Radioactive Roud Pegs in Square Holes–D&D, Inspiration, and Context (Overview)

As usual, the discussion on Misdirected Mark is inspiring and great. In this instance, the inspiration for this post comes from the game discussion in Misdirected Mark 315–Four Structures. While it wasn’t the main discussion, what came up was the unintended subtext that comes from Dungeons and Dragons.

Rightly, I believe, D&D does have a subtext of racism and colonialism. There are “bad” races that are okay to kill, you wipe out those races, and settle on the land where they lived and get a title.
Two things are true about this (I think):

  • It wasn’t really the intention of the game
  • It needs to be acknowledged to avoid continuing the problem

I think it is worth looking at how this subtext emerges in D&D. I’ve said before that D&D isn’t literally a genre emulator for one “style” of epic fantasy, so much as it creates its own genre by mashing together everything that was popular at the time of the game’s creation. I think a lot of these individual components end up creating some unfortunate synergies that allow the above subtext to emerge.
Another Famous Mash Up for Comparison

Star Wars is a space opera, but it brings in elements of Westerns, Samurai movies, World War II, and eastern philosophy. While there has been a deep space battle station’s worth of commentary on Star Wars, the commentary I’ll make about unintended context will look at how some of the influences of Star Wars are expressed.
When the prequels came out, many people were upset that the Jedi have some traits they didn’t like (very stringent denial of emotion, child “recruitment,” the order doesn’t marry). It is very clear that the tropes leaned on in the original trilogy leaned on samurai tropes. Honorable warriors trained in deadly swordplay, in service to a central government.
Because eastern philosophy played into the inspirations for Star Wars, the Jedi were less samurai in the prequel trilogy, and more like the sohei of Japanese history. The sohei were warrior monks, and their history shows their involvement in various wars over the years, as well as changing philosophies and traditions. I have no doubt that Lucas intended the Jedi to be like the sohei from the beginning, but the original trilogy had much more samurai imagery in it than the material that implied the sohei connotations for the Jedi order.
Oh, also, I’m not sure that George fully intended to imply that Han was a drug smuggler, but all the Dune terminology surrounding spice and all strongly implied that as well.
The Alchemy of Partial Trope Fusion

Dungeons and Dragons has tons of inspirational material. Some of it I’m familiar with it, and some of it I’ve never spent much time-consuming. There will most likely be all kinds of nuance I’m missing—but that’s fine, because even with what I’m sure about, I’m even more sure that the early D&D designers lost just as much nuance when elements were included.
I’ll specifically mention the following elements and how they were included in D&D early on:
  • J.R.R.Tolkien (yes, I know, Gygax didn’t like Tolkien, but, it’s totally in the game, mostly in the form of monsters and species of things as well as artifacts—we’ll talk about that later)
  • Robert E. Howard (Gygax LOVED Conan, and I think the default adventurer’s attitude in Gygax’s work is based on Conan)
  • Fritz Leiber (Fafhrd and Mouser are a little different in outlook in adventuring from Conan, but cities and thieves in D&D really channel this vibe)
  • Michael Moorcock/Poul Anderson (In large part because of alignment being a big cosmic force that heroes align to willingly or not)
  • Wargaming (Not just because of rules—the above influences are fantasy worlds flavored by, but not directly analogous to, various times in history; the war gaming influence represented trying to pound the above fantasy back into a mold that more directly resembled medieval Europe)

First off, Gygax and Tolkien—I’ve seen a lot of people go off on tangents that Gygax didn’t like Tolkien, so it wasn’t a big influence on D&D. Often said within earshot of people playing halflings, fighting balor, using corrupting artifacts that can only be destroyed in a very specific place tied to the origin of the artifact.
Gygax didn’t like the pacing or themes of Tolkien, but the wider variety of species and monsters, as well as the presence of artifacts and how those artifacts might corrupt their wielders, and how they might be destroyed, has had a huge impact on the shape of D&D. Compared to other media that had a stronger tonal influence on D&D, Middle-earth has a lot more variety when it comes to species that regularly occur (rather than singular monsters that can only be found in one place or under very specific circumstances).

Elves, dwarves, halflings, and orcs being species that live in various parts of the world, in significant numbers, is very Tolkien, and is very much a core assumption of D&D, even in the more human-centric Greyhawk setting.

In the next section, I’m going to mention “troubling subtext” and “troubling context” both when talking about sources—what I mean by subtext is an element of the work that can go off in a bad direction when combined with other influences, and what I mean by context are just troubling elements of the works themselves. These aren’t exhaustive, and I fully realize that some elements I’m putting in one category may be 100% in the other category for other people.
Misaligned Tolkien

Taking orcs (and goblins, etc.) out of context from Middle-earth causes some issues. While orcs appear to be “okay to kill” in Tolkien, in the broader context, orcs, goblins, trolls, etc. aren’t things that adventurers seek to wipe out, per se, but they are victims of Melkor and Sauron that are kind of tragic in the grand scheme of things. Even the dwarves trying to take back their holds from orcs in the wider history isn’t really portrayed as the obvious “right” thing to do.
Troubling subtext:
  • Assuming some creatures are always “okay to kill” gets reinforced when alignment is introduced, and this is reinforced further when alignment goes from a Law/Chaos arc to a Good/Evil arc
  • Bringing in any kind of “divine right of kings” element from Tolkien (mainly through alignment and rules that reinforced mechanical aspects to alignment, for example)—it may not have been the best thing Tolkien himself ever added to his work, but it at least had the context of the king living up to his responsibilities, and those that didn’t saw their kingdoms break apart due to their inability to do the right thing

Troubling context:
  • The only human cultures that weren’t white people in the books sided with the bad guys—they were redeemable and eventually sued for peace, but they didn’t get to be the “last best hope” for the world either

Misaligned Howard

Conan’s influence was heavily felt in much of the adventurer’s perspective in early D&D. Adventuring is about getting rich and famous, then taking over a country and being in charge. The problem with porting those aspects into the game come from the fact that Conan’s world was 99% human. Conan never considered himself “good” for being a mercenary or a thief, but he had a few places where he would draw lines that he wouldn’t cross, usually involving people that he met and knew to be “innocent” through personal interactions.
Without expressly pointing out that PC adventurers should run into people that challenge their worldview, and adding in alignment and the idea that some self-aware beings are “monsters,” it becomes way too easy for adventurers to see it as “gaming as intended” to wipe out, subjugate, and rule over a region.
Troubling subtext:

  • Being a self-reliant adventurer with your own moral code makes you better than other people
  • The goal of “better” people should be to rule over those that are less than themselves
Troubling context:
  • Women are prizes in Conan stories—some are competent, but even they end up being prizes or reasons to get revenge, and this definitely comes through in some D&D material
  • Many Conan stories have racist content in them, but The Vale of Lost Women is probably the worst, and porting any kind of “your race is okay, but don’t touch our women” is particularly disgusting, yet it’s easy to get into with all the half-races in D&D
Misaligned Leiber

I’m biased, and I will freely admit it. While I think that Gygax favored the rugged individualism of Conan as the Platonic Ideal of adventurers in D&D, I think Fafhrd and Mouser, with their occasional screw-ups, arguing with one another, and propensity to do random stuff that may have been way more stupid and adventurous than profitable, fits the general D&D adventurer mode way more than Conan.
The Twain also ran into a lot more supernatural stuff than Conan, which also feels a bit more in keeping with how D&D’s tone developed. It may not have been as common for Fafhrd and Mouser to run into elves or dwarves or whatever, but it also wasn’t that strange for them to know an entire city of self-aware sea humanoids existed, or a city of people with invisible skin and interesting diets.
That said, there are still a few elements of the novels and stories that can cause some issues when mashed with other elements. Fafhrd and Mouser internalize a lot of the bad things they do—it obviously has an effect on them, but they don’t suffer “official” punishment for those actions. Some of those actions also just kind of “disappear” from their list of things that they regret, in part because the stories weren’t written in chronological order. Until they get to Rime Isle, they also don’t seem to ever feel like there is much worth fighting for, that there are just different degrees of corruptions in society.
Troubling subtext:

  • No real consequences for bad actions
  • Running away from problems is a viable solution
Troubling context:
  • Women are prizes (again)—although I’d argue there are more women with agency and competency in these stories than Conan
  • Mouser, especially, has a few troubling comments when it comes to his preference in women and their age, as well as flat out committing sexual assault in The Knight and Knave of Swords

Misaligned Moorcock and Anderson
I will freely admit I have the least experience with Moorcock and Anderson, but I know they both influenced early D&D. I have also read a bit more Anderson than Moorcock, so take what I’m saying here with a grain of salt.

Moorcock and Anderson are likely why we have alignment in D&D. Both authors featured the cosmic conflict between Law and Chaos in their works. In this case, it usually wasn’t that one force or the other was “good” or “evil,” but that one force being out of balance caused problems for the universe.

Chaos is the easier thing to rail against, because it’s unpredictable and tends to change/destroy existing things, but Law, out of balance, was tyrannical and oppressive in maintaining the status quo.

Adding good and evil to law and chaos made alignment more descriptive, but changed the idea of what alignment was. Heroes in Moorcock and Anderson were often champions of a cosmic force, not because they believed in that force or were an embodiment of it, but because they were working to restore equilibrium. Aligning with Law over Chaos usually meant that you felt Chaos was ascendant, and you wanted to restore the proper balance. Aligning with Lawful good, in D&D, didn’t mean you thought there was too much chaos or evil, but that you WERE orderly and good in disposition and action.

Troubling subtext:

  • Mortal beings can actually be embodiments of major cosmic forces in the universe
  • Being out of “alignment” isn’t just signing up with a new philosophy, but must have mechanical consequence, because it’s implied that you aren’t just aligned to a cosmic force, but also directly tied to it with your actions
Troubling context:
  • Because cosmic forces and personal goals are conflated, not doing good can be excused as doing the right thing to keep the universe balanced, and knowing that “good” and “evil” have equal weight means you are much “cooler” not playing “their” game

Misaligned War Gaming (And Historical Mapping)

All of the above fantasy settings used a fantasy setting of their own. There may be some short-hand touchstones so that the whole world wasn’t redefining the wheel for the readers (swords, knights, wizards, etc.), and some may have presented more historical leaning settings than others (Conan’s pre-history nodding towards later societies, for example), but overall, they were new worlds that were introduced and didn’t assume that they were bound by what “actually” happened in history.
But D&D was also born out of wargaming, and a lot of D&D was also born out of trying to force a setting that was based on much more broad fantasy into assumptions that would fit medieval history. The setting might have a thousand gods, but the structure of the church models medieval Catholic structures. Certain types of troops will carry what they traditionally carried, rather than what makes sense for a fantasy world. Peasants flock to powerful individuals to work on their lands, because implied feudalism.
While not overtly stating it, by implying that all this wild fantasy fits into a medieval European container, the virtues of a completely realized fantasy world were clouded. For example, even in stories where women were mainly prizes, a woman with a good sword arm, or a quick-fingered woman that was a thief, could be considered important in these fantasy settings. But make the setting look too much like medieval Europe, and women doing those things don’t look like exceptional heroes—they are subverting the place they are intended to inhabit in the setting. Rules that imposed “real world” ability score modifiers on women PCs helped to reinforce this as well.
There is also the “rise to power” paradigm and how it changes from Conan or Fafhrd and Mouser, to when it is filtered by medieval tropes. Conan or the Twain could give anyone that worked for them any job they wanted to give them, but followers that show up are already assigned medieval style roles when D&D hews too closely to historical Europe. Additionally, when you “tame” a land that a country is at war with or by clearing out bandits or dissidents, you at least know that human opponents had a reason to go to war or to decide to break with the kingdom. But when added to the Tolkien misalignments and/or the alignment misalignments, it is a lot easier to wipe out the “wrong kind” of beings and get “rightfully rewarded” by a lawful authority, since the “wrong kind” of people can never have a rightful claim to their own lands.

Troubling Subtext:

  • Colonialism as a means of making the world “better”
  • People have a natural and rightful “place” where they just end up as ordained from on high
  • European norms are the default norms
Troubling Context:
  • Property, titles, and followers are a class and level based “right” of the powerful, and there can’t be a moral issue with accepting these rewards
Wherein I Don’t Have a Solution, Just Some Observations

I love Dungeons and Dragons. I love fantasy as a genre. The Fafhrd and Mouser books are some of my favorites, even with the problematic content, and I try very hard to disentangle my love for them from what I should be doing about the bad things they reinforce. I “like” Conan, but it’s been a lot harder for me to be emphatic in that like ever since I read The Vale of Lost Women, which I didn’t read for years and years later than I first encountered the character.
It is very tricky to love a flawed thing. We can’t just say “oh well, it’s flawed, what are you going to do,” because that implies that we should just live with a certain level of bad. We need to look at the bad things, make sure it’s clear to everyone those things are bad, and try to figure out why we might think the good outweighs the bad. If we create based on the inspiration of these things, we have to work hard to fix the problems we have identified in the original work.
Most importantly, we need to realize that for some people, the good doesn’t outweigh the bad, and we can’t try to force them to see things our way. We aren’t them, and they may have been hurt much more by the harmful aspects of things that we ever will be.
Some bad leaks into things because we’re just so used to the bad, we don’t see it when others do it, and we don’t realize we’re doing the bad thing either, because we aren’t analyzing what we are doing. We need to be more conscious, and to do better. Once we know a thing is bad or problematic, we must cut it out, or change it to a force for good. It’s not easy, and we’ll probably screw it up a lot, but we must do it.

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