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Thursday 14 September 2017

Classic Rant: The Americanism of D&D and the Gonzo Aesthetic

It isn't a new subject, in fact I've brought it up a few times in the past, but a recent essay that is really quite good addresses the issue of how D&D, in terms of its setting and ambiance, is fundamentally an American invention (written by a gamer who started to understand D&D better after visiting America for the first time in 30 years of being a gamer). The default "world" of D&D is full of Americanisms. It isn't really, in that default state, "European fantasy"; it is rather very much 'American Fantasy'. It is only Europe as Hollywood imagined it.

There's another important point: D&D in its origins is Gonzo. It was in fact invented around the same time that this very particularly American version of magical realism came to exist as a literary form of its own. 
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the seminal Gonzo novel, was published in 1971. D&D came into being in '74, after a process of many years of protodevelopment. Whether or not Gygax, Arneson and co. had ever read Hunter S. Thompson, the vibe of Gonzo was everywhere at that time, and had created big effects on the general culture (while today, Gonzo has become so normalized in American popular culture that we pretty much no longer distinguish it except for in its most blatantly exaggerated forms).

One big part of why D&D is so American is because it is so Gonzo. The weirdness of Gonzo is a thoroughly American weirdness, very different from the weirdness of, say, Alejandro Jodorowsky and what the latter did to comics and scifi aesthetics in Europe and Latin America.

What this means, however, is that it is relatively easy to De-Americanize D&D, by shifting out of the gonzo aesthetic (plus by adding a bit more historical and cultural rigor).

In the linked essay, the author suggests that maybe D&D is better when it's not trying to be more "historical" (rather than American pseudo-historical). Obviously, I disagree. Dark Albion lets you recreate D&D in a new and exciting way. The shifting out of Gonzo and into a grittier and more factual kind of historical reality let's you explore all kinds of worlds in D&D that the Americanized version does not. Consider, for example, the very big significance of Social Class in the Dark Albion setting, and it's almost apparently meaninglessness in most (Americanized) D&D settings. That total sense of ignorance of Class is a very American feature in general (dating back long before gonzo, of course); and putting class consciousness back into the game changes the dynamics of setting completely.

I think what all this does mean is that within the confines of the OSR boundary markers alone, we have only just barely begun to scratch the surface of what you can really do with D&D. So much of the game so far has been looking at it from a strictly American lens. Far from just assuming that will be the best way to do it, I think now we can really start to explore how the game becomes new and exciting in totally unexpected ways when you have designers creating worlds that shift out of that cultural context and are informed by different ones than the game's creators could have envisioned.


Currently Smoking: Neerup Poker & Brebbia no.7

(Originally Posted August 21, 2015)


  1. Weapon-fetishization is also very american, as is the naively handy divine cosmology with their neatly arranged, neurotic gods.
    I agree that a total disregard for class sticks out the most in "Mondo D&D".

    However, all this is tied so hard into the fundamental aesthetic that removing parts is pretty hard- most gamers view most of those aspects as non-negotiable.

    1. I would agree with 'handy' cosmology being very American (if we didn't invent Supply Side Economics we certainly made it famous, and if that isn't D&D-friendly theology nothing is) but if we have a 'cult of the gun' knights certainly had a 'cult of the sword.'

  2. Is it really surprising, or "problematic" that a game which was:
    • Written by an American
    • Published in America
    • Based on fictional precursors written by Americans, and
    • Primarily sold to Americans

    . . . is "Americanist"? How could it be otherwise? This is like complaining that the Torah is "kinda Jewy."

    1. That wasn't a complaint. The complaint, if anything, is that people (Americans included) call the default D&D setting "european fantasy" when it isn't.

      Dark Albion is "European Fantasy". Greyhawk, Mystara, the Realms, etc. is Disneyland-Europe Fantasy at best.

  3. Interesting note on social class because downplaying social class may be very American but social class is also downplayed or non-existant in most sword and sorcery as well as Lord of the Rings and copies.

    1. In Sword & Sorcery, sure, because S&S has its origins in pulp writing which is very American.
      But LoTR certainly has a lot of elements of class. It's just that most of the people who have speaking parts are upper class. The exception are the hobbits themselves, where Frodo is kind of the middle-class country squire and the other three are lower-class peasants. And you can see recognition of class in how the other hobbits behave toward Frodo, and how they all behave toward everyone else in the story. In Tolkien, class is so significant that anyone who's not aristocratic is either mute or half as tall as everyone else!