Dungeons & Dragons Doesn't Have to Follow the Traditional Foundation Laid by Tolkien.
As far as I am aware it has long been established that the game worlds of any Dungeons & Dragons game is essentially a quasi-Medieval world wherein the concepts of Arthurian and Tolkien fantasy hold sway over the possibilities available to the players. Knights, dragons, trolls, and whatnot rule the landscape with legendary quests on every horizon. Over the last few years, though, I've begun to wonder if this isn't only a partial picture of the game worlds available to us as colored by the overriding appetite of the average Dungeons & Dragons consumer of the early years and TSR's need to fulfill that hunger.
|Unknown title by Melvyn Grant|
I started thinking about this when I first read the introduction to the Appendix N of Gary Gygax's Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide: ". . . Inspiration for all of the fantasy work I have done stems directly from the love my father showed when I was a tad, for he spent many hours telling me stories he made up as he went along, tales of cloaked old men -who could grant wishes, of magic rings and enchanted swords, or wicked sorcerors and dauntless swordsmen. Then too, countless hundreds of comic books went down, and the long-gone EC ones certainly had their effect. Science fiction, fantasy, and horror movies were a big influence. In fact, all of us tend to get ample helpings of fantasy when we are very young, from fairy tales such as those written by the Brothers Grimm and Andrew Long. This often leads to reading books of mythology, paging through bestiaries, and consultation of compilations of the myths of various lands and peoples. Upon such a base I built my interest in fantasy, being an avid reader of all science fiction and fantasy literature since 1950 . . ." (Gygax, pg. 224). The list he then provided to the reader stretched from the fantasy works of authors like J.R.R. Tolkien, to pulp authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs, and genre defying authors like Jack Vance.
|1920 - Warlord by Jakub Rozalski|
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?
|Snail Mail by Jean-Baptiste Monge 2016|
My suspicion is that as TSR continued to publish adventures and supplements to meet the ravenous appetites of Tolkien's fan base that it steadily pushed players who wanted to do other things to wayside. Instead of riding rocket-powered, mechanical, flying horses and chasing space pirates across the night sky in Dungeons & Dragons they moved on to other games; and as they left so too did the wilder, pulp, and genre defying side of the game. The fantastic Medieval world became the standard genre and for a lot Dungeons & Dragons enthusiasts the literary exploration of Gygax's inspiration begins and ends with the fantasy authors of Tolkien, Moorcock, Anderson, and Leiber. The games become homogeneous and the stories we tell are nothing more than trite rehashes of the same adventures people have been having for the last forty years. We don't make new things, just re-imaginings of past glories; and it leaves us all with a boring wasteland of mediocrity as a result.
Over and over, and over, and over, and over again.
It's past time we start breaking that cycle.
Gygax, Gary. Official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide. TSR Games, 1979. pg 224