Dungeons & Dragons: Friend or Foe of Sword-and-Sorcery?
by Brian Murphy
Did Dungeons & Dragons help lead to the demise of sword-and-sorcery?
I’m a long-time D&D fan and ex-gamer who may again pick up the dice bag. D&D is an awesome game, has given me countless hours of unadulterated joy, and I will unequivocally state that the world is a better place for it. But, I don’t think it has necessarily been a uniformly positive influence for subsequent generations of writers. Specifically, it may have played a role in the downfall of sword-and-sorcery.
Note: The following bit of speculation is not an indictment of what goes on at the table during D&D games, which at their best are cauldrons of creativity. But rather, the impact D&D may have had on sword-and-sorcery and subsequent fantasy fiction.
D&D was an evolution in game design, brilliantly executed. It distilled elements of great, old, fantasy fiction, combined them with rules for tactical combat lifted from wargames, and syncretized a phenomenon. But, in order for D&D to function as a game, Gary Gygax had to create order out of the creative chaos of its source fiction. Gygax took weird and wild spells like The Excellent Prismatic Spray from Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, and assigned them game mechanics. He borrowed terrifying green-skinned, regenerating, black-eyed trolls from Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions, and rendered them in a standard block of statistics, so that they could be appropriately placed in a module recommended for 6-8 players of levels 5-7. What gets lost in this process of necessary game codification and standardization is magic, creativity, and randomness―the stuff of good fiction.
D&D become so popular that it itself became an influence, rather than a product of its influences. In other words, it became not just the source for subsequent RPGs, but fiction itself. The most obvious example is authorized tie-in game fiction; Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman’s TSR authorized Dragonlance is populated by heroes who are recognizable D&D character classes. They contain little of the adult wildness and unpredictability of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser, or the larger-than-life heroes of E.R. Eddison’s Worm Ouroboros. I like Caramon, but he’s no Conan (and let’s not overlook the similarity of that name). Then came the likes of R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt novels (37 and counting) and too many Forgotten Realms tie-ins to count. Other game companies joined suit, for example Games Workshop with its Warhammer novels, and so on.
Many of today’s writers spent their formative years as gamers, and the influence of D&D is apparent in some of their fiction. You can see it in the over-explanation and codification of worlds of wonder, characters that read like classes and D&D races, action scenes that feel like they are following game mechanics, and long, epic storylines that mirror tedious game campaigns. Wildness and danger and unpredictable weirdness often gets lost as a result. Look at the treatment of sorcery for example: pre-D&D it was the stuff of half-crazed, demon-summoning sorcerers operating from the somewhat-safe confines of a pentagram. Post D&D kindly magic-users were flinging fireballs and lightning bolts, supporting their fellow bands of thieves and fighting-men.
I don’t mean to imply that D&D is uniformly bad for writers; in fact many talented authors have sung its praises. Steven Erikson and Joe Abercrombie for example were inspired by their experiences playing D&D and went on to commercial success and literary acclaim. Writes Abercrombie: “The creativity you need to gamesmaster is a useful step on the way to the creativity you need to write. Without GMing myself, I’m not sure I’d ever have thought about the possibility of taking the next step and trying to write fiction.” This is pretty cool, and as a fan of The Heroes and The First Law trilogy, I’m glad Joe made the transition. And, at least some players of the game were inspired to read the source material, to which Gygax pointed the way with his famous Appendix N signpost. But, newer fantasy fiction as a whole just started to feel different post-D&D. Read enough of the old fiction, and it starts to feel more wondrous and unpredictable compared with what came after, post-D&D.
And we also have an odd coincidence of timing that invites speculation. Sword-and-sorcery was at its zenith, commercially and arguably creatively, in the late 60s and early 70s. Fritz Leiber was enjoying a resurgence, Michael Moorcock was writing creative iterations of the Eternal Champion including the likes of Corum, and the Lancer Conans were ubiquitous. These were followed by the likes of Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane, the Swords Against Darkness anthologies, and Charles Saunders’ Imaro. However, by the late 70s, it was showing cracks. While sword-and-sorcery was ubiquitous in the popular culture in the 80s, in publishing circles it was widely criticized, the subject of merciless lampooning, and on its way out.
At the same time, D&D was beginning its rapid ascent. The first D&D ruleset was published in 1974, albeit in a relatively small print run. 1977 was the big year for D&D with the publication of Gygax’s AD&D Monster Manual and Eric Holmes’ popular basic boxed set. By the early 80s, it was a runaway freight train.
These two events, one literary subgenre falling and its tabletop successor rising, may be coincidental. But, perhaps not. I suspect sword-and-sorcery may have been harmed by the success of gaming tie-fiction. These series sold because they had a built-in audience, a fanbase raised on the games and the branding of its campaign settings. But they may have also scratched the itch that series like Flashing Swords and Swords Against Darkness were filling in the 1970s. Another factor is simple economics. The proliferation of gaming in general, both tabletop and the rapidly evolving computer game industry, made an impact by bleeding away allowances. Paper route money only went so far in 1980-82, and kids and young teens were confronted with a difficult choice of Against the Cult of the Reptile God, Wizardry, or Keith Taylor’s Bard. Ideally, that hypothetical kid would have had the cash outlay for all; I can tell you I chose door number one. I was still reading, but I was reading the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide. And sword-and-sorcery suffered for it.
All this speculation aside, D&D is at best a secondary factor in the demise of sword-and-sorcery. There is plenty of other blame to go around. The publication of the wildly popular The Sword of Shannara in 1977 proved that the reading public was hungry for Tolkien-inspired high fantasy, not sword-and-sorcery. This was a win for publishers, who were presented with a far more appealing recurring revenue model, the multi-book series. In comparison, standalone sword-and-sorcery novels and short story collections were a lot less attractive. Mainly, sword-and-sorcery was its own worst enemy, messing its own bed by clogging the pipeline with poor pastiche, Robert E. Howard clones, and barbarian cliche. The subgenre may have been creatively spent by the early 80s. A pack of howlingly terrible films helped to drag it down, rendering it anathema to publishers.
But, I can’t help but wonder if D&D, which gave the world such joy and wonder, might have played some small part.
Brian Murphy is the author of Flame and Crimson: A History of Sword-and-Sorcery (Pulp Hero Press, 2020). Learn more about his life and work on his website, The Silver Key.