One Life, Furnished In Early Gygax

In an effort to be absolutely as predictable as possible, I’ve decided to get back into role playing games.

As a teenager, I roleplayed a fair amount, with a number of different game systems. We would generally go for games based around licensed properties, so we went for Star Wars, Star Trek, Stormbringer ( based on Michael Moorcock’s Elric books), Judge Dredd, and on one memorable occasion, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I guess the main one was Middle Earth Role Playing – I was well and truly on Team Tolkien, and wanted to recreate that world, but I think those rulebooks and supplements (and subsequently, my adventures) were a little dry. Presumably, the designers thought the huge tapestry of world building that J to the R to the R to the T created shouldn’t be besmirched by things like humour, fun, or a teenage boy’s preoccupation with half naked elfmaidens.

There was, however, no such reticence from the creators of the uber RPG, Dungeons & Dragons (or Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, if you were doing it right). Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson claimed that Tolkien wasn’t an influence, favouring Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance and Michael Moorcock, although they filched orcs, hobbits and just about everything else from the book.

Although intended to give generic fantasy based rules for the players to pick and choose elements to create their own world (for example, you didn’t necessarily have to include Hippogriffs, Gelatinous Cubes and Type VI Demons in the same adventure), D&D came to be represented by a rather specific setting.

This was due in some part to the art created around the game, by illustrators such as Larry Elmore and Jeff Easley. If Peter Jackson’s Rings movies were a little too clean and styled for you, check out some of the early D&D art – everything looks like a particularly inauthentic Renaissance Fayre, or the cover of Heart’s Little Queen album. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – every fantasy world needs its own feel and I guess they made a conscious decision to be fairly light, rather than dark and gritty. It’s very 80s and very American, unsurprisingly.

Talking of Heart, Dungeons & Dragons, whether it’s Greyhawk, Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms, reminds me of when the Americans try to do Progressive Rock – it’s not quite as twiddly or whimsical (or serious) as the likes of Yes and Genesis. It tends to be a bit more straightforward, rockin’ and… well, fun. Maybe that’s where I was going wrong with my Middle Earth campaign. All those lengthy tables of statistics on herbs in the Greater Rhovanion region, and the fact that you couldn’t play a wizard because it might upset the balance of Tolkien’s set in stone history (even though all the game supplements were set two thousand years before LOTR)… it doesn’t amount to much if you can’t kick a goblin in the bollocks and swing out of a Tavern window, whilst cheekily exposing yourself to a sexy cleric.

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