Saturday, November 5, 2016

D&D and World War Three

Ask any literate person to name the most influential fantasy writer of the twentieth century, and she will likely reply "J.R.R. Tolkien." The Lord of the Rings novels and the Peter Jackson film adaptations thereof have brought pleasure and wonder to hundreds of millions of people. But she could just as accurately answer "Gary Gygax," the principal designer (with Dave Arneson) of the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game. D&D itself remains something of a fringe hobby, enjoyed by a few million active players worldwide, but around thirty million people have played the game at one time or another (David Ewalt, Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It [2014], 32). More significantly, Gygax and Arneson's game also provided the tropes and templates for online multi-player role-playing games like World of Warcraft, whose players acquire a fantasy race and class, fight monsters and demi-humans, acquire treasure, embark on quests, descend into dungeons, and earn experience points. These online games have attracted well over 150 million players*, many of whom have never heard of the men who helped invent their fantasy-gaming experience. The D&D designers' influence persists nonetheless.

There's much overlap between Lord of the Rings' and role-playing games' fandom, but the two creations take very different approaches to fantasy. Tolkien's tale is one of kings, powerful wizards, and immortal elves united in an epic struggle against an ancient, cosmic evil. D&D borrowed some of Tolkien's nomenclature (until Tolkien's estate sued), and the epic-quest-against-cosmic-evil theme cropped up in a number of packaged adventures (the Dragonlance series in particular). At heart, though, Dungeons & Dragons was a "low fantasy" game whose more obscure characters played for lower stakes, and whose dynamics owed as much to science fiction novels - particularly post-apocalyptic science fantasy novels - as to swords-and-sorcery tales like Robert Howard's.

Gygax acknowledged as much in the famed "Appendix N" to the original Dungeon Master's Guide, which listed his literary inspirations for the game. Geekier players know that the magic system in D&D comes from Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories, set in a far-future Earth where the study of magic (specifically, learn-fire-and-forget spells) has revived. Another entry on Gygax's list, the obscure and eccentric Margaret St. Clair novel Sign of the Labrys, seems to have provided the model for the archetypal "dungeon," an underground adventure site full of traps and with progressively more dangerous lower levels. St. Clair's novel took place in an underground shelter after an apocalyptic war here on Earth. I've written here of another seemingly-unlikely source, Sterling Lanier's Hiero's Journey, from which D&D appears to have taken some of its monsters (slime creatures and giant animals, in particular) and some of the inspiration for the cleric class. The designers' interest in psionic powers, which don't appear in either Tolkien or most pulp fantasy, also come from mid-century sci-fi, and may have specifically originated with Lanier's novel. And the archetypal D&D adventure often involves players exploring the ruins of an ancient culture, hunting for powerful magical items - a quest akin to Hiero's, or to the protagonist's in Andre Norton's Star Man's Son. (Appendix N doesn't mention this novel specifically but does list Norton as a source.) 

The affect of Dungeons & Dragons also resembles that of a post-apocalyptic SF novel, rather than a fantasy epic. The rules encourage players to focus on their own survival and betterment; advancement is primarily based on resilience, combat skill, and acquiring treasure. The game's "alignment" system and the desire to prevent hurt feelings generally ensured players would behave ethically within their group, but otherwise enlightened self-interest was the highest rule. Critics who refer to stereotypical D&D characters as "murder hobos" weren't entirely wrong. A well-armed hobo wouldn't necessarily fit into an epic fantasy tale, but he'd fit right into a survivalist yarn. Maybe that's the best way to characterize Dungeons & Dragons, at least as most of its players have experienced it. Lord of the Rings is a fantasy inspired by, or at least strongly reminiscent of, World War Two, with its battle between good and evil and its happy ending. D&D is more about the aftermath of World War Three, where staying alive, getting stronger, and helping your friends is a far greater challenge, and endings are best postponed for a later session.

* Lord of the Rings has sold about 150 million copies since the 1950s; the movies have been seen by about 100 million people. Ewalt estimates that at least 200 million gamers have played either tabletop or computer fantasy role-playing games.


  1. Great post, I'll share it around. -Tim from GASP.

  2. i like this but tolkien outsells the bible in australia

    1. Can't say I'm surprised. Tolkien tells a more coherent story.