Sunday 21 October 2012

"Thangobrind, We Will Avenge You!"

It seems that whenever people discuss the appropriateness of D&D or whatever other roleplaying system to a fictional genre - sword & sorcery, gothic horror, existential horror - the answer that I end up agreeing with is:

D&D should bring the story, the literary source should bring the setting.

The plot that D&D supports, a band of 3 or more diverse adventurers looking for discovery, gold and glory, comes from one specific kind of fiction, the adventure yarn - originated in the 19th century by the likes of H. Rider Haggard, but with precursors as far back as the Argonautica, the original League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Hercules! Orpheus! Jason! Castor and Pollux!).

Prof. Tolkien undoubtedly read these stories in his younger years and applied them to his tales, first the treasure hunters of The Hobbit and then the more epic yarn of Lord of the Rings. (If you ever wondered why the Woses are in Return of the King, just give them grass skirts and bones through their noses.)

The other genres don't really support this plot. Sword and sorcery is for one or two protagonists. Horror usually involves a person or group who is in distinct danger of getting killed or worse (I guess early level play supports this, if you take away the characters' ability to fight back.) Gothic horror is a completely different kettle of fish. Stories of chivalry - the kind that drove Don Quijote mad - have a lot of interwoven solo adventures, but nothing like a party adventure.

Sure, these stories can contribute creatures, landscapes, buildings, tricks, traps, enemies, situations. But ultimately, it's D&D's own posse of fighters, thinkers, healers, sneakers that gets dropped into them. Kind of like Abbott and Costello never really went all Gothic tragedy when they met Frankenstein, if your adventuring party gets dropped into Jane Austen, you had best believe they will be checking out the silver candlesticks and dueling Mr. Darcy.

Thangobrind, for those curious, is the protagonist of Lord Dunsany's great, laconic adventure story. Alone, he negotiates perils that are very D&D, gets his hands on a great luminous gem, and meets a sticky end at the hands (?) of its guardian. His story is not D&D ... but the story of the four adventurers who followed in his path and tried to take the gem, that is!


  1. Stories of chivalry from La Mort D'Arthur, involving the Knights of the Round Table and beyond, really do involve parties of knights going out on adventures.

  2. DnD tends to get blamed for its tendency towards violence and larceny, especially when you try to play other games where killing and looting really isn't the point and yet it keeps cropping up.

    But I think there's something else going on that encourages DnD type outcomes, that makes it a great solution for the situation of a group of friends deciding to play storytelling in one person's setting.

    See, the description of the world is always incomplete. Players always have to act on partial information. It's always hard to understand exactly how everything's set up. And you're always meeting NPCs for the first time, making and receiving first impressions, and uneasily aware that there's probably some angle being played, because you know you're in a work of fiction and fiction always needs conflict, but you don't know what sort of fiction because you don't know what the DM likes yet and...

    ...and often you don't know what your motivation is either - what you want out of a meeting or a room.

    But combat collapses uncertainty, and it has clear good and bad outcomes, and generally consequences of some kind which, being (often) inanimate things attached to the PCs, allow for some ownership of the game situation by the players - even if the bit being owned is that now you're injured and you have to do something about that. You're injured because of something you did so it's yours, and in a way that's a kind of power over what's going on at the table. Now you're injured you're not waiting for it to be made clear what you should be doing. Or if you win the fight and now there's loot, well the equipment list had stuff on it you couldn't afford before, and you acted and got a reward, so that's a neat little loop right there. And it beats pretending you care about what so and so thinks of whosit and what people actually mean when they say "why don't you figure out what happened to uncle Gerald."

  3. And going past La Mort D'Arthur, the Culhwch & Olwen story in the Mabinogian features a band of adventurers, including a barbarian (Cei), a "skilled" fighter (Bedwyr), a generic fighter(Gwalchmei), a magician (Menw),an "interpreter" (bard/rogue) Gwrhyr Gwalstawd Ieithoedd, and a guide/scout/ranger, Cynddylig Gyfarwydd. They don't all do much, but it's clearly a band put together of people with different and complimentary skills to complete a series of quests.