Sunday, July 24, 2011

D&D's Literary Connection

It has been said many times that what spawned the hobby of role playing games as we know them today was miniature wargaming of the late 60's. I've been thinking a lot about this lately, and I have begun to form the opinion that we don't give credit where credit is due in this regard. And truthfully the greater deal of the credit for D&D's inspiration was early speculative fiction.

By now many gamers are familiar with Appendix N in the first Dungeon Master's Guide. In case you haven't perused this short essay and suggested reading list, you can check it out here. I highly recommend it. But I'm not blogging about Appendix N today. I've already done that, as have many others. Rather I would prefer to make a larger and perhaps more important point. D&D's connection to literature is perhaps greater than we may realize. And this can more generally be said to be true of all RPGs.

First and foremost RPGs are about storytelling. The story may not be particularly brilliant or enthralling beyond the fact that we are vicariously participating in it. But it is a story nonetheless. And if we were asked to relate the happenings of a given gaming session we would tell it in story form. In this way we are participating in a very old art form: storytelling. The creation of D&D particularly came about because players desired to experience more directly the events that were until that time told only in literary form. The mechanics of early wargaming were but the necessary tools with which to experientially tell the tales we had been inspired by.

Gary, Dave and the other early wargamers, were avid readers of planetary romance, swords and sorcery, horror, weird fiction and science fiction. These tales lived in their hearts and minds and had inspired them with the milieu for their new conception. I would argue that while the development of the first RPG was a unique synthesis of literature and wargaming, the literature came first.

And in addition to early fictional literature Gary Gygax and his compatriots read heavily in mythology, legends and ancient, medieval, renaissance, and early modern history. The tales and stories of these genres also played a strong part in inspiring and fueling the imagination. Yes, the true muse of D&D was literature. And at times I wonder if we have lost sight of this, and if we haven't would urge that we keep our gaze firmly fixed. For true gaming greatness and inspiration comes from deep within the imagination. In that magical and poetic connection with the muses that have inspired authors for time out of mind. This connection is almost mystical in its workings and often takes archetypal form.

Joseph Campbell talked of the hero's journey:

Which could more than adequately describe about any adventure scenario we would wish to dream up. And Jung talked about archetypes of the collective unconscious which later gave us the archetypes of the Warrior, Magician, Priest and Trickster. Which seems an awful lot like the basic classes of most fantasy RPGs: The Fighting Man, The Magic User, The Cleric and the Thief. These universal motifs that we play with so casually in RPGS are of course rooted in deeply held mythic consciousness. They are all forces from the depths of our psyche that are most often dealt with in literature, myth and story. They are also the bread and butter of the modern RPG.

These elements don't have to be consciously recognized for what they are to enjoy and participate in RPGs any more than enjoying a good story requires one to be a critic. But when we take our gaming to the next level; when we are busy searching for ideas and inspiration and the next challenge to throw at our heroes. It might help us to acknowledge that out craft is closer to that of the author of tales, the storyteller around the campfire, the shaman leading a vision quest, than simply a game designer. I would urge and claim that focus on the art of what we do and less on the mechanics preserves the power and originality of our creative endeavor.

And truly such artistic pursuits edify and prepare us to better serve as the storytellers we are. Immersing ourselves in mythology, epics, legendary tales, and fantastic literature of all sorts we tune into the muses that inspired the first imaginative visionaries to which we are heir. Spurning our inheritance will only cut us off from the power which gave us life. Returnng to our roots will ensure that we like those that drink the draught of the Ents cotinue to grow to higher heights.

3 comments:

chibiaion said...

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ADD Grognard said...

Now you've got it. The Campbell book sits right on the same shelf with my other books of inspiration.

It is the reason why fantasy and D&D style RPGs have always been the most popular. They are the continuation of the story telling tradition that is as old as mankind itself.

I even take the 'literary' aspect one step further. I see the systems themselves as literature. I read far more games than I play. I love to read adventures and modules for the same reasons as fiction. It's kind of hard to explain but they are like books in 3D to me, like hyper text was at the beginning of the internet. Imagining the reactions players would have to situations and plot lines. I love it.

I think Mr. Campbell would approve :)

Chris said...

Hey guys! Thanks, glad you like it. I've been thinking on this idea for some time. Always wondering why gaming holds such allure for me and so many others. Well, it's because there's mythic power there. Neat stuff really.

And I too love reading adventures and campaign settings for exactly the reasons you mention. There is so much good work being done out there. Storytellers tapping the muses.

Thanks for stopping by!