D&D = American + European Fantasy
  • D&D = American + European Fantasy


    Dungeons & Dragons draws on a rich mythology from the works of European authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and Michael Moorcock. And yet D&D was also influenced by American authors like Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, H.P. Lovecraft, and R.E. Howard. The end result is that D&D's tone sits somewhere between the two.

    European Folklore

    The bones of D&D have obvious roots in European myths and legends; we see it in the dwarves, elves, hobbits, and orcs of J.R.R. Tolkien and the fairies, giants, and dragons that are scattered throughout the Monster Manual. Colleen Gillard explains how British fantasy flourished by staying in touch with its pagan roots -- and was even influenced by the landscape:

    Landscape matters: Britain’s antique countryside, strewn with moldering castles and cozy farms, lends itself to fairy-tale invention. As Tatar puts it, the British are tuned in to the charm of their pastoral fields...

    But D&D has many influences, not the least of which are co-creators Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, who brought their own American sensibilities to the game. For a fantasy role-playing game that is distinctly European, look no further than Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, now in its Fourth Edition.

    American Influences

    American fantasy, like the Europeans, was influenced by its terrain:

    America’s mighty vistas, by contrast, are less cozy, less human-scaled, and less haunted. The characters that populate its purple mountain majesties and fruited plains are decidedly real...

    But perhaps the strongest difference is a sense of control over one's destiny. This belief, carried over with America's earliest settlers from Europe, reinforced that self-enrichment was a moral right, as outlined by Max Weber:

    ...Weber wrote that capitalism in Northern Europe evolved when the Protestant (particularly Calvinist) ethic influenced large numbers of people to engage in work in the secular world, developing their own enterprises and engaging in trade and the accumulation of wealth for investment. In other words, the Protestant work ethic was an important force behind the unplanned and uncoordinated emergence of modern capitalism.

    No wonder then that Gygax strongly adhered to a leveling system in which heroes can rise to success through the accumulation of wealth at significant risk. This was how heroes like Conan, Fafhrd, and the Gray Mouser did it, and it draws on a long tradition of American folklore:

    Popular storytelling in the New World instead tended to celebrate in words and song the larger-than-life exploits of ordinary men and women: Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Calamity Jane, even a mule named Sal on the Erie Canal. Out of bragging contests in logging and mining camps came even greater exaggerations—Tall Tales—about the giant lumberjack Paul Bunyan, the twister-riding cowboy Pecos Bill, and that steel-driving man John Henry, who, born a slave, died with a hammer in his hand. All of these characters embodied the American promise: They earned their fame.

    Unlike in European fantasy where boys become kings (or in Harry Potter's case, orphans become wizards), characters in D&D aren't usually born heroes; the very nature of leveling systems and experience points ensures they earn it.

    A Motley Mix

    Adding these two influences together creates Dungeons & Dragons, a rich tapestry of fantasy that draws on the works of European authors and then throws in American sensibilities where the heroes are in control of their destiny -- or at least their skills and attributes.

    For all their American influences, D&D heroes are still small in the weave of the world. In early D&D games, they died by the handfuls at the whim of dice, a lesson distinctly at odds with American determinism.

    D&D has come full circle to influence the fantasy that created it. You can see its motley pedigree's fingerprints on sweeping fantasies like Game of Thrones. As the fantasy genre continues to flourish and the world becomes more interconnected, it seems likely that we'll see more works that draw on other cultures...D&D included.

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
    Comments 146 Comments
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      D&D does come across as very American.

      But while REH's Conan is quite American, and modernist, I don't think it's correct to say that Conan earns his power through his riches. In many of the stories (eg Tower of the Elephant, Jewels of Gwaihir) he loses the loot because instead he does the right thing.

      Conan earns his power by imposing his will on the world. This can even be seen in the most European/Arthurian story, The Hour of the Dragon.
    1. CapnZapp -
      In 5th edition WotC decided to make gold worthless for petty design reasons, a decision they're doubling down on with Xanathar's variant "no gold at all" system that will be used by their official tournament rules.

      To me, that is losing sight of an essential American quality of the game.
    1. LuisCarlos17f's Avatar
      LuisCarlos17f -
      D&D is the classic "from zero to hero" and it isn't wrong because we like to see how our favorite characters are growing.

      But I miss more things from the popular European folklore, and I mean not only United Kingdom and Ireland but also Germany, Norse lands, Mediterranean people or European East. There is a great potential source of inspiration to create new creatures, races and stories. The fairytale folklore is a great treasure shouldn't be forgotten.

      * And the true origin of the Capitalism wasn't the Protestant countries but Italy for the Renaissance age (but after the discovery of America the centre of the economy was displaced). Max Weber wrote about this, the true roots of the modern Capitalism were the medieval monasteries.
    1. AriochQ's Avatar
      AriochQ -
      Vance also had a huge impact. A magic system that was inherently limited is different than many of the European stories that came before. Gandalf or Merlyn, for example, rarely seemed limited in the magics they could cast. Another nod to having to 'earn your way' to power and riches inherent in D&D. The original Magic User class is the perfect example of 'start weak, end strong'.
    1. Warpiglet's Avatar
      Warpiglet -
      Cool article...we get so used to the game and hobby we forget the assumptions and views underlying the game! It is fun to see the forest for the trees and the misty source of the stream.

      Time and again I am blown away by the many influences brought together to make an incredible game. And when I say 'game' it totally minimizes the huge impact it has had on entertainment popular culture and my favorite: my life and the lives of my friends!
    1. lyle.spade's Avatar
      lyle.spade -
      I ran a DnD game not long ago which was based on a fantasy analogue of the American Revolution: distant colonies poorly-administered by an out of touch government, which then tries to assert itself, to disastrous results. I framed it as being exactly that going in, too, and it worked pretty well as a story. It's interesting to me, therefore, that this article is now here, making these observations, which I think are thoughtful and valid.
    1. Jer's Avatar
      Jer -
      I think you're missing the impact of the Western on Dungeons and Dragons. I personally think there's a lot of Western influence on the game, and not all of it comes filtered through Robert E Howard's Conan stories (which - IMO at least - are basically Robert E Howard's Western stories but set in a pseudo-historical fantasy world).
    1. Ymdar's Avatar
      Ymdar -
      I kind of miss the mix of setting ideas similar to what pathfinder is offering in Golarion.
    1. EthanSental's Avatar
      EthanSental -
      Golarion is Paizo's version of Forgotten Realms, every troope has a place somewhere. Both are fun settings to read as multiple creative minds add to the lore.
    1. HorusZA's Avatar
      HorusZA -
      I remember reading this on a forum once:
      In American stories, the hero succeeds because he is powerful. (ex. Conan)
      In European stories, the hero succeeds despite being weak. (ex. Frodo)

      I think that D&D clearly falls into the first category. That said I wonder if there is a trend in that design philosophy between European games and American ones?
    1. lyle.spade's Avatar
      lyle.spade -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jer View Post
      I think you're missing the impact of the Western on Dungeons and Dragons. I personally think there's a lot of Western influence on the game, and not all of it comes filtered through Robert E Howard's Conan stories (which - IMO at least - are basically Robert E Howard's Western stories but set in a pseudo-historical fantasy world).
      That's a really good point.
    1. delericho's Avatar
      delericho -
      Quote Originally Posted by EthanSental View Post
      Golarion is Paizo's version of Forgotten Realms, every troope has a place somewhere. Both are fun settings to read as multiple creative minds add to the lore.
      I always got the impression that Golarion was Paizo's answer to Greyhawk. What with Eric Mona being such a huge fan and all...
    1. Zansy's Avatar
      Zansy -
      I'll just be bookmarking this article and keeping it for the next forever or so... It's very important historical context!
    1. Von Ether's Avatar
      Von Ether -
      For me, this is another reason that trying to add realism to game where you fight dragons and live thanks to magical relics should be taken with a grain of salt. Relax and let people have their fun.
    1. GrahamWills's Avatar
      GrahamWills -
      Quote Originally Posted by talien View Post
      D&D has come full circle to influence the fantasy that created it. You can see its motley pedigree's fingerprints on sweeping fantasies like Game of Thrones.
      Ummm. Actually no I can't. Honestly I don't see a lot of the extras D&D throws on top of classic fantasy appear in modern media. Spell memorization is probably the most D&D-ish trope, and I don't see much of that. What else is D&D that isn't classic fantasy? I guess "dwarves with Scottish accents" might have been a D&D-derived meme? Are clerics not allowed used edged weapons in GoT? Do we have character who cannot be injuries, just go from fully-effective to dead? Evidence of strong classes?

      I know it's pleasant to think that your hobby is changing the world, but I'm not convinced.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      D&D does come across as very American.

      But while REH's Conan is quite American, and modernist, I don't think it's correct to say that Conan earns his power through his riches.
      Indeed. Conan seems to have a substantial inability to hang onto much of anything in many stories.


      In many of the stories (eg Tower of the Elephant, Jewels of Gwaihir) he loses the loot because instead he does the right thing.
      He also does a lot of the "wrong" things, too: Drinking and loose women being two examples, along with simply escaping from a nasty situation with his skin intact but little else.

      The same holds for Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. One of the best stories of those two is "The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar". Hint: It's not Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jer View Post
      I think you're missing the impact of the Western on Dungeons and Dragons. I personally think there's a lot of Western influence on the game, and not all of it comes filtered through Robert E Howard's Conan stories (which - IMO at least - are basically Robert E Howard's Western stories but set in a pseudo-historical fantasy world).
      Westerns are hugely influential on both the American fantasy authors as well as superheroes. The pulps published all sorts of things. Zorro, for instance, directly influenced characters like Batman and the Shadow. REH clearly read a lot of them, and I seem to recall wrote some, too.

      There are other notable influences, such as Miguel Cervantes (Don Quixote, Rinconete y Cortadillo) and the Kalevala (both directly because EGG was a fan, and indirectly through both JRR Tolkien and Michael Moorcock).
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by LuisCarlos17f View Post
      D&D is the classic "from zero to hero" and it isn't wrong because we like to see how our favorite characters are growing.
      IMO, while I totally agree that anticipatory utility and a narrative of growth are useful, "zero to hero" can be a tired cliche. I'd definitely like to see alternatives explored.
    1. LuisCarlos17f's Avatar
      LuisCarlos17f -
      Today if somebody makes a new version of Cervantes' "the travails of Persiles and Sigismunda" but in a fantasy world with orcs and undeads and it becomes a blockbuster.

      * The too powerful characters are boring and annoying like the Mary Sue and Gary Stu from fan-fiction. I hate Dragon Ball because they are too powerful, and then Superman was too strong. Now I would rather Superman because he would rather to use the brain and 20 pages have got more story and plot and 20 TV chapters of Son Goku vs Freeser fighting in the planet Namek. My favorite Hercules is the one played by Kevin Sorbo because sometimes he would rather diplomacy skills.

      * D&D is a mash-up mixing a lot of things from different sources, including Lovecratian terror, but I miss more creatures from no-English popular folklore. The rest of Europe has got a lot of rich mythology, with lots of different fairies and giants.
    1. BookBarbarian's Avatar
      BookBarbarian -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jay Verkuilen View Post
      Indeed. Conan seems to have a substantial inability to hang onto much of anything in many stories.




      He also does a lot of the "wrong" things, too: Drinking and loose women being two examples, along with simply escaping from a nasty situation with his skin intact but little else.
      Not only does Conan not achieve power through Wealth, he is completely indifferent to wealth at all. He obtains it, he spends it/loses it, and he moves on.

      To Conan, power comes from what you are made of not what you can hold.
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