Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Genre Bending

Nowadays, if you're not happy with the direction Dungeons & Dragons has taken and you're struggling to find a nice, succinct curse word to describe your disgust, "anime" seems as good as any. Of course, "anime" means lots of different things to different people. Some will be pedantic and point out that "anime," like "pulp" isn't really a genre so much as a medium. Others will instead fixate on stylistic matters, equating blue hair -- "You gotta have blue hair" -- and robot boots with "anime." Still others will focus on common tropes and even (more rarely) content, as if the choices made in any single series were definitional.

I tend toward pedantry myself, so I have a lot of sympathy for the notion that anime should be viewed more as a medium than as a genre. At the same time, I also realize that a medium can nevertheless become so strongly associated with particular styles, elements, or concepts that it becomes a "quasi-genre." That's why we can in fact meaningfully talk about "pulp" in ways that are reminiscent of discussions of genre. (The same goes for "noir" in my opinion) So, while "anime" may primarily describe the medium of Japanese animation, that medium has, over the years, become so strongly associated with the content expressed through that medium that it's not completely illegitimate to use the term "anime" in a genre-like fashion.

My purpose here isn't to lend credence to many of the most outrageous complaints about D&D's having become "too anime" over the years. I don't in fact think that's generally true at all, especially esthetically. In many ways, I think D&D has, over the years, become less like anime than it used to be. What do I mean by that? For me, one of the strongest -- and indeed most compelling -- aspects of anime is its willingness to break the staid conventions of genre. That's why, in nominally "fantasy" anime, you'll see weird "technological" items, anachronistic clothing, and even situations that supposedly don't "fit" into fantasy. And of course most anime, even the most deadly serious ones, include plenty of humor, often of the slapstick variety, as a way to break the tension (in the fine Shakespearean tradition).

D&D used to be like this and, as the years have gone on, it's become less so. I know it shocks people when they first read OD&D and see references to John Carter of Mars alongside those from Middle Earth. The same reaction happens when you first learn of Blackmoor and the Temple of the Frog. The prehistory of the Wilderlands setting is just too much for many to bear. I can't count the number of times I've heard gamers complain about the "silliness" of Murlynd and his six-shooters. Even the supposedly stodgy setting of Tékumel has a hobbit in a zoological park and interdimensional forays to Mexico at the time of Pancho Villa. And then there's Arduin, a game so gonzo that it makes Encounter Critical look almost conventional.

At some point, probably after the release of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, D&D started to take itself too seriously and ceased to be "anime" in the sense I'm using the term. Many people will make the claim that "D&D is its own genre" and that's true -- now. Back in the wild west days when the hobby began, that wasn't the case. D&D was never about itself; it wasn't self-referential. Instead, it was a heady brew founded in pulp fantasy, but, like the pulp fantasies themselves, was quite willing to beg, borrow, and steal ideas from any source that was handy if doing so made the game more compelling to the referee and players. You have to remember too that "fantasy," as a distinct genre, only really got off the ground after the publication of OD&D. Prior to that, "fantasy" was regularly lumped together with science fiction in a way many geeks would today find unpalatable. Such hard distinctions were unknown and likely unwanted.

In this respect, the original sensibilities of D&D share a great deal in common with those of anime. The willingness to accept that "fantasy" means "anything unreal" is something that was commoner in the early days of the hobby than it is now. Oftentimes, when people wish to claim that such-and-such "doesn't belong" in D&D (or even "isn't D&D"), it's said out of a sense that D&D has an internal coherence that only evolved years after it began. This is why I feel OD&D offers an important corrective to lots of misunderstandings about the games that descended from it. It's hard to read OD&D with unbiased eyes and not see that the people who created it and certainly the people who played it had a very different conception of "fantasy" than do many people who play the game today. I won't go so far as to say they had a better one, because that's a wholly subjective judgment. But there's no denying that, in this respect, D&D today is very different than its origins.

By my lights, Dungeons & Dragons used to have more in common with anime than it does now and that's a shame.

4 comments:

  1. Interesting. I know it's complicated (as evinced by the comments on the previous entry), but I'm seeing a bit of a dichotomy here James.

    On the one hand you are quick to point out the open-endedness of OD&D, allowing that it more or less begs for the users to bring whatever they want to the toolkit...it even seems to be one of, or perhaps the, most important elements that make OD&D what it is to you; on the other hand you also chant the mantra that "D&D is always right" as a way to limit what you see as 'unacceptable' changes to 'true' OD&D (such as ditching the cleric, or allowing for skills) since they are apparently against the original intention of Gygax, Arneson et. al.

    This is, to say the least, problematic. How wide open is the sandbox, and who gets to determine what's allowable as 'really old school' and what's not?

    Just curious.

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  2. How wide open is the sandbox, and who gets to determine what's allowable as 'really old school' and what's not?

    I think D&D is very open in terms of content (or should be), but I think that it's much more narrow mechanically. "Old school" is part philosophy and part engineering. Most people get the philosophy -- or can with training -- but most forget the engineering.

    I'll be talking about this distinction over time.

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  3. I actually posted about this on rpg.net at one point. It seems Arduin and the Wilderlands -- and OD&D in general -- get a pass as "gonzo" and "free-wheeling," while later editions of D&D and settings like Eberron are vilified for the same sort of wacky tech elements, ridiculous monsters, big stupid swords, endless proliferation of intelligent races, etc. The same gamer who sneers at "half-drow half-githyanki paladin/monks" will wax poetic about the time his Deodanth Techno/Courtesan ninja-girl seduced Darth Vader.

    For me it boils down to "the gonzo I grew up with, which was produced by some crank in a basement on a manual typewriter" vs. "the gonzo that has been thoroughly massaged and prodded by corporate shills to fill a need for an aberration at a particular Challenge Rating." In other words, I'm a bitter old man and it's a matter of taste. :)

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  4. For me it boils down to "the gonzo I grew up with, which was produced by some crank in a basement on a manual typewriter" vs. "the gonzo that has been thoroughly massaged and prodded by corporate shills to fill a need for an aberration at a particular Challenge Rating." In other words, I'm a bitter old man and it's a matter of taste. :)

    No fan of Arduin I, but I think there's more to it than this. Certainly, there's some bitterness and "damn kids" curmudgeonliness at work here. There is also, I think, a real intuition that old school gonzo stuff arises organically out of a shared "culture" that was common to all gamers back in the day rather than being something inorganic being added to that shared culture. It's a very fine distinction and I'm sure many new school gamers could make a cogent argument that the only real difference is time and the fact that there's no longer a common gaming culture, but then that's my point.

    I think many, if not most, of the disputes between the old and new schools arise because there is far less of a single new school than there is a single old school. There's a myriad of competing schools, most of them very distantly removed from the old school and thus their attempts at gonzo look even more bizarre and "wrong" to them.

    My own feeling is that gaming would be better served if we all stopped pretending we're all engaged in the same hobby, because we're not, at least no more than it's fair to say avid players of bridge and poker share the same hobby.

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