Monday, 9 September 2019

The Strange Alchemy of D&D's Genre Emulation

In some ways, "old school D&D" has a laser-like focus on producing a certain type and mood of play. It doesn't feel like this when you read the rulebooks. But it does when you read its main literary inspiration at length. 

In the comments to my last post, Ivan provided a link to an essay Gary Gygax wrote about Jack Vance in the early 2000s. In it, Gary cites some of the ways in which Vance's writing directly influenced the content of D&D. Two of these examples are trite and obvious - the magic and the Thief class. The third is more telling:

Aside from ideas and specific things, the very manner in which Jack Vance portrays a fantasy environment, the interaction of characters with that environment, and with each other, is so captivating that wherever I could manage it, I attempted to include the “feel” he brings to his fantasy tales in the AD&D game. My feeble ability likely managed to convey but little of this, but in all I do believe that a not a little of what fans consider to be the “soul” of the game stems from that attempt.

Gary was "old school" in more ways than one, so he wasn't scared to talk about the "soul" of D&D rather than some bland technical term. I like that sort of language too. He was also obviously attempting to be humble here, so he didn't come out and say that, in play, his attempt to imbue the "soul" of his game with the "feel" of Vance's fiction is often highly successful. 

It is, though. I have recently finished reading The Dirdir, the third in Vance's "Planet of Adventure" series, and I was struck again and again by not only how obvious were the inspirations in it for the "feel" of D&D, but also how this manages to follow-through into what you might call the "lived experience" of D&D players. Not to put too fine a point on it, but basically every D&D campaign I have been involved in has felt like a Jack Vance story without any of us consciously attempting to make it that way. It's as if, by some strange alchemy, Gygax's intentions manage to find effect without ever being stated and without, in many cases, the players even knowing who Jack Vance was.

At times the inspirations are unbelievably direct. In the central portion of the book, the main characters basically act out a D&D campaign, exploring not a megadungeon but an area of wilderness, and searching for "sequins" in the form of "nodes" rather than gold, in a setup which provides the paradigm format for "OSR" games to this day. Here they are arriving in Maust, the settlement on the edge of the "dungeon", which attracts adventurers from all over the world of Tschai:

By noon Maust appeared in the distance: a jumble of tall narrow buildings with high gables and crooked roof-lines, built of dark timber and age-blackened tile...Running boys came out to meet the motor-wagon. They shouted slogans and held up signs and banners: "Sequin-takers attention! Kobo Hux will sell one of his excellent sequin-detectors." "Formulate your plans at the Inn of Purple Lights." "Weapons, puff-pads, maps, digging implements from Sag the Mercantilist are eminently useful." "Do not grope at random; the Seer Garzu divines the location of large purple nodes." "Flee the Dirdir with all possible agility; use supple boots provided by Awalko." "Your last thoughts will be pleasant if, before death, you first consume the euphoric tablets formulated by Laus the Thaumaturge." "Enjoy a jolly respite, before entering the Zone, at the Platform of Merriment."

After arrival, they stop at an inn and haggle with the innkeeper ("For three modest chambers you demand three hundred sequins? Have you no sense of proportion? The charges are outrageous!") and then go to a library to research "the Zone" which they will be exploring for gold:

The side wall displayed a great map of the Zone; shelves held pamphlets, portfolios, compilations. The consultant, a small sad-eyed man, sat to the side and responded to questions in a confidential whisper. The three passed the afternoon studying the physiography of the Zone, the tracks of successful and unsuccessful ventures, the statistical distribution of Dirdir kills. Of those who entered the Zone, something under two-thirds returned, with an average gain of sequins to the value of six-hundred. "The figures here are somewhat misleading," Anacho stated. "They include the fringe-runners who never venture more than half a mile into the Zone. The takers who work the hills and the far slopes account for most of the deaths and most of the wealth."

When the actual exploration gets underway, it even feels a bit like the combat in some D&D campaigns when the PCs have levelled up a bit and are starting to "grind":

There were four slaughters that day, four on the next, five on the third day, by which time the process had become an efficient routine. During mornings and evenings the bodies were buried, and the gear repaired. The business seemed as passionless as fishing...

Mostly the inspirations, though, are subtler and more in the way of mood (or "feel" as Gygax put it). Does this not sound like a prototype for every conversation that has ever taken place between D&D PCs and a prospective "business associate"?

Woudiver seemed in no hurry to have them go. He settled into a chair with an unctuous grunt. "Another dear friend deals in gems. He will efficiently convert your treasure into sequins, if the treasure is gems, as I presume? No? Rare metal, then? No? Aha! Precious essences? 
"It might be any or none," said Reith. "I think it best, at this stage, to remain indefinite." 
Woudiver twisted his face into a mask of whimsical vexation. "It is precisely this indefiniteness which gives me pause! If I knew better what I might expect - " 
"Whoever helps me," said Reith, "or whoever accompanies me, can expect wealth." 
Woudiver pursed his lips. "So now I must join this piratical expedition in order to share the booty?" 
"I'll pay a reasonable percentage before we leave. If you come with us - " Reith rolled his eyes toward the ceiling at the thought - "or when we return, you'll get more." 
"How much more, precisely?" 
"I don't like to say. You'd suspect me of irresponsibility. But you wouldn't be disappointed." 
From the corner Artilo gave a skeptical croak, which Woudiver ignored. He spoke in a voice of great dignity. "As a practical man I can't operate on speculation. I would require a retaining fee of ten thousand sequins."

Does this not sound like a description of every "city of thieves" in every D&D campaign in which one appears?

"A warning: the city seethes with intrigue. Folk come to Sivishe for a single purpose: to win advantage. The city is a turmoil of illicit activity, robbery, extortion, vice, gambling, gluttony, extravagant display, swindling. These are endemic, and the victim has small hope of recourse. The Dirdir are unconcerned; the antics and maneuvers of the sub-men are nothing to them. The Administrator is interested only in maintaining order. So: caution! Trust no-one, answer no questions! Identify yourselves as steppe-men seeking employment; profess stupidity. By such means we minimize risk."

And at times even the conversations between the main characters sound like the sarcastic bickerings of players sat round a table (if a little effusive in their vocabulary):

"He is a notable gourmand and voluptuary, with tastes at once so refined, so gross and so inordinate as to cost him vast sums. This information was given freely, in a tone of envious admiration. Woudiver's illicit capabilities were merely implied." 
"Woudiver would appear to be an unsavory colleague," said Reith. 
Anacho snorted in derision. "You demand that I find someone proficient at conniving, chicanery, theft; when I produce this man, you look down your nose at him!"

And this is even more true when they are squabbling about treasure, as here:

"Look there." [Anacho] pointed. Not twenty feet distant the ground had broken, revealing the wrinkled dome of a large mature node. "Scarlets at least. Maybe purples."

Reith made a gesture of sad resignation. "We can hardly carry the fortune we already have. It is sufficient."

"You underestimate the rapacity and greed of Savishe," grumbled Anacho. "To do what you propose will require two fortunes, or more." He dug up the node. "A purple. We can't leave it behind."

"Very well," said Reith. "I'll carry it."

Or here, where they even start fighting about encumbrance:
"One more kill," said Traz. "Here now comes a group, rich from their hunting." 
"But why? We have all the sequins we can carry!" 
"We can discard our sards and some emeralds, and carry only reds and purples."

But the Vancian "feel" also finds its way in to the structure of the game's ephemera. Nobody involved in writing Monster Manual entries has ever said anywhere (to my knowledge) that they were riffing on Vance. But take a look at this passage from The Dirdir and tell me it doesn't sound like it could have come from the pages of a bestiary, or Dragon magazine (were it not for the sprinkle of sardonic humour, of course, and the fact that D&D bestiary entries are never this imaginative):

"Remember," Anacho warned, "the Khors are a sensitive people. Do not speak to them; pay them no heed except from necessity, in which case you must use the fewest possible words. They consider garrulity a crime against nature. Do not stand upwind of a Khor, nor if possible downwind; such acts are symbolic of antagonism. Never acknowledge the presence of a woman; do not look toward their children - they will suspect you of laying a curse; and above all ignore their sacred grove. Their weapon is the iron dart which they throw with astonishing accuracy; they are a dangerous people." 
"I hope I remember everything," said Reith. 

Playing D&D, in other words, mirrors the experience of reading Vance's fiction very closely indeed, and it happens without this ever being the stated "point" of the designers or generally the intention of the players. It happens through "feel". That is Gary Gygax's possibly unique achievement. Lots of designers explicitly attempt to emulate a genre or piece of fiction through an RPG system and fail. Gygax did it implicitly and suceeded. Perhaps there is a lesson in that.


  1. It was The Dirdir which first made me realize with a bit of glee that while "grinding" for resources is the bane of a lot of computer RPGs, being a tedious distraction from the good narrative stuff, Vance is more than happy to make grinding an outright feature in some of his novels. It's hard for me to imagine anyone else getting away with it like he does.

    1. It's true - the other example I can think of is there is quite a bit of grinding in the Amber books also.

  2. OK, OK, I finally broke down and ordered the omnibus.

  3. I think a big part of the lesson is that it's a hell of a lot easier to emulate Vance-style fiction in an RPG than just about any other style. We can see this with people who aren't even playing D&D and have never heard of Vance blundering into Vance-style fiction.

    Too bad that sort of thing wasn't more popular when I was a kid, I wasted so much time trying to emulate Tolkienesque stuff and that shit is HARD. If I had just read more about Cugel I could've spared myself so much frustration.

    1. >If I had just read more about Cugel I could've spared myself so much frustration.

      This is one of the top three takeaways from the entire OSR enterprise.

    2. That's all true, but is that a result of the nature of the fiction or due to the fact that the oldest and most dominant RPG was set up to replicate Vance's "feel"?

  4. I wonder if this is part of my reason for disliking the game. I was never a huge fan of Vance. I found his working working entertaining enough to read a few of his books but the details of his stories never stayed in my memory long.

    I loved the Hobbit, but all of the other Tolkien material was similarly great yet tedious all at once.

    I was a child of movies and television and although I loved to read, I preferred my stories to 'move quicker' and be more energetic.

    I wounder if I read Vance now if my opinion would significantly change. Hmmm.

    1. I apologize for the poor spelling and such. Wrote this with my phone and my spellcheck has fallen to the Dark Side.

    2. Vance is pretty fast moving and energetic!

    3. Yeah, Vance is among the speediest of fantasy fiction I've read so far.

  5. Vance’s slice of pulp fiction was not remarkable in the details you’ve shared though. Loads of writers wrote stuff in this vein. There are specific concepts of Vance that became elements of D&D but the passages you shared are not unique to him.

    On the other hand, yes, OSR style D&D does emulate that broad genre and that makes it much more interesting than whatever nonsense the 5e people are noodling around with these days.

    Because pulp fiction is about heroes. Manly, capable heroes who face actual and deadly challenges.

    Heroes are out of vogue in broad pop culture. But they live in the pulps and in OSR D&D.

    Totally separately: Didn’t Dave Arneson and then Dave Megarry use dungeons before Gary did?

    1. " the details you’ve shared though. Loads of writers wrote stuff in this vein."

      I'm very interested, any names you could type out for us to track down? Or even specific books you remember covering similar material?

    2. Whichever ones I name, it will be easy for folks to find differences. But I will try:

      Two that are today called science fiction writers are Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. They wrote pulpy space stuff but the archetypical man of action versus the unknown was a common theme.

      Another is Orson Scott Card, who would have more reflective protagonists, who were nonetheless men of ruthless action when necessary.

    3. Is Cugel a manly capable hero? Are the main characters in Lyonesse? I think you're oversimplifying a bit.

  6. Yes, it's been well documented that the dungeon scenario originated with Dave Arneson. Dave Meggary created the Dungeon game based on that. The dungeon scenario is what Dave Arneson brought to show Gary Gygax the Blackmoor campaign which then kicked off the collaboration to produce D&D.

  7. I think it was Melan who pointed out a few years ago that one of the things that makes Vance's books (even his non-fantasy ones) feel so D&Dish is that one of his most common plot tropes is to describe an elaborate cultural system and then have the protagonist "game" that system by exploiting holes in it to his (almost reflexively wrote "or her" but in Vance it's pretty much invariably "his") advantage in a way that confounds those stuck within the paradigm that our protagonist is not, due to his outside perspective. The quotes above from "The Dirdir" are one of the more obvious such set-ups, but the general pattern appears over and over in Vance's works, and it's one of the things that makes his books so much fun for gamer-types because analyzing a complex system and then figuring out how to break and exploit it to your advantage is pretty much what we do :)

    1. My comment below was intended as a reply to you, Trent. I think the hero-escaping-from-puzzle/hero-gaming-system is a big part of what makes many of Vance's stories feel so much like a D&D session.

  8. Yes! My sense is that what Vance often does is first put his heroes in a puzzle-like from which escape seems impossible, and then *he* attempts to think of a solution.

    A classic one happens in Suldrun's Garden. Ailas is imprisoned in the bottom of a deep oubliette/pit with inward slanted sides. After several unfruitful attempts to climb/dig out, he inventories the contents of the place (12 skeletons and the rope he was lowered down with). His solution is exactly the sort of thing a group of players would come up with to break their PCs free:

    "He set himself to work at once, disassembling each skeleton, sorting the components, testing them in new combinations to discover optimum linkages. Then he began to build, fitting bone to bone with care and precision, grinding against stone when necessary and securing the joints with rope fiber. He started with four pelvises, which he joined with struts of bound ribs. Upon this foundation he mounted the four largest femurs and surmounted these with four more pelvises, and braced with more ribs. Upon this platform he fixed four more femurs, and four final pelvises, bracing and cross-bracing to insure rigidity. He had now achieved a ladder of two stages, which when he tested it bore his weight with no complaint. Then up another stage and another. He worked without haste, while days became weeks, determined that the ladder should not fail at the critical moment. To control sidewise sway, he worked bone splinters into the floor and set up rope guys; the solidity of the structure gave him a ferocious satisfaction. The ladder was now his whole life, a thing of beauty in itself, so that escape began to be of less consequence than the magnificent ladder. He reveled in the spare white struts, the neat joints, the noble upward thrust."

    1. Philip Jose Farmer's books (at least the World of Tiers and Riverworld series - the only ones by him I've read) have a similar dynamic, where he sets up situations with seemingly-insurmountable obstacles in the way of his protagonists, but through their superior problem-solving abilities and dogged determination they're able to figure out the loophole and find a way to exploit it (albeit with a less expansive vocabulary and sense of decorum than Vance's protagonists). That's presumably why those books also feel extremely "D&Dish" to me.

      Thinking about this a bit further, I think this dynamic is at the crux of D&D's appeal to me - the act of overcoming seemingly impossible odds through cleverness and resourcefulness and pluck. Few things are more boring to me as a player than a "balanced" encounter where I'm expected to win, and a puzzle with a predefined solution is little better. I WANT something nigh-impossible where if the math is allowed to play out we'll definitely lose and it's up to me and the other players to work together to come up with some clever way to flip that script and change the circumstances in our favor. I want that as a GM too, I'm just sadly not as good as coming up with these sorts of challenges as a lot of other folks are and I've also found it's usually easier to convince other players who may not be initially inclined to this style of play to "step up" when you're on the same side of the screen as they are than when you're the GM. When I throw really hard challenges at them (the kind that I'd love to take on as a player) they tend to wither and fail and then complain. But when they don't, when they do rise to the challenge and succeed in ways I couldn't have anticipated like a hero in a Jack Vance or PJFarmer novel, well, those are my favorite sessions, my best memories of play that make all the drudgery of boring play seem worthwhile :)

    2. To add to that, it's also notable that while there is plenty of violence in Vance's stories, combat is usually presented pretty flatly or skirted around. The emphasis is on solving problems through one's wits (although there are exceptions obviously).

  9. For even earlier D&D style adventures check out Clark Ashton Smith, specifically The Weaver in the Vault. He was an influence on Vance as well as Gygax directly.

  10. You know, a nice contrast might be the Belgariad by Eddings. It also feels very D&Dish to me, but in the "big campaign" style instead of the piccaresque.

    1. Yep, Edding is basically what D&D in the 2nd edition era was trying to emulate.

    2. Which seems much harder than emulating Vance with 0/1ed. Remember beating my head into a wall a bunch as a kid trying to make my PCs have proper Eddings style grand adventures when they just wanted to act like Cugel.

  11. It's Vance set in the universe of Michael Moorcock.

    This is an astoundingly accurate post.

  12. I find that with my campaign and my players at least, it generally settles into a very Cugel-esque set of picaresque misadventures, full of whimsy and bathos.