Yearly Archives: 2020

Modes of Fantasy

What are the most influential works of adventure fantasy? If you consider, somewhat arbitrarily, the last 10 years, I suspect the list would be something like The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Game of Thrones—all due to Hollywood and television. Recently, I was thinking about Game of Thrones, and how it seems in many ways to lie apart from other influential works of fantasy, despite sharing tropes both in terms of content—dragons, sorcery, undead—and narrative—sword fights, heroism, prophecy. So what distinguishes Game of Thrones? The Lord of the Rings is an epic fantasy, but also updates the medieval form of tapestry romance1. The Harry Potter stories have many epic fantasy elements, drawing as well from coming-of-age Bildungsroman and mystery traditions. Acknowledging the futility of thinking about genre in terms of essences, Game of Thrones still seems to wander alone; I think this is because it draws more from a different major narrative tradition.

Game of Thrones is cynical regarding human nature, grim in aspect, and employs a soap opera chronicle, but none of these elements seem to account for the difference in feeling. Most works of fantasy live primarily within the narrative traditions of epic and romance. Game of Thrones, however, works more like a tragedy; the fantastic elements occasionally take center stage, such as with the dragons or the fight against the Night King, but then fade, with less influence on the broader story. Examining the patterns, the core conflict in the story is basically Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses cycle (the eight play sequence of Richard II through Richard III), with the ending and ultimate theme of Julius Caesar—sic semper tyrannis. If the ending is unsatisfying, I think that is due to the joining of these disparate elements. People expecting the satisfying reveals and perpetual curiosity of a well-crafted soap opera were betrayed by the political moralism of the Caesar ending; adventure and heroism are taken up and discarded with little sense of cosmic resolution or advancement.

The epic tradition generally celebrates the deeds of a hero, possibly as prototype for a nation, such as the Aeneid (for classical Rome) and the Kalevala (for Finland), or a culture, such as, arguably, The Lord of the Rings (the Shire as preindustrial England). The traditions of epic, romance, and myth fit together more comfortably, compared to soap opera and tragedy. In terms of popular culture, Game of Thrones was one of the biggest shows in the US of 2018, number three after Big Bang Theory and Roseanne2. The rest of the top 10 are all sit coms, procedural dramas, and talent shows. This ranking is America-specific, but the popularity looks similar cross-culturally. For example, Game of Thrones is popular in China3, South America, and Europe4. Game of Thrones will probably shape for a long time how people everywhere think about fantasy.

I used to enjoy The Wheel of Time, another extended fantasy epic, though I never got past book seven, as at some point I made a personal rule to avoid unfinished multi-volume works of fantasy. After thinking about this, I was curious what my reaction now would be to Jordan, so I read the first part of The Eye of the World, book one in The Wheel of Time. One thing that strikes me now is the generic feeling of many aspects of the setting, common fantasy tropes through a lens of Americanisms, though presented with consistency using invented vernacular and mythic resonance, mostly with Christian apocalyptic eschatology. I also wonder how I could have seen Jordan’s story as so distinct. The first third of The Eye of the World shows a sorceress who comes to protect a farm boy of cosmic significance, pursued by riders in black sent by the Dark One. Apart from some minor variations, this basically recapitulates the first part of The Fellowship of the Ring, and even back then I had already read The Lord of the Rings. I mean this more as description than negative evaluation—there are many worse things than echoing an effective narrative structure.

Part of Tolkien’s triumph was to make as few concessions to the modern taste for realism in narrative as was necessary to entice contemporary readers. Game of Thrones goes exactly the opposite direction; the aspects that hang together best make up the chronicle of who sleeps together and who gets betrayed or defeated. Sex and gangsters. So the realist mode of political struggle replaces the mythic cycle. Martin manages to avoid the bore of speculative fiction using magic as technology substitute; the magic and mythic backdrop of his setting is wondrous and compelling—winter is coming, the queen of dragons, and so forth. But none of that really seems to matter much in the end, which is more concerned with the Machiavellian heart of darkness. Realpolitik maneuverings could provide the basis for a game, but it seems like such a game would be far from the picaresque pleasures of discovering Vance’s Dying Earth or delving into Moria on the way to fulfill a mythic quest.


1. Thomson, G. (1967). “The Lord of the Rings”: The Novel as Traditional Romance. Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, 8(1), 43-59.

2. https://www.businessinsider.com/game-of-thrones-compared-to-most-popular-tv-shows-of-2018-ratings-2019-4#8-americas-got-talent-tuesdays-nbc-2

3. https://daxueconsulting.com/game-of-thrones-china/

4. https://variety.com/2017/film/global/game-of-thrones-overseas-plaudits-ratings-1202541767/

Gateway Survey Items

Lighting a torch to explore (source)

We closed the gateway RPG survey today. Below is a brief description of the survey items, number of responses, and some questions we can ask based on the data. If you think of other questions that you are curious about, leave a comment below. I have yet to look at the data for the final set of responses beyond some descriptives.

Following are the items in presentation order. The bold text represents the concept, behavior, or whatever, that we were trying to measure. Italic text represents the exact item text participants saw. Parenthesized text describes the variable type (numerical scale with label, free-response text, and so forth).

I have also included descriptive stats for some of the items (N = number of responses for the particular item, M = mean value, SD = standard deviation). Keep in mind that for the seven point scales, 4 = Neutral, 5 = Somewhat Like/Agree, 6 = Like/Agree, and so forth. 2764 responses provided the correct answer to an attention check item near the end; the stats below only include responses that answered the attention check correctly.

So: ConceptItem text (description of variable type); maybe some descriptive stats.

  1. First RPGWhat was the first tabletop roleplaying game you played? (Selective list of options that we brainstormed, along with an “other” option permitting free-response text for anything we missed); N = 2549, top three: Dungeons & Dragons, any edition (n = 1658), Other (n = 508), Pathfinder (n = 120). 65.05% of respondents that answered this item started with an edition of D&D.
  2. Attitude toward first RPGThink back to the first tabletop RPG you played. How much do you like that game now? (1 = Strongly Dislike, 7 = Strongly Like)
  3. If first RPG was D&D: First D&D EditionWhich edition of D&D did you begin with? N = 1827, top three: 3/3.5E (n = 487), 5E (n = 382), B/X (n = 318).
  4. OwnershipDo you own any tabletop RPG materials? (Books, box sets, and so forth.) (Yes, No); N = 2764, Yes = 2688, No = 76 (97.25% Yes)
  5. Still play first RPGDo you still play the first RPG that you started with? (Yes, No); N = 2764, Yes = 1049, No = 1715 (37.95% Yes)
  6. Delay trying another RPGHow long (in years) after playing your first RPG did you try another RPG? (non-negative integer free-response)
  7. Attitude toward D&DHow much do you like Dungeons & Dragons? (For your favorite edition of D&D.) (1 = Strongly Dislike, 7 = Strongly Like); N = 2028, M = 5.27, SD = 1.63
  8. Belief about effect of D&D on the hobby as a whole (item 1)—The popularity of Dungeons & Dragons attracts new tabletop RPG players. (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree); N = 2618, M = 6.25, SD = .94
  9. Belief about whether D&D crowds out other RPGsThe popularity of Dungeons & Dragons makes discovering other (non-D&D) tabletop RPGs HARDER. (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree); N = 1613, M = 4.16, SD = 1.88
  10. Belief about the effect of D&D on the hobby as a whole (item 2)—The popularity of Dungeons & Dragons is good for the tabletop RPG hobby. (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree); N = 2676, M = 5.64, SD = 1.34
  11. Favorite edition of D&DIf you have played D&D, which edition is your favorite? N = 2348, top three: 5E (n = 1121), B/X (n = 440), 3/3.5E (n = 270). 47.74% of respondents that answered this item said that 5E was their favorite edition of D&D.
  12. Preference for designer authority (item 1)—There are a lot of house rules (customization) in RPGs games that I run or play in. (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree)
  13. Belief regarding whether system mattersWhen it comes to tabletop RPGs, a well-designed rules system is an important factor in enjoyable play. (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree); N = 2217, M = 5.86, SD = 1.13
  14. Preference for designer authority (item 2)—I prefer to play RPGs “as written” rather than adjusting, customizing, or hacking the rules. (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree)
  15. Preferences in play styleFor satisfying play, how important are the following aspects to you? (Aspects included: In-game shenanigans, Generating a satisfying story, Acting in character, Hanging out with friends, Challenge Exploration and discovery, Creative problem solving, Character optimization, Improving my character, Meticulous plotting; 1 = Very Unimportant, 7 = Very Important)
  16. Preferences in game materials—How important are the following elements to you in tabletop RPGs? (Elements included: Fictional setting, Hackability, Mechanical innovation, Ease of use, Art, Genre emulation; 1 = Very Unimportant, 7 = Very Important)
  17. Pleasure readingI read tabletop RPG materials for pleasure, apart from intention for direct use in play. (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree); N = 1300, M = 5.81, SD = 1.37
  18. Play usageI have played most of the tabletop RPGs (systems, modules, adventures, etc.) that I own. (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree); N = 1327, N = 4.16, SD = 2.08
  19. RPG play literacy/promiscuityI have played a wide variety of tabletop RPGs. (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree); N = 1370, M = 5.41, SD = 1.64
  20. Attention check
  21. Age startedAt what age, approximately, did you start to play tabletop RPGs? (integer from the set [1, 200]; due to a typo, some respondents were only able to enter starting ages from the set [10, 200]); N = 2754, M = 15.93, SD = 6.79
  22. Year startedIn approximately which year did you start playing tabletop RPGs? (Drop-down menu with year options); N = 2721, M = 2002.04, SD = 12.25, min = 1971, max = 2019
  23. Other feedbackOptional: Is there anything else you would like to share with us? (free response text)

You may notice that we measure several concepts using more than one item. For example, presumably playing with lots of house rules and preference for playing rules as written should both tap into a preference for designer authority (and they correlate, as expected, at r(2437) = −.62, p < .001). Another: “D&D attracts new players” and “popularity of D&D is good for the hobby” (r(2550) = .46, p < .001).

(The number of observations for pleasure reading, play usage, and literacy/promiscuity seem systematically somewhat low: ~1300 compared to ~2700 for most items; I need to look into that.)

One (somewhat) surprising point that jumped out at me from the descriptives is that for people that started with an edition of D&D, 3E was the most common.

Some possible questions:

  • Do player preferences for game aspects cohere into conventional clusters? Are those preferences consistent with what you might expect? (For example, are people starting with 3E more likely to have a preference for character optimization?)
  • Is starting with an edition of D&D (compared to other RPGs), controlling for years played, associated with greater or lesser RPG play literacy overall?
  • Is starting with an edition of D&D (compared to other RPGs) associated with any of the preferences for aspects of play style or elements of game materials?
  • According to consensual belief, does system matter? (At least based on the mean, the answer here is yes: M = 5.86, roughly = Agree).
  • Is starting with an edition of D&D associated with preference for designer authority in rules?

What else would you like to know based on this survey?

Addendum: I just did a tally of referrer URL to see where respondents saw a link to the survey. To roughly summarize, about 30% came from Reddit, 30% came from Twitter, and 30% came from YouTube, with the remaining referrer URLs a smattering of other sites. In detail, N = 1167; the top five: YouTube (n = 363), Reddit (n = 358), Twitter (n = 311), survey.ascolais.com (n = 59), Facebook (n = 50). Referrer URL data only exists for some responses (1167 out of 2764), but preliminary checks indicate that referrer URL is missing at random (meaning it is probably reasonable to think of it as a random sample and representative of the respondent population at large).