Friday, October 13, 2017

Is D&D 5e Satan's Child?

Everybody has their story from the 80's if the adults in your life were in any way influenced by the rising tide of panic that saw Satan in every shadow and around every corner. For me it started with an informal youth group meeting my church called "firesides". I didn't go to this particular meeting as it so happened, but the fallout was clear when I went to youth group the following Wednesday. All my friends at church who played D&D, even the guys who taught me to play were either selling their stuff or had been forced to burn it by their parents.

Holy moly indeed! I won't go into the deep pain these events caused me or the real harm they did to my faith in the long run--far more than D&D ever did--but I do draw them from your memories as an attempt to paint a picture of the past and how it effects the present of the D&D gaming world.

If you are not familiar with this time, you owe it to yourself to peruse a few artifacts from the period in order to understand what early gamers were up against. First there was the group formed by Patricia Pulling, Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (yep, BADD); and their pamphlet that you can read about here. And then there was Jack Chick's circulars Dark Dungeons, which were more entertaining if even more melodramatic. And if you wonder where in the literal hell all this was coming from, check out a few of these videos to catch a flavor of the satanic fear that was rampant at the time: A Police Guide to Occult Crimes & Oprah Show satanic sensationalism. Ludicrous to say the least.

Now, all of this tripe was proven to be false time and again throughout the 80's and 90's including the episode with James Dallas Egbert, the trial of the Memphis three, satanic ritual abuse, as well as allegedly D&D related suicides, murders and other criminal behavior. But, by the time this exonerating press was generally accepted, the damage had already been done. It was, I'll say again, horribly life changing for me. I was a victim in more ways than one. This, however, is not my point here today. The real reason for today's post is a comment made on my last entry by one of my readers Shadowplay. Shadowplay wondered if the shift towards character-driven, story-oriented play may have been in any way influenced by the Satanic Panic as well.

I'll admit, my first instinct was no. I mean we all know that 2e scrubbed off the pointy bits of the game by cutting out demons, devils and other scary stuff in order to placate the moral critics. But the shift to story oriented play? I didn't think so. However,  on second blush I wondered if this actually could be true. Were there forces at work in TSR that could have pushed D&D towards a lighter and fluffier tone in regards to story as well? One had to admit that with all the dangerous parts redacted D&D was not only looking cleaner, it was playing cleaner. It wasn't just more story oriented; the storylines seemed less swordsy & sorcerous and more heroic and chivalrous. I was intrigued, and thought I could do some research.

Honestly, I didn't think I'd find anything. I mean I knew about The Escapist, and their pro gaming research database and articles. I had previously studied actual gaming related social and psychological research on the ERIC database and from several university research libraries I had access to. No, what I was looking for was some kind of internal memo or article or interview or personal memoir of what was going on inside TSR during the times this was happening. I had read interviews from Gary Gygax, watched his appearances and defenses on shows like the 60 minutes' jaundiced tabloid piece. Though helpful for TSR's views, none of that material really gave us a view inside TSR's creative dynamics of the time. Until I came across James Ward's article in Dragon #154 "The Game Wizards: Angry Mothers from Heck (and what we do about them)".

Published in 1990 toward the tail end of most of the vitriol, the article was a slightly safer sell. But here, in this one page policy statement we have much of the smoking gun we are looking for. I would love to reproduce the whole article for those who don't have access, but I should probably not do that. However, I will quote several salient sections.

The article starts with "Avoiding the Angry Mother Syndrome is something that I talk about quite often at TSR, Inc. Simply put, if a topic will anger the normally calm, caring mother of a gamer, we aren't interested in addressing that topic in any of our game products." Clearly drawing a thesis in the sand that TSR is no longer interested in controversial material in gaming. While admitting the game is about sworsdmen and wizards battling evil beasties, they make it clear that the focus of such activities should only be with the most wholesome of motives (can't avoid a grin here). Ward goes on to present the caveat to adventuring that "there are clear differences between fighting for its own sake and fighting for a good cause. The good cause part is largely what role-playing is and should be all about."

You know, for the longest time I could never understand why some old schoolers during the dawn of the OSR would say they lamented the time when you could play any alignment in a game and not only virtuous and heroic types. I mean I had never really had the desire to play evil characters, nor encouraged my players to do so, and I also never really felt that Gary or D&D encouraged it. I also could not see any rule in the later games that explicitly prohibited it or even strongly discouraged it. Where was this OSR critique coming from? Well, it seems that they were mentioning something that had taken over D&D spiritually, not necessarily mechanically as Ward's explanations make clear.

The guidelines in this short little piece are not really mechanical, in fact they don't effect the mechanics much at all. It's true that Ward does mention the removal of demons and devils and points out that it's fine if you want to use these kinds of tropes in your game, but it is not to be construed as official TSR material. In fact the guidelines Ward points out somewhat prosaically are guided by a mother's smile ... "each product should be lots of fun to play and involve high adventure, but each product also has to have certain elements that any gamer's mother in this or any other universe would smile at. These qualities must be present in each gamer's role-playing to foster the right stuff." [emphasis mine]

Those last two phrases are powerful indeed: must be present in each gamer's roleplaying. What we are hearing here is a mandate not just for a certain class of product, but for what the gaming experience and play should be like. 'We don't play dark and gritty,' they seem to be saying, 'we play light-filled and heroic'. While they'll say in one breath it is fine if you want to play with demons and devils (which Ward says that they are still getting at least one complaint a week about); in the ne xt breath they imply the way they want gamers to play is in a very different direction indeed. And the last portion tells how they will achieve that: TSR should provide the content that will foster the "right stuff", i.e. the "right" kind of roleplaying. Wow. It seems like Shadowplay's assumption may have been more correct than I would have ever imagined.

The article goes on to explain that a whole series of guidelines have been set up at TSR to achieve this goal which he proceeds to outline in the remainder of the piece. These are:

Artwork: "The male and female figures shown are heroic and good looking, and would get either G or PG movie ratings." With the explicit caveat that TSR does not deal in "blood and gore."

Violence: TSR should take pains, we are told, to limit "the level of violence that goes on during an adventure." Players should focus on using wit and roleplaying to overcome challenges not muscle hewing blood and bone with sword, stressing that "anyone with any intelligence at all ... finds that hacking and slashing becomes boring very quickly."

Adventures: Clearly the goal in such adventures then should be more in line with "saving the princess" than killing evil foes. "TSR's products have used hundreds of goals of this sort, such as actually saving a princess, curing silver dragons of a terrible disease, and protecting small towns from raiding giants." And moreover the reason for this is that "Those who play in these modules like heroic goals. They like the challenge of doing something tough; they like to receive rewards for helping others out; and they like to feel good about their characters after these PCs accomplish something useful." We are no longer exploring savage and untamed wilderness or deep and treacherous caverns filled with crawling undead for gold and glory. Well, I guess we might be, but it is with the purest of motives and to bring to pass an incredible story of saving the princess or curing the diseased dragon. Story has become the point.

The point of this article, however, is not just information, or even assuaging the raging masses; it is, according to the article itself, "I would like for all readers to be able to point to it as a policy statement of TSR, Inc. This company is interested in presenting material that promotes all of the qualities that parents want their children to have as those children grow up." [emphasis mine]. The reason for such a change being that at TSR, "We care about our products and want as few angry moms as possible."


Now, please know, I do not fault Mr. Ward or even TSR for this article or the changes they undertook. I may not have liked the changes, but as a gamer who lived through this insane time and was personally affected both in my gaming out, I completely understand. The last thing I want to do is to lob stones, or encourage others to lob stones, in the direction of the TSR, its employees or D&D at this time. To tell you the truth, if they had come out with this approach rather than the defenses waged early on by Gygax (which I also love by the way) it might have saved me some small bit of heartache. And yes, you can lob stones at the cretins who organized, supported and fanned the flames of the satanic panic, as many used nefarious ends, deception and lies to accomplish their goals; but in the end, words, not stones lead to healing and understanding.

What I am interested in now, however, is stating that it is clear that much of the changes instituted with 2e and Classic D&D Mentzer Boxed Sets and Rules Cyclopedia, were driven by the Satanic Panic and TSR's subsequent policies to make the game a lighter, fluffier, character driven, heroic, and story oriented game. For me Shadowplay's hypothesis is fairly well proven with this article publicly presented by TSR in their flagship voice at the dawn of 2e.

I think it is also worth nothing that many early designers such as Gary Gygax himself and Tim Kask had already left the organizations. These same voices had defended D&D for what it was without feeling the need to radically change things (as their witness makes clear in their interviews and statements of the time). This trend also speaks to some of the criticism men like Frank Mentzer have taken from certain grognards who decry their work--but this is perhaps a post for another time, or better yet, perhaps not. My mind currently is filled with thoughts after this new discovery. And as regards 5e ... I will only say, as I stated in my last post, that 5e inherited this post-panic legacy far more than it did the spirit, flavor and tone of early D&D as it left the pens of Gygax and Arneson. To say more at this point would be premature. The realizations, I am sure, will be forthcoming as I process and extend my thoughts in these directions.

Peace, and play on.