What Made Original D&D Great


If one is writing or running a fantasy game, some of the most engrossing elements are those of dark magic, faerie races, demons, and ancient temples to lost gods. More than anything, these are the elements that lend the all-important sense of awe, wonder, and cosmic mystery to a story. Additionally, I propose that these are precisely the elements which have made the fantasy RPG the most durable and vibrant of all RPG genres: the physical existence of sentient gods and cosmic forces and blatant evils presents the greatest departure of place from the roles of students and workers in late 20th century developed states. The proper development of such themes must include such adult themes as scenes of (either threat or evidence of past) torture, sacrifice, violence, black magic, and sexual overtones; such activities actually occurred in the past, and the lack of such threats makes the evils not very much worth fighting against.

In the early days (the time of origins, perhaps, that mythic innocent condition) of RPG publishing, the adult writers were free to include such themes in the D&D works. I recall when the original "Eldritch Sorcery" booklet appeared in my hobby shop, complete with a completely naked woman prostrate on an altar on the cover! This kind of art (and the other stylized art forms which gave such a wonderful sense of the ancient, such as Erol Otus' excellent work) gave the rules and modules a palpable sense of danger, rawness, and excitement.

As is well known, such imagery caused fantastic consternation among conservative and religious groups when the game form became popular among adolescent males in the late 1970's and early 1980's. Charges based mostly on D&D as induction into devil-worshiping cults and an "underground" culture of black magic, the occult, and witchcraft-type circles, along with the occasional rumor of a suicide by a D&D player connected to the game, so caught the public imagination, and was so useful to those religious authorities requiring dramatic dangers to the soul, that the game was banned in some areas and schools (the same rumor and threat of a ban occurring in a certain Maine community as late as the winter of 19931). This author considers such accusations as unworthy of a lengthy response. To TSR, however, this was of course a great problem: in the early days, apparently, a spokesperson was employed specifically for the purpose of appearing at public functions and debates to countermand these accusations. The value of these forums, seriously debating the presence of an insidious devil-worshipping cult among America's youth, was of such obvious value to certain religious figures that one author bemoans the end of this practice by TSR in an edition of Christianity Today.2

Indeed, TSR's response (around 1984 and on) was a "juvenilization" of the game, erasing adult themes, a promise to clothe women on the "Dragon" covers more fully, and mandates in the "Dragon" writer's guidelines to avoid all references to specific evil practices, successful evil figures, any reference to "gods" (in exchange for "powers" or "entities"), and basically making the game a PG or PG-13 version acceptable to all parents.3 Not that this has completed solved D&D's larger image "problem" (as in the late 1993 case), but it no doubt calmed the furor and eased the minds of TSR executives.

Now, precisely one of the most creative areas that EGG excelled at was in creating myths, stories about gods and unearthly places, and most of all, detailing the foes of humanity in demons, daemons, and devils of every sort. Surely it is no more than a modern-day version of what every ancient poet participated in (men writing the gods), but this forte of EGG was precisely what the new TSR dictum put a damper on. It is worth noting that almost every game after D&D has been able to maintain an adult tone, and adult attitudes towards (and explications of) peril and violence, but for some reason the flagship of the RPG industry has suffered the most intense examination and criticism in this regard.

At any rate, late-model D&D is unable to name or detail the gods, leaving them, and hence any priests and temples of worship, misty and indefinite places. For this reason, creation stories are absent, the myths are unclear, artifacts uninspiring, and histories uncertain. In every way, the campaign loses direction and so does the fantasy game itself. At its worst, evil becomes so uninspiring that it is relegated to comic relief, as in a certain "Dungeon" adventure where dwellers of the lower planes sport gaudy ties, Bermuda shorts, and bowler hats.4 Or, the wretched module H4, detailing a plane of the Abyss, where everything from demons to liches to undead zombies are basically played for laughs.

1 In this late-era case the media-publicized rumor concerned James Picard of East Corinth Central High School. The Penobscot County District superintendent threatened to ban the D&D game at this time.
2 Christianity Today, September 4, 1981, vol. 25, no. 15 (see also the issue May 17, 1985, vol. 29, no. 8).
3 From Dragon magazine's 1989 Guidelines for Writers, p. 2: "Thus, we do not wish to portray profanity, graphic violence or sexual activity, or any other 'adult' topics." See also the "Game Wizards" column by James Ward in Dragon magazine #154 (Feb. 1990), p. 9, entitled "Angry Mothers from Heck", which at least one online commentator has described as "infamous".
4 This particular adventure comes from Dungeon magazine #23 (May/June 1990), p. 18.