Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Why Did Fantasy Become Drab and Conventional?

One of Dyver’s top posts of the year poses the question of just what happened to the wild and wooly days of weird adventure in fantasy role playing games:

Over the years I’ve read stories from the early days of the hobby where Dungeons & Dragons players played in games that defied what has become known as the fantasy genre. Tanks, laser guns, machine guns, rocket ships, aliens, and B movie monsters made appearances. They pushed the boundaries of their imaginations and went wherever their fancies took them whether it was up an elevator or down a water slide into a mountain of treasure. So why did that stop? Why did we go from having a game that jumped the shark at every opportunity into one that dogmatically declared that you must play in a quasi-Medieval world where magic was in the ascendancy and technology was languishing behind?

There are several answers to this and they all tie together.

  1. First off, from a critical standpoint, Tolkien was not yet synonymous with the fantasy genre when Dungeons & Dragons was being developed. If anyone was going to write fantasy pastiche in the early seventies, their go-to author was Lord Dunsany, not Tolkien. (See Ursula Le Guin’s From Elfland to Poughkeepsie for evidence of this being a fact.)
  2. Secondly, even though a lot of people beg to differ on this, Gary Gygax’s reading habits were not at all extraordinary for his times. When it came to the fantasy genre, pretty much everybody read the same stuff: a broad range of authors culled from (easily) seven decades of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Fantasy role-playing game designers like Gary Gygax and Ken St. Andre read from the same canon that Ursula Guinn did.
  3. But for a sign of the times, you can’t do better than to look at how Tolkien was presented during the seventies. Fantasy was just plain weird, as Frank Frazetta’s illustrations of the Lord of the Rings attest. There is very little of stereotypical “Tolkienesque” fantasy in the presentation of the Rankin Bass adaption of The Hobbit.
  4. From the pulp era to the New Wave, the dividing lines between fantasy, science fiction, and horror were quite blurry. (Case in point: H. P. Lovecraft’s visage graces the World Fantasy Award… and in the thirties his “horror” tales appeared in the science fiction magazine Astounding Stories.)
  5. The early fantasy role-playing games– original D&D, Tunnels & Trolls, and Metamorphosis Alpha— were loose frameworks without even any adventure modules that were engineered with the assumption that the referee would flesh out a campaign world with a whole gamut of material lifted from a range of fantasy and science fiction stories. Indeed, the rulesets themselves embody this very methodology– something that will appear “wrong” to anyone bred on a more Tolkienesque approach to gaming and fantasy.
  6. The last piece of the puzzle… the one that would be most baffling to contemporary fantasy addicts is that one man in the seventies above all others was synonymous with fantasy and science fiction and that was Edgar Rice Burroughs. Gygax’s manuscript for original D&D is as much an engine for playing out John Carter’s Barsoom adventures as anything else, Ken St. Andre’s concept of fantasy was derived first and foremost from Tarzan novels, and John Eric Holmes (editor of the first basic set) wrote and published Pellucidar pastiche. If a random group of people were going to sit down and play a “generic fantasy” game in the early seventies, the influence of Edgar Rice Burroughs would have been inescapable.

Something big happened in fantasy publishing starting around 1980. Something equally huge in science fiction went down beginning around 1940. In the absence of an independent critical voice, very few people would even be conscious of this. But early role-playing games serve as sort of a time capsule, preserving the true history of the field of science fiction and fantasy through the succeeding dark age.

It’s an incredible story in and of itself. Even better, the answers to a great many game mastering problems are contained within the books that inspired the fantasy role-playing hobby to begin with. Whether you’re frustrated with trying to force fantasy games to fit with a concept of fantasy they were never designed to handle or whether you’d just like to look back at a time when fantasy authors dealt with completed stories rather than interminable series that never pay anything off, Appendix N will be a veritable gold mine.

If you haven’t already, read my book today!


17 responses to “Why Did Fantasy Become Drab and Conventional?

  1. Daniel J. Bishop January 1, 2018 at 4:17 pm

    I have read your book, and while I don’t always agree with everything, I had a very hard time putting it down. I read it over the course of the weekend, and found it excellent. Highly recommended.

  2. pcbushi January 1, 2018 at 7:47 pm

    I love how the R&B elves were kind of bent, crooked green forest men. None of that beautiful, blonde Orlando Bloom tripe.

  3. Pingback: What’s Wrong With Fantasy? – Rod Walker, Science Fiction Writer

  4. Santa January 2, 2018 at 12:50 pm

    We started playing D&D with the boxed set in the 70’s. We read all sorts of fiction (fantasy, SF, horror, mysteries) and would take anything into our games as long as it wouldn’t unbalance game play too much. – Love your book.

  5. Zudrak January 3, 2018 at 11:01 am

    Dumb question time:

    What are the two big happenings mentioned here?

    “Something big happened in fantasy publishing starting around 1980. Something equally huge in science fiction went down beginning around 1940….”

    Thanks, Jeffro, for fighting the mass media deluge of drab. It’s the same sort of trending seen in car manufacturing (no vehicle’s look really stands out from the rest of its categorical class) and in every new shopping center (the same beige colour to the structures — like a 2 year-old’s favorite foods of applesauce, chicken nuggets, grilled cheese, and fish sticks).

    Welcome to the Beige Age.

    • jeffro January 3, 2018 at 10:13 pm

      Briefly, 1940 is about when science fiction attempted to divorce itself from fantasy… and fantasy itself was very nearly abolished. It also marked a shift in which New York City became the center for science fiction publishing and in which a very small clique gained an outsized influence over who and what got published.

      1980 is (more or less) the breakout points for the Star Wars and Star Trek movie franchises which would redefine science fiction for most people away from the subversion of fandom and back to something much closer to the pre-1940 sf. Meanwhile in fantasy, the success of Shannara and Thomas Covenant would result in Tolkien clones becoming the new normal. Changes in who ran the publishing houses, how people bought books, and how inventory was taxed would together culminate in an eight decade long fantasy canon being erased from the consciousness of sff junkies.

      Note that in an astonishing coincidence, a side effect of BOTH of these watershed events would see Christian and non-leftist authors very nearly erased from the marketplace, from history, and from works receiving positive critical attention.

      • Zudrak January 4, 2018 at 12:16 am

        Thank you very much. I figured the 1980s movement is what I have lived through — a nigh-unstoppable undermining of everything in the past and ensuring certain authors and works get buried and forgotten. So, while I guessed at the 1980s shift, I could not even hazard one for the 1940s change. I appreciate your indulging my question.

      • morganwestridge January 13, 2018 at 4:15 pm

        Good macro summary of the 80s change. Another big issue was the slow decline of used book stores. During 80s even if these authors weren’t on the main book store shelves, I could find huge shelves of them in any decent used book store in the sf/fantasy section of all kinds of classics published in the 60s or 70s. Gradually well stocked used book stores dried up and thanks to online book sellers driving up prices, the prices went up too… But in 1980-ish or even 1985-ish you could find all the classics even in a small town Canadian book store like I frequented, and of course masses of stuff in any big city book store.

        Note that the reaction against Christianity in the marketplace in the 80s was quite possibly a self-inflicted wound by the so-called moral majority. If loudest Christian voices tell everyone wizards and magic is EVIL people who like the stuff aren’t going to be interested in it, or if they believe, aren’t going to write it….

  6. Pingback: Return of the Koshinbun: Tolkien, Final Fantasy IV, Rampage – PC Bushi

  7. Constantin January 10, 2018 at 10:16 am

    Hello, I have a question for the site owner, but what should Lovecraft’s stories be categorized under, or if they should at all? He’s been described as a horror and science fiction writer, and while there’s certainly some of that in there, the stories I’ve read so far seem like an mixture of all of the above and more, something slightly different than what I’ve heard described about his stories until now.

    • jeffro January 10, 2018 at 8:52 pm

      I would label him (along with Robert E. Howard, C. L. Moore, and A. Merritt) as a master of the Weird Tale. I believe this is a distinct genre in its own right that freely mixes literature, myth, science fact, history, legend, Christian lore, evolution, and history. Many of the best stories from this era cannot easily be made to fit most contemporary understandings of fantasy, science fiction, and horror because those genres did not yet exist in their distilled forms when those authors were writing.

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