Newspaper features about Dungeons & Dragons usually start with a description of the inadequate spotty-faced teenagers wearing camouflage trousers and heavy metal T-shirts who play the game, or with the news that another Parent-Teacher Association in the United States has decided that the game contains subliminal Satanistic messages, and has banned it from schools. This is a shame, because if a role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons were properly designed, it could encourage children to be creative and imaginative. Unfortunately, most of the games on the market today are violent and sexist, and even those games whose authors have taken the time to avoid these pitfalls still contain other, subtler flaws which are just as troubling. Role-playing games (RPGs) are a mix of improvisational theatre and the table-top re-creations in miniature of battles such as Waterloo and El Alamein. One player is the game master, or GM. He (gamers are almost invariably male) creates a fantasy world by drawing castle floorplans or blueprints of alien spaceships, then stocks the world with monsters, treasure, and the occasional helpful old sage. The other players then create the characters whose parts they play during the game. In the original Dungeons & Dragons, these characters were either swordsmen, wizards, or thieves; in modern games they are given ratings in different skills such as Fencing or Electronics to make them more varied individuals. All of this is just preparation. During the game itself, the GM tells the players what their characters see, what the monsters say and do, and what the results of their actions are. The players work together to explore the world the GM has created and overcome its villains. A single play session is usually improvised around a simple plot, such as rescuing a kidnapped child or foiling some evil magician's plans. Individual sessions can be strung together into campaigns, in which characters improve their skills and take on tougher challenges. So in practice, RPGs are like interactive adventure films in which the GM creates his own Temple of Doom, and the players make the decisions of an Indiana Jones. There is no inherent Satanism in any of this. Norse myths and Christian demonology appear so often simply because they have already been worked, and so save the GM the bother of working up a mythology for Pon Thon, God of Little Crawly Things. A more serious criticism of RPG is that they are violent, like the films and fantasy novels that inspire them, and often sexist as well. A third or more of the rules for a modern RPG like GURPS (Generic Universal Role-Playing System --- my bet is that the acronym came first) are devoted to combat, and for many young players the rest of the rules are just used to tie together a succession of slaughterous battles. A good GM tries to prevent this by creating situations in which brute force won't work, such as stealing maps from the middle of a trollish army camp. Watching a group of 12-year-olds trying to outsmart the goblins who've just trapped them, rather than charging into them, swords flashing, is a surprisingly satisfying experience for a GM. A good set of rules encourages this approach by making combat as dangerous as it is in real life, so that players soon discover how short a trigger-happy adventurer's life is, and adopt less violent approaches. Unfortunately, even those games with enough of a conscience to do this still steer players' attentions away from some of life's real adventures. In doing so, they reveal a great deal about how such games' authors see their past and present. Take, for example, a new role-playing game from the American company Game Designer's Workshop called Space:1889. It bills itself as "science fiction role playing in a more civilized time", by which it means the Victorian world of Verne, Wells, and Doyle. In 1870, according to the rules, Thomas Edison crashed on Mars in his newly-invented "ether flyer", and discovered a ruined, decaying civilization. Two decades later, British redcoats are fighting for Her Majesty in Syrtis Major as well as the Sudan. (If any film producers are reading, you could create a great part for Sean Connery in the film of the game.) It is a good game, well though out, well presented, and fun to play, and is supported by a variety of spin-offs and pre-scripted adventures. The rules' potted summary of Victorian times dutifully covers the racism, the destruction of non-European ways of life, the stifling of women, and the aggressive jingoism of the times --- all in about a dozen pages. The remaining hundred and ninety pages are devoted to the mechanics of the game, including a description of Martian flora and fauna, and a wide variety of suggested adventures, ranging from exploring old Martian ruins to foiling Bismarck's agents and big-game hunting. In a way, the science fiction element has been introduced to circumvent two of the problems of role-playing Victorian times as they really were, namely that the era isn't as well known to a generation which has grown up with Harrison Ford rather than Errol Flynn, and most grown-ups today would (or should) feel a slight discomfort play-acting the slaughter of non-Caucasians in order to steal their national treasures (or rescuing priceless antiquities from unappreciative coloured hordes, as it would probably have been put at the time). The problem whit all of this is not so much what is in the rules, but what has been left out. High adventure necessarily contains an element of violence, and the times actually were sexist and racist, but why are the rules so small-c conservative? The greatest adventures of the late nineteenth century were the formation of nationalist movements in and out of Europe, and the emergence of trade unions and socialist political parties into the political mainstream. Both activities have all the elements of high adventure, from duplicitous enemy agents to battles with the establishment, be they the foreign armies that controlled Africa and India or the union-busting Pinkertons of America. Unfortunately, neither type of "adventure" has traditionally been seen as such by the sort of people who own movie studios, and so make no appearance in the rules. When films about heroic socialist organizers are made, they are either serious and boring, like Reds, or the laughable products of socialist realism. (Just as an example, among the many professions players can choose for their characters in Space:1889, the civil service and military are well represented, but trade union organizer is absent, and the only overtly political career available is that of anarchist, which is listed in the criminal section.) This is not intended to be another salvo in the tired old debate about whether we can forgive our grandfathers their opinions. What strikes me as strange is that the author of Space:1889 is conscientious enough to describe the Victorians' flaws, and to make provisions in the rules for playing around some of them (such as allowing female characters to become adventuresses far more easily than their real-life counterparts), but then goes on to leave other equally grave ills unaddressed. With the exception of a few brief mentions of the Japanese, non-Europeans are mentioned only as "natives", either good (i.e. loyal servants of Her Majesty) or bad (just about everyone else). The only nationalist movement mentioned by name is the American-based Irish Fenians. There are no educated blacks in the world of Space:1889, and no suffragettes either. These omissions are probably just a reflection of the fact that the author is American, white, probably middle class, and thinks of the Victorian era in terms acquired from the adventure writers of the time and Hollywood's later elaboration of their tales. Hollywood has always liked the British Empire, with its stalwart men in pretty uniforms whose speeches did not require sub-titling. Space:1889 has inherited the view of many of Hollywood's finest adventure films that all coloured people and Continentals are either disreputable adversaries or slightly foolish sidekicks. In this respect, the rules' repeated assertion that the Americans of the time were not interested in building empires, they just wanted free trade, and lots of it, seems a continuation of the smug self-righteousness of a nation which stole the Philippines from Spain "for their own good" and still sends its troops into the Caribbean basin with depressing regularity. I enjoyed Space:1889. I think it is a better game that most of its competitors, both in its playability and in its care to present a view of the world that isn't too violent or reactionary. A careful GM could add to it to create a better game without necessarily dulling its fun and taste of adventure. Unfortunately, with so many "classic" adventure scenarios presented, I doubt whether any young players would do this. If the game had not advertised Victorian England as "a more civilized time", I probably wouldn't have singled it out for criticism. But believing as I do that the real adventurers of the times were those who risked their lives to move us beyond empires, rather than build them, I can only hope that future games will portray a less wistful view of the past.
This article is © Dr. Greg Wilson, and is used here with his permission.