Dungeons, Dragons & Numerals: Jan Van Looy's Riposte to Erik Mona

Dungeons, Dragons & Numerals: Jan Van Looy's Riposte to Erik Mona

Jan Van Looy

Jan Van Looy criticizes Erik Mona’s history of Dungeons & Dragons as overly descriptive, and Van Looy critiques the game’s quantification of the qualitative, i.e., personal characteristics and magic - which were hitherto considered unquantifiable.

Ben Underwood:

The quantitative/qualitative division evokes Marx’s analysis of use vs. exchange value in the first volume of Capital. Although Van Looy doesn’t go quite this far, his analysis of D&D suggests that playing the game is good training for participation in a capitalist marketplace.


Dungeons & Dragons. Its title would never have won a prize in a poetry competition. It is marked by an awkward alliteration, a meaningless juxtaposition and an ugly ampersand. Then again, we are not speaking of poetry, but of the father (or is it the mother?) of role-playing games (RPGs) and much more, as I will discuss later. Erik Mona likes his alliterations as the title of his piece “From the Basement to the Basic Set” indicates, and he is right to like D&D both as a game and as a research object because of its unique position as a hinge point between two cultural forms, i.e. war games and RPGs, and because of the influence it thus exerted upon almost anything game-like that came after it. In fact, it is amazing how little academic research has been done into what may well be considered one of the most influential cultural products of the previous century. Until recently, the mapping out of the genesis of D&D and its influence on the cultural landscape was largely left to the whims of popular journalism. This scholarly neglect is about to change, however, and Mona’s effort is a useful step in that direction. By analysing the manuals of the different versions of D&D, Mona sheds light upon the early evolution of D&D from god’s-perspective war game to first-person RPG. Unfortunately, however, he manages to only barely scratch the surface, and he downright fails to go beyond the descriptive in terms of method. In this riposte, I will contend that Mona successfully records the shift from strategy game to RPG and the changes of roles this brought about for the game’s participants, but that he fails to situate this development within a broader range of factors that have determined D&D’s shape such as its fantasy roots in Tolkien and its war game heritage. I will also criticise the narrow perspective of Mona’s piece in that it does not go beyond the RPG form while D&D has influenced an entire generation of popular cultural forms and products, most notably computer games. Finally, I will suggest that D&D has been so influential because it professes a specific worldview characterised by quantitative representation and a growth topos which is very much in line with that of its day and age.

Tin Soldiers

The most interesting part of Mona’s discussion is that in which he explains the transformation of Gary Gygax’s game format from a war game using miniature soldiers to represent military units into a first-person RPG in which the player himself impersonates one character. Overall Mona deals with three editions of D&D: i.e. the Fantasy Supplement to Chainmail (1971), Dungeons & Dragons (1974) and the Dungeons & Dragons Basic/Advanced sets (1977). Chainmail was still a medieval war game using miniature knights to fight on large tabletop battlefields. Although there already were some rules suggesting that the miniatures could also be used to represent single characters, the players were not encouraged to assume their roles. In other words, the players were still very much the stick-wielding generals bowed over complex terrain maps rather than the heroes on the battlefield. It was only with the first D&D that this changed under the influence of Dave Arneson who had added rules for dungeon exploration whereby each player assumed the role of a single character. Nonetheless, the subtitle of this first version of D&D still referred to itself as a war game played using miniature figures and its manual contained rules for above-ground battlefield-like interaction. It was only with the Basic/Advanced sets that the necessity of using miniatures was dropped and that players were encouraged to act out their character’s role and make the interaction more life-like. This focus on characters created more freedom for the player’s imagination and a deeper sense of what I have referred to earlier as introjection (Van Looy 2006), identification if you like, reducing the psychological distance between the god-like player and his rank-and-file so typical of war- and strategy games. Thus D&D became the prototype of what we now refer to as (tabletop) role-playing games.

Whereas Mona successfully describes this transition from god’s-perspective war game to first-person RPG and demonstrates that its (cultural) innovation was not the product of sudden inspiration but of a long process of incremental change through collaboration, trial and error and feedback from its audience, he fails to discuss other elements of the war game legacy in similar detail. For example, a war game is typically set on a battlefield which is an open, three-dimensional space with various elevations and depressions, tree lines and a few buildings to complicate troop movements and to distinguish between more and less strategic positions. Whereas Chainmail was still played using miniature knights within a war game setup, the first D&D decidedly moved underground into a complex system of passages and dungeons, and the 1977 Basic/Advanced sets scrapped the above-ground rules altogether. While Mona hints at the fact that this move was part of Arneson’s influence, he fails to explain its origin and purpose. Apparently both Gygax and Arneson were members of a ‘Castle and Crusade Society,’ but how this relates to the Dungeon topos is left unexplained.

Another, even more crucial aspect of the war game legacy is the war topos itself. War games are essentially concerned with, well… war! Hence their rules almost exclusively deal with troop movements, weapon types, armour, surprise factors, heroism etc. There is usually no moral dimension to them. Everything is clear-cut. There are no shades of grey. Hostilities are a given and the only way to resolve them is to be more efficient than the enemy and overpower him. There is no moral doubt, paradox, contradiction or fundamental unease. All you have to do is work within the rules to your best interest, which is generally to decimate your enemy’s troops as quickly as possible. This particular aspect of war games lives on in D&D-like RPGs which depict a hostile world in which you as a player-character need to gather a band of brothers and fight evil, which is essentially everything else in that world. In a sort of market-logic-meets-cold-war twist, the only way to survive is to become ever stronger than the ‘Other’ so as to be able to keep its evil at bay. There is some room for peaceful interaction, but it only serves to guide you to the non-peaceful variation, which is where the money is (experience, gear, magic). War drives the action, which drives the story, not the other way around. Again Mona fails to transcend the purely descriptive and interpret how D&D is fundamentally built on an ontology of binary conflict, which it will later pass on to various other cultural forms, most notably several genres of computer games.

Leaving the Shire

A third element Mona fails to discuss is the influence from fantasy literature. Because of spatial restrictions, the discussion of fantasy literature is limited to Tolkien’s work. Other explicit influences on D&D (as suggested by Pat Harrigan) include the stories of Robert E. Howard’s Conan, Michael Moorcock’s Elric, Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, and the magic system from Jack Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth. Since the 1950s, Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have been gaining popularity across the Western world, depicting a fantasy universe assembled of elements from ancient Celtic and Germanic mythology mixed with medieval elements from Arthurian legend, historic accounts and the fairy tale tradition. Mona suggests (but never actually states) that there already were fantasy elements present in the pre-1971 war games played by Gygax and others, but that they progressively moved to the foreground with Chainmail and D&D. Gygax himself denies direct influence from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, but he admits to influence from The Hobbit and points to Arneson’s and other players’ input to account for the similarities between D&D’s underground setting and Tolkien’s descriptions of the passage of Frodo, Sam and others through the caves of Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring (Gygax 2000). Be that as it may, D&D is heavily influenced by Tolkien’s work, to the extent that I remember seeing D&D’s genesis once summarized as “war games meet Tolkien.” And apparently the Tolkien heirs thought the same way as they forced Gygax to rename several races in the game: Balrogs, Ents and Hobbits became Balor demons, Treants and Halflings (Ibid.).

On the other hand, D&D’s universe is not a blatant copy of Tolkien’s either. The latter’s ideas are taken as a starting point and then reshaped in order to fit into the war game mechanics and to satisfy the ever-growing appetite of players for more fantastic tools, enemies and events. Moreover, the dungeon topos is much more prominent in D&D than in The Fellowship of the Ring in which it constitutes just one of many episodes of Frodo’s quest. In D&D, the descent, which bears heavy Dantean, diabolic connotations, is the very essence of the game and is deeply integrated into its mechanics. As a player-character, you have to descend into the darkness, get to understand its ways and deal with its dangers until you reach the very centre of the labyrinth where a final ordeal awaits. There, after successfully defeating the root of all evil, you will be relieved of your duties. Balance will be restored and you can return to your people a hero. In a sense, the descent into the dungeons and the various stages of learning reflect the process the player of the game has to go through. As a player, you have to immerse yourself in the game mechanism’s labyrinth until you understand and eventually control it. Unlike Frodo and his party who have to flee from the caves of Moria and lose Gandalf in the process, the D&D dungeons offer the possibility of victory, of an immediate restoration of balance. Interestingly, the dungeon/descent topos would become more and more influential in popular culture in the decades after the appearance of D&D, from Pacman to Dungeon Master to Tomb Raider. They all bear the influence of D&D through its RPG and later its computer game legacy.

Unfortunately, Mona’s piece remains strictly within the realm of the RPG form and refrains from dealing with D&D’s broader cultural impact. Popular culture today is very much the product of a media ecology rather than the result of developments within one medium. Ideas appear, develop, are appropriated, transformed and used in different shapes and media, from which they reinforce and influence the original etc. This happens between different media such as literature, film, TV, tabletop- and computer games. Mona notes that “Chainmail’s Fantasy Supplement introduced many concepts that have endured through all editions of Dungeons & Dragons, including monsters like elementals and the chromatic dragons and spells like fireball, lightning bolt, and polymorph. Magical swords and arrows appear for the first time, as does the concept of dividing creatures by their philosophical alignment to law and chaos.” While this is a useful observation, it is also a rather conservative one. In fact, D&D’s influence goes much further. First of all, it invented a new form of game-play, i.e. tabletop RPG, from which later other forms such as live-action and freeform role-playing would evolve. Secondly, it played an important role in the popularisation of the fantasy genre at large. Apart from shamelessly adopting some of Tolkien’s most inventive creations, D&D has also done a lot to reinforce the popularity of his work. An entire generation of fantasy authors grew up with Tolkien’s universe as a reference world and D&D as a possible mapping of its mechanics. The most important influence D&D has had is on computer games, however. D&D was tremendously popular among American computer science students in the 1970s where it became an integral part of geek subculture. No wonder its ideas ended up in ADVENT, also referred to as Colossal Cave Adventure, the first computer adventure game created by Crowther & Woods around 1977. Most fantasy elements were implemented by Don Woods about a year after William Crowther had released the first Advent. From there D&D’s innovations would shape the views of an entire generation of Atari and other game programmers, not just in the sense of popularising the escapist fantasy topos, but by pushing a specific approach to the mapping of an imaginary world and its dynamics onto a game mechanism, i.e. by quantifying its almost every aspect and linking it with a growth topos.

Uomo Economicus

D&D did not appear in a cultural vacuum; its structure reflects a specific worldview and it is largely due to this worldview, in which a generation of game players recognised their own, that D&D has been so successful and influential within Western popular culture. D&D’s ontology is based on quantification, representation not just of what we traditionally think of as quantities (numbers of objects or amounts of substance; say, swords and gold), but also qualities (charisma, intelligence, etc.) in numerals which are tracked on character record sheets and put to use by rolling the dice. In D&D, each player (except for the dungeon master, who takes the role of a conductor and a referee) chooses his character’s gender, race (elf, dwarf, human, halfling, etc.), class (fighter, sorcerer, cleric, thief, etc.), and generates on the basis of these elements its basic characteristics (strength, dexterity, constitution, wisdom, intelligence and charisma), which are represented by numerical values and ‘levels.’ These qualities determine what the character can and cannot do in the game world, and how it evolves with experience. All character traits are represented in precise values which are determined by other traits and by experience. For example, humans may be good fighters and they may develop high levels of strength and constitution. Elves are proficient sorcerers, may become wise and intelligent and will quickly learn new magical spells. Halflings are small, but cunning and make excellent thieves and so on. In the D&D universe, all relevant characteristics are simulated as quantities, types of mass if you like, and their evolution and interaction is ruled by a system based on Newtonian physics. Damage is calculated on the basis of a character’s weaponry and skill (or magical abilities in the case of a spell) and reduced by the values of the opponent’s protective armour. Thus psychological traits are fitted into the physical as just another type of material of which certain quantities need to be present to have certain abilities. Even magic, which in Western tradition derives its very meaning from the fact that it is unearthly and incomprehensible, is objectified and quantified in D&D’s mechanics. It thus becomes a technology: perfectly controllable, calculable, etc. The fact that in games such as D&D, magic and other qualities are represented as forms of quantifiable and controllable technology can account for the fact that they became so popular within geek culture, expressing its audience’s desire for a levelled playground (without predispositions such as money or looks) and a controllable, readily understandable reality in which to compete. This quantification stands in strong contrast to the traditional notion of magic, which sees it as a dark, irrational, unpredictable and dangerous force. Thus even the secret foundations of sorcery are unveiled, counted, quantified and interwoven into one large interconnected system of relative value.

Moreover, the progression in the game is driven by a growth topos, a desire to increase the strength and abilities of one’s character by gaining experience points. Killing monsters and solving puzzles yields experience and goods, which leads to more powerful weapons and magical spells, which in turn allow the character to go on more dangerous quests, kill even more frightful monsters and gain even more experience. One strong point of this type of organization is its long tension span. The ultimate goal of the game is almost infinitely far away, but nonetheless, as the player solves subplot after subplot, he always has the feeling that he is working toward it by increasing his character’s skills. Hence, in a role-playing game, an obstacle is never just an obstacle, but also an opportunity to reach a higher level or find a magical sword which will later serve to finish the ultimate quest. Turnau (2004) notes that the growth idea is also present in Tolkien’s work, especially in Lord of the Rings which he describes as a “sort of cross between Arthurian legend and the Bildungsroman.” However, he notes a profound difference between D&D’s and Tolkien’s character development. In Lord of the Rings, growth and maturity only come at the price of pain. Frodo begins his journey fresh and innocent and ends it broken in health, missing his ring finger and seeking a new future (or none at all depending on how you interpret it) with the elves who are leaving Middle Earth. In D&D, on the other hand, the growth idea is prominent and unquestionable. As a player-character, you are supposed to grow your skills personally, linearly and as efficiently as possible. Growth is good. There are no negative consequences to it. You have to battle ever more dangerous foes until you are invincible and can deliver the world from evil by sheer power. This accumulative orientation is also somewhat reminiscent of our present-day Western worldview in which growth has become a mantra that is rarely questioned fundamentally. Whereas in Tolkien the growth topos is subjected to the quest topos - Frodo and Sam go on a quest to destroy the Ring and in the process accidentally gain experience and become men - in role-playing games it is quite the inverse: the player wants to gain experience to grow stronger and in the process accidentally goes on a quest. The essence of RPG play is quantitative progression, qualitative progression in the form of storytelling is only secondary.

Thus D&D does not just profess a certain view on the world, but also one on society and the individual’s place within. First of all, it is a highly individualised, bottom-up reality consisting of objects defined by certain attributes (skills, traits etc.) and the player-character is simply one of them, one entity within the simulation. Secondly, what happens in the game world is governed by rules which are unreachable and unchangeable for the player-character once they have been agreed upon and the game has started. Within those rules anything is allowed to reach your goal. This goal is not arbitrary, however. In order to play the game successfully, one has to abide by the growth topos, identify evil, fight it, and become ever stronger. The world is essentially a hostile place in which different kinds of subjects and groups attempt to push their agenda. Your aim is to compete within this space. Competition will make you stronger, and this strength will help you overcome your problems. Just becoming stronger is not enough, however, as you will have to specialise. You will have to organise a party of adventurers in which each member will have to develop his own talents so that the whole becomes more than its parts. Efficiency and specialisation are the keys to more successful competing. Essentially, your aim is to become a more efficient entity within the system than all others. This stands in strong contrast to the renaissance ideal of becoming an ‘uomo universale’ developing a broad range of skills, a sort of superhero ideal. It is also very different from the Kantian idealist from the enlightenment who would be guided by nothing but his inner self, his categorical imperatives. In D&D, there is no outside of the system. You have to be specialised rather than universal, functional rather than rational, an uomo economicus rather than an uomo universale or razionale.

In conclusion, while Mona’s work is both useful and necessary, it is hardly sufficient. In this riposte I have argued that, while he successfully describes how D&D transformed the role of the war game player from overviewing general to first-person RPG player-character, there are several areas in which his account lacks depth. First of all, it is unclear how the dungeon topos came about. Was it already present in the war games played by Gygax and Arneson, or was its development part of the RPG genesis? Second, there is hardly any discussion dealing with how its relation to war games affected D&D’s overall structure and mechanics. Third, Mona hardly touches upon the fantasy heritage which played a primordial role in differentiating D&D from its predecessors. Fourth, what is also lacking in his account is a discussion of D&D’s cross-medial influence, not just in terms of its part in the popularisation of fantasy, but also through its creation of a specific type of quantitative representation which would have a huge influence on other forms, especially computer games. Finally, Mona fails to place D&D’s genesis within a broader cultural picture. D&D professes a distinctive view on reality and man characterised by quantification and growth. These make D&D very much a product of its time, depicting the world as a market and man as an uomo economicus. My aim in making this analysis has not been to dismiss Mona’s work and neither has it been to produce a moralising account so as to warn against D&D’s hidden messages. Rather it is meant as a plea for more recognition of the importance of studying these forms of popular culture. Games such as Dungeons & Dragons are a product of their day and age and as such, by being studied, can tell us more about the time in which we are living, its views and preoccupations.

Works Cited

Gygax, Gary (2000). Interview with Gary Gygax: Creator of Dungeons and Dragons by TheOneRing.net, 30 May 2000.

Turnau, Theodore A. (2004). “Inflecting the World: Popular Culture and the Perception of Evil” Journal of Popular Culture (38.2): 384-396.

Van Looy, Jan (2006). The Promise of Perfection: A Cultural Perspective on the Shaping of Computer Simulation and Games, PhD dissertation, Belgium: K.U.Leuven. http://hdl.handle.net/1979/225