Dungeons & Dragons is easily the most interesting thing on the internet. But in spite of the unparalleled amount of resources available today for people that want to delve into the topic, people still managed to get it wrong. In fact… so few people get anything about it even remotely right, it’s positively baffling.
Cecilia D’Anastasio’s recent article for Kotaku is par for the course in this sort of thing.
Storytelling was never the same after Dungeons & Dragons. When players, guided by a dungeon master, knit a dense narrative whose many threads are each supported by their neighbors, it makes the case that many voices are greater than one. This is the pitch on which Dungeons & Dragons stakes its brand.
What she is talking about here is of course a valid premise from which to develop an “indie” style role-playing game. But it’s not the one that Dungeons & Dragons is derived from. The bedrock of the franchise is the sprawling mega-dungeon that the Dungeon Master was originally required to develop himself. To be sure, the “wilderness” of the wider world in its vicinity held a significant role, as did the spectacle of the miniatures battles played out with entire armies of figures. But the dungeon has always been and always will be the defining element of the game.
It’s no accident that the game has a “Dungeon Master” rather than a “Story Teller”.
Now… the question of what Dungeons & Dragons stakes its brand on is itself inherently stupid. In the first place, Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t do anything. The people who own the property do. And they don’t really grasp what matters about it anymore than Disney comprehends Star Wars. So Dungeons & Dragons today means whatever it has to in order to move a bunch of product.
A much more interesting question is what did Gary Gygax stake the game’s brand upon when it was first published. I’ll show you:
These rules are strictly fantasy. Those wargamers who lack imagination, those who don’t care for Burroughs’ Martian adventures where John Carter is groping through black pits, who feel no thrill upon reading Howard’s Conan saga, who do not enjoy the de Camp & Pratt fantasies or Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser pitting their swords against evil sorceries will not be likely to find DUNGEONS and DRAGONS to their taste. But those whose imaginations know no bounds will find that these rules are the answer to their prayers.
From the beginning, imagination was the central element of the game. And that is why TSR is to this day synonymous with “Products of Your Imagination.”
How do you know if you have the sort of imagination it takes to get into the game…? Well that’s easy. There’s this set of books that I refer to collectively as the fantasy and science fiction canon. Gygax mentions some of its exemplars in the introduction to the game. If you are insanely enthusiastic about the awesomeness of these books, then D&D is the answer to your prayers.
Though I suppose times have changed somewhat. D&D is a big time brand while the novels and stories that served as its impetus have lapsed into obscurity. For people that are intrigued by classic editions of the game and that want to know more about how it came to be and why it is so strange to contemporary eyes, then the books of the fantasy and science fiction canon are the answer to your prayers!
As to the rest of the article, it would take an entire book to explain everything that is wrong with it. And it is irksome. After all, you don’t see websites dedicated to redefining hobbies like fishing or needlework. It’s bizarre, really.