log in or register to remove this ad

 

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.
 
Last edited:
Michael Tresca

Comments

In a discussion of American horror, I would totally agree. But for fantasy, I don't see him as being so relevant as to overcome the garbage person part. As for the Cthulhu mythos in D&D, the first printing of Deities & Demigods was out for less than a year or so before the revised version came out with that section removed. The mind flayer is based on a picture of Cthulhu, but not so much the actual writings.

No reason except the various Lovecraftian monsters which have appeared in D&D since early days of the game. Heck, they even included Cthulhu himself! The fact that we're evening having this conversation points to Lovecraft's work still having some relevance. You're right, we don't owe Lovecraft a place at the table. But to pretend that he isn't there is just silly.
 

log in or register to remove this ad

He was not exactly an Anti Semite (wife was Jewish)
To be fair, the marriage of Greene, a Jewish woman, to Lovecraft lasted only around two years. Even much that time appears to have been spent in a long distance relationship, while she was the primary breadwinner and traveling trying to earn money for them.

The increasingly virulent racism by Lovecraft, including ugly Antisemitic racist comments, appears to have been a factor in their divorce, during an era when divorce was rare.

That said, Lovecraft was especially a white supremacist, in his flavor of racism. The status of Jews as "whites" appears to have been borderline in his eyes.

The effort to distance WotC away from reallife racism, includes removing Lovecraft.
 
Last edited:

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
In a discussion of American horror, I would totally agree. But for fantasy, I don't see him as being so relevant as to overcome the garbage person part. As for the Cthulhu mythos in D&D, the first printing of Deities & Demigods was out for less than a year or so before the revised version came out with that section removed. The mind flayer is based on a picture of Cthulhu, but not so much the actual writings.
The idea of cosmic horror owes a great deal to the mythos and Lovecraft.

Lovecraft-ian horror has always been a part of D&D. Whether it's mind flayers, aberrations in general, the basement of X2, or the 5e Warlock and the Great Old Ones. The Lovecraftian influence is as old as Tharizdun, and concepts from his stories pop up all over (even when they aren't explicit, like Saltmarsh).
 

Japanese anime includes "weird" tentacle tropes, relating to the Japanese concepts of "demons" (hostile nature spirits).

Making "aberrants" the Neutral Evil fiend between LE devils and CE demons, is a flavorful way to pursue the tropes within D&D and without tolerating Lovecraft.
 
Last edited:

Burnside

Space Jam Confirmed
Japanese anime includes "weird" tentacle tropes, relating to the Japanese concept of "demons".

Making "aberrants" the Neutral Evil fiend between devils and demons, is a flavorful way to pursue the tropes within D&D and without tolerating Lovecraft.
There's a difference between saying that you can and should excise Lovecraft from D&D (very supportable), and saying Lovecraft's work isn't very much present in D&D from its very beginnings up to and including 5E (unsupportable; it obviously and undeniably is there, and pretty pervasively so).
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Japanese anime includes "weird" tentacle tropes, relating to the Japanese concepts of "demons" (hostile nature spirits).

Making "aberrants" the Neutral Evil fiend between devils and demons, is a flavorful way to pursue the tropes within D&D and without tolerating Lovecraft.
Dostoyevsky and Edith Wharton were terrible anti-Semites.
Ernest Hemingway was a terrible misogynist (and that is barely scratching the surface).
And don't get me started on the homophobia.


....for that matter, I am not too sure you really want to depend on Japanese anime as your source for all that is good and pure.

I can certainly understand why someone today would not celebrate Lovecraft the person. But bad and terrible people have created good things. Numerous other people have worked within the field of cosmic horror and done good things, and a lot has been derived from Lovecraft's works. I don't want your (IMO) completely misguided beliefs forced upon the rest of us.
 

There's a difference between saying that you can and should excise Lovecraft from D&D (very supportable), and saying Lovecraft's work isn't very much present in D&D from its very beginnings up to and including 5E (unsupportable; it obviously and undeniably is there, and pretty pervasively so).
Currently, WotC is in the process of even removing accidental racist content from D&D 5e.

The status of earlier editions is as a historical archive.

Fortunately, the founders of D&D seem to be decent people, for their era. But even D&D 1e occasionally includes offensive material, such as a random table.
 

Lovecraft may have been the most popular of those writing cosmic horror and of unknown abominations, but he was not the only one. The pulps are filled with them. Prior to him there was Arthur Machen and William Hope Hodgson. His contemporaries included Derleth and Clark Ashton Smith, just to name a few. Heck, the Far Realm didn't even exist until third edition. Lovecraft's influence is not core to the game in a way that R.E. Howard, Tolkien, Poul Anderson, and Fritz Leiber are.

The idea of cosmic horror owes a great deal to the mythos and Lovecraft.

Lovecraft-ian horror has always been a part of D&D. Whether it's mind flayers, aberrations in general, the basement of X2, or the 5e Warlock and the Great Old Ones. The Lovecraftian influence is as old as Tharizdun, and concepts from his stories pop up all over (even when they aren't explicit, like Saltmarsh).
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Lovecraft may have been the most popular of those writing cosmic horror and of unknown abominations, but he was not the only one. The pulps are filled with them. Prior to him there was Arthur Machen and William Hope Hodgson. His contemporaries included Derleth and Clark Ashton Smith, just to name a few. Heck, the Far Realm didn't even exist until third edition. Lovecraft's influence is not core to the game in a way that R.E. Howard, Tolkien, Poul Anderson, and Fritz Leiber are.
1. Lovecraft, as you know, it Inspiration Reading in Appendix N.
2. Not only was Lovecraft listed, he was one of the six (6!) authors specifically called out as being the most influential by Gygax. Refresher- it was de Camp & Pratt, REH, Leiber, Vance, Merritt, and Lovecraft.
3. He was so influential that he, along with Moorcock & Lieber, was one of the three authors that has a mythos in the original Deities & Demigods.

...so, yeah. I completely, 100% disagree with you. Lovecraft is as core to D&D as REH and Leiber. Lovecraft was an indispensable part of the admixture that is D&D.
 

Burnside

Space Jam Confirmed
Currently, WotC is in the process of even removing accidental racist content from D&D 5e.

The status of earlier editions is as a historical archive.

Fortunately, the founders of D&D seem to be decent people, for their era. But even D&D 1e occasionally includes offensive material, such as a random table.
Lovecraft is going to be a heavier lift to remove though - because the bad parts of Lovecraft aren't actually in the game, whereas there are obvious problems and real-world parallels with having intelligent player races that are written to have inherently evil "natural" tendencies.

You can say, "We need to get rid of the Great Old One warlock patron, not because there is anything conceptually wrong with it, but because it's obviously heavily indebted to Lovecraft, a white supremacist."

I'm not sure where that leads you, though. Tolkien was pretty awful on Jews (see his explanation for how he racially characterized his dwarves - which, not coincidentally, happens to be how they have been traditionally characterized in D&D). So should we remove Tolkien-isms from D&D because he was Anti-Semitic? Not a lot left of D&D after than, tbh.

(Disclosure: I'm Jewish).
 

Lovecraft is going to be a heavier lift to remove though - because the bad parts of Lovecraft aren't actually in the game, whereas there are obvious problems and real-world parallels with having intelligent player races that are written to have inherently evil "natural" tendencies.

You can say, "We need to get rid of the Great Old One warlock patron, not because there is anything conceptually wrong with it, but because it's obviously heavily indebted to Lovecraft, a white supremacist."

I'm not sure where that leads you, though. Tolkien was pretty awful on Jews (see his explanation for how he racially characterized his dwarves). So should we remove Tolkien-isms from D&D because he was Anti-Semitic? Not a lot left of D&D after than, tbh.

(Disclosure: I'm Jewish).
There is no such thing as "perfect".

There is such thing as degrees of objectionable.
 


Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Lovecraft is going to be a heavier lift to remove though - because the bad parts of Lovecraft aren't actually in the game, whereas there are obvious problems and real-world parallels with having intelligent player races that are written to have inherently evil "natural" tendencies.

You can say, "We need to get rid of the Great Old One warlock patron, not because there is anything conceptually wrong with it, but because it's obviously heavily indebted to Lovecraft, a white supremacist."

I'm not sure where that leads you, though.
Look at the bright side! It could be worse. We could be trying to scrub Call of Cthulhu and replace everything within it with, um, anime references?

(Aside- it's bizarre to me that the go-to "clean" reference is anime, because .... man, anime looks at a lot of Hollywood racism and misogyny and says, "Hold my beer.")
 

At a time when keeping a dream journal, I remember once having a vivid nightmare. In this nightmare, it was moreorless simply a tentacled sea anemone, underwater. There was water current dragging things toward it in the water. That was it, just a sea anemone. But the dream was terrifying.

Archetypally, dreams visualize different aspects of a cognitive social identity. Plants are an aspect of humans relating to life and growth and lush vitality. A snake is something like the "reptile brain". A mammal can be gut instincts. Humans are a social level.

This primordial nonhuman − even antihuman − level of the tentacles of the anemone, seem to correlate with insanity − a dissolving and selfdistructive level of human identity.

D&D can work with these kinds of antihuman tropes. Because each one of us owns these kinds of tropes.
 

Undrave

Hero
That said, Lovecraft was especially a white supremacist, in his flavor of racism. The status of Jews as "whites" appears to have been borderline in his eyes.
Even more precisely, he was an ENGLISH supremacist... there was some... questionably back-handed compliment to the French speaking people of Quebec City in his guide book to the city (From Quebec to the Stars)... Like, basically, "They're almost as civilized as English men!"
 

Lovecraft is in Appendix N. But so is Fletcher Pratt's The Blue Star. Which, as far as I can tell, only models a D&D session wherein everyone is bored and falling asleep (ye gods do I hate that novel; and yet I love the Harold Shea tales). If you look at the accounts of the game from the early days, I do not see Lovecraft's stories reflected therein. If there's some recounting I'm unaware of, that's certainly possible, but those dungeon crawls don't seem to have much in common with Lovecraft's brand of horror and his madness-haunted protagonists.

1. Lovecraft, as you know, it Inspiration Reading in Appendix N.
2. Not only was Lovecraft listed, he was one of the six (6!) authors specifically called out as being the most influential by Gygax. Refresher- it was de Camp & Pratt, REH, Leiber, Vance, Merritt, and Lovecraft.
3. He was so influential that he, along with Moorcock & Lieber, was one of the three authors that has a mythos in the original Deities & Demigods.

...so, yeah. I completely, 100% disagree with you. Lovecraft is as core to D&D as REH and Leiber. Lovecraft was an indispensable part of the admixture that is D&D.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Even more precisely, he was an ENGLISH supremacist... there was some... questionably back-handed compliment to the French speaking people of Quebec City in his guide book to the city (From Quebec to the Stars)... Like, basically, "They're almost as civilized as English men!"
Yep. He was a serious Anglophile and Everythingelse-phobe.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Lovecraft is in Appendix N. But so is Fletcher Pratt's The Blue Star.
You know that I also wrote that Lovecraft is one of only six authors to be additionally, and specifically, cited as the immediate influences, right?

And Deities & Demigods.

And a ton of monsters. And so much of the early modules.
 
Last edited:


You know that I also wrote that Lovecraft is one of only six authors to be additionally, and specifically, cited as the immediate influences, right?

And Deities & Demigods.

And a ton of monsters. And so much of the early modules.
I would be happy if Deities & Demigods stayed a separate splatbook, that players could opt into or opt out of.

I find 5e problematic when the core rules bake gods into the cosmology and classes.
 

COMING SOON: 5 Plug-In Settlements for your 5E Game

Advertisement1

Latest threads

COMING SOON: 5 Plug-In Settlements for your 5E Game

Advertisement2

Advertisement4

Top