This is serious business. Goofiness has been systematically expunged from role-playing games. No more little comic strips like the ones we had in the ’78 Players Handbook. No more preposterous adventures like White Plume Mountain or the 1988 Castle Greyhawk. No more ludicrous monsters or magical items. But the very first dragon was named Gertie – let’s not forget that. And the first Orc King was named Funk III. Dragons nowadays are called Murozond or Shimmergloom, and Orc Kings are called Krôthzmûsht-Vgorth or something. It has to be manly. It has to be badass. Just look at the elaborate artwork – Half-orc “smashers” and Elven “wardancers” and Space Marines with unwavering resting bitch faces. God forbid we’d ever pass for anything less than real men.
I’ve never even held a 5E Dungeons & Dragons product in my hands, but lots of folks talked to me about it, and one thing I still remember is this. Someone told me that for any first-level character, a single skeleton or a single kobold means Instant Death. Well, it’s one of two things: either that guy told me a big fat lie, or 5E is really terrible, because kobolds and skeletons are expected to be weak. They’ve been puny since ’77 and before. They are “timeless classic” weak monsters. You start messing with that for the sake of expunging every last ounce of silliness from the game, and lo and behold – you’ve ruined that game.
That is one of the reasons why I stick to 1E. It’s not like Windows XP: you don’t have to switch, you’re always gonna be able to play; and me, I do not want a different game, I want to keep enjoying the game I fell in love with thirty-three years ago. Adkison, Tweet, Heinsoo and Perkins all offered a different D&D, and why wouldn’t they? TSR evolved from a miniature wargaming company while Wizards of the Coast evolved from a collectible card game company: it cannot be the same approach or philosophy. It just can’t.
Silliness now is a flaw – unless you have the confidence or star power to sustain it unflinchingly. Leeroy Jenkins is silly, sure, but Ben Schulz have nothing to worry about: he is now a star of the online gaming world. But if your friend Bruno’s PC suddenly becomes “silly-ed”, he’s gonna be mortified. Silly is no good. Epic / ruthless is the way to go. Don’t ask me. That’s not at all how it was in the beginning.
Silly Beholder / Badass Unfuckwithable Beholder
In this blog right here, THE most popular post is a 100% silly little thing called “Behold!”, written a year and a half ago. I still don’t understand why so many people linked to it – but it is proof, right? Proof that there is a demand for RPG silliness.
Real men aren’t good game designers / scriptwriters / DMs. They shouldn’t decide which class or race is cool, and which one isn’t. Insecurity is a slow and pervading disease eating at almost everything: politics, religion, entertainment. For now, though, let’s concentrate on pen and paper RPGs.
The phenomenon really started to manifest itself around the time Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play first came out. Keep the Dwarves, minimize the Elves, almost exclude the Hobbits. Dwarves are cool – they kick ass, grow huge beards, dig tunnels and wield hammers: they’re men – well, technically not, but you see my point.
Elves are refined, educated and artsy. It verges on silliness. Let’s give them one big forest on the western edge of the Empire, and forget about them. Gnomes and Hobbits are even sillier. I’m not sure there were Gnomes in Warhammer. And here’s how Hobbits were depicted:
A picture is worth a thousand words! Look at those ridiculous bulging eyes: is he sucking on some dildo? Raise your hand if you’d like to play that little fella. Huh, I don’t see a single hand? What gives?
In one of the very first issues of White Dwarf, a guy named Roger Musson wrote a complaint: he didn’t like the magazine’s little cartoon strips. “Childish rubbish is the prerogative of The Dragon,” he said.
“Silly-phobia” later spilled to AD&D. I remember this quite well. By 1987 one of my friends (and a DM himself) had already given each class a color code. Red meant you did NOT want to play this class in a group of 17-year-old guys with long hair and Iron Maiden T-shirts. As I recall, paladins, bards, and illusionists each had a code red slapped on them. Code yellow was for clerics, monks, and maybe druids – I don’t remember clearly. These were classes that could be cool, but you really had to design your character carefully and / or choose your god among the “awesome” gods. Code green was for fighters, rangers, magic-users, thieves and assassins; you just couldn’t go wrong with these. I was in my fourth year of playing a redhead ranger named Dälvik, so I was in the safe zone when my friend first came up with these color codes. He didn’t use the word “silly”, though. But that’s exactly what it was – a Silly Index for AD&D classes.
Paladins are lawful good; they have to be gentle and devoted and respectful: they can’t burn villages to the ground or steal a wounded NPC’s +3 broadsword... Bards are just guys with flutes or lyres... And illusionists are boring magic-users without fireballs or magic missiles. It figures.
Castle Greyhawk’s only real flaw was to come out maybe five or six years too late. Fighting Colonel Sanders in ’88 isn’t much more hurtful than fighting the Cheshire Cat in ’83 or encountering the Greyhawk Construction Company in ’79 or a druid armed with a phaser in ’72. In the early eighties, that adventure would have been “normal”. In the late eighties, whimsical already had a bit of a bad rep.
By 1991 the French published Bloodlust, which was very nice, but the strain of silly-phobia took a turn for the worse. Elves were now extinct for not reproducing fast enough, and the few remaining half-breeds worked as high-end prostitutes. For a bunch of 21-year-old metalheads, what a laugh!
By the time White Wolf started releasing game products, the “goth” craze was already going strong. Goths like things serious. You would be hard-pressed to find one silly clan in Vampire: The Masquerade or a silly tribe in Werewolf: The Apocalypse. It’s all brawn and flair and all-around greatness: Gangrel, Fianna, Brujah, Black Furies, Nosferatu, Red Talons, Malkavian...
In 2006 Wizards of the Coast introduced a new killer race: the Dragonborn. Who would even want to pass this up and play a Gnome illusionist, right? But I did play a Hobbit pedlar in Warhammer, back in ’96, and I used to munch on dry sausage all the time – like that little fella in the picture. I was a bit older, by then. Somebody had to do it, I think. You can’t let insecure game designers bully their readers like that, under no circumstances.
Now that I am done blogging for the day, I’m gonna log into World of Warcraft; Killstroy Blackdoom, karl of Gothsküll, my level 94 barbarian, awaits.