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Where's the American Fantasy RPG?

L. Frank Baum's Oz series established American Fantasy as a genre, and yet it hasn't had much influence on popular tabletop role-playing games despite several American fantasy authors providing the inspiration for co-creator Gary Gygax's Dungeons & Dragons. Why not?


American Fantasy Defined

As described in The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature, the tenets of American Fantasy include a contrast between real world struggles and a fantasy land (Kansas vs. Oz), the Garden of the World set in the midst of the Great American Desert (Oz), and pastoral qualities that encompass the heartland like corn fields, crows, wildcats, and field mice. Baum's Oz is different in character but similar in texture to American agrarianism.

There is technology too, always at the cusp of becoming ubiquitous, with objects taking on a life of their own. Baum was uneasy about the impact of technology on society: concerned about the impact of "flying machines", worried about what would happen to premature children in "incubators", and wary of slick-talking characters using gimmicks and puppetry (the titular Wizard of Oz). Judging by the abuse Baum heaps on an animated phonograph, he wasn't a fan of recorded music either.

As Brian Attebery puts it in The Fantasy Tradition:

"Oz is America made more fertile, more equitable, more companionable, and, because it is magic, more wonderful. What Dorothy finds beyond the Deadly Desert is another America with its potential fulfilled: its beasts speaking, its deserts blooming, and its people living in harmony."

Gygax and Dave Arneson were following a European tradition, itself descended from historical battles of interest in Chainmail, infused with their own American influences, such that little of Oz appears in D&D. At least not overtly.

Ozian Elements in Plain Sight

Jack Vance's influence on D&D is significant. From the "Vancian" spellcasting system to the Eye and Hand of Vecna, Vance's work permeates the game. Vance was a big fan of Baum's work and cited him as a major influence. One character recreates the Land of Oz in The Madman Theory (written by Vance under the pen name Ellery Queen), but Baum's influence goes beyond that work and appears in the Dying Earth series, as explained in Extant #13:

"...I speculated that the Phanfasms inspired the village of Somlod, as seen through the lost lenses of the demon Underheard (Cugel the Clever), and that Sirenese society, in The Moon Moth, was inspired by the Whimsies. Among the scarce commentators on Vance there seems little interest in the Baum influence, while influences which are minor or even nonexistent are often emphasized, such as Clark Ashton Smith."

Cugel, whose adventures take place in The Dying Earth setting, has more in common with the Wizard of Oz than Dorothy of course, and his adventures would go on to form the thief archetype in D&D, as per Gygax:

Of the other portions of the A/D&D game stemming from the writing of Jack Vance, the next most important one is the thief-class character. Using a blend of “Cugel the Clever” and Roger Zelazny’s “Shadowjack” for a benchmark, this archetype character class became what it was in original AD&D.

The Dying Earth wasn't a fantasy world, but a post-apocalyptic one set long after technology had fallen into decay. And that's a hint of where we can find Oz's influence.

Talking Animals, Weird Technology, and Untold Wonders

D&D has strayed from its cross-dimensional sci-fi roots, but one game has never wavered from its focus on a post-apocalyptic world filled with strange beasts, ancient technology, and hidden secrets: Gamma World.

The parallels between Gamma World and Oz (where animals can talk, characters can play robots, and humans are relics of another world), as filtered through Vance, finally gives Baum his due. If Baum was so influential on Vance, why hasn't there been more discussion of the parallels? The editor of Extant #13 explains:

"Given Vance’s own repeated and enthusiastic declarations regarding Baum, as well as the obvious parallels between Vance’s favorite Oz book (The Emerald City of Oz) and several of his own stories, I cannot rid myself of the suspicion that this lack of interest suggests an enthusiasm about certain subject matters and styles rather than an interest in Vance as such. I also suspect the Baum influence lacks appeal because he seems old fashioned, quaint and childish. The fashionable taint of the weird is absent."

This may be why Gamma World has struggled to find its audience like D&D has. Where D&D's tropes are so embedded in pop culture to be ubiquitous these days, Gamma World—like Oz—has alternately been treated as ludicrous, deadly serious, or just plain wacky ... the same criticisms leveled at Baum.

It seems we already have our American Fantasy RPG, it’s just a little “weirder” than we expected.
 
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Michael Tresca

Comments

Tyler Do'Urden

Soap Maker
Interesting how Baum is rarely read any more, despite his influence on American pop culture via The Wizard of Oz. My spouse - not an American - was recently asking me about that movie, and I told her it was one we all watched as a child and in many ways it is the American equivalent to "Journey to the West" - Americans will recognize Dorothy, The Cowardly Lion, The Scarecrow and The Tin Man as readily as Chinese will recognize Tripitaka, The Monkey King, Pigsy and Sandy.

From a roleplayer's perspective, however, the dominance of Tolkien and "European" style fantasy probably comes from the strength and believability of it's worldbuilding. While worldbuilding is undoubtably present in Baum and other early American fantasists (such as my favorite "forgotten" American fantasist, James Branch Cabell), it is weaker, and tends to be much more whimsical and inconsistent - and I find that too much whimsy and inconsistency can be detrimental to suspension of disbelief. Narnia, after all, doesn't get nearly the respect that Middle Earth does in our quarters.

Interesting question, overall, and there's plenty of contradiction here.
 

GlassJaw

Hero
From a roleplayer's perspective, however, the dominance of Tolkien and "European" style fantasy probably comes from the strength and believability of it's worldbuilding. While worldbuilding is undoubtably present in Baum and other early American fantasists (such as my favorite "forgotten" American fantasist, James Branch Cabell), it is weaker, and tends to be much more whimsical and inconsistent - and I find that too much whimsy and inconsistency can be detrimental to suspension of disbelief. Narnia, after all, doesn't get nearly the respect that Middle Earth does in our quarters.
Totally agree, although I found Vance much more difficult to read than CS Lewis/Narnia.

Narnia is more "traditional" as far as fairy tales go. Dying Earth is bonkers. It's kitchen sink world-building and Vance's writing is very flowery. Dying Earth has more of a Spelljammer/Planescape vibe than the implied setting of D&D.
 

Von Ether

Adventurer
My theory is that Oz also suffers from "local garage band"-itus. LoTR has all that cool European stuff like castles and dragons. YMMV.

Funny enough, the European answer to Ren Faire is putting up Wild West towns. I heard of one where the buildings' walls were bales of hay.

The final celebration for the weekend is a controlled burning down of the town.
 

Undrave

Hero
Interesting how Baum is rarely read any more, despite his influence on American pop culture via The Wizard of Oz. My spouse - not an American - was recently asking me about that movie, and I told her it was one we all watched as a child and in many ways it is the American equivalent to "Journey to the West" - Americans will recognize Dorothy, The Cowardly Lion, The Scarecrow and The Tin Man as readily as Chinese will recognize Tripitaka, The Monkey King, Pigsy and Sandy.
That's a damn good point!

From a roleplayer's perspective, however, the dominance of Tolkien and "European" style fantasy probably comes from the strength and believability of it's worldbuilding. While worldbuilding is undoubtably present in Baum and other early American fantasists (such as my favorite "forgotten" American fantasist, James Branch Cabell), it is weaker, and tends to be much more whimsical and inconsistent - and I find that too much whimsy and inconsistency can be detrimental to suspension of disbelief. Narnia, after all, doesn't get nearly the respect that Middle Earth does in our quarters.
Or the world of Harry Potter...

My theory is that Oz also suffers from "local garage band"-itus. LoTR has all that cool European stuff like castles and dragons. YMMV.

Funny enough, the European answer to Ren Faire is putting up Wild West towns. I heard of one where the buildings' walls were bales of hay.
Which reminds me that I think it's a shame there's not much interesting fiction based on the early day of Canadian colonization :/
 

Marandahir

Crown-Forester
Interesting how Baum is rarely read any more, despite his influence on American pop culture via The Wizard of Oz. My spouse - not an American - was recently asking me about that movie, and I told her it was one we all watched as a child and in many ways it is the American equivalent to "Journey to the West" - Americans will recognize Dorothy, The Cowardly Lion, The Scarecrow and The Tin Man as readily as Chinese will recognize Tripitaka, The Monkey King, Pigsy and Sandy.

From a roleplayer's perspective, however, the dominance of Tolkien and "European" style fantasy probably comes from the strength and believability of it's worldbuilding. While worldbuilding is undoubtably present in Baum and other early American fantasists (such as my favorite "forgotten" American fantasist, James Branch Cabell), it is weaker, and tends to be much more whimsical and inconsistent - and I find that too much whimsy and inconsistency can be detrimental to suspension of disbelief. Narnia, after all, doesn't get nearly the respect that Middle Earth does in our quarters.

Interesting question, overall, and there's plenty of contradiction here.
I love the Oz books, but they're also a product of their time - there's more than a little racism and other antiquated ideas in these books.

I love your connection between the party in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz with the party in The Journey to the West. I had never considered that connection, and I somewhat doubt Baum had knowledge of the Chinese epic, but the flow of gathering party members who are at first sources of conflict is undeniable. One of the big debates in fairy tale, folklore, mythology, and religious studies is whether mirroring stories from opposite sides of the world draw from a deep archetypal element of human psychology that is universal to our species and bubble up to the surface as independent subcreations, or whether these stories can theoretically be traced back to a common origin with the first humans emerging out of Africa (or any other specific point in human history, that then spread by cultural diffusion).

An example of the latter theory would be of the Chaoskampf myth (Sumerian/Akkadian Marduk vs Tiamat, Greek Zeus vs Typhaon & Echidna, Thor vs Jörmungandr, Mittani-Aryan Verethragna vs Azhi Dahāka, RigVedic Indra vs Vitra, etc) entering India with the Indo-Aryans, syncretising with local Dravidian, Austro-Asiatic, and Tibeto-Burman traditions to become a core tale within Hinduism, then through Buddhist diffusion made its way all the way to Japan and became a part of the Izumo Cycle of the oldest Japanese mythological text, the Kojiki, with Susanooh triumphing over the Yamata-no-Orochi dragon and establishing Izumo's early prominence in Japanese mythology. This theory is pushed by those who argue that Shinto traditions do not exist independently of Buddhism due to lack of records earlier than its arrival (Buddhism arrived around 538 CE; the earliest surviving Japanese text, the Kojiki, dates to 620 CE).

The former theory would say that Susanooh's triumph over the Orochi dragon was an independent local Japanese Shinto creation that persisted in the cultural consciousness beyond the arrival of Buddhism, and that any similarities are due to similar archetypal themes shared by and told in stories from some or all of humanity.

What does this mean to the modern day? I'd argue everyone should go out there and read Neil Gaiman's American Gods.

We're still myth making, we're still recording history and transforming historical figures into fantastical and superheroic ones. We build monuments and temples to presidents and war leaders and kings and conquerors, and in the process drive a sense of worship toward them. I'm not immune to this; a few years ago I personally made a something akin to a prayer to the statue of Abraham Lincoln in what I can only refer to a a temple complex in the US capital of Washington D.C. for guidance, wisdom, strength, and perseverance in these troubled times. I regret doing so; I believe he was a great man, but I fear we can get taken up by the mightiness of these monuments and begin to deify them. There's certainly a debate in the US right now over whether certain monuments, if not all monuments, should be torn down.

At the same time, we have New Gods, as Jack Kirby put it, in the form of superheroes, fantasy heroes, and mythic recreations of past pantheons pulled into the modern era. James Bond, Star Wars, the MCU, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter, among other major pulp franchises, have transformed the world of fantasy fiction and roleplaying games.

I'd argue that while Baum is a very important stage of American fantasy literature, we should not ignore the new developments of American Superhero fiction and American YA Fiction in their influences upon the modern fantasy stage. Video Games, too, have made a major influence here, and while Japan remains a huge source of RPG tropes, Zelda, Dragon Quest, and Final Fantasy, built upon the American Dungeons & Dragons and two American video game attempts at translating it to the computer - Wizardry and Ultima. And now we have Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls and it's expansive mythology, and Dark Souls, and Warcraft (itself influenced by Warhammer Fantasy), and the wheel keeps clocking.

American culture is rooted in Fantasy. Gygax and Arneson's D&D is as much a story based on Western film tropes as it is on medieval fantasy. Most D&D fantasy continental maps are either populated coastal region giving way to fuzzy-detailed wilderness to the interior, or a map of a single mass continent. While the former draws on Middle-earth (east coast) and Narnia (west coast), American-influenced fantasy often tells stories beginning from East or West coast and works its way toward the interior of the North American continent. And the single massive continent is like cutting out the USA from North America and making it its own continent (not that hard to imagine for many Midwesterners who live south of the Great Lakes, a series of inland seas that almost feel like a north coast to the country, nor for many Gulf Coast Americans who live north of a sea of their own). Similarly, the Great Lakes of the USA and Canada border are just as much an inspiration for fantasy inland seas like the Realms' Sea of Stars and Moonsea as the series of Mediterranean, Black, Persian, Aral, and Red Seas are.

I'd argue that while Tolkien's works still stand as foundation stones for which all Fantasy much build upon (whether by incorporating his tropes or purposely subverting or averting them), he doesn't stand alone.
 

1) That picture up top is crazy nightmare fuel.

2) American mythology doesn't need to follow Oz, any more than British fantasy has to follow Narnia.

3) There are almost certainly dozens, maybe hundreds of ENWorld posters with just as copious notes as Tolkein had on Middle Earth, but are lacking 1) a background in linguistics and ancient literature, 2) Christopher Tolkien digging all of this stuff up and publishing it and 3) professional publicists. (Sorry, but anyone who randomly lobs Tom Bombadil into his saga and then seems to forget about him shouldn't be held up as the final word in worldbuilding.)

4) If I were making an Americana fantasy setting or game, I'd start with Atlas Games' Northern Crown, which was a fantasy world version of Colonial America and probably advance it forward a few decades. There's lots of folkloric and tall tale critters to mine in American history, some obvious mythic narratives to create campaigns around, some counter narratives reflecting more contemporary views of things like Manifest Destiny and the like, and, of course, plenty of interesting history like the real-life golden age of pirate (Blackbeard = killed off the coast of North Carolina), the Salem Witch Trials, various wars both forgotten and remembered, and so on.

There's so much good material, IMO, that once someone comes along with a serious head of steam and professional level of quality, it's going to seem like an inevitable success in retrospect.
 

Minigiant

Legend
Doesn't "American Fantasy" sorta dominate the Urban Fantasy market?

You say American Fantasy and I automatically think of "shooting a necromancer" or "driving to a vampire lair"

So that's where I'd see the American RPG with more urban flair or small town drama. But I could see more talking animals.
 


ninjayeti

Adventurer
Dungeons and Dragons IS an American Fantasy RPG.

Don't believe me? Read a few of the names from Appendix N: Howard Carter, Fritz Lieber, Edgar Rice Burrughs, H.P. Lovecraft, Roger Zelazny, Andre Norton, L. Sprague De Camp, Poul Anderson, and many others. The list is chock full of American Fantasy writers, and Gygax said that many of them were more influential on the game than Tolkien was. (Baum is not on the Appendix N list at all.)

While I have not read the linked book it seems to me that the author defines "American Fantasy" to pretty much just mean Baum. Defining "American Fantasy" to exclude some of these greats is like defining "British Rock" to mean Coldplay but not the Beatles or Rolling Stones then asking why British Rock had no influence on American music.
 
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theworstdm

Villager
The Strange is the best example that I can think of for a game that gives players that contrast between a fantasy world and a reality world like The Wizard of Oz does. There's also games like Colonial Gothic that ramp up the idea that there used to be much more supernatural elements to America in our past.
 

innerdude

Adventurer
While mildly interesting on an academic level, my gut reaction to the question, "Why isn't there more uniquely 'American' fantasy?" is "Who cares?"

Furthermore, I largely reject the notion that "Oz" is somehow a paragon of "American" fantasy.

The United States has always been the breeding ground for traditions brought from elsewhere. Too, why wouldn't the myriad forms of Native American spiritualism spread across the continent count as "American" fantasy? While I can't speak to specifics, it's my impression that such traditions look nothing like "Oz", but are certainly tied to the roots of the U.S. at least geographically.

And what about Southern Gothic horror? It's a mystical genre with a rich tradition of its own.

And don't get me wrong, I'm not hating on Oz. A good friend of mine has the Battle for Oz Savage Worlds setting, and it's a lot of fun. I just don't understand the notion that Oz specifically needs to be upheld as a specific American fantasy "tradition."

If it's a setting worth being played, people will play it.
 



For my part, I think if I had to define American Fantasy, it all goes back to the frontier and the wild west. It's about individuality and freedom and a strange land where people of all different cultures come together. Whether that's John Carter and Barsoom, Conan and Hyboria, Dorothy and Oz, that is American Fantasy.

I would point out the TV series, Once Upon A Time, as a recent example of American Fantasy. It's a melting pot of tropes, genres, and characters. Heck, it even featured the Wicked Witch and Oz.

Frank Baum's influence is still around, perhaps more by osmosis than direct influence, but it's still here. Just looking at it as a portal fantasy, it's this long lineage that goes way back, arguably to the stories of people being abducted into the lands of the Fae, to Alice in Wonderland, to Oz, to A Princess of Mars, to Harold Shea, to Narnia, to The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, to Every Heart a Doorway.

I was really looking forward to a good definition of American Fantasy. But I don't see it here. Unless it is being defined as the the land of Oz...? Certainly Baum is not the only defining source for such a definition?
In a discussion of American Fantasy, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the Americana RPG. Tolkien meets Stand By Me, it addresses those same anxieties about youth and authority that have been around for ages, whether we're talking Rebel Without a Cause, just about any John Hughes movie, Huckleberry Finn, and countless others.
 

While mildly interesting on an academic level, my gut reaction to the question, "Why isn't there more uniquely 'American' fantasy?" is "Who cares?"

Furthermore, I largely reject the notion that "Oz" is somehow a paragon of "American" fantasy.

The United States has always been the breeding ground for traditions brought from elsewhere. Too, why wouldn't the myriad forms of Native American spiritualism spread across the continent count as "American" fantasy? While I can't speak to specifics, it's my impression that such traditions look nothing like "Oz", but are certainly tied to the roots of the U.S. at least geographically.

And what about Southern Gothic horror? It's a mystical genre with a rich tradition of its own.

And don't get me wrong, I'm not hating on Oz. A good friend of mine has the Battle for Oz Savage Worlds setting, and it's a lot of fun. I just don't understand the notion that Oz specifically needs to be upheld as a specific American fantasy "tradition."

If it's a setting worth being played, people will play it.
I'd agree with pretty much all of this.

I do think Michael correctly identifies Gamma World as a peculiarly American take on fantasy (it's somewhat coded as SF, but it's solidly fantasy) which has been successful, and which links to a lot of Oz-ish ideas, but I agree with you that American fantasy isn't really defined by Oz any more than British fantasy is defined by Narnia (which is surely is not).

Some other peculiarly American fantasy/horror RPGs stick out to me:

1) World of Darkness - This could never have been written in Europe or anywhere else. The ideas, the concerns, the focus, the initial settings and so on, it's deeply American. Sure, there is a lot of Old World influence, and a lot of references to stuff outside North America, but Vampire, Werewolf, Mage? No way anything like these (particularly Werewolf) could have emerged elsewhere. Obviously you could have a vampire-centric RPG from Europe, but the concerns, focus, style would be different.

2) Shadowrun - It's very popular in Europe, and again has a worldwide setting, but this is also uniquely American. This is part of why it so badly lost its way when it got sold to the Germans. I know it is very popular there, but there's something different about how they perceive the whole setting and a lot of what was done was deeply misguided.

3) RIFTS - Again with the worldwide setting, but I think this is an RPG which has more than a little of an Oz-ian feel, and again, it's a setting which could really only out of the US.

Coldplay is influential, whether we're comfortable with that fact or not.
Who have they influenced? Genuine question though I am asking in part so I can avoid them.
 


DMMike

Guide of Modos
There is technology too, always at the cusp of becoming ubiquitous, with objects taking on a life of their own. Baum was uneasy about the impact of technology on society: concerned about the impact of "flying machines", worried about what would happen to premature children in "incubators", and wary of slick-talking characters using gimmicks and puppetry (the titular Wizard of Oz). Judging by the abuse Baum heaps on an animated phonograph, he wasn't a fan of recorded music either.
America has its own magic items, too. I heard something about ruby/crystal spectacles placed on North America by Jesus himself.

Gotta say, though: Baum's concerns weren't very far off the mark.

Doesn't "American Fantasy" sorta dominate the Urban Fantasy market?
I'm thinking Steampunk and Cthulhu are American Fantasy.
 

Ace

Adventurer
For my part, I think if I had to define American Fantasy, it all goes back to the frontier and the wild west. It's about individuality and freedom and a strange land where people of all different cultures come together. Whether that's John Carter and Barsoom, Conan and Hyboria, Dorothy and Oz, that is American Fantasy.
SNIP


In a discussion of American Fantasy, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the Americana RPG. Tolkien meets Stand By Me, it addresses those same anxieties about youth and authority that have been around for ages, whether we're talking Rebel Without a Cause, just about any John Hughes movie, Huckleberry Finn, and countless others.
I don't disagree though this was by the 1990's.

If you are talking about Now I'd argue that most of what you have mentioned is basically no longer part of the American canon. I haven't seen the Wizard of Oz on TV in years and odds are a lot of even adult gamers have never seen nor will they care about or understand a good chunk of the stories you mentioned. They have been too busy with One Punch Man or the like to have paid much attention to these.

This suggests to me that we will go back to a more regional culture or cultures and a huge range of influences from all ovber with each political and ethnic subdivision finding its own kind of stories that matter to them.

There could be an distinctly old American fantasy tradition modernized (like Red Dead Redemption say) along side a lot of influences from Anime and Manga and non European immigrants each forming different styles. This is going to make huge shifts in the broader culture and how these fuse is going to be interesting.
 

Minigiant

Legend
Some other peculiarly American fantasy/horror RPGs stick out to me:

1) World of Darkness - This could never have been written in Europe or anywhere else. The ideas, the concerns, the focus, the initial settings and so on, it's deeply American. Sure, there is a lot of Old World influence, and a lot of references to stuff outside North America, but Vampire, Werewolf, Mage? No way anything like these (particularly Werewolf) could have emerged elsewhere. Obviously you could have a vampire-centric RPG from Europe, but the concerns, focus, style would be different.

2) Shadowrun - It's very popular in Europe, and again has a worldwide setting, but this is also uniquely American. This is part of why it so badly lost its way when it got sold to the Germans. I know it is very popular there, but there's something different about how they perceive the whole setting and a lot of what was done was deeply misguided.

3) RIFTS - Again with the worldwide setting, but I think this is an RPG which has more than a little of an Oz-ian feel, and again, it's a setting which could really only out of the US.
These were the games that first came to mind. American RPGs tend to be multiculural in internal design much like how the nation came to be. It tilts to warring faction with a metaplot above it and subplots below it all with idea puled from all over.

This tend to move American Fantasy to American Gothic, Horror, Punk, or Urban fantasy.

You could make a Oz-like RPG but to make it feel really American, you'd have to add urban and/or suburban theme and drama as the Americas was very different from Europe in the Classical through Renaissance Era and the nation itself missed them.
 

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