Dungeons and Dragons is Not a Game!

My title is a provocation: at one level, Dungeons and Dragons is a game, a role-playing game with numerous rules and supplements. At several other levels, D&D is much more than a game. I’m not interested here whether role-playing games are actually games in the same way as other games or in the definition of games, which, as Wittgenstein demonstrated in his Philosophical Investigations, are actually very difficult to define, given the variety of objects and practices that are referred to as games. Nor do I want to discuss here the social practice that is playing D&D (fascinating though this is). Instead, what I’m interested in here is the way in which cultural objects expand beyond their original medium into other media, and how that process affects how we approach the original text, often decentring them.

My first introduction to Dungeon and Dragons was not the red Basic Set (though I’m fairly sure I did own a copy of this in about 1990). I first encountered D&D as the cartoon that was produced in the 1980s. I’m not sure precisely when I watched it, given that I was a small child at the time and not keeping notes, but it must have been during the children’s cartoon time (ca. 3.30-5pm, weekdays) on ITV. The cartoon introduces various roles, such as Ranger, Cavalier, Acrobat, Thief that determined the abilities of the characters, much like classes in the role-playing game. Importantly, the cartoon showed narratives where the characters overcame some sort of challenge, modelling the sorts of adventures you might find in a D&D campaign.

A little older, I encountered the Dragonlance series of books by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis. I’m not sure whether this came before or after I had a copy of the Dragonlance board game, published by TSR. I think it’s likely I had the game first and then saw the novels; either way, my argument about the way in which properties spread over different media is supported by the idea that the novels and the board game led to each other, no matter what order. The narrative of the game is much more about recovering the Dragonlance. The novels offer a much more complete world, with strong characters like Raistlin the Mage or Tanis the Half Elf. As with the TV show, the novels introduced ideas that recur in RPG of D&D, such as the alignment (Raistlin begins neutral but ends up evil, for instance) as well as the sorts of archetypal characters that one encounters in a typical D&D campaign. In addition, I remember various narrative scenes from the novels, even  twenty plus years later, such as the adulteration of magical beer with other beer, or the fact that Raistlin suffered so much in his trial to become a mage that he became possessed.

There were other parts of the D&D world that I never explored, most notably the R.A. Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms novels, which, like the Dragonlance novels, were published in the 1980s but which remained in circulation (in e.g. charity shops) into the early 2000s. Nor did I play, as far as I’m aware, any of the many D&D video games. I’m not too sure why, as I was playing the Ultima series on my dad’s PC in the early 1990s (a check on dates makes me think it was Ultima VII) and the fantasy narrative there and the nature of 1990s RPGs on PCs and consoles would suggest the reasonable likelihood that I would have been interested in the D&D branded games too. The 2000 film, starring Jeremy Irons, happily passed me by (it’s rated 3.7 on IMDB – not the worst rating ever but not exactly encouraging, either).

I’ve taken a fairly personal approach up to here, as I think it’s important to demonstrate how the spread over media of a property works: Dungeons and Dragons, for me, has never really meant a weekly D&D session with my mates. While I did have a copy in the 1980s and must have tried to play it, it didn’t become a hobby. Yet the world, or moreover worlds, of D&D were a fairly constant presence throughout my childhood and I’ve remained aware of it as an adult. As my preference in games tends to be more Eurogames, I’ve still not really engaged with D&D, though Lords of Waterdeep, which uses worker placement and other typical Eurogame features, does look tempting. My point is that the property of D&D – the story, setting, ideas – appears in a range of media and a range of forms, not just in the canonical game of D&D. In fact, the RPG version of D&D is actually just one form of the property, and, in my case, not at all central in my experience of it.

This sort of media spreading has been theorised by the media scholar Henry Jenkins as ‘convergence’. His argument is that media are converging onto a smaller number of devices – think about how your smart TV has internet access, Netflix and broadcast TV, or your ‘phone’ does pretty much everything – and at the same time consumers are searching across different media for more material based on the same narratives. The phenomenon of properties across media is not all that new, though, as my memories of D&D show, but also if you go further back, you find books and board games based on TV shows, TV shows based on toys (e.g. MASK but there are plenty of others, including My Little Pony), and so on.

Another way of approaching this process is to think of it as ‘transmedia franchising’, that is, the use of the same property across different media (e.g. games, toys, novels, films). The Japanese term for the process is ‘media mix’ and it has been a part of Japanese culture since the 1960s. I find the Japanese term useful as it suggests that all media are viewed equally and that they are experienced mixed together. In the English and Japanese terms, the idea that one medium is central or canonical is shifted to thinking of the media (in the plural) as a system that interconnects: people may engage with one or other to begin with but will then explore connected forms. This offers a quite different perspective to thinking of the texts as adaptations of each other, but I would also argue that ‘media mix’ and ‘transmedia’ suggest that producing across media was always part of the production strategy, which it may be in some case, but this does overlook the discontinuities in media production and the result of unexpected popularity, nor does it allow for new products that appear much later than the original property. Some of the history of D&D was clearly the result of decisions to target audiences across multiple media, but some of the texts may not have been originally planned.

Thinking about Dungeons and Dragons as not a game, then, but as a media mix or transmedia franchise including, but not limited to, the roleplaying game, helps us to understand it as a cultural phenomenon. At the same time, the various versions of D&D can be understood rhetorically as ways of addressing different audiences in order to engage them with the property (and make them buy things – this commercial aspect cannot be overlooked). This process of addressing different audiences deserves more research, by or example analysing how narratives are adapted to each medium or analysing the way in which players or viewers are addressed in different media (or even different texts in the same medium, as playing Dungeon is somewhat differing to playing Lords of Waterdeep). And if it’s true D&D is not (just) a game, then it’s also true of other properties – Ghostbusters, My Little Pony, and Shadowrun, among many others – which are also multimedia franchises with complex histories of expansion into different media. Not games, not films, but media systems.

Jonathan Evans1 Comment