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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


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rogueattorney

Adventurer
Wow. I think this might be my first post in 10+ years. Long time lurking. But this is a subject that I love.

While Baum is certainly a strain of American fantasy, as others have said, it is nowhere near the only one.

There’s the Irving, Poe, Lovecraft, King strain of east coast horror that often bleeds over into fantasy. It tends to focus on isolated pockets of civilization, clinging to the coasts, with the yawning, dark terror of the frontier full of unknown horrors just outside the window.

And then there’s its mirror image, the Burroughs, Howard, Lucas swords and sorcery that dresses the American West up in thinly disguised fantasy drag (or lite sci-fi, to the extent there’s a difference). It revels in the freedom and chaos of the frontier.

Both of those strains of American fantasy are heavily represented among the foundational fantasy works that influenced D&D.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
There seems to be a lot of ground to pick from between applying modern standards and applying no standards. Both extremes seem more than slightly problematic to me.
To you, sure. You are welcome, in your personal life, to make those decisions. Everyone has ... something. For me, I could never, ever, re-read Marion Zimmer Bradley. Because my current knowledge of her life, well, I can see it in her work, now, and I can't unsee that.

But I would not and could not insist that her books not be available.

In the end, what's problematic isn't the extremes; it's the belief that someone else gets to assert what those extremes are, and then dictate them to other people. It's one thing when you can point to actual art that is problematic (and even that I have a problem with), but when people fail to do that, but instead point to the artist?

That's crazy.

And kind of insulting; sort of like ignoring everything I wrote about the need to struggle with and re-contextualize art in order to make your point.
 

Now I don't know anything about the life of Marion Zimmer Bradley, but when I tried to read one of her books I detected attitudes that made me so uncomfortable that I couldn't finish it.

NB, that was a long time ago, 1980s probably.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
To you, sure. You are welcome, in your personal life, to make those decisions. Everyone has ... something. For me, I could never, ever, re-read Marion Zimmer Bradley. Because my current knowledge of her life, well, I can see it in her work, now, and I can't unsee that.

But I would not and could not insist that her books not be available.

In the end, what's problematic isn't the extremes; it's the belief that someone else gets to assert what those extremes are, and then dictate them to other people. It's one thing when you can point to actual art that is problematic (and even that I have a problem with), but when people fail to do that, but instead point to the artist?

That's crazy.

And kind of insulting; sort of like ignoring everything I wrote about the need to struggle with and re-contextualize art in order to make your point.
I didn't mean to imply disagreement with the bulk of your post - if I had disagreed with the rest of it I would still be typing up a point by point disection of the parts I didn't like (it feels rude to not do so if going back and forth with someone). :) I wish there was a mostly agree button on here -- of course, in retrospect typing "I agree with a lot of that but..." at the start of my post might have done that. And, in retrospect, I see where not acknowledging the rest could be insulting. I'm sorry.

I certainly don't want some "art-watch" and "book-watch" committees to pick what we can read! As you noted before (iirc), I used your examples about Arkham and Lovecraft Country and agreed with them.

I think your point about Bradley is similar to the point others have made in other threads about Lovecraft. His hatreds do pervade some of his stories. And so a growing number of people don't read them and would rather not have D&D hold them up as exemplars. It's not up to us individuals to decide what goes in WotC's books, it's up to WotC. But it feels fair to me to let them know why someone might not want certain authors put front and center.
 

Regarding the tv show Lovecraft Country, it is on the radar of Jewish communities. It appears that even while taking on a Black American perspective, the creators apparently injected Antisemitic canards into the tv version (such as the name "Epstein" for the name of a character having Antisemitic tropes), even when the original book that the show is based on lacked such Antisemitism.

There is the possibility that Lovecraft continues to serve as a dog whistle for reallife white supremacist groups.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Regarding the tv show Lovecraft Country, it is on the radar of Jewish communities. It appears that even while taking on a Black American perspective, the creators apparently injected Antisemitic canards into the tv version (such as the name "Epstein" for the name of a character having Antisemitic tropes), even when the original book that the show is based on lacked such Antisemitism.

There is the possibility that Lovecraft continues to serve as a dog whistle for reallife white supremacist groups.
Or, just possibly, the series (which re-contextualizes that past and the present) used the name to allude to the person who was quite obviously in the news for his own abductions and crimes - Jeffrey Epstein.

The parallelism between the Tuskegee experiments in the past, and the current issues that were recently explored with Epstein, are quite obvious. And make a lot more sense than anti-Semitic tropes being snuck by the main actors in that scene (such as Jurnee Smollett) and the others associated with the show (such as JJ Abrams).

As for your belief that white supremacist groups are gatherin' round to watch Lovecraft Country? It would be risible, if it wasn't laughable.
 
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Urriak Uruk

Debate fuels my Fire
Applying modern standards to people from the past is fool's game, and I refuse to be any part of it.
I agree with the rest of your post, but have a slight nitpick here; we absolutely should apply modern standard's to people from the past. That doesn't mean we should purge all of their works, and scrub them from history, or completely wipe out any positive impacts they've had on culture or history, but we should balance the positives against those negatives through a modern lens.

It's like looking at the founding fathers; they made one of the oldest democracies, a net positive for the world and important part of history, and a net gain from the monarchy. They also allowed slavery to continue, and many owned slaves themselves; very few people at the time thought this was worth banning. It is important to recognize that such historical figures were extremely flawed people, while also recognizing the positives they fostered.
 

MGibster

Legend
There is the possibility that Lovecraft continues to serve as a dog whistle for reallife white supremacist groups.
I don't think I've ever run across any white supremacist groups that adopted Lovecraft as one of their own. Do you have any examples that you've seen?
 

MGibster

Legend
Fair enough. But now you open up the question of who arbitrates that?
There is never going to be settled. The definition of what is objectionable is in a state of constant flux and so to are our efforts to determine how much of what is objectionable is too much. We're never going to settle on a perfect answer that lasts the ages. Think of it as a process of constant dialogue.
 

MGibster

Legend
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.*
If we're going to be honest about Lovecraft, we've got to admit that there are some stories where he wears his bigotry on his sleeve. The Horror at Redhook and Herbert West for examples.
 


MGibster

Legend
Certainly...as do countless other works considered classics of mainstream literature.
You used Bill Cosby as an example of an artist from his art. Which is totally fair, but Cosby's monstrous behavior was never really reflected in any of his work from what I can see. In twenty years time a young person unfamiliar with Cosby might come across his work and never have a clue about who he really was. It's easier to separate the man from the art. It's not so easy in Lovecraft's case because his bigotry really shines through in some of his stories.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
You used Bill Cosby as an example of an artist from his art. Which is totally fair, but Cosby's monstrous behavior was never really reflected in any of his work from what I can see. In twenty years time a young person unfamiliar with Cosby might come across his work and never have a clue about who he really was. It's easier to separate the man from the art. It's not so easy in Lovecraft's case because his bigotry really shines through in some of his stories.
No question, Lovecraft’s issues are more obvious in his creations than Cosby’s.

OTOH, Cosby took more RW actions in service to his demons than did HPL. (At least, that I know of.)

Which really made his fall so painful, especially for upwardly mobile black families that the Huxtables echoed so well.
 

Burnside

Space Jam Confirmed
You used Bill Cosby as an example of an artist from his art. Which is totally fair, but Cosby's monstrous behavior was never really reflected in any of his work from what I can see. In twenty years time a young person unfamiliar with Cosby might come across his work and never have a clue about who he really was. It's easier to separate the man from the art.
Wellllll...
 

There is never going to be settled. The definition of what is objectionable is in a state of constant flux and so to are our efforts to determine how much of what is objectionable is too much. We're never going to settle on a perfect answer that lasts the ages. Think of it as a process of constant dialogue.
In certain important ethical situations, I prefer blurry lines that require constant attention, and allow for multiple points of view.

It seems healthy to discuss important ethical areas, to better understand what is at stake.



Regarding the past eras. I dont need my heroes to be perfect. I need them to be heroic.

That said, to actively encourage hate is less forgivable than other disappointments.
 

Burnside

Space Jam Confirmed
There is never going to be settled. The definition of what is objectionable is in a state of constant flux and so to are our efforts to determine how much of what is objectionable is too much. We're never going to settle on a perfect answer that lasts the ages. Think of it as a process of constant dialogue.
Except that some in this thread seem to be making a ruling: Lovecraft out.
 


Committed Hero

Explorer
Conan's progress from barbarian outsider to king of Aquilonia seems distinctively American to me. It's like a Horatio Alger story but with more social climbing.

It's also an immigrant story as he was born in Cimmeria.
Conan gets my vote as the American fantasy rpg. I would also note Howard's views that old (read: European) civilizations were dying (witness how Hyboria is literally Earth with a thin veneer of pseudohistory) and that a frontier kept a nation on its toes. I can't read Oz as anything more than an allegory of 19th century US fiscal policy, personally.

D&D is set squarely within the swords-and-sorcery tradition, and that tradition is quite thoroughly American, going back to its founder Robert E. Howard. The idea that there is one singular "American fantasy" genre, and that L. Frank Baum (?!?) is the exemplar and defining author of that singular genre, is absurd.
Howard is the Creedence Clearwater Revival* of rpg inspiration: he's normally not cited as the founding father for either fantasy or horror, but unquestionably he is the second luminary in both genres (behind Tolkien and Lovecraft**, respectively). His works are the backbone of the pulp tradition, which I'd argue is an American phenomenon.

* this band recorded the most #2 hit singles without ever charting a #1.

** HPL was ahead of his time, but no one deserves writers of color improving his vision more than he.
 
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