Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Cultural Stew That Birthed Dungeons & Dragons

There has been much talk over the recent years about the early evolution from war-games to that fantasy game we all love with all those funny looking dice. But one must also keep in mind the mindset and culture of the times when the game was birthed. We're talking the late 60's and very early 70's. A time when fantasy and science fiction were being "rediscovered" so to speak.

Tolkien's high fantasy Lord of the Rings books achieved a popularity with it's peaceful hobbits and getting back to the land concepts very much in tune with the counter-culture philosophies and fantasy-trips of the day. There was a band called Gandalf, a London club called Middle Earth, and don't forget the infamous "Frodo Lives" T-shirts too. There was even talk of a Lord of the Rings movie to be directed by Stanley Kubrik and staring The Beatles.

The mid and late 60's also saw the publishing of the Robert E. Howard Conan stories in paperback by Lancer and ACE, albeit heavily edited. That, of course, lead to the Marvel Conan comics by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith. Other paperback companies jumped on board as well featuring Moorecock, Lovecraft and others, sporting fantastic cover art from the likes of Frank Frazetta and Jeff Jones.

Science Fiction, too, was leaving it's impressions on the experienced minds of young people. This was Science Fiction driven by concept and story and not laser-blasts and action. Films like 2001: A Space Odyssey with it's cosmic rebirth of earth's star-child, and grim post-apocalyptic dramas such as (Beneath the) Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green and The Omega-Man (okay, maybe Chuck Heston had a monopoly on the apocalypse). Bakshi's Wizards and even Jack Kirby's DC comic Kamandi can be added to this fertile stew.

Fantasy and Science Fiction were seeping deep into the pores of our culture. It was all around and still in a pure-form. It had not been commercialized or sanitized or even sharply defined or divided. It was Science Fiction and Fantasy and it encompassed many things with the two very much blurring into each other.

It is no surprise then that some creative war-gamers took those games to another level; to attempt to bring one into these realms of fantasy and to experience for one's self the excitement and freedom and in some cases grim horror of these worlds, if only for a few hours. Thus were born Greyhawk, Blackmoore, Dragons, Dungeons, Metamorphosis Alpha, Tekumel, Traveller and many other 'Fantasy Role-Playing Games', the affects of which are still being felt to this day.

More to come....


  1. I think you're right that sci-fi/fantasy had become a part of the cultural at that point that they became a natural subjects for gaming. Interestingly though, I think this infiltration only continued with steady improvement of special effects making the blockbuster and the genre blockbuster synonymous.

    Unfortunately, its been MMORPGs and CRPGs to reap the benefits of that not traditional rpgs.

  2. "There was even talk of a Lord of the Rings movie to be directed by Stanley Kubrik and staring The Beatles."

    Groovy! I wouldn't mind nipping off to a parallel universe and seeing that.

  3. Very Good article. I posted a link to it on my blog.

  4. You're right on this. The cultural stew of late 60's and early 70's played a big part in the creation of D&D.

    Another big influence was probably Star Trek. Star Trek and the fandom that was created around it really formed the genesis of modern geek culture. The first Star Trek convention was in 1972. I'm sure D&D benefited from this culture of fans taking these fantastic worlds that they love and becoming a part of them and making them their own.

  5. Good overview of the fantasy popular culture, BI. I'm tuned in to some of it. I have that Gandalf album with the cover you posted above, for instance.

    Also over in the UK, Tyrannosaurus Rex (Marc Bolan, pre-T.rex) was proudly waving the Tolkien flag. See "Beard of Stars", 1970.

  6. Ah yes, I forgot about early Marc Bolan. Good call. Fantasy was indeed quite pervasive.