Saturday, September 24, 2016

Monocultural Dying Earth vs Anti-Medieval D&D (Thought Eater)

Here are some entires for ROUND THREE of the Thought Eater Writin' About Games Tournament.

These are not by me, they are by two anonymous contestants, vote for which you like better.

The theme for this round is to describe the significance of something that's missing from an RPG text.

Here is the first essay, if you like it best, send an email to zakzsmith AT hawtmayle with the subject line YEK and nothing else. It's about D&D-influencing author Jack Vance:

Jack Vance’s Dying Earth is basically a monoculture. Everywhere you go you get the same wildlife, the same wizards, the same measurements and money, the same aloof princesses and sociopathic adventurers, the same religious pedants and small-time conmen, the same backward villagers with stupid and dangerous traditions, the same card games, the same petty lords, the same conversations in the same bars. Even when someone goes a million years back in time there’s no sense that anything they see would be out of place on the earth they came from. Unlike Lyonesse, or every other fantasy epic, the Dying Earth doesn’t come with a map. It only has physical geography insofar as this is necessary to structure people’s adventures, and the same is true for cultural geography. It’s important for us to know that, in order to get the Silver Desert, Cugel has to cross the Mountains of Magnatz. And it’s important we know that in this little bullshit village they make you judge beauty contests and in that one they eat people’s fingers. But Vance is less interested in building up a coherent, inhabitable world than he is with leading us through a paratactic sequence of weird and memorable encounters. So it’s hard to lay down everything that happens on a chart in the same way that you can lay down everything that happens in Lyonesse, or its spiritual successor Game of Thrones. You can’t say that the guys who eat fingers are here and because of the placement of the river they would naturally come into conflict with the guys who regulate the sun. And these people all think the same way, anyway: they’re all literal, pedantic, hyper-rational and hateful small-minded pricks, like participants in the world’s worst internet argument. They all speak the same affected faux-courtly dialect and have the same basic approach to problem-solving. Even the monsters are like this. So what we lose is not a sense of place but rather a sense of distinction between places. It’s easy to visualise the Dying Earth, but it’s hard to think about how any one part of the Dying Earth is substantially different from any other part. Place-names abound, because Vance loves proper nouns, but wherever possible he avoids giving us a sense of context for them. He’s not interested in the relationships between them, or in fitting them into any kind of bigger picture, except insofar as it can be used to propel the story.

Here is a bit from Thomas Pynchon’s short story Entropy that explains what is going on here:

"Nevertheless," continued Callisto, "he found in entropy or the measure of disorganization for a closed system an adequate metaphor to apply to a certain phenomena in his own world… [he] envisioned a heat-death for his culture in which ideas, like heat-energy, would no longer be transferred, since each point in it would ultimately have the same quantity of energy; and intellectual motion would, accordingly, cease."

The Dying Earth is a closed thermodynamic system that has simmered down to equilibrium. Everything is the same because the world is ending and the energy it takes to differentiate things has run out.

This is also why it’s so hard for the characters in the Dying Earth to ever get anything done. It’s why The Eyes of The Overworld ends with Cugel returned to where he began, stranded on a frozen beach and condemned to repeat the exact same journey again in the sequel. It’s why the only people on the Dying Earth with anything resembling ambition are either wizards or eccentrics like Guyal of Sfere, all of whom ultimately aspire to escape the world on which they were born and on which the laws of physics themselves conspire against accomplishment. The beginning and end of a story are two distinct points, like two cities on a plain, and it takes energy to keep them separate. So Dying Earth stories inevitably tend to gravitate towards the picaresque, the kind of episodic narrative where nothing ever changes and the status quo is never seriously disturbed. A lot of people have written picaresques over the years and you’ll find many of them listed in Zak’s essay on the subject here, which I assume you have all read a bunch of times on account of how it’s foundational to the genre of games blogging. But what Vance does that, e.g., Jack Kerouac or the writers of superhero comics don’t do is make the story not just a picaresque but a commentary on the nature of picaresques, and write characters that are struggling against the limitations of the picaresque form. Pynchon is his buddy here. Entropy in Pynchon is an active force of destruction, waging tireless war against his characters’ motivations and memories, eroding their sense of self and making it impossible for them to remember what they’re supposed to be doing. Vance shows us a world in which this kind of entropy has almost totally won. The future does not exist, all human potential has been dramatically curtailed and the only remaining options are to flee to the stars or become a wandering hate machine like Cugel, with no real emotional register and no ability to care about anything beyond immediate survival.

This is not as obvious a choice as it might seem. Cugel is the archetypal murderhobo, and not having to worry about the future is the whole point of the murderhobo. We don’t necessarily want to see ourselves as the heroes of some grand narrative. We’re just as likely to see ourselves as people who have a few adventures and then get eaten by a grue. It’s funnier and there’s less pressure. Vance maintains the same kind of ironic distance from Cugel, never quite endorsing him but never quite condemning him, as we often do with the characters in our own games. On the one hand, he says, it would be depressing to actually be this guy. On the other hand, at least you wouldn’t have to go to work in the morning. And even the idea of the sun going out holds its own macabre charm. The Pynchon story ends with his heroes shattering the barrier between them and the rest of the world in order to embrace thermodynamic equilibrium, “a tonic of darkness and the final absence of all motion”. The perverse appeal entropy holds for them, half alienating and half welcoming, is the same kind of appeal the Dying Earth holds for us.

Here is the second essay, if you like it best, send an email to zakzsmith AT hawtmayle with the subject line LUA and nothing else. It's not about D&D-influencing author Jack Vance:

D&D is anti-medieval

You can be forgiven for thinking that OD&D is a medieval European fantasy game. After all, Gary Gygax himself says so. He describes the original D&D books as "Rules for Fantastic Medieval War Games" (on the cover) and "rules [for] designing your own fantastic-medieval campaign" (in the introduction). However, in the game itself, there's precious little to suggest feudalism, Europe, chivalry, a post-imperial dark age, or even the existence of a monarchy at all. Apart from the technology suggested by the weapon list, it could just as well be a simulation of the professional meritocracy of Byzantium, or the city-state sovereignty of Barsoomian Mars. (There's more explicit textual support in OD&D for Mars than there is for fantasy medieval Europe.) But neither of these strike the mark. OD&D's cultural details suggest a society original to Gygax - nonsensical as a medieval fantasy, but coherent and striking as an American fantasy of empowerment and upward mobility. It's an armor-clad repudiation of medieval feudalism, like Twain's Connecticut Yankee.

It's not feudal

The way you advance in a feudal society is to win glory in battle for your overlord. Then he grants you land, which is the main form of wealth. Unless you're a peasant. Then you can never advance at all.

That's not at all what happens in D&D. There is no overlord to grant you land. Land, instead of being a form of wealth, is completely free! ("At any time a player/character wishes he may select a portion of land (or a city lot) upon which to build his castle, tower, or whatever. The following illustrations are noted with the appropriate cost in Gold Pieces.") The cost of building a structure is merely the a la carte cost of all its architectural elements. It costs nothing at all to acquire the land to build on, even inside a city. 

Wealth in D&D is primarily in the form of coinage and jewels, not land and cattle, making the D&D economy more modern than medieval. Some have suggested that D&D takes place in a time of exploration and renaissance when coinage, and the middle class, is eclipsing the power of the nobility. I'll go further. There is no sign that there is any nobility to eclipse, even a waning one. 

If you build a castle in the "wilderness", you have to clear the area of monsters for 20 miles around. You then gain control of a handful of villages within this area. You don't have to compete against any other ruler or pay taxes to any overlord for these villages! This omission seems significant, since Gygax will always gleefully mention any relevant obstacle if it exists.

The people who live in villages are called either "villagers" or "inhabitants", not "peasants," "commoners" or "serfs." They pay you taxes. If you piss off the villagers, the DM is encouraged to annoy you with "angry villagers", "city watch", "militia", or "a Conan type." Notable in its absence is any local form of knighthood, gentry, nobility, or ruling class to oppose you.

There are no knights

The word knight doesn't even appear in OD&D. But there is one group of people who act distinctly knight-like. The wilderness contains castles, ruled by fighters, magic-users, or clerics. The fighters will challenge players to a joust (using Chainmail rules), taking the loser's armor and offering hospitality to the winner. This has a sort of Arthurian chivalry to it, but Pendragon it is not. Gygax carefully avoids calling these folks "knights." They're fighting-men, with retainers (monstrous and human) and armies, looking very like the ones players can acquire. Furthermore, castle-owning fighting men are just as rare as castle-owning magic-users and clerics. The Outdoor Survival game board, which forms the default OD&D map, has a land area of 25,000 miles, half the size of England. There are about six castle-owning fighting-men in that area. In other words, castles of the wilderness aren't dominated by an analogue of a knightly order, leavened by a few fantastic spellcasters. It looks, rather, as if they were built by a small handful of adventurers, appearing in roughly the class proportions of a typical adventuring party. (Fighters are, if anything, under-represented.)

There are no vassals

Let's talk about how you gain followers. Gary says, "It is likely that players will be desirous of acquiring a regular entourage of various character types, monsters, and an army of some form." In a truly medieval game, there's a model for that: people swear themselves to your service in exchange for your protection. You raise an army by requiring service from peasants who live on your land. In other words, you gain vassals. D&D ignores this model, replacing it with one in which you pay retainers and specialists by the month. Loyalty is bought with a mixture of cash and charisma. You can hire armies, too, from Light Foot to Heavy Horsemen. (No knights.)

There are no kings 

There's no evidence of a monarchy. You never have to declare fealty to anyone. While you can create a barony, there is no way to level up and become a duke or King. There are no rules for controlling territory more than a day's ride from your castle. In the hostile emptiness of OD&D's wilderness, power doesn't travel well. 

The only mention of kings in the little brown books is in the descriptions of humanoid monsters, e.g. in a goblin lair "the 'goblin king'" will be found. (Gygax quotes the term "goblin king".) It seems unlikely that the term implies a crown, a system of divine right, inheritance laws, etc. Since a goblin king leads a single lair of 40-400 goblins, he's probably just the local boss, just like the less evocatively named "leader/protector type" who rules every 30-300 orcs. 

There is no lost empire

There certainly seems to be a power vacuum in the world of OD&D, ready for the player/characters to exploit. What used to fill that vacuum?

There's no evidence for (or against) the idea that OD&D takes place in a dark age after a fallen Roman Empire analogue or during the death throes of a feudal kingdom. Sure, someone built those "huge ruined piles" under which lie the dungeons. But based on the treasures to be found there, the dungeon builders were part of a coinage economy just like the current one. There hasn't even been significant inflation or deflation since the dungeons were built. The richest dungeon treasure hoard, on level 13 and deeper, averages out to about 10,000 GP in coin. That's as much as a baron can earn from a year's worth of taxes: not an insignificant sum to sock away in a dungeon, but not kingly or imperial either. This doesn't suggest that dungeons are relics of a far richer past. It seems rather that things used to be like they are right now. 

There are few European details

The monster descriptions of "men", "elves", and "dwarves" don't suggest that the game is set in a European culture. The types of "men" are Bandits, Berserkers, Brigands, Dervishes, Nomads, Buccaneers, Pirates, Cave Men, and (perhaps) Mermen. Berserkers are a little Nordic in flavor, but are balanced out by Dervishes and Nomads from the "desert or steppes". 

The government suggested by the player's "barony" is almost completely a-cultural. A player builds a stronghold, and then they can extort money from the surrounding people. This is the structure of every non-nomadic human society. The only European element is the technology level of your stronghold: it has merlons, barbicans, etc.

The D&D weapon list has a medieval feel to it, but partly that's just because that's what we're expecting to find. In fact, it's a sort of survey of (mostly) pre-gunpowder weapons. Most of the weapons and armor appear in ancient Europe and in Asia as well as in medieval Europe. Partial exceptions:  Composite bows are mostly non-European, while longbows are associated with Europe. The halberd is basically a Renaissance weapon, and the two-handed sword appears in medieval Europe, India, and Japan, but not the ancient world. No one knows what "plate mail" is supposed to be. 

If not medieval, what?

All over, the D&D rules seem to be explicitly eschewing a medieval, feudal model in favor of a cash-based economy, a nonexistent or powerless government, and a social-classless society in a sparsely inhabited, unforgiving world. 

If the OD&D rules suggest any government at all, it is a meritocracy, or more precisely, a levelocracy. Creatures with more XP and hit dice rule lower-level ones, from settled barons and goblin kings to wandering bandits and nomads. This is not only non-medieval, it is anti-feudalistic and anti-aristocratic. Level requirements for baronies are at odds with the hereditary gloss added to D&D in nearly every subsequent setting. 

OD&D also exhibits an obsession with money-gathering for its own sake that is suggestive of mercantilism or capitalism. 

D&D is not "fantastic-medieval." It's not even "fantastic renaissance" or "fantastic-post-apocalyptic." It's "fantastic American history." 

How did Gygax set out to write a fantastic-medieval game and end up writing an American one?

OD&D is meant to be setting-free. The game's referee is to create his or her own campaign, ranging in milieu from the "prehistoric to the imagined future" (with emphasis on the medieval, especially for beginners). In the later 1e Dungeon Masters Guide, Gygax further explains, "There are dozens of possible government forms, each of which will have varying social classes, ranks, or castes. Which sort you choose for your milieu is strictly your own prerogative. While this game is loosely based on Feudal European technology, history and myth, it also contains elements from the Ancient Period, parts of more modern myth, and the mythos of many authors as well. Within its boundaries all sorts of societies and cultures can exist, and there is nothing to dictate that their needs be Feudal European."

But it is very difficult to write a document with no cultural assumptions at all. Gygax consciously excluded the trappings of a medieval society, and filled that vacuum with "real life" American details. Gygax wrote D&D in a country where, 100 years before, frontier land was considered free for the taking. (19th century propaganda depicted the land's original Native American inhabitants as inimical savages, like orcs). At the same period, the success of America's industrialist "robber barons" taught the country that birth and family weren't the keys to American power; the American keys were self-reliance, ability, and the ruthless accumulation of money. 

While it's possible that D&D's modern details slipped into the game unobserved,
Gygax may have been quite aware of his game's implicit setting. After all, his original pre-publication Greyhawk campaign drew heavily from his own American experience. It took place on a United States map with Greyhawk at Chicago, and Dyvers at Milwaukee. His buddy Don Kaye's Greyhawk character, Murlynd, was a gunslinger from Boot Hill. I think it's quite likely that Gygax intentionally gave his game a New World spin. 

Intentional or not, OD&D represents a milestone in American fantasy - and maybe the last un-muddled example of the genre it inspired. Most of D&D's thousands of imitators, in game and fiction, preserve the game's democratic bones (cash economy, guns for hire, rags to riches stories) while overlaying a medieval-European skin. The combination is not fortunate. Gygaxian levelocracy, where a villager can rise to become a baron or a "Conan type", is fundamentally incompatible with the European fantasy typified by Lord of the Rings, in which no fellowship can alter the fact that Sam is by birth a servant, Frodo a gentleman, Strider a king, and Gandalf a wizard. 

OD&D's American strain of fantasy didn't even last within TSR. In 1980, Gygax himself reworked the World of Greyhawk into what looks, from its cover, like a supplement about Arthurian Knights:

But it's worth taking a step back from the medieval-fantasy cliches that overran later D&D publications, and playing the original, more coherent setting: A swords-and-sorcery world, empty of government, where anyone can pick up a sword, become a hero, and live the American dream.


  1. This is a close one indeed but I'd have to select the first one if just by the hair on a Deodand's chin.

  2. Close one indeed. Two well thought out articles, and I feel enlightened for having read them.