Friday, May 23, 2008

Good Stories

So, the fourth Indiana Jones movie is apparently out, seventeen years after the release of the last one. I haven't seen it yet, but I'll probably try to do so over the weekend. Despite my misgivings, I am cautiously optimistic that I won't hate it. I've read quite a few reviews by geek friends and colleagues and they all seemed to have enjoyed it, for the most part, and many of them are guys who still haven't gotten over The Phantom Menace (a film I don't think is nearly as bad as people say it is, but I digress), so that's actually a pretty good indication that I'll enjoy myself, though far from an ironclad one. I am nothing if not eccentric in my tastes.

This got me to thinking about a comment I read somewhere recently, one that I think applies equally well to RPGs as it does to movies or TV shows. The comment was about the difference between the original Star Trek series and its modern descendants, namely that the writers of the original series were simply trying to tell good science fiction stories, whereas the writers of the modern series are trying to tell good Star Trek stories. This struck me as a very keen insight.

There's often a difference between, for example, the first movie in what becomes a series of films and the subsequent ones. The reason is simple: the first movie is written as a story in its own right (often but not always -- let's face it, since Star Wars at least, many films are written with the intention of being the first in a series), while the sequels are written as a continuation of the characters and situations presented in the first. That is, sequels are almost always about the series, which makes them more complex and self-referential. They're sometimes close to unintelligible without a close viewing of the originals, which, to me, is a textbook case of putting the cart before the horse.

I think one of the reasons why old school D&D feels so different than its modern successors is that, especially with OD&D (and to a much lesser extent pre-Unearthed Arcana AD&D), the guys who wrote and played it were simply trying to create fun fantasy situations. Anything that served that end was acceptable and indeed encouraged, which is why there's a lot less fretting about verisimilitude or whether something "fits" into D&D. Eventually, as D&D became a thing unto itself rather than a rules set for creating fun fantasy situations, it started to become increasingly about itself. D&D is now like Star Trek or Star Wars -- a genre unto itself rather than a vehicle for simply telling good stories.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. The Wrath of Khan is universally regarded as the best of the Star Trek movies, for example, and it's to varying degrees unintelligible, or at least less powerful, without a knowledge of the original Star Trek series. At the same time, I think the reason why D&D no longer resonates as powerfully with many people as it once did is because the game has become too self-referential, too wrapped up in its own mythology. Ironically, what makes the older versions more enjoyable for me is that they represent the "before the Fall" period of the game, which is to say, the time before D&D became a brand, when it was just a name given to creating fun fantasy situations and playing them out around a table with some dice and your friends.

I say this is ironic, because grognards are often accused of being obsessed with history; I think that misunderstands a key point. To be aware of one's history isn't necessarily to be obsessed with it. Likewise, I think a better understanding of our hobby's history might remind gamers that there was a time when D&D wasn't just a brand and those were heady times. I don't think it's mere nostalgia to want to see a return to the days when Dungeons & Dragons -- and gaming in general -- wasn't so introspective and self-referential or a seedbed for "IP," a concept that, frankly, is antithetical to wild and wacky sharing of ideas and concepts that used to be a hallmark of this hobby.

So, I'll likely enjoy Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but I hope I can be forgiven if I don't think it's anywhere near as good as Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indiana Jones was just this guy with a fedora and a bull whip and not the standard bearer for a franchise.

4 comments:

  1. Apparently, I noticed the same thing in 1995. I distinctly recall saying to a friend as we discussed the reasons for making our own RPG (as it seems everyone does at least once in their youth) that one of the problems with D&D was that it was 'feeding off itself', it had become self consuming and dislocated from its source (I don't recall what we thought that was at the time).

    I don't think anything really changed with the advent of D20. The real question is how you tap into that inspirational material.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Agreed, wholeheartedly. Before Dragonlance most of the products were rules, supplements and modules that could usually be plugged in wherever you want or settings that were open enough to put your own flavor and stories into (e.g. Greyhawk, The Wilderlands). It really spoke to that tinkering, do-it-yourself type of DM, but also it let you build the setting and play the game the way you want.

    As time went on you had things like the aforementioned Dragonlance that had novels, game materials, a product line and computer games that all fed into one another. The stories had easily recognized game elements in them, and that was fed back into their play. People bought into the setting and wanted to play Dragonlance or some other complete property, not just D&D. I think whole generations of gamers got short-changed by that shift.

    This is why the whole DIY facet of the old school movement is double-edged. The old schoolers, grognards and intellectually curious want to tweak the rules and build their own settings and develop the legends and draw the maps, etc.; for them, they need the rulesets in published form, and need tools and the occasional pre-built product that they can put into their setting when they didn't have time to build anything for their next game night. However, if everything is focused on the tools to do your own game how do you win hearts and minds of the spoonfed masses that just want to open their wallets and spend a hundred bucks per month on the latest splatbooks and expansions for a corporatized setting?

    It's almost like you need two sets of products, one to keep the old guard happy and do it the way they've been doing it, plus something that lures other gamers into the fold by looking like their products of interest but once they've gone so far they find that they have to start piecing it together on their own. I would say The Wilderlands is ideal for that if you build out a starting area in great detail, then put out a few more spots on the map in reasonable detail, and then leave the rest where they have to fill it out. Almost a bait-and-switch, as it were, and it doesn't guarantee they'll become DIY or prefer the Old Ways.

    ReplyDelete
  3. D&D is now like Star Trek or Star Wars -- a genre unto itself rather than a vehicle for simply telling good stories.

    ...the reason why D&D no longer resonates as powerfully with many people as it once did is because the game has become too self-referential, too wrapped up in its own mythology.

    Those are two very cognizant points. It doesn't mean old is better than new, just different. The innocence, wonder and charm of Star Wars, vs. the depth, detail and production of the "Star Wars brand".

    Perhaps you had to see Star Wars in the theater in '77 to truly appreciate it's merits. I know my 13 year old does not hold Star Wars in the same reverance that I do, and I often have to explain to him why I enjoy that particular episode so much.

    Food for thought.

    ~Sham

    ReplyDelete
  4. I would say The Wilderlands is ideal for that if you build out a starting area in great detail, then put out a few more spots on the map in reasonable detail, and then leave the rest where they have to fill it out. Almost a bait-and-switch, as it were, and it doesn't guarantee they'll become DIY or prefer the Old Ways.

    Similar thoughts have occurred to me. I'm not sure if that means the idea is any more sound, but, at the very least, I helps me to realize that I'm not wholly crazy :)

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.