Friday, May 21, 2010

On swords, sorcery, dungeons, dragons

I think genre is one of those concepts that's handy in passing conversation but slippery when you try to look at it too closely.  At the surface level of "does this have swordfights and magic spells?", Mr. Raggi is entirely on the ball in calling D&D swords & sorcery.  Meanwhile Mr. Paladin in Citadel points out how easily the basic assumptions of the S&S genre can be undermined in play.  In actual day-to-day life I have no problem describing D&D to a newbie as something like "You play Conan, I play Gandalf.  We team up to fight Dracula."  On the other hand, ascribing any genre to such a wide-sweeping vehicle as D&D makes about as much sense as declaring that a clarinet is a jazz instrument.  Sure, you can get a crapload of Dixieland out of the thing, but it can also play a zillion other kinds of music.  I mean, have you seen the entirely awesome new pdf Terminal Space?  It's friggin' OD&D in outer space, man.  And you roll a new 3d6 stat for your PC called Tech Level.  If you roll low enough you get to play a cave man in outer space! Put that in your genre and smoke it!

So yeah, D&D is a swords & sorcery game.  That's a handy thing to say.  But at some fundamental level it makes no sense, just like pretty much every other oversimplification we use in our daily lives.


  1. Tedankhamen6:15 AM

    Well said, sir!!
    People quibbling over semantics when we should be rolling dice, wot?
    And I just picked up that PDf you mentioned - pure awesome.

  2. At some level, any homage or genre exercise crashes into the wall of "this is really a bunch of friends playing a game." When genre pretensions loom too high, both the "friends" and the "game" elements conspire to get Mountain Dew on one's lacy white pinafore.

    This is a good thing as far as I'm concerned, as I'm not a director or auteur. There may be exceptions in terms of groups or systems but I'm not sure I'd enjoy them.

    I'm working on a fairy-tale-influenced setting right now, and just have to accept that the protagonist of adventures therein won't be a lone, humble tinker's son, it'll be a cadre of money-grubbing, in-joking chucklehead commandos. This is fine with me. I'm not the least bit rueful when I joke that the campaign is likely to evoke Verbosh as much or more than classic fairy tales.

  3. "You play Conan, I play Gandalf. We team up to fight Dracula."

    Somebody should make movie of this...

    The style of play, or the genre is defined by the players and when there are more players, then there is some interesting genre combination...

  4. I've seen it argued before that D&D is a genre unto itself. It may have originated with Vance and Anderson and friends, but it has definitely become its own thing (drow, beholders, etc.)

    I love D&D because it is such a big tent. You can have your Mandrake Marches or your Planet Algol or even the Dracula throwdown...Ravenloft, anyone?

    Nicely posted, Jeff.

  5. I love D&D because it is such a big tent.

    D&D at its best is its own genre of whatever crazy whacked-out shenannigans the Players and GM decide to get into this week expressed through a unified set of rules.

    If it hasn't been done yet, let me be the first to offer "crazy, whacked-out shenannigans" as an potential definition for the Gonzo genre of gaming.

  6. At the moment, someone in my home is running a D&D game with Mummy Penguins. Because he CAN.

    D&D has always been (to me) a big game of make believe with a direction. Where you GO from that direction is up to you.

  7. D&D is it's own genre, and simulates nothing other than itself.

    Anything else is fitting the square peg into the round hole.

  8. I've had occassion to explain the idea of D&D, and Role Playing in general before, and frankly I find it difficult. Either thing can mean so many different things to people, and it's not uncommon for me to detail it in such a way that the facets that *I* find interesting are reflected more than the other facets, which might be more interesting to the people I'm describing to...

    In other words, D&D could perhaps be called Swords and Sorcery, although it could also be called Hamlets and Harems... Or Catapults and Castles. Or Minstrels and Monsters... All depends on what it means to the person who plays it.

    I usually say that essentially, the group is writing a story, and you players are the characters in the book. As the GM, it's my job to control the story line, and the other characters.

    Dungeons and Dragons is just a name for the set of rules by which we operate. So often our own campagins are almost entirely removed from the settings in the boxes, that really all D&D is for us is the Pirate's code... It's more of just a guide line really. :)

  9. I would think describing "sword and sorcery" as "it has swords and it has sorcery" is about as useful a definition as describing rock and roll music as "music with rocks in it and it also has rolls in it."

    D&D, 30+ years on, is its own genre, with its own genre conceits and its own tropes to subvert. It has about as much in common with actual swords & sorcery as L'mort d'Arthur, and LESS than something like Thundarr does.

  10. I agree with those who have stated that D&D is its own style/genre.

    I agree even more strongly when someone makes a suggestion and someone else says "But that's not very true to swords & sorcery and the source material."

    I always find this interesting because those same sorts spend a lot of time saying things like "It's your it however you want."

  11. I'm torn I guess. Do the differences between Sword & Sorcery and straight-up Fantasy (Lord of the Rings, per Paladin's post) really amount to just setting and style?

    Or is there an argument to be made about how each implies (demands?) mechanical differences to properly support the genres?

    Finally, there's at least a 63% chance I don't know what I'm saying.

  12. I think those saying that D&D is its own genre use "genre" in a much more narrow way than I do.

    To me, D&D is "fantasy from before LotR came to define fantasy."

    I don't think the scope of D&D broadened over the years. I think the popular conception of what fantasy is has narrowed.

    D&D is fantasy... which includes Tolkien's Dwarf/Elf fantasy, John Carter of Mars, Thor and Dr. Strange comic books, Universal and Hammer monster movies, Arthurian legends, Alice in Wonderland, and all sorts of other stuff.

  13. I suppose if you're going to give it a genre more specific than "fantasy", then "sword & sorcery" is as good as any other. I mean, there are few sub-genres more ill-defined than "sword & sorcery" in any case.

    For example, I long held that one of the defining elements of "swords & sorcery" is that the protagonists had the swords and the bad guys had the sorcery. I felt that the point where you had Gandalf or Merlin taking an active role with the protagonists was the point where you were almost certainly entering "high fantasy" or "epic fantasy" or, at the very least, something very different from the feel of Conan or the Grey Mouser.

    But then I realized that distinction wasn't true for a lot of people. And right around that time I also realized that using the phrase "swords & sorcery" in conversation was almost meaningless: It means radically different things to different people. You'd almost be better off saying "yaxal mattalrab", because at least then you wouldn't have people making the wrong conclusions about what you mean.

    I would also say that including Terminal Space or similar genre-expanding supplements into the discussion of D&D's genre seems unnecessarily torturous. But, on the other hand, trying to ascribe a single genre to D&D seems erroneous in its own right: The gameplay/genre of D&D is designed to shift as the characters gain levels.

  14. Can't we just call it "pulp fantasy" and get it over with?

  15. a)"You play Conan, etc" -- brilliant summation.

    b)I am reminded of one of my boilerplate rants which I haul out when someone starts complaining about the "historical accuracy" of Oriental Adventures or Maztica or the like: "AD&D is a game where Tolkien's elves, Arthurian knights, Celtic druids, Roman Catholic clerics, Fahfrd, and the Grey Mouser all fight Poul Anderson's trolls using Jack Vance's magic system in order to stop Cthulhu." I personally consider "D&D" to be a genre unto itself.

  16. When I explain to people what a "role-playing game" is, I usually say "games like Dungeons and Dragons", then I explain the basic nature of role-playing games. I usually have a harder time explaining the nature of the game, then the wide range of genres these games can cover - mostly becuase I just throw-in "role-playing games don't just cover 'medieval fantasy', there are games that cover all sorts of genre". I usually assume people have at least a generic sense of what constitutes a "fantasy genre." Hell, I have the most trouble explaining what the Cyberpunk genre - even to folks who are vary familiar with sci-fi and tabletop RPGs!

  17. Squidman,

    Pulp Fantasy does include "Sword and Sorcery", "Sandal and Shield", most "High Fantasy", "Weird Tales", "Oriental Romance", and "Planetary Romance", so yeah...

    Keeping in mind that just because D&D is Pulp Fantasy, and Sword & Sorcery is Pulp Fantasy, it doesn't mean D&D is Sword & Sorcery.

  18. Funny. I had that post (about whether D&D was S&S) sitting as a draft for several weeks. Almost deleted it.

    How you 'define' D&D has a lot to do with whether you believe words and phrases have shared-meaning (that is, that we have shared-meanings for them).

    I suggested the phrase 'generic fantasy' to describe D&D, since D&D seemed to allow (with house-ruling, and however imperfectly) the emulation of several different genres or mixed-genres, including: high fantasy; weird fantasy; sword-n-planet; sword-n-sorcery, sword-n-sandal; low fantasy; medieval fantasy; dark ages fantasy; romance fantasy; gaslamp fantasy; fairytale fantasy; steampunk; science fantasy; and so on.

    Hopefully my post did not interfere with anyone's right to define or play D&D however they want.

  19. @cappadocius:

    just because D&D is Pulp Fantasy, and Sword & Sorcery is Pulp Fantasy, it doesn't mean D&D is Sword & Sorcery."

    That was exactly my way of thinking.

  20. really great post. the genius of d&d is in the dynamic and ever-changing combination of cooperative story-making and competitive gaming. I don't really care about making it true to its "roots" whatever those are.