40 Years of Rule-based Magic: Celebrating the Anniversary of Dungeons and Dragons

As many of you may know, this year we celebrate the 4oth anniversary of the Dungeons and Dragons Role-playing system.  No doubt some of you readers have been players at one time or another, no doubt some of you have rolled your eyes at those who played, and maybe some of you still do.

Classic D&D roleplaying game

Classic D&D roleplaying game

My father, who introduced me to The Lord of the Rings, and at whose door may be laid much of the blame for my becoming a fantasy novelist, also introduced the family to D&D.  I quickly graduated to acting as the DM or Dungeon Master, devising wicked ways to torture my (player)characters, and the rest, as they say, is history–or maybe, historical fantasy.

Speaking of blame. . .D&D itself has been blamed for one of the facets of fantasy fiction, the idea of rule-based magic.  Through the system of game, magic-user players could gain experience, rise in levels, and gain access to new spells, which would have certain effects based on the roll of the dice. D&D created a structure in which fantasy adventures could take place and the participants had an understanding of what to expect–the sphere of possibilities in the game, similar to establishing the contract with the reader at the start of a novel.

The contract with the reader basically draws some boundaries around the imaginary realm of the book by which some things are included and others are excluded. It can include the physical contents of the world (dragons or vampires) and the intent of the author (this is a book where blood and sex are present on the page–or not).  It helps to ease the reader into that imaginary realm and allow him or her to experience the book at its best. If anything could happen–anything at all–it’s hard to know what to worry about or what to be excited about.  Any new, random event is simply the next in a catalog of miracles without cause/effect, without influence by the characters, and beyond their ability to change.

Many of the early great works of fantasy do not appear to have rules for magic–the contract with the reader suggests that magic is mysterious, numinous, rare and valuable. Characters like Gandalf and Schmendrick–radically different in their nature–have access to a great and dangerous power, but use that power so sparingly that the characters must rely upon a variety of approaches to solving their fictional problems.  The Wizard of Earthsea must learn and cultivate his magic–and discover that not all magic is to be deliberately taught.

Fast forward to the contemporary greats. One of the attractions of authors like Brandon Sanderson is his generation of a new system of magic for each of a dozen series. I’m not sure Tolkien would even have thought of magic as a “system,” yet that term is part of our writing lexicon, a thing that can be discussed as separate from worldbuilding or theme or character, elements that magic was once inextricably bound to.  And it has been said that the influence of Dungeons and Dragons is a large part of the reason this is so.

Many current authors of fantasy, like myself, were players of D&D. I like to think being a game master helped me to develop plots and to tailor events to characters (in the form of my hapless friends).  However, many of the readers of fantasy also began as players first of D&D, then of its many successor adventure games, all the way through Magic:  The Gathering, which is fundamentally *about* the rules for magic.  I’ve heard some authors and publishers sniff that gamers don’t read, which has not been my experience locally where many of my fans are both readers and gamers. Even if that were true, that doesn’t mean that readers don’t game–or that they never have.

I suspect that those experiences as gamers influence the reader’s side of the contract of a novel.  Many readers now approach a fantasy world expecting that magic has a structure which can be discerned from viewing its influence on the narrative.  Some authors make the system more explicit, as when Elisha, in my novel Elisha Barber, learns the confines of the application of magical power.

It can be argued that such constraints force the writer to be more creative, because he or she is constantly looking for startling ways to apply or defy them, and that they allow the reader greater enjoyment because they know exactly what to worry about, what to hope for, what to look for–like mystery readers seeking the clues in the race to find a killer, they enjoy trying to work through the puzzles of plot constraints.

What do you think?  If a writer, were you a player?  How has it influenced your approach to writing?  If a reader, has gaming influenced your approach to reading?


About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
This entry was posted in essays, fantasy, fiction, magic, worldbuilding, writing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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