Monday, July 14, 2014

Regarding Gilsdorf's D&D Piece

On 13 July 2014, the New York Times published Ethan Gilsdorf's "A Game as Literary Tutorial: Dungeons & Dragons Has Influenced a Generation of Writers." In the piece, Gilsdorf reports that a number of authors in both fiction and nonfiction, in prose and drama, came to writing through D&D. The author focuses mostly on Junot Díaz, but makes mention of a number of other writers (including Martin, with whose work the Society engages) and such critics as Ball State University assistant professor Jennifer Grouling, whose work examines narrative practices in roleplaying games. It is a valorization of a genre of game* that has its ultimate roots in the fundamental storytelling practices of humanity and its specific roots in a perhaps half-drunken playing of a miniatures wargame** and the principal iteration of which has reached forty years despite opprobrium from fearful fundamentalist groupsthe grief-stricken mother of a mentally unstable son and her followers, and law enforcement agencies that listened to both.

Commentary on D&D bears in on the work of the Society. The default setting of the game has long been one modeled directly on the Tolkienian tradition of fantasy literature, following the practice of the first RPG campaign: Dave Arneson's Blackmoor (Schick 18). Too, the RPG feeds back into fantasy literature (Mackay 20), not infrequently reinforcing the Tolkienian tradition. I have motioned toward some of the features of the tradition in this blog (see my 12 June 2014 post); among them is a focus on something like Northern and Western Europe during what is commonly regarded as the Middle Ages, meaning that the RPG is often a recapitulation or reinterpretation of the medieval, and thus exactly the kind of thing to the study of which the Society is devoted. More to the point, however, is something Gilsdorf notes and to which I can from my own experience attest; RPGs, and D&D specifically, serve as a means through which (some) people begin to engage directly with the medieval. I am not alone in finding my way to looking at Arthuriana and the Crusades by way of polyhedral and other kinds of dice rolled to aid and abet telling lies in the name of fun.

One thing that my own earlier research (admittedly much in need of revision) tells me is that one way in which the RPG tends to embody the medieval, more subtly than in the surface trappings of kings and knights in chainmail armor, it the figuration of alterity. The "standard" perspective on the medieval (and one much subject to critique, as I well know) is that it is a Euro-centric phenomenon; rightly or wrongly, prevailing popular conception in the United States (which produces most tabletop RPGs) runs that way. Within that (and this is true whether or not the Middle Ages is regarded as Euro-centric), medieval Northern and Western Europe clearly possessed a schema to differentiate itself from all that was not Northern and Western Europe. Typically, this could be seen as (at least nominal) religious allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church; at one level, a large swath of the continent looked to the same source for a basic confirmation of humanity. Outside it were others of varying otherness; presumably, Eastern Orthodoxy was not as alien as various branches of Judaism or Islam, and those not so distant as Greater or Lesser Vehicle Buddhism or any of the many forms of Hindu practice. Within it, too, were marked distinctions; while a Frenchman and a Spaniard would recognize each other as brothers in faith, and would likely unite to oppose outside threats, in the absence of an external enemy, they would not necessarily regard one another as really akin.

The same is true of D&D. In its third and third-and-a-half editions (I try to ignore the fourth, and I have yet to get the new set), there are seven assumed player "races," with marked physiognomic and biological differences among them. There is exchange among them; there are nation-states and organizations that transcend the "racial" boundaries, and the various "races" are interfertile with one another (as witness the half-elves) and with yet other "races" (witness the half-orcs). But there are also tensions among them; elves and dwarves do not always get along, and most other people look at half-orcs askance. Within them, there are tensions, as well. Most races have multiple realms, and those realms are no more frequently at peace than were France and England during the Middle Ages. And the various "races" in their realms may be at war with one another, as well. Too, there are clear lines between player races and savage or brutal races not necessarily "less" than the player races--except within the racial schema perpetuated by the player races themselves, which tend to stereotype entire populations of thinking, feeling, sentient beings as "good" or "evil," "lawful" or "chaotic."† It rings of medieval European understandings of the divisions of the population of the world among three "races" descended from the three sons of Noah and the "other" population descended from demons and other forces of darkness.

There is more to do, of course. D&D has forty years of rulebooks, novels, television series, video games, and movies to investigate, as well as the untold numbers of narratives that its many players could relate and the many derivations and parodies that have grown from it. In each, it works with some erroneous ideas and against others; it both subverts and reinforces some of the worse ideas of the medieval and some of the better. And in each, it serves as a reminder that what has been done is still done, that what the people of the Middle Ages did, we yet do, so that there is still abundant reason to study it.

*The genre distinction is one that needs clarification. There are many sorts of RPG, from the vastly informal pretend-play of children (that still prompts cries of "That's not fair!" despite a lack of formal rules) to the intensely algorithm-driven MMORPG typified by World of Warcraft. This discussion focuses on the tabletop, pen-and-paper style of RPG.

**Fine, Mackay, and Schick all note that the origin of the role-playing game as such came from a tabletop miniatures wargame played in Minneapolis-St. Paul (Mackay 14; Schick 17), during which a spell was cast on a whim and accepted by the other players (Fine 13-14).

†This is complicated by the presence of "thinking, feeling, sentient beings" that are demonstrably "good," "evil," "lawful," or "chaotic," hailing as they do from parts of existence that represent and enforce such perspectives and attitudes.

Works Cited
  • Elliott, Geoffrey B. "Regarding a Feature of Common Fantasy Milieus: Formal Social Hierarchy." Tales after Tolkien: Travels in Genre and Medievalism. Tales after Tolkien Society, 24 June 2014. Web. 14 July 2014.
  • Fine, Gary Alan. Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2002. Print.
  • Gilsdorf, Ethan "A Game as Literary Tutorial: Dungeons & Dragons Has Influenced a Generation of Writers." The New York Times, 13 July 2014. Web. 14 July 2014.
  • Mackay, Daniel. The Fantasy Role-Playing Game: A New Performing Art. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland P, 2001. Print.
  • Schick, Lawrence. Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus, 1991. Print.

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