My brother brought me a bunch of materials on the D&D 4e today. I’ve also been reading about this and other topics from the internet lately. The new D&D seems to be quite interesting as far as rules design goes; the rules disregard all high-level decisions made by the players so far, which would seem to imply that the actual game part only operates as set-piece battles on a battle grid. Of course not that interesting as a traditional adventure roleplaying game, but the new-style combat-oriented D&D will certainly benefit from having rules to match. Many people have complained that the new D&D resembles a computer game more than anything else, but that’s not a crime.
However, I rather doubt that I’m going to play the game. From what I’ve seen the new D&D is the same kind of geeky trash that the third edition was, insofar as the fictional content goes. Violence porn with little regard for nuances of setting or situation, disconnected from any cultural roots whatsoever. Just looking at the kind of art they illustrate popular (or wannabe-popular, as the case may be) roleplaying games with makes me want to retch, frankly.
Perhaps I should explain myself a bit better here. While the cultural trend I’m discussing has been going on for a decade, now, my current inspiration came from looking through the new D&D materials while concurrently checking out the news on Paizo’s new D&D alternative. The image here is from Paizo’s page, I’m using it to illustrate my point: while the artistic style and content represented by the barbarian girl here has been the default approach to fantasy roleplaying since the end of the nineties, I still find myself getting immensely annoyed whenever this kind of art is used in different contexts. I simply hate the subtext of this stuff, and in all its prevalence, it’s speaking of a kind of roleplaying subculture that I want to have no part in.
Considering how cultural subtext is always in the eye of the beholder, it’s perhaps best if I read the image there out for those who don’t know what I’m annoyed about:
- The girl is armed to a ridiculous degree, with weapons that defy reality. This art style uses large and exotic weapons to evoke an ambience of “cool” for the character. As we can see from her face, she’s ready and willing to fight, and she’s dangerous and exotic.
- The bare midriff and thong are obviously there to emphasize her sexual availability. Pretty simple.
- She’s powerful and independent, with no regard for norms of society or even the laws of physics. After all, she’s working with that sword-like thing, presumably.
Certainly this is all harmless entertainment, objectively speaking, but personally I want no part in such geeky, exploitative wish-fulfilment fantasies, especially when they celebrate violence and unbound, uncaring power. In real-life context this is pretty similar to fascist propaganda and seems to have little to offer for adults, or even sensitive youngsters. Another half of my indignation is, naturally, the fact that the chosen anime-like visuals seem so obvious and self-evident that only a dim teenager would miss the prepackaged message.
(Yes, I’m not exactly first in complaining about the anime-like visuals in recent rpg products. My belief here is that we’re not simply protesting an artistic style, but a cultural subtext the artist is trying to impart: the exaggerated visual style is used to emphasize character-centric power-fantasy that is foreign to the roots of our own fantasy roleplaying.)
I’m not saying that there’s no place in the world for stylized, wuxia-like roleplaying games. I’m just annoyed how not only are colorful, cartoony visuals hitched to a message of self-empowerment via violence porn, but also how all fantasy roleplaying seems to be going that way as a matter of course. Originally the idea of “fantasy” as a literary genre was derived from historical romance, which was the reason I got into it in my youth. Now I’m just sad and bewildered by the modern D&D, which seems to require stuff like sunrods (a magical flashlight) in the setting as a stylistic issue. This interpretation of “fantasy” that emphasizes power-fantasy fulfillment instead of historical romanticism is simply a wholly different animal, one I have little interest in.
Continuing the discussion
Roleplayers rarely discuss the content of their games in aesthetic terms, as opposed to the technical. This doesn’t mean that we do not disagree, it just means that we choose to ignore the ostensibly less pertinent issues in favor of the immediate. In case of the overall aesthetic of play it would probably be rather useful and interesting for all of us to answer to this kind of question: Why are you interested in the Star Wars setting? Why is Glorantha cool? What does the World of Darkness represent to you? In some cases it might well be that the generic cultural focus would explain more than superficial technical differences between different styles of roleplaying.