A celebration of collaborative fantasy storytelling: a report and reading list from the Centre’s Fantasy and D&D event

It was great to see so many people from all over the world join us for a talk and discussion on Fantasy and D&D, co-organized by our Centre and the Games and Gaming Lab. Our main speaker, John D. Rateliff, has very kindly offered us his talk for publication on our blog, which you can read here.

We are also delighted to share a report on our event by our Fantasy MLitt student Hannah Burton, accompanied by a list of titles mentioned in the event compiled by our PhD student Grace Worm.

A report from the Centre’s Fantasy and D&D event, by Hannah Burton

Like many of you, I have travelled to the lands of Middle-earth, Azeroth or the Forgotten Realms. These worlds have allowed us to escape, create agency within our own world, or in the case of Dungeons and Dragons, become a part of a world created by collaborative storytelling. In a time dominated by isolation and computer screens, Dungeons and Dragons, or D&D, has become a social outlet for many, lessening the feelings of separation and isolation with role-playing adventure parties. Sometimes you just need to escape reality, even for an hour, so you can live your dream of being a bard who makes beautiful music with a priceless lute.

During lockdown, the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic, co-presented with the Games and Gaming Labs, held the event “D&D and Fantasy Fiction: Giants in the Oerth” to discuss the literary inspirations and history behind D&D. Discussions began with Grace A.T. Worm, a 2nd-year PhD student, engaging the audience as the ‘Dungeon Master’ for the evening to discuss how D&D gave role-playing games their continued success in popular culture. D&D is unique in its ability to create diverse worlds that players can create through what Worm described as “collective storytelling.” This collaboration is key in navigating the game as it concerns both the absorption of D&D’s vast world-building while also creating a place for players to develop teamwork through adventuring parties. D&D’s popularity in the past decade has also been affected by Critical Role and The Adventure Zone through their visual storytelling. Worm utilised this interactive aspect of the game in her discussion, giving the audience a chance to create their own characters via simplified character sheets provided in her presentation. This small ‘one-shot’ gave the audience a glimpse into the experience of playing D&D, and how it can spark one’s imagination by simply picking a character.

After this, Tolkien scholar, John D. Rateliff, began his talk about the movement of fantasy fiction to D&D into game-inspired fiction. Rateliff contends that fantasy has always been a part of D&D as seen in the original Dungeon Master’s guide in 1979, as its core structure is heavily affected by the works of authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard. A memorable moment from Rateliff’s paper was his statement that D&D is heavily influenced by fantasy literature because of how permeable the borders are between the two. For Rateliff, it is these permeable borders that develop the imagination of world-building of future games and players. The last part of Rateliff’s paper leaves viewers with early images of a signpost that features Gygax’s world, Greyhawk, and Middle-earth on the same post, proving that Gygax himself created D&D with fantasy worlds like Tolkien’s in mind.

The session then moved into the Q&A, moderated by 1st year PhD student, Emma French. Topics began with Rateliff’s first involvement in D&D, to the role of violence as a driving force in D&D. As D&D was originally a war game, Rateliff notes that the game has slowly moved away from this mentality. The questions then moved onto a more heated topic in the recent months: the changing attitudes of race and diversity within D&D. This movement, according to Rateliff, will have a tremendous impact on the future of both D&D and Fantasy literature. Another notable question for Rateliff was why fantasy has been the dominant force in RPGs. For Rateliff, this has to do with fantasy being united under Tolkien as he was such a dominating force on 20th-century Fantasy: “Tolkien is such a big light in the room that it dims other lights.” This continued with other topics such as Dunsany’s influence on Fantasy, editorial work for RPG publications, and if fantasy functions differently in a game setting. The entire Q&A session with Rateliff was diverse and displayed the audience’s wide interests in learning more about the connection between Fantasy literature and D&D. 

Overall, this event provided solace and fellowship both on and off-screen. I want to end this post with a final quote from John. D. Rateliff as I feel it expresses the overall tone of the talk: “D&D starts local and small and then the world gets bigger each time you explore it.” The exploration of worlds should not only be read through characters like Bilbo Baggins and his adventure into Middle-earth, it should also be shared in games like D&D through storytelling, especially during a time that seems more detached than ever.

A list of authors, texts, game books, and games mentioned during the Fantasy and D&D event, compiled by Grace Worm

Authors:

  • Johannes Cabal
  • J.R.R. Tolkien
    • The History of the Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings
  • Lord Dunsany
    • The Book of Wonder, The Charwoman’s Shadow, Don Rodriguez: Chronicles of Shadow Valley, The Dreamer’s Tale, The King of Elfland’s Daughter, The Last Book of Wonder

Texts:

  • Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart
  • Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation by Mark Wolf
  • The CRPG Book: A Guide to Computer Role-Playing Games By Felipe Pepe
  • Dave Areneson’s True Genius by Robert J. Kuntz
  • “Demonizing the Enemy, Literally: Tolkien, Orcs, and the Sense of the World Wars” by Robert T. Tally, Jr.
  • The Elusive Shift by Jon Peterson
    • History of RPGs and their relationship to wargames
  • The Gentleman’s Bastard series by Scott Lynch
  • H.P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos by Robert Price
  • Johannes Cabal the Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard
  • The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss
  • Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames
  • A Land Fit for Heroes series by Richard K. Morgan
  • Matthew Swift series by Kate Griffin (or Catherine Webb or Claire North)
  • Pendragon: Journal of an Adventure through Time and Space series by D.J. MacHale
  • The Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch
  • The Rook by Daniel O’Malley
  • Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
  • “Sturgeon’s Law” by James Gunn
  • The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • White Wolf Magazine
  • Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson

Official DnD Wizards of the Coast Books:

Games:

  • Age of Heroes
  • Angband
  • Ars Magica
  • Call of Cthulhu 
  • Dragon Warriors
  • The Dungeons of Moria
  • FATE
  • Fiasco
  • Legend of the Five Rings
  • Mage: the Ascension
  • Magic the Gathering
  • Rolemaster
  • Shadow of the Demon Lord
  • Shadowrun
  • Vampire: the Masquerade

If you missed this event, our YouTube recording is available here:

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