Thinking on something that Uncle Bear wrote some days ago, yes, D&D is in a rut. He makes the point about fantasy authors, referring to a few from the early-to-mid Twentieth Century—Howard, Moorcock, Vance—as influences on the game. I understand why Vance is included, because its lately come to light that he had something to do with the method for discharging magic, but really, he’s a pretty piss poor author, and no one but no one would have included him on any list twenty years ago. But that to one side.
If there was an author whose name would have come up, at lot, it would have been Tolkein. Of course Tolkein, for without him there would be no races in the game, or at least the races would not be so well defined. Not that I like Tolkein as an author. I was conscious during the whole “Frodo Lives” excitement during the mid 1970s, but the books were horridly dull, full of prepositions (…they headed down the path through the woods to where they could cross over the bridge and past the glade to the inn beside the gate to the back rooms above the main floor…) Two pages and I’m fast asleep (even on the bus to work).
Bear’s argument is that fantasy has fed the game that has now defined the fantasy and both are in a rut. Well, something close to that, anyway. Go read his argument. I’m only here to say that yes, I think that D&D is in an awful rut, but that it doesn’t begin with fiction written in the last fifty years.
If you want to define the culprit for the story trap that grips D&D, you might as well start with Gilgamesh, the oldest extant text in existence. It is the earliest evidence of anyone putting told tales to print, and it is an awful, meandering story about superpowers, destroying monsters, completing a quest and becoming, ultimately, a god. I’m well aware that there are many scholars who love it (I took courses from them in university), but in terms of emotional, on-the-edge of your seat action, it would be like having only one movie being found by a culture five thousand years from now and that movie being Dragonslayer.
Nevertheless, for most of human culture, right up until around 1600 or so, virtually every depicted story about human beings—which are not technically religious— fundamentally circulated around those basic themes. Hero destroys monster, wins princess, gets dead and then deified. Sometimes the dead part is skipped. A lot of the religious stories too, notably the various Hindu texts and parts of the Bible. It is only that the non-religious stories tend to be less preachy and guilt-ridden.
My argument for the very height of this story-telling process would be Spenser’s the Fairy Queen, which is pure D&D and from which a direct line can be drawn to all modern fantasy. Both C.S. Lewis and Tolkein were, as Oxford professors, deeply steeped in the English educational tradition of having read at least the first canto of the very long, long poem in their early schooling, and if you’ve read Spenser you can’t miss the relationship. But if you think the language and internal references of Shakespeare are hopelessly obscure, you’re not quite ready for Spenser…and most aren’t. Which is a shame, because it’s pure D&D.
Others would argue that Cervantes Don Quixote would be the more profound work, and I would agree, but not as a fantasy story. Published in 1605, it is the satire of the fantasy story, in which the attempts by a deluded, ordinary man attempting to live up to the story proves both funny and enlightening.
It is generally considered the earliest modern “novel”—of quality, at least—defined partly by it being in prose but also because it attempts to approach higher subjects than fairy tales. Fairy tales are, in essence, morality tales intended to encourage listeners to dislike cruelty and cling to hope. What is Cinderella, after all, but a story that tens of thousands of abused, poverty-living girls could hear and dream about, thus keeping them passive and accepting because eventually they would be rescued?
But I am swinging a bit off topic.
I’ve said before that D&D ought not to be a game about morality…and that is what the hero image is: it is a moral position, where good triumphs over evil. We all know that vast numbers of DMs insist on paying lip service to this, intervening when players are “too evil” or self-serving, intentionally or unintentionally punishing the more grasping members of a given party while rewarding virtuous, easy-to-DM would-be knights of the round table, who eschew prostitutes and would never, ever act gluttonously. I say easy because for the ordinary DM trapped in the ancient fantasy framework, all that’s wanted are players who will scoop up their predesigned quests and storylines without question. You don’t want these guys to say, “Who the fuck cares? I let the dragon eat the princess…does he give me any treasure for my not doing anything?”
The modern novel is an intellectual development over ancient storytelling, still present in pulp fiction, because it does contemplate higher, more humanly relevant issues…issues which don’t translate well to the fantasy framework of a Saturday evening playing D&D. Mostly because it gets a little creepy before getting awfully uncomfortable. I had a party debating last weekend over the necessary torture of a gnoll cleric…at least half the party (split evenly down the sexual divide) was uncomfortable with the scene, although all it involved were descriptions of slicing off skin and beating the gnoll’s legs with a chain. They would much rather have been turning living things into corpses by the far less intrusive system of ordinary combat.
Every DM has tried this and the results are pretty standard. Have an NPC fall in love with a character. Speak the necessary role-playing lines. Have them get, well, x-rated. Watch everyone get uncomfortable, and jokes get made, and the scene completely fails.
Putting everything like that into old style chivalric statements makes the scene more comfortable. Being the DM and saying, “Please Orric, touch me, touch me everywhere…fuck me hard…I’m so hot for you,” will never play as well around a gaming table as, “Sir Orric, would that I could speak my heart.” It’s corny and it’s where the game is. Players are still generally the same children who used to cry out and throw themselves face down into pillows when the “mushy stuff” came on the movie.
Often DMs will appeal to ideals like honor, duty and loyalty…all concepts taught chapter and verse to the military in order to obtain blind obedience. Which, I suppose, is all most DMs want from their players. Raising the game out of its fairy tale roots involves playing up mental states like guilt, regret, cowardice, impetuousness and hatred. When, in your world, has not HATE been a wonderful motivator in a campaign? When have you attempted to make a player regret his hatred, resisting the urge to make all your villains stock characters without a shred of decency? You want a memorable campaign - then make a player doubt whether or not a villain, once in the hand, should actually be killed? Make it so that thousands of innocents depend on the villain’s survival, even though the villain is as loathsome as they come. What, can’t think of how to do it? You need to read better literature.
Well, I’ll stop there, though I could probably go on. If you want out of the rut, throw out the playbook. Go find yourself another, preferably outside of fantasy fiction. Publishers pick that stuff based on its appeal to narrow-thinking, lowbrow groundlings, knowing they read for simple pleasure, not to expand their horizons. The horizon in a rut is a pretty near one. About four inches in front of one’s face.