Not only are the dungeons full of orcs, tombs of traps protecting a lich, goblin bands ambushing caravans, and a cavernous underworld crawling with evil elves the dominant expectations when we think of contemporary fantasy as genre, they are found everywhere in popular culture now. Video games, anime, novels, and comic books either include these tropes or slight deviations. The brew of influences, interpretations and new ideas that populated early D&D today have a profound grip on the popular imagination. Consider the way Gygaxian vernacular has supplanted Camelot and knightly romance as the prevelent fantasy aesthetic. Knights lancing dragons beneath the spires of fantastical castles has been sreplaced by a Tolkienesque band battling orcs on a quest to save the world as the dominant fantasy imagery in almost every media. Even the more naturalistic and serpentine dragons of earlier art have been largely replaced by muscular winged monitor lizards, often with heads modelling those of the Rosolf, Sutherland or Elmore dragons from the cover of Holmes basic, the Monster Manual or the later "red box" Basic Set.
“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.
The sheer success of Dungeons & Dragons at defining the “Fantasy” genre means that new players are likely to know as much about a popular fantasy setting as old players, and are also likely to have strong opinions about how the setting and its inhabitants look and behave. For a player or referee that wants a game with exploration, discovery, novelty and wonder this presents difficulties. The popular fantasy world is so well catalogued and expectations so strong that providing any of these except in the mechanical sense of using an exploration based play style becomes much harder.
Yet, cliches and shared understandings are also easy to lean on in RPGs because they depend on ideas and imagery players already know and which the referee doesn't need to evoke or describe well or in detail. However canonical fantasy's success means that these cliches have become harder to use for Classic play. The imagery of Gygaxian Vernacular Fantasy has become the general imagery of popular fantasy, while its narratives have not quite made the transition. Popular Fantasy is largely epic fantasy, focused on big stories and heroes, world shattering magics and cinematic combat. It often has more in common with superhero stories than it does with the simple tales of exploration, plunder and roguery that Classic play produces.
While popular fantasy is now clothed in the aesthetics of Gygaxian Vernacular Fantasy, or at least derived from them confusion threatens. When players approach a Classic fantasy RPG and recognize its aesthetic they expect it to allow the same kinds of heroic stories as popular fantasy or later editions of Dungeons & Dragons. Classic mechanics don’t do that well. Classic play even punishes or discourages heroics and direct confrontations with epic powers. Its player characters feel weaker and on a more human scale and its mechanics rarely allow for the detailed narration of superheroic clashes of powers, feats and blow by blow combat. Classic fantasy RPGs, at least as I like to play them, are stories of clever tricksters who usually avoid dying in a forgotten hole through quick thinking and the occasional bit of desperate skullduggery.
Of course contemporary Dungeons & Dragons' art tends to show slightly more heroic scenes (the cover of BECMI above is a bit of a outlier in heroic clash between pants-less warrior and dragons), and there's a possibility that comparing the art of creatures and encounters in modern and older editions may help teach the distinctions between the systems. However, as with the cover of 1983 Basic set above, old art doesn't always match the play style of older games, and more importantly art isn't the entirety of aesthetic - just a useful shorthand. Fantasy RPG aesthetic is found in equipment and spell lists, monster manuals, and the entire edifice of description and graphic design. Here more contemporary fantasy RPGs hardly vary from the original 1974 edition of Dungeons & Dragons, except to lovingly enshrine some of its peculiarities and add more and more details. Art differences are unlikely to mend the disconnect between expectations and play style even if they change the way players visualize the game world slightly.
There are several ways to deal with this disconnect between the popular conception of fantasy and the nature of Classic play. The first is to double down on Gygax's preferred aesthetic, to play older editions of Dungeons & Dragons using the settings, monsters, and adventures as they were written 30 or 40 years ago and negotiate, cajole, or bully players into accepting the mix of aesthetic and play style. There's an appeal to this choice, the Gygaxian vernacular aesthetic of savage humanoids roaming gray stone mazes is the original aesthetic of Dungeons & Dragons. Playing the editions of the game with the aesthetic they created seems right and proper, respectful to the source material, or even authentic. Especially for players who started with the 1970's and 1980's editions Gygaxian vernacular fantasy offers a comfortable joy, like pulling on a favorite t-shirt -- uncomplicated and familiar in times that are often far too complicated.
It may even work, especially if the table you are playing at is dominated by players who have familiarity with early D&D and its aesthetic. The expectations of new players, unfamiliar with the Gygaxian vernacular aesthetic or Classic mechanics will be corrected and nudged towards what works in a Classic game fairly quickly. However, for tables new to Classic games, that an older style adventure appears much like a Contemporary Traditional one can cause a great deal of confusion. The monsters and imagery are largely the same, but the “story” functions entirely differently. Players plunge into combat after combat and quickly become frustrated at the fragile nature of their characters and the simplicity of the combat mechanics. Referees become confused because building encounters that would work well in a newer edition lead to unexpected results and the rules themselves, where they emphasize exploration, seem to push against the goal of heroic adventure.
Another option is to abandon the aesthetic to the present, to tailor a setting to the play style, and embrace the weirdness and wonder of telling or acting out stories of exploration with an aesthetic that is less widely associated with the current heroic style of fantasy RPGs. One may need a little more description, especially as a designer, but the reward is something that feels fresher and less predictable.
As much Gygaxian vernacular fantasy can add difficulties to bringing players new to it into a Classic game, bizarre and extremely unique settings can also present difficulties. Cliche and known aspects of the setting are important to fantasy as they allow the author or designer to highlight the fantastical elements and the reader or player to appreciate them. In adventure design especially, where page space and referee attention are both at a premium the use of cliches and well known elements can quickly suggest a description that the referee or players will fill in easily, while something entirely strange and unique requires a level of detail and explanation that goes beyond what most players of an RPG are willing or able to take in prior to playing. More visual mediums such as film or video games are more easily able to convey setting information through imagery that breaks with audience expectations, while less interactive mediums such as novels don’t ask the reader to make decisions based on the unknown setting and can more slowly unveil it.
The traditional, widely disdained, method of offering up a novel setting is to provide a referee “info dump” as either some sort of densely written handbook or a monologue prior to play. Newer advice often suggests setting a whole “Session 0” aside to explain the setting, build characters and collectively plot the campaign's story. These are time consuming, especially if you don’t know how long your campaign will last, and they give the players little reason to remember the details of the setting. Session Zero is likewise largely unnecessary or even disadvantageous with simple character generation, an open world where play itself will create the narrative and a focus on discovery.
A full session of setting information or building might be excessive, but there are ways to inject a bit of setting fiction into play without it. 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons takes one extreme (short of shared narrative control over setting) with its character bonds and background. This level of connection between new characters and setting can add complications though, especially for a play style where low level characters often die and are removed from play along with their connections to the setting. Less extreme versions of baked in setting include things such as lists of failed professions or flavorful equipment that begin to hint at the setting without requiring a great deal of player knowledge or complex interconnection with the campaign.
However, rather than spending significant time providing a setting overview, Classic style play encourages introducing setting through play. To do this even a “weird” setting needs significant references that players can grasp and base their understanding of the game world on, noting the ways and places that it deviates from their expectations as they occur. A slow immersion into the setting will generally create more player attachment then a large amount of up front detail. Additionally, the referee doesn't need to build out the setting to a large degree prior to starting play. A bare description of a setting idea, a starter location or two, and the skeleton of a haven are all it takes to begin any dungeon crawl campaign. Cosmologies, histories, backstory, or an elaborate bestiary, none of it is necessary to start running a game, and it can be added as it becomes necessary -- if the campaign lasts long enough. The ability to and necessity of slowly introducing the game world makes creating a setting for Classic play far easier then it might be for a play style with a more fixed narrative, where the evolution of the game world needs to be more fully elaborated to support an entire campaign's worth of fiction prior to play.
Paradoxically, the same open world that offers comparative ease in creating a unique setting makes using one too far outside player expectations harder, both because the game will introduce the setting slowly through play, and because a greater emphasis on player choice requires players to have some understanding of the consequences their choices may bring. This means that player expectations about the setting can, and often need to, fill in the blanks as the world is slowly unveiled. A setting with details too far from those expectations will lead to the players constantly making mistakes where their knowledge of fantasy doesn’t match the specific novel fantasy of the game world. Just as the misunderstanding of the type of story that popular fantasy tells and the type of story that Classic rulesets allow can create confusion and player resentment, so can an aesthetic or setting fiction that constantly thwarts the players preconceptions.
Classic play has a couple answers for this problem as well, centering on play style over aesthetic. As long as your game includes the basic structure of the dungeon crawl: exploring a discrete mythic space to recover something, the basic goal and player choices will be clearer. Regardless of if your dungeon is a maze of orc infested caves, the haunted wreck of a WW1 battle-cruiser, the brain of a sleeping star god, or a futuristic android factory, the characters must explore it and engage with the fictional space. Navigation, faction intrigue, puzzle solving, and supply logistics will be somewhat similar and equally important to any dungeon crawl, independent of aesthetic.
A second method, not linked to play style, is to build character ignorance into the setting. This was the method used by M.A.R. Barker’s
Tékumel in 1974’s “Empire of the Petal Throne”. Players in this early fantasy (or science fantasy) RPG explored a world with hints of various real world non-European culture and unique fantasy elements, a complex political and religious system, and even its own con-langs. However, player characters were first limited to newly arrived foreigners bumbling about. Player expectation about the nature of fantasy settings was subverted by appealing to the players interest in roleplaying a specific character who did not understand the game world, so learning the setting itself becomes an important part of play.
A SURFEIT OF STYLES
Finally, an additional option exists, one that has become more available as Gygaxian fantasy has subsumed other genres of fantasy and no longer acknowledges its own roots in a wide variety of genre. Just as players coming to Classic play with a detailed understanding of contemporary fantasy from new editions or from larger culture have expectations about how a world of elves, goblins and dwarves works and the kind of experiences an RPG set in it will model, they have other, less fully formed perhaps, expectations about other types of fantasy. Many parts of the “Old School” movement of the 2010’s capitalized on this, creating settings and adventures that emphasized dark fantasy as a way of setting initial player expectations to the lower overall power level, lack of heroic narrative, and higher lethality found in most low level Classic games.
The primary advantage of using ancillary aesthetics, including: swords & sorcery, the Western, Dunsanian fantasy, fairy tale, Arthurian legend, or dark fantasy is that players have some understanding and expectations of them and these genre expectations won’t be burdened with the same ideas about heroism that popular fantasy is. Additionally, as genres that haven’t been deeply explored by contemporary popular culture expectations are less fully formed, and the cliches of these other genres are less fixed, allowing for a greater sense of discovery and wonder during play.
The difficulty however is that some genre expectations around ancillary aesthetics don’t work well with the mechanics of classic play. Arthurian legends for example, while they include bands of adventurers (knights errant, various varlets, and rescued or prophetic damsels for example), strongly focus on honorable duels between individual knights. Such conflicts are difficult to model in older editions of Dungeons & Dragons (or newer ones for that matter). Likewise, the entire moral aspect of Arthurian legend, so important to the genre, lacks mechanical support, or much relevance to a treasure seeking dungeon crawl. Pendragon, a triumph of intentional design specifically written to make the bizarre moral hazards and pacing of Arthurian legend a part of play, would be a far better choice.
Yet, many ancillary genres are easier to adapt wholly to Classic play than Arthurian legend, and early Dungeons & Dragons is rooted in several of them -- swords & sorcery and the Western are of particular import. These genre's influence is most obvious in early Dungeons & Dragons art, though as time progressed that became more regularized along with overall aesthetic.
Here’s where I’ll confirm that I’ve played a bit loose with the source of Gygaxian vernacular fantasy and its relationship to early Dungeons & Dragons. While revivalists, especially those seeking early play styles and adventures out of nostalgia, tend toward the quasi-realism and seriousness of adventures like B2 - Keep on the Borderlands, the adventures of the 1970’s and early 1980’s were a varied and science fantasy and/or jokes about then popular culture were very common. Gygaxisn vernacular fantasy is essentially a nostalgic aesthetic, moored in, but not fully containing the varied aesthetics of early Dungeons & Dragons. The counter Gygax's wargame false realism also runs deep in early RPGs, a tendency might be called “gonzo”, where the bizarre, humorous, and satirical are justified and introduced in game. Gonzo works largely by accepting the clumsy jokes that will inevitably arise when people sit around playing a game and incorporating them in the fantasy world as serious obstacles and dangers for the players. Expedition to the Barrier Peaks which was published in 1980 as S3, but first written and played in 1976 as a tournament module, might be the best example of the early use of a gonzo aesthetic.
Written by Gary Gygax (or possibly Rob Kuntz - Gygax wasn’t always good at giving credit) Expedition to the Barrier Peaks is a science fantasy exploration of a crashed flying saucer filled with bizarre and humorous monsters including such staples of gonzo play as visual puns (the “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” - a mimic like beast that pretends to be a rabbit sitting on a stump) and absurdist horrors, like the dreaded froghemoth which are humorous to the players but extremely dangerous to their characters. Despite being fully committed to its gonzo aesthetic Expedition to the Barrier Peaks is one of the better early TSR adventures, a bit large and broadly sketched, but very well realized with a full set of player facing illustrations (often found in early tournament modules to help keep the play experience consistent), and should make it clear that gonzo aesthetics have a long pedigree, forming an alternate aesthetic to early fantasy RPGs that lost out in the popular mind to Gygaxian Vernacular Fantasy, but is fully functional as a setting for Classic play.
AESTHETIC IS NOT PLAY STYLE
Again, aesthetic is a separate choice from play style, even if they are almost always linked in a published system. Classic design can be seen as set of procedures and mechanics that support a specific play style and set of player goals, not a particular set of cliches and descriptions. This isn’t to say that a specific play style isn’t easier to produce with some aesthetic genres than others (and vice versa) or that using less or more well known aesthetics doesn’t have an effect on play. Aesthetics can direct play expectations and determine where or how much detail a referee needs to add, but no aesthetic specifically allows the Classic play style. One can run a classic game in almost any setting that has room for the elements of treasure hunters, exploration, and specific locations. Orcs huddling in ruins filled with treasure may make for Classic style play, but it’s not the orcs, or even the ruins really that allow the play style to flourish, it's the relationship between player goals, the mechanics and the setting. Exploring a location that is home to a hostile faction and conceals player goals is the core of the Classic dungeon crawl. This overall structure needs to be supported by procedures for navigation of a defined fantastical space and rules that create constraints in time, supply, and risk. The descriptions and imagery are almost unimportant compared to a set of mechanics and procedures that produce the obstacles players overcome with problem solving and the core play loop of referee description that players interrogate for greater information to act on.
Aesthetics are laid atop the medium of play style: popular fantasy and “weird” fantasy can use the same play styles, and despite very similar aesthetics, the play style will define the locus and nature of play. This is why I distrust claims that Classic play can only exist with the aesthetic of Gygaxian vernacular fantasy, or that other aesthetics such as psychedelic acid fantasy must be something else. The denigration of aesthetics as “Art-Punk” or “Vanilla Fantasy” are unhelpful, and while I’ve been guilty of it myself (it’s hard not to complain about an aesthetic one dislikes), such criticism doesn’t have much to say about the suitability of an adventure to a specific play style or if a game will deliver a desired play experience.
The focus on aesthetics creates even greater confusion however, as it makes for easy labeling and a more approachable substitute for thinking about play style. An adventure or system that shares the art and other aesthetic trappings most commonly associated with a specific play style but varies from it will often lead to frustrated players (if they are familiar with the play style) or later confusion (if they are not and attempt to replicate it with similarly appearing product). By separating aesthetic and play style when we discuss and design games, settings, and adventures I believe we can better understand what draws us all to particular games and how our interests differ from others. Recognizing that just because something describes a similar genre or fantasy doesn’t mean that the play experience needs to be or is intended to be identical allows one to approach varied games with curiosity about why something runs a particular way rather then seeing it through the lens of one’s expectations as a good or bad system.
I can’t neatly wrap this topic up, and don’t have an answer about how to consider aesthetic when designing, playing, or reviewing, and I certainly can’t say what aesthetics are the best or the worst for a given type of play, let alone a given table of players. Instead I hope that this post will offer an alternate framework and point of reference for looking at games and adventures -- one focused on play style and how a game fulfills player goals rather than how it looks.