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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.
 
Last edited:
Michael Tresca

Comments


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The Western is specific to Americana.

So mainly, Native Americans are who make Americana, American?
There are a lot of movies set outside America, and made outside America, that take many of the elements of western movies and apply them to their own genres, their own frontiers, etc. I think there is a strong argument to be made that it doesn't have to specifically be America anymore
 

There are a lot of movies set outside America, and made outside America, that take many of the elements of western movies and apply them to their own genres, their own frontiers, etc. I think there is a strong argument to be made that it doesn't have to specifically be America anymore
That is part of my thought.

If the genre ceases to have Native Americans, then it likewise ceases to be unique to America.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
The Western is specific to Americana.

So mainly, Native Americans are who make Americana, American?
That is part of my thought.

If the genre ceases to have Native Americans, then it likewise ceases to be unique to America.
There are westerns without Indigenous Americans (many radio episodes of the Six-shooter or Have Gun Will Travel or Gunsmoke, for example) -- but I'm assuming that's not what you meant?

Among authors of Westerns listed on Wikipedia, Nye Tredgold was Scottish. Jeff Sadler and Frederick Christian were English. William MacLeod Raine was born in England. Leonard Frank Meares was Australian. Karl Friedrich May was German. Hyung Min-Woo is Korean.

The main character of Frontier Gentleman is English. The main one in Kung Fu is Chinese.

Sergio Leone was Italian.

Does the Great Silence count because it was set in the US (in spite of not having many Americans involved).

Do Galaxy Rangers and Firefly count in spite of being in outer space? Is John Ford's 7 women essentially a Western except for being in China?
 

There are westerns without Indigenous Americans (many radio episodes of the Six-shooter or Have Gun Will Travel or Gunsmoke, for example) -- but I'm assuming that's not what you meant?

Among authors of Westerns listed on Wikipedia, Nye Tredgold was Scottish. Jeff Sadler and Frederick Christian were English. William MacLeod Raine was born in England. Leonard Frank Meares was Australian. Karl Friedrich May was German. Hyung Min-Woo is Korean.

The main character of Frontier Gentleman is English. The main one in Kung Fu is Chinese.

Sergio Leone was Italian.

Does the Great Silence count because it was set in the US (in spite of not having many Americans involved).

Do Galaxy Rangers and Firefly count in spite of being in outer space? Is John Ford's 7 women essentially a Western except for being in China?
It seems like American is more like a "modal" assemblage, where certain features appear in high frequency and cluster together, but each feature might also appear elsewhere in Nonamerican ethnicities.



There is alot of artistic crossover back-and-forth between America and Britain, apparently because they share many features in common.
 

Committed Hero

Explorer
It seems like American is more like a "modal" assemblage, where certain features appear in high frequency and cluster together, but each feature might also appear elsewhere in Nonamerican ethnicities.
The genre presupposes a frontier where civilization ends and lawlessness begins (at least in the eyes of the characters). American Westerns are the first and most easily recognizable, but there are Westerns set in China, for example.
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
It seems like American is more like a "modal" assemblage, where certain features appear in high frequency and cluster together, but each feature might also appear elsewhere in Nonamerican ethnicities.
And if you get to far into it you end up with Seven Samurai -> Magnificent Seven -> Battle Beyond the Stars, (and going more loosely Three Bad Ben -> Hidden Fortress -> Star Wars ?) and having to wonder how simply the right window dressing lets something pass as another genre.
 


The quote above describing why Star Wars is American Fantasy, happens to have a "modal assemblage", a list of things that tend to be found in American works.

If a story has all or many of these features it probably feels more American to an American audience?


"
• 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)

"
 

Cadence

Legend
Supporter
The genre presupposes a frontier where civilization ends and lawlessness begins (at least in the eyes of the characters). American Westerns are the first and most easily recognizable, but there are Westerns set in China, for example.
Heh, so cyberpunk is a Western?
I'm not sure about cyber-punk, but now I want to take another look at B2 from a different persepective...
 






Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
Been saying for years, someone should do a game based on Kurt R. Giambastan’s Fallen Cloud novels. Essentially the American West of the 1800s, but with Native Americans riding dinosaurs.* Of course, you could probably just run that as a Homebrew in Deadlands, but...

Seriously- what‘s more American than Comanche warriors on raptorback?




* actually even suggested a fellow ENWorlder use riding raptors or moas for a Plains Indians type culture in their homebrew.
 


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