Monday, July 28, 2008

Second Time's the Charm

I never owned the AD&D books with the new cover illustrations by Jeff Easley. I do own the Monster Manual II, which was released the same year (1983). It also bears an Easley cover and uses the same new trade dress as the other reworked volumes. 1983 is a crucial year in the history of TSR. It's the last year before the advent of Dragonlance, which changed D&D -- and the hobby -- forever and it's the year when the longstanding battle between Gary Gygax and the Blume brothers finally boiled over into all-out war. TSR nearly went bankrupt in 1983 from financial mismanagement and, though it survived the crisis, it was never really the same again. Gary's triumph over the Blumes was short-lived and in fact laid the groundwork for his own ouster in 1986. In short, 1983 is by many definition the End of the Beginning of the hobby's history and, for my money, the ultimate boundary of the original old school.

I've already noted my dislike of the revised Players Handbook cover, which is in every way inferior to Dave Trampier's iconic version of same. The Easley cover of the Dungeon Masters Guide, however, is almost undiluted gold.

I simply love this cover. It strikes exactly the right tone for the DMG. You have a taciturn guy in robes and a cowl, with a gigantic key hung around his neck. His image positively screams "Dungeon Master!" He stands between two gigantic metal doors, complete with heraldry that recalls some of the escutcheons from the World of Greyhawk. Behind him, in the distance, you can see a pile of gold that practically reaches the sky, with rays of light shining down upon it. Immediately behind the Dungeon Master are hordes of monsters of the humanoid variety ready to stop anyone who dares venture into their boss's domain. But of course -- and this is the best part -- ol' DM looks to me as if he is closing the doors in front of him, taunting you, saying, "This cool stuff isn't for you. Begone, peasants!"

That, my friends, is what the DMG cover needs to do: make being the DM cool. One of the distinguishing features of old school games in general and D&D most especially is that the fun one has playing them rests disproportionately on the shoulders of the referee. It's the referee, both by his ability to create scenarios and his skill at adjudicating them, who determines to a great extent whether the players have a good time or not. This isn't to minimize the contributions of the players -- far from it! However, the simple reality is that old school games tend to offer much less mechanical "insulation" against the vicissitudes of bad dice rolls, let alone bad decisions, than do more contemporary ones. But a skilled referee can make even misfortune fun; that's part of the essence of D&D for me: suffering at hands of cruel fate and loving every minute of it.

One of the things I've noticed in talking with people who actually played D&D back in the old days was that many (though not all) of those who had no fun and wound up hating the game also complain about their DMs. I've heard lots of stories about maladjusted martinets who abused their players and twisted the rules in every way they could to lord it over the poor fools who made the mistake to join their campaigns. And yet if I were to regale you with a wider sampling of tales from my old games, you'd almost certainly think I was one of those social retards as well, because I cannot deny that I raked my players over the coals at every opportunity. The difference is that my players loved it (most of the time) and that's because I made it fun for them. I don't think I'm bragging when I say that I was a good DM, even when I was screwing my players over with ill-worded wishes or maiming their characters through the use of a vicious critical hit table. I can say that because I always rewarded cleverness, creativity, and perseverance. I was "tough but fair," as the saying goes, and that's what my players understood a referee to be. After all, I had to have fun playing the game too and a goodly portion of my fun came from trying to "beat" my players, just as a portion of theirs came from trying to "beat" me. RPGs may not have winners or losers in the traditional sense, but that doesn't mean the referee and players aren't adversaries, at least some of the time.

The point of all of this is that, in my opinion, the fun of D&D rests inordinately in the hands of the Dungeon Master. He needs not only to create scenarios and run them, but he also has to learn to roll with the punches the dice -- and his players' choices -- throw at him in order to shepherd the game toward something that's fun for everyone, including himself. That's a very tall order and I know many people blanch at the thought of it. Being a storyteller is one thing -- a far easier thing -- but being an old school referee is much harder. It's not your place to direct the "story." Indeed, the very notion of story is in many ways antithetical to the old school. Rather, it's the referee's job to act as one part analog computer, one part opponent, and one part fellow player, so that the experience that emerges is, with some luck and no small amount of skill, something memorable and enjoyable for everyone involved.

But there are no guarantees, which is why many RPG sessions end up as tedious, disjointed, even painful, affairs. Like life itself, there's no way to ensure that an old school gaming session will result in anything that's, in and of itself, either memorable or even enjoyable. Of course, over time, and with the accumulation of many sessions of play, those tedious, disjointed, and even painful affairs might acquire a significance that transcends their origins. They become necessary steps on a longer journey or pieces of dark glass in a glorious mosaic of many colors. It's for this reason that OD&D extols the campaign and indicates it is the purpose for which the rules have been designed. OD&D also notes, correctly, that "the referee bears the entire burden here." Without a competent and agile referee, old school gaming was frequently a less than enjoyable experience, which is why the history of the hobby has been, in some ways, the story of changing the role and scope of the referee in order to "fix" the problems of the past.

To my mind, what gaming needs more than ever is to make the role of the referee something envied and enjoyed rather than seen as a chore. Jeff Easley's cover here does that, in my opinion. It lends an air of mystery and authority to the Dungeon Master, which is as it should be. It's quite simply a great cover, probably the best of any edition of the DMG.

8 comments:

  1. I think I told you this during one of our talks, and I know I mentioned this in the comments, but this is my favorite cover on _ANY_ game book. Period.

    Thousand Suns is number 2, but this cover on the DMG is it.

    Interestingly enough, the cover on the old Battle System boxset is my third favorite.

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  2. Say that telling a story is antithetical to old school gaming is the reason why I can never truly understand why anyone would want to play an old-school campaign.

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  3. Having owned a battered, pre-owned copy of the Efreet version, I never owned this version of the DMG nor did I ever really look at the cover. Now that I have, I really like it.

    Thanks for this series...I'm looking at this classic art in a whole new way!

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  4. Say that telling a story is antithetical to old school gaming is the reason why I can never truly understand why anyone would want to play an old-school campaign.

    I think it's important to realize that "story" in this case is used very specifically. I don't mean to imply that old school gaming is just a bunch of random stuff thrown together willy-nilly without any context or meaning. However, old school gaming does not proceed from the notion that it's the referee's job to "tell a story" through his adventures. Story is something that evolves through play and through the interaction of referee and player choices. It's not something that's there ab initio. In short, old school campaigns don't set out to tell a story anymore than a person sets out to tell a story in leading his life. In retrospect, a story may emerge from such things, but that's not the intention from the start.

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  5. Well, I do have to say that this is the best front cover of any DMG.

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  6. Well, I do have to say that this is the best front cover of any DMG.

    It's mine as well -- and I never even owned a copy.

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  7. I concur with the statement that this first edition dmg cover art 2 is the finest cover of any D&D rulebook. Wish I had one.

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