I was invited by Jon Cogburn to submit a chapter to the new collection of essays combining Dungeons & Dragons with philosophy, but my chapter overran. Here’s a segment I had to cut.
What do Dungeons and Dragons monsters have to teach us about fiction and prop theory?
What the character sheet does for the representation of the player characters, Gary Gygax’s 1977 Monster Manual – whose truly dreadful original cover is depicted to the left – and Don Turnbull’s 1981 Fiend Folio did for the creatures they are pitted against. As with attributes on the character sheet, the capabilities of the D&D monsters are laid out in numerical detail – including purely representative elements (size, weight) as well as the statistics (HP, THAC0) required to beat them into a bloody pulp, not to mention props for explaining their behaviour (alignment). In addition, an illustration of the monster helped provide a depictive prop to help either the players imagine their foe, or the Dungeon Master to describe it.
The Monster Manual and its less elegantly titled alliterative descendents are more than just reference books for game statistics (although this is their principal role), for the Monster Manual is also a bestiary of the fictional worlds of Dungeons & Dragons itself. Of course, specific campaign settings make variations one way or another, and there perhaps is no single campaign of D&D anywhere which has used every single monster in every single published guide, but by listing a menagerie of menacing monsters in one manuscript an impression of the kind of world in question is inescapably provided. The Monster Manual unequivocally prescribed players to imagine that the fictional worlds of D&D were deeply weird places, filled with an ecology of utterly bizarre beasts that would make no sense in any other context but high fantasy.
No fantasy novel ever written has contained such a heterogeneous hodge-podge of heinous horrors – the reader would simply have no way of dealing with such eclecticism in a conventional narrative. Yet somehow, the fantasy role-playing game dodges this criticism – or at least, Dungeons & Dragons (and the computer role-playing games it has inspired) avoid this complaint. For it must be said that a great deal of latitude is extended towards D&D’s ramshackle collection of foes; a commercial RPG published today with such widespread disregard for cohesion in the resulting fictional world would be subject to criticism. D&D is immune to it.
There is something about the megatextual collision of monsters from every conceivable mythological source that serves to buffer the inherent nonsense that results from criticism. To this day, I am unsure quite what it is. Is it that D&D was the first of its kind, and is thus afforded a certain latitude? Perhaps. But I rather suspect that there is a craving for this kind of massive intersection of otherwise distinct folklores. We see the same theme expressed in a movie such as Shrek, which combines all fairy tales into one fictional world, or indeed in Neil Gaiman’s adult comics The Sandman, which conduct the same kind of mythic collision with more delicacy and panache. Deep down, we can’t escape the feeling that all stories are one story, and the curious concordance of creatures in the Monster Manual speak of the same urge.