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

Regarding "American Fantasy".

I am going to say that Star Wars, is the quintessential American fantasy.

• modern
• technology-loving
• multicultural
• New World (outer space)
• good-guys-versus-bad-guys
• deeply religious but by means of individualistic freedom of religion
• rebellion against authority
• heroic women (Leah)
• cowboyish rogue (Han) and valiant whitehat (Luke)

People generally acknowledge Star Wars is as much fantasy as it is scifi. But I suspect, this fantasy-scifi fusion is American Fantasy.

Perhaps Wizard of Oz feels less central to US fantasy because it feels to some degree anti-technological luddite.
 

log in or register to remove this ad

Burnside

Space Jam Confirmed
Regarding "American Fantasy".

I am going to say that Star Wars, is the quintessential American fantasy.

• modern
• technology-loving
• multicultural
• good-guys-versus-bad-guys
• deeply religious but by means of individualistic freedom of religion
• rebellion against authority
• heroic women

People generally acknowledge Star Wars is as much fantasy as it is scifi. But I suspect, this fantasy-scifi fusion is American Fantasy.

Perhaps Wizard of Oz feels less central to US fantasy because it feels to some degree anti-technological luddite.
I agree with this. Star Wars and superheroes.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
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.
But "problematic" covers so much ground. Just think about Lovecraft.

Should we stop excise Arkham Asylum from Batman?
Should we stop watching Evil Dead (and its progeny) because of the Necronomicon?
Am I not allowed to watch the excellent Lovecraft Country on HBO? (That would be particularly weird).

To me, all of this is as silly as saying we need to try and remove all of the Mythos (the cosmic horror) from D&D, or saying that we can't allow people to read The Old Man and the Sea because Hemingway was misogynistic jerk, or Notes from Underground because Dostoyevsky was an anti-Semite.

But that would be bizarre. Because without Notes, we wouldn't have Invisible Man, and then we would have a much poorer literature, wouldn't we?

I can't agree with any of this. It's perfectly fine to look at a modern work, and say that because of what is in there, it has issues that need to be addressed, but I cannot imagine saying, because this modern work uses a theme or a trope that developed out of another theme or a trope, which is not itself problematic, but the earlier theme came from a person who had views that are now objectionable, we have to revise it to remove references to that theme ... well, that way lies madness. ... Kind of appropriate, given the discussion.
 

Burnside

Space Jam Confirmed
But "problematic" covers so much ground. Just think about Lovecraft.

Should we stop excise Arkham Asylum from Batman?
Should we stop watching Evil Dead (and its progeny) because of the Necronomicon?
Am I not allowed to watch the excellent Lovecraft Country on HBO? (That would be particularly weird).

To me, all of this is as silly as saying we need to try and remove all of the Mythos (the cosmic horror) from D&D, or saying that we can't allow people to read The Old Man and the Sea because Hemingway was misogynistic jerk, or Notes from Underground because Dostoyevsky was an anti-Semite.

But that would be bizarre. Because without Notes, we wouldn't have Invisible Man, and then we would have a much poorer literature, wouldn't we?

I can't agree with any of this. It's perfectly fine to look at a modern work, and say that because of what is in there, it has issues that need to be addressed, but I cannot imagine saying, because this modern work uses a theme or a trope that developed out of another theme or a trope, which is not itself problematic, but the earlier theme came from a person who had views that are now objectionable, we have to revise it to remove references to that theme ... well, that way lies madness. ... Kind of appropriate, given the discussion.
Yeah, I largely agree. Lovecraft isn't among my favorite authors anyway, but as Jewish person this is a calculus I have to perform all the time with writers I love. The Brothers Karamazov is one of my favorite books. I devoured Agatha Christie novels as a kid. I've made a lot of my living performing Shakespeare. All of these writers are Anti-Semitic, and it's not subtle and it's not absent from their work - it's right there in Brothers K, And Then There Were None (now on its third published title because racism), The Merchant of Venice, and other works. Dickens too, although he did have the grace to apologize and do re-writes on Oliver Twist.

I'm not prepared to say we have to forgive these artists, but I'm also not prepared to say they are now unreadable or un-performable. or un-playable.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Yeah, I largely agree. Lovecraft isn't among my favorite authors anyway, but as Jewish person this is a calculus I have to perform all the time with writers I love. The Brothers Karamazov is one of my favorite books. I devoured Agatha Christie novels as a kid. I've made a lot of my living performing Shakespeare. All of these writers are Anti-Semitic, and it's not subtle and it's not absent from their work - it's right there in Brothers K, And Then There Were None (now on its third published title because racism), The Merchant of Venice, and other works. Dickens too, although he did have the grace to apologize and do re-writes on Oliver Twist.

I'm not prepared to say we have to forgive these artists, but I'm also not prepared to say they are now unreadable or un-performable. or un-playable.
Some of the most amazing work happens not from ignoring or excising the problematic aspects of a work, but from working with it and re-contexualizing it.

Whether it's a re-imagination of the Founding Fathers (Hamilton), or a staging of Merchant of Venice that places the issue of anti-Semitism front and center, or even something as banal as choosing to put Gatsby to hip hop as a riposte to the casual racism of its author.

Good art speaks in a multiplicity of tongues; and it is better to struggle with that art than to pretend it did not exist.
 

I am thinking, Wizard of Oz has resonance in some American gay communities. But I am unsure why.

May its the Girl-Meets-World story, that transgenders can relate to?

I am unsure.
 

MGibster

Legend
I am thinking, Wizard of Oz has resonance in some American gay communities. But I am unsure why.
That's a good question. I thought her status as a gay icon had been established after The Wizard of Oz but apparently it started there. I could see how a lot of gay men might want to leave the drab oppression of their black & white world to a colorful place like Oz. A magical place where someone like the Cowardly Lion was accepted and loved for who he was rather than what others expected him to be.
 

leave the drab oppression of their black & white world to a colorful place like Oz. A magical place where someone like the Cowardly Lion was accepted and loved for who he was rather than what others expected him to be.
That sounds closer to true.

I imagine a conservative small town, where the odds of finding romance are fewer in number, could be difficult. So, where others found the "city slickers" to be selling snake oil, the gay communities might find the cities a great escape to explore themselves among a larger community.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
Some of the most amazing work happens not from ignoring or excising the problematic aspects of a work, but from working with it and re-contexualizing it.
Iirc there are others on here with children that Lovecraft would have called abominations, and I want to say that some of his stories read very differently in that light.

One doesn't need to keep Lovecraft's name or his direct creations in to keep similar ideas to the mythos and far realms and cosmic horror in D&D. If one feels the need to make the name front and center while using the ideas, it seems like the reason should be compelling enough to overcome the previous paragraph.

If your goal is to look at Lovecrafts racism in relation to horror, obviously his name should be there. Arkham Asymlum has a long history in Batman, that feels like a reason to keep him. I assume he'll still always be sold in the bookstores. But does Cthulhu need a mention in 5e in particular? Does the list in the back need to be everything that inspired D&D, or can it be things that can be viewed as inspriational to those running it (or could there be two lists).

or saying that we can't allow people to read The Old Man and the Sea because Hemingway was misogynistic jerk, or Notes from Underground because Dostoyevsky was an anti-Semite.
It feels like anyone more than 45 years old is probably tainted to some extent with some bigotry (lets look back at how LGBTQ things were looked at in the 70s and 80s, for example...). If you start to get rid of anyone who wasn't in the 5 or 10% most progressive for their era, there probably aren't many people left... But do we need to use folks in the worst 10% though? RA Fisher did a lot of important genetics and statistics -- but was also a prominent Eugenicist who formally pushed it and might have tried to get Nazi experimenters out of trouble. His name goes with some things in genetics and statistics that he discovered/developed and isn't going to be scrubbed from the textbooks, and he has a big entry in the history of statistics or genetics textbooks. But do we need to include his picture and quotes from him at the start of the standard non-historical text books though? Do we need to have awards named for him?
 

MGibster

Legend
It feels like anyone more than 45 years old is probably tainted to some extent with some bigotry (lets look back at how LGBTQ things were looked at in the 70s and 80s, for example...).
I'm used to people throwing around words like racist, ableist, and sexist but I think this is the first time I've seen something ageist. I'm quite sure that many people in the teens and twenties are afflicted by their own biases these days.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
I'm used to people throwing around words like racist, ableist, and sexist but I think this is the first time I've seen something ageist. I'm quite sure that many people in the teens and twenties are afflicted by their own biases these days.
I wasn't trying to imply anything peculiarly wrong with people in my >45 age group. Sorry! Just that I would be kind of surprised if, in another 20 or 30 years, there was nothing that a lot of today's teens and.twenties (in general) could look back on and wonder how they didn't do better about or hadn't thought more about as a group.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
My personal take on things like excising Lovecraft is that I can often (but not always) separate the art from the artist. I can still listen to my Bill Cosby albums, but I’m glad he’s in prison right now, for example.*

So instead of tossing babies with bathwater, I’m personally in favor of keeping the good stuff that not-so-nice people created.





* OTOH, I don’t have any Charlie Manson recordings or copies of Hitler’s paintigs. Of course, they’re primarily remembered for things OTHER THAN their contributions to humanity’s artistic endeavors.
 

I remembered another example: Kentucky Route Zero. It's the middle of the Great Recession, and Conway, the delivery driver for a troubled antique shop, is lost trying to find a street that doesn't seem to exist. The only way to get there is to take Route Zero, the only road that goes UNDER Kentucky. Things get weird from there.

 


I think it's quite easy to separate "Cosmic Horror" from Lovecraft. As I've mentioned before, the idea of aliens that are so much more advanced that they are completely incomprehensible to humans, and who regard humans as less than ants, goes back to The War of the Worlds, and crops up in other science fiction of the 40s, 50s and 60s. H. G. Wells was known for his very progressive political views.

The drawback, of course, is he wasn't American!

But on the plus side, I believe he wrote a couple of books about tabletop wargaming.
 

Addendum: I think I've also found a relevant TV Trope:

And it even classes D&D under this!
 

Addendum: I think I've also found a relevant TV Trope:

This tvtropes trope suggests that the tv show Supernatural is the quintessential American Fantasy. I like this show.

I still feel Star Wars strikes a deeper cord within Americana.

Maybe the US needs to distinguish between Urban US and Rural US, each with their own sensibilities. So there are at least two different populations, each with their own version of American Fantasy.

Note, both Star Wars and Supernatural are "modern", even when Supernatural is more about the "quaint town" variety.



I am even going to say, full-on medievalism is Un-American! Even formative D&D had Barrier Peaks, and time-traveling handgun-weilding Wizards, and D&D today has Eberron. One way or an other, Americans must enfranchise anything medieval into the modern world, in order for it to feel American.
 

MGibster

Legend
I think it's quite easy to separate "Cosmic Horror" from Lovecraft. As I've mentioned before, the idea of aliens that are so much more advanced that they are completely incomprehensible to humans, and who regard humans as less than ants, goes back to The War of the Worlds, and crops up in other science fiction of the 40s, 50s and 60s. H. G. Wells was known for his very progressive political views.
Cosmic horror is more than just having aliens who view humanity as little more than we view ants. There's a certain nihilism associated with cosmic horror with the idea that not only is humanity insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but that the process of learning about the true nature of the universe will only end in disaster. These aren't present in War of the Worlds.

And you can't put the genie back in the bottle. Lovecraft has already influenced many prominent writers including Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Alan Moore, filmmakers including John Carpenter, Guillermo del Toro, and Sam Raimi, bands like Metallica, obviously many table top role playing, video, and board games, and you can find tidbits of Lovecraft's work scattered about in random media including children's cartoons like The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy.

I suppose you could purge Lovecraft's name from the canon, but you're just sticking your head in the sand at that point. His influence is quite clear.
 

Cosmic horror is more than just having aliens who view humanity as little more than we view ants. There's a certain nihilism associated with cosmic horror with the idea that not only is humanity insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but that the process of learning about the true nature of the universe will only end in disaster. These aren't present in War of the Worlds.

And you can't put the genie back in the bottle. Lovecraft has already influenced many prominent writers including Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Alan Moore, filmmakers including John Carpenter, Guillermo del Toro, and Sam Raimi, bands like Metallica, obviously many table top role playing, video, and board games, and you can find tidbits of Lovecraft's work scattered about in random media including children's cartoons like The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy.

I suppose you could purge Lovecraft's name from the canon, but you're just sticking your head in the sand at that point. His influence is quite clear.
Who wrote this:
"I presently saw something stirring within the shadow - greyish billowy movements, one above another, and then two luminous discs like eyes. Then something resembling a little grey snake, about the thickness of a walking stick, coiled up out of the writhing middle, and wriggled in the air towards me - and then another"
...
"and an ungovernable terror gripped me. I stood petrified and staring."
...
"A lank tentacular appendage gripped the edge of the cylinder..."
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Iirc there are others on here with children that Lovecraft would have called abominations, and I want to say that some of his stories read very differently in that light.

One doesn't need to keep Lovecraft's name or his direct creations in to keep similar ideas to the mythos and far realms and cosmic horror in D&D. If one feels the need to make the name front and center while using the ideas, it seems like the reason should be compelling enough to overcome the previous paragraph.

If your goal is to look at Lovecrafts racism in relation to horror, obviously his name should be there. Arkham Asymlum has a long history in Batman, that feels like a reason to keep him. I assume he'll still always be sold in the bookstores. But does Cthulhu need a mention in 5e in particular? Does the list in the back need to be everything that inspired D&D, or can it be things that can be viewed as inspriational to those running it (or could there be two lists).
Here's the thing which continues to bother me, and I think it is brought to life amazingly well in Lovecraft Country. Funny that!

What do you do when you love something that doesn't love you back? To be both banal and specific, the intertwined themes of characters who are both marginalized by the "geek culture" that they want to be a part of as well as the nation that they are a part of are omnipresent; it is hardly a shock that Tic (Atticus) loves both pulp sci fi (and Lovecraft) and served in the military, both things that his ... father ... Montrose told him not to do.

I think that this is not, and has not been, uncommon. Gay and transgender people have found representations in a predominant culture that, for the most part, has not loved them back- either coded, or sometimes just read in. The existence of any marginalized people, anywhere, often exists in a weird state with regard to the predominant culture; this tension always exists, and can be dealt with movingly and thoughtfully (Lovecraft Country and race) or humorously and crassly (as in Larry David, Wagner, and anti-Semitism).

But I cringe when I see people move to identify the authors with the text. Was Lovecraft a raging jerk, a racist, an anti-Semite, and more? Sure. Was he the worst? No. He didn't kill someone. He didn't lynch anyone. He had abhorrent thoughts- but so did a lot of people at that time. Burroughs killed his wife. We could go down through the line, but once we start to get rid of art based on changing ideas about what the artists should or shouldn't have done ... that is not a world I am comfortable with.

Applying modern standards to people from the past is fool's game, and I refuse to be any part of it.
 

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