Wednesday, April 6, 2011

History Is Un-Bunk

Henry Ford, inventor of a mode of production that ruled the world for a century (and arch anti-Semite), is remembered to have said “history is bunk.” Like most too-juicy quotes, of course, he actually said something else close, but not the same: “History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history that we make today.”

Good discussions always bring me a good kind of problem here at the HC. Invariably I want to run in three different directions at once with my mind flipping back over this one and that. So indulge me as I start with the last and most tangled thought-post and work backwards.

Several people in yesterday's comments (and Trollsmyth's spin-off discussion) noted that vanilla D&D is as much or more about what Robert Fisher called the “here and now” as it is about a specific historical era.

Several also opined that it's not at all about rigorous historical play, but about playing out a game that is an a-historical crazy stew of mostly literary or pop cultural influences. It's about making a game filtered by elements from the novels, comic books, and movies of the present or recent past.  

There are patently obvious truths in all these comments and I certainly subscribe to at least some of the spirit—or at least bow to the at-the-game-table experience. It's a rare D&D campaign where the players come down with dysentery from eating spoiled food bought from a crowded, unsanitary open-air market or throw out their backs hauling in the local lord's rye harvest.

Often it's much more Ren Faire, then Renaissance (although for the record I think that the implied setting of D&D is something much closer to early Renaissance Europe than anything) and the exuberant train wreck mash-up spirit is found in that whole Jeff Rient's awesome quote thing: “You play Conan, I play Gandalf.  We team up to fight Dracula.”

But the real genius of the game's original vision is, I think, close to what James pointed out, “the beauty of D&D, though, is that it's chassis can accommodate both the irreverent anachronist as well as the stickler for accuracy.” It's always been a “yes and...” game rather than an “either/or” game. It's not just that I can play Conan and you play something else, but that I can also say “this game no one plays Legolas and we're all playing Saladin” and still be playing D&D (though I'd still want to throw in a Deodand, Broo, Ruby Red Eye or two). 

History can be both bunk and not; your call and you can fold, spin, or mutilate the rules to suit.

Not only can history in D&D be un-bunk (fresh outta word choice here), but it can strive to be more than Richard's flavorless un-gumbo—the new societies of the mind can be internally rigorous and logical too—while retaining the “yes and...”.

We can have the Hive Mind's world where nonhumans are more than human ethnic groups with crap on their forehead, but have longstanding societal dynamics of their own (like Tekumel, which at one point was D&D too).

We can have a campaign where the central arena is a bog-standard sandbox with the usual crew of footless misfits—and behind it great historically-derived whirly-bits off stage in the wings: a Reformation-sized rift in that vanilla Catholic Church; the massive cross-cultural shock of a Western stand-in nation meeting a continent it never knew existed; or the sudden collapse of a Great Empire to a dynamic barbarian conqueror. And injecting the weirder and more fantastical twists and prisms can only add to that fun.

I can see why Richard comes to his conclusion, much of the game as written in its many iterations rarely seemed able to rise to projecting the great, sweeping possibilities of weaving in these dynamics. To often it just copped out and invoked the barest of pseudo-medieval handwaves (explicitly or implicitly)--perhaps with that Gygaxian exception in the DMG I pointed out yesterday.

It's a big exception though...and that whistle you hear is a train of thought switching to a different track. More later, but for now, watch your step.


  1. Oh great, now I have to go back and read that blogpost and all the comments.

  2. @Wampus
    Jesus, Jim, cry me a river. You work in Austin, one of the easiest cities in the world to live in, and work in "IT" thus doing nothing all day.

    Get on it, and reportback with a real comment. On the double.

  3. It's a rare D&D campaign where the players come down with dysentery from eating spoiled food bought from a crowded, unsanitary open-air market or throw out their backs hauling in the local lord's rye harvest.

    Whereas this is par for the course in WFRP. ;)

  4. Dungeons & Dysentery?

    Where the dungeons really are places of imprisionment, and the only exotic fungus is ergot on bread. But the rats still swarm. :)

  5. @Trey
    I like, I see this post now going in an entirely different direction. I should start a design contest for adventures with the stipulation that you must work in the players coming down with dysentery and working a rye harvest.

  6. @ckutalik: Is it possible that the archetypes (or tropes) resonate so much is because 'vanilla D&D' contains 'echoes' of different periods?

    Unrelated: You profile pic has been nagging at me... but I finally thought of why it looked so familiar: one two

  7. How about a retro-clone of Boot Hill mashed up with Oregon Trail...plenty of dysentery.

  8. @scottsz
    The new profile pic is me being the Ugly American in Florence (and almost getting kicked out of the Boboli Gardens as a result).

    Somewhere in a forgotten spiral notebook from undergrad days, I have the working outlines for an Oregon Trail-style (the FGU boardgame flavor) science-fantasy game.

    The players start on one end of the board in an early 19th century-like frontier society and travel in giant wheeled land-barges through zones that get increasingly weirder and more dangerous until they reach the Far Shore. Tables for strange illnesses, spaceship crashes, mutant animal hunts, etc.