Monday, May 2, 2011

"Fell Into the D&D World" Stories

Here are two examples of fiction in which the protagonists start out in the "real world", and are soon transported/fall into a "D&D world" (a world based explicitly on a fantasy role-playing game), with a short observation on each. Maybe you can think of other examples.

Dungeons & Dragons Cartoon

Of course, the most obvious example is the famed Dungeons & Dragons animated TV series which ran on CBS from 1983-1985. Per Wikipedia, "The general premise of the show is that a group of children are pulled into the 'Realm of Dungeons & Dragons' by taking a magical dark ride on an amusement park roller coaster." And of course this show has something of an advantage (and an obligation) in being able to refer to D&D and various pieces of associated IP by name.

Let's look at the character classes assumed by the starring characters. There are (left-to-right in the picture): an acrobat, magician, ranger, barbarian, thief, and cavalier. Can't help but notice that's a pretty Unearthed Arcana-heavy party.

And one other thing: No clerics. Or cleric sub-classes.

Guardians of the Flame Series

Another example is the long-running Guardians of the Flame series of novels by writer Jorl Rosenberg, published from 1983 to 2003. Notice that's the exact same starting year as the D&D cartoon (nearing the end of D&D's greatest fad-popularity peak). From Wikipedia: "The series is about a group of college students who participate in a fantasy role-playing game, and are magically transported to the world of the game by their gamemaster." Here, D&D is not mentioned by name, but the reference is clear.

Consider the classes assumed by the main protagonists in this case: A fighter, a thief, a high-level-wizard (later engineer), a dwarf berserker, and a low-level wizardess. In this case, there is also a cleric in the original group, but she is written out of the action halfway through the first book (a horrifying assault puts her in a near-catatonic state, and she is left behind at a healing tabernacle). She re-appears in book 4, only to then give up her powers to save another character.

So for the vast majority of this 10-book series: No clerics. Although there is a healer organization mentioned in the first book, they aren't a factor in the rest of the series.

Possible discussion question -- What is it about clerics that fails to interface with fantasy literature? Even when the setting is explicitly based on D&D game rules?


  1. Probably worries about the real world connection and real world religion. Sure, a fictional story could have a group of knight-like people who have protective/healing magic without them being a religious order. But the default assumption is that Clerics are religious, and pulling people from the "real world" who then start worshiping deities of the "fantasy world" might draw unwanted attention, especially back in 1983.

  2. Quag Keep, by Andre Norton. Featuring Deav Dyne the cleric!

  3. Roger the GS beat me to it. Quag Keep had a cleric and it was the first of the ported into the game for real type of books. But that was before the entire Mazes & Monsters panic and that short comic where everyone that plays worships Satan and will kill themselves if their characters die. I think Lord may be right in that they wanted to avoid the "worship other deities" topic after that.

  4. Clerics, with their abundance of cure spells, would take away anything even remotely resembling plot and dramatic tension.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. ...the trouble with the religion-baiting objection to clerics is the original Van Helsingian cleric character: you can have any number of Van Helsings in your fiction without offending anyone, it seems. And I'd say Lewis demonstrates that provided your fictional clerics are more-or-less Christian-scented and your monsters more-or-less horned and tailed you should be able to do get away with almost anything. You could also have any number of Getafixian druids or herbalists or what have you. It's only if you demand the possibility of naughty explicitly non-Christian clerics that you should run into trouble?

    Or am I being too logical for a discussion of moral panics?

  7. Second try at commenting: it's not a D&D work, but it strikes me that the protagonists in C S Lewis' Narnia are probably all paladins or clerics.

    I mention it because of the more recent movie adaptations, with which I have only a nodding acquaintance. My sense is that the kids have each been given a particular schtick to distinguish them (maybe they always had them?) and that they may therefore have been D&D'd up, inasmuch as (per James M) D&D party play has become part of the water all this modern fantasy swims in. Specifically the use of healing magic is given to, erm, Lucy? And their collective job is repeatedly to heal the land?

    Am I right in thinking that the implicit argument of this post is not "isn't it odd that clerics are missing?" nor "what offends people about the cleric?" but "clerics are excluded because they're lame and nobody wants to see them"? I would point out that while protagonists/heroes tend to be fighters by default, and thieves and wizards are readymade anti-hero tricksters and expert/wise man sidekicks respectively, the mix of functions covered by the cleric is unlikely to show up in non-D&D settings. Ben Kenobi is a wise man with healing powers and the ability to turn (inhuman) stormtroopers but no explicit god. But he's at least as likely to be classified a wizard or fighter as a cleric.

    This may be (as taichara suggests) because the demands of non-interactive fiction are different from roleplaying: heroes only need a healer if they get hurt, and in a novel they only get hurt by the author on purpose, generally to increase tension. Both the Avuncular Mentor and the Streetwise Sidekick are teachers or surrogate fathers, important to communicating the point of the story to the protagonist. If one of them happens to offer healing, that's more like window dressing in your average 3 act heroic quest narrative.

    ...and that might be why the D&D Movie (synopsis on Wikipedia) also lacks a cleric.

  8. 50 points to richard ... that goes a long way toward explaining antipathy toward clerics in general.

    Is it fair to say that, the same way it's better to give out little treasure than to give out loads and take it away, it's also more heroic to dodge a blow than to take it and then have it healed?

    Certainly the cleric exposes a certain artificiality in what hit points are modeling, when it comes down to the fictional or cinematic depiction of his or her activities.

  9. I'd forgotten about how 3 of the 5 are UA classes until re-acquainting myself with the cartoons a couple months ago.

    Talk about self-referential D&D! Doesn't seem like a good way to draw in new players. And the little boy "barbarian" was more like Captain Caveman than Conan. Uggh.

  10. I love the Rosenburg books and the old cartoon but they are as far from each other as possible really.
    For the Guardians of the Flame I don't think it was the healing aspect taking away from drama in the story that forced the clerics take a back seat since there was a lot of healing potions in use. Indeed the clerics were a large part of the story in providing both healing and utility spells like protection from scrying - but they were there more as NPCs. I think the reason is that clerics really cannot have their own agenda - they must follow their god and this is the real reason they aren't easy (player) characters. As a 'PC' Doria cannot regain her spells and when she does come back to the story as a character she cannot serve her god. It is hard to get this right because either the character is weak for not promoting the religion or the religion is weak for not dominating the party and both cases weaken the dramatic story elements. Conversely when this conflict is the central conflict of a story or character then it does have dramatic tension.

  11. Well, the D&D cartoon classes do seem to be chosen more to market UA than for any other reason.

    I agree with some of the points made.

    Furthermore, the cleric class has always had some big problems. First is that it is--IMHO--poorly named. (No matter your interpretation of the class, "cleric" is probably not the best name.) Second, that not even TSR ever seemed clear and unified on what exactly it was. Is it Von Helsing? Is it a knight templar? Is it a Christian cleric? Is it a pagan priest?

    And there aren't many characters in pre-D&D literature that map unequivocally onto the class. It seems D&D including it wasn't enough to make such characters any more appealing to authors.

    I personally enjoy the class, but it may have been the most difficult for me to come to terms with.

  12. @richard:

    In terms of archetypes in mythology and folklire, three of the most common are 'hero', 'wise old man' and 'trickster', which map quite well onto fighter, wizard and thief.

  13. In the 90s there was a black and white comic series called 'The Realm' which had manga-esque artwork. The story was of a group of college kids transported to a D&D-inspired world, with nudity and death, however. It was well-written as I remember, and the jock became a fighter, the nerd a mage, the cheerleader a cleric later seduced by an androgynous darklord. They also teamed up with a dwarf warrior and elf ranger chick (who the jock later bagged, as I recall). You might want to try and dig it up for this discussion.

  14. Roger & Wymarc -- Good call on Quag Keep. It's been a loooong time since I read it. How explicit is it about the protagonists being real-world people transported into the World of Greyhawk?

  15. Richard -- "Am I right in thinking that the implicit argument of this post is... 'clerics are excluded because they're lame and nobody wants to see them'?"

    No, I wouldn't think that. Check out my sidebar page ("D&D House Rules Redux") and you'll see a numbered list of my issues with clerics in the game. If anything I might say the opposite: too indispensable, too much of the spotlight if they (and their proof & predictability of gods) are included.

  16. Tedankhamen -- Thanks for that reference!

  17. The whole set of Ultima video games (possibly not every one) assume the protagonist is a human video game player who bought a cool game called Ultima and was sucked into a fantasy world that was exactly like the game.

    Some characters therein could heal. Religion played a part in some. Philosophy was heavy in all of them. I'm pretty sure their "Healer" was a lot like our "Cleric" except without the Christian beer-monk Friar Tuck thing going on.

  18. Gygax did state that had D&D gotten another season that it would be in a new Realm, an oriental one. And that indeed that was because Oriental Adventures was their new book. So I think it's safe to say that UA classes used was for marketing.

    In some Euro countries they objected to a Thief so her class became Nurse (sorta a cleric).

    I agree with the views that having a class which can heal and raise dead would take drama away. I know when I was young and played D&D that we rarely allowed raising the dead. It was pretty much a 7th lvl spell. Made no sense at the time to play a game where you can die if you make a mistake to get a free pass and just raise the character (of course there were moments when a PC should of died that we didn't kill him).

    Also, not much undead in those too. Gary told me once in an email he tried not to use much Christianity in his game since he felt it was wrong to do so, him being a Christian and all. So instead he took from other beliefs which he felt were more mythology than real.

    I never did read all the GotF books. Good books.

  19. MV -- Good comments, thanks. Really fascinating/infuriating tension with Gygax having clerics (initially with crosses, Catholic level titles, Biblical-based spells) but not wanting "much Christianity" in the game due to personal beliefs.

  20. Yeah it is strange him saying one thing but than... But let's face it, there's lots in D&D which he said one thing but we see another (LotR influences anyone?).

    I should point out. hje didn't come out and say "other religions are fake but not mine". It's more of an impression from many comments, some by him but most from people I know who identify themselves as religious (I have a mormon friend and a female devout muslim friend... she once said to me how she say Asian religions as imaginary but not the Abraham ones)

    I must admit, I always like the Teutonic knights and the idea of clerics being clergymen but not priests (until 9th lvl) but druids are priests (bards too). And clerics being agents of Law (and anti-clerics of evil).

    I hate the current view of paladins as a holy Warrior (that's cleric I thought?). I like their original vision - knights, but knights of a kingdom that is religious in its laws that bind it together. I like to imagine elven paladins would have arcane or druidic casting abilities and not clerical (why have raise dead when you can't be, right).

  21. Mighty Veil said: "Yeah it is strange him saying one thing but than... But let's face it, there's lots in D&D which he said one thing but we see another (LotR influences anyone?)."

    Totally agree with that. He contained multitudes. :)

  22. Comment via email from Paul:
    Agree with Lord Gwydion here about it being more an avoidance of religious overtones. I think this was especially present in that era, when accusations of satan worship were prevalent.

    I disagree with your analysis of the Guardians of Flame series. Despite Doria's decent into a catatonic state, I would say she continued to have a strong impact in the first book, and her order figured pretty strongly in the second. Also, note that healing potions figure prominently throughout the series.

    Another example: Gamearth. Though this does not feature direct transport from one world to the other, it does include a direct link between the two.

  23. Paul -- I do feel like healing potions are a whole different kettle of fish (no necessary implication of a pantheon of personal gods, etc.) Does Gamearth have D&D-style clerics as major characters (quick lookup on Wikipedia seems to say "no")?

  24. From what I understand from David Wesely and Ross Maker, the original Blackmoor campaign started with the players themselves becoming characters in a (pre)D&D world. It was only later in its development that they started playing purely fictional identities.
    - Tavis

  25. 3 things:

    @Delta- Quag Keep is very explicit that the characters of the story are real world people transported to the World of Greyhawk. They are done so very early in the story by magic miniatures, but with the twist that they forget that they are from our world, and have completely assumed the identities of their characters, with their true personalities trying to get through.

    @1d30- Ultima 4-7 did not use the cool video game sucks you into the fantasy world theme. It was the basic theme discussed here that (you) the Avatar (and Lord Brittish) were from our earth and were transported by magical gates to the fantasy world.

    @MV and Delta- Gygax became a christian in 1982. Prior to that he probably had no qualms about using christian symbols in the game. Given that the cleric was created 8 years before I am sure it is after that this became an issue.

  26. Steamtunnel -- That's quite interesting, where did learn that about Gary's conversion? (And where can I reference it?)