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.

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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.
 
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

Shasarak

Banned
Banned
Again, this is a <em>literary</em> or propagandistic representation. Consider how you’ve framed this statement; you have excluded the Huns and Vandals from the category of “Humanity” – this is not reasonable.<br>
<br>
And we <em>remember</em> precisely nothing. We have a paucity of biased ancient accounts by those who saw successive waves of migration as a threat to the classical legacy of Europe – later “Christendom.” Huns, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Alans, Turks, Mongols, whatever. It’s just regular “us” and “them” stuff.<br>
<br>
They were all human. Really. Just like us.
<br>
<br>What is the difference between an Evil Orc raiding party and an Evil Hun raiding party?&nbsp; It does not matter if, in theory, you are all the same race.
 

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Starfox

Adventurer
<br>
<br>What is the difference between an Evil Orc raiding party and an Evil Hun raiding party?  It does not matter if, in theory, you are all the same race.

It DOES matter at the table. If playing vile Huns raiding Europe, or heroic defenders, we're clearly taking a side. All kinds of racist jokes might flourish at the table under cover of being "in character". We might know intellectually that the RL situation was more complex than we make it in the game, but that is easily forgotten in the game.

If we make the Huns hobgoblins, were creating a less toxic environment. Hobgoblin-bashing is less toxic than Hun-bashing. If we make this cowboys and Indians, the danger of toxicity becomes more apparent.

[Off-topic: Its funny how peoples like Huns and Indians are capitalized in English, but species like orcs or hobgoblins are not.]
 

rmcoen

Explorer
It DOES matter at the table. If playing vile Huns raiding Europe, or heroic defenders, we're clearly taking a side. All kinds of racist jokes might flourish at the table under cover of being "in character". We might know intellectually that the RL situation was more complex than we make it in the game, but that is easily forgotten in the game.

If we make the Huns hobgoblins, were creating a less toxic environment. Hobgoblin-bashing is less toxic than Hun-bashing. If we make this cowboys and Indians, the danger of toxicity becomes more apparent.

[Off-topic: Its funny how peoples like Huns and Indians are capitalized in English, but species like orcs or hobgoblins are not.]

First part: I agree, this is a valid observation. It's still "toxic" if the hobgoblins are identical in culture and dress to the Huns, though.

Second part: Huns, Indians, Americans... they are a "nation", nations and nationalities are generally capitalized. Races (caucasian, hispanic, negroid) are not. Religions are... all of over the place - Christians, Jews, but muslims. Ooops, Grammarly is telling me "muslim" *should* be capitalized... but so should Hispanic (and not caucasian or negroid).

(Don't flame me for "negroid" - that is a race like caucasian, while "African-American" is a political or nationality term.)
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
First part: I agree, this is a valid observation. It's still "toxic" if the hobgoblins are identical in culture and dress to the Huns, though.

Second part: Huns, Indians, Americans... they are a "nation", nations and nationalities are generally capitalized. Races (caucasian, hispanic, negroid) are not. Religions are... all of over the place - Christians, Jews, but muslims. Ooops, Grammarly is telling me "muslim" *should* be capitalized... but so should Hispanic (and not caucasian or negroid).

(Don't flame me for "negroid" - that is a race like caucasian, while "African-American" is a political or nationality term.)

These days it has other connotations (as you're clearly aware from your disclaimer), and should be avoided. There are other words you can choose to use. Thanks.
 

Aldarc

Legend
There are areas in Europe that were decidedly like this.
The one thing in D&D which I think is more European inspired than American is the existence of ruins, dungeons and a fallen empire that had better technology or magic than what is available now.
That's certainly a big aspect of D&D that's not remotely American.
Many other tropes and motifs of D&D are likewise rooted in a shared Euro-American cultural memory: e.g., a Classical Age, the fall of Rome, Atlantis, "barbarian" migrations that threaten "civilized society," ruins of a forgotten age, Crusades, Renaissance, etc. Even World War I and II inform Euro-America's cultural memory that influences D&D. So when Sauron appears in Lord of the Rings, it's not as if Americans are clueless about BBEGs of the past century coded in media. Captain America was punching Hitler in the face before before the publication of Lord of the Rings. And is it any coincidence that Mars/Ares was first introduced to Wonder Woman in 1942? I am now also curious about the extent to which American superhero comics influenced D&D, though that topic may be for another day.

But again, no one doubts the veracity that D&D has a lot "inspired by Europe." Knights, princesses, and dragons were certainly not part of the American Western mythos, for example, but that kinda misses the point. The larger point has been that a lot of this "inspired by Europe" in D&D represents the veneer of Medieval European aesthetics from a mostly modern American mindset. It's like American George RR Martin visiting Hadrian's Wall and then envisioning a story featuring the Wall of the North that kept out barbarian wildlings and Others. Even D&D's use of Tolkien's elves, orcs, dwarves, and halflings almost have an Americanized sense to them that make them feel more like aesthetics detached from their derived cultural, literary, and historical context.

Let's take ruins in Europe for example. What do ruins represent in D&D? Sure, ruins in D&D contain semiotic signals of "a lost, forgotten age" or "a fallen empire that had better technology or magic than what is available now," but the presence of ruins in D&D also sends semiotic signals of "dangerous inhabitants, loot, and gold" to player characters, and these signals are more in the forefront. In contrast, what do ruins represent in Medieval and Renaissance Europe? Legacy, historical roots, but also artistic inspiration. It's only later in a more modern age, coincidentally of colonialism and imperialism that Euro-American archaeology (i.e., treasure-seeking and grave-robbing) basically entailed looting exotic, ancient ruins for the glory of the Empire and "science." So sure, I guess that is a European-inspired part of D&D as well.
 

S'mon

Legend
I think it's a bit ironic that D&D 'adventurers' looting the ruins of fallen Civilisation for gold bear more resemblance to the barbarian tribes of the Germanic migrations, than they do to the civilised remnants of the Roman empire being victimised. :D

Of course they can also resemble Spanish Conquistadores looting the temples & palaces of central and south American civilisations for gold. Or Arab Muslim conquerors happily looting away a couple
centuries after the Germanic migrations.
 

Many other tropes and motifs of D&D are likewise rooted in a shared Euro-American cultural memory: e.g., a Classical Age, the fall of Rome, Atlantis, "barbarian" migrations that threaten "civilized society," ruins of a forgotten age...

...What do ruins represent in D&D? Sure, ruins in D&D contain semiotic signals of "a lost, forgotten age" or "a fallen empire that had better technology or magic than what is available now," but the presence of ruins in D&D also sends semiotic signals of "dangerous inhabitants, loot, and gold" to player characters, and these signals are more in the forefront. In contrast, what do ruins represent in Medieval and Renaissance Europe? Legacy, historical roots, but also artistic inspiration.

S'mon said:
I think it's a bit ironic that D&D 'adventurers' looting the ruins of fallen Civilisation for gold bear more resemblance to the barbarian tribes of the Germanic migrations, than they do to the civilised remnants of the Roman empire being victimised.

All of this is true - or at least possible. I suspect that the idea of the "ancient ruin" is deeply embedded in our literary consciousness. The Ruin is an 8th century poem which describes the reaction of an Anglo-Saxon encountering the Roman ruins of the city of Bath:

This masonry is wondrous; fates broke it
courtyard pavements were smashed; the work of giants is decaying.
Roofs are fallen, ruinous towers,
the frosty gate with frost on lime is ravaged,
chipped roofs are torn, fallen,
undermined by old age. The grasp of the earth possesses
the mighty builders, perished and fallen,
the hard grasp of earth, until a hundred generations
of people have departed.
 

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