On Fantasy – 3

Read part 1

Read part 2

In the previous piece I introduced how fantasy roleplaying games began to shape my creativity and imagination in childhood. There is much more to say on this.

It is a common marketing trope of roleplaying games that their only limit is your imagination. This, of course, is not true. Roleplaying games as a whole offer an almost unlimited variety of storytelling options within a wide variety of rulesets, but they are all limited in their own way. They could not function as playable games otherwise.

I mention this because in a discussion of what fantasy means to me, there can be no separating it from the game system of Dungeons and Dragons. At a time in my childhood when I intensely craved a way to get deeper into my swordfighting and mediaeval warfare obsession, D&D offered me a concrete ruleset to do exactly that. In the same way that Star Wars informed much of the imagery of my early childhood adventure fantasies, D&D built my conception of fantasy as a genre.

If D&D had been a strictly historical ruleset, I do not think I would have developed notions of human societies that have to contend and coexist with Dwarves, Elves, dragons, and giants. Goblins would be some kind of nebulously defined creatures that lurk about in fairytales; not a concretely defined concept that, at times, shaped the socio-political landscape of the realms I have created.

At the age of about ten, when my friends and I began playing D&D, the core rulebooks defined the genre of fantasy for us. The races, character classes, magical systems, and monsters were clearly delineated. We were told explicitly by the Monster Manual: goblins have these physical and game characteristics, organize themselves in this and that way, and they like to behave thusly. Do feel free to kill them on sight. The Player’s Handbook told us how you go about doing that: First, choose your weapon and roll a d20…

Now, D&D had given us the sandbox in which to play and the toys with which to do so. And, most critically, it did not give us the stories. Adventure modules (essentially canned stories to play) were certainly available for purchase, but we were kids. We did not have that kind of money, and I had only one or two friends whose parents were indulgent enough to start shelling out for those. Besides which, it only took us a short while for us to eschew the packaged modules as lame.

For we had discovered the grand secret of this special pastime: that we create the story! For real this time. That while there certainly were limits to the sandbox, there were no limits to our choices for our characters’ behavior. If we wanted to (and we certainly did), we could roll up a twentieth level mage (wizard) and obliterate an entire society, starting with the townsfolk in the tavern where our quests usually started. This took the, “attack the shopkeeper with your sword,” option of City of Thieves to a whole new level. Why not fireball and cloud kill the entire city while you’re at it? What fun!

Now I have touched on something that is absolutely critical here. In Part One, I related how Star Wars, and the like, gave us a universe of characters and imagery with which to play imaginatively in a collaborative way. Well, this here is the next level.

Just in case my readers are unfamiliar with how these roleplaying games work, I should spare a little time to explain it. It is not, as some people imagine, some kind of boardgame. There is no need for miniatures (although people who like that sort of thing can certainly incorporate them). D&D, and games like it, are at their heart collaborative storytelling.

The Dungeon Master (DM) functions as the author of the story. The DM sets the scene and tells the story, just as an author does, complete with non-player characters (NPCs). The players then tell the DM what they want their characters to do. So a game might start out with the DM saying something like:

“You are all sitting around the Lusty Sheep Tavern in Ewebugger Barony, listening to the bartender complain of the recent rash of goblin attacks on livestock. Why, the price of mutton has skyrocketed! In darkest corner of the tavern sits a cloaked man who has been silently nursing a beer for the last hour. The barmaid is a horny wench indeed, and has been doing her best to let your handsome paladin character see down her top whenever she leans over to replenish your drinks. Her tits are magnificent. What do you want to do?”

Then the players, who each have created a single character to play with, tell the DM what they want their character to do or say. If they instigate violence or try to do something that requires a variable of chance (such as trying to seduce the barmaid), then you break out the dice and roll, with modifiers, to determine success or failure.

I am not sure why it was that I became the usual Dungeon Master for my circle of friends, but that is certainly how it worked out. If I recall, it was generally regarded as something of a chore to do so, and my friends were not as into the pastime as I was. In those negotiations that kids have of, “what should we do now,” D&D was not a given. I had to make my case for it. More often than not, what I heard from friends was:

“Well… okay. But you gotta DM.”

Who knew what a favor they were doing me! To be clear, at the time I certainly was not very excited about it. I wanted to attack the shopkeeper with my sword, or, even better, the sheriff with my lightning bolt. But I rarely got the chance. Even by the time others were around who were willing to DM, I was generally the first choice.

The main reason for this, I think, was that I had a firm foundation in the genre from all the Fighting Fantasy books I had been consuming. I had a good sense of how a fantasy “quest” (which is what we called our playing sessions) should go. I had no interest in a Tolkienesque grand story. I knew that what the players wanted was to fight, kill, and accumulate loot.

When several of my compatriots began DMing, it was usually with a grand story in mind. They were attempting to tell an epic upon which the fate of all the realm hinged. This was fine, but with us now being teenagers, these DMs often had trouble containing their authoritarian impulses. Some of them, when faced with a player who was attempting character actions that did not fit the script, simply told us, “you can’t do that!”

What the hell do you mean I can’t do that? Yes I can.

“No, you can’t.”

Okay, then, I guess I’ll have my character cut his own throat.

“You can’t!”

Well, fine then, buddy. I think you have missed the point of this thing. I quit. I’m taking my books and my dice and I’m going home, and this is the very last time I let you DM me. Good day to you, sir.

See, this is the thing about proper roleplaying games: they are collaborative. They must be so.

I have heard horror stories of adult DMs who insisted their players play specific characters in very specific ways. Even providing them with actual dialogue that they must speak at the correct times.

What the fuck? If this is your idea of a good time, fine. But I think a DM like that should really be writing a book.

Some old, Prussian warmonger was once quoted as saying that no battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy. So it goes for D&D: No scripted quest ever survives first contact with the players. At least not the players that I gamed with.

With the players that I was DMing, I quickly learned that it was pointless to plan some kind of elaborate story. As soon as I introduced an NPC (non-player character) as some kind of authority figure, someone was going to light him on fire with an oil lamp, or break into his house and steal his signet ring to forge documents with, or some shit. And the reason I was popular as a DM, I think, was that I was cool with this.

Okay, fine. So, instead of you fighting orcs in the dungeon for this guy, now you get to fight his bodyguards and bounty hunters. Give me twenty minutes to figure that out and we’ll chuck some dice!

I have heard it said that writers make choices. Well, so do dungeon masters. And with more immediate consequences, I might add. When a DM makes a decision, say that the sheriff in the county is twelfth level and cuts off a third level character’s ears for stealing, that DM is going to get immediate feedback and criticism from their audience. Often with an implied threat of real-world violence attached.

Once again, we return to the theme of this being a collaborative storytelling. The DM and the players, often in opposition to each other, but often not, work together to create a story. At times with marvelous results. Every D&D crew I have ever played with has stories of in-game events that are told as though they are legends. These are usually about some kind of unplanned incident springing from a failed skill check or whatnot. Maybe just a really dumb idea by a DM or a player. They are always fabulously entertaining (if you like that sort of thing).

It is this that makes D&D marvelous. It is no one person’s story. The DM, and the players, are simultaneously the authors and the audience of the story.

To bring this back around to where we began with this: there is no way for me to conceptualize fantasy as a genre separately from D&D. They are one and the same.

read part 4

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