Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Ruminations on the Wild Claims by Hack and Slash

Nearly two weeks ago I posted an article discussing James Wyatt’s latest Wandering Monsters column, You Got Science in My Fantasy. In my article, DnD Next: You Got Science in My Fantasy by James Wyatt, I took the stance that Mr. Wyatt was a bit out in the weeds in his take on fantasy monsters and that there was definitely a greater variety of sources out there than just J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy that we can look to for inspiration in our games.

+Courtney Campbell from the Hack and Slash blog took exception to my article and wrote:

“. . . It isn't a scientific world! Kobolds are blue metals infused with bad thoughts. Orcs are humans that live too long outside civilization. An elf is not a human in a funny hat, but the unchanging form of eternity given shape around mortals it sees as dreams.


You give yourself away as a muddledrum hum-drum when you say "It never occurred to me that orcs didn't have children."

It's fantasy!

Also, kudos to wizards for stealing OSR articles without linking to them . . .” (Comments from Google+ by Courtney Campbell)
Ignoring the condescending comments I’d like to focus on the assertion that James Wyatt stole his idea for You Got Science in My Fantasy from Courtney Campbell’s On Cultivating the Fantastic. To do this I’m going to analyze On Cultivating the Fantastic and compare it with my analysis of James Wyatt’s You Got Science in My Fantasy.

On Cultivating the Fantastic was inspired by the article Non-Banal D&D from Noisms at the Monsters and Manuals blog. In that article Noisms discussed the problem of literalizing creatures in fantasy literature and its effects on modern fantasy literature and on our role-playing games. In particular he finds that “. . . I'm becoming more and more interested in this notion of more genuinely mythical and fantastical fantasy gaming, which doesn't seek to catalogue everything and make it knowable and explainable, but attempts to retain as much mystery as possible . . .” (Non-Banal D&D).

This central thesis of Non-Banal D&D was seized by Courtney Campbell when she wrote On Cultivating the Fantastic and attempted to further the idea by writing, 

 “. . . Once Orcs are not about the ancient threat of Neanderthal dominance, Once Vampires are not about the nightmare of rape and the violation of our sanctity, Once the immortal Lich is not about horror of structures of law and tradition which were invented by men who were dead long before we were born, Once Werewolves are no longer about the terror of our inner animalistic impulses overwhelming us, Once Zombies are not about our innate and unending fear of the implacable advance of gluttonous death, then they are just housecats that we can kill from behind the safety of our +2 blade that adds two to our to hit roll, allowing us to strike at the monster if we roll an 8 or higher . . .” (On Cultivating the Fantastic).
The problem with this line of reasoning is that once a creature is given a defined nature within our cultural understanding we’re back to that core problem that Noisms was discussing in Non-Banal D&D. By saying that orcs do orcish things as a result of this theoretical Neanderthal resentment that we’ve based them on, we have substituted one logical reason for another. Instead of basing the orc on some fear or deeper meaning we should have established them as evil because they’re orcs.

The solution to this problem of literalizing our monster is not substitution of reason but a subtraction of the logical foundation underpinning them. We now fear zombies because they eat us and hate the orc because it attempts to kill us. These monsters are simple creatures who exist for the specified task created for them by the Dungeon Master. While I find this sort of monster incredibly boring, there is nothing wrong with this line of reasoning.

“. . . When second edition began, when third edition began, when the rationalization of Dungeons & Dragons began; this overriding desire to explain everything and have everything make sense was about destroying this very wonder and magic. Is it really necessary that you explain and rationalize everything interesting away? Is it too hard to comprehend something that exists that doesn't make logical sense, but makes visceral sense? Once you kill the threshold between the known world and the dungeon, is it any wonder that dungeons fell out of vogue . . .” (On Cultivating the Fantastic)?
The argument that attempting to explain a monster away logically robs them of their wonder and magic is counter to over two thousand years of literary tradition. According to Hesiod the monsters of Greece were born from the union of Echidna and Typhon. The gods of antiquity all had deeply rich legends that told of their births, lives, governments, and deaths that we can read today. Grendel, from the tale of Beowulf, was born, had a family, and died. The dragons from medieval literature were born from hell. Trolls, fairies, and dwarves were created by pagan gods and went about their dark purposes without care for our wishes.

With the advent of modern fantasy literature after World War I we can name countless examples of logical underpinnings for the monsters in literature. Elric and his kin from the Michael Moorecock novels were an ancient race that had long ruled the world before the rise of man. H.P. Lovecraft’s monsters came from beyond the stars and were complex alien races that were far beyond our understanding. In Robert E. Howard’s Conan books there are regular accounts of interbreed monsters and normal creatures that have been enlarged through magical means. Ursula K. Le’Guin has an island where dragons breed in her classic Earthsea Novels. Terry Brooks has entire monstrous cultures and civilizations that live in the north threatening the world in his Shanara Books.

There is an additional problem with that last quote from Courtney Campbell: there were logical underpinnings to the monsters in both Original Dungeons and Dragons and in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.

“. . . ORCS: The number of different tribes of Orcs can be as varied as desired. Once decided upon, simply generate a random number whenever Orcs are encountered, the number generated telling which tribe they belong to, keeping in mind inter-tribal hostility. When found in their "lair" it will be either a cave complex (die 1 - 4) or a village (die 5-6). The cave complex will be guarded by sentries. A village will be protected by a ditch and pallisade defense, 1 light catapult per 50 Orcs, and a high central tower of some kind. Orcs found in a cave will possibly have strong leader/protector types, as will those in villages . . . If found other than in their lair Orcs may be escorting a wagon train of from 1-8 wagons. There is a 50% chance for this. Each wagon will be carrying from 200 - 1,200 Gold Pieces. Wagon trains will have additional Orcs guarding them, 10 per wagon, and be lead by either a Fighting-Man . . . Note that if Orcs are encountered in an area which is part of a regular campaign map their location and tribal affiliation should be recorded, and other Orcs located in the same general area will be of the same tribe . . .” (Monsters and Treasure, pgs. 7-8)
In Original Dungeons and Dragons our orcs have tribes, villages, inter-tribal conflicts, and leaders. While in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons,

“. . . Orc tribes are fiercely competitive, and when they meet it is 75% likely that they will fight each other unless a strong leader (such as a wizard, evil priest, evil lord) with sufficient force behind him is on hand to control the orcs. Being bullies, the stronger will always intimidate and dominate the weaker. (If goblins are near, for example, and the orcs are strong enough, they will happily bully them.) Orcs dwell in places where sunlight is dim or non-existent, for they hate the light . . . Known orc tribes include the following: Vile Rune, Bloody Head, Death Moon, Broken Bone, Evil Eye, Leprous Hand, Rotting Eye, Dripping Blade. If orcs from one of those tribes are encountered in an area, it is likely that all other orcs nearby will also be from this tribe.

For every 30 orcs encountered there will be a leader and 3 assistants. These orcs will have 8 hit points each (being the biggest [strongest] meanest in their group). If 150 or more orcs are encountered there will be the following additional figures with the band: o subchief and 3-18 guards, each having armor class 4 1 1 hit points, and fighting as monsters with 2 hit dice (doing 2-7 hit points damage). If the orcs are not in their lair there is a 20% chance they will be escorting a train of 1-6 carts and 10-60 slave bearers bringing supplies and loot to their chief or to a stronger orc tribe. The carts will hold goods worth from 10 to 1,000 gold pieces, and each slave will bear goods worth from 5 to 30 gold pieces. If such a train is indicated, double the number of leaders and assistants, add 10 normal orcs for each cart in the train, and a subchief with 5-30 guards will always be in charge.

Orc lairs are underground 75% of the time, in an above ground village 25% of the time. There will always be the following additional orcs when the encounter is in the creatures' lair: a chief and 5-30 bodyguards (AC 4, 13-16 hit points, attack as monsters with 3 hit dice and do 2-8 hit points damage), females equal to 50% of the number of males, young equal to 100% of the number of moles. If the lair is underground, there is a 50% chance that there will be from 2-5 ogres living with the orcs. If the lair is above ground it will be a rude village of wooden huts protected by a ditch, rampart, and log palisade. The village will have from 1-4 watch towers and single gate. There will be 1 catapult and 1 ballista for each 100 male orcs (round to the nearest hundred) . . .

Leaders and above will always have two weapons. If a subchief is with a group the tribal standard will be present 40% of the time. The standard is always present when the tribal chief is. The standard will cause all orcs within 6" to fight more fiercely (+ 1 on hit dice and morale check dice).

Orcs are cruel and hate living things in general, but they particularly hate elves and will always attack them in preference to other creatures. They take slaves for work, food, and entertainment (torture, etc.) but not elves whom they kill immediately.

Orcs are accomplished tunnelers and miners. They note new or unusual constructions underground 35% of the time and spot sloping passages 25% of the time . . .” (Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual, pg. 76).
While Second Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons certainly expanded the logical underpinnings of our monsters to argue that the first two editions simply had monsters existing in a vacuum is to ignore reality. These editions had monsters that were bred, had families, complex social structures, inter-tribal conflicts, racial hatreds, and an overall realistic approach to them.

Did James Wyatt Steal His Article From Courtney Campbell?

Now that we have a thorough understanding of the crux of both Courtney Campbell’s article and James Wyatt’s article we have to answer the question: did James Wyatt steal his article from Courtney Campbell.


Each of the articles approaches the subject of fantasy and science in our role-playing games – but they do so in vastly different manners. James Wyatt’s article is thought provoking and well edited while Courtney Campbell’s is a mess. Courtney’s makes wild assertions as though they were fact and expects the reader to simply accept them; while James Wyatt attempts to explain every assertion through logic and tradition. Each article is very different by comparison to the other.


Works Cited

Campbell, Courtney. On Cultivating the Fantastic. Hack and Slash Blog. 09/26/2011

Gygax, Gary. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual. TSR. USA, 1978: 76

Gygax, Gary and David Arneson. Monsters and Treasures. TSR. USA, 1974: 7-8

Noisms, Non-Banal D&D. Monsters and Manuals Blog. 09/26/11

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