It's Halloween 1973 and E. Gary Gygax is putting the finishing touches on the original Dungeons & Dragons. The stock market is in the early stages of the worst crash since the Great Depression. If Gygax turns on the radio, he'd hear all the different flavors of the music of exhaustion, sentimental and soft. I mean, "Angie" was at the top of the charts -- the Stones at their least rocking, Altamont four years in the ground -- and the Top 20 was full of what we would today consider crap. Dylan was similarly enervated, literally knockin' on heaven's door. Cher getting in touch with her Indian side, the Carpenters and the Osmonds, solo efforts by Ringo and Art Garfunkel, Marie Osmond, Jim Croce. The bottom half of the Top 40 is even worse!
Arguably one of the great brute demonologists of his era, Gygax probably doesn't turn on the radio. Despite the dice, those early books were more ROTC than yahtzee, almost completely divorced from civilian culture. In the strictest sense, they depict a survivalist fantasy, a barbaric environment where polite society has either atrophied to the point of irrelevance or simply never gotten started. An explicitly Howardian world where the only right is might, but perplexingly something called "law" exists as a metaphysical concept that is often almost interchangable with "goodness." "Law" is basically out of this world. Outside the firelit circle of the "law" cavort the forces of chaos, which are sketchily described in their legions. This is a planet squirming with pumpkin-headed bugbears, cringing ghouls, dragons in their colors, mutant animals and tribes of savage beast-men. Orcs, goblins, hobgoblins, trolls, ogres, kobolds, gnolls -- whatever those are. Even humans are encountered primarily as feral nations: bandits, nomads, brigands, pilgrims and the occasional band of hopped-up berserks like bikers trashing a small town. These were the rules for a fantastic "medieval" wargame campaign, playable with pencil and paper and miniature figures. The middle ages, as we all know, were a post-apocalyptic era, the dark and twisty passageway between civilization and today, lit by torches.
Gygax's world (and to be fair, Arneson's -- and Arneson displays this tendency even more strongly, so much so that his own work is fragmented and obscured almost beyond the point of reconstruction) is undeniably post-apocalyptic in tone. Something big has broken down; something fell. This is a world pockmarked with ruins that contemporary characters crawl through like vermin, unable to comprehend the technologies that went into building the dungeons, much less duplicate the effort. "Dungeons beneath the 'huge ruined pile, a vast castle built by generations of mad wizards and insane geniuses,'" Gygax says. That's an odd and stunning phrase for the place where we have our adventures. The huge ruined pile is civilization, once vast but now in post-terminal decline, and the generations of mad wizards and insane geniuses are our forebears, the giants on whose shoulders we do not so much stand in Newtonian terms but in whose cyclopean skulls we scavenge for lost treasure and "magic" that obeys rules first described in a book called The Dying Earth. We have grown so small. At this stage in the game, there is almost nothing beyond the dungeons but the vast and terrible wilderness. The alternative is Art Garfunkel singles, Watergate, Vietnam, the oil crash.
A little over a year later, the original D&D had become a monster hit and Gygax was hard at work on the follow-up, Greyhawk, and Neil Sedaka's ungodly "Laughter in the Rain" was at the top of the charts.