Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Darker Side of D&D

I wrote in my last post about the fact that the majority of people currently in the old school community are adults who have reached the age where we have kids, and have, as a result, made some decisions about how (and whether) to extend the game to the kids or to keep it as an adult preserve. The reason for keeping it as an adult preserve, if one has chosen to do so, is probably because the adult gaming table doesn't have to worry about things like swearing in front of kids, stopping to explain rules ... and generally to let the adults play the game without having to be parental or deal with being a "grownup" in front of someone else's kid. Having a no-kids gaming table allows the players to cut loose with whatever. To have the same sort of freedoms to game balls-out at the age of 15 ... provided your parents weren't around to hear the swearing or the adult themes that they still wanted to protect you from without realizing that you're quite familiar with them from exposure at school, in the news, whatever.

That's the lead-in to this post.

Now. Let's look at swords & sorcery fiction of the golden age (or whatever - when Howard and Leiber were contributing short stories to pulp magazines). If I'm wrong about the "age," whether it's silver or whatever, that's unimportant. You know the body of fiction I'm talking about. These authors didn't at all shy away from having their villains be real villains. We're not talking about mustache-twirling Saurons with intentions to take over the world. We're talking about people (or things) that are personally sociopaths or have sexual quirks, or various other tendencies that accompanied a more supernatural aspect. They might also be trying to take over the world, or serve a dark god, or engage in other more generalized villainy that corresponds to the behavior of a high-fantasy villain. But the swords & sorcery authors often provided glimpses of the villain -- off camera at that time -- that established a personal level of evil.

I'm thinking of a Howard story in which the villain takes a whip to a scantily-clad dancing girl, or the Leiber story in which a lesbian couple amusingly and brilliantly outwits Fafhyrd and the Grey Mouser. Here we're seeing themes that weren't common topics of polite conversation, although the vast majority of adults knew they were out there.

Gaming is escapism, like fiction. There's an interesting question of what we escape into. A world where adult themes might lurk - whether they're amusing, such as the Leiber story, or whether they are present in the background or foreground because villains are evil and everyone around the table is adult enough not to flip out about finding bondage-leather in the side-room of the villain's bedchamber.

Humankind has plenty of wells of darkness in pretty much everyone. We evolved in a tough world, and there is a lot of aggression and freak hardwired into our gene pool. That stuff is in there because it is the raw material for being combined, here and there, into specialty-humans who will improve the chances of the general population to succeed and flourish. Humans are just about the only animal (ants being virtually our only kindred in this) that wages war. Both species also take slaves. Lesbian seagulls (many species exhibit lesbianism in the gene pool) have a much higher rate of surviving offspring than heterosexual gulls. Rape is endemic in chimpanzee and gibbon populations (I don't know about other primates, but chimps are our closest genetic cousins). Basically, the gene pool of humankind is vicious and contains raw material that can - in the rarer double-or-triple combinations, generate some very, very nasty folks. Sociopaths, child molesters, etc. Our genetic development has decisively won the macrobiological niche for big critters. We didn't get there by being nice. We did it by keeping the potential for murder, rape, genocide and slavery just under the surface of our normal specimen. We all carry the latent genes for that, although in many cases the merely latent gene has no influence whatsoever. But in some cases it does.

Genocide? Here's an example close to home: mentally it's just a heck of a lot of fun to have those unambiguously evil orcs to wipe out. Or wipe out aliens in a video game. Unusual sexual behaviors are out there in force in society: mainly harmless and consensual stuff, but you can see that there's a darker source down there.

I'm not suggesting that D&D has any more connection to the darker side of our gene pool than, say, American football. American football is a shadow of gladiatorial games; it's a formalized combat. It has its own shadows of the violent side of human nature.

But I am suggesting that the nature of our escapism can have a very different tone if (a) you're playing with kids at the table, and (b) whether you prefer to keep the demons abstract, as in high fantasy, or - on the other hand - whether you choose to vicariously fight those demons in closer quarters.

No doubt a lot of what I've expressed here will have come across the wrong way, and will piss off people who decide that I'm making moral judgments aimed at their hearts, or that I'm suggesting weird connotations behind the D&D hobby. Not so.

Anyway, that's my post. If you're offended, you probably took it in a way that's not intended unless you believe that humankind is universally quite nice. In which case, I respectfully disagree. :)


  1. I'm not at all offended, at least not yet - not before following up one or two of the claims made..!

    To say "universally quite nice" might be out a little, but so would be 'universally quite bad'. Better could be saying that even war requires cooperation, and that our existence and prosperity have for a long time now relied on reciprocation and understanding, even goodwill, and to an ever greater degree. We are where we are because we can get along and want to.

    I am enjoying what you're posting here.

  2. Thanks, Porky. I wouldn't at all suggest that humanity is universally bad - not at all. Just that our grayer areas can be seen in escapist fiction and escapist gaming. Even in the escapism of watching sports. Or the news, for that matter. We've got some hard-wiring that's a bit uncomfortable when our nobler side notices it.

  3. Much of our escapist fantasy is at it's heart about externalizing subjects we find difficult in some way and then allowing the characters to deal deal with it in a direct manner. Sometimes that can be about repressed urges, but it can also be complex topics with no easy answers (this is one of the reasons escapist fantasy is so popular with young adults).

  4. Play is about hidden urges and anxieties.

    Kids play war because war is exciting, frightening and beyond their comprehension. Adults play war-games because war is exciting, frightening and awful; it's a levitation beyond our control in the real world but not on the tabletop or computer screen.

    RPG isn't too far off.