Thursday, November 17, 2011

OD&D and Science Fantasy

Among the many remarkable things about the revival of interest in old school gaming over the last few years is the revival of interest in the 1974 edition of Dungeons & Dragons. To my mind, that's an amazing thing, given that, when I entered the hobby -- a mere five years after the publication of OD&D -- hardly anyone played it anymore. The older guys talked about, of course, but they didn't play it, at least not that I ever saw. Most of them had "moved on" to AD&D or other games. That's why it'd be many years before I had the chance to peruse those little brown books for myself and see the seeds from which this hobby grew.

If, as lots of gamers have been doing recently, you take a look at OD&D, there are lots of little oddities -- no pun intended -- that you'll notice. One of the most intriguing is the influence science fantasy had over the early game. Gary Gygax's "forward" [sic] to the game specifically puts the Martian stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs on the same footing as Howard's Conan and Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. I think only Tolkien rivals Burroughs in terms of the number of references in the text to his specific creations (and, of course, those references to Tolkien were eventually eliminated in later printings). Heck, there's a several optional encounter sub-tables that are intended to replicate Barsoom.

I'm not alone in noticing this. In fact, I'd say that one of the biggest fruits of the recent study of OD&D has been a wide embrace of science fantasy as being every bit as influential over the early hobby as fantasy. You need only look around the blogs, forums, and even OSR publishers to see the truth of this. From my own perspective, I'm deeply grateful for this myself, since, as a younger player, I had a very narrow definition of "fantasy" and would have been appalled by OD&D's mention of robots and androids as potential "monsters," never mind Supplement II's full-throated acceptance of alien visitors from another world.

I won't go so far as to say that science fantasy is alien -- there I go inadvertently punning again -- to AD&D, but I do think it's fair to say that OD&D is so loose and open-ended that it's much more amenable to it. AD&D had Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, of course, but I'm not sure that module defines AD&D in the same way that The Temple of the Frog defined OD&D, for good and for bad. One might reasonably argue that AD&D is simply a particular implementation/interpretation of OD&D and, if so, I'd agree. But, being such, it carries with it a lot of assumptions, one of which being that science fantasy elements, if present at all, are deviations from the norm. OD&D has no such assumptions, because it barely has any assumptions at all, leaving it to each referee to decide what "works" or does not for his campaign.

Regardless of whether you agree with that last paragraph or not, I'm very happy to see the return of science fantasy to the fold of "correct" influences on one's D&D campaign. My own campaign has been improved by my own embrace of science fantasy; I know I am not the only one.


  1. There is some good commentary on the subject in the Arduin books as well. I love me some science-fantasy!

  2. Strange you should mention this, as I just finished re-reading The Temple of the Frog from Supplement II and was struck by how difficult it would be for any party of PCc to infiltrate it given the alien technology ring keys that control most of the doors and the alarms that would be impossible to defeat without tech as well.

    This entire adventure seems very difficult, even a street combat would probably require a small army on the player's side. It might be best to generate another rival temple that is at war with the Frogs and they aid the PCs.

    I have been reading the awesome new Jack Kirby Kamandi Omnibus that just came out and feeling a strong desire to run something based upon that using the equally amazing World of Thundarr sourcebook from here:

  3. mere five years after the publication of OD&D -- hardly anyone played it anymore. The older guys talked about, of course, but they didn't play it, at least not that I ever saw<<<

    When I started hanging out at the local game shop as a kid in the late 70's, the older guys seemed to be just like this, including the owner who counted on D&D sales over anything else. They had moved away from D&D play at the shop and Traveller, Runequest, and some other games such as Bushido (they were playing alot of this when I first arrived on the scene, soon to be entirely replaced by the other two) ruled the tables. Not long after when Paul Crabough was showing up more, the articles he was writing for zines were more Traveller based. Everybody seemed to be abandoning D&D except for we younger folk.

    Although D&D alway remained, as you say James, My "800 Gorilla," I always strayed to my other two great game loves, Champions and Call of Cthulhu. My D&D regulars would hem and haw about trying a "superhero" game or a "horror game in the 1920's," but they too would get hooked and often prefer it to D&D a lot of the time.

    This is happening in the current group. There is some resistance to straying from D&D, but when they play something else with me they seem to take to it pretty quick. So I'm looking forward to getting them to try some classic Glorantha Runequest and CoC next year. But yeah, AD&D will always come back around like the prov bad penny. It's sort of like something you outgrow, and then somehow grow it right back in fairly short order.

  4. I am all about science fantasy; I think the so-called "New Weird" also bears mention, as it is full of a similar pulpy disregard for traditional "genre boundaries."

  5. I agree that science-fantasy is typical for OD&D, while for AD&D it is the exception. The 1974 rules simply assumes science-fantasy elements. The 1979 DMG has a short section on adding science-fantasy to your campaign when the campaign as a whole needs a change of pace--thus assuming that the campaign as a whole would be "pure" fantasy.

  6. If I was going to have a space ship in my D&D it was never going to be as heavy in the technology as Temple of the Frog. However - The OARD found in CM6-Where Chaos Reigns are the Borg of the D&D world. I had an entire campaign devoted to adventuring against that foe.

  7. Yes.

    It's funny that while growing up with AD&D I had such a strong aversion to the "impurities" of genre crossing, but gonzo science fantasy has become one of my favorite things since I started studying OD&D. Part of it is not worrying about running a super-serious mature game once you're actually an adult. Also, I've had the opportunity to read a lot of old pulp stuff that wasn't readily available to me as a kid playing AD&D.

  8. There was a time when I thought it is inappropriate, too, but times do change, and science fantasy is cool.

  9. It probably makes more sense for people who have learned that the default AD&D world is itself a combination.

  10. Agreed. OD&D was written for wargamers, particularly those who had experience running extended wargaming campaigns (rather than just a single stand-alone battle). Which is why it is notoriously incomplete. It's also why all the early OD&D campaigns were different* (as were early AD&D games). I lament the fact that people expect their D&D (and Traveller) games all to be the like.

    However the big benefit of AD&D was that you had 6 books collated into 3. And it was easier to get. Most of the OD&D gamers switched to using them as references, but the actual games they played were still OD&D at heart. I don't think any of us actually read the full rules. But we new where the important stuff was - the tables.

    Many of the campaign had SF elements, but it was always treated with a nod and a wink by the players as just another strange form of magic,*** rather than being technology, per se. In this light Expedition to the Barrier Peaks was a bad module as it explicitly expects the players familiarity with technology aid their character's exploration of the wonder.

    [* As an example, due to an accident of publishing history I discovered D&D before I'd discovered Tolkein. So orcs ended up being the good** guys in my campaign ... a tradition I've continued to this day.]

    [** Well, for an arbitrary definition of good. Lets just say they weren't necessarily evil. Violent, yes. Persecuted, yes. Driven from their wilderness homelands so that civilisation could spread and branded as evil because they resisted, yes. Good guys to have on your side in a fight? Also yes. No idea of strategy or magic, but tough as nails.]

    [*** Such as the mysterious Blue Rider in Blackmoor whose magical metal horse "Bill" drank lamp oil. Known for never being found outside his armour and repeatedly yelling "Let me out of here!" (especially when orcs are besieging the castle).]

  11. In the beginning, D&D was "fantasy" without all of the genre expectations that come with that word now.
    To connect this with your last post, I love gaming with kids, because they don't know or don't care about those genre expectations. Using the "you can be a fighter, a wizard, a cleric, or make something up" approach, I've had kids make PCs that were things like a soldier from WWII and a scientist with a robot backpack.
    From that sort of starting point it totally makes sense to run into a hovercraft full of mutant gorillas with laser muskets.

  12. I guess the kids I've gamed with aren't like Paul when he was a kid.

  13. Of course, things ran in both directions. I still remember fondly when the microarmor players suddenly encountered trolls boiling up from under a bridge on the WWII sand table. And I always thought of Jim Ward's wonderful games as more fantasy than science fiction.

  14. Sci Fantasy was always part of my early D&D campaigns. In my world there were portals to Barsoom, Tatooine, and Kamandi's Earth After Disaster. I'm not sure if I thought of it on my own. The crossover stuff for Boot Hill and Gamma World in the DMG probably gave me license to experiment.

  15. One other little note, the ultimate manifestation of published science fantasy in D&D, discounting Spelljammer, occurs in 1986 when TSR published the DA series of modules for Mentzer Expert.

    These are co-authored by Dave Arneson and are an extended series of semi-linked adventures set in Blackmoor. The second module in this series is an extensive reworking of The Temple of the Frog and layers even more sci-fi elements over the original.

    The third module, City of the Gods, well the cover along makes you wonder if it is really even for Dungeons and Dragons.

  16. Many of us eschewing the modern versions of RPGs and heading back to the roots can see the appeal of (also) revisiting the iron laws of what does and does not belong in a fantasy campaign. As Paul said, “Part of it is not worrying about running a super-serious mature game once you're actually an adult,” and I would go further and say there comes a point in life when pursuit of the ridiculous ad outlandish actually becomes enjoyable.

    Spurred by reading this blog, I launched an OSRIC Barsoom campaign not long ago, and was delighted to find much of the groundwork already laid.

    The standard elements fit right in, and the vexing issues of running a patchwork of demi-humans faded when everyone, basically, was a demi-human. The cleric class seemed to have no purpose on Barsoom, so I just house ruled that Wisdom would be the guiding force for the Illusionist in order to give Wisdom something to do. Illusionist spells work very well for Barsoom, and attaching them to Wisdom seems balanced. Healing is covered by a plethora of pseudo-science and elixirs, although I am seriously considering applying a “level drain” effect to caution against their casual overuse.

    I treat Barsoomian telepathy like alignment tongue. It’s difficult for Barsoomians to surprise one another, but goofy looking Starman helmets can block the effect. Telepathy commands technology like airships, which otherwise function pretty much like magic carpets. Treat atomic guns like 14th century black powder weapons in terms of accuracy, shots, reload times, and ammo cook off hazard and they don’t really unbalance things....

  17. I wonder if the rigid divisions between scifi and fantasy in general have been eroded somewhat by video games... there have been a lot of popular titles that don't adhere to one aisle or the other. World Of Warcraft has spaceships and aliens for instance.
    Also the popularity of 'steampunk' seems like it balances in the middle of the two... as does Cthulhu.

  18. @knobgobbler

    That's true, but I think the technology displayed in World of Warcraft and other video games, such as the magitech in Final Fantasy, various anime, and even the tinker gnomes from Dragonlance are somehow different from the kind of science fantasy that James is talking about. I think many people who would be fine with dwarf muskets or even tanks might balk at laser pistols and ancient crashed starships.

    I think a big part of the difference is technology as part of the active campaign world (often deployed as magic-as-tech in settings like Eberron or Final Fantasy VI) and technology as an example of the weird other (Temple of the Frog, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, Tower of the Elephant, Donaldson's A Man Rides Through, The Tower of the Stargazer).

  19. However - The OARD found in CM6-Where Chaos Reigns are the Borg of the D&D world. I had an entire campaign devoted to adventuring against that foe.

    The Oard were terrific antagonists. I really like Where Chaos Reigns.

  20. In the beginning, D&D was "fantasy" without all of the genre expectations that come with that word now.

    I think was in the '70s and at least partially through the efforts of bookstores and publishers that "fantasy" came to be treated as a much narrower genre than it had been previously.

  21. @ Brendan
    Well, in the example of WOW I'm thinking of the whole Outlands section of the game, which has the player crossing through a gateway to another planet... where several of the 'dungeons' are spacecraft and the sky looks a whole lot like some wild cover of Astounding Science Fiction.
    At first this area of the game didn't appeal to me, and I heard other players complain about the departure from 'staight' fantasy... but at one point, as I was fighting a giant alien desert worm, when I realized the whole scene was straight out of a Rodney Matthews illustration... including the floating islands, mushroom jungles and the otherwordly-looking elephant I was riding.
    Now that area is my favorite part of the game and that change seems to have coincided somewhat with my rebounding interest in weird science fantasy (ala Planet Algol and Xoth) as well as a much more eclectic mix of elements in my homebrew RPG setting (it always had some science fiction threads but now I'm much less shy about them).