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 fantasy authors providing the inspiration for co-creator Gary Gygax's Dungeons & Dragons. Why not?

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?

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

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

Michael Tresca


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ART!

Deluxe Unhuman
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.

Yeah, i think you could find plenty of gamers who aren't put off by a setting's whimsy and inconsistency. Some people have a very willing suspension of disbelief, and some people less so. The strength and believability of a setting's worldbuilding attracts a subset of people interested in fanatasy. They are interested in well-documented, readily-comprehensible settings, and the more lore to master, the better. Some people are turned off by that, and/or by the lore-master gatekeepers who inevitably crop up.

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.

I clicked on this thread with the intent to mention Colonial Gothic, so "ditto".

So, Babylon5 is American Fantasy?

Colliding cultures in a New World. That seems like a prominent characteristic of "American" Fantasy.

Deep Space Nine as well. They're frontier towns in a (semi?) colonial "melting pot" environment.

There's a very American West quality to the vast "unexplored" territories on fantasy maps, full of strange folk and beasts.
 

Ace

Adventurer
In built-up areas, close combat, forces combatants within 30 feet of each other.

Also, gunfire will attract attention in urban environments.

If there is legal incentive to avoid lethal combat, melee becomes more normative.


That said, your point that Melee is key, for more dramatic upclose and personal combat, is probably a major people because of its visceral thrill.

Melee combat is often messier and more violent than gun fights. Worse it goes on longer than say say two supressed 9mm rounds vs a cultist . And note suppressors are well within the skills of a typical PC.
 

Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
In a single word: swords.

By and large, people want sword fights in their fantasy RPGs. Urban and modern and techno stuff are all dominated by ranged combat. In any Urban Fantasy RPG with even the slightest bit of simulation and tactical wargame left in it, ranged combat will quicly become the default. You need something to force melee back in mix. Star Wars did it with religion. Buffy did it with stakes and blood.

I played a one-shot of Dresden Files RPG.

Shootouts. Just shootouts. Even our wizard.

I love the genre but I only watched Grimm more than once . My group (30-55 in age) hasn't seen any of these. I wonder of that is common enough to impact the genre.

Well some of them have many seasons. And that's just the one of the top of my head since 2010.

Then you have all the vampire and werewolf movies. Most of the popular ones are modern and/or urban.
 

Undrave

Legend
Also a lot of gaming plots and ideas don't fit the modern world very well. Its not a great place for adventure with all the surveillance and the Internet and such. This is why the many directors among them the Coen Brothers avoid very modern settings, Once cellphones much less smart phones are ubiquitous , adventure gets harder without a lot of GM fiat.

That was frustrating the one time I played Shadowrun... you couldn't do ANYTHING cool without "Wait, they'll detect that!" at every turn. It got tiring... you spent a quadrillion hour in character creation painstakingly buying cool naughty word for you character to do, only to spend 90% of the game avoiding using them to begin with or having the guy who can modify memory just doing half the mission on his own...

I went through so many tables...

In a single word: swords.

By and large, people want sword fights in their fantasy RPGs. Urban and modern and techno stuff are all dominated by ranged combat. In any Urban Fantasy RPG with even the slightest bit of simulation and tactical wargame left in it, ranged combat will quicly become the default. You need something to force melee back in mix. Star Wars did it with religion. Buffy did it with stakes and blood.

Or with monsters immune to bullets like Kuuga...
 

Also, your note about questioning authority, seems prominent (at least since the Vietnam War? or before then too?),
Before then. I think it's central to American history and culture. At least since the 1800's. Look at Westerns from the 50's and 60's. The Lone Ranger and all those other black and white westerns. Even many of the tales of the American Revolutionary and Civil War are rooted in anti-authority. Though I would leave that to a true historian to validate that since I know my perception is highly colored by media and myths prominent from post-Vietnam era.
 

Ace

Adventurer
That was frustrating the one time I played Shadowrun... you couldn't do ANYTHING cool without "Wait, they'll detect that!" at every turn. It got tiring... you spent a quadrillion hour in character creation painstakingly buying cool naughty word for you character to do, only to spend 90% of the game avoiding using them to begin with or having the guy who can modify memory just doing half the mission on his own...

I went through so many tables...



Or with monsters immune to bullets like Kuuga...

Detection is an issue. Its why SF setting have to put a tight lid down on surveillance tech.A example It wouldn't be that hard to develop tracking implants and mandate them . They might cost pennies and be essential unavoidable as you can't work or buy anything without one.. That's maybe twenty years off tech BTW not far future.

Modernity isn't that dystopian but cell phones are a menace to PC privacy as are cameras, license plate readers and countless other bits of tech that are everywhere.

Non US setting would probably have more melee combat though a melee fight vs the baddies would attract a lot of attention in the UK.

Also unless its the focus of the setting you can only use bulletproof monsters once in a while otherwise its gets silly. I overused ghosts with bad results and while my players told me it wasn't fun and I fixed it, it certainly was learning experience,

Also super monsters could wipe entire towns or police stations from the map and settings need to take this into accounting in some manner, either restricting power level, rarity, monster cabals or PC are the ones stopping it ala Angel

This is why we see less modern fantasy, while the setting is easy and obvious, its too hard to make work and not escapist enough.

More on topic, problem is its harder to use past settings too. Lack of cultural familiarity and even if you do a Deadlands and edit out hot button issues, its too much work to learn new tropes and very unfamiliar territory.

Oz for example is more foreign than Fantasy Feudal Japan to many people.

Thus we stick to comfortable tropes
 
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Absolutely! American Fantasy has that same thread that winds through American sci-fi like Star Trek, and yes, Babylon 5.

I'd say that the whole bucking authority thing goes back to the people that came to America seeking a better life when it was still just the colonies, then to the Revolutionary War. Certainly, though, Vietnam affected the country's fiction as well. How could it not?

So, Babylon5 is American Fantasy?

Colliding cultures in a New World. That seems like a prominent characteristic of "American" Fantasy.

Also, your note about questioning authority, seems prominent (at least since the Vietnam War? or before then too?),

I dunno, there have been a ton of movies calling on most of the properties I mentioned in the last 15 years:

2005: Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
2008: Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (2008)
2010: Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
2010: Alice in Wonderland
2011: Conan the Barbarian
2012: John Carter
2013: Oz, the Great and Powerful
2016: Alice Through the Looking Glass

Even more recently in videogames, there's 2018's Conan Exiles, and this year's, err, Conan Chop Chop. Modiphius just released Conan and John Carter tabletop RPGs. Are these franchises as popular as they used to be, maybe not? They still made millions. They are hardly dusty relics that no one pays attention to (other than older folks like myself).

But, I will agree that things are a lot more diverse, with people able to access genre media of all sorts from across the world.

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.
 



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