Swords Against Magic: Or How I Learned to Love the Glow

I’ve been playing role-playing games since I was about 10  years old. 

It was around 1985. I revered my older brother. In the early 80s, he and my older cousin spent their weekends with old versions of Dungeons & Dragons that they had somehow gathered up in rural Iowa. Early on, they even used little cardstock chits in a bowl as randomizers because they didn’t have the dice yet. 

One year for Christmas, my brother got the three main books of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. I was 8 or 9, maybe? I didn’t know what all that stuff in those books meant, but I knew I loved it. The artwork captivated me. The books held charts of things that sounded interesting, pictures of swords and cut-throats. Goofy cartoons. And all those monsters from my elementary school nerdy kid Greek mythology were there in the Monster Manual, the best book of all from my perspective.

A Pedigree in Geekery

I had seen fantastical movies like Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger and Clash of the Titans. I remember being obsessed with the giant scorpions in second grade. My brother even took me to see Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan, just the two of us. That’s one of my fondest memories from back then. One of those nights, once my brother figured out he could rent VCRs and video tapes, I literally watched through a keyhole a movie I had no business seeing at that age. But I knew I desperately wanted to see it: Conan the Barbarian. The parts I saw, well, let’s just say it was a formative movie. I was, of course, a Star Wars movie and toy fan, though I had friends that were lovable fanatics about it (I still do!). We had a literal garbage can of my brother’s scattered and messy comic book collection. I loved what he had: Avengers, Micronauts, X-Men, Power Man & Iron Fist, John Carter: Warlord of Mars, Defenders. There was a crazy, gIant sized Superman vs. Flash, and another with a Superman and Spiderman crossover. And, of course, a few Conan comics.

I had read the Chronicles of Prydain (another brother hand-me-down in a wonderful series case set of all the books). Choose Your Own Adventures were all the rage at the school book fairs. But Wizards, Warriors, and You were so much better. You could pick your path and your own weapons! Another cousin and I loved those. My aunt (yet another cousin!) got me a Star Frontiers module around then. I barely understood it was an adventure module, and I didn’t have the role-playing game main books themselves. But I must have looked through that thing a hundred times, wondering what is a Quickdeath and why is it so scary? Also, giant lizards with lasers on their heads were very cool. That aunt later got me the Marvel Super Heroes box set — the yellow “basic” one. That was actually the first role-playing game I owned, but by then I had played D&D.

The Man Without a Tribe

It took me remarkably little time to figure out — or at least assume — that everyone else wasn’t into all this stuff. As far as I could tell (and I was no doubt very wrong), girls didn’t want anything to do with that stuff.

To top all that off, it was thick in the days of Satanic Panic. So much so that the cousin my brother first played with wasn’t allowed to play any more. I had a friend whose dad made him burn all his books. I hated everything about that nonsense.

One of my best pals was our ringleader on the role-playing games front. He had friends, and soon enough we all were pals. Later, other friends I made were into D&D. I was in a small town very near a small city. Everyone knew everyone. Popularity and cliques and being the cool kid was all what one might expect of being a Midwestern town in the 1980s. I had my geek friends, and I had my non-geek friends, and ne’er the two shall meet. At least, my cool kid pals didn’t seem interested at all. I sort of lived between tribes, which it turns out is one of my life-long habits.

The rest is amusing history. I played RPGs all through college and adulthood, and made great friends. I even published some mildly successful independent RPGs of my own in the 2000s, and I made even more friends while doing it.

Talkin’ ’Bout my Generation

Now here I am. I’m of a generation, now in its 40s, that grew up from a younger age into the guts of the hobby, a sort of post-golden-age in the 1980s in which role-playing games really took a more commercial form. Now, D&D is more popular than ever in its fifth edition. It’s a very different scene from my days with a bunch of fellow dorky guys. I’m amazed and in awe of the diversity of D&D fans. Sure, there are old farts like me getting soft in the middle and still dreaming about swords and dragons. But there are people who watch other people play the game, and this is a Very Big Deal. Celebrities join in as part of their celebrity-dom and persona (and, sure, they’re real fans, too). The lively scene on social media and elsewhere is remarkable. Artists and mapmakers have successful patronages and kick-started projects in the five and six (or a few even seven) digit figures. That was unthinkable even 15 years ago for me, let alone 35 years ago.

All of this wonderful resurgence, and in large part the game itself, has evolved and changed what it’s like. It’s a superbly designed game overall. It’s very familiar looking, with all the parts and pieces, characters and monsters. There are more of all of those. Whimsical art that has no business on the cover of a heavy metal album fills up my Twitter feed. D&D is many things to many people, as it should be. No one owns it, and it changes and shifts to an ever-larger fanbase. Rumors abound of movies and shows. More video games are on the way. Amusingly, the D&D publishers, Wizards of the Coast, are relatively sparse with what they produce for the game. Wisely, they’ve mostly tapped into an enthusiastic fan base that more than makes up for the old schedules of books each month (that, frankly, weren’t very good most of the time). There’s so much to love with all of this. For lifelong fans, myself included, that’s not going away. 

Still, those memories of being a kid and loving what we loved, stick to one’s ribs. Lately, I’ve been watching some (really impressive) YouTube videos. They tend to be done by guys roughly my age sharing their tips and techniques for D&D. They advise on how to play, how to prepare, amd any number of creative ideas.

Interestingly, some might say something like “Today’s D&D is built for high fantasy. It’s super-powered heroes with all kinds of bizarre characters to play — like dragon people and devilish people and cat people and on and on. With a few exceptions, whatever your character, they probably have magical powers. Even the good old fighting and outdoorsy types bring supernatural powers to the tabletop.”

They explain this is just how the game is, how it’s evolved. Of course that’s true. And it’s not all bad. And then their real motive for saying all that sneaks in. “I tend to prefer low magic, myself. I liked the good old days of winning with your wits and your sword.”

Some are more polite about this than others! But of course they usually recognize that most people really like the game it has become. And these older guys like it, too. It’s just … remember when? I’ll get back to this. 

Delving into Dungeon World

A few years ago, I was on the tail end of part-time graduate school, and soon changed my career. I pulled back from the small-time games I had published, and I focused on work and family and fiction writing. But, I stayed on the sidelines, picking up new games here and there, and playing a few times with old friends. That small-time indie publishing scene I had known grew to be pretty big time for some. One of those was Dungeon World. It was an homage to D&D, wrapped up in a bunch of game design and play techniques that really differed from what most of the hobby does at the table (some do, bear with me).

In other words, it’s an edgy game dressed up like the most traditional one. Characters seem about the same as D&D characters, on the surface. Elven wizards and noble paladins, sneaky halflings, dastardly orcs and dragons. Adventuring into the wilderness and dungeons — all that D&D core stuff is there. It was D&D, it just used a wildly different operating system, so to speak. Dungeon World is brilliant. It’s still around, although the popularity seems to have trickled off some as the publishers moved on to other things. And D&D itself keeps picking up steam. 

Role-playing game fans — especially those older dogs like me — can be really strange about their tastes. Dungeon World challenges a lot of D&D sacred cows. The rules are radically different, though the play procedures really aren’t. But Dungeon World is not a tactical game played on a grid with sometimes hours long fights with the bad guys that last turn after turn. Not every D&D group does that, but a whole lot do. The core D&D rules are built to do that. And this is the “easiest to understand” version in five editions over 40 years! 

The newer D&D rules are many things, but at the heart of those rules is a tactical engine. There are elaborate rules that instruct how your character can do things or not do things, except when your character advances to get that one power then they can. And so on. 

Whereas, Dungeon World is a fictional engine. It also still focuses on fighting bad guys and exploring the world. But it doesn’t do tactical battles. It does what I will call fictional, consequential scenes. This gets a little tricky. At a higher level, D&D does this too, but the actual hows and whats are very different when you look at behaviors by players, decisions they make, and how it all ties together. At risk of diving deep into a meta-geeky world of arcane game design, I’ll just say that Dungeon World tries (and in my view largely succeeds) to “bring back” imagination in a way that D&D has veered away from to be that tactical game that many love today.

Phew! Finally, I’m reaching for my point here. 

The Highs and Lows of Fantasy

Remember previously when I mentioned I started noticing (usually) middle-aged guys like me saying D&D is “too high fantasy” for their tastes? Well, Dungeon World is arguably high fantasy. But it has another flaw some old fuddy duddies don’t like: Artwork and aesthetic.

D&D has a decades long history of artwork, and with it the look and feel of the game. What started in the 1970s as line art sketches, some goofy cartoons, some solid ink illustrations, and some psychedelic weirdness evolved. It became more realistic. But also remember my bit about how it looked like heavy metal album covers? Yeah, it often became that. Not all of it. But, certainly for many, it was the gritty, sometimes dark, and especially the edgy, high-end full color artwork that captivated. Mad-eyed wizards raising up hordes of skeletons. Big flames. Jewels. Hulky dudes with runed swords. Hordes of sneering orcs. And, of course, glorious dragons, usually wreathed in oil painted flame. Larry Elmore. Jeff Easley. Keith Parkinson. A bit later Todd Lockwood and Gerald Brom.

I’m oversimplifying and squeezing together a longer timeline to illustrate a point. The point is this: The art — and the aesthetic — of D&D today is more diverse, more imaginative. It’s high fantasy. The visuals are vibrant. The characters are more diverse, which I applaud overall. The vision of the various worlds is wildly magical. Magic glows. Damn near everything glows.

It’s true those earlier artists I mentioned did a lot of high fantasy art. And D&D had plenty of high fantasy content since at least the mid 1980s. But, in general, the cast of characters was human or dwarf or elf, halfling or half-orc. The character classes did their thing, often very unequally. Most classes did things based on their skills and innate characteristics. But innate magical abilities were for the magical classes like wizards and clerics and the rest of the group’s magic items. Yes, paladins and rangers and bards could cast some limited spells. They could not close their eyes and detect whether a celestial was within one mile, rest a bit, and do it again, as they do in D&D 5th edition. The fighters and thieves and (mostly) the rangers did things swinging swords and running around trying to outsmart nasty bad guys or find items that could do it for them. D&D wasn’t really the “go to” game for low fantasy or gritty, dark fantasy, but you could see it and do it that way, especially in those older editions.

I have a couple other conspiracy theories about this shift. Anime, I’m looking at you — why is it if you’re in your mid-40s, chances are pretty good you don’t like the “look” of anime? I’m 45 and … yeah. But beyond that, video games and mediocre urban fantasy shows, must everything glow? World of Warcraft’s cartoon-like style is another “culprit.” Obviously, millions of people love it. I’ve heard over and over again for years that people, typically around my age, don’t like the cartoony-ness of it all. It leaves them wanting. 

This look-and-feel thing happened over the period of many, many years. It was an evolution, not a revolution. And there’s nothing wrong with how things have changed. Nearly all of it is for the better, by far. The vast majority of the art and style and aesthetic for D&D — let alone streaming shows and video games and so on — blows my mind.

This You Can Trust

I read Game of Thrones in 1996 because I’m geeky, not because I’m wise. I thought it would be some long epic fantasy book that I might not finish (not the first). The book was so realistic and brutal! I absolutely loved it, in part for those reasons. Finally, someone had made a “realistic” fantasy with superb writing and didn’t need every character to have a magical thing. I insisted all my role-playing pals read it. All of them read it and loved it.

What is this thing? What is it about my generation’s peculiar upbringing that has something rooted in this idea of swords & wits, not flashy magic and anthropomorphic heroes (easy, they’re just examples)? Why do guys — and in my experience it’s usually, but not always, us guys — prefer this kind of gruff stoicism and mortality than, say, a cat-person wizard who rides a feathered dragon? If the first thing that popped in your head about that cat-person I just made up was “Ok, come on, that sounds freaking awesome!” then you’re probably not the every-so-slightly cranky 40-ish fantasy fan I’m talking about.

If you’re still reading, you may have forgotten in my blathering that I have a long habit of living in between tribes. I tend to be a pretty wide-ranging-tastes kind of guy, so much so it used to drive my old role-playing groups crazy as I jumped from interest to interest. I can happily get on board with some high magic adventuring. I mean, maybe not anime … I just … sigh. But I also really love my crew that wants swords & sorcery style or the hard-fought adventure in which the big magic was earned, dad-gummit, and didn’t always glow.

Back to the Dungeon

Which, finally (I promise) brings me back to Dungeon World. I actually love the artwork and style in the Dungeon World book. It’s a whimsical nod to the oldest days of the D&D hobby. I’ve bumped into a handful of comments over the years with, you guessed it, guys about my age who say they can’t stand its artwork, even if they love the game. And some who definitely do not love it — it’s non-starter on art alone!

How to bring these tribes together? How to get their chocolate in my peanut butter? How does one resurrect the style of the old days with the abundance and brilliance of the new? The answer is an uphill climb because it takes a hell of a lot of work and a recognition among that old group of fellows to really look at what makes their game fun and fill some old wants. But it’s where my brain tends to wander lately: Writing absurdly long diatribes about geeky things, and even kick around making that game, fates help me.

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