Now that the semester at Ohio University is over, grades turned in, and laid to rest, I am headed to my last conference of the academic year: the 53rd International Congress on Medieval Studies, held every year at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, MI. It seems my medievalist friends are slowly trying to turn me into a medievalist–not necessarily a bad thing. I was invited to be a part of a roundtable organized by Dr. Ilan Mitchell-Smith (CSU Long Beach) entitled “Theorizing the Problematic Medievalisms of Dungeons & Dragons and Popular Fantasy Narratives (A Roundtable).” The session’s description reads:
Dungeons & Dragons is a narrative tabletop game (i.e., played in person and not on a computer or console) that makes sweeping use of tropes, images, objects, and locations that are presented and enjoyed as medieval. The version of the Middle Ages concocted by Dungeons & Dragons has seminally influenced the formation of many popular American assumptions about medieval life. The majority of fantasy video games take their cues directly from this game and its world. American fantasy films, television, and comic books draw directly from the themes and tropes of this game world. In this ludic milieu, a wide range of medieval-ish constructions of gender, race, and sexuality are presented, but they are veiled by the pretense of game play, fantasy escapism, and the tropes that have become standard for the genre. As the recent social media wars regarding Gamergate and the Hugo Awards attest, this veiling often conceals persistent desires for the enjoyment of fantasy worlds to be free from the critical eye of social analysis.
This session thus allows a critical dialogue on what precisely transpires under the guise of play. Through the interactive features of the session, attendees will not merely passively watch a gaming experience but listen to and comment critically on the ways in which Dungeons & Dragon’s medievalisms harken back to a lost medieval Golden Age while cloaking persistent issues of Othering of deep relevance to today’s culture. This roundtable seeks to address this dearth in critical attention to a primary source for American medieval fantasy.
Though not a medievalist, Dr. Mitchell-Smith thought my current work on race, gender, and sexuality in digital games (and other games like LARP) would offer a useful perspective at the table. The format was that he would run part of the adventure included in the Starter Set for Dungeons and Dragons (5th Edition), the “Mines of Phandelver.” Each of the roundtable discussants would play one of the pre-made characters included in the set. We would play a little, then discuss, play a little more, then theorize. Unfortunately, at the last moment, he was not able to attend, to lead the session. The duty then fell to me, and I was to take over as Dungeon Master for the roundtable. (Big shoes to fill.)
I am really excited to be a part of this innovative session, and I hope I can do the panel and the game justice. I did make a short presentation to help frame the panel and to provide some visuals for gameplay: