Swords-and-Sorcery is the Intersection of Heavy Metal and Old School D&D

I came across an article from loudersound.com about the connection between Dungeons and Dragons and Heavy Metal yesterday.

The writer provides a satisfactory overview of how D&D and heavy metal were two pop-culture events that were created almost simultaneously and had some influence on each other. It is a good overview for those who didn’t live through the Satanic Panic era and would like to know what was going on. He misses the mark a bit in a few places. A reader who isn’t obsessive about the subject the way I am might come away thinking that metal was very influential on the D&D product line when it was not. The confluence of heavy metal and D&D was in the young people who happened to like both.

Heavy metal music had no influence on the products that TSR published.

TSR was trying to distance itself from the Satanic Panic when many metal bands embraced occult imagery and themes in their music. There were a few third party products like Mayfair Games Demons that were way more “metal” than anything TSR published.

I have a memory of listening to Motorhead’s March or Die while thumbing through my friend’s copy of this.

As D&D grew the management at TSR created a “Code of Conduct” that described all the depictions it would not publish in products or the pages of Dragon magazine. TSR was trying to be more mainstream and that meant limiting anything that had a whiff of brimstone. The self censorship was about as un-metal as it gets. No drugs, sex, or graphic violence? Definitely not “metal.”

Where heavy metal and D&D meet.

There has always been an overlap between fans of metal and fans of D&D. What unites them is sword-and-sorcery and it’s visual expression. Sword-and-sorcery is a very specific sub-genre of fantasy and it was on it’s way out in the 80’s.

Consider this quote from the article.

“There’s a measurable affinity for fantasy, sci-fi and escapism. If you look at a lot of metal lyrics, you see a lot of fantasy stories – oftentimes very gritty ones.”

Mark Garrett, singer of the band Kardashev

No official product made for Dungeons and Dragons has been “gritty” for decades. Certainly not since Dark Sun, and it is somewhat miraculous that DS ever made it out the door. Heavy metal has retained that sword-and-sorcery influence in many of it’s sub-genres such as doom, power, and folk metal while D&D has not.

Early D&D is Metal because Swords-and-Sorcery is Metal.

The reason D&D and heavy metal have overlapping fans is that both pop-culture phenomenon were inspired by sword-and-sorcery.

Fans of sword-and-sorcery liked D&D because it carried a lot of the same themes and motifs. Players got to imagine themselves as daring heroes and inimitable wizards, like their favorite characters from their favorite stories. Dave and Gary’s inspiration for a game of heroic battle against foes with flashing steel and eldritch magic came from sword-and-sorcery.

Many characteristics of heavy metal are synergistic with sword-and-sorcery. They have similar themes of alienation, disillusionment with polite society, and embrace the identity of “outsider.” Many bands also used sword-and-sorcery in their lyrics and album art from the beginning. The second song on the first heavy metal album, Black Sabbath, is a song titled The Wizard.

In hindsight, these interconnected elements of metal, D&D, and sword-and-sorcery make it obvious why there would be a group of fans who loved all three things and brought elements of each artform together in their own creations.

Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett with his collection of Frank Frazetta originals.

The aesthetic of old school D&D and most heavy metal emerged out of the art of sword-and-sorcery fiction. Frazetta, Whelan, Sanjulian and others produced vibrant images of muscular, active, virile heroes and heroines. We see that influence in the illustrations of Trampier, Holloway, Sutherland and La Force. Many sword-and-sorcery illustrators produced album art as well as cover art for fantasy novels and magazines. Some paintings that appeared on book covers became album covers.

Original Dungeons & Dragons up through AD&D core books and other D&D products until about 1981 (give or take) were heavily influenced by sword-and-sorcery fiction. Appendix N is largely a catalog of some of the best S&S stories and authors.

As we get further away from the early days, official D&D products becomes less Conan and more Shannara. The influence of high/epic fantasy grows through the 80’s and becomes full on in the 90’s.

As sword-and-sorcery dwindled and epic fantasy became the dominate sub-genre of fantasy; the aesthetic and themes of Dungeons & Dragons shifted away from S&S. We see this in the 90’s where much of the art starts to look more like a still image taken from glam rock video on MTV.

She must have used the powerful “Aquanet” cantrip

When WotC took over, the art and content of the products became self referential to D&D of the 90’s. By the time we hit the 4E era, popular video games and anime has become a major aspect of the aesthetic. That’s fine, if you are into that sort of thing but “metal” it is not. Though WotC can’t completely expunge and erase the classic aesthetic of swords-and-sorcery, they are doing their best to remove as much of it as they can.

The further WotC moves away from sword-and-sorcery the less “metal” Dungeons & Dragons becomes.

The artistic influences that made D&D what it was are slowly being removed. Don’t waste your time expecting WotC to make something “metal.” They can’t and they won’t.

Is this metal?

If you want heavy metal D&D, look to third party publishers and the OSR.

If you want modern mechanics with a heavy metal feel you will have to go looking in the third party world. One that I like very much is Rob Schwalb’s Shadow of the Demon Lord. You want modern D&D with metal? That is modern D&D with metal. Dungeon Crawl Classics is also 3E game mechanisms blended with swords-and-sorcery and some metal influences.

One of the things that has helped the OSR find gamers who didn’t grow up with AD&D, B/X, and BECMI is that the OSR retains the influence of sword-and-sorcery. Where we have attracted younger gamers, it has almost always been from among fans who also like heavy metal, horror, grimdark fantasy and classic sword-and-sorcery stories.

The OSR has mainly stuck with the sword-and-sorcery and heavy metal aesthetics. If you want heavy metal D&D, that’s where you should go looking first. Here are a few of my favorites.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing

Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea

Crypts & Things

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