Home > Uncategorized > Tiki&D 1: Gary’s Hawaiian shirts

Tiki&D 1: Gary’s Hawaiian shirts


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.

Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 15.49.47.png

But two things seem really clear:

  1. DnD and Tiki are horns on the same goat.
  2. 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.

kahikisc10_jpg085e49f9b903afd56ba3223d446f72e3Kahiki210735191814_b4aa3c9803_bThe 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.

  1. trey
    June 9, 2016 at 1:32 am

    An auspicious beginning! Cogently argued.

    • June 9, 2016 at 2:15 am

      thanks! It’s not what I intended to write on the first outing, but there it is. Next up: a Tiki rogue’s gallery.

  2. June 9, 2016 at 1:47 pm

    The fact that you led off this post with a picture of a satire of a Chick Tract about Tiki… priceless.


    • June 9, 2016 at 2:11 pm

      that “let’s pray to it!” cracks me up every time. It’s pitch perfect.

  3. bblackmoor
    June 9, 2016 at 2:55 pm

    A fun read! Shared with RPG Nexus. https://www.facebook.com/groups/RPGNexus/

  4. June 9, 2016 at 11:10 pm

    The Kahiki Supper Club was in Columbus, Ohio, where the Origins gaming convention has been held for years. It would have been the perfect place to go between con events. Such a missed opportunity.

    Great article, by the way! I feel vindicated for wearing Hawaiian shirts at conventions. 🙂

  5. June 10, 2016 at 6:55 am

    Love this. It strikes a real chord, at least for me. Mai Tai’s at the next WMLP! game night.

  6. June 10, 2016 at 9:06 am

    Thank you for the lovely point of view. Tiki and D&D both take a real thing and enhance the mock danger while negating the actual danger. It’s tourism. True, true, true.

  7. JB
    June 10, 2016 at 10:54 pm

    Man, I love Tiki places and tropical drinks. Love, Love, LOVE. I never made the connection before, but now I might have to start using my old Hawaiian shirts as my “uniform” when running games.

    There is no Tiki in Paraguay…and no D&D/role-playing either. This canNOT be a coincidence!

  8. Caz
    June 14, 2016 at 8:38 pm

    The evaporation of whimsy in favor of earnestness definitely shifted the tone of the flagship game. I would love to read a follow-up to this article that explores that correlation. I think that the rise in popularity of R.I.F.T.S., then Shadowrun, and finally World of Darkness, took that shift to its logical conclusion.

    D&D mirrored that shift in a toned down way, when Ravenloft surfed on that wave.

    • June 16, 2016 at 5:46 pm

      I don’t really know what drove the shift to earnestness, although I suspect the biggest factor was demographics of players – DnD started out among 40 year olds but quickly migrated to a teen and pre-teen market. I think you might be able to predict the rise of WoD Gothy/Angsty games just by following the age curve up from 10 year olds getting hooked by B/X in 1982.

      One really big difference, I think, is the emergence of self-conscious gamer- and fan-tribal cultures. My sense is that these really got going around Star Trek TNG, so 1987-94, and they represented a step change in the willingness of people to be seen in costume – Comic-Cons (except for venerable San Diego and Ohio) seem to proliferate toward the end of that period too. But I was in Britain, far from the center of all that when it was getting going, so I really don’t know. We need Lee Gold in here to set us straight.

  9. Frazer Payne
    June 16, 2016 at 1:14 pm

    I wonder if the shift from whimsy to earnest is partly a reflection of pop culture’s changing take on what virtual reality is. If you grew up on 60’s sci-fi, going into a fantasy realm (be it a dungeon, a tiki bar, or a jet-age styled diner) was about escapism (that take perhaps being most influenced by the escapist musicals and glamour of post-war Hollywood).

    As ‘going into a fantasy realm’ became muddled with the new concept of entering a ‘virtual reality’, the tone changed. ‘Virtual reality’ in popular culture is portrayed as a more dangerous place, one where the long-standing effects on humanity are undeciphered, or where vast rogue Artificial Intelligences hide from their former military masters etc.

    Going into a fantasy world around a D&D game table was also portrayed in a different, darker way in the early 80’s, when religious groups got the idea that was about demon worship or that fantasising youths were a dangerous thing.

    I remember the moment when I realised that my hobby could be very dark indeed, and I remember the change in artistic direction that many games took, courting controversy to increase sales, or playing with the dangerous edgi-ness that the hobby was acquiring.

    Writers who began to take D&D too seriously, or who coloured it black and swathed in heavy metal, were probably the kids who took up the hobby, and that was their outlook/aesthetic. D&D attracts a certain type of person, after all: broadly, those who value, enjoy or even need escapism.

    The seriousness or darkness of D&D probably evolved in tandem with that found in comics, since they share much of their audience.

    Interestingly, anecdotal sales data for the most recent edition of D&D shows it selling best to University aged males, but now with over 30% of players being female. The next largest group are older. So perhaps, the collective psych that flavours D&D will change it again now. No longer so much a teen sensation, D&D may ‘grow up’ somewhat.

    • June 16, 2016 at 6:53 pm

      don’t forget the genre of virtual prisons from the 60s – often bolstered by psychedelic drugs and/or government surveillance departments that knew way too much about the protagonist.
      …there seem to be waves of moods, and sometimes those waves wash bright and sometimes dark. The paranoid fantasies of the 60s, Gilliam’s symbolic escapes from the cold horror of the world in the 70s/80s. Simultaneous fear of totalitarian societies and the abrupt destruction of society by the Bomb.
      I wonder if the dark turn of the 90s had anything to do with the brightening political climate then – the years just before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall seemed like a brave new world in Europe, while crime and debts were reducing in the US… and yet. That’s the period of Dark Knight Returns, Arkham Asylum, and then the slew of ever-darker comics. Honestly I don’t know what the prime mover was for that.

  10. July 25, 2016 at 4:39 pm

    I’m coming a bit late to this, but find it really interesting. I think you’re right, tiki is a good framework to look at old school D&D where you might find a Sleestak and a Tardis, It makes me think of Disneyland’s Jungle Boat ride which had a big affect on me as a kid and my idea of what adventure might look like. It also makes me think of the 1e DM’s Guide which, while desperately trying to standardize the game, couldn’t help but also be a big collection of flotsam. Great post. Thanks.

    • May 12, 2017 at 2:33 pm

      _couldn’t help but also be a big collection of flotsam_
      that’s very well put. Sorry for the late reply here – wordpress only now alerted me to your comment.

  11. September 10, 2016 at 3:02 am

    This is all fascinating – I’m a recent convert to D&D as a *game* rather than some sort of medieval simulation module, and I’m down with the mindset of “if it’s neat, include it”. The first linked article describes Tiki culture as an escape from the stresses of the ’50s, and, in my case, thinking about what to throw in the mix has been an escape for me from my personal stresses.

  12. September 10, 2016 at 6:34 am

    Came back to reread this because I remembered this line: “Tiki has a freewheeling attitude to appropriation – of other cultures, others’ artwork, anything that passes by.”

    I think this is a bigger deal in D&D than I previously realized, at least in MY D&D, that is. In fact, I was writing about this in an editorial a while ago and have come back around to agreeing with myself again! (how’s that for patting oneself on the back?) Here’s the link, for anyone interested:

    • May 12, 2017 at 2:28 pm

      I don’t know why I’m just discovering this comment now – thanks for the interest Alexey – WMLP looks intriguing… I’m always looking for things that mix it up.

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