Sunday, June 12, 2011

Medieval America, Punters, and the D&D Endgame

Richard mentioned the term "Medieval America" in a post recently and that has been rattling around in my head.  I think he was getting at something a little different (though this seems related).  Then I encountered the word "punter" and sat for a bit trying to imagine how I might translate that into Southern California English.  Anyway, the mash of ideas got me thinking.

Is Dungeons & Dragons fundamentally founded on the American idea of rags to riches?

I mean, Arneson and Gygax could have started players out as Hamlets and Arthurs and in the wargames they all had experience in, I imagine most characters represented by  players were of aristocratic origin.. But they didn't. They were just soldiers going down under those castles to see what fortune they could find. 

Now it may have just been that the most natural roles for players to take on when the great transition was made to one player, one character, was that of the poor soldier schmucks.  And  I know you have the examples from literature like Conan that they may have been modeling the game after, but you also have Arthur and all his knights and Aragorn.   And I like the Idea of D&D as a picaresque, but what if that was just a result of the fact that we humans tend to have time to play games once a week, and this pushes them to be episodic by nature?

So what do you think?  Is D&D partially the way it is because Americans all think they are CJ scraping their way up from the bottom, claiming their demesnes by the sweat of their brow, by their cunning and doggedness, if not ruthlessness?  Would we all be playing something closer to Pendragon if the first RPGs came out of Europe?


  1. An American wrote Pendragon.

    I don't suspect the first RPG would be too terribly different from D&D (in general concept) as it would have likely come out of similar war- gaming roots.

  2. I've always considered D&D to be a continuation of the ideals of the 2nd born sons of scandinavian migrations. Explorers and raiders taking on the challenge of carving out their own kingdoms, even if someone else already claims the land.

  3. I think there's also something of the American wild west in the D&D ethos. Armed men, answering to no man, roaming barely civilized lands in search of wealth and fame.

    Yee ha!

  4. D&D is very American. It's always reminded me of a combination between a 50s TV Western and a game show. Look at the demographics: islands of civilization separated by miles of howling wilderness peopled only by wild beasts and savages. But hey, if you try your luck you might just strike it rich!

    Speaking of Greg Stafford, creator of Pendragon, he wrote an essay on (in part) D&D-style fantasy and its American-ness.

  5. Something must be in the air...I've been musing on this very topic myself recently.

    Thanks for the post. :D

  6. Interesting question. Another question is, how greatly has the American culture affected the latest incarnations of D&D and RPGs in general?

  7. I always assumed the "western <==> D&D" connection was implicitly understood. That's probably just coz Brits and Euros* are outside looking in at both those cultural phenomena though. ;)

    IOM, if Europeans had invented RPGs we'd all be playing a super-baroque, Bros Grimm-influenced version of WFRP. We like our heroes to die horribly, but only after they've suffered for our entertainment first (Hector+Achilles, Beowulf, Seigfreid, Roland, Arthur, etc.)

    * Brits aren't Europeans. Just ask 'em.

  8. Unsurpringly I think D&D is totally American. But it also clearly speaks to all kinds of Europeans one way or another--in my experience Russians and Bulgarians really dig the freedom and wide open spaces aspects.

    OTOH I do not think Pendragon is a convincing case for a first gen RPG, though maybe another version of it based off multi-generational soap opera plots could have come out of Mexico or Brazil (in which case it's likely we Anglophones would never have heard of it). Maybe A Tolkienian game could've lead the pack. One surprise for me: there was never* a Hitchhikers or an explicitly Monty Python game. Still viable?

    * cue refutation in 3...2...
    No I won't accept the well-known computer games.

  9. I should note that the term Medieval America does not originate with me. I got it from noschoololdschool. and he got it from somewhere else. It's pretty resonant, innit?

  10. Yes. Basically. The climb from 'rag-tag adventurer' toward 'incipient god', which is basically what the epic levels have always implied to me; the sense that the wilderness is out there, full of adventure which must be tamed and conquered; and the idea of the armed and dangerous self-directing protagonist; these things have always struck me as very American, in the very best of ways.

    (I feel the need to point that out given the ease with which my countrymen use 'American' for 'vulgar, unworthy Johnny-come-lately violence-monger', which I honestly can't be doing with at all.)

    If Europeans had invented D&D the archetypal story would be more like the Odyssey, I think - put-upon, long-suffering, and just trying to get by in a world full of bizarre dangers, becoming a legend by accident.

  11. Bit missing from that last comment. Should read "... more like the Odyssey, I think, with the protagonists put-upon, long-suffering..."

    Serves me right for trying to multitask.

  12. @Chris

    > I always assumed the "western <==> D&D" connection was implicitly understood... IOM, if Europeans had invented RPGs we'd all be playing a super-baroque, Bros Grimm-influenced version of WFRP.

    *lol* The first published skirmish level game used for role-playing purposes utilized a Western milieu. And was European, not American.

    > Is Dungeons & Dragons fundamentally founded on the American idea of rags to riches?

    I'm pretty other people elsewhere in the world want to get along, too. :)
    Nice theory, but no dice IMHO.

  13. D&D isn't American, it's Classical age Greece--or any other raiding culture. You ride into enemy territory, wreak havoc, take slaves and treasure, and run away before you get caught. There's no moral qualms because "hill tribe bad! forest tribe good!".

  14. @irbyz: what was this pre-D&D RPG?

  15. D&D wasn't a RPG until 1976, remember, and even then Diplomacy and Royal Armies of the Hyborian Age were considered to be in the same boat by EGG/TSR.

    Steve Curtis, Ian Colwill and Mike Blake's Western Gunfight Rules were being used for narrative role-playing long before the term "RPG" was coined. TSR's Boot Hill is the retroclone. *jk*
    Unfortunately D&D kinda swept the field and redefined the ball-game so that we had to live with "RPG" meaning "games like D&D" for a decade or two before the concept branched back out again. (slight over-generalization, phps ;)

  16. > Would we all be playing something closer to Pendragon if the first RPGs came out of Europe?

    Unless someone out of the SCA got there first? :)

  17. Thanks, all. Great comments.

    @JDJarvis: Probably so, but I keep coming back to levels. Why the level progression? It doesn't seem to make sense except if the game is about going from nobodies to somebodies. And thanks on the clarification on Pendragon, I actually don't own it and probably should have used a different example.

    @sirlarkins: Thanks for the link, I'll read that.

    @Christian, Chris: Keep in mind, while the Western genre may be a big influence, it isn't the same as rags to riches. Westerns are about "taming the land" but by yourself, or with you family, not much riches to be found in the western.

    @irbyz: I'm not knowledgeable about how other cultures view obtaining success, but are they really comparable to this pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps way American's view it? And I don't mean this in praise of America, 90% of our problems stem from this idea. I wouldn't wish it on other cultures.

    @crom: that's certainly a big influence on my game, but to be completely comparable those Greek heroes would have to grow in power as the stories go on. Growing in power is not usually seen in myth/folklore at all is it? All the heroes I can think of spring out fully formed, even literary ones. Does Conan actually get more powerful?

  18. Growing in power is not usually seen in myth/folklore

    Bingo: in Grimm or Perrault stories generally if you were to find or steal a magic sword or other status marker it would come back and bite you: only those things that are given as gifts have the power to transform (note, this is unlike Arabian Nights, where if there's a karmic balance in play it's often buried very deep in the story).

    I even wonder if the American self-transformation thing isn't related to Weber's Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which argues (over-simplifying here for blog comment length) that Calvinists, believing themselves to (maybe) have an invisible special quality of "being saved" (or "elect") deep within them, suffer a status anxiety. They don't really know if they're saved unless the world confirms it for them by showing them success. They are therefore driven to work to succeed. The self-transformation they undergo, from "nobodies" to "somebodies," is then seen as an unmasking of their inner vertu - they don't take it from the world (despite their actions of doing exactly that), they claim it as a sort of divine inheritance, and they do their bit in the claiming for the glory of God (and themselves), by demonstrating that they were saved all along and they knew it too, thank you.

  19. I think class (socio-economic) and deference to authority would have played a bigger role in D&D had it come from Europeans and a European social tradition. "Rank" probably would have been a stat unto itself, imposing a limitation on what milestones a character is eligible for--e.g. a Fighter needs a money and a Rank of 15 to build a fortress, rather than money and a level of 9. A character needs a minimum rank of 12 to be a paladin, and 13 to call for a warhorse. There would be rules for increasing Rank through favors, but it wouldn't be easy and there would be limitations. I could see Rank replacing Charisma, or Alignment, or just being an additional item on the character sheet.

    I would also expect to see more opportunities for inter-PC competition over goals or agendas, as well as chances for synergetic effects when two characters combine powers. Collaborative competition and teamwork seem to be greater parts of board games that come out of Europe, although I'm not sure if that trend actually predates D&D.

  20. You know, sometimes blogging feels like cheating because I just post a quick idea and you all provide such interesting comments.

    @richard: yes, definitely, I think that's right on. To know Americans you have to understand the Puritans. Octavio Paz has a great essay (forget the name) about how our food is so different from Latin America-- food as fuel, not as a pleasure.

    @Menace: The Rank Factor would be interesting but I could see how it might end up chafing me too-- "You mean I can't build a castle because of the luck of birth! Viva la Revolucion!" ha,ha.