Why Dungeons & Dragons?

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.


Further Reading:

  1. 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. []
  2. 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. []