Saturday, October 1, 2016

D&D, Vietnam, and the Dungeon

Seeing Like a State's mention of compulsory village formation / sedentarization in precolonial Thailand reminded me of a similar phenomenon during the Vietnam War: the relocation of peasants into "Strategic Hamlets", where they could be monitored, in order to keep them from providing assistance to Viet Cong guerillas, which I had read about in War of the Flea I think.  This, combined with the savage beating my players took last session, brought to mind a blog post I once read by an old D&D player who played with his father, who was a Vietnam veteran and relentlessly paranoid in the dungeon.  Despite my best efforts at googling, I have failed to find that post (edit: thanks DHBoggs for finding the post I was talking about!).  Instead, I found this, which was pretty interesting, but left me with some unvoiced questions.

Whither dungeons?  Moria's all well and good, but as movie adaptations have shown, it's easily distilled down to a Five Room Dungeon.  I suppose there was some dungeoneering in the old Conan stories, though I've not read them.  But the campaign-tentpole megadungeon full of traps, and the style of exploration and dirty fighting that surrounded it, is not a thing I recall seeing much in fantasy (even post-D&D fantasy).

And then today, I stumbled on this excellent thread on that finest of subreddits, /r/AskHistorians, and via it the Cu Chi Tunnel Complex.  It's 75 miles long - the original megadungeon, the real deal.  Way too big to clear, and full of traps.

My contention, in extension of MacDougall's idea that D&D came out of the culture war in the Vietnam era, is that old-school megadungeoncrawling came specifically out of the American experience in tunnel-fighting in Vietnam.  Why else the great concern with light and darkness and air currents?  Why else the absurdly slow exploration movement speed, the concern with getting lost, the trap paranoia?  Somebody had been there, or read the reports.

It nicely explains the division between henchmen and mercenaries - henchmen and PCs are tunnel rats, crazy enough to go into an infinite hole full of traps.

Tucker's Kobolds are a profoundly guerilla war experience, a gamerculture memory of the Viet Cong.  The article is also interesting historically.  We observe that by 1987 (when Dragon #127 was published), 16 years after the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam, this style of playing the opposition was atypical (the publication of OD&D in 1974 was just after the withdrawal of troops).  We also observe that the author was at the time in the Army.  Makes you wonder if the emergence of the New School was correlated with the dilution of the 'Nam vets in the gamer community.

The ecology of the Cu Chi Original Megadungeon, meanwhile, was supported by a combination of imports from the Ho Chi Minh Trail and rice grown on the surface by cooperative peasants.  This works somewhat less well in a fantasy setting where you can ethically exterminate the beastman villages responsible for growing food on the surface (although at low levels when dungeoneering is usually happening, PCs may not be powerful enough to attack surface villages).  But putting some fraction of beastman wilderness lairs underground (instead of aboveground villages) does solve some of my wilderness-level problems (including "let's throw mercenaries at this problem" and "let's just light it on fire from the air", which are perfectly valid strategies but sort of repetitive after a while).  It all goes very nicely with the notion of nonstate spaces, too.  The domain game is fundamentally about creating bubbles of order and safety, "pacified regions", and maps nicely to the poor counter-insurgency war conducted in Vietnam.

I wonder to what degree the "PCs are always foreigners" trope (as in Tekumel, among other places) was a product of necessity (in terms of DM bandwidth and player attention limits) and laziness, and how much it was a product of, again, the American military experience in Vietnam...  We also see Occupied Territory scenarios not that infrequently, including in Morrowind and Skyrim on the videogame side, and inverted in Midnight (with the PCs as rebels rather than occupiers).  Come to think of it, I don't recall the last time I saw a scenario that cast the PCs in with the occupiers; culture shift I guess (not that it stopped us from doing it again 30 years later...).


  1. Most good sci fi, for instance, uses the "stranger in a strange land" setup where a relatively normal protagonist encounters the weird and unusual. So it is with the dungeon: the good guys have to be "foreigners" in order to show the differences between Us and Them.

    Through this lens, meeting even NPC parties is full of worry and dread.

    Also: I'm totally not a robot

  2. Interesting relating the Vietnam tunnels with dungeons. That's great insight. I've been thinking of a "dungeon" game based on WWI but where the dungeon is a massive underground fortress like the Maginot Line. I wonder if there's a modern "dungeon" equivalent?

  3. Interesting. I'm pretty sure you were looking for this 'blog

  4. DHBoggs: Yes! That's the one! Thanks for finding it. Might've been the first Hill Cantons post I ever read, I think.

    Edward: I suspect there are some caves in Afghanistan that would make fine dungeons.

    Scott: True, the trope is more common in scifi.

  5. Awesome column. Very insightful. It makes me wonder what the RPGs inspired by contemporary military veterans will be like.

  6. Alex: Thanks! It would be pretty interesting to see the RPG products of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. I sort of suspect the moment of maximum veteran influence is long past, though - it is easier to divert a river at its headwaters. Part of a lament I have over the direction of geek culture more generally; with a few exceptions, science fiction is no longer written by scientists, fantasy is no longer written by professors of linguistics and mythology, and RPGs are no longer written by history buffs and veterans. These genres have matured into industries, and in evolving for mass appeal they've abandoned expertise in anything other than the industry itself.