I’ve been wrestling with how to write this post for a while. It’s tempting to write a book… instead I think I’ll try to keep this brief and useful for gaming.
History teaches you that context is important – the culture behind events not only shapes them, it also gives them meaning. Culture is practice (what people do every day) and imagination: what people think the world and society around them is like. How they imagine it used to be and/or how they’d like it to be.
I grew up in Cornwall – far from the matrix that spawned DnD, while being confusingly close to the imagined source of its medievalish elements. Because I grew up there I couldn’t see it in the Romantic terms Gygax & co seemed to see.
Tolkien was my guide to Romantic medievalism (and we all know the arguments about whether that’s a primary source for DnD or not), not Ivanhoe or Vance’s Lyonesse or Anderson’s Three Hearts. I had almost no exposure to the titles in Appendix N – I actually had to special order Barsoom books, once AD&D had told me about them, because they weren’t on local shop shelves. A big part of my involvement with the OSR over the past few years has been trying to understand where Gygax was coming from with his peculiar gloss on medieval England.
As for the rest of the specifically American imaginary landscape that DnD borrowed from, I’d get little glancing references from time to time but they didn’t mean any coherent thing. Elvis movies, Westerns… When He-Man or Xena turned up, they were completely sui generis. Carcosa took me totally by surprise.
So when Natalie Bennett prompted me to look at the cultural complex of Tiki it sent me off down an archaeological rabbit hole that’s still extending in front of me, with side tunnels into the invention of tourism and Thailand’s “Land of Smiles” and just what European ex-pats were doing in Samoa in the 1880s.
But two things seem really clear:
- DnD and Tiki are horns on the same goat.
- Tiki informed the attitude of a lot of early DnD.
Tiki shows a bunch of similarities with DnD – from the spats between the two great progenitors of Tiki, Donn Beach and Trader Vic, to the difficulty in reconstructing its early forms. Both Tiki and DnD have risen and fallen as cultural movements. Both are enjoying current revivals significantly nurtured by guys called Jeff. Sometimes the influence is direct – according to Chirine Ba Kal:
Prof. M. A. R. Barker was out on the West Coast at USC Berkley at the beginnings of
the Tiki craze, and… some of his artwork from that time is stylistically very similar
to some of the menus from the local Tiki watering holes. …every year, to celebrate
the Tsolyani New Tear’s holiday, I decorate my game room with my extensive
collection of Tiki artifacts and items.
Most of all, both offer a temporary escape into a carefully crafted fantasy world from the routines of modern life for a table-full of people at a time, provided they aren’t too self-conscious about putting aside their regular uniforms. When Gary and Dave started doing this with dice at the end of the 60s it had already been running in specially-created imaginative environments for the previous 30 years.
The starting points and equipment might be different, but both immediately devolve into hours of chatting and dreaming for a group of friends who don’t want to rehash the concerns of their week. For what is the DM but an attentive barman?
I said I’d try to keep this useful. OK, here’s the thing:
Tiki is not just (or even principally) a set of rum cocktails or a style of interior design:
Tiki is an attitude – a way of engaging with the world – that I think is important for understanding early DnD. And that attitude is seriously unserious – it takes elements that it knows are ridiculous and accepts them as authentic; true-in-the-moment. It holds consequences lightly and laughs at its own pratfalls. It’s touristic in the sense that tourists are always playing a role – the interested outsider, there but not fully committed; the lost ingenue; the troublemaker. It never forgets that this temporary tropical island paradise has walls – that outside lies the Minnesota winter (or Hollywood’s greasy pole or Houston’s endless parking lot), so it never has to worry about what its fantasies look like from the inhabitants’ side. Those “inhabitants” are helping to create the imaginary.
Tiki is a shared joke (that you can take as seriously as you want). I think this might be what John Wick has always missed with Tomb of Horrors. There’s a kind of Bob Hope “you’ll like this one” wink in that module: as a player you’re supposed to go “d’oh I can’t believe I fell for that.” But you’re not going to if your DM isn’t laughing with you but at you. The deadliest dungeon ever made is like the deadliest cocktail (and there’s a very gamer-like machismo around drinks like the Zombie and the Suffering Bastard… which belies their decidedly un-macho umbrellas and fruit presentation) – you’re a fool if you order it… so of course you do and that makes you the fool of the evening as you drink it. Some further performance may be necessary.
Tiki is deliberately bad taste. I don’t really mean post-modern, but rather it’s generating its own aethetic and it is deliberately not going to be too picky about what sources go into that aesthetic. If classicism is a conservative impulse that tries to reproduce good taste by reinforcing a set of rules, Tiki is a liberal one that embraces novelty, plays up the exotic, and knows it’s titillating. It is an important part of the attitude not to frown and say “I don’t think that fits here” but rather to strike a referential pose and roll with it for a while.
…so does anything go? Well, no… but that’s part of being a good barman – if the customer hates the drink you mixed, it goes in the fire and you make them a new one. Everyone has to be ready for that possibility. Nobody should go into a traumatized funk if a move doesn’t work.
Corollary – Tiki has a freewheeling attitude to appropriation – of other cultures, others’ artwork, anything that passes by. This was more charming in DnD before the publishers got all protective of their own IP and started canonizing it as PI. But if you’re running Tiki DnD, you’re going to be dealing with issues of appropriation if only because Tiki himself has been rudely stolen from Polynesia.
If actual offended Polynesians come and try to stop your game – and if they won’t be bought off with an offer of drinks – then I’d say your best defense is the opposite of what you usually hear, about being culturally sensitive or paying attention to the “original meaning” of whatever you’ve nicked. Instead, pile on so much of your own creativity that the appropriated parts are transformed into something new. That’s what artists do.
Thinking about it, the slow evaporation of the Tiki mood from DnD just might be what defines the edge between James Malichewski’s Golden and Silver ages. When DnD got its visual style defined as heavy metal it acquired metal’s earnestness – the wargamer tourists of the 70s gave way to a new player base of DnD natives who took it all very seriously and wanted to know just how heavy that axe was. Kitsch, whimsy, a lack intensity – these became signs of poor commitment.
With thanks and apologies to Trey Causey, Scott Martin, Steve Sigety and Chirine Ba Kal, all of whom have been quoted out of context and may want to disavow this whole thing.