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Postscript on Elves, Dwarves, & Trolls

I’d noticed the odd relationship between the Elves, Trolls, and Dwarves concerning their evolution through mythology and into fantasy roleplaying as it stands today and decided to explore these commonalities and divergences. This is what led me to write Tabletop Meditations #11 through #13. However, there are few things that I’ve not said about elves, dwarves, and trolls such as bringing up the issue of half-races and sub-races including Orcs though I may have (or not as the case may be) touched on them.

The common points between each of the aforementioned races being their beginnings in mythology, their adoption into the realm of fairytale, adaptation into fantasy fiction, and further adaptation from fiction into the world of roleplaying seemed to me to be not only connected but related. Especially since they all originated in Northern European mythology and all at one time or another were also considered different types of fairy-folk.

They had all three begun as separate or mostly separate types of creatures where the lines of distinction in the original myths were still blurry. This is especially true of the elves and dwarves and then after their division between the trolls and dwarves though one was a diminutive race and the other essentially deformed giants. Note that I had avoided a discussion on giants in and of themselves as they are not as entwined with the dwarves and elves, though the birth of the dwarven race seems to owe directly to the lore of giants.

The subject of giants is also very broad and they really don’t change much throughout their existence whereas the trolls though they are essentially giants themselves noticeably change with time though their base nature does not. Trolls also possess several unique and readily identifiable features both physical and personality wise. There is also an abundance of material which brings these features to the forefront and serves as documentation of their evolution as a fantasy race. Essentially the giants’ path from myth to roleplaying is almost identical to if not a bit more plain than the trolls and so I chose follow trolls especially since they are more distinctly prevalent in myth and fairytale as archetypical villains and characters than giants. Not to mention the trolls’ evolution is more demonstrably entangled with that of the dwarves and elves.

Just as well, I also avoided any in-depth discussion of the sub-races derived from the 3 fantasy races only really mentioning the Orcs and Drow, both descendants of the elves. This was mainly so I could keep focus on the pieces and as the sub-races are simply variations on the core race getting directly to that core without explicitly excluding them was the best strategy. In roleplaying games these 3 races are used as a foundation to create variations off of, the elves in particular as demonstrated by the 2 most prevalent and popular of these which happen to be the Orcs and the Drow.

Orcs originally started as a sub-race of elves but embodying all of the opposite negative characteristics of the elves’ positive but the Drow have usurped that role in the minds of roleplayers. I’m not going to write an article solely dedicated to Orcs as it would be very short though there is an overabundance of information on them starting from Tolkien onward but most of it is supernumerary. As the Orcs are not only associated with the elves but derive, especially in Tolkien’s Legendarium, from them the story of their evolution is somewhat redundant with that of the true elves though the etymology of the name is interesting it’s also somewhat problematic.

Orcs are portrayed as a savage, clannish species that is barbarically tribal even though some authors and game designers try to inject some nobility into them, either through the design of their culture or the portrayal of individual characters as racial/cultural representatives of the more noble/human aspects of the Orcish. They have and are undergoing their own evolution in the world of roleplaying fantasy seen specifically in certain attempts at humanizing them. A perfect example is demonstrated in the Palladium Fantasy RPG. “In the right group, orcs, can be as fiercely loyal, heroic and courageous as a palladin [sic]. Orcs of good or aberrant alignment will never betray a friend or ally, or desert him at a moment of need.” [Siembieda, Kevin. 1998. Palladium Fantasy RPG: Second Edition. Palladium Books Inc. MI. 302]

Of course, this new humanization is built on top of the old and familiar. “They have a reputation for being dull-witted, muscle-bound brutes with a wicked disposition.” [Siembieda. 302] The Drow on the other hand are a more recent invention of Gary Gygax for Dungeons & Dragons and are essentially the literal visual and spiritual inversion of classic elves rather than an inferior and corrupted reflection that are the Orcs.

Half-races are another related subject which I also failed to touch upon although they play a prominent part in Tolkien’s Legendarium especially where half-elves are concerned. “The sons of Eärendil were Elros and Elrond, the Peredhil or Half-Elven. … At the end of the First Age the Valar gave to the Half-elven an irrevocable choice to which kindred they would belong. Elrond chose to be of Elven-kind[.] … To him therefore was granted the same grace as to those of the High Elves that still lingered in Middle-earth[.] … Elros chose to be of Man-kind and remain with the Edain; but a great life-span was granted to him many times that of lesser men.” [J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings (1991 ed.). HarperCollins Publishers. Appendix A. 1010]

Basically, men and elves can interbreed but the resulting offspring can choose between an elvish immortality or a slightly enhanced mortal span of life, at least according to Tolkien. Of course, he also mentions another half-race in his work which really doesn’t serve much of an explicit role overall, these are the half-orcs. “Among the Dunlendings who, in the Third Age of Sun, came to Saruman’s banner of the White Hand in Isengard, there were some whose blood, by the sorcery of Saruman, became mixed with that of the Orcs and Uruk-hai. These were large Men, lynx-eyed and evil, who were called Half-orcs.” [Day, David. 1979. A Tolkien Bestiary. Mitchell Beazley Publishers Limited. 128]

Both of these human-hybrid races are much beloved and perhaps a little overused in tabletop roleplaying though I guess there could be an argument here to logically classify both half-races as half-elves. This means that somehow the genetics between humans and elves and an elven sub-race, the Orcs, are somehow compatible. A taxonomy between these races, or is it species, might prove a bit problematic but this can be dismissed since the godhead of Tolkien’s Middle Earth created them all in the first place, so magic. Guess that helps to explain half-dragons too.

The attempt to fit fantasy races into modern-day taxonomy is beside the point failing the concept that, for one reason or another (often essentially irrational) they need to exist within that fictional world. Essentially, a half-race is a plot element or story device rather than a rational element to be quantified or scientifically explained.

Fantasy races as a whole being more than a collection of character traits and in terms of tabletop gaming, bonuses and abilities in the context of story and/or setting. This is especially useful to keep in mind when abandoning Tolkien altogether. Basically, when explaining half-races, species, and taxonomy in a fantasy setting it comes down to just utilizing the minimal amount of rationalization necessary for suspension of disbelief and patch the holes with myth and magic or good-sounding pseudoscience to explain it away.

My aim in writing these 3 articles was to explore the roots of these 3 archetypical fantasy races which are still an integral part of popular fantasy today, their entanglements, and how that shaped the current concepts about these mythic creatures while touching upon the more interesting questions that swirl about them and the concept of fantasy races. The common roots of elves, dwarves, and trolls continue to twist through myth, fairytale, fantasy-fiction, and even each other continually budding off and sprouting new ideas and concepts from the old.

Dragons

They are both majestic and terrifyingly powerful beasts that dominate both the air and the land with their fearsome talons and vicious teeth. They wield the power of fire or poison and scales like shields. These great lizards have been used as symbols for heavenly or hellish might as well as to adorn the shields and banners of knights and kings. In fable and the popular mind they exhibit the penchant for kidnapping (and a peculiar appetite for) young maidens and stand as the ultimate examples of overwhelming greed when portrayed sleeping on hill-tall piles of treasure, their hoards of gold. Dragons are a staple, and occasionally the focus of, tabletop roleplaying games and, as several other ‘classic’ RP monsters they have been drawn not only from popular fiction but up from the deepest mists of time and mythology. “Described and feared by human cultures worldwide from the earliest times, the dragon exists in a vast range of forms and abodes in myth and legend.” [McGovern, Una, ed. 2007. Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained. Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd. Dragons]

Classically dragons are split into two primary classifications especially when it comes to mythological comparisons though the primary features of the RPG dragon are found mostly with one, the dragon of European lore but the contemporary idea of which seems to move ever closer to the mannerisms of the other, the Eastern Dragon, in both role-playing games and fiction. There is a stark contrast between to these two classic types so much so that they appear to be near mirror opposites. These two classifications are defined as The Eastern Dragon and the Western Dragon.

Western dragons are the classic evil monster and have an appearance familiar to anyone who has had even a glancing association with popular fantasy fiction and/or role-playing games. They have bat-like wings, four limbs that end in nasty claws, crocodilian jaws studded with ripping teeth, a tail like a bullwhip, horns on the head (perhaps owed to their Christian religious symbology), and occasionally a barb at the end of the tail. “The classical Western dragon is a malevolent fire-breathing monster encased in an armour of shimmering scales, borne upon four powerful limbs with talon-equipped feet, and sporting a pair of huge leathery wings, plus a long tail tipped with a poisonous barb or arrow-headed sting.” [McGovern. Dragon] The European tail-barb however seems to be a recent, comparatively speaking, addition acquired by some dragons from the heraldic likeness, more reserved these days for dragon-like monsters such as Wyverns. “In nearly all modern representations the tail, like the tongue, will be found ending in a barb, but it should be observed that this is a comparatively recent addition. All dragons of the Tudor period were invariably represented without any such additions to their tails.” [Fox-Davies. 1978. A Complete Guide to Heraldry. Bonanza Books, New York. 225]

One of the most ancient stories involving dragons and the one that best demonstrates the shear ‘epicness’ of the creatures is the Mesopotamian creation myth wherein Marduk, the chief god of Babylon, hunts down and slays the she-dragon Tiamat. “Marduk searched the universe for Tiamat, his dragon mother. […] He spread his net across the void and caught her in it [.] Then, taking aim with his bow, Marduk shot an arrow between Tiamat’s open jaws, straight down into her heart. Then he disposed of Tiamat’s […] monstrous carcass. He split her skull and severed her arteries; he cleft her body “like a fish into its two parts,” from one of which he fashioned the firmament and from the other the solid earth.” [Constable, George, ed. 1984. The Enchanted World: Dragons. Time-Life Books. Alexandria, Virginia. 14, 18] From the very beginning dragons and the power contained in their awesome forms shaped, and in this case formed, the natural world. “Having positioned the celestial bodies, Marduk used Tiamat’s spit for clouds, placed a mountain on her head, and made an outlet from her eyes for the waters of the Euphrates and the Tigris.” [van der Toorn, Karel. 1999. Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, Second Edition. Brill Academic Publishers, The Netherlands. Tiamat] The dragon goddess stood as an embodiment of a single massive natural force, all the salt-water of the earth. “Tiamat is the personified primeval ocean [.]” [van der Toorn. Tiamat] In the Old Testament a term translated as “the deep” and that is etymologically related to Tiamat is frequently used not only as a designation of the primeval sea but also to denote the cosmic sea (Yam) on which the world floats, “and from which all water comes, as well as any large body of water, including rivers, and the depth of the sea and the earth.” [van der Toorn. Tiamat]

In Medieval Europe and England the dragon was a symbol of Satan and thus inherently evil and wielded a significant amount of supernatural power requiring a righteous (and blessed) hero to eliminate the beast. “In western myth battles with dragons symbolize the struggle between good and evil or the mastering of man’s base nature and reflect early Christian beliefs. Rescuing a maiden from a dragon represents the release of pure forces after vanquishing evil. Treasure-guarding dragons often signify the struggle to attain coveted inner knowledge.” [Wilkinson, Kathryn, ed. 2008. Signs & Symbols: An Illustrated Guide to their Origins and Meanings. DK Publishing. Dragons] Perhaps the best known examples of the medieval Western dragon popular today are the story of St. George and the dragon and that of Sigurd the dragon-slayer and Fafnir (the dwarf/dragon) in the Icelandic Volsunga Saga popularized by Richard Wagner in his 1876 Der Ring des Nibelungen (Wagner’s Ring Cycle). The dragon may have been acquired as a symbol of the devil by medieval Europeans due to the portrayal of the creatures in the bible; namely in the New Testament in Revelations, the Apocrypha, and in the Greek texts of the Pseudepigrapha. “The dragon has often a fiery appearance, behaves in an aggressive, insolent and lecherous way and often represents the powers of chaos, especially in primordial times. The dragon is sometimes connected with natural phenomena like storm, flood or drought.” [van der Toorn. Dragon] They are also, sometimes still, associated with serpents which are in turn related in symbolic terms if not also in appearance to the serpent in the Garden of Eden which tempted Eve with the apple. “A dragon is a fabulous winged crocodile, usually represented as of large size, with a serpent’s tail, so that dragon and SERPENT are sometimes interchangeable.” [Rockwood, Camilla, ed. 2009. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, 18th Edition. Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd. Dragon] This of course, continuing in the biblical vein, leads us to dragons as the ultimate symbol of evil as the serpent of the garden is taken popularly to be Satan in one of his favorite guises. “In most Mediterranean and European MYTHOLOGIES, SERPENTS are associated with evil, and dragons, a sort of super-serpent, are more evil still.” [Clute, John & Grant, John. 1997. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. St Martin’s Press, New York. Dragons] The concept of the dragon was originally inseparable from that of serpents and was in fact synonymous for ages.

This association and synonymy with serpents began with the etymology of the word ‘dragon’ itself. “The Greek word drakēn is related to drakos, ‘eye’, and in classical legend the idea of watching is retained in the story of the dragon who guards the golden apples in the Garden of the HESPERIDES, and in the story of CADMUS.” [Rockwood. Dragon] Later the romans appropriated the Greek word giving it a more recognizable form. “In Latin, the Greek word was converted to draco, and it came to mean “giant snake.” To the Romans the dragon was a giant snake, probably a python from India or Africa.” [Cohen, Daniel. 1982. The Encyclopedia of Monsters. Dorset Press, New York. 228] This serpent-dragon concept continued well into the middle ages especially in England. “Most British dragons… are of the worm variety – lacking wings and legs, with lengthy, elongate bodies, and emitting poisonous vapours rather than fire.”  [McGovern, Una, ed. 2007. Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained. Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd. Dragon] In time the image of the dragon with its association with elemental and physical might was integrated into the heraldic arms of certain individuals and families. “Among the ancient Britons and the Welsh the dragon was the national symbol on the war standard. Hence the term PENDRAGON for the dux bellorum, or leader in war.”  [Rockwood. Dragon] It seems not until they were adopted as heraldic monsters gracing the banners of noble families and warlords did they begin to take on their more recognizable form. “The head of a dragon is like nothing else in heraldry, and from what source it originated or what basis existed for ancient heraldic artists to imagine it from must remain a mystery, … It is like nothing else in heaven or on earth. [T]he wings of the dragon are always represented as the wings of a bat[.]” [Fox-Davies. 1978. A Complete Guide to Heraldry. Bonanza Books, New York. 224]

By the end of the middle ages the Western Dragon had attained its classic appearance, monstrous attitude, and symbolic meaning. It was a powerful beast with breath of fire and an evil disposition which only champions of good could quell. Eastern dragons however were primordial beasts which were often beneficial to humankind. “Oriental dragons are very different from the dragons of the West. Oriental mythology includes many kinds of dragons, and collectively they influence and control every aspect of nature and the affairs of mankind. In stark contrast to their Western counterparts, Oriental dragons are exceedingly wise, are capable of flying without the aid of wings and (aside from spasmodic outbursts of anger) they appear relatively benevolent in their interactions with humanity. They are also revered – to the extent that many of the East’s most ancient and august human lineages claim direct descent from a dragon.” [McGovern. Dragon]

The Eastern Dragon appears as a scaled serpentine creature with the branching horns of a stag and eagle-talons on their four feet. They often have ‘feelers’ on either side of their toothy maw identical to those of a catfish, are portrayed as aquatic, and/or soaring playfully through the clouds with the ability to fly through the air without the aid of wings. “In China dragons were Associated with the weather and were thought to be rain-bringers; some of the country’s worst floods were attributed to humans upsetting a dragon. Chinese dragons were believed to control water, vital for crops. In contrast, western dragons control fire.” [Wilkinson. 36] In the East, dragons were powerful elemental beings to be revered and feared when offended. They wielded a significant amount of mystical ability and not just the ability to swim through the air as they did through water but the ability to exert a divine level of control over the weather and over the water in which they lived. “Dragons were held to exercise control over rainfall, and are often depicted playing with a ball or pearl (symbol of thunder) among the rainclouds.” [Whittaker, Clio. 2007. An Introduction to Oriental Mythology. Quantum Publishing Ltd., London. 38] Basically, Eastern Dragons brought immense elemental power with them being not just a powerful supernatural force in the world; they were of the world, a part of the very natural world that their existence would seem to defy. They combined certain mystical aspects of nature. “[T]he dragon began as a benign symbol representing the fertilizing waters of the serpent and the divine “breath of life” of the bird; the latter also associated with it sky deities and rulers. Later the dragon became symbolically ambivalent, and was seen as both creative and destructive.” [Wilkinson. Dragons] They also gained the power of symbolism absorbing and incorporating certain human aspects. “They are symbols of great power, spiritual and temporal, and are associated with wisdom, strength, and the creative forces of nature. They are revered and temples are dedicated to them.” [Wilkinson. Dragons] Seemingly as the Western Dragon carried the sheer physical menace and viciousness now associated with the RPG Dragon, the Eastern Dragon seems to have brought the mystical and elemental abilities as well as the superior spiritual attributes found to a lesser extent in humanity. Of course, the current trends in both pop-literature and roleplaying games have begun forging the two together along with heaps of personality. “The dragons of Chinese mythology, by contrast [to those of the Western sort], are usually benevolent. This tradition has facilitated REVISIONIST FANTASY about dragons of the Western sort.” [Clute & Grant. Dragons]

The RPG dragon draws from both mythological types as well as from popular fiction all hung on the skeleton of the war-gaming dragon. Dragons as did wizards, started as simple field pieces of surprising power on the fields of fantasy battles waged in the early heyday of miniature war-gaming. These dragons pretty much took solely from the Western type dragon requiring only the physical might and fire breath (not to mention the advantage of flight) on the field. They evolved as did the first major role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons, from the war game but were also injected with some new DNA found in certain works of fantasy fiction. These works are listed in Appendix N from the 1977 edition of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide by Gary Gygax where he cites them as primary inspirations for the game. Of primary interest are the Elric books by Michael Moorcock and of course, the Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. Both of these series of books having much to do with the current form of RPG Dragons. When it comes to Moorcock’s tales of Elric, the morose albino black-rune-sword wielding dragon-riding prince, it is within the Dreaming City (not specifically cited in Appendix N but it was published originally in 1961, well within time to inspire Gary Gygax) that the form of the current era RPG dragon takes shape. “They were dragons, without doubt! The great reptiles were some miles away, but Elric knew the stamp of the huge flying beasts. The average wing-span of these near-extinct monsters was some thirty feet across. Their snake-like bodies, beginning in a narrow snouted head and terminating in a dreadful whip of a tail were forty feet long and although they did not breathe the legendary fire and smoke, Elric knew that their venom was combustible and could set fire to wood or Fabric on contact.” [Moorcock, Michael. The Elric Saga, Part I. Nelson Doubleday Inc. Garden City, New York. 305] To that framework built of the war-game field piece and fleshed out with the physical-ness of Elric’s dragons the next influence to add to the RPG Dragon, an element which would train the sights of greedy adventurers forevermore in their direction, is the work of Tolkien.

 

In particular the Hobbit, the work of his cited in Appendix N and so a direct relation, and the dragon Smaug which is present within. Smaug, a flying fire-breathing beast, seizes the dwarven kingdom of Erebor under the Lonely Mountain for himself and covets the unbelievable mass of treasure within as his hoard atop which he slumbers. “There he lay, a vast red-golden dragon, fast asleep; a thrumming came from his jaws and nostrils, and wisps of smoke, but his fires were low in slumber. Beneath him, under all his limbs and his huge coiled tail, and about him on all sides stretching away across unseen floors, lay countless piles of precious things, gold wrought and unwrought, gems and jewels, and silver red-stained in the ruddy light.” [Tolkien, J.R.R. 1997. The Hobbit. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. 184] Of course, Tolkien modeled Smaug after the traditional European mythic dragon in particular Fafnir; Smaug is greedy, covetous, and pure malignant evil, a perfect example of the classic Western Dragon. Tolkien’s Inklings compatriot C.S. Lewis attributed the same quality to his version of the monster equating it more however as a symbol of greed, one of the seven deadly sins. “Dragons are emblems of covetousness – when, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952) C.S. Lewis’s Eustace is turned into one, it is by thinking covetous thoughts about the horde he has come across. Wagner’s Fafner has similarly opted to change into a dragon in order to better guard the CURSE-ridden hoard for which he has already sacrificed his brother. Though dragons like Tolkien’s Smaug are typologically related to the Satanic dragon of Christianity, their hoard derives from the Norse version of dragonishness. This is at once one of their defining characteristics and their Achilles’ Heel; it is because he has suffered a theft from his hoard that Smaug emerges, and is thus killed.” [Clute & Grant. Dragons] This hoarding trait is definitely present in RP Dragons if not one of their primary distinguishing traits.

Other works attached details to the RPG Dragon and explained details and behaviors of dragons in order to increase believability and foster reader immersion. These works used, and some continue to use, techniques known as Rationalized Fantasy, that is “stock fantasy elements are given a rationale that provides them with internal consistency and coherence.” [Clute & Grant. Rationalized Fantasy.] These works add in taxonomies, species, detailed or not so detailed explanations of draconic physiology and anatomy as well behavior even psychology. These works includes the likes of the Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey, The Flight of Dragons by Peter Dickinson, the Dragon Jousters series by Mercedes Lackey, and the more recent Temeraire series of books authored by Naomi Novik.

These types of fantasy novels add in multiple details fitting dragons into the natural world making them powerful, majestic, but still fearsome beasts that may be preternatural but very much animals with a niche all their own – they like the rest of the animal kingdom including the whole of humankind are biological entities with a definite anatomy. Peter Dickinson’s work, The Flight of Dragons, is a testament to the rationalization of fantastic beasts laying out a blue-print for how the various aspects of the mythical creature could fit into the mundane world. “[M]y theory is that the particular specialisation of dragons was that they evolved a unique mode of flight. They grew to their enourmous size because size was necessary if they were to fly successfully. They breathed fire because they had to. Their “blood” had seemingly magical properties because a particular chemical reaction was necessary for their mode of flight. And so on. At the remoter fringes of the theory I think I can show how the life-form that evolved through this specialisation came to prefer for its diet young ladies of noble breeding.” [Dickinson, Peter. 1979. The Flight of Dragons. Perrot Publishing Limited. 16]

However, the foremost of these works would be Anne McCaffrey’s the Dragonriders of Pern where the dragons were differentiated from each other by the colors of their scales to which size was also attached (Gold, Bronze, Brown, Blue, Green, with gold being the largest and green the smallest); a sort of color-coding as it were. The Pern series of books are more sci-fi than fantasy and the Pernese dragons are described as genetically modified versions of Pern’s native fire-lizards only resembling the mythical dragon in that they resemble fire-breathing winged dinosaurs, in fact dubbed “dragons” due to that resemblance by the planetary colonists that bred them. When it comes to mating the Pern series of novels are very descriptive mostly from an emotional angle. The Pernese dragons share a telepathic link with their riders and influence the sexuality of their riders and others around them particularly evident during the described mating ritual. The sexuality of the Pernese dragons does have a definite relationship with the sexuality of their riders and to whom they will “impress” due to their intense tele-empathic bond, later clarified by the author herself [McCaffrey, Anne. 2000. Pern’s Renewable Airforce]. This talk of dragon-sex brings us to a strange behavior attributed to dragons in the popular imagination and myth, the awkward habit of kidnapping maidens.

“Dragons’ legendary habit of devouring maidens is something many fantasists have tried to rationalize. Because dragons are seen as solitary, they have to have some sort of sexuality, and eating virgins fits the bill.” [Clute & Grant. Dragons] This component of the draconic personality is often ignored or simply left out by most contemporary fiction and role-playing games. It was added by medieval literature.  “In medieval romance captive ladies were often guarded by dragons.” [Rockwood. Dragon] An element of this strange trans-species draconic sexuality can be found in the Eastern Dragon as well. “Dragons represent the male yang element.” [Whittaker. 38] The philosophy behind Ying and Yang is that apparently contrary, not necessarily opposing, forces have an element of each other within themselves because they are interconnected. Ying and yang are an indivisible whole with Yin being the passive and/or feminine element and Yang, the dominant/male element.

In most of the fiction mentioned previously, dragons are used as either massively powerful weapons or, especially in Smaug’s case, the primary threat of the story which must be overcome. In all of these cases dragons are just essentially plot devices for the most part, the dragons in Temeraire are much more integrated as characters, however as Fiction Narrative and RPG Narratives are completely different dragons are primarily used in RPG’s as campaign-enders or set-pieces as the great threat marking a sort of chapter or book-end in a tabletop campaign. They are ideal foils for Player Characters, great lumbering powerful beasts with fiery breath and a penchant for constructing or at least occupying complex often maze-like lairs which probably evolved in game-play starting as simple cave-lairs and quickly becoming something more complex as gameplay demanded. The penetration into the depths of a dragon’s lair can be a campaign in and of itself. “As often as not, whether intelligent or bestial, dragons are the hunter, not the hunted. Standing as they do as a gate between life and death and as flesh-and-blood beings that are nonetheless magical in their essence, they are LIMINAL BEINGS often connected with the getting of wisdom rather than merely enemies to be confronted. A conversation with a dragon is always a kind of duel, a struggle to refuse hypnotism or mastery.” [Clute & Grant. Dragons] RPG Dragons typically are not just a random encounter.

The dragon has evolved from a term essentially describing only a sharp-eyed serpent to a majestic beast representing primordial supernatural power. This traditional malleability of the dragon continues especially in the fantasy today not just as a symbol but as a literalized creature with certain authors building their own details not just to increase reader interest but also believability onto the mythical framework, the most influential in the realm of roleplaying being Michael Moorcock, Ann McCaffrey, and, of course, Tolkien. The mythical dragon is the root of certain RPG tropes when it comes to dragons: dragon-slayers (Marduk), half-dragons (the Chinese dragon). The malleability of myth and the additions of fantasy authors have inspired the dragon-rider and the draconic character in roleplaying as well. The idea of dragons not only in RPG’s but in mythology itself seems to change to suit the role the creatures are set to play but have always represented an epic and earth-shattering experience wielding massive amounts of primordial magical power. “Mythology reveals the dragon as both creator and destroyer and involves epic themes such as cosmic chaos, creation, and rebirth.” [Wilkinson. Dragons] Dragons have evolved from the idea of gigantic serpents into a vast array of fantastical animals with their own biology and anatomies as varied and numerous as water on the face of the earth. “There is a particular affinity between dragons and water in all its natural forms: seas, rivers, lakes, rain.” [Whittaker. 38]

The first RPG dragons were derived from fiction which borrowed from myth and took their form from war-games. Dragons in RPG’s have a deep and long lineage and thus can be very useful to the creative and clever Game-Master. Dragons can be built and designed by the GM using the transformative fictive elements found in popular fantasy fiction, and many already have been. The GM should think of specific links to their setting such as special adaptations that would bind the native dragons inextricably to that setting. Creating believable dragons helps to not only surprise the players but grounds them within the campaign world providing a deeper level of immersion; the same result desired by the fiction authors via the same method. Coloration, scale patterns, the presence of hair, and any number of odd physical features or bizarre powers are all options. Dragons continue to evolve in the human mind shaped by the immense creative forces contained therein and so will continue to evolve and change with not only literature but also with fantasy roleplaying games in general.

On Vancian Magic

When it comes to magic in tabletop role-playing games my opinion is a bit conventional in the sense that I dislike Vancian Magic, a system of RPG magic inspired by the Dying Earth series of books and stories authored by Jack Vance. I do acknowledge its importance in not that it was essentially the first codified system but that it is vital to the formation of the tools and ideas in turning magic towards tabletop gaming from whence most current RPG magic systems spring, the magic system I authored included. I don’t particularly care for it because it tends to be trite in my opinion and restrictive as well as losing the mystery or ‘fluffy’ aspects of magic. It treats spells as pre-packaged single purpose weapons which the wizard “fires & forgets”. The ‘spells as ammunition’ mindset probably owes its inception in the roots of tabletop RPG’s, namely War-Gaming. Aside from justifications for the in-game impact of a Vancian magic system such as the Surgeon Metaphor and the Alzheimer’s comparison, I think it’s also generally not great for mystery or atmosphere and definitely more afforded to war and video-gaming. Though to be fair the descriptions of magic used in the Dying Earth, from whence it is inspired, are definitely apart from the gaming adaptations of Gygax & Arneson. It is more conducive to the fiction of Jack Vance (of course) than role-playing a mage character and more-so in a setting much less like Vance’s Dying Earth.

‘Vancian’ magic is too artificial and strict for my taste but provides a stepping stone when it comes to game design. It does, as is one of the popular arguments against this strain of gaming magic, turns spell-casters into field pieces to be pointed at the enemy as mystic artillery. Don’t get me wrong sometimes I like this aspect of the good ‘ole fire-ball slinging type wizard. My preference for magic includes a healthy dose of mystery and risk involved as when I play a mage I like to experiment with my abilities even if I might get burned in the end, or blown up which has happened. Game magic does need its well-defined or ‘hard’ aspects to be playable. If magic is too ‘fluffy’ or ill-defined it makes the in-game use of it too esoteric though if it is weighed down by too many rules and calculations then the learning curve for players becomes a bit too steep. A Game-Master should keep the player characters questioning exactly what an enemy mage may be doing or what they may be pursuing due to the softer aspects of magic and know that it can’t be good or have at least a rough idea motivating them to take action against their enemy as the ‘hard’ aspects will be known to them at least in a ‘meta’ sense and these if overly defined may give the game away in the knowing.

The ‘hard’ aspects of an RPG are the bits of the game defined either in broad terms or in very quantified ‘Hard’ terms creating elements that can be manipulated in game terms allowing players and thus their characters to work with that game aspect, in this case magic, easily due to its consisting primarily of either clear cut rules and/or numeric values. They are also a necessary and operative part of the system and cannot be removed without breaking the system. Another frequently used name for these ‘hard’ bits is ‘crunch’ but that is also applied to refer to additional more optional bits as well so I will be using the former term throughout this article. In contrast a ‘fluffy’ aspect refers to a soft/fuzzy aspect or something not solidly defined in game terms but may be covered by a broad rule requiring the GM and/or players to interpret it in respect to game-play if it becomes necessary but which still has some sort of impact on game play. Basically anything not solidly or explicitly defined by the game system but still operative in-game which is not outside of the game system. The workability of magic or what makes something ‘workable’ for a game are the ‘hard’ aspects defined within the game system allowing the participants (Players and Game-Master) not only to understand the general overall concept behind them but also how to use them while still being able to play with the ‘soft’ parts lending some demi-officiated “wriggle room”.

The ‘hard’ gaming aspects of magic allow the participants to grab a hold of the concept like handles and manipulate it as if it were a system of dials, switches, and levers. Now this is exactly how Vancian systems operate but the condemnation, I believe, belongs to the sorry fact that it’s also how most Vancian-based magic systems feel especially if they’re not steeped in the proper atmosphere. They feel very mechanical. “[M]agic, when present, can do anything, but obeys certain rules according to its nature. Generally ideas as to its nature are left undefined. Attempts to write a system or define the rules […] can produce shallow and simplistic fantasies.” [Clute & Grant. 1997. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. New York, St. Martin’s Press. Magic] This core problem with Vancian magic can be traced back to Vance himself and his possible attitude towards the idea of magic if this can be extrapolated from his highly influential work. “Magic is a practical science, or, more properly, a craft, since emphasis is placed primarily upon utility, rather than basic understanding.” [Vance, Jack. 1998. The Compleat Dying Earth. SFBC edition. pg. 582]

The Vancian Magic system originally appeared in Dungeons & Dragons and packages magic into strictly defined “spells” with mostly inflexible game applicable stats along with a description of effects. It is a rules-based magic system which is reliant on and mainly composed of functional rules. The spell-caster using Vancian magic must “memorize” their spells which allows them to cast a certain number of spells per day, this number being based on their caster experience level and the spell list from which they are allowed to memorize spells. The casting often involves certain “components” such as hand gestures and chants etc. and after the casting the memorized spell is essentially forgotten. “When subsequently cast – by speaking or some other means – the words or gestures, or whatever triggered the magical force of the spell, leaving a blank place in the brain where the previously memorized spell had been held.” [Gygax, Gary. 2001. Jack Vance & the D&D Game. The Excellent Prismatic Spray Vol.1, No.1. Pelgrane Press Ltd.] Which leads us to a major complaint about this system of magic is that of the memorization of spells and the ability to memorize multiple instances of the same spell which after casting are then forgotten which is often compared, unjustifiably, to a form of Alzheimer’s Disease. The Alzheimer’s complaint being that spell-casters after casting a spell completely forget it as if it were never in their heads similar in effect to an Alzheimer’s patient but only in a very selective (and superficial) manner which is not quite equivalent to the real-life disease. This manner expending of spell magic can be explained within the game system in several different ways but the cognitive dissonance that it can inspire takes some out of the game, me included. It is readily evident even during play that it is completely artificial, designed to work within a game. “To my way of thinking, the concept of a spell itself being magical, that its written form carried energy, seemed a perfect way to balance the mage against other types of characters in the game.”[Gygax. 2001. Emphasis mine.] Not to say that deliberately designing a magic system to function as a part of a game is inherently a bad thing; it just shouldn’t be too evident.

Like the rest of tabletop roleplaying the Vancian Magic System has its primordial origins in the world of war-gaming and was directly inspired by Jack Vance’s the Dying Earth, being adapted by Gary Gygax to Dungeons & Dragons. “Just what portions of these works, the subsequent AD&D game, stemmed from inspiration related to the writing of Jack Vance? Several elements, the unquestioned foremost being the magic system used in these games.” [Gygax. 2001] Essentially the current idea of the magic-user began with Dave Arneson’s seminal Blackmoor campaign which evolved from his miniature war-gaming sessions. Magic as a feature of war-gaming entered into the scene as a means to reenact fantasy battles found in fiction in particular those found in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and the desire to add in new features, most likely out of boredom, to war-games and move beyond just reenacting historical battles but it was not until the fantasy supplement added to the back of the first edition of the Chainmail miniature rules in 1971 by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren that the course of RPG Magic was set. “Magic spells are the purview of the “Wizard” type in Chainmail. Although unexceptional as melee fighters, Wizards have two ranged attacks they can employ: a “fire ball” and a “lightning bolt”. The former explodes like a thrown bomb, creating a circle of carnage,…, while the latter extends in a straight line from the Wizard, annihilating those in its path.” [Peterson, John. 2012. Playing at the World. Unreason Press LLC. pg.42] A second edition quickly followed in 1972 due to the first edition being a hit. “Chainmail in its second edition thus set a precedent, a foundational one for the future Magic-user class, that Wizards may have inferior or superior levels of power relative to other Wizards, and that some powerful spells may not be cast by Wizards of lesser ability.” [Peterson. 163] Around the same time Dave Arneson began to apply the fantasy rules to his war-gaming sessions which soon mutated into the Blackmoor campaign setting. “By the time he brought his Blackmoor campaign to Gygax’s attention, Arneson had introduced a number of innovations in the Chainmail magic system, not all of which would ultimately become a part of Dungeons & Dragons.  Notably, Blackmoor wizards were ranked by numerical level rather than by hierarchical titles [.] … In addition to levels of Wizards, spells themselves were sorted into ranks representing difficulty or power [.]” [Peterson. 165] The first edition of Dungeons & Dragons later followed this in 1974 with its own integrated magic system. Ultimately though, it was gamers that gave it the name which persists today. “Because I explained this often, attributing its inspiration to Jack Vance, the D&D magic system of memorized then forgotten spells was dubbed by gamers “the Vancian magic system”.”[Gygax. 2001]

Vancian magic has a few readily evident strengths. Packaging spells into easily digestible bites rendering them infinitely useable in-game making that aspect of magic supremely ‘workable’ though limited in its mutability is absolutely one. Predictability is another easy to discern strong point in that it makes the GM’s job easier allowing them to have some fore knowledge of what’s at the players’ disposable at any given time. Its primary contribution to RPG magic is something that I myself have a penchant for, modularity though in a limited sense. It excels at the ‘hard’ bits of a roleplaying system due mainly to its creation in the war-gaming arena where wizards (and druids) were field pieces. Another bonus of a purely Vancian system is the forcing of players to think strategically when playing mages memorizing only the spells they think may need later. “Then he sat down and from a journal chose the spells he would take with him. What dangers he might meet he could not know, so he selected three spells of general application: the Excellent Prismatic Spray, Phandaal’s Mantle of Stealth, and the Spell of the Slow Hour.” [Vance. 1998. 5] Bad choices however, can lead to a Vancian wizard to become near useless left with nothing to do but either get killed or try to hide in an encounter especially in an unforeseen/unaccounted for one.

There are some fundamental weaknesses. The first is also one of its strengths the nifty packaging of spells which makes them easy to use also makes them fairly inflexible without some special caveats being added into the game (the Feat mechanic being an example). Another inherent in such a mechanical system of magic is that it is unrealistic (so-to-speak) being based on strange logic used in and more appropriate to Jack Vance’s fiction where it is a narrative device as it naturally would-be and was meant to be in the first place; narrative in a work of fiction and that in an RPG being very different. It’s over-definition not just disallowing for in-game flexibility but it also restricts subtle variation. In fact, variation requires that brand new spells be authored. This ‘rules based’ form of magic also seems to lack in consequences even for the “over-use” of magic leading to a few in-game questions such as the question of technology and wide-spread utilitarian use of magic but those will not be addressed here.

Jack Vance’s Dying Earth fiction is peculiarly suitable for adaptation into the realm of gaming due to its belonging to a certain strain of fantasy fiction known as Rationalized Fantasy. In Rationalized Fantasy “stock fantasy elements are given a rationale that provides them with internal consistency and coherence. In such works the laws of MAGIC may be carefully codified, often through elaborate systems of mysticism[.]” [Clute. 801] Basically it’s where something fantastical is explicable in mundane terms. Jack Vance definitely quantified spell-casting and sorcery in this work. “Mazirian, by dint of stringent exercise, could encompass four of the most formidable, or six of the lesser spells.” [Vance. 19] He even seemed to invent the idea of naming spells in effect packing them and their effects into solid armaments equivalent, but much more powerful than, a standard weapon such as a sword rendering libraries as potent as armories. “Mazirian made a selection from his books and with great effort forced five spells upon his brain: Phandaal’s Gyrator, Felojun’s Second Hypnotic Spell, The Excellent Prismatic Spray, The Charm of Untiring Nourishment, and the Spell of the Omnipotent Sphere.” [Vance. 23] This is not to say the wizards and magicians found in his fictions could not wield swords and daggers in fact, they routinely did; a decided difference between Vance’s fiction and the “Vancian” system of magic.

In effect with Rationalized Fantasy, the atmosphere of mysticism and mystery which I feel should surround magic in an RPG can be diminished by overly technical game terminology or mundane in-game explanations and too complex a construction of game-mechanics. RPG magic systems should try to maintain atmosphere as well as provide some easy to use and understand ‘hard’ aspects not to mention provide some flexibility. The main points which are important to an RPG magic system are a sense of ‘workability’, an element of risk to the caster in addition to those on the receiving end, flexibility in its in-game use, and details helping along the atmosphere which should hang over magic and spell-casters like a pall. RPG magic requires definition but that shouldn’t absolutely define its every edge – magic requires certain ‘hard’ meta-game aspects required to be made use of in-game these should be kept to only the necessities for ease of use and on top of that, a certain measure of risk to the caster and their companions. Hard aspects should be spare but allow ‘workability’ in a meta-sense more than in-game as that can be explained with mythology or a character-eye view of the game world adding even more color to the game. Risk is essential and provides a sort of ‘internal questing’ the mage character can do providing a thrill with just the casting of a spell as well as all the other potential arcane and enigmatic risks when on the search for or even just perusing certain esoterica. Magic should also have a sense of its own volition. The artifice shouldn’t be inside of the magic present in a game but should be a structure on top of it through which the magic-user conducts their craft mostly consisting, within the game, the belief system from which they pull their explanations for it. Magic itself should be a nearly autonomous, amorphous mass writhing just underneath the surface of in-game reality.

Is the Vancian system of magic a fair equivocation to magic as presented in Jack Vance’s work? A little, it is somewhat starkly defined in the Dying Earth books but is not as sharply defined as it is within the Vancian system adapted from his work. It is from his work that libraries and moldy old tomes have become synonymous with the RPG magic-user not to diminish the influence of Gandalf the Grey. “The tomes which held Turjan’s sorcery lay on a long table of black steel or were thrust helter-skelter into shelves. These were volumes compiled by many wizards of the past, untidy folios collected by the Sage, leather-bound librams setting forth the syllables of a hundred powerful spells, so cogent that Turjan’s brain could know but four at a time.” [Vance. 4] In most Vancian systems magic grimoires, the spell books of wizards, are nigh useless to non-mage characters, unless they know whom to sell them to that is, but in the Dying Earth non-mages could make use of the magic though  not to the extent as a dedicated spell-caster. The Vance character Cugel the Clever, from which certain aspects of the D&D thief class were taken aside from Fritz Leiber’s the Gray Mouser, and whose specialties are self-absorption and being picaresque rather than anything akin to Vance’s disciplined craft but in a pinch he too can cram a few spells in his skull. “Cugel opened and read; finding an appropriate spell, he held the fire-ball close the better to encompass the activating syllables. There were four lines of words, thirty-one syllables in all. Cugel forced them into his brain, where they lay like stones.” [Vance.271] In his fiction unlike in games that make use of a Vancian system books of spells are useful to anyone who can read, very similar to such items found in lore and more in line with the popular idea of the wizard. “In the popular imagination, magicians always had books, or libraries of books, containing all their magical secrets. These books were jealously guarded, for if the knowledge they contained fell into the hands of the unwise or the unworthy, anything might happen.” [Cohen, Daniel. 1985. The Encyclopedia of the Strange. New York. Dorset Press. pg.216] The Dying Earth stories do indeed keep to this idea better than the “Vancian” magic system model. This brings us to another complaint about Vancian systems which did not originate from Vance’s fiction, the ability of mages to memorize more than one instance of the same spell. In the Dying Earth, Mazirian the magician after casting a spell at a homunculus which he was extracting from his vats but to no effect and quickly found himself within its grip. “The mesmeric spell had been expended, and he had none other in his brain.” [Vance. 1998. 20] In fact, none of his mages “encompass” (memorize) more than a single copy of any individual spell in any of the stories. Of course as stated before, the narrative of fiction and that of an RPG game are very different animals.

RPG magic should have flexibility. Modularity in this respect is probably the best way to go from a design standpoint allowing the participants to make use of whatever parts of the system they require at that moment. Modularity also encourages mixing and matching. Game-magic should encourage PC-mages to explore in-game magic not just in its casting but in the formulating of new spells, altering old spells, and hunting down legends, mythical spells and items as well as hard to find components. Players and thus their mage characters should feel as if they’re penetrating the deep mysteries of the (game) universe encouraging exploration. Also, do not count out the consequences of magic as well not just to counter any perceived in-game over-reliance on it but the effects of magic accruing over-time within the setting as well, where spell-casters may be responsible for some of the supernatural woes found in the game setting shaping non-casters’ opinions about mages and magic. The side-effects of spells, the warping of the world and dimensions, magical residue and even magical contamination are other such approaches to the consequence angle.

Details add flavor and lend to the atmosphere tied to magic and can help make ‘fluffy’ bits of the system to be a little more coherent and help to steer players towards certain decisions when dealing with the softer aspects of a system. Atmosphere is built from not only the GM’s words at the table but also added to by certain details such as specified components and description of ceremony etc. and use of the ‘fluffy’ bits. Keep in mind strange and mostly non-functional details that can evince reactions from players and/or their characters are very important. Players may know how their mages work their magic in-game from a mechanics standpoint but certain details especially those that accumulate over time from an array of game components within the magic system not all or any of them need be functional in-play either. However, over-use of this tactic may diminish the impact of this strategy and so it should be used sparingly but not so sparingly that it can be ignored. These details can seem, in the minds of players and perhaps even GM’s, to amount to a puzzle to which no one has all of the pieces or a riddle with no answer hinting at something stranger just beyond understanding.

Though RPG magic essentially came from war gaming and evolved into quantified Vancian Magic then began to be adapted into various systems of game magic with varying ‘fluffy’ and ‘hard’ aspects/quantities it does not mean that RPG magic should always be strictly defined in its execution all the time. Vancian magic was necessary that it gave a baseline for what was necessary to make magic a ‘workable’ aspect in RPGs by quantifying it in game terms. The original purpose of the spell-slinger was to serve as mystic field artillery on the field of battle in war-games later becoming the “swiss army knife” characters of OD&D. I find Vancian magic too clear-cut and inflexible, I desire a magic system that allows for flexibility and variation; magic that can serve as its own quest maybe even its own self-contained world within the world of the game.

Spells should be more than ammunition, magic can be a quest unto itself all wrapped in an air of mystery providing yet another avenue of adventure besides Dungeon Crawls, MacGuffin Quests, Bug-Hunts, and Monster-Slaying. RPG magic should be ‘workable’, should carry risk in the practice if not by its mere presence, should have flexibility, and should carry a certain air or atmosphere. When I run a mage I want the arcane power and knowledge that they wield to be something extraordinary and supernatural invoking wonder and trepidation in those not so inclined (or talented). Magic however does need to be ‘workable’ in-game and not just by the GM but also by the players so it may be fully explored, its mysteries penetrated, and the unfathomable risks experienced.