m thinking of HP Lovecraft’s Cthulu stories and writers like Clark Ashton Smith. Stephen King defined three types of fear, the grotesque (an eviscerated corpse), the horrific (something unnatural like a “spider the size of a bear”) and the terrifying (the unknown).
D&D has all three of these, as it casts its net wide for monsters. There are the “grotesque” monsters like slimes and jellies, the horrific, giant insects, zombies and ghosts, and the terrifying, any monster the party can’t perceive, shadows, invisible stalkers and any number of monsters that attack with surprise.
Then D&D has a slew of horrific, unnatural monsters with a Cthulu flavor, grells - floating brain tentacle monsters, gibbering mouthers - blobs covered with mouths, mind-flayers - brain eaters, Kua-Toa – fish men. There are also ample undead horrors, from zombies to ghosts to ghouls.
In game play terms these monsters have deadly attacks, from life level drain of undead to paralysis of a grell to quick death from a green slime. But the horror element adds fear to the mix, players experience genuine fear for their character’s life thanks to the horrific monsters they regularly encounter.
The next influence, one that is not really discussed much as it was not explicitly referenced by the game’s designers in Appendix N, was the western. Pretty much every D&D game setting I’ve heard of has some variation on the “at the edge of civilization” theme. The party is often near a wilderness in a small town where humanoid bands raid periodically. It’s a strong trope in the game, and it maps almost exactly on to the trope of the Western, the paladin is both the lone sheriff in the border town and the roaming martial artist master that deals justice with his fists.
Call it “frontier fantasy”, Tolkien has elements of this (civilization versus barbarism), but British themed, D&D translated this through an American sensibility and produced a game where your characters operate at the edge of civilization, often defending small towns and communities from roving bands of “barbarians” (e.g. orcs) while amassing fortunes in gold and piling up bodies while doing it.
It cannot be overstated how much this theme runs through early edition D&D. D&D characters require immense amounts of gold to advance in level, and the game has a 1gp=1xp formula that makes it almost required to amass huge quantities of gold. In game this makes it possible for the party to avoid combat if they can still obtain the treasure, and makes D&D remarkably wealth focused, and proto-capitalist in its basic structure, and no trope fits proto-capitalism as well as frontier colonialism.
It is necessary to make alliances and parley at times as you are frequently away from the trappings of civilization and its safety net against barbarism and violence. So the western gives both a nomadic theme to the game (older edition D&D characters are sometimes referred to as “murder-hobos”), the characters move around a lot and are perpetual outsiders, requiring them to make alliances and sometimes avoid combat, and a wealth focus to the game, which also helps to avoid conflict in some cases, and drives it in others.
Game Play Impacts Summarized
So these four influences on D&D take it beyond the realm of strictly mythological high-fantasy, and give it some important characteristics:
2. Moral variability
3. Wild, Cinematic Action
6. Wealth Focus
For all their inspiration, high fantasy stories can have an element of inevitability to them, we all know the hero will survive, and will achieve their goal, a noble, self-sacrificing goal, only after a great personal sacrifice. That’s a rewarding arc, but it gets dull and predictable pretty fast. D&D transcends this sort of simplified moral structure and offers something much more mercurial but ultimately something much more visceral and engaging in a role playing game. There is more at risk in a D&D game as you know your PC is on their own in a dangerous world, with no guarantee of survival, but with the ability to do remarkable things. I find this combination of deadliness, fear and wild cinematic action, when wedded to moral variability, a focus on wealth and the rootlessness of adventurers presents a unique gaming challenge that requires initiative, cooperation and creates a visceral, immersive experience at the table.
2. D&D as the “Ur-Game”
D&D wasn’t just influenced by these genres of literature, there are explicit connections made in first edition D&D to running games with these themes. Advanced 1e D&D was meant to be playable in different genres, sometimes referred to as “gonzo” play.
From the 1e DMG:
“In addition, there are many games which can be “plugged into” your ADBD campaign to serve as relief. After all is said and done, role playing is role playing and the setting is not of paramount importance. The trick is to adapt one system to the other so as to enable continuity of the characters from ADBD into the other setting. This allows not only a refreshing change, but it poses new problems to participants and adds new factors to your campaign – new abilities, new weapons, etc. TSR has many games and rules systems which can be used with this game to expand and invigorate your campaign. Space does not permit detailed explanations of how to do this with each and every possible system, but two readily lend themselves to both the spirit of AD&D and its systems: BOOT HILL and GAMMA WORLD.”
This is followed by conversion rules for characters and weapons between games.
There are also modules with a science-fiction theme in D&D, for example Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, where the players investigate a crashed starship full of robots and lasers. The “other” original D&D campaign, Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign, also had time travel and science fiction elements to it, found in modules like Temple of the Frog.
This is a clear indication of the “ur-game” aspect of first edition, the expectation was that it was compatible with both western and science fiction elements, in addition to high fantasy. It also had the potential to be run “low fantasy” like a sword and sorcery game, emulating Howard and Leiber rather than Tolkien, as the DM has full control over the level and amount of magic available.
I have spoken to players today that have no idea that first edition was so expansive, they think of it as Gandalf and orcs when it could also be spacemen, barbarians, mutants, six-shooters, mind flayers and vampires.
This is the other reason why I think first edition D&D is a powerful game, not only does it incorporate a wide variety of themes from a swath of inspirational literature to create a unique and visceral gaming experience at the table, but it explicitly allows you to run a science fiction themed game or a western themed game, a low magic game or a horror themed undead and Cthulu style game. All within the framework of 1e’s mechanics.
That’s pretty amazing.