Sunday, 13 July 2008

Why I like D&D, Reason # 1567

One thing that non-role players rarely give us (as a collective) credit for is the creativity that goes into our hobby. In popular culture, role playing is seen as somewhere just below Sunday School and Morris Dancing in the coolness stakes, and its players are viewed as uniformly fat, smelly and socially inept. This is doing us a great disservice. Many of us are fat, smelly and/or socially inept. But we are also, most of us, creative and imaginative dynamos.

Unusually, given its reputation in the wider RPG world as the most cliched and unimaginative game going, D&D has probably the most innovative players of all. (By virtue of the size of its player base, it probably also has the most uninspired and insipid players, but that's by-the-by.) As some of you may know (I've mentioned it ad nauseum), I've been writing a thread on in which I'm going through the 2nd edition Monstrous Manual monster-by-monster, doing a little commentary on each. When I started the thing it was supposed to be a pure nostalgia trip, but over time it has evolved into possibly the most concentrated collection of weird and wonderful ideas that currently exists in the world. Almost none of it is down to me - it's all been contributed by dozens and dozens of different commenters riffing on each other's ideas and volunteering thoughts. We're not even half way through yet and already there are getting on for 1,100 replies.

Some examples:
  • Old Johnny in the lake, the crayfish demigod - a gargantuan crawdad worshiped by a cult of backwater peasants whose faith has transformed him into an actual deity.
  • The Voice of the Storm - a legendary figure or group of figures who travel across the world sewing confusion, hatred and fear in the aim of starting wars and civil strife. This is for the sole purpose of providing nutrition for Tempests: Living storms who feed off the blood of people killed in combat.
  • A re-imagining of gnomes as filthy vermin who live in the lairs and bedding of giants like oversized fleas.
  • Farmers secretly breeding ankhegs as a kind of super-powered earthworm fertilisation system for their land. The only catch being that the ankhegs have a habit of killing farmhands and travelers - which the farmers explain away by blaming on an innocent local band of mongrelmen.
  • The definitive solution to why blue dragons are blue - it camouflages them against the sky from below; the electricity coursing through their bodies prevents them from becoming a black silhouette.
  • Elephant paladins of Ganesh and sperm-whale arch-magi.
  • An ancient ruined city whose very mortar was made of living sandlings - who, driven slowly insane by time, are gradually shuffling and vibrating the place into dust.
Ideas like these make me proud to be a D&D player. What other hobby allows you to tap into such seams of raw creativity?

It's time for the hobby to get an image overhaul. Not through 'kewlness', which is what the design team at WotC seem to think is the Big Leap Forward. No: We should be stressing what a massive headtrip the thing is and how it allows you to come up with literally anything you want, and run with it. That's a game, surely, that anybody would be interested in playing.


  1. I've been thinking about this quite a bit, especially since Gygax died, when the authors of all the mainstream obits, and I mean all of them, went out of their way to either disavow any involvement in gaming or sheepishly admit that they did it once, but they've moved past that shameful episode in their history. It's like they were admitting to whoring themselves out on 53rd and 3rd or something.

    The stigma is both way out of control and so completely undeserved. There needs to be a manifesto or something.

    The reason I haven't been blogging much these last couple weeks is because I'm trying my hand at that "write a novel in a month" project. There's a book that tells you how to do it, week by week. And as I read through the book, I just shake my head, because 50% of the content is all about reassuring the reader that it's OK to be creative, this is how to tap into your creativity, keep going even though your friends and loved ones might sneer at you, etc. It's thanks to gaming that I've never had to deal with issues of losing touch with my creativity, and thank god for that! I really don't understand what the bias against creativity is, but it's a big part of gaming's stigma, methinks. After all, just look at CRPGs--they have the same "geeky" imagery, but no have removed the creativity element. And suddenly they're more acceptably mainstream. Strange.

  2. Awesome thread at RPGnet. I've subscribed.

  3. sirlarkins: It's the same with video games, which are shaking off their 'nerd' image.

    What's unusual is how society biases some forms of creativity over others. Musicians and visual artists have some sort of innate 'coolness' attached to them, which role players just don't have. I'm not sure why that is - could it just be because role players are using their creativity in a frivolous way (i.e. for a game) whereas musicians and artists create something lasting?

    I don't know. Then again the fantasy genre is still seen as the nerdiest of the literary world, so that probably affects people's perceptions of the hobby (given that the only rpg most people have heard of is D&D).

    I've never understood that bias against fantasy either; there's a great quote by C. S. Lewis in which he says something like "Fantasy is criticised as being escapist. Well, what group of people have an inbuilt dislike of escapism? Jailers."

    Edsan: Thanks! I'm still trying to figure out a way of downloading the whole thing so when it's finished I can print it out and keep it.

  4. A-bleedin'-MEN to this post. This is what we need to show. Creativity is at the cornerstone of fantasy and of roleplaying, and it's time that we started proving it.

  5. Over the break, I think I'm gonna spend a few days compiling that thread into a printer-friendly format or two, and putting together a Best Of stack for my own personal use.

  6. Anonymous: I'll be doing that too, shortly, especially as the thread has now got too long and the discussion has had to be moved.

  7. Two points:

    1. I don’t believe a RPG stigma exists.

    2. People—be they sports geeks, fashion geeks, theatre geeks, music geeks, gamer geeks, science geeks, pop-culture geeks, et cetera ad naseum—need to just accept that we all are geeks rather than worry that anyone might see them as a geek.