Prefabricated Mythologies: Dungeons & Dragons and Myth-Making

It would be very easy to say that role-playing games are popular because of the apparent lack of myth in the society. In fact, from initial observation this would be the case. People flock to role-playing games, or RPGs, in order to interact with fantasy stories, not just read about them. A little further probing reveals that the games are essentially outlets for mythmaking. By assuming another identity, a person can write his or her own myth – the myth latent in his or her psyche. Furthermore, most of these games take place in a fantastical realm filled with characters and creatures inspired by the myths and folktales of other cultures. These games do not yield the myth or fairy tale of a culture; rather, they are exclusive to the player and change from game to game. This a good exercise for psychic health because the avatars players create or identify with helps them explore all aspects of the psyche – the shadow, the anima/animus, and even, to a degree, the ego. In the mid-1970s, Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), the most notable of table-top style games, emerged fusing the two concepts of battle-strategy games with a created character.

In Interpretation of Fairy Tales, Marie-Louise von Franz defines fairy tales as “the purest and simplest expression of the collective unconscious psychic processes” that “represent the archetypes in their simplest, barest, and most concise form” (1). They are able to convey this in their lack of specificity. Time, place, and characters often have only a generic aspect, one that is not tied to a particular culture or age. This helps fairy tales transmit across boundaries, and several have found universal appeal. One of the tragedies of the modern era is that fairy tales are treated as entertainment, primarily for children. As J.R.R. Tolkien observes, “the association of children and fairy-stories is an accident of our domestic history. Fairy-stories have in the modern lettered world been relegated to the ‘nursery,’ as shabby or old-fashioned furniture is relegated to the play-room, primarily because the adults do not want it, and do not mind if it is misued” (34). In their respective works, including those about similar subject matter, both von Franz and Tolkien admonish adults for having this point of view. Both argue that fairy tales are essentially necessary to understand the psychological and literary workings of humanity.

In many ways, role-playing games would not be around today were it not for J.R.R. Tolkien and the popularity of his books, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien loved to read fairy tales as a child, notably Andrew Lang’s color fairy books, a collection of a dozen books with different colored covers that gave them their titles, each filled with approximately thirty fairy tales collected from around the world. Tolkien was born the same year as the Green Fairy Book, 1892, and cites that the entire series factored prominently throughout his development as a writer, even though he was not a supporter of Lang’s work (Berman 127). Later in life, he wrote his theories and understandings in the essay, “On Fairy-Stories,” and incorporated these theories into his fiction. Notably, he recognized that all fairy tales take place in a location outside normal reality, which he dubbed the Faërie, or a “perilous land” ripe for adventure (Tolkien 1). The Faërie is another world, in which all sorts of mythical beings, including elves, dwarves, witches, and all sorts of animals are enchanted.

Indeed, The Lord of the Rings was a new kind of fantasy fiction for its time, published in three parts between 1954 and 1956, in part because Tolkien fuses the epic nature of myth with the enchantment of fairy tales, to create a work essentially somewhere between myth and fairy tale. Unlike a traditional fairy tale, The Lord of the Rings is the story about specific characters in a specific setting, but because the setting is entirely fictional, it holds more of a universal appeal than a typical novel. Secondly, The Lord of the Rings varies from traditional fairy tales in that it is a story of epic size and length, filled with many mythic elements, such as a hero’s journey and a pantheon of gods and goddesses. Tolkien’s characters and their adventures inspired his readers to create their own characters and mythologies, and this led to the creation of modern RPGs, beginning with Dungeons & Dragons.

The modern role-playing game comes from a tradition of war gaming, or war reenactments played with miniatures not limited to historical accuracy. In the 1960s, riding on the popularity of The Lord of the Rings, Dave Arneson was playing medieval-themed war games, and began to integrate a fantastical element into his games. “Not only did players now have the control of an individual character with which they could identify, but it became possible for that character to cast spells or yield magic swords against fantastic, mythical creatures, such as dragons and hobgoblins” (Mackey 15). This led him to Gary Gygax, who wrote the medieval game Chainmail in 1971. Working together they devised the rules for Dungeons and Dragons, published in January 1974.

I call them prefabricated mythologies. Like prefabricated houses, these are mythologies manufactured with all of their components already put together, and the player can customize the parts to meet his or her tastes. An initial criticism of this phenomenon is that mythology should come from the collective psyche, and be allowed to develop organically within the confines of culture. By engaging with a prefabricated myth, we are essentially limiting ourselves to a specific sphere created by a few. In this, it is helpful to understand fairy tales as cultural psychic products whose author is unknown and can re-form as the cultural unconscious shifts. While the original authors of Dungeons & Dragons are known, they are not central to the experience of game play, as Tolkien is essential to The Lord of the Rings. This allows each player of the game to take the prefabricated elements and construct their own experience.

The character races that one uses to design a character are clearly inspired from the fantasy Tolkien dappled in. Some of the main character races include Dwarf, Eladrin, Elf, Halfling and Human, examples of which accompanied Frodo, himself a type of Halfling, on the Fellowship in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, whose imaginings, based on collected lore, have defined how these characters have appeared in fantasy literature and RPGs ever since.

As the Player’s Handbook (PHB) describes, dwarves were carved “from the bedrock of the universe” and their “mighty mountain fortress-cities testify to the power of their ancient empires. Even those who live in human cities are counted among the staunchest defenders against the darkness that threatens to engulf the world” (Heinsoo 36). This refers back to lore that links dwarves with short-statured mountain dwellers, famous as warriors and wealthy miners. The PHB advises players to play dwarves if they want: “to be tough, guff, and strong as bedrock; to bring glory to your ancestors or serve as your god’s right hand; to be able to take as much punishment as you can dish out” (Heinsoo 36). Dwarves are recognized as strong and powerful, despite their diminutive size, and they remain faithful and loyal to their charges and causes, seeing a mission through to the very end, crucial to any successful D&D scenario.

The Eladrin are described as creatures “of magic with strong ties to nature” that “live in the twilight realm of the Feywild. Their cities lie close enough to the world that they sometimes cross over, appearing briefly in mountain valleys or deep forest glades before fading back into the Feywild” (Heinsoo 38). The Feywild is equivalent to the land over the sea called the Grey Havens from The Lord of the Rings. These are characters from an even more ethereal realm outside the Faërie, recognized by Tolkien as being closer to the gods. They are distantly related and are often mistaken for Elves, who are forest dwellers, living in such harmony with the trees that “travelers often fail to notice that they have entered an elven community until it is too late” (Heinsoo 40). Both races are adept at archery and magic, making them good characters to have fighting ranged attacks from a distance. Also, given the amount of magic running through the Faërie, characters who can wield magic are handy for counteracting some of the dark magic. The PHB advises players to play either of these races if they want: “to be otherworldly and mysterious; to be graceful and intelligent; to teleport around the battlefield, cloaked in the magic of the Feywild,” or “to be quick, quiet and wild; to lead your companions through the deep woods and pepper your enemies with arrows” (Heinsoo 38, 40). These can be understood as the Western fantastical equivalent of Asian martial artists. They represent an inner balance that is reflected in their relationship with natural surroundings, and strong, agile fighting skills that can dominate a battle.

Halflings are diminutive like dwarves and are “known for their resourcefulness, quick wits, and steady nerves” (Heinsoo 44). Unlike dwarves and Tolkien’s hobbits, they are “a nomadic folk who roam waterways and marshlands. No people travel farther or see more of what happens in the world…” (Heinsoo 44). There are no major advantages in D&D to playing a small character, but, as they would be in real life, these characters are limited on how much they can carry and the types of weapons they can play. A person should play a halfling if they want: “to be a plucky hero who is all too easy to underestimate; to be likeable, warm, and friendly” (Heinsoo 44).

As a final example, humans “are the most adaptable and diverse. Human settlements can be found almost anywhere, and human morals, customs, and interests vary greatly” (Heinsoo 46). Humans in D&D are designed to be the heroes we would all like to be, and the abilities of these characters most closely resemble our own, so they require a little less imaginative exercise. Players should play humans if they want: “to be a decisive, resourceful hero with enough determination to face any challenge; to have the most versatility and flexibility of any race” (Heinsoo 46).

In addition to making the character come to life, by designing it as a full avatar complete with a personality and a persona, the character must have an alignment, which reflects how dedicated the character will be to certain moral principles. The PHB describes the five alignments:

  • Good: Freedom and kindness [to all creation]
  • Lawful Good: Civilization and order [to society]
  • Evil: Tyranny and hatred
  • Chaotic Evil: Entropy and destruction
  • Unaligned: Having no alignment; not taking a stand (Heinsoo 19)

These alignments tie a character to forces larger than the known world, and influence how this character makes decisions. Unaligned characters have not chosen one way or the other and are likely to make decisions that are in their own self-interests and not necessarily for the whole of the group. Most players design characters that are either Good or Lawful Good because “playing an evil or chaotic evil character disrupts an adventuring party and, frankly, makes all the other players angry at you” (Heinsoo 19).

Characters are designed with a degree of unconscious guidance. Players do not necessarily pick a race or class that allows them to play a character opposite to their real life persona. That is a key reason for playing the game in the first place. Some players are more drawn to some races than others. For example, a recent character I developed is an Eladrin. I chose her for the fact that I was mysteriously drawn more to that race than any other. I interpret this to mean that something within my psyche either identifies with or needs connection to some Eladrin traits, for example their ability to jump between the D&D world and the Feywild could be a need to pay more attention to my dreams. Or perhaps their intellect reflects anxiety about my work at Pacifica.[1] My husband, on the other hand, designed a human character during a major shift in his social life. The human is the most adaptable. Perhaps his character choice reflects some anxiety about the new social sphere is he entering.

While building an avatar relies on one’s unconscious, the game play itself relies on chance. The game has three basic rules:

1. Simple rules, many exceptions.

2. Specific beats general.

3. Always round down. (Heinsoo 11)

The Player’s Handbooks are guidelines only, and the rest is determined by the Dungeon Master and dice. The Dungeon Master (DM) serves as the narrator of the game and controls all of the elemental design, monsters, and the construction of the narrative. The characters are responsible for their own duties within that narrative, even influencing the DM to take a different direction that he or she had initially intended. The main element of chance comes from the reliance on dice. There are six die used in Dungeons & Dragons: a four-sided, six-sided, eight-sided, ten-sided, twelve-sided and twenty-sided. Which dice is used when is determined by the weapons and abilities of a character and are dictated by the PHB. The twenty-sided, however, is the one most used for just about everything from determining skills to determining battle encounters.

Because of the nature of Dungeons & Dragons, traditional fairy tale amplification as described by Marie-Louise von Franz is misleading. There is no set story line to amplify, no set characters, and, especially, no set archetypes. D&D is a collaborative story whose outcome is based solely on the players’ interactions with each other, and no one can predict how these will work out.

It has been my observation over the years that during the teenage years, several people play RPG videogames, but some hunger for a more embodied unconscious experience and move to table-top games, commonly D&D before others. Furthermore, it has also been my observation that these players are more often male, but an increasing number of females are entering these games. This suggests to me that something during the course of socialization and identity formation is lacking in male-child development, and this same lack is beginning to emerge in female development. Probably this has more to do with the No Child Left Behind program in schools, which its over-emphasis on the mathematics, sciences, and standardized testing to the detriment of the arts and imagination-driven exercises.

Role-playing games allow these children to assume fantastical roles and connect them with the fundamental elements of fairy tale. According to Bruno Bettelheim, the “fairy tale proceeds in a manner which conforms to the way a child thinks and experiences the world; this is why the fairy tale is so convincing to him. He can gain much better solace from a fairy tale than he can from an effort to comfort him based on adult reasoning and viewpoints. A child trusts what the fairy story tells, because its world view accords with his own” (45). It is more often the case that the people who are attracted to role-playing games are more artistically or creative driven, and are not at the center of the social circle or any of the school sports. Everyone plays videogames nowadays, but “geeks” play Dungeons & Dragons.

Prefabricated mythologies may be the only real mythmaking exercise in American society, because the proliferation of popular culture has cemented a set spectrum of mythic elements within the culture. The myths now blend with fairy tale, forcing a new understanding of both genres. Dungeons & Dragons allows an outlet to actually interact with some of these elements and manipulate them according to the player’s own psyche.

Works Cited

  • Berman, Ruth. "Tolkien as a Child of The Green Fairy Book." Mythlore 26.99/100 (2007): 127-135. Print.
  • Bettleheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. Print.
  • Heinsoo, Rob, Andy Collins and James Wyatt. Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook: Arcane, Divine, and Martial Heroes. Renton: Wizards of the Coast, 2008. Print.
  • Mackay, Daniel. The Fantasy Role-Playing Game: A new Performing Art. Jefferson: McFarland & Co., 2001. Print.
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. "On Fairy-Stories." The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine, 1996. 3-84. Print.
  • von Franz, Marie-Louise. The Interpretation of Fairy Tales. Boston: Shambhala, 1996. Print.

[1] Or maybe I was just hoping for a little otherworldly guidance through the murky waters of the Comprehensive Exams.


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