Monday, November 24, 2008

The roots of the game

James Maliszewski, in his ever interesting blog Grognardia, makes an interesting post here stating what grognards have been saying for a couple of decades now: E. Gary Gygax was not primarily influenced by The Lord of the Rings when he wrote D&D. I believe it, and it's true for what it's worth when we are discussing Gygax's taste in fantasy novels.

But it isn't true of the phenomenon we understand as "D&D." Gygax wasn't just tossing in some random elements from one source when he included Elf, Dwarf, and Hobbit as races and Orcs, Balrogs, Nazgul and Ents as monsters in his game. While his contempt for some of them was pretty naked, and elaborated in many subsequent articles and interviews, it's disingenuous to say that this was just equal to dozens of other elements he added from other books. These elements were, in reality, anything but coincidental, and have dominated despite Gary's clearly stated intent otherwise.

Including elements from Lord of the Rings was decisively different from any other major elements of D&D. They were strategic, because — let me be blunt here — they were much more popular than fantasy of the type preferred by Gygax. LotR took fantasy out of the "pulp" magazine and put it into the paperback book. D&D was released at a point in time when Tolkien became popular that the utterly hacklike Sword of Shannara was published just because it was like Lord of the Rings. This was clever marketing on Gygax's part, as well; by injecting Tolkienesque elements in the game, he made it relatable to a much larger audience than the pulp fantasy connoisseur like himself. To go out on a limb, I don't think D&D would've been nearly as successful if it weren't so easy for an aficionado of The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings to slip into it with familiar assumptions.

The influence is really straightforward when you look at the secondary literature of the time, such as Alarums & Excursions, where broad swaths of Tolkien were simply assumed to be good coin in D&D because the game had included so many of its core elements. There are articles that assume larger groups of Tolkien influence, such as the Dunedain, and incorporated it much more knowledgeably than, say, the large chunks of Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions (one of the seminal books for D&D). Eventually, despite Gygax's warnings about humanocentrism in the DMG, demihumans assumed the central role of the game, and in the Wizards of the Coast editions, they are more prevalent than humans, at least for anyone with any sense.

Now, I want to be clear that I'm a D&D humanocentrist. I find elves, hobbits and dwarves very dull after nearly a decade and a half of gaming, and could do with never seeing another pointy ear in my game. I also tend to use orcs sparingly, favoring goblins, kobolds, and hobgoblins at the lower levels. But dealing honestly with D&D as it really played out over the last 35 years, I have to acknowledge that the Tolkien elements played a tremendous role in popularizing the game and are a part of our history that we have to own, even if (like thieves and skill lists) we don't use the blasted things.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Classes, tradition and related problems.

A month or so back, I posted a barbarian class (later renamed berserker) to the OD&D board (you can read the thread here). It brought up a couple of points that I think are relevant.

First - there was a bit of backlash to the merging of the barbarian and berserker archetypes that I had perpetuated in the original sketch of the class. The separation of the two is, I believe, a bit artificial - Conan did have moments that are best described as berskerk rages. And it's a very old conflation in the hobby. Issues of Alarums & Excursions had a berserking barbarian as far back as 1976, and the 1977 Arduin Grimoire codified it as a class. So I don't feel that I was entirely off base. But, there are legitimate differences at work here, and since the "berserker" is in Monsters & Treasure, I changed the name to reflect this.

What I find equally important is the question of "What should be a class?". I view D&D as best played within a dungeoneering context, which plays a significant role here. The major classes that people were interested in during the early period of D&D were the paladin, the ranger, the bard (or singer or poet), the druid (or neutral cleric) and the barbarian. Most of these are outdoorsy types who are not necessarily a natural fit for the dungeon. I play the game with the Greyhawk paladin (pretty much any Charisma 17 character becomes a paladin), and I'm considering the druid as an addition.

I've been reading some more of the Conan stories lately, and Conan is plainly a fighting man. He can do a lot -- definitely at different points he's a hero and a super-hero -- but class wise, I would not put him in my berserker class. There's a certain cachet to being a barbarian, but there's not a lot of mechanical flavor that is going to differentiate the character from the OD&D fighting-man without going the weird route pursued by Unearthed Arcana or merging with the berserker. And I'm starting to think that this is okay.

The niche that I think has not been filled adequately is the lightly armored, clever type who dabbles in magic but isn't serious about it, and is a hell of a fighter nonetheless. (The Gray Mouser, Cugel the Clever, etc.) There were echoes of it in the Greyhawk thief class, but this was merged with a specialist who is probably best left as an NPC. I think that some adaptations of the bard came closer, but really it's one of the challenges that remain, and something I've spent some time thinking about.

Beyond the examples I've listed above, I think it's necessary to have a certain skepticism about the need for a new class. For instance, I've thought about a more potion-oriented magic using class as a witch, but too much of the interesting detail would happen outside of the game. It's a valid character type in the world, but I don't know if it translates to an interesting D&D class.

I think that this approach needs to inform our class-building. There's a certain degree of flexibility within the three original classes, but they tend to move in definite ways in-game. (For instance, fighters tend toward AC 2, magic-users go from one-shot "sleep 'em!" to world-shaking magic, etc.) But classes still need to be added with a "should I add this?" approach rather than "this would be cool."