Monday, 17 August 2015

America and D&D

I've been busy. I've been away this summer in the USA. The first trip was to Phoenix, the second to South Florida. And I can honestly say that I now 'get' D&D just a little more. 

I was amused by the old Games Workshop/Citadel ads in Dragon, which used to tell the Americans that they ought to buy their games from people with 'real' history. It chimed with my own prejudices. I still chuckle with a sense of wrongheaded superiority at the fact that the terraced house that I lived in (until this summer, a housemove has also put a dent on my blogging) was about 130 years old. Which isn't that old for a house in the UK, and certainly every other house in the area was about that old, yet in parts of the USA it'd probably have a plaque from the local historical society. And my taste in game worlds does tend to be very European. Very British, even. Legend, the Warhammer World, (even Titan to some degree), all seem to capture a greater sense of historical 'place' than the Forgotten Realms, say.

But it doesn't matter. Unless we're playing a pseudo-historical game, in which of course, it does. But D&D isn't always pseudo-historical, and is (I think) at its best when it is not, despite the pretensions of the AD&D1e DMG. It is an American game.  

Yes, yes. I have long been aware of the 'borderlands' theme of American history. A history of explorers, of pioneers, of the 'civilizing' mission (winning the West) which was conducted peicemeal as much as imperial. And, of course, the American West provides us with some archetypal examples of murder-hobos. So, yes, a ripe historical analogue for D&D PCs, if we can get past the racism and genocide. But hey, just chuck in Orcs and we can all sleep easily, no?

But I didn't fly over Arizona and find myself struck by the history. No. At least not directly. No, I flew over the desert and found myself struck by the quite awe-inspiring scale that pervades the USA. The USA - and the Americas in general - has a scale about it that is quite unlike that of Europe, and Britain especially. I don't just mean its continental vastness, nor the buildings, people, or even the military-industrial-prison complex. As I flew into Phoenix I passed over canyon-laced desert that resembled, to European eyes, the landscape of an alien planet. I didn't need to know much history to immediately wonder what the first Europeans had thought as they crossed this landscape with their pack-mules laden with equipment, accompanied by their hirelings. And the heat! The heat! It was so hot that I remarked that if it is ever that hot in Wales then your house is on fire.

In Florida there was a different kind of heat. A wet, swampy, (once) malarial heat, in a flat marshy landscape prowled by man-eating alligators. To get some breeze you get to the coast, and escape down a chain of islands a hundred miles long tipped by a wrecker 'city' - the richest per capita in the USA at one point - precariously clinging to an island made up of the skeletons of weird sea creatures, just waiting to be swept away by hurricanes (or pirates).

And I've never seen the Great Plains, the Rockies, the forested, often frozen north, the Great Lakes, etc. 

Something twigged in my brain on these trips, as this wasn't a medieval England of innumerable villages, each a day's walk from the other, a landscape tamed and human-ized, however ancient. This is a landscape of awe-inspiring scale, and to a European, strangeness. A landscape of isolated settlements, both those of Native Americans and European Pioneers. A land of radical heterogeneity - of religion and ethnicity, as well as environment and economy -  with adventurers building quasi-states in the borderlands. I imagined the amount of planning and calculated risk taking required to explore this new world. Wilderness expeditions, full of strange landscapes, a hostile environment, and encounters with peoples and animals that could roll either way, depending on their Reaction.

Yeah, I've only been playing D&D for about 30 years. I spend about three weeks in the Americas and now I get it a bit more.   

11 comments:

  1. Nothing really insightful or deep to add I'm afraid on my part but this was a really interesting and cool read, cheers.

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  2. Yes, very cool read. Would have waived if I'd known you were flying overhead...! (New Mexico resident, AZ native here)

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  3. You should read Washington Irving's Astoria. It gives a good view as to the early westerly efforts of the U.S. But also consider that the history goes further back: Texas was part of Nuevo Espana longer than it has been in the U.S. Western Canada was a Russian territory and stretched all the way to California at one point. And these were the status quos for these areas for at least centuries.

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  5. Alright, sorry. Steamtunnel is a little mistaken about Canada. Canada has never belonged to Russia. Only Alaska ever belonged to Russia and America purchased it, but it was never settled by Russians. Canada was originally conquered by both the British and French, not Russians. But to add, all the southern states belonged to the Spanish as well.

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    1. Russians definitely did settle parts of Alaska. I grew up in southeast Alaska and you can still see the Russian heritage in the onion-domed churches (e.g. St. Michael's Cathedral in Sitka) and Russian placenames (e.g. Baranof and Chichagof Islands). But I guess that is really tangential to the point of the post. I hadn't really ever thought about the essential "American-ness" of D&D, good food for thought :)

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  6. Hope you enjoyed your visit, I've the opposite experience of only getting to see port cities of the old country. But your point about scale is spot on, it shows up in railway gauge standards, European using narrower gauge on short lines, while American trains used a broad gauge on the transcontinental runs. The Russians of course decided to try a narrow gauge transcontinental railway with less than efficient results.

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    1. Actually the US and European main line gauges are exactly the same (except for Spain, Portugal and Ireland, which use a broader gauge. America used to have a lot of narrow gauge local lines in days gone by, it's just some of the European ones have survived, especially in Switzerand where there are many miles of metre-gauge track.

      Russian gauge is actually slightly wider at 5'

      All this is rather off-topic as there are no trains in D&D. But their shoud be....

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  7. A very interesting read, I have experienced parts of the US for myself but I hadn't quite made the full mental leap you have illustrated so well here. Incidentally, the wikipedia entry on 'Russian America' has some interesting claims, though it may need editing for all I know.

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  8. You should read the journal of Louis and Clarke concerning their journey across the continental US (then the territories recently acquired from Napoleon). Every gamer should, really. It's interesting to read about people who undertook the kind of journey D&D players take for granted every time they sit down at a table and all the absurd planning that goes into it when you're the one heading out into the trackless wilderness, seeing places that no member of your culture has ever seen before.

    And you should definitely take the time to visit The Great Lakes, Superior especially. It'll give you another impression of the scale and scope of things.

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  9. I found this via theRPGpundit's blog.

    Yes, I think you're on to something here. There's a vague sort of wandering, traveling, searching, exploring, seeking, expansionist, what's-over-that-next-hill thing embedded within America.

    I'm sure centuries-old explorer journals will be insightful, but so would "On the Road" by Jack Kerouac.

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