Thursday, January 28, 2021

gaming in academe

The U of Glasgow's new Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic had an online lecture today, a short one (the Q&A afterwards was longer), on fantasy literature and Dungeons and Dragons: how each influenced the other. It was given by John D. Rateliff, a good choice as he's both a noted fantasy scholar and a (retired) editor of fantasy role-playing games.

John said yes, D&D clearly drew a lot from fantasy authors like Tolkien, Leiber, Howard, and Vance. From Tolkien in particular came the idea of a company of disparate heroes traveling together and working in mutual support, and a large number of the species of monsters and critters populating the invented-world template. Gary Gygax, developer of D&D, later denied that Tolkien had anything to do with it, but the evidence is clearly there in the first edition, and John speculated that Gygax changed his tune after getting some trademark cease-and-desist orders from the company that owned the marketing rights to Tolkien's characters, after which a lot of species names were changed ("hobbits" to "halflings").

John's talk was preceded by a brief introduction to the game from Grace Worm, a Glasgow grad student. This was admirably concrete, unlike many descriptions of D&D which are frustratingly vague about what players actually do during the game. I was relieved to see that, other than a vast increase in the complexity of character sheets, and the possibility of electronic substitutes for dice-rolling, little has changed since my own brief period of D&D playing about 1978.

D&D is immensely popular and addicting, and I seem to be one of the few, or at least one of the few recorded, who tried it and soon dropped out. A group of my college friends had decided to start a campaign, as a series of game sessions is called, in the then fairly new game, and I was asked to join in. Why not; we were all fantasy readers with overlapping tastes, and it might be fun.

It wasn't. I was thunderously bored, and soon quit. D&D players to whom I've told this have declared there must have been something deficient about how our campaign was built. I doubt it. The rest of the players went on; one of them told me over a decade later that they were still playing the same campaign with the same characters.

No, it was me, and what I use literature for. The appeal of D&D is often said to be that it's do-it-yourself storytelling, in which the players collectively invent the story, instead of passively absorbing it. I'm not interested in that. My primary needs from a story are an absorbing plot and captivating language, and I'm going to get a lot better story from a talented writer in control of his or her own material than from making one up myself on the fly. I'm not an inventive fiction-writer. Nor is D&D a recipe for the prose of Dunsany or Le Guin.

In D&D, I rolled up a character who, though he was but first-level, needed to know a lot more about how to operate in a world of swords and sorcery than I did, so I didn't know what to do with him. Our party set off in a random direction on the invented world's map in search of adventure. That's not the kind of premise that makes for my idea of an exciting story. And nothing much exciting happened. Oh, we were attacked by six balrogs and a witch. We had stopped in a village to which our DM had added a witch flying around on a broomstick. That was supposed to be a portent. Then he rolled to see if we were attacked while we were there. We were. Attacked by what? Roll again. A balrog. How many balrogs? Roll again. Six. That just seemed kind of silly to me.

After several sessions I started taking a book to the game to read to pass the time more agreeably, and then I found the other players were making my rolls rather than disturb me. So why was I there at all? But I'm glad I had the experience, because it means that, when I see references to this ubiquitous game, I know what's being talked about.

No comments:

Post a Comment