Thursday, October 05, 2017

Revisionist D&D history

I think sometimes people aren't very willing to confront reality if it isn't what they want it to be.  Well, no.  I actually know that to be true.  We prefer pretty little lies that flatter something about us to harsh truths.  The problem with this approach, of course, is that eventually you run face-first into the brick wall of reality at full speed.

Sadly sometimes people continue to deny the existence of brick walls even after that happens (Amanda Kijera.)  But although this sounds like a post about political or social issues (and I use that metaphor all the time when discussing those) this is, no, a D&D-related post.

I recall very clearly that many self-described old fogeys in the D&D realm complaining bitterly about the comic book style art of 3e (and beyond) and the departure from very traditionalist pseudo-Tolkien fantasy in terms of races and classes and setting, etc.  If elves and dwarves and fighting-men and magic-users was good enough for E. Gary Gygax, then by golly, it's good enough for gamers today!  This perspective has been pretty thoroughly debunked in many venues (I'm thinking particularly about Jeffro's Appendix N survey.)  But the evidence was always right there in the games themselves.  An awful lot of the artwork in the games is very obviously comic book style.  And I don't just mean Jeff D.  If you look at the frontspiece art for the B/X books, by Bill Willingham, for instance, you'll see what I'm talking about.

Here's the Basic art.

This one isn't so bad.  I mean, sure—it's comic book style, but it's also relatively traditional fantasy stuff, right?  There's a very reptilian dragon breathing fire (I was never sure why they had dragons in the Basic set, which only took characters to 3rd level, if you recall.)  The chainmail bikini elf and fairly comic-book-like warrior, not to mention whatever spell that flying flaming bird thing is supposed to be are traditional subjects in a traditional manner, even if the art looks like it was literally drawn and inked by comic book artists.  But then we get to the Expert set.

What am I looking at here?  The guy on the left looks like one of the X-men, with his glowing hands about to shoot some kind of blast like Havok or something.  What's that weirdly dressed chick in the middle supposed to be?  An elf with really crazy braids?  A tiefling? I mean, no—that can't literally be true, because the race wasn't invented or named until Planescape came out in 1994, many years after the Expert set (although curiously Zeb Cook is the author of both.  Funny coincidence.)  But if you didn't know that, you'd sure think that she looks an awful lot more like a tiefling than an elf.

The little dwarf with his funky knife and Santa Claus outfit is somewhat more traditional, but he's still clearly drawn in a comic book style.

I think a lot of people are in denial about the fact that D&D was always rather gonzo and had all kinds of weird stuff that bears little to no resemblance to "extruded fantasy product" in its original incarnation.  And, for that matter, several incarnations afterwards too (it's not like B/X was the original incarnation.  It was printed in 1981, seven years after the printing of the original D&D book, and is arguably the third version of the D&D rules. Fourth if you count AD&D as a version, which seems to be the direction most go today—although Gygax stressed that it was a different game (I suspect he did this for legal reasons related to the acrimonious infighting between TSR and Arneson, though.)

Anyhoo—I'm not even sure that this is the most overt example, but for whatever reason this one always stood out in my mind when I was a kid.  I never really entertained the idea that D&D was a vanilla extruded fantasy product emulator. It always felt more like a Heavy Metal emulator than anything else to me when I was younger; in fact, that was part of its bad boy rock star appeal when it went through its era of peak faddish popularity. I even went through a phase in the mid-80s or so where the fact that it wasn't was one of the key areas of dissatisfaction that I had with the game!  That seems funny and even a little embarrassing to admit today, but y'know.  Kids are dumb.  I should know; I've got three teenagers now.  I wasn't immune as a teenager either.

I wonder sometimes what D&D would look like today if it hadn't been hijacked by the pro-Tolkien and only ersatz Tolkien crowd.  Clearly it ended up wandering away in different directions from Tolkien since then, but what if the gonzo had always just been part of the fabric of D&D, as opposed to an element that was actively suppressed for many years?  I guess we'll never really know, but it's still an interesting thing to think about.

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