Thursday, 5 June 2008

A Treant with Bewbs....Not So Much

There is a fantastic thread over at the RPG site at the moment entitled Get Off My Lawn: Gamer Generation Gaps. No, not more unsightly ranting about 4th edition. Well, okay, it sort of is. But the poster makes some very interesting points. He's been hanging around the official WotC forums and discussing the 4th edition Monster Manual:

The new 4E Dryad is depicted as angry feminine treant looking thing. Maybe more of a shrubant. Some of the complaints about it were:
  • Looks too much like the Warhammer Dryad
  • Why does the Dryad have to be female?
  • The Dryad should look more like a person, specifically an attractive woman.
Now, I understood the first and last complaints, but the middle one took me off guard. Someone else whipped out a dictionary and proved that a dryad is a forest nymph, and nymphs are always female.

Then the lamia was brought up. The new 4E lamia is completely divorced from the mythology of the lamia, and is now a humanoid creature made of bugs that turns into a swarm of scarabs or something. Has nothing to do with the half-woman half-lion it has traditionally been.

Some people pointed to the lamia as an example of where WOTC had "wisely" divorced the creature from mythology and made a "better" creature because of it. They followed this by saying that dryads shouldn't be locked into the idea of beautiful female tree spirits just because mythology says they are, and that the more separated D&D becomes from myth the better D&D is. I've seen many similar arguments made about D&D and history, and the more ahistorical D&D is, the better it is.

The strange thing is that the proponents of this worldview seem to believe that D&D is a better game if knowing something about history and mythology does nothing to improve your game. Also, they all seem to be younger than me, and to have come into the hobby post-Magic:TG.

I'm not sure about the last point, but coincidentally I was thinking about the same thing earlier today while flicking through the 2nd edition Monstrous Manual. I noticed that there are huge differences in tone and flavour between that book and its later editions: the 2nd edition version contains many monsters which are in the spirit of the genuinely mythological/fantastical, from Dryads to Brownies to Sylphs to Mist Dragons, that just aren't there or are vastly different in 3.X and 4th edition. I mean the type of beings that aren't just things to fight; they're creatures born from our own fairy tales who enchant, deceive and mystify. They're deliciously capricious and ambiguous in the way that fairy tale/legendary monsters so often were - just as likely to help or hinder depending on the vagaries of fortune and whim. That sort of "magic" appears to have been almost completely lost from later editions of D&D.

As another poster in the thread put it:

I can see how one might come up with a cool new spin on a mythological concept that weds it to the setting better. When that's done right, it can be cool.

But "become less mythological = better"? Nonononono.

And when it's clearly worse, it certainly does nothing to salvage the concept. An alluring woman tied her tree is a potentially intriguing story element. A treant with bewbs... not so much.

This goes back to Borges and his Book of Imaginary Beings. One of the reasons I like it is that it is a genuine head-trip. The creatures in it aren't just orcs and ogres who are going to stab you with swords. They're Eaters of the Dead. They're birds who live off gold. They're Malaysian ghosts who try to follow you up the staircase to Nirvana. They're serpents with heads at both ends trying to eat each other. Their behaviour is unknowable and incomprehensible. They're part of a completely alien and "fantastical" reality.

There needs to be more of that in D&D, I think. There once was. Dryads in 2nd edition were beautiful nymphs who might cast a magic spell on you and enchant you into being their husband. Not treants with bewbs. And the world was better for it.


  1. Ok, that's just bizarre. I can't imagine one good reason for divorcing D&D from mythology, except maybe to unfetter designers when they can come up with something better. However, I'm pretty sure that's going to be th e exception, rather than the rule.

    Now I'm going to have to track down some of these threads and see if I can find out what the rational for these crazy ideas is.

    - Brian

  2. I have to admit I don't know what they're thinking. Creating completely new monsters, even "Treants with bewbs", is fine...but why, oh why do you then apply a name for an established mythological creature to them?

    A dryad is a dryad...if you want to create some other tree-like creature of your own give it a new name. Isn't the whole point of using established names like 'dryad' to allow the players to have a better idea of what they're facing and also allow for the deeper mythological/historical elements of that name to come through? Giving your own spin to an established creature is fine, but if you're just going to change the whole thing at least have the honesty to rename it.

  3. A dryad is a dryad...if you want to create some other tree-like creature of your own give it a new name.

    Precisely. It's not as if there is a restriction on how many new monsters they can come up with - all they're limited by is their imagination.

  4. A name, perhaps, like entwife? Or treantwife. Whatever. That's what they sound like.

    If there is seriously no man-kidnapping monster in 4e I will have to stat one up. Because man-kidnapping is awesome.

    I like mythological creatures, partially because it's easier for everyone to get a handle on them, and partially because having been filtered through many, many people over the years tends to give them a basic resonance that first generation, unfiltered creations tend to lack. And weird is always good. (So not everyone who "got into the hobby post-Magic:TG" is illiterate. Though I'll grant that the guy I knew who hung out on the WotC forum came pretty close.)

  5. Man-kidnapping is awesome. Man-napping, is what it should be called.

    You're absolutely right about the mythological creatures. Anything that's been around long enough to become a myth must intrinsically be good stuff.

    I'm not sure what the Magic: TG bit was about either, though. I think that was the obligatory "Why, these young whippersnappers..." line.

  6. In defence of the poster who used what you defined as the "young whippersnappers" line, let me say I read the thread in question and fully agree with him, especially the last part.

    The truth, for good or ill, is that there is a new generation of gamer-consumers out there that have been raised with a totally different "gaming zeitgeist" than the previous two. These are the people (I’ll refrain to use the word “kids” to avoid hurting sensibilities) who did not grew up watching Excalibur, The Princess Bride or Conan: the Barbarian. Neither have most of them read Howard, Lieber or Tolkien. They might have seen the LoTR movie, which is so divorced from the original tale it hardly merits the title of “adaptation”…but I digress.

    No, these new gamers are the children of Harry Potter, Star Wars: Episodes I-III, Magic:TG and World of Warcraft.

    And, excuse me if I sound pedantic, there is a world of cultural difference between a fantasy aficionado who grows up reading books that where written in a time span that engulfs most of the 20th century and knows a minimum of western mythology; and one who is so unfamiliar with it he does no even bat an eyelid when looking at a picture with the title of a traditional fantastical creature which clearly looks nothing like the original. He just thinks its “kewl”.

    Sure, everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. But then there are enlightened opinions (that we may agree with or not) and opinions borne out of ignorance (which usually are only sensible by pure dumb luck).

    The industry has now clearly and visibly begun to target these young people as their new main marketing target. And it is clear the type of tabletop FRPG these people crave for, or at least that WoTC believes they crave, is something hugely divorced from the perception many of the 1st and 2nd generations have of what a FRPG should be.

    This new game that has, even while the company denies it vehemently, been embraced of many people who are just dying to play it because according to their own testimony (just check the net) it has many MMORPG-derived elements.

    So lets stop kidding ourselves for a moment and acknowledge a fact. The “4th” at the end of the title doesn’t mean diddlysquat. This is a new game, build under very specific directories to achieve certain goals. The thing it has in common with D&D is nomenclature, and not even most of it

    I find it easy to forgive those “fogy old gamers” who are less than content about this situation. This is exactly the same syndrome

    A Ferrari and tricycle are both inventions borne out of the wheel, and both are vehicles but they are hardly similar are they? Trying to market one as an extension or evolution of the other is insanity.

    There are and always will be generation gaps, but sometimes they begin to look more like wide rifts…or even veritable abysses. I think the current paradigm shift in rpgs is both a result and a cause of this.

    Ultimately it doesn’t mean a damn thing. It’s just games we are talking about. If people don’t like

    But apparently some of us, for some obscure reason, lament the fact

    If that makes me an old fart the only thing I can say is I hope I can use it as an excuse to force the government to grant me a retirement now, when chronologically it is still decades in the future.

    And btw, hand-waiving the poster’s last comment as an “obligatory line” by an ageing person (yes, you didn’t “old” or anything like that but it is implied in your comment clear as water) smacks me as just a tad intolerant, some might even say offensive.

    Not me though, I don’t give a crap about people’s ages. For me it’s what they think and their attitudes that matter. Unlike what our society seems to want to make us believe getting old a.k.a. "ageing" is the most natural thing in the world. You begin doing it as soon as you're born, after all. Just when did getting old became something unnatural?...

    And some final food for thought about this ridiculous issue:

    Lets say the new MM had an entry for “Duck” and the picture you saw is that of a two-headed giant vulture.

    Would this make any sense to you…?

    It makes sense to me. About as much sense as drawing a treant with boobs and calling it “Dryad” :)

  7. Good grief! I don't know what happened but whole chucks of my comment have been eaten away.

    Ignore this and check the thread in question at theRPGsite of you want to read the full thing.

  8. That's okay, I think the whole thing came through to my email address.

    For what it's worth, I actually broadly agree with you. I wasn't trying to be dismissive with my young whippersnapper remark; just tongue-in-cheek. The older generation surely has legitimate concerns (and you won't find me an apologist for 4e; I haven't and won't be buying it, and wrote an entry about why).

    Where I think the whole argument becomes dangerous is that you have to remember that the generation we call grognards were once ignorant young so-and-sos when it came to the generations before them. What I mean by that is: had D&D come out in the 1930s and its original players were still around, they'd be complaining about all the Leiber and Howard fans like Gygax and Arneson who didn't know their MacDonald from their Dunsany. And had D&D come out in the 1850s the original players would have been complaining about how the Dunsany/MacDonald generation weren't properly up on their Cyrano de Bergerac or their Malory.

    I'm just rambling along here, so I hope you'll get what I mean; I suppose what I'm trying to say is that it's valid to dislike 4e as it stands, but there's nothing intrinsically wrong with it being influenced by MMORPGs, Harry Potter and the LOTR films. The younger generation are just using their most immediate set of cultural references as did Gygax and Arneson.

    Now, that's not to say that they shouldn't try to learn more about the past of the game, fantasy literature in general, and the mythological, because it will enrich their games. It's just to say that their motivations are entirely ordinary.

    I think if I could sum up my "Manifesto" on changing D&D, it would be that there are basically four positions:

    1. The current generation, who don't know much about older editions or the history of the fantasy genre and don't care - they probably came into the game at 3.X and just think the latest edition is cool.
    2. Members of the self-confessedly grognard generation who hate and fear new developments in the game because they aren't in line with the original vision.
    3. People who just like to play D&D and have moved with the times from edition to edition. Maybe they've even been around since the days of OD&D and they're happy with the continuing evolution of the game.
    4. People who believe that evolution and change is all well and good, and while they personally don't like the changes, accept that they are in some respect inevitable.

    My position is number 4. I don't like much of what has happened to D&D after it went to WotC. 3rd edition was a big stretch for me and I fell away from it in fear and confusion. 4e is the point at which I get off the D&D bus. I'm okay with that and I wish the bus's occupants well. I just hope they realize for themselves that there are a whole lot of other options out there and that as they grow in the hobby and the game they incorporate something else other than what the WotC designers feed them.

  9. I agree largely with noisms. I came in fairly late (3rd edition), but really it was the earliest I could have reasonable been expected to get into D&D on my own. 3.X remains my favorite edition (I feel that there's more of a unity of design within it than earlier editions), but I greatly appreciate the style of the earlier editions, and often I try to strike a harmony between the philosophies employed therein. I suppose it's a bit tricky to properly explain what I mean in words, but even though mechanically I'm most accustomed to 3.x, I feel that everyone stands to learn a lot from AD&D and OD&D.