A frequent jibe against old school gaming is that it's all about "nostalgia," by which the critic generally means that it's all an attempt to recapture the feelings associated with bygone youth. I used to dismiss such taunts out of hand; now I recognize some truth in them. I do think, in the case of many old school RPGs, particularly Dungeons & Dragons (but also Traveller), my fondness for them has a great deal to do with an attempt to recapture the feelings associated with youth. Where I think the critics are wrong is that they feel to see that it's not my youth I'm trying to recapture, but that of the creators of these games.
Had Gary Gygax lived till July, he'd have celebrated his 70th birthday. Think about that for a moment. The man was born in 1938, making him older than my own parents. His childhood and teen years were in the 1940s and 1950s. The books he read, the movies he saw, the experiences he had took place in a very different context than the one in which I grew up. Dungeons & Dragons reflects that difference. As I noted in an earlier post on the matter, D&D was "old fashioned" in its approach to fantasy even in 1974. Gygax was drawing primarily on sources that were 20-30 years old at the time OD&D was released. Yes, there were newer sources of inspiration as well, but most of these were themselves influenced by the older sources Gygax favored -- a consequence of the pulp fantasy reprint revival of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Note too that, even if one wishes to give Tolkien more credit for influence than I think is deserved, both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were themselves old fashioned even when they were first published in the 1930s and 1950s respectively. D&D is nothing if not a snapshot into the youthful influences and obsessions of its creator.
Part of the appeal of old school D&D for me is that, because it's inspired by the feelings of someone else's youth, it has a degree of "alienness" to that it wouldn't have had it been inspired by feelings from my own youth. Yes, I read a lot of the same books as Gary Gygax, but (for the most part), I read them because of D&D, not the other way around. I'm not sure I'd ever heard of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser or Cugel or Dwayanu until I got into the hobby. When I did, I read their adventures with great relish, my pleasure amplified in no small part because they didn't seem like anything I'd ever read before. There's a reason for that and it's that "fantasy" had long since moved on from the days when Gygax's influences were writing. What I knew to be fantasy was quite different. Not only did this new fantasy not feel like D&D to me, but they also seemed much too familiar, almost certainly due to temporal proximity. Nevertheless, the relative antiquity of Gygax's sources gave them a magical air that contributed greatly -- and still does -- to my fascination with them, a fascination that only grows as I get older.
What's becoming increasingly clear to me is that, far from chasing the Zeitgeist, Dungeons & Dragons was always a "retro" project out of step with what was au courant at the time of its birth. That's part of its appeal to me and the shift away from that retro sensibility is one of several factors that has alienated me from later editions of the game. I really do think this is an important insight. I offer not to condemn games and their players who prefer something more "up to date," but to explain that there is a component to old school D&D that is more than just about light rules, sandbox play, and a sovereign referee. Likewise, I offer it to dispel the self-serving myth that D&D, from its inception, did as the Romans do. Certainly Gygax was never afraid to try and ride the coattails of existing trends -- hence the Tolkien references -- but that's a very different thing than saying that OD&D was born out of a studied attempt to emulate whatever was popular in fantasy in the mid-70s. I don't think that's a tenable position at all and, given that, it's something we can then use as a signpost for determining when the conception of D&D shifted away from its original one.