Dungeons & Dragons has its certainties. Jeff Rients’ description for newbies covers the basics: “You play Conan, I play Gandalf. We team up to fight Dracula.” But if you’ve played before, you can be sure of much more than that. You know that Dracula’s castle was built long, long ago. The villagers that he victimizes won’t have jobs constructing his new lair next door, or minting fresh coins for his treasure vaults, because D&D thrives in the shadow of ages gone by. Chances are that Dracula’s scheming to wake horrors from the distant past, and you’ll defeat him using an ancient artifact or nearly-forgotten lore. Play long enough to build a stronghold and you’ll reach the climactic Battle of Evermore that turns it into the haunted ruins of the next campaign.
The Dungeons & Dragons universe is forever rising from the ashes of one apocalypse and rushing headlong toward the next. It’s been that way ever since the first adventurers set foot in Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor back in 1970-71. In the Temple of the Frog adventure that introduced the gaming public to the original D&D campaign world, Room 5 contains a pipe organ, “the only musical instrument of its kind still in existence.” Knowing that the fact that it weighs ten tons won’t stop players from wanting to loot it, Arneson tells us that “Any person so attempting to take apart or put this instrument back together will either have to find the only priest who knows how to, or decipher the cryptic manual on artifacts found amongst the volumes in the Library.” At a Gen Con seminar a year before his death, I asked Arneson whether this pipe organ implies a previous high-tech fantasy civilization or whether Blackmoor is a post-apocalyptic Earth. He said “Yes,” and when the laughter died down he explained, “My players haven’t figured that out yet.”
Apocalypses are prominent in each of the original ’70s roleplaying game settings. In Gary Gygax’s world of Greyhawk, the Sea of Dust is all that remains of an ancient empire whose mages annihilated their rivals with the Invoked Devastation before being destroyed in turn by the Rain of Colorless Fire. Bob Bledsaw’s Wilderlands has a 12,000 year backstory in which one civilization after another is toppled by events like Infinite Destruction, The Cataclysm of the Turtle, and the Uttermost War. The essentials of the RPG apocalypse are laid out in M.A.R. Barker’s Empire of the Petal Throne (1975):
Cities fell, rivers left their banks, volcanic ash destroyed the settlers’ fields, and the system of food production and communication was gone. Mankind began to slip downwards into barbarism. Old machines took on a divine aura, and as they failed, men lost the knowledge to repair them and were forced to adapt to non-technological life in a difficult environment … Darkness, not only of the skies but also of the mind, closed down over Tekumel forever.
Not every ’70s D&D trope turned out to have legs. Although alien spaceships visited
Blackmoor, Greyhawk, Tekumel, and the Wilderlands, they are sadly absent from the latest installment in the Dungeons & Dragons franchise. But apocalypse is still central to one of the key conceits of its 4th Edition, as pointed out by Bruce Cordell in the preview book Wizards Presents: Worlds and Monsters:
Civilization persists only within widely separated ‘points of light’ in a world of mysterious, untamed darkness. The darkness shrouds a ruin-littered landscape, a world built on the foundations of lost empires of unimaginable antiquity … These ruins tell a tale of heights achieved, then long falls.
If you’ve got darkness encroaching, ruins, and fallen empires, then you’ve got the Dungeons & Dragons apocalypse, whether it’s 2008 or 1975.
Why We’re Playing Conan and Gandalf
OK, let’s say you want to be Conan the Barbarian. Or if you want to be Thundarr the Barbarian, that’s cool too. A surprising percentage of Gary Gygax’s “Inspirational and Recommended Reading” in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide in 1979 are the kind of after-the-bomb post-apocalypse stories familiar from games like Fallout. Whichever barbarian you’re playing, the dark ages that follow a world-destroying cataclysm are essential to your backstory.
For Conan, the fallen empire is that of Robert E. Howard’s other sword and sorcery hero, Kull of Atlantis. Every mythos has its stories of a disastrous fall from grace, whether it’s Atlantis, Eden, or Númenor, and Dungeons & Dragons gobbles them all up.
One of the game’s axioms is that a thousand-year-sword is automatically better than any made today. This is Atlantis as Golden Age, the long-lost Arcadian perfection in which mortals were as gods. When adventurers descend into the ruins seeking relics from those days, D&D draws on Atlantis the legend of history, evoking the wonder our ancestors felt when they came across monuments that no one alive remembered how to build. RPG designers are just the latest in a long line of gypsies and magicians to make a buck from the allure of mystic secrets from the Pyramids.
If you want to be Gandalf, your backstory comes from the other side of the apocalyptic coin, with the end of the world looming as the War of the Ring converges on Mount Doom. Here, the myth is an eternal cycle of apocalypse followed by rebirth: Frodo’s sacrifice ends the Third Age but ushers in a Fourth. In Lord of the Rings, this turn of the wheel brings the world one step closer to a Final Battle like the Norse Ragnarok or the Christian Armageddon. Another of D&D‘s ur-texts, Stormbringer, envisions an endless and meaningless cycle like that of Buddhism or Jainism which Elric can only hope to transcend.
These myths speak to real-world fears of cataclysm and reassure us that the world will be renewed. Tolkien’s experiences in the Great War inform his evocation of looming disaster and a lost pastoral age, just as growing up in an age of bomb shelters and mutually assured destruction shaped the appetites for fantasy among D&D‘s founders. As Cold War tensions have receded, pre-cataclysm D&D civilizations have become less explicitly technological and similar to our own. Nowadays the apocalypse rarely involves a mushroom cloud, because we have less need to be reassured that some will survive, likely gaining cool mutations or the ability to cast spells in the aftermath.
D&D players just want to loot the ruins, without worrying too much about what the relics they find imply about the world before the Fall or how the rediscovery of this world-shattering power will hasten the next apocalypse. This pragmatic attitude is part of why SF author Jack Vance is D&D‘s greatest literary inspiration. In Vance’s far-future Dying Earth, technology advanced to become indistinguishable from magic so long ago that both are now almost entirely forgotten. In D&D, as in the Dying Earth, apocalypse is too omnipresent for anyone to get excited about the looming extinction of the Sun or the discovery of an ancient artifact. What does it do, and how much can you sell it for?
The most obvious thing that an apocalypse does for a D&D world is to leave a lot of artifacts lying around. Unlike MMOGs, a live and easily bored Dungeon Master wants players to explore subterranean death-traps to get their power-ups, not visit the nearest Magic Mart or grind for components. The justification that the secrets of making these great artifacts of power were lost in the Great Fall has some plausibility and sounds good when intoned over the Conan the Barbarian soundtrack.
Mysterious magic items are just one of the things that we expect out of D&D which can only be made by a fully functioning fantasy civilization. The problem is that such a civilization is anathema to everything that makes gaming fun. We want cities with exotic spices and people from all over the world, but on the road we want to encounter wandering monsters instead of traders, tolls, traffic, and tourists. We want vaults containing a king’s ransom, but not the king’s taxmen or lawyers. We want elves and dwarves whose lifetimes span millennia, but we don’t want them drafting us to fight over things which only they remember, or lecturing us about how every damn thing is a fragile heirloom of their rich artistic traditions.
Why We’re Teaming Up to Fight Dracula
Fortunately, D&D is the apocalypse, bringing down heavy-metal darkness on all the parts of civilization that are too boring to qualify as points of light. It smashes taxmen, tollbooths, tradition, and anything else that might stand in the way of doing whatever the hell we want.
Apocalypse brings anarchy. In his essay “Five Elements of Commercial Appeal in RPG Design,” S. John Ross identifies anarchy as an essential precursor to what he calls “tactical infinity.” It’s what no other game has – the ability for players to do anything that they can think of, bounded only by the imagination – and it’s essential to The Escapist publisher, Alexander Macris’ “the agency theory of fun.“
The strictures of a functional society (like the one we inhabit in real life) inevitably limit our personal agency. When we play D&D, we get to experience a world where apocalypse has shattered those restrictions. Better yet, we get payback. Here’s I Hit It With My Axe‘s Zak Smith on the meaning of undead monsters in D&D:
We are born into structures of law and tradition which were invented by men who were dead long before we were born. All our lives, we struggle against their vast, ubiquitous and posthumous powers.
Dracula is one of those dead men, except being undead means that he’s still around sucking the blood of those who are young and free and just want to ride wild horses through the streets, blasting things with bolts of energy from their fingers. Let’s get him!
Now that I’m no longer an angst-ridden teen in the nuke-haunted ’80s, I don’t secretly wish for the apocalypse to come along so that I could loot and kill as I pleased. But I sure am glad to know that, whenever I sit down to play D&D, the apocalypse will always be there to make sure that I never run out of ruined temples, ancient treasures, mysterious artifacts, or monsters emerging from the distant past who need to be put in their place with a stake to the heart.
Tavis Allison co-wrote Goodman Games’ Forgotten Heroes: Fang, Fist and Song, one of the first third-party books for Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, which used the apocalypse as a metaphor for the change from 3rd Edition.