Monday 3 June 2019

Tabletop games as fanworks

(This piece was written for the compilation In Other Words, a collection of essays on fanfiction compiled by my friend Eve Moriarty) 

Torvald the Contradictory of the Nihilists Militant.

I have an ambivalent relationship with role-playing games. There's something disreputable about them, and certainly having written for them cannot be said to have been beneficial to my career. But nonetheless I cannot leave them behind.

The act of playing a role is revolutionary in a lot of ways, and for me it can be dangerous, even self-revelatory. Pretend games and role-playing are an important part of child development, one of the ways that children work out who they are, who they want to be. Role-playing games (and for the sake of this piece, I'm writing about the tabletop variety, although entire books could be written about venerable online games like Second Life, World of Warcraft, EVE Online and so on) extend that in a controlled, directed way, often with complex and ever expanding rulesets. They allow us to continue to explore these things into adulthood. I know I'm not alone in having in the past tentatively explored my queerness and my gender identity through role-playing.

When you talk about role-playing games (RPGs) you have to bring up Dungeons and Dragons. D&D was created in the early 70s, when the science fiction and fantasy fandoms were very much grassroots phenomena that needed real effort to participate in. D&D, the product of a small publishing effort created by gamers who had found a way to make their fantasy wargames develop complex narratives. It defines how RPGs are made even today, and has gone through about ten specific versions, depending on what you count as a discrete edition and not counting the various fanmade forks and homages. I'm assuming that you know the basic principles of D&D.

D&D is the product of fan works. The default D&D setting is a mashup of fantastical tropes, taken from all the literature that the creators of the game had absorbed. From Tolkien, the biggest influence, we have elves, dwarves, “halflings” (hobbits by a non-infringing name), orcs, rangers. Robert E Howard, Fritz Leiber and other American pulp authors bequeathed thieves, assassins and barbarians. Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion novels were stripmined for cosmic wars between Law and Chaos in which your factional “alignment” was a vital part of your identity, and Jack Vance's Dying Earth books gave the game a very specific and idiosyncratic way for wizards to learn and use magic (all of this can be found in Gary Gygax's bibliography in the back of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master's Guide, First Edition1, which is a lengthy starter guide to what fantasy fans in the seventies were reading: Edgar Rice Burroughs, Fletcher Pratt, Poul Anderson and HP Lovecraft are all present.)

But while D&D could be called a synthesised fanwork, it very quickly became its own thing. Many other RPGs would over the decades base themselves on licensed properties – Star Wars, Doctor Who and Tolkien's Middle Earth have each had at least three distinct tabletop RPGs based on their worlds – but D&D has very rarely made official game worlds based on existing fiction, the one real exception being Lankhmar, City of Adventure (first edition 1985), a scant by contemporary standards guide to role-playing in the world of Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, which although fondly regarded was never really what you'd call popular.

The worlds of Dungeons and Dragons, the early ones anyway, all came from the tables of existing games. They grew organically, through collaborative play, and the self insert characters of the authors and their friends would find their way into several editions of rules manuals. Perhaps the most infamous was the mad wizard of Castle Greyhawk, Zagyg Yragerne, the beloved character of E(rnest) Gary Gygax himself. Some of these early worlds quickly developed weird, fun quirks. The very nature of D&D as a game meant that it grew things in its corners that couldn't exist in fantasy fiction, and most were what we'd now call homebrew. Some of the most quintessentially D&D monsters were invented as ways to stymie players, while others were invented because Gary Gygax had this bag of funny looking plastic monsters that he wanted to use in game.

The Piercer, a sort of limpet with a pointy shell that sticks on ceilings and looks like a stalactite until it drops on you and stabs you to death is a classic example of this sort of creation: you can't imagine how this thing would exist outside of a game. The Rust Monster looks like an armadillo with a pair of fuzzy antennae that rust metal with a touch: it eats corroded metal and it entirely exists to screw over warriors in armour. Consider the Beholder, too, a floating disembodied head with a huge toothy mouth, a big round eye and ten smaller eyes on stalks, each of which casts a different magic spell from the Player's Handbook. It's a creature that no fictional ecology could produce, only a game.

Some monsters have developed their own lore. The Mind Flayer started out as people with purple octopuses for heads who eat brains and zap you with psychic blasts, but became as time went on a faded race of interstellar conquerors who travel the stars in sailing ships that look like nautiloids. They were overthrown by their former slaves, the Gith, who still hunt them to this day. The Gith themselves, a race of pointy-eared, skull-faced warriors with chips on their shoulders who themselves are in an age old factional war between the Githyanki (interdimensional pirates) and Githzerai (interdimensional martial artists), give us a very early iteration of the ninja/pirate dichotomy, but more importantly were the result of a fan submission by a before-he-was-famous Charles Stross to issue 12 of White Dwarf magazine back in 1979.

The genesis of D&D as a second generation fanwork in its own right perhaps goes a little towards why the game itself is so receptive to fanworks. The official settings that D&D has developed over the years – the Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Dragonlance, Dark Sun, Eberron, Ravenloft, Mystara, the Nentir Vale and others – are all designed as places where Dungeon Masters can create their own stories, and the other players may participate in them as their characters, forging legends, building strongholds, delving into ruins and caves, challenging monsters and bandits before finally standing toe to toe with dragons and gods, and perhaps even becoming gods themselves. In a real sense, players are invited to join the pantheon of D&D's worlds.

And they do. Long running D&D campaigns become receptacles for shared stories, and often these are written down and shared, just as fanworks are. Actual Play accounts can be found in forums and on blogs –, one of the biggest general tabletop gaming sites, even hosts a dedicated Actual Play subforum.

Other role-playing games, D&D's inheritors, promote fanworks in their own way. In White Wolf (and later Onyx Path)’s World of Darkness and Chronicles of Darkness games, whose titles are best summarised as Monster: The Grammatical Complement (so, Vampire: The Masquerade, Werewolf: The Apocalypse, Mage: The Ascension and more than a dozen others in two different vaguely defined “families”), you play some sort of protagonist of supernatural fiction. Again, they're largely based on a mashup of influences, and, like D&D, have developed their own contributions, many of which come from actual play. 2

The White Wolf games lean hard into player input, and a significant proportion of the …of Darkness game supplements are tightly concentrated on expanding the options, concepts and backstories for player characters. For example, while Vampire: The Masquerade initially allows for thirteen vampire “clans”, the half dozen or so books I have for that game include information allowing you to take on the roles of over forty different varieties of vampire. And quite rightly, because the push to support players in customising their characters means not only that characters are important, but that their players feel that they are important. And if the characters matter, their stories matter. Again, players are invited to participate in world building, although not to the extent of other fantasy worlds. The White Wolf settings have sacrosanct non-player characters who operate in the accompanying stories and novels above and beyond player characters, and who influence the development of the world, meaning that a supplement could come out and you could discover that your character's faction was no more, or had changed sides.

In a way this is a milder manifestation of the biggest problem with role-playing game settings based on existing fictional worlds. I remember being 13 and finding my enthusiasm for the first Star Wars Role-Playing Game being dimmed somewhat by the realisation that by the stated numbers, my character would never be as good a pilot as Luke Skywalker, or as good a shot as Princess Leia.

This is possibly the most ironic thing about the idea that RPGs might be fanworks: because you can define everything with numerical stats and concrete rules of play, it's actually less possible to create digressive or transgressive fanworks in a licensed setting than it is in other sorts of fanworks.

In one of John Kovalic's earliest Dork Tower strips, we see Matt, the hapless Dungeon Master, produce a lovingly detailed Lord of the Rings adventure he's made, only to have it destroyed in moments when his player Igor says “I kill Gandalf” and the other players follow suit, massacring the Fellowship of the Ring and beginning a campaign of conscription in the Shire. And that's actually a pretty sharp observation of how different fiction and role-playing games are, but it'll also never happen.

Igor kills Gandalf.

You might kill (and resurrect, if you like) Gandalf in your Lord of the Rings fanfic, and maybe even get him to meet Aslan in a wild Narnia crossover (only don't, because that sounds the dullest thing ever) but you'll never be able to do that in the official One Ring RPG because the rules won't let you.3

Fan activity, then, tends to concentrate the most on those games which are their own thing, and whole unique games made by fans have flourished online. The forums at have for example produced fan-made forks of the White Wolf games with names like Princess: The Hopeful (anime-style magic princesses) and Genius: The Transgression (mad scientists). These games are frankly more notable for their enthusiasm than their playability as game settings, but the fact they exist at all is pretty telling. This has been a thing as long as the Internet has existed: way back in the days of Mosaic, the infamous BJ Zanzibar compiled a repository of wild, wacky and sometimes hilarious fan-made factions and settings for the White Wolf games. If you wanted your vampires and werewolves to face the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, BJ was your man.

The most fertile ground for fan games has been the OSR (Old School Revival or Old School Renaissance, depending on who you talk to). Drawing on the Open Game License (that is, a resource that allows anyone to publish legally a game using the basic rules of D&D), the members of the OSR community have reverse engineered games that are very like the earliest versions of D&D.

This comes from nostalgia. OSR games are, like a lot of the oldest RPGs, mechanically both simple and oddly wonky, often deliberately emulating the way that the original D&D would add inconsistent and unbalanced supplemental rules in afterthought. Their settings too have the pulpy adolescent feel of that early sword and sorcery literature.

The risk, of course, with emulating classic swords and sorcery literature is that you wind up emulating the worst attitudes of that literature. In Morton Braten's setting book The Spider God's Bride, for instance (which, although designed for Pathfinder and therefore not strictly OSR comes from the same community and has the same basic aesthetic and design goals), the gazetteer describes the inhabitants of its Eastern kingdom as “teeming yellow masses”, and yes, that's true to the source material, but in that sense it's not a feature, its a bug. I'll be honest, big chunks of the OSR are troubling: it perhaps shouldn't come as a surprise that many of the sort of people who draw uncritically on games from forty years ago are the sort of people who want to draw uncritically on the societal attitudes of forty years ago too.

The OSR, perhaps because of its DIY nature, tends to political extremes, but while it has much more than its fair share of alt-righters, incels and open Nazis (a “fair share” can only be defined here of course as “zero”) that isn't the whole story, and the most worthwhile OSR fanworks push back hard against the orientalism, imperialism and flat-out racism that classic fantasy settings trade in, such as: John Bell's Necrocarcerus (adventurers trapped in a godawful capitalist afterlife); Richard Grenville's Counter-Colonial Heistcrawl (SE Asia during colonialism); Zedeck Siew and Mun Kao's Thousand Thousand Islands (fantasy SE Asia); Humza Kazmi's Legacy of the Bieth (North Africa); Joseph Manola's Against the Wicked City (Central Asia); and indigenous writer Antony Picaro's Straits of Aniàn (precolonial Canada). These are positive, transformative role-playing settings, made by fans who seek to find themselves in their material in profound ways, a classic concern of fanworks.

In the UK especially, game fanworks extend inevitably to that gateway drug for generations of British gamers, Games Workshop's Warhammer games. Although mainly a family of related miniatures wargames, both futuristic and fantastical (with role-playing games, skirmish games and boardgames revolving around the edges), the Warhammer games have always had a strong narrative thrust, an aesthetic that swings between Gothic horror and knockabout comedy, and deep volumes of lore. Games Workshop has made itself a success in the games industry by encouraging its fans to apply all their creativity to the painting and customisation of their models.

Inevitably fanwork communities exist, and tend in two directions. The various Oldhammer communities are dedicated to versions of Warhammer that exist before, well, it varies, but the widest interpretation of what constitutes Oldhammer is anything from before 1990 or so. Unlike the OSR, these communities tend not to be all that bothered with rulesets, instead concentrating, perhaps unsurprisingly, on the models. Several small cottage industry-style companies exist that furnish interested buyers with fan-made models that mimic the style of figure that Games Workshop produced in the 80s, and some even have produced miniatures that draw from concept art in the vintage books that never got made into figures first time around, or are based on lore that was abandoned or undeveloped. These figures then are reflective fanworks in their own right.
Left: Tony Ackland's art for Gilberion the Denied Lord, Champion of Slaanesh, in Games Workshop's Realm of Chaos: Slaves to Darkness (1989).
Right: Knightmare Games's Chaal'Thuon, Champion of Chuul (2017).

The Oldhammer communities suffer from many of the same problems as the OSR, with a tendency to mimic the attitudes of a generation ago as well as the aesthetic. Gatekeeping is rife. From personal experience, I can attest that if you're not a white heterosexual male of a certain age, the Oldhammer communities are not safe spaces.

Notwithstanding the usual tirades against "SJWs", the most vociferous negativity is directed at the “new stuff”, and the most passionate target of this vitriol is Warhammer: Age of Sigmar, the post-2015 replacement to the old Warhammer Fantasy Battle, and these complaints are framed in terms of rules, lore and models.
Some of my own Oldhammer models, from my own childhood collection, recently renovated.

To an outsider, this is confusing and counterintuitive. Without the sheen of nostalgia, the classic metal models, of which I am myself very fond are at best “charming"; in terms of craft, detail and anatomy, their plastic replacements seem so much more interesting and even in places beautiful. And from a career game designer's perspective, it's hard to see how Age of Sigmar isn't frankly a better game than its predecessor, being easier to learn, more subtle, and more scalable than its predecessor, and with the off-brand-Tolkien baggage that was always its least interesting aspect finally excised (although it’s likely that copyright protection was also an important reason for the change). The main complaint of Oldhammer fans seems simply to boil down to the fact that these things are different.

It's also probably telling that the fanwork communities based around the “new stuff”, namely the #inq28 and #aos28 communities, are much more inclusive, welcoming and supportive of new members and include not-inconsequential numbers of women among both members and recognised community leaders, for instance Ana Polanšćak, who is probably the 28 group member I'm always most excited to see work by.
#aos28 work by Ana Polanšćak. The centre figure is a resculpted Stormcast Eternal. They usually look like this.
Given implicit blessing by Games Workshop (several #inq28/#aos28 projects have been featured in the pages of White Dwarf over the last few years, which has embraced fanworks wholesale recently after many years of, well, not) the #inq28/#aos28 groups encourage lovingly designed story-led miniature projects with attached lore, which lean hard into that end of the Warhammer aesthetic best described as “like Hieronymus Bosch, only with somewhat more bondage gear”. Much of the work in the recently published fanzine 28 displays a degree of artistry and maturity that at least equals the necessarily much less niche official material.

This seems a good place to finish. Tabletop fantasy games began in fanworks, then, but soon evolved into their own thing. In so doing, they have become themselves a locus for vibrant fanwork communities, and perhaps this is natural, since even the act of playing is a process of creating a situational fan fiction, every time you sit around the table.

1 Dungeon Master’s Guide (TSR 1979), Appendix P, p224. The edition history of D&D is complex and often the subject of arguments, which is sort of fitting for something so bound up with fan works, but essentially what everyone refers to as First Edition is really the third or fourth version of the game (depending on who's counting). (Back)

2 Full disclosure: I contributed to 46 publications in the Chronicles of Darkness series, and my old player character from my own games, queer techno MC Lucy Sulphate, is now one of the exemplar characters in the current edition of Mage: The Awakening. I still have her character sheet somewhere. (Back)

3 The big exception to this is the Lovecraftian game Call of Cthulhu, and that's partly because no one ever had a chance against the gribbly space gods of Lovecraft's fiction, and partly because Lovecraft, for all that's awful about him, was one of the earliest supporters of his fans and their fanworks. Many “official” additions to the so called Cthulhu Mythos are fanworks, and that includes games. One of my own dubious claims to fame is a citation in the Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia for a piece of game writing in a fanzine. (Back)