Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A History of Pulp Role Playing Games Part 1: The Dawn of Roleplaying Games

Those who wonder how old the connection between "The Pulps" and Roleplaying Games is need look no further than the introduction to the original (three book) Dungeons and Dragons boxed set. In this introduction, Gary Gygax describes who might be interested in playing his new creation:

These rules are strictly fantasy. Those wargamers who lack imagination, those who don't care for Burroughs' Martian adventures where John Carter is groping
through black pits, who feel no thrill upon reading Howard's Conan saga, who do
not enjoy the de Camp & Pratt fantasies or Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray
Mouser pitting their swords against evil sorceries will not be likely to find
DUNGEONS and DRAGONS to their taste.

The introduction is filled with names near and dear to the pulp aficionado. Edgar Rice Burrough's character John Carter first appeared in the February through July issues of The All-Story in 1912. TSR also designed an early miniatures wargame on the adventures of John Carter, it was called Warriors of Mars.

Robert E. Howard's famous barbarian Conan debuted at the height of his power in Weird Tales December 1932 issue in "The Phoenix on the Sword," a rewrite of a rejected Kull story titled "By This Axe I Rule." In the tale, Conan is already a mature man and king of Aquilonia and deals swift justice to a band of would be assassins. If you look carefully at the cover of the issue, you will notice that the advertised story, "Buccaneers of Venus," is a John Carter pastiche by Otis Adelbert Kline. Kline eventually became Howard's literary agent. As a gamer, I can't help but speculate that the amphibious antagonist on the cover is an inspiration behind the Kuo-Toa in the D&D game (H.P. Lovecraft's Deep Ones are another obvious influence.)

L. Sprague deCamp and Fletcher Pratt's everyman hero psychologist/enchanter Harold Shea wandered into his first fantastic landscape in the May 1940 issue of Unknown.

To be fair, most fantasy of the pre-Tolkien era was published in the pulps and as influential as these early fantasy tales were to the Dungeons and Dragons game (and are to the current D&D Eberron setting), they are not what most people mean when they are referring to "Pulp Roleplaying Games." Which is a shame since the pulps were filled with dynamic, original, and action packed tales that many modern Game Masters should look to for inspiration. Not every adventure need be a macguffin quest inspired by Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

The lack of familiarity with, and I mean familiarity with and not awareness of, the underlying pulp inspirations that influenced the creation of role playing games is one of the largest failings of some of today's game designers. When I read Jesse Decker and David Noonan's discussion regarding why modern Dungeons and Dragons avoids explicit attempts at humor in its rulebooks, I near wept.

At no time was there a discussion about why the early rulebooks had humor in them, as opposed to the central reason they gave why there isn't humor any longer. They write, "In short, we worry that it isn't necessarily part of the shared D&D experience, and we don't want to mess up the flow of the game at the table." And in writing that one sentence, they ignore one of the major literary influences on the development of the Dungeons and Dragons game, the stories of Harold Shea by deCamp and Pratt. How can stories, and the tone they inspired, be not "necessarily part of the shared D&D experience?" Without these stories, you might not even have the game itself, particularly considering the deCamp/Pratt stories.

I am not saying this because I believe Gary Gygax to have been intimately familiar with Fletcher Pratt's Naval War Game, though he may have been. I am saying this because of two things. First, the underlying conceit of the Harold Shea stories themselves was probably inspirational to the creation of the "proto role playing game." Second, the humor that continually reared its head in early D&D books was the same kind of humor one found in the deCamp/Pratt stories.

To fully understand the above statement, you must understand the central conceit of the Harold Shea stories. Essentially, the central conceit is that Harold Shea (and his mentor) are able to travel to other dimensions -- many of which contain magic -- if they can alter their perceptions through the analysis of particular equations and logical proofs. When Harold Shea studies his first proof, which sends him to Ragnarök, a gamer can easily see the parallel between Shea looking at the pages upon pages of logic problems and their own experience looking at pages upon pages of rules. When roleplayers study the rules of a game, it is so they can fluidly experience the milieu the game is offering. This is exactly what Shea does in the stories. It should be noted that J. Eric Holmes, the editor of the first Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set, wrote in his book Fantasy Roleplaying Games (Hippocrene Books, 1981 pp. 209-210):

"Years before Dungeons and Dragons was invented, L. Sprague de Camp wrote a story called "Solomon's Stone," published in 1942 in the magazine Unknown Worlds...The story was a fantasy in which the hero exchanges personalities with his alter-ego in the astral world. Here he discovers that the astral self of each living person on earth is the self he imagines or fantasies himself to be in his most private dreams...I am always reminded of "Solomon's Stone," though, when I see the bizarre and wonderful characters created by my friends for the game."

Holmes, who was an adapter and not a creator of the rules, saw the connection between one of de Camp's stories and the underlying concept of role playing games. It isn't hard to imagine Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson being inspired by a character who even more explicitly used a "rules set" to experience fantasy adventure.

Decker and Noonan are fine designers, and they have developed some of my favorite products, but they seem to have lost the connection between the pulps and the game they are working on. Dungeons and Dragons is the scion of pulp literature and we do the game a disservice when we don't acknowledge this fact. And we do the players of the game a disservice when we don't point them in the direction of the things that inspired their hobby. Early editions of the game included bibliographies of inspirational materials, many other roleplaying games still do, but the three core books of the Dungeons and Dragons game lack such references (the Eberron sourcebook does contain some). Decker and Noonan may be aware that roleplaying was influenced by pulps, but they aren't familiar with what those pulps had to offer and it shows in their reticence to include humor in the D&D experience.

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