Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Is D&D A Product of the Midwest?

I was rereading Atlas Games' 40 Years of Gen Con when I came across the following quote from James M. Ward:

"D&D's a product that always looking at the hero, and at doing good. That's very much a Midwestern "work hard and good things will happen to you" concept. If the game had started in someplace like Atlanta, it would be much more gothic in its appeal. If it had started in California, it would be more laid back. Because it started in the Midwest, the work ethic of the Midwest went along with the game design".

This sentiment is echoed in the same section of the book by Tracy Hickman and Mary Kirchoff.

So, is D&D a product of the Midwestern U.S.? Certainly it got its start there geographically, in the heart of Big Ten Country, in a period where there was much less global cultural exchange than we have today. But how much of an effect did its birthplace have on the tone and presentation of the game?

I think it would be absurd to suggest that D&D was solely a Midwestern phenomenon; clearly, the game quickly exploded into worldwide appeal. But (and this is coming from a lifelong Midwesterner, mind), I do think the Midwest left some fingerprints. Its difficult to speak in generalities, but I know the people I grew up around. There's a work ethic here that admires that steady, increased levels of success through accomplishment. There's a largely non-cynical acceptance and employment of religion. There's a cooperative idealism that hasn't quite managed to be transformed into a worn, jaded outlook. There is a less aggressive, abrasive nature than on the East Coast, yet perhaps a more focused, fussy one than the West Coast. There's a well-read population, but in more of a generalist, non-exclusionary vein. Of course, all these are generalities, but I do believe things may have been different were D&D a product of Boston, San Francisco, or New Orleans.

Had Uncle Gary been a product of the U.K. or Europe (I mean directly), I also believe the game would have been darker. We in the Midwest are further removed from the impact and geography of the landmarks of the Dark and Middle Ages; games like Warhammer Fantasy differ from D&D in terms of grittiness, black humor, and gore. It is easier for us to view these less as bloodbaths and more as fantastic vistas, even though we may know the historical facts.

How far does it go? The wintry climate encouraging indoor activities? The local library's taste in books? Likely, D&D has been influenced to be the game it is in a hundred little ways we can only guess at.

So, is D&D a product of the Midwest U.S.? Would it have been different if created in another region or country? Would it have been created at all? Fire away!

22 comments:

Nick said...

it would be interesting to take a look at the geographic origins of some other notable early games and see what conclusions we could draw.

PatrickWR said...

Look at the companies that are still active in the old-school D&D community. A bunch of them, including Judges Guild and Goodman Games, are based in the Midwest. The first GenCon was held in Wisconsin; it's since moved around a bit, but the flagship show has stayed in the Midwest (Indianapolis).

A lot of my favorite RPG bloggers, the folks who still attend the small cons and run megadungeon campaigns, live in Illinois, Missouri and Wisconsin. In fact, those little cons themselves -- Winter War, FlatCon, RockCon, etc. -- are still largely focused on the tone and spirit of the early D&D enthusiasm.

So yes, I think your assessment is spot-on, and this is actually something I've been thinking about for a while myself. I've lived in the Midwest my whole life, albeit in larger cities therein, and I've definitely recognized some of the tropes you've identified.

stu said...

If it were created on the east or west coasts you know the primary character would be a thief rather than a fighter.

Zachary The First said...

@Nick: I agree. I think we can see it somewhat with the origins of Warhammer Fantasy.

@PatrickWR: That's true, there is a pretty solid presence in the Midwest w/ related companies.

@Stu: ZING! Ouch, man! :)

Mad Brew said...

I come across this idea before, and I can really buy into it. Being born and raised in Indiana, then living on both coasts as well as living and spending significant time overseas (thank you, USMC), I have experienced cultural differences first-hand.

When I was away, I always missed the atmosphere of the Midwest, where things seem to be a bit more sensible and practical. Of course, that could have just ben nostalgia and homesickness coloring my memories.

I always thought of the Midwest as the Shire of the U.S.

I agree with Nick that it would be very interesting to do an informal study that looks at the mood, theme, and mechanics of some of the major games and see if there are other geographic tendencies.

sirlarkins said...

I've always thought Midwest winters and ubiquitous basement/rumpus rooms must have been key in D&D emerging where it did.

Also, I think the implied geography of D&D--small farming settlements separated by wide swaths of open wilderness--has a very Midwestern feel.

Stu: I agree with you on thieves and East coast origins, but I think magic-users would've been the primary class for a West coast origin. Think about it.

(And, of course, if D&D had come from the South, we'd have clerics as the primary class. :P)

Max said...

"Had Uncle Gary been a product of the U.K. or Europe (I mean directly), I also believe the game would have been darker. We in the Midwest are further removed from the impact and geography of the landmarks of the Dark and Middle Ages; games like Warhammer Fantasy differ from D&D in terms of grittiness, black humor, and gore."

I wonder whether one has to go so far back as the Middle Ages -- after all, a 20 year old English gamer in 1979 could very easily have grown up with parents who lived through the Blitz. Perhaps some of the darkness of the European scene owes something to the historically recent battles fought on their own soil? Isn't the whole WH40K milieu sort of a Worlds War setting?

Mind you, just the speculation of another US midwesterner. Any gamers from UK or the Continent who'd care to weigh in?

Zachary The First said...

In terms of 40k, that's a very real possibility. But I'd love to hear from some of our friends across the pond on this--as well as those from other regions of the U.S.!

There sure are a lot of us Midwesterners! :)

Nick said...

Well, I'm an east coaster, and I wonder if my personal dissatisfaction with D&D could be related to my upbringing. The game's assumed religious outlook, rural setting, and survival emphasis have always grated on me, but I have no idea if those elements bother me for personal reasons or have something to do with where I'm from.

Zachary The First said...

And that might be the conundrum, Nick--where our region/environment ends and we begin, and how each influences the other. :)

Excellent thoughts, guys. I appreciate the conversation on this.

ligedog said...

I think that the Midwest was a big influence on D&D. But other regions had their RPGs as well such as Runequest in California and Tunnels and Trolls in Arizona. I would argue that these games have something to do with their regions. And then you have Greyhawk which is essence an epic Midwest. In the same vein the Forgotten Realms is basically an epic Canada.

Max said...

Another thought: Arduin seems like a pretty California interpretation of D&D. There's even a bit about light sabers in Skull Tower...

Zachary The First said...

ligedog: I do think the Realms and Greyhawk definitely have some regional fingerprints, especially the Realms. I saw Greyhawk as a fantasy U.S., but definitely one with a Midwestern eye and tone towards things...

Max: Was Dave Hargrove from Cali? Hmm...

Max said...

Actually, Zach, a short search doesn't turn up much biographical info prior to his military service in Vietnam (a combat cinematographer, how 'bout that?). But the Grimoires were published in CA, and Dave's buried at Golden Gate, so there's a strong Cali connection.

Rich said...

I agree with Nick and Mad Brew--it'd be cool to see someone examine the regional origins of some different games and see what (if any) conclusions can be drawn.

Nick said...

What about the origins of games like Vampire and Gurps? Obviously, these games came much later, but distinctions may be easier to draw with these very diferent games.

Rich said...

White Wolf is out of Georgia, right? Very clearly a dark, Gothic game--like Savannah on paper. :)

Jeff Rients said...

For a while now I've suspected that the long, cold winters in Wisconsin and Minnesota are prime factors in the early development of the hobby. But I've no evidence to back that up.

Leo Richard Comerford said...

Ron Edwards said something in close agreement in his "More Fantasy Heartbreakers":


Deathstalkers, from Cutter's Guild, is simultaneously the most deconstructive and most preservative game I've ever seen, relative to the oldest-of-schools D&D play, in detail after detail. It's almost impossible to summarize them: castings, ingredients, hit points, levels, alignments, etc, are all hard-core D&D belt (Madison to Springfield) dungeon crawl. The game is the very essence of midwestern U.S. D&D style gaming and should probably be studied in detail by anyone interested in the history of the hobby - it distils out nearly every strategic element from the old-school texts and places them into prominent, character-mortality-challenging center stage.

Zachary The First said...

"D&D Belt?"

Interesting term...

Anonymous said...

Hi.

Great article. I had thought about it myself, and it's good to know I'm not alone.

As a European, I think I know why our games tend to be darker. The Middle Ages were part of our history so we study it and we can't afford to entertain romantic ideas about it. It would be odd.

I am certain that you wouldn't accept a roleplaying game that dealt with the Far West in the same vein as D&D deals with the Middle Ages.

On the other hand, we both clearly have a very luminous idea on the Middles Ages in Japan. I would like to know if games as 'The Legends of the Five Rings' are played in Japan.

Agis Silverfish

Anonymous said...

Allow me to correct myself:

Surely you would be able to play an 'innocent' game about the Far West, as we Europeans can play D&D. I didn't mean otherwise.

The conclusion is that perhaps we are less likely to produce a naive game about something we know well.

Agis Silverfish