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.