Friday, April 16, 2010

D&D and the Assumed Universe

I'm pondering, today, the "assumed universe" phenomenon of D&D. That is to say, when you sit down around a table for a session of D&D, there seems to be a communally assumed setting you are playing in, unless someone specifically tells you otherwise. Some of these assumptions include:

1. A pseudo-medieval, western-european-ish setting.
2. Magic is real, in varying degrees of commonality.
3. Religions are polytheistic, and gods take some degree of interest in the affairs of men.
4. Non-human races like elves and dwarves rub shoulders with humans.
5. Dwarves are grumpy and crafty, elves are aloof and inscrutable.
6. Dwarves live in the ground, elves live in trees.
7. People kill things with swords and maces and arrows.
8. Wizards always have ulterior motives.
9. Men defend themselves with castles, towers, and citadels.
10. Orcs, goblins, and ogres are out to kill you, kidnap your women, burn your village, and further the goals of the local Dark Lord.

I could go on like that for a while, but I'm sure you get the point.

So where does this assumed setting come from? Does someone completely new to the hobby make these assumptions? Or is it unique to long time players? Some likely suspects:

1. RPG manuals seem to detail a little of this, but usually it feels like they are building off the assumed setting rather than creating it.
2. Fantasy novels. I like this for the source of "assumed world", but its so seldom, in my experience, that everyone has read the same books, and very few books actually include all or even most of the assumptions gamers include in their default setting.
3. Fantasy art (RPG or fiction). Again, is this the chicken or the egg?
4. Simple evolution of expectations from long experience with RPGs?
5. All of the above?

Its an interesting subject, I think.

What are your thoughts?


  1. I banish most of those assumptions from my game. I keep only the following:

    2. Magic is real, in varying degrees of commonality.
    7. People kill things with swords and maces and arrows.
    9. Men defend themselves with castles, towers, and citadels.

    In short, I tend to keep the assumed technology of D&D and magic is real. Other than that, the rest gets tossed. I don't use demi-humans or any standard monsters. I also prefer my cultures to be ancient or alien in flavor rather than medieval.

  2. It's an interesting point - I tend to call the default setting as outlined above in points 1 to 10 "Fantasy Vanilla" - it's the starting point from which anything different departs.

    With the exception of 2 and 3, Tolkien comes to mind - he seems to have staked out the ground when it comes to dour dwarves and elves in trees. As for wizards with ulterior motives...

    Back in the day, a gamer's experience of fantasy literature was either pulp or Tolkien or in some cases, both. For me it was JRR, with Conan, Elric, etc, HPL coming a good while later.

    So if JRR was the benchmark from which many of his successors started and to which they have felt they had to adhere in terms of literary features (look at how many fantasy works come in trilogies, have lots of maps, invented languages, and many of the features which you outlined), is it any wonder that Fantasy Vanilla is so recognisable? After all, one of the rules of publishing is that publishers like to sell stuff that's already popular so the imitators are going to have an easier ride if they do just that.

    I omitted 2 and 3 because gods as such are virtually unmentioned in LotR (though not in the Silmarillion and other works) and if you actually sit down and look at the powers that Gandalf and other 'magical' character have, the degree to which they can be described as magic is limited indeed.

  3. I go with the assumed setting, and then try to find ways to challenge those assumptions during play. I think the assumed universe helps players become rooted in the setting without having to read volumes of make-believe history, sociology, etc. So - I go basic and then throw in a few twists.

  4. You need to go a step further, look at real world parallels and ask how and why:

    Take dwarves for example, in many fantasy settings, not all, but many, dwarves are set as the stereotype of Scots. The have the accents, the red hair, drink, and are grumpy. Now, go one step further.

    Also, do you ever notice that dwarves are never in abundance, never ascendent? Do you ever wonder why they are portrayed as descendant? Dwarves are former slaves with their race scattered and their homelands occupied?

    You have only to go to the historical representation of Scots to find your answers, but you have to be critical of the fantasy material you are reading.

    Don't get me started on the other assumptions in fantasy RPGs.

  5. Tolkien followed by Gygax's interests with a dash of the interests of the gamers of the Upper Midwest.

    Basically goes like this
    Gygax wrote the rules with input from Arneson and his players.

    People got ahold of the rules and viewed them through the shadow of Tolkien (the only fantasy author with enough reach to be part of most gamer's experiences. This is followed by Howard, Moorcock and a distant third of Lieber.
    Then it loops around to Gygax again with AD&D only with a more commercial orientation. Reinforced with Moldavy/Cook followed quickly by Mentzer.

    AD&D/D&D get thrown back out again now with the post Shannara explosion of fantasy going on with a lot of author channeling Tolkien. By the early 80s vanilla fantasy is pretty much in the form it is today.

    Understand this analysis is a least common denominator thing. Individual gamers will see variation off of this. Especially if they did not read the mainline post Shannara Fantasy book or started roleplaying with D&D.

    For example a person starting out as a fan of Moorcock and playing Runequest as their first roleplaying game will have a vastly different set of assumption than the D&D players that make up most of the roleplaying hobby.

    For those younger you probably experienced this with Vampire players in the 90s vs D&D. Given Rifts popularity in the Pittsburgh area I experienced gamers that got their start through Rifts which has a view of all it's own.

  6. Without even describing the setting at all just the choices of character classes and equipment say a lot about the game world.

    I think if you have a game where the players are a mixed group of men, elves, dwarves, halflings and wizards set in a pseudo medieval setting most people will use The Lord of the Rings as their starting template for that world.

  7. I was digging around Dragonsfoot a little while ago and stumbled across a really weirdly inspiring thread from the olden days (written by our lost master of Thool no less) about this subject.

    Totally made me want to comb through the 1e books and write the absolute archetypical setting... ah to have all the time in the world...

  8. I think part of it is archetypes. Tolkien didn't start with a blank canvas, there was Robin Hood, and King Arthur and the 1001 Nights, etc. The bigger question might be why is the most popular set of rpg archetypes fantasy and not something else. Sort of the way Mazes & Minotaurs postulates an alternate history where Ancient Greek gaming was the norm.

    I think there are a few reasons 1) Magic is one of the cool things you can do in an imagined assumed world so cowboys and gangsters are by default probably not going to be as popular 2) Ancient tombs to explore and hoards to pillage work well as a game play frame.

    So, Mazes & Minotaurs might fit the first, but not really the last (those Greek tombs will become the hoards of D&D). Something like Superhero games don't have #2, so take a lot more work from a DM to give players something to do.

    Space Games can actually do both, with high tech substituting for magic and alien artifacts for #2. And Traveller has been there right from the beginning. Maybe the impediment to space games becoming a default assumed world is that the future is a lot more variable than our imagination-enhanced shared past.

    But I agree with others that assumptions are often best when they are challenged or surprisingly upended. And I agree Kiltedyaksman that the worst part of stereotypes are hard to avoid in these archetypal games. One of the reasons I'm loathe to introduce demihumans to my campaign.

  9. I agree with the LOTR being the overshadowing influence on our perceptions of the default fantasy setting. Although having said that, my leatherbound copy sat on the shelf from the age of two and wasn't opened until twenty years later, before the films came out. Prior to that I'd say all my ideas were still derived from it as it undoubtedly coloured every other source that informed my perception of D&D land: the cartoon, fairytales, films, art etc Plus I did see the unfinished animated film when I was very young, I think it was quite a heavy influence on my imagination.

  10. I think our tropes stem mainly from experience with other games, and the source fiction.

    But lately we have fiction that takes the games as source material, and new gamers look upon the new fiction as THEIR source material. But it's in fact entirely circular at this point.

    Of course there is some influence from movies, from the culture's opinions of the game, and certainly from the more experienced players.

  11. Methinks one of the reasons why a pseudo-mediaeval setting tends to be the default for a lot of peoples' campaigns is that the tropes are already there. The DM can say "You see some men-at-arms with crossbows" and the players know without having to be told what they're seeing. Likewise for castles, horses, swords, houses, taverns - you don't have to describe the inside of a tavern, you just know it's going to have wooden tables, pewter flagons of beer, buxom serving wenches etc etc. And a genial host who is a mine of rumours.

    Move away from tropocentric fantasy and you start encountering things that break the flow of the game, necessitating DM description of whatever it is that the players have encountered. So rather than "they're men at arms and they have crossbows", the DM has to stop and say "The Qualian Jorhavith ride Xenaril, which are basically seven foot tall green lizard like creatures with webbed feet and a third eye in the middle of their forehead..."

    And you can be sure that a series of questions will follow from the players until they have the image of the Qualian Jorhavith in their minds. Is it any wonder that most DMs tend to default to the men at arms and crossbows?

    Moving away from vanilla is rewarding and it takes time. In time, what is new and strange to begin with becomes its own trope; some people however choose the path of least resistance, and with the amount of work a DM has to do, who can blame them?

  12. It all stems from Tolkein via Led Zeppelin.

  13. I think historical inertia and the setting assumptions underpining the rules as given are the reasons. The real question is (which I posed on my blog about a week ago, and will do so here again) why in also this time has relatively little attempt been made to move beyond it? it is just simply a matter of that's where the inspirational fiction has stayed for the most part?

  14. About the only one I use 100% of the time is "magic is real" --well most of my settings are kind of European too as thats what I know best and my players like.

    The rest are negotiable.

    My current settings include

    #1 "everything in D&D is real + Grey Aliens brought people to a new world without even coal " here are the mostly logical consequences.

    #2 "1660 tech with faeries"

    #3 is blog standard D&D with a bit more humor

    In any case the setting is still recognizable. Neither I nor my players have the patience to learn acres of jargon and very strange customs like say in Tekumel or Jorune.

    Some degree of familiar is needed for fun

  15. What Thomas Denmark said.

    @ Al: From my point of view, the most interesting thing about the subject is that once you REALIZE you're only making assumptions (rather than playing a static universe) you CAN change it however you want. Make it more like MZB's Darkover series, or set it in a more mythical Renaissance time period (or later..."D&D does Castle Falkenstein").

    We're only limited when we buy into the assumed perception. Once we stop doing that, the sky's the limit.
    : )

  16. @Geoffrey: Aye. I agree with you. Bronze to Mid Iron Age is much preferable. Even Neolithic with some advanced elements make for great campaign settings.



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