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On the 50th anniversary of Dungeons and Dragons (1974) -- A dark turn in the pop-culture? (Part Seven)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted February 26, 2023

Among the most popular RPGs today are Deadlands: The Weird West (from Pinnacle Entertainment Group), based on the premise that an earthquake sinks California and releases a plague of evil spirits and occult energy in the 1870s, the undead walk the earth, and so forth. Its even more gruesome sequel is Deadlands: Hell on Earth (set in the same world in the twenty-first century, when the evil forces have virtually destroyed humanity).

Another very popular RPG, loosely based on The X-Files television series, is Conspiracy X (from Eden Studios). The curiously named Eden Studios has also brought out the roleplaying games, C.J. Carella's WitchCraft; Extinction (Conspiracy X, one hundred years in the future); Armageddon: The End Times (subtitled, "A Game of War, Myth and Horror"); All Flesh Must Be Eaten ("the zombie survival horror RPG") -- as well as Abduction: The Card Game (humans trying to escape from alien abductors, the so-called Grays of "UFOlogy"). A somewhat earlier X-Files-type RPG was Don't Look Back: Terror is never far behind (from Mind Ventures).

Dark SunTSR had developed its own "dark world" setting for the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D) system, Ravenloft. There is also the rather bizarre Planescape setting, based on the notion of travel to alternate dimensions filled with incredibly grotesque and usually evil creatures. TSR's (briefly launched) new sci-fi RPG system, Alternity, had an X-Files-type setting, Dark Matter, and they had put dark elements into its space-opera (Star Drive) setting. (TSR had been absorbed some time ago by Wizards of the Coast, which has itself been taken over more recently by toys and games giant Hasbro.)

A rather morbid AD&D setting is Dark Sun, showing a planet mostly ruled by evil sorcerers. Even a fairly innocuous-seeming product, a strategic boardgame (one of the few board wargames ever published by TSR) for the Greyhawk setting, contains elements which point to the tendency of Tolkienian fantasy being played in an increasingly "cruel" way. For example, there is reference to a particularly fiendish punishment, where a person wears a "Ring of Flesh Regeneration" allowing him or her to be almost continuously tortured over the span of years, if not decades. Other negative elements which twist the basically Tolkienian background of Dungeons and Dragons, are the increasingly common roleplaying of such figures as "lich lords" (construed to be a form of undead creature, created by vile rituals, who was once a particularly evil human sorcerer), or of professionally sadistic members of guilds of torturers.

A recent book which typifies a very well written, but largely de-ethicized fantasy, is Steven Erikson's, Gardens of the Moon: A Tale of the Malazan Book of the Fallen (Bantam UK, 1999). This stands in strong contrast to recent works more faithful to the spirit of Tolkienian high fantasy, such as Mark Sebanc's Flight to Hollow Mountain, The Talamadh, Volume 1 (Eerdmans, 1996). This book was significantly re-worked and subsequently appeared under the title, The Stoneholding (Stoneharp Press, 2004), by "Mark James". Now the series has begun appearing with Baen Books, under the titles, The Stoneholding (Legacy of the Stone Harp: Book One), by James G. Anderson and Mark Sebanc (2009); and Darkling Fields of Arvon (Legacy of the Stone Harp: Book Two), by James G. Anderson and Mark Sebanc (2010). Anthony Swithin's high-fantasy series, set on a small, mythical mid-Atlantic continent, Rockall -- which is assumed to have continued to discreetly exist until this very day -- also has discernible traditionalist elements.

Having carefully looked and read through the October ("Halloween Celebration") and November 1999 issues of Shadis (one of the major roleplaying magazines, which, however, has now apparently suspended publication), as well as Pyramid issues 26 to 30 (from July/August 1997 to March/April 1998) (a publication of one of the industry leaders, Steve Jackson Games, which has now shifted to being an online journal) it is difficult to conceive what age group the publications might be targeted at, and for what age group they could be considered as acceptable. In today's society, as media critic Neil Postman has pointed out, there is occurring "the disappearance of childhood." One aspect of this is that ever younger children are imbibing images of sex and horror that in the past would have probably been strictly confined to adults. One could certainly say that these magazines are playing to a somewhat lurid, overripe sense of imagination. As is often the case in America (for example, in those so-called "teen slasher-flicks" -- admittance to which is only ostensibly restricted) they combine softcore sexual images with images of more hardcore violence.

Indeed, the issue of at what age people today are extensively participating in these genres, is highly important, if not a little disturbing to think about. A rather young person could conceivably have their entire life outlook considerably affected, by overindulgence in certain subgenres of these RPG's -- which are, as had been pointed out earlier, much different from the standard, early 1980s-style, Dungeons and Dragons. Indeed, some younger people might be increasingly drawn to these subgenres in search of ever more jaded entertainments, in an increasingly boring-seeming world. It would also probably be a person of greater-than-average intelligence and creative impulses, as for many, heavy metal music, gangsta rap, or horror-movie viewing (or horror fiction reading) would probably suffice.

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.


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