Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Can Dungeons and Dragons be High Quality Fantasy?

In the assorted readings and the discussion from the 10th of April, the class considered what constituted high quality fantasy in books, particularly in terms of language, and how it relates to world creation. It is my intention to examine these issues in relation to another popular method of fantasy creation: Dungeons and Dragons. The main question that I wish to ask is this: Can an ideal Dungeons and Dragons campaign meet the standards that Tolkien, LeGuin, and Shippey set for fantasy?
For the sake of those readers who (tragically) have not yet been enlightened regarding the ways of the classic game, I shall deviate for a moment to give a brief explanation. For the rest, I recommend you proceed to the next paragraph at once. First, Dungeons and Dragons is a role playing game, meaning that each player adopts the persona of one of the game’s characters. The interaction of these characters is integral to the game. In addition, however, there is a Dungeon Master, who creates the world (if she is a purist, which I shall assume she is), and she writes the plot to the campaign. The Dungeon Master then presides over the sessions of the game, presenting the players with new events and challenges in their adventure. The Dungeon Master has virtually absolute control over the world (with the exception of the players), and also plays any NPCs (Non Player Characters) that the group encounters.
First, I maintain that the Dungeon Master quite clearly fulfills one role Tolkien considers essential: the elf friend. Tolkien views an elf friend as a character with access to both the primary and secondary worlds who serves as an intermediary between the characters of the primary world and the faeries of the secondary. The Dungeon Master, obviously, has access to the real world, and also has unobstructed access to the secondary world that they have created. Additionally, the Dungeon Master gives the players from the primary world access to the secondary world by crafting and maintaining the narrative that brings the experience to life for the players. Insofar as having an elf-friend in a fantasy story is necessary to have fantasy of quality, Dungeons and Dragons easily qualifies.
The next question is whether or not the Dungeon Master can create a plot of high quality in terms of ‘style’, which Ursula LeGuin views as being utterly essential to having good fantasy. By way of defining ‘style’, LeGuin says, “The style, of course, is, the book. If you remove the cake, all you have left is a recipe. If you remove the style, all you have left is a synopsis of the plot” (LeGuin 90). This is immediately problematic from the perspective of Dungeons and Dragons. While a Dungeon Master can create the world and can plan to some extent, the unpredictability of the characters means that she can only create a synopsis or vague outline of the plot. As any experienced Dungeon Master will attest, any pre-written scenes or specific details will almost certainly be rendered irrelevant should any one of hundreds of decisions made by the players cause the plot to deviate from the Dungeon Master’s predicted path. This makes putting time and energy into creating the consistent detail that is so significant to LeGuin virtually impossible for the DM to accomplish.
That being said, the plot is not advanced by the Dungeon Master alone, and even if the DM cannot single handedly create consistent ‘style’, the entire group might be able to. This raises the question: can a group of people collectively and spontaneously maintain a high quality of style. As to the question of collectively creating a quality story, I see no obstacle. There are plenty of instances of people cooperatively writing stories. Maintaining Tolkienesque levels of consistency and attention to detail might prove more difficult with multiple people, but so long as those authors are held to the same standards as their counterparts, I see no inherent obstacle to achieving a high quality of ‘style’. The issue of spontaneity is more problematic. A critical element of Dungeons and Dragons is that the players do not know what to expect at any given time. In this way, their responses and actions are more genuine. More experienced role players will be able to react in character, but it seems highly improbable that the entire group will be able to maintain the level of consistency in style required to compare remotely favorably to Tolkien, who spent decades crafting minute elements of Middle Earth.
A particular impediment is maintaining language. LeGuin speaks at length about the damage poorly employed speech can inflict on fantasy. While a DM might take reasonable precautions to maintain consistency and avoid perilous pitfalls such as LeGuin’s loathed ‘ichor’, maintaining style requires that every last player in the campaign be able to improvise appropriate dialogue. Imagine if every character had to speak with the deliberate nuance that Shippey argues Tolkien’s characters employ. To expect such skill to be used off the cuff seems decidedly unrealistic.
Another impediment comes in with regard to the potential registers of fantasy that we discussed in class. I maintain that it is plausible for a Dungeons and Dragons campaign to depict characters in any of the five registers, but Tolkien maintains that all good fantasy must take itself seriously, which means avoiding irony. This is immensely difficult to achieve in a role playing game where anyone person has the ability to lower the group to irony. A single person might transform their character from a serious figure into the group’s comic relief, and then, by Tolkien’s standards for fantasy, all is lost.
In short, while it might theoretically be possible to have a Dungeons and Dragons campaign meet all of the criteria to be considered proper fantasy by Tolkien, Shippey, and LeGuin, it is highly improbable. Maintaining true consistency would require not only meticulous attention to detail by the Dungeon Master, but also by everyone of the players. Maintaining anachronistic speech properly would require truly brilliant acting and improvisational abilities on the part of each player, as well as extensive study in the ancient dialect in question. Maintaining a higher register for the story would require an unlikely degree of stoicism and seriousness from people playing a game for entertainment. I am reluctantly forced to conclude that Dungeons and Dragons is unlikely to ever meet the standards outlined for high quality fantasy. That being said, Dungeons and Dragons campaigns rarely set out to be grand masterpieces of art. Rather, they are meant to entertain, and at that, in my opinion, they succeed brilliantly.



  1. First, I would like to thank you for taking Dungeons and Dragons seriously as an art form! I think it gets shafted by association with nerd culture and the same sort of 'fantasy is for children' attitude that plagued Tolkien; but also by an issue you bring up, which is how easy irony can take over a D&D campaign. I've certainly heard of D&D campaigns that try to maintain an epic scope and high register throughout, but I can't say I've ever played in one (and I've played in a lot).

    You make a very compelling case for the Dungeon Master as playing the role of Elf-friend. I would honestly consider all the players to be elf-friends, under the condition that each player is taking the campaign seriously. While the Dungeon Master creates the setting, each player takes an active role in building it.

    You're right that maintaining a consistent style throughout would take a superhuman degree of skill and cooperation between the Dungeon Master and her players. Le Guin would have some words to say to a DM of mine who had us break into a museum and steal the 'Articles of Dissociation' (read: The Declaration of Independence). But I think D&D breaks a more cardinal rule in Tolkien's book, which is that it is not storytelling in the form of literature; it's more of a 'drama', like a cooperative pseudo-improv session. At the same time, it IS storytelling, as opposed to being told a story, and I think there is something to be said for that even if it is impossible to achieve High Fantasy with it.

    Anyway, great post! I'm going to be thinking about my tabletop RPGs very differently now.

    -AJ Corso

  2. Irony is the great pitfall of modern story-telling. It is interesting how hard we find to do without it. It is different from comedy or comic relief as such: there are some quite funny moments in LotR (e.g. Gollum's insistence that he doesn't want the fish), but they are not ironic. I think you are right about the problem of craft and spontaneity: nothing in Tolkien is spontaneous! Perhaps think more about the way Tolkien uses a mixture of styles? Would that work in a D&D context? Why or why not? RLFB