Friday, 10 June 2016

Welcome to 1994: My D&D Cultural Context

Richard G wrote a really interesting post about the cultural context of D&D. It got me thinking about the cultural context of my D&D.

It isn't hard to come to the conclusion, reading about D&D online (particularly among the old school blogs) that the musical backdrop to D&D for a lot of people was, and still is, 70s and 80s metal. I think Richard G is right that this probably had some influence on making the game a bit less whimsical and a bit more serious over time. I would add that it probably also made things self-consciously "darker" and "edgier". This was a trend against which there was eventually a bit of a reaction, in the form of AD&D 2nd edition, but the metal aesthetic also remains a strong "dark and edgy" sub-current (super-current, really) within the hobby to this day.

(I also think the case can be made that metal influenced not just D&D but the fantasy genre in general from the 1970s onwards - or perhaps influenced the fantasy genre through D&D. At the height of popularity for The Lord of the Rings in the 1960s, fantasy was hippies wearing sandals. By the 1980s it was chainmail bikinis and battle axes. Was that because of metal, or was the success of metal a bi-product of it?)

Those trends were never in my cultural context, though. I was 13 in 1994, and I would say that was the beginning of peak D&D, for me (peak Warhammer too, and peak Shadowrun, and peak Cyberpunk 2020 also....). For the next 3 years that sort of thing was my main hobby. But the soundtrack to those years was not metal. 1994 was the end of grunge and the beginning of Britpop, and it was that strange mixture of influences which formed the context in which I was playing games. The backdrop to my D&D years was in large part stuff like this:

It was Tricky and Massive Attack. It was Radiohead when they were still writing songs and Thom Yorke wasn't quite such a sanctimonious knob. It was the American grunge scene that was still around, like Soundgarden and Pearl Jam and Nirvana (who people were still, of course, listening to). It was dark, in its way, but I think more than being dark the overwhelming vibe is better described as depressing. In 1994 it was cool to be depressed.

That fit in with Warhammer almost ideally: a bleak musical backdrop to a bleak setting.

Yet on the other hand there was also this:

And because I had an older sister who was the one in charge of music in the house or in the car on family trips, it was also this:

All of this stuff was in the air constantly in those days. The mid 90s was the point at which Britain began to flex its cultural muscles and look up instead of back. So the cultural context of D&D for me isn't metal just as much as it isn't Tiki. It's greasy-haired pessimism but it is also interested in beauty and in the possibility of optimism. That sounds more than a bit pretentious. But that's the backdrop against which the game took root in my mind.


  1. Interesting.

    My relationship to the game was tentative and peripheral in its early golden era. I was ten when Moldvay/Cook hit the stands, and I was never a metal head. So I guess I didn't fit the profile you mentioned at the start.

    Although flash forward to the early nineties, when I got pulled hard into the hobby by a combination of playing in college and my younger brother and his friends needing someone to DM. Their soundtrack, as semi-rural kids from Western PA, was AC/DC and Metallica. (And I recall Stone Temple Pilots being pretty prominent too.)

    They even declared Metallica's "Anywhere I Roam" as the theme song an Al Quadim campaign I ran for them ('cos I was the GM and I'd just bought the book)

    1. I was into Fighting Fantasy and Warhammer earlier than age 13, and did play some RPGs too. But I think I was around 13 when I got heavily into it.

    2. Warhammer didn't really ping my radar until late high school/early college, when ads would pop up in the pages of Dragon magazine.

      Honestly, I was one of those kids, and there were others I've encountered, who spent more time with D&D's sister games of the era. Star Frontiers, Top Secret, Gamma World, Marvel Super Heroes. I recall a period where my brother's friends (he's 3 years younger than me) were all into TSR's Buck Rodgers RPG. (Their campaign featured a cult of AC/DC, who flew around in their spaceship blasting "Thunderstruck" and partying. Ah, midwestern highschool lads.)

  2. @ Noisms:

    Wow. I was 21 in 1994 and living in Seattle (lived there my whole life till I moved to Paraguay in 2014). There's nothing about the music of that time that I associate with D&D.

    'Course I wasn't playing D&D in those days...I had stopped circa '87. Instead I was running (and playing) a lot of World of Darkness (especially Vampire), and other proto-story RPGs (like Ars Magica, Over the Edge, and Maelstrom). Oh, and Rifts...can't forget Rifts.

    Those are the games with which I associate the music of the '90s. But mostly I associate it with sex, booze, and recreational pharmaceuticals. And melancholy...lots of that.

    1. What's the gamine scene like in Paraguay? I don't think I could live that far from the sea.

  3. By the 1980s it was chainmail bikinis and battle axes. Was that because of metal, or was the success of metal a bi-product of it?

    Great question (the article on Tiki was also a great read). Virtuous cycle? Tolkein to Led Zep. Vallejo and Frazetta and Heavy Metal magazine. Conan the Barbarian. Gwar. There's a lot of overlap between dice nerds and metal nerds, and I don't think you can ignore the fact that the second generation (as I'm defining it: kids too young to play in the 70s) had all this, and Walkmen and MTV simultaneously.

    It occurs to me that some of the attraction to semi-apocalyptic adventuring landscapes might have to do with the psychological terror instilled in the population by the ever-present threat of GLOBAL THERMONUCLEAR WAR, too. Thundarr didn't generate spontaneously from nothing...

    [JB & I are the same age... interesting...]

    1. Yes, I'm sure about that. Probably the whole Manichean good versus evil thing is at least partially a result of Cold War mentalities, too, I think.

  4. Heavy Metal alone doesn't say D&D to me, in D&D there is hope it isn't just the promise of a chance at being a briefly shining star in a dark and oppresive all consumming universe. I picture Clannad,epic opera peces, and thee soundtracks from Flash Gordon and Highlander along with a bit o'metal. My ears just stopped ringing from a hardcore show I went too last week so while not a superfan of Metal I still enjoy the beast. D&D is the promise of being able to fight and make a difference.

  5. D&D was on an eleven year hiatus for me in 1994. I started playing in 1981 with the Tom Moldvay Red Box basic set, when I was 13. It was a model hobby shop that sold it to me. I had no idea what it was, I ran a newspaper route for the guy, little did I know that I worked for next to nothing. The guy sold me the Basic Set and went out of business the next day. I heard of D&D scare among the parents and teachers and knew nothing else. By 1985 I was into Gygax’s AD&D 1st Edition.
    I went to seventh grade at the IS 145 in New York, and they had a temporary building to handle the overcrowding. Someone painted a mural along the entire length of the temporary building facing he school playground. It was a mural depicting a panorama of the gray lakeshore and heavy pine forest featuring dark greens and browns. There was a silhouette of a castle in the distance against the backdrop of grey mountain peaks, and there were dragons! There was Red Dragon, and there was a Green Dragon, and there was a Blue Dragon and a Black Dragon. They were not life-size dragon drawings, as the temporary building was only one story tall, but they were definitely larger than man-size. In one corner, instead of the artist’s name, someone signed it simply as “Dungeons and Dragons”. The year was 1979-1980. I looked at it and was mystified, every time I went to that playground during lunch. So, to me, D&D was always about the Wilderness, the Exploration, and the Mystery, and dungeon building and room stocking was a guilty pleasure. That is why I always write my own adventures and settings to DM.
    I quickly got disillusioned with D&D, because it did not have a realistic combat system, combat is never linear, and moved on to other games. I owned pretty much everything that came out between 1982 and 1988. AH Runequest, Man Myth and Magic, Espionage! Gamma World, hated Top Secret as unrealistic, Escape From New York was my favorite movie and Aftermath and Twilight 2000 (first edition), were my favorite two games. Also had Call of Cthulu and Chill! which was like Cthulu Lite. Somewhere there also were the Illuminati card game, and Car Wars and Battletech, both quasi-RPG’s. Met dedicated martial artists in high school, who were religiously playing the Iron Crown’s Character Law, Arms Law, Claw Law, Spell Law series of books, each was hard bound and cost a fortune, I couldn’t afford, so I never got into it. In the military I ran into a bunch of much older guys playing GURPS and talking how Steve Jackson’s ex-wife was driving him nuts and taking his money. By 1992 I got my college degree and found my first professional job. Idiot that I was, I gave away my treasure trove, thinking I will have a career and not enough time for D&D!
    I never really stopped playing CRPG’s at home late at night, starting with the Gold Box games, and moving on to the Baldur’s Gate and Fallout, when they first came out. When Fallout 3 came out, it was transformed into a first-person shooter, and I didn’t like it any more. In 2003, I found some friends and decided to start gaming again. I thought for a while, decided on D&D, though a while longer, decided that between all of the versions, I will get into Gygax AD&D first edition, but it will be mixed with Runequest skill system and Vancian Magic had to go – not enough action for the Magic Users, also MU’s can learn the sword and the light crossbow, if they spend skill slots on them. I got everything ready and ran the first session in 2006.
    Regarding music, it is a part of my writing process as a soundtrack to a movie. I have invented stories for songs, and found songs that complement the story. The first D&D Midlands campaign ran from 2006 to 2009, and I made a music CD for the with the songs to match the key moments in the story and in the game. It is an eclectic mix of obscure stuff and some unreleased café bardic music. I like all of the songs, naturally; the players inevitably found a song or two that knocked their socks off, but did not like as much the collection as a whole.

  6. i always wondered who liked paul weller and the street preachers. it was you all along

    1. Along with most of the population of the UK who were teenagers in the 90s.