Wednesday, November 7, 2012

D&D is the Search for the American Dream

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

In other words, heavily armed strangers ought to be allowed to wander the countryside, look for ruins to explore, monsters to kill, and treasures to loot.  I don't need a white picket fence and a backyard barbecue, I just want to get to name level, build a castle, and attract 5-50 followers.

On Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff, they talked a bit about historical role playing and why people choose to play in fantasy settings instead of the real world; this loose paraphrase of their convesation sums it up for me:  "People want to play in a historical setting like the dark ages, but they don't want serfs, they don't want an all powerful Church dictating the rhythms of daily life, they don't want any social constraints on free movement and agency.  They want to play Vikings and still let that one guy in the group be a ninja.  They want the wild west, with swords."

It summarizes quite well why I mentally come back to the Age of Sail as the consummate historical era for gaming, even though D&D's technological sweet spot is hundreds of years earlier.  It's why my current game is built around free-wheeling Vikings.

The past is a nice place to pretend to visit, but we wouldn't really want to live there.


  1. For me ahistorical or secondary world gaming isn't so much about escaping the things that don't seem fun about the past, but about adding in a bunch of stuff from different eras/places that does.

  2. That's where 4e went horribly wrong. In the myth of the American dream one works oneself up from nothing. It is one of the guiding tenets of d&d that was forgotten.

  3. I think it's a tradeoff. Take two extremes of game setting:

    A: Wilderness. There are no power structures. Nobody is politically above you. Maybe there is a local lord with 50 retainers but your group of 6 PCs is equivalent to 30 men at 5th level. Almost no land is owned although if you claim it you probably have to swear fealty to the king. Taxes are easily avoidable. The individual is powerful.

    B: Modern US. All land is owned, a citizen lives under 4+ layers of law. Few people own land and if so it's usually a tiny plot in town. Combined, taxes amount to roughly 50% of total income for the middle class. The corporation is powerful.

    Somewhere in the middle is someplace like Renaissance Venice, where there are lots of power players but some barbarian can get in and become Pope.

    That said, a game setting with powerful intrigue structures is still interesting, it's just more difficult. You have to attach yourself to someone powerful or else risk making big mistakes. You also have to be a criminal.

    I say that because the legal structure is going to be built to encourage stability. If there's a law where you win the posessions of people you slay, that's just going to encourage murder. And again, the laws are put in place by the currently-powerful, who wish to stay in power. That's not good for the little guy who is a nobody.

    It would be an interesting exercise to create a game setting that makes sense and where there is a maximum of power-mobility. A fluid society that is yet stable enough to not collapse. It would have to have more than the faint possibility that a nobody can become powerful, because the reality would be pretty clear that social mobility is a pipe dream. It would need the actual probability that anybody can become powerful.

    The problem with a society like that is that not everyone can be above average, not everyone can be powerful. So either there's power in equality (in which effectively nobody is especially powerful) or else your rise to the top is probable but it's equally likely that someone else will stomp in and take your shit. Again, fluidity cuts both ways. If you can rise, anybody else can.

    And of course, once someone gets enough power and holds it long enough, he will try to change the social structure to retain his empire easier, maybe passing his social power on as if it were a possession in his will. This solidification of society prevents upward mobility by later people, which is where we are today.

    It's the nature of a person to want to keep something if he struggled to get it. That's why we're fascinated by Tibetan sand-painting and CEOs who give it up and become hoboes.

    So I guess the social structure in a game setting needs to be tailored to the feel desired by the writer. Do you want people to have fluid mobility where it can all come crashing down at any time? Do you want difficult mobility where there is more stability offered at the top? Do you want little mobility where the powerful are entrenched?

  4. Great blog post!

    Makes my day today!



    and just one more "!" to grow on...

  5. Everyone who talks about good old days assumes they have wealth and freedom not historically likely. Its more like hoping to be reincarnated as a dolphin a cat. Just stuff people say.

    When i ran my Babylon game or about 4 years with 2 parties - it had many strangely familiar elements with many exotic strange ones. No players were particularly knowledgeable at start. One attraction for me is i get to learn about history instead of Mc corporate fantasy. An attraction of DMing a fantasy world is creativity.

    Ive had players say they felt more comfortable with classical and Norse gods. As someone who studied key texts and actually read prayers to these gods most peoples view of these gods is basic, often through christian perspective. Still fun is main priority and being a hunted ex serf turned hobo bandit is pretty limited.

  6. The funny thing about modern America, there's this underlying culture of the American Dream, but society seems fairly stratified - how much upward mobility is there, really? Do the exceptions prove the rule.

    Rags to riches adventurers is some accurate wish fulfillment! It's an important part of my 'good criteria for a D&D setting', a box I need to make sure is checked off when evaluating a period for play.

    1. In the past the US had more than a little economic mobility. It was decent at the time (70's and 80's) D&D was created.

      Currently however the US is more static class wise than the UK if figures are to be believed.

      The ideal is still strong though and that ideal, the Western one was a memetic obsession during Gary's generations time

  7. Another feature of D&D world (and our ancient history) is a relative de-emphasis on specialization, which is, I think, something that Mutant Future nails better than D&D, for example.

    In Mutant Future you are ... an Adventurer, differentiated by your abilities or race from the rest of the party.

    In D&D, of course, you choose a class, and that determines your "character arc". That emphasis on "skilled labor" is, I think, actually very modern, and moving away from that places us closer to the (relative) egalitarianism of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

    There's a reason, I think, that Traveller has "terms of service" in various structured professions baked-in. Specialization is a feature of technological or industrial society, and the idea of being "just some person" and still being significant or interesting is pretty foreign to that.

    My approach to fantasy gaming considers "Adventurers" as a particular class of workers, who are specialized in dungeon-delving, scavenging, and small-scale military actions, and benefit a community much in the way an army does: by providing security from threats and also bringing treasure.

    It would be interesting to have a game take place with a party of yet-undifferentiated "tribal warriors" who might, at level 1, choose a path of warrior, shaman, or hunter... presaging D&D's fighter, mage, and thief.

    1. Good points to ponder - the DCC game with its zero-level funnel should work for those 'undifferentiated tribal warriors'. For the periods I want to use (early modern) having highly trained or skilled clergy and mages makes sense.