Wear a Tall Hat Like a Druid in the Old Days

By stringing together lines from Mark Bolan lyrics, this Abulafia generator has everything you need for generating the themes of your next D&D game. A million thanks to Jeremy Duncan at Dandy in the Underworld for creating this handy non-pharmacological tool for injection of the daydreamer fantasy strain.

I’ve been buckling down to read Playing at the World cover to cover, after intially dipping into pages at random and then picking the brain of its author Jon Peterson as often as I could at Gen Con. I haven’t yet reached the chapter on the cultural influences of fantasy and swords & sorcery that fed into D&D. Convenience sampling indicates that this section is typically completist and uses primary sources to reveal all kinds of antecedents that are new and exciting, but I don’t yet know what it makes of T. Rex. Certainly I learn something about the early ’70s from the fact that a band whose first drummer was called Steve Peregrin Took was able to make it big with a mash-up of druidic lyrics and video effects of clouds drifting against mirrorshades.

One idea that came up in talking with Jon was that pattern recognition is fundamental to D&D. This is central to Playing at the World‘s theme of simulation because it means that the level of detail provided by the game can be very coarse. Given just a few dots and lines, humans will tend to see a face; add gamers’ willingness to participate in the process of imagining another reality and you get vivid experiences from a handful of d6.

An example of pareidolia, “a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant.”

For me, the enjoyment of pattern recognition in itself is part of the pleasure of playing in the old-school style. Random encounters, sparse one-page-dungeon keys, and evocative hex descriptions all foreground the experience of making narrative sense out of very minimal inputs. And playing with systems like OD&D that are full of lacunae and contradictions compels pattern recognition at the table on the level of game design; we’re cobbling together both an imaginary universe and the way we simulate it. I find that a high level of indeterminacy in story and system go hand in hand to create the sense that we’re discovering an independently real place through play. Both the things we discover there and the lens through which we view it are continually adapting as this other world comes into focus.

However, thinking about T. Rex also points out that pattern recognition works on familiarity. We see faces in rocks and trees because we’re humans and that’s what our brains are primed to see. Bolan’s lyrics often touch on mythology because that’s a deep well of familiarity that can be tapped with just a word or a sentence fragment.

It’s unlikely that T. Rex was any kind of formative influence on D&D’s creators, especially never having been big in America, but there’s no doubt that a huge part of D&D’s early audience was made up of the kinds of longhairs who thrilled to find hobbit references in Led Zeppelin lyrics. Gygax didn’t see Tolkien as a significant contribution to D&D, but this becomes academic once hundreds of thousands of people seize on the game as their gateway to Middle Earth. Likewise, the fact that the face on Cydonia is in reality just a coincidental arrangement of shadows on rocks shouldn’t limit our enjoyment of this:

One of the major accomplishments of the OSR has been doing the kind of religious education you need to see Jesus’s face in a tortilla. Marc Bolan’s lyrics can look like word salad if you don’t bring a big investment in druid hats to the party, while they’re super exciting if you care a lot about Beltane walks. Likewise new-school gamers didn’t see the virtue in random encounters causing TPKs because they hadn’t read The Seven Geases, and scorned games that generated narratives of amoral murder-hoboes because they lacked the Vancian language that made Cugel’s similar exploits suitable material for “the greatest living writer of science fiction and fantasy.”

The fact that we’re now ready to play the DCC RPG as a “system that cross-breeds Appendix N with a streamlined version of 3E” depends on a lot of work getting people to read the fantasy canon that enables us to make a vivid image out of the minimalist elements of 1974-era D&D. My favorite part of being in the loop of the DCC development team was getting one another up to speed on the things ’70s fantasy means to us. Here’s one example from Erol Otus:

“George Barr is one of my favorite artists because he puts personality into his creatures, they all seem to have intentions. Little did I know that some 20 years later I would be sharing artistic duties with him on Star Control 2. I don’t remember Alan Garners story in detail except I have a feeling its one of the several that formed the basis for Harry Potter.” – Erol Otus, 2010 email

If the OSR is ready to rest on its laurels and go gently into that good night – which is a thesis I offhandedly advanced at Gen Con and need to explicate in a future post – it’s because we’ve laid the groundwork for understanding random Mark Bolan lyrics as a gateway to the wonders of 1970s daydream fantasy. However, the fact that there are still more of these awesome paperback covers Erol turned me onto which I haven’t blogged about yet means that maybe there is still some distance to go before we deposit our corpse in the well where it will taint the groundwater for generations to come.

13 Responses to “Wear a Tall Hat Like a Druid in the Old Days”

  1. September 2, 2012 at 6:10 am

    I dressed up as Mark Bolan for Halloween as a kid and played a character based on him in a d20 Modern game.

  2. September 2, 2012 at 11:14 am

    I would love to see his character sheet!

  3. September 2, 2012 at 2:35 pm


  4. September 2, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    Bolan had a real way with fantasy words

    Here are four lines I just generated:

    Gems hemmed in the heart’s head
    Torch girl of the marshes
    A mad Mage with a maid on his eyebrows
    The beast in feast of sound

    I recognize the “Torch girl” line from “Elemental Child” from 1970’s Beard of Stars, which is the first album where really used a lot of electric guitar. It’s a good blend of the earlier crazy folk and the later electric rock. I’d recommend starting with that one, 1970’s eponymous T.Rex (featuring a nine-minute song called “The Wizard”) or 1971’s Electric Warrior (where he really went rock).

  5. September 2, 2012 at 5:45 pm

    Damn, that is indeed some really superlative word salad.

  6. September 2, 2012 at 6:30 pm

    Now Zenopus will run a D&D campaign in which the giant, gluttonous Mage of the Beast Voice is assembled Voltron-style by the people who represent his inner organs. The maid who is his brain will get to ride around inside his head and control him, so she wants the party to track down the other parts, but the girl who is his heart, who can be found carrying her torch through the Swamp That Is Always Night is said to have a giant gemstone for a brain!!!!!!1!!!!eleven!!!!!!1 What will our “brave heroes” do?!?!?!??!!!??????

  7. September 4, 2012 at 1:13 am

    Now I feel inadequate for just covering Led Zeppelin. There is so much more amazing 70s rock I could have worked into Chapter Two. Still, maybe you only need a few bars of Robert Plant to get the pattern in your head.

  8. September 4, 2012 at 2:42 am

    We know that “Kung Fu Fighting” was an influence on the development of D&D’s monk, so this line of speculation isn’t purely a Lipstick Traces-style exercise in alternate historiography, right?

  9. September 4, 2012 at 3:30 am

    I love Lipstick Traces, actually. I know there are people out there who play up the Situationist prefigurements of RPGs, the defiance of passivity and the spectacle. There’s also the whole DIY aesthetic to RPGs. But is there a historian out there reckless enough to read the undercurrents of punk rock into OD&D? Or will we be left with the narrative from SLC Punk, where you have to give up your 7th level Magic-user for “Kiss Me Deadly”?

  10. September 4, 2012 at 6:27 am

    One of the early crossing-the-streams moments for me was back in ’90 or ’91 my brother and I went to a Houston gaming convention and the GM for our Call of Cthulu game was the lead singer for a punk band we’d seen at the Axiom. I wanted to say it was the Pain Teens but he had dreadlocks and Google image doesn’t back that up: proof of the importance of primary sources!

  11. 11 Michael (Gronan) Mornard
    September 5, 2012 at 4:09 am

    Go listen to the album “Demons and Wizards” by Uriah Heep. The original Ram’s Horn Castle dungeons were designed to that, “The Magician’s Birthday” by Heep, and “Music from Lord of the Rings” by Bo Hansson.

  12. September 5, 2012 at 4:22 pm

    Hark, ’tis the sound of me going bonkers over this evidence for the original soundtrack to D&D.

  13. September 5, 2012 at 6:56 pm

    My impression is that T.rex was mostly a one-hit wonder in the US [“Get it On (Bang a Gong)”], plus the Tolkien-inspired fantasy material was greatly reduced in Bolan’s work by then, so I wouldn’t expect much if any influence on D&D here. But I wonder about the UK (Games Workshop/White Dwarf), where there were many T.rex chart toppers, albeit in the very early 70’s. I’d definitely look at Hawkwind as an influence there, too.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

September 2012

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