Why Did Fantasy Become Drab and Conventional?
January 1, 2018
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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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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!