Following on from my previous post for the Ontological Geek the first question that needs to be answered is ‘why Dungeons & Dragons?’ I made a point in that article of arguing against exceptionalism, which should be taken to be a stance against both intra and extra-classification exceptionalism. That is to say holding single entities as the unassailable pinnacle of their kind is as bad as holding a class of objects apart from other classes. To argue that video games are not separable from other games by virtue of their uniqueness but then to argue that within the genre of tabletop one game is capable of things which others are not would not only be inconsistent but would go against my own position and conception of genre and systems as very fluid things. Like rockpools they are constantly mixing and recombining in the waves, before settling back into their own ecosystems for a short while. Like oil on water, dazzling and shimmering and never quite combining into a unified whole.
Dungeons & Dragons is important, though. Like it or not, and I am not the system’s greatest fan despite my nostalgic love of the lore and despite enjoying it as a thing to play from time to time, it is the poster child of an entire era of gaming. What’s more, it is the lens through which gaming was focussed and then later refracted. Dungeons & Dragons is important as a point in history as much as a system, it is important because of the politics of its undertaking as much as its influence and popularity. There are other tabletop games, both from before and after D&D, which I will talk about in relation to video games and gaming as a space. Many of these games are better or more widely played, but Dungeons & Dragons provides a focus for this series of articles because it is a focal point for gaming.
Part of this focal point comes from the way Dungeons & Dragons as a game attempted to tie together all of the loose threads of both gaming and the burgeoning fantasy fandom of the mid-70s into a single whole. Originally this appears to have been a side effect — a fannish exuberance on the part of Gary Gygax to stuff as much as possible into his game coupled with the scattershot approach to world-building of Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign. One of the strangest things about fantasy fandom is that despite being about completely made up entities it is incredibly susceptible to the argument from authority. There are contemporary records of arguments within the early fantasy wargaming scene (an initially rather frowned upon offshoot of military wargaming that built up around some optional rules tacked onto the end of Gygax’s earlier game Chainmail) about deviations from the ‘true’ fantasy world of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
This is partly due to the popularity of the Lord of the Rings, but also down to Tolkien’s world-building focus, which had previously been missing from fantasy fiction. Yet it also speaks of the underlying concern for accountability and desire for fixedness in the shared experience of fandom. Where information on a series or world is incomplete fan communities are known to create a form of self-policed, spontaneous canon known as fanon, and then to argue bitterly over deviations from this construction. Within the meta-fandom that is fantasy, containing as it does a number of different worlds and systems each with their own canons, there has been a somewhat metaphysical struggle for the right to naming; in some sense for control of the Platonic ideal of fantastic ideas. D&D didn’t start this struggle, and neither did the Lord of the Rings before it, but it both highlighted and dominated it in a spectacular and lasting fashion.
A Sword and Sorcery writer could mention a monster or fantastic race in passing and expect the reader to fill in the blanks, not worrying if different readers had different conceptions. If pressed they might point back to mythological ideas, or even the bestiaries of the middle ages, but they could equally as well ignore those sources if they preferred. Chainmail however was a miniatures game and representation and consistency was paramount. If a model was placed on the board then it had to be known to all players what that model represented and what it was capable of doing. This need for consistency of representation fed into Chainmail’s successor, D&D, which was, and still is, primarily a combat game with storytelling an emergent property that has helped to make it more than the sum of its parts. To create Dungeons & Dragons, Gygax had to take fantasy and define it, often by deciding which historical source was ‘correct’, and in doing so cemented a shift that was in the process of happening anyway and codified it with rules.
For a full history of the genesis of Dungeons & Dragons I would recommend Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World, which is a thorough, if somewhat lengthy and academic history of the game but absolutely wonderful if you have an interest in the game or that era of gaming. Much of what I have written in the above few paragraphs is paraphrasing from Peterson’s work. On the subject of D&D’s influence over the culture of fantasy (and also, in a ripple effect, certain aspects of horror and sci-fi as well), Peterson sums up with the following in a discussion about authors who followed the publication of D&D needing to delineate their own ideas.
‘Where genre authors, who inherited these building blocks of fantasy from myths, could handle these fantastic elements without resolving the vagueness of the legends, Dungeons & Dragons forced monsters, spells and magic items to conform to its system, and thus made them specific enough that they could be simulated in a game.’
Dungeons & Dragons made a landgrab as one of it’s opening moves. It was born fighting for control and that fight has characterised it ever since. It was not the first RPG, and it is not the best RPG, but it came at the right time and it did what it needed to do to dominate the fantasy consciousness with it’s own way of thinking.
And Dungeons & Dragons, in a bid to maintain its position, has been making landgrabs ever since. There is an internal, systematic element to this where, as players have attempted to expand their play beyond the combat focus of the earliest iterations of the system the rules have been expanded to try to cover them. This has, however, more often resulted in a project to shape the pattern of reality to the mathematical models of the d20 dice roll than it has an attempt to shape new mathematical models around the scope of reality.1 And then there is the territorial maneuvering within the marketplace of games. The doctrine of the Planes, and then the Planescape setting itself, are ways of unifying the system to enhance it’s original aim of covering any setting imaginable with an underlying cosmology. The expansion of this cosmology can be seen as, if not a direct response to at least part of a wider cultural struggle with, Steve Jackson’s GURPS and the Rifts/Palladium setting/system.
When TSR was bought out by the card game company Wizards of the Coast, the next landgrab owed a lot to the business practise of the Magic: The Gathering publisher, comprising a commercial rather than a cultural strategy. The release of Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition, along with the generic D20 rule system in a free format with only character creation rules as paid-for content, and a generous, or possibly seductive, licensing deal. Almost overnight a great many RPG publishers became scenario and setting houses rather than rules generators — a sound commercial move in an industry that was struggling to adapt to a changing publishing and distribution climate and some major upheavals in the business landscape. This may not seem like a big deal; maintaining and balancing (as well as learning) rule systems is laborious and expensive. However, a single model dominating gaming can result in a hegemony of understanding and representation of the world.2 Everything follows one model and alternative models, alternative ways of understanding (even as prosaic as different ways of representing damage, let alone ways of representing difficult subjects such as mental health) become sidelined and lost.
More recently, with WotC bought out by the toy manufacturer Hasbro, Dungeons & Dragons has become a smaller fish again and been given freer rein to be itself. This is combined with a 4th edition that eschewed roleplaying for an even tighter focus on combat (and once again on models) and the rise of Pathfinder as a system that, by many accounts, does D&D better than D&D. There is a lot of excitement within tabletop gaming about the new 5th edition of D&D, which seems intent on taking back it’s crown whilst learning the lessons of inclusivity that Pathfinder has been teaching.
But, interestingly, as D&D has moved on, and as its significance within tabletop gaming has gradually waned, the core of its ideas can still be seen in all gaming. From the excitement with which a new edition is received by role players players to the legacy of its systems within video games and gaming at large, no matter how folded up they are into the general systems and fabric of it. So that’s ‘why Dungeons & Dragons’. Although expect to see plenty about other systems as well.
- With a player base often tied for both practical and emotional reasons to the system, but wanting to explore more than it is capable of exploring, Dungeons & Dragons’ attempts to branch out have resulted in some unfortunate distortions of reality, from the infamous ‘harlot table’ (as seen in this article [CW for the title, as it’s on Vice]) to the emotional modelling and sanity effects that I have discussed elsewhere before. [↩]
- I will be coming back to this point when I look at video games’ increasing use of concepts like hitpoints and damage meters over the idea of discrete ‘lives’, as well as the hegemonic bolt-on ‘RPG elements’ that refer to a specific system of levelling and skills built, naturally, on the back of Dungeons & Dragons and unrelated to the state-of-the-art in tabletop role playing as it is now. The article on Mana linked below is another fine example of this sort of journey. [↩]