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On the 50th anniversary of Dungeons and Dragons (1974) -- A dark turn in the pop-culture? (Part Five)
By Mark Wegierski
It is important to look at D & D as lying at the root of all subsequent roleplaying games. It is clear that D & D is a specifically late-modern, North American phenomenon. No other earlier society could have generated the leisure time available to be consumed by this tendency. No other earlier society could have ever been as flippant about appropriating numerous world-mythologies as sheer entertainment – being so completely unserious about these. No other earlier societies would have accepted the obsession of their youth with vicarious violence and sexuality (although, admittedly, somewhat of the PG-13 variety) in "flights of fancy" – often to the detriment of what had to be learned about the nation's real history, its place in the world, and the tasks which awaited the young as the bearers of the national heritage. For most young people, these new identifications took the forms of rock-music/pop-culture, whereas for more reflective persons, the alluring pseudo-worlds of D & D were offered on a platter, as it were. The fact is that many of the "best and brightest" had been imaginatively "captured" – and for whom more conventional amusements would have actually held little attraction.
It could be argued that D & D and historical boardgames have little in common. The former is, it could be argued, open-ended, amorphous, largely devoid of real history and sociology, mostly a mere chimera of the imagination. The latter are rooted in the once-familiar to everyone (and once, very necessary to know) terrain of history. Alternative-history boardgames remain tied to the exploration of history, whereas science-fiction boardgames are often based on historical and sociological extrapolations of previous history. At the same time, D & D often distances itself from the graceful, allegorical elements of high-fantasy literature, and the creative-nihilist Nietzschean overtones of so-called sword-and-sorcery.
So, it could be argued that D & D frequently conforms to the kind of vision of open-ended progress, amorphousness, florid lifestyles, and wish-fulfillment fantasies, which have increasingly come to characterize the late-modern world.
The main lesson of writing in the high-fantasy genre is, the author of this essay believes, that the writing must be done almost completely straight. The author must at all points attempt to strengthen "the willing suspension of disbelief" – he or she must take the world they are describing entirely seriously. It is probable that a person rooted in real religion and history will find it easier to "sub-create" a world – Tolkien, it may be remembered, was a devout Catholic and Christian. Similarly, the reader who is deeply rooted in real religion and history will no more tolerate flippancy in the main text of the "sub-created" world – if they find it attractive to begin with – than about the core beliefs of his or her actual lifeworld. So, for those kinds of persons, the genre of "comic fantasy" does not work. (Incidentally, "the Faith" posited in the SPI Swords and Sorcery game is treated in a highly derisive way.)
SPI was probably trying to appeal to some of the most stereotypical elements of the D & D mentality, when it chose to make the background of its Swords and Sorcery game a thoroughly ridiculous world. As was pointed out above, the very title of the game might be interpreted as a kind of joke, as the term is often used to express disapproval of a work.
The fact is that the highly physically attractive components of the game, the full-color map, the character cards illustrated by Tim Kirk, and the colorful counters – as well as the highly-detailed 56 page rulebook – were in enormous contrast to the rather stupid background. (What could have been considered instead was a somewhat generic, but entirely serious background.) Although it might have worked on the level of game mechanics, there was something very off-putting about the whole thing. In any event, the game probably looked too complicated to attract the average "D & Der" into playing it, while historical gamers probably also had little interest in it. Although one heard of the map and background being used for D & D campaigns, one also suspects it was too jejune even for that. It probably failed to interest many "D & Ders" into picking up a historical boardgame. And it would certainly have had little appeal to those who loved fantasy literature in a more noble way.
Nevertheless, there has indeed been a multiplayer fantasy boardgame so attractive that it became the basis for a considerable D & D background -- Divine Right, originally published by TSR in 1979.
In retrospect, it could be seen that the Swords and Sorcery boardgame was a signpost along SPI's slide into oblivion, and its eventual takeover and effective destruction by TSR in the early 1980s. As a consequence, RPGs triumphed over wargames, as a major pop-cultural phenomenon. The suddenness of the collapse of board wargaming in the early 1980s, still appears quite puzzling, even in retrospect.
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.