“Clewd the Fighter straps down his heavy heater shield and loosens his arming sword in its sheath, while behind him Sister Agata’s kneels, her mace resting on the flagstones and lips moving in a prayer to St. Cuth the Chastiser. The rest of the party stands behind: Rastar the wizard - impassive, Dougal the thief, picking his nails with a barbed knife, Blackleaf the elf, eyes unfocused thinking back to some riot of flowers or bloody skirmish in the forests of his home three hundred years before, and three stalwart hobilers in thick hauberks recruited from Fort Tribulation and wielding 12’ bec de corbins. The band is ready, and with a shout Clewd kicks open the rotten oak and rusted iron bands of the damp swollen door, bursting into another of the square stone cells beneath the ruins of Castle Doomeye.
Squealing goblins scatter for their crooked spears and rusting implements of war, surprised by the adventurers. In the guttering light of a torch held by one of the Fort Tribulation Stalwarts, the band sweeps through the humanoid’s lair. Black blood splatters, and the goblins fall to blade and bone crushing mace before they can organize resistance. Only Blackleaf can understand the subhumans’ cries for mercy, their gurgling mongrel tongue incomprehensible to the people of law and civilization, but Blackleaf delights in their terror, as his people and the teeming goblin filth have waged a war of annihilation for ten thousand years. In moments the chamber is still and the brave adventurers, inured to the stink of split bellies and ferric tang of blood, ransack the goblins’ corpses for a handful of copper trinkets and braided rat tails.
Dougal grunts, sniffing a dubious, yellowed goblin sausage before tossing it back onto one of the foe’s corpses and points to the damp swollen door on the other side of the room. Beyond the maze of dungeons and gray stone corridors continues, winding ever deeper. Shockingly regular and featureless, only a mad wizard could conceive of and construct such a place to conceal golden treasure and ancient sorcery.”
NOTE: THIS POST IS NOT ABOUT THE USE OF HUMANOIDS OR THE RACIALIZED OTHER IN DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. OBVIOUSLY GYGAXIAN VERNACULAR FANTASY IS STEEPED IN UNEXAMINED MID-CENTURY AMERICAN CULTURE AND ATTITUDES ABOUT RACE. ONE CAN'T CHANGE THIS BY DECLARING HUMANOIDS COSMICALLY EVIL, OR NOTING THAT D&D IS JUST A GAME, AND THE ISSUE PERSISTS OR EVEN WORSENS IN CURRENT EDITIONS WHICH REMOVE NUANCE AND MORAL DECISION WITH A TENDENCY TOWARDS COMBAT FOCUSED PLAY.
THIS POST IS ABOUT HOW AESTHETICS (SETTING, PLAYER EXPECTATIONS, THEMES AND IMAGERY) INTERACT WITH MECHANICS AND DESIGN PRINCIPLES.
Dungeons & Dragons has specific aesthetics, the most frequent a product of the particular vision and play style of its early pioneers, changed and complemented by the way their games evolved and refined through the art of early TSR publications, and in the half century since. The Mid-Western campaigns of Greyhawk and Blackmoor were a pastiche pulp Swords and Sorcery, Tolkien and wargaming ephemera. While the earliest art and description for Dungeons & Dragons is haphazard and fairly fantastical in nature, much of the late 1970’s Dungeon & Dragons art suggests a knowledge of and concern for historical arms and equipment. Especially in the work of some artists, characters are fully armored and wield a variety of authentic looking weapons. Gygax’s particular interests also push in this direction, with the increasingly detailed (and apocryphal) equipment lists of AD&D and his indulgence of an uneducated obsession in medieval weaponry. Gygax’s first editorial in Strategic review is an odd pseudo-historical (it was used by “primitive” and poor peoples) justification of why spears are ineffective in Chainmail while his second is a compilation of loving description and mechanical details for varied polearms that doubles the size of the Original Dungeons & Dragons weapon list.
I call this “Gygaxian Vernacular Fantasy” -- a bricolage of Tolkien, Conan and Osprey Publishing’s Medieval Warrior series full of dungeons, evil humanoids and +1 swords that is incredibly influential. The paragraphs of fiction above are an exaggeration of the form, emphisizing its retrograde and unexamined morality, and by now it should look quotidian. In the 1970’s it was novel, and useful for early Dungeons tying down the more fantastical elements of Swords & Sorcery with the details of medieval wargaming. It has been highly successful since, creating the basic understanding of "fantasy" seemingly worldwide. Yet, that very success has led to some of the present difficulties in writing for it or playing it.