Monday, March 31, 2008

Pulp Fantasy D&D

The second purpose of this blog is to develop what I've taken to calling "pulp fantasy D&D." The idea for this began on my LiveJournal shortly after the announcement of the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons. I felt then, as I feel even more strongly now, that, whatever the relative merits or flaws of 4e, "D&D," as an idea, has now moved so far beyond what it was originally intended to be that, when most people use the term, it's meaningless. At best, it's purely positivist: whatever the current holder of the trademark chooses to call "Dungeons & Dragons" is Dungeons & Dragons. I find that approach remarkably unsatisfying and, as I studied the history of the roleplaying hobby more, I came to the inescapable conclusion that D&D was now, both conceptually and mechanically, not the same game Gygax and Arneson published in 1974.

One of the things that's very clear, if you know anything about the history of roleplaying, is that Gygax and Arneson lived in a time before what we now think of as "fantasy" literature existed. That's partly because D&D's success helped create and popularize that genre. Back in the early 1970s, "fantasy" was subsumed within "science fiction." Consider, for example, that in 1970, the winner of the Nebula Award for best novel was Ringworld by Larry Niven, while the winner for best novella was "Ill Met in Lankhmar" by Fritz Leiber. Tolkien's The Lords of the Rings, though published in 1954-1955, didn't achieve widespread influence or fame until the 1960s and 1970s, at once driving the growing popularity of fantasy and benefiting from it. The strange synergy between D&D and The Lord of the Rings remains a controversial one, since early D&D products clearly referenced Tolkien's creations, which were eventually removed due to the threat of a lawsuit by Tolkien's estate. Gary Gygax consistently maintained that he did this to capitalize on the "then-current 'craze' for Tolkien's literature" rather than to any liking for The Lord of the Rings (which he claimed to have in fact disliked).

My own feeling is that Gygax was probably telling the truth, as D&D owes very little, conceptually, to The Lord of the Rings. Instead, as bibliographies in early D&D books attest, the game was in fact inspired by a wide variety of what we'd today call "pulp" fantasies, such as those by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, Jack Vance, and Fritz Leiber, along with other less well known authors, such as Abraham Merritt. These fantasies have a very different feel than Tolkien's oeuvre, being primarily escapist tales of pure adventure whose protagonists are often morally ambiguous in their beliefs and actions. Ironically, though, it was the Tolkien elements that many players of D&D latched on to and emphasized, which inexorably dragged the game away from its roots and toward what came to be known as "high" fantasy.

The subsequent history of D&D is one of its ceasing to be an engine of popular imagination and in turn being influenced by the very imaginative movements it helped to create. My own preference is for the older pulp fantasy style that inspired the game in the early 1970s. "Pulp fantasy D&D" is my name for a version of the game that, mechanically and conceptually, returns to the game's literary roots. The high fantasy version of the game, let alone the comic book and video game-inspired versions of the 21st century, hold little interest for me. At minimum, they speak to an outright rejection of the original vision of the game and, at most, outright ignorance of its origins.

Consequently, interspersed with my exploration of the history of the roleplaying hobby, I'll offer musings on how to return D&D to its roots and inspirations. Ultimately, my goal is to produce a playable version of the game that both respects its history and literary origins.

1 comment:

  1. First, thank you for Grognardia--it's a wonderful, informative blog. I've been reading for about a year, and decided to go back and read all the entries I've missed.

    In my own reading, I've tended to focus on the roots of fantasy, science fiction, and supernatural horror, and have tried to emphasize these original inspirations in my own RPG sessions.

    It's been a long time since I've played or run any editions of D&D older than 3rd; I primarily ran Basic D&D, AD&D, Star Frontiers, and Marvel Super Heroes when I was a boy, and AD&D 2e came out just as I graduated high school. Lately I've been wondering what kind of experience might be had running the older rules sets, or a solid retro-clone, as an adult with a couple of decades of experience behind me.

    Quick thought with regard to this post: I would guess that D&D players latched onto the Tolkien-inspired (overtly nabbed?) elements, given that a number of the character creation options seem derived directly from Tolkien's work--the interpretations of elves, dwarves, and hobbits/halflings. While most pulp fantasy I've read is humanocentric in terms of its protagonists, the more "exotic" races of Tolkien were always more popular with the players I gamed with.

    (Strange to use the word "exotic" in reference to these races, given the accretion of decades of reading and gaming, but there you go.)

    Excellent take on the dwarf race in Dwimmermount, btw. I'm tempted to swipe it for an old school game I have brewing in the recesses of my brainmeat.