Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Ruminations on early D&D, sword & sorcery and more

I've been very pensive and philosophical lately about the origin of the game of D&D, the type of fantasy that used to be prevalent and the type of fantasy that is now lately.  Allow me, if you will, a slight rambly digression to establish some context...

Although my first game of D&D was in the late 70s using the white box original D&D set was when I was in... oh, third grade I think (maybe 2nd) in the late 70s, it wasn't really until I was in 5th grade when the Moldvay sets were new that I really kinda got it.  That's also the first time that I actually got my hands on a rulebook (borrowed) and read through them.  For many years, these B/X sets were the only ones that I'd read all the way through, although I also read pretty large portions of the Holmes set (honestly, I don't think I really understood exactly what the differences were supposed to be between them, although it was obvious that there were many) and the AD&D books, I never owned a copy of any of them, and I never read them all the way through either—to this day, the Moldvay set is the only pre-3rd edition set of D&D rules that I've read all the way through.  Since I bought the B/X books a year or so ago from DriveThruRPG as pdfs (along with Keep on the Borderlands and The Isle of Dread as they would have been originally packaged in the early 80s) they are the only set of D&D rules earlier than the year 2000 that I own as well.

So it's curious that I consider myself a kind of old-fashioned gamer in many ways, if not actively old-school (I dislike some of the quirkiness and idiosyncratic nature of the rules) since I didn't really truly embrace D&D until 3rd edition.  My "glory years" of gaming in middle school lasted from about 5th-8th grade, and utilizing either B/X and AD&D—or maybe occasionally a hybrid of the two, neither of which I ever owned.  But my tastes were formed then, and they haven't changed (in many respects) since then either.  My tastes in fiction, formed at the same time, are similarly somewhat calcified.

I was always a fantasy fan, of course, nearly as long as I can remember, although what I considered fantasy has been at times more and less inclusive than now.  When Star Wars came out I was five years old.  It's literally the first movie that I remember seeing in theaters.  I was also a huge fan as a little kid of the Disney movie Sleeping Beauty—mostly because of the dragon (and the Tchaikovsky soundtrack.)  The very first book I ever remember getting at the library—even before I could read—was the Big Golden Book Dinosaurs: Giants of the Past with the Rod Ruth illustrations (the big yellow cover.)  The first book of my own that I remember ever owning was the Little Golden book of dinosaurs with the fabulously colorful (and weirdly lizard and snake-like) illustrations of William de J. Rutherfoord—an immensely talented artist, if not a very careful anatomist.  I was always a fan of the exotic and fantastic.

By 1976—before Star Wars and when I was still young enough to not yet be in school—I was watching Filmation's Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, a surprisingly faithful adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' star character, complete with Mangani language words, all kinds of lost cultures and cities in deepest Africa (including Greeks, Vikings, various man-ape peoples, and even UFOs!); by 1979 I was watching their Flash Gordon (officially renamed The New Adventures of Flash Gordon to separate it from various other programs of the same name) which was also a relatively faithful (to the tone, at least, if not the details) of your classic planetary romance.  By 1980 (the year I was 8) my favorite cartoon was Thundarr the Barbarian (curiously, I recently discovered that the same voice actor played the protagonist characters in all three of those shows) a truly gonzo sword & sorcery affair set in a far future post-apocalyptic Earth, which had the added conceit of always showing recognizable ruins of some famous location or landmark in nearly every episode.  Despite this post-apoc veneer, Thundarr was pure sword & sorcery—he was a furry undies wearing barbarian (with a freakin' lightsaber—kinda, and a wookie companion) who almost always pitted himself against wildly inhuman tyrant-wizards who oppressed the good, salt of the earth peasant people of what was once North America.  The next year, I was also a fan of the short-lived Blackstar; a similar show that had a planetary romance slash sword & sorcery vibe.

This established a pretty gonzo expectation of what fantasy was for me at an early age, but literally the same time, I was starting to get pulled into very traditional stuff.  Also in 5th grade was when I first read Lloyd Alexander and The Hobbit; by 6th grade I was devouring The Lord of the Rings which I had asked for as a boxed set for Christmas (with the Darrell K. Sweet covers) and before I knew it, I was on the train to what is now given the derogatory label of extruded fantasy product; y'know, the Terry Brooks stuff, the Raymond Feist stuff when he's phoning it in, David Eddings, Weis/Hickman, Salvatore, etc.  But I also in about 6th grade or so, starting discovering the older pulps—thanks to the Tales of Fantasy artisan coloring book by Troubador Press, I was familiar with the concept of Barsoom, Conan and some Lovecraft—and luckily, my public library had some of that, and used book stores and later even limited access to the university library (where my dad worked; I wasn't old enough to check things out on my own there yet) gave me easy access to a lot of Burroughs, Howard, Leiber, Lovecraft and more.

And now to the point.  Because of my personal history, I was initially skeptical of the "generation gap"—also because most of the gamers I know (who, naturally, are roughly my age) have read the older pulps and are fans of them as well—I thought gamers and the "canon" of sword & sorcery were pretty well hand in hand.  I knew that younger gamers weren't necessarily as clued in, and I remember, of course, when the bookshelves of both my library and my bookstores eventually lost their long Burroughs shelves and Conan shelves, not to mention the huge Gor and Horseclans collections, etc.  There certainly was a change in what was out there, but I attributed that to simple attrition and changing patterns in what was fashionable and popular in books (at the time, I knew little of the massive shift in business patterns behind the scenes with the paper supply, the publishers and the book distributors that was happening in the later 80s.)  In fact, I still think that that was largely behind the change, combined with the business plans of the distributors, publishers and book sellers.  After all, when this pulp stuff came back into print in the 60s, it had been out of print for 15-20 years or so, and had come back into fashion.  I have to speculate and extrapolate to some degree, because data isn't really available, but I think the generation to which Gygax belonged could also have perceived a generation gap of sorts; a lot of what he loved which is older was really only relatively recently back in print and available, and without the internet to disseminate information, fans wouldn't have had much luck tracking down older stuff, or even knowing about it anyway.  The pulps boom was over by the time WWII ended, although a few managed to hang on for years, or even decades longer than that. In movie form, the equivalent to the pulps, the serials, only lasted until the mid-50s or so.

But hold the phone!  Even guys like me have a generation gap of sorts.  Although I was pretty familiar with the pulp serials, as novelized after their initial publication—especially stuff by Burroughs, who is today still my second favorite author after Tolkien—I never really got into, or in many cases even heard of, some of the other guys who were concurrent with Gygax and who also informed D&D a great deal.  I didn't read any Poul Anderson or L. Sprague de Camp or Fletcher Pratt (with the exception of some of Anderson's science fiction, and of course de Camp's work in the Conan oeuvre) or some of the other stuff that Ron Edwards (my paraphrasing) kinda refers to as the hippy and drugs airbrush van art style of whacked out counter-culture phantasmagoric fantasy fandom and the stuff that they liked and to some degree produced; the whole Heavy Metal magazine style fantasy.  To the extent that that is key to understanding the early D&D experience from the point of view of fantasy fans in the 70s, I guess I missed out on that, and I'm OK with staying missed on that, actually.  I've sampled a bit of it here and there (again; without the internet; the only way to know if anything was any good was to try it.  I used to read truckloads of bad books as a teenager and didn't really think twice about it.)  Besides, Ron Edwards as a self-confessed counter-culture hippie, not a regular guy, so he doesn't necessarily represent gamers the way that he thinks he does, and he wasn't all that much older than me, really.  He's a data point, but I doubt he's as representative as he thinks he is.

So yeah; I think the generation gap is real, but I think generation gaps are cyclical and commonplace when it comes to the kind of entertainment that we sample.  What makes this generation gap different than other generation gaps of the past is twofold:
  1. The counter-culture, drug-addled, van-painter fantasy culture of the 70s was heavily tied to unique, generational trends that were dependent on the social and cultural atmosphere of the time.  Whereas someone like Burroughs or Howard wrote stories that are more timeless, artifacts of the late 60s or 70s are not.  This is part of the reason why, I believe, I've never liked Michael Moorcock, for instance.  As the beat generation evolved into the hippies who evolved into the "van-painters" Edwards relates to, we see the first flowering of the nihilistic cultural Marxist oikophobic death cult since the falling out of favor of the bolsheviks and the fascists.  Anyone who's not an SJW is going to be repulsed by the cultural context behind this kind of fantasy, and anyone who is an SJW has already moved on, since SJWs always devour and disavow their immediate intellectual forebears in short order.  I think the Ron Edwards van painter phantasmagoric fantasy is gone forever unless cultural conditions change to something that is more favorable to it—although that's not to say that stuff that only superficially resembles it might not be ascendant again.
  2. Speaking of which, the rise of the SJW in the fandom self-proclaimed literati has partly created this generation gap too; works of the past are "problematic"; they're cis-gendered; they're white privilege, they're racist and sexist, etc.  It's all nonsense, but you see it clearly in reviews of many folks who come across this stuff more recently; they are literally pained to have to read dialogue by Jane Porter's loyal attendant Esmeralda, and they think Robert E. Howard (or even Tolkien!) is a virulent racist (although they're usually short on details that led to this conclusion.) 
Switching gears somewhat, implicit in a reading of Jeffro's conclusions about the Appendix N, which I'll link one more time, is the notion that fantasy at the time of D&D's advent was much more wild and crazy than it is now, where it's been turned into what is sometimes called extruded fantasy product; like I mentioned above, the Weis/Hickman, Eddings, Brooks, etc. guys and their descendants like Goodkind, Jordan, and others who dominate the shelves of the fantasy section today.  However, I think it's easy to go too far with this notion, and it needs to be tempered with a few caveats.  The term extruded fantasy product tends to refer to unoriginal, predictable, "vanilla" high fantasy pastiches of Tolkien to some degree, but it's a bit unfair to them to so single them out.  Poor quality and unoriginal pastiches have always been around, and many of them dominated the scene during the 60s, 70s and early 80s too—although they weren't necessarily pasiches of Tolkien yet.  I've read literally dozens of Barsoom pastiches, only a few of which were memorable, and many of them were written and published in the 60s and 70s.  As Den Valdron over on ERBZine said years ago on the tail end of a review of the short-lived Mike Resnick Ganymede series (with a few editorial comments by me added in): "On the other hand, it does lay out the strengths and weaknesses of the whole "Swords and Planets" genre as it evolved during its original heyday in the 1930s and 40s, and [separately] in the 60s and 70s.

The trouble was that as a whole, it had only a limited number of tropes, and it really made no effort to push itself.   Any genre, of course, evolves a limiting series of conventions and formulas.   That’s just the nature of the beast.   The survival and prosperity of a genre, however, depends on its ability to rework beloved old formulas, to turn the cliches on their head, to challenge and create something new. [I'd argue against this; that's not really true, because then it would cease to be the genre.  The survival and prosperity of a genre depends on its ability to evolve cues that keep it relevant as social moods and fashions change, and on the ability of its creators to execute with some skill and style.]

The truth is that there isn’t anything in Resnick’s Ganymede novels or Carter’s Callisto novels that could not have been written in 1932. [Again; editorial aside: I think the Callisto novels by Lin Carter are among the better pastiches, actually.  The Ganymede ones by Mike Resnick, however, are not.]

In an age when Michael Moorcock was literally reinventing the Conan barbarian fantasy genre with Elric, [seriously overselling what Moorcock was doing here] when MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman was reinventing historical adventure, when science fiction was delving into its new wave, when it was fracturing into hard and soft sf, military sf, etc, it seems remarkable that Resnick and Carter, two of the more talented young writers of their era were simply churning out same old, same old.   [It's remarkable to me that deconstructionist, a "let's simply turn all our tropes upside down and call that innovative" approach by entryists who are literally trying to subvert the genre is considered an interesting reinvention to me, and literally all of his examples here encapsulate that kind of juvenile approach.  But he makes a point; those genres were growing and splitting at a time where planetary romance was turning more and more stagnant]  A formula disparaged by detractors as ‘thud and blunder’ and not wrongly so. [...]

Rather, the genre plays out increasingly as photocopies of photocopies, with only superficial and imperfect understandings the very strengths and weaknesses of the genre.  Often these photocopies minimized strengths and magnified weaknesses.   The writers of the genre showed so little insight that they simply lacked the ability to ring changes."

"Thud and blunder" was indeed the phrase that predated "extruded fantasy product" and was used specifically to (in spite of Valdron's use of it to describe planetary romance, or sword & planet above) describe sword & sorcery pastiche of Howard in the same way that extruded fantasy product refers to high fantasy pastiche of Tolkien.  Cynical references to "mighty thews" served much the same purpose.  In the 80s, this kind of poor pastiche of thud and blunder jumped media, and following the perhaps unexpected success of the Schwarzenegger movie Conan the Barbarian, a long stream of derivative barbarian sword & sorcery movies followed.  Few were notable enough to make any kind of splash (anyone remember the Barbarian Brothers or Yor?  I didn't really think so.)  And if D&D has evolved into the game of extruded fantasy product, it's fair to say that it started off as thud and blunder.  There's little about D&D that isn't pretty bland pastiche from the beginning.  The Appendix N is itself much more varied and diverse than the game it inspired.  Of course there wouldn't be anything stopping an early player of D&D in the 70s or early 80s from adapting the game to run something as gonzo as Vance's Dying Earth, or even Thundarr the Barbarian, or the setting of Dorian Hawkmoon—but at the same time, the system didn't really support it, and I have a hard time imaging doing so occurring to anyone, really.

Part of this was due to TSR's own business strategy.  D&D was "generic" fantasy pastiche.  If you wanted post apocalypse pastiche, you played Gamma World.  If you wanted a western, you played Boot Hill.  If you wanted pulp adventures you played Crimefighters, and if you wanted space opera, you played Star Frontiers, etc.  It would have been nice if these systems were cross-compatible enough that you could mingle and intersperse elements from one to the other, but they weren't, and it wasn't intended that you do so, I don't think.  Nor did it occur to very many to try.  Curiously, it wasn't until the release of the d20 system 15-16 years ago that such cross-genre pollination all within the same game became possible—but by then, gaming had largely calcified into its genre chimneys.  If you wanted outre, wild weird tales type settings, you didn't have a lot of options to pursue besides pretty serious home-brewing, or playing something like Rifts.  In fact, you could make a case that Rifts is a better successor, in some ways, to the really gonzo fantasy of the time than D&D ever was, and yet Rifts was always a marginal game that catered to a market that was relatively on the fringe.  Plus, it had a quirky system that many people didn't like.

But the fact is, D&D always went for relatively "safe" bland pastiche, and for the most part, that's also where the market was.  In the 70s and early 80s, this pastiche was thud and blunder, later in the 80s (and on up 'til now) this pastiche has been extruded fantasy product.  But either way, that was always the nature, and arguably, even the intent of D&D anyway.

1 comment:

Gaiseric said...

I checked; I bought the Moldvay pdfs TWO years ago. So no, I'm pretty sure that I literally bought not one single rpg product in 2015.