Monday, November 3, 2008

Where I'm Going with All This

I'm done teasing; time to reveal all.

One of the constant themes of this blog is the curse of "brandification," the eventual reduction of any and every creative endeavor to a mere commodity that can be marketed and sold, typically without much regard for either the origins or purpose of the endeavor in the first place. I've railed about this in several contexts -- Lovecraft, Barsoom, Flash Gordon -- but it's with regards to Dungeons & Dragons that I've focused most of my ire.

The Gygax quotes I posted, the first from February 1979 and the second from November 1985, pretty clearly illustrate a shift in the thinking of one of the game's creators over the course of nearly seven years. The first quote is from the Golden Age of TSR, when "the hobby" had still not fully given way to "the industry." That's not say or to imply that TSR wasn't trying to maximize its profits in every way it could do so; the publication of the Moldvay Basic Rules less than a year after the first quote is evidence that that's clearly not the case. Neither am I suggesting that, at some point, the real, kindly Gary Gygax was replaced by a corporate mandroid who wanted nothing less than total domination of the hobby games market.

The past can't be changed and neither can the present direction of the game the current rights holders have somewhat implausibly dubbed Dungeons & Dragons. I can whine and moan about these things all I want, but what's done is done, regardless of my feelings about it. Consequently, I think those of us involved in the old school renaissance have an opportunity here not so much to rewrite history as to provide an "alternate history," one in which the hobby never gave way to the industry.

We're fortunate in many ways that we're a small, niche-y community; there's simply not a lot of money to be made through the creation of new old school products and there never will be. Barring some utterly unpredictable turn of events, the old school renaissance simply won't have much impact beyond those of us who are already involved in it. History has spoken and the Old Ways lost; there is no going back. I say this is fortunate, because it means that we're highly unlikely ever to be offered the same temptations as was TSR toward the end of the Golden Age. The Cursed Chateau is never going to sell millions of copies, for example, and, chances are, no other new old school product will either. Indeed, we'll be lucky to sell hundreds of copies in most cases.

But that's OK. I wasn't drawn back to the old school by promises of wealth and fame. What drew me here was the core philosophy behind it, what Matt Finch wonderfully sums up in the phrase "imagine the hell out of it." That's what it's all about for me and I'm pretty certain that's what it's all about for most of us who play Swords & Wizardry, write for Fight On!, or construct our own little brown books. This isn't "nostalgia," unless by "nostalgia" one means a preference for the way things were done in the past. I think most of us are keenly aware that even the Golden Age wasn't perfect or that not everything that's come out since 1983 has been utterly worthless (speaking as someone who made a living writing for a large number of games published post-1983).

It's a mistake, though, to simply discount the old school renaissance as just a bunch of grumpy middle-aged guys complaining about "kids today." There's some of that -- heck, sometimes a lot of that -- but it's not grumpiness for its own sake; it's an emotional reaction to the knowledge that this small community is it. We are the keepers of the flame, because we have to be. No one else is going to do it. There is simply no "market" for most of these products and no companies really interested in the Old Ways except those we've founded ourselves. If we want to keep the fire burning, we have to stoke it and understand -- really understand -- that, to most gamers, we're at best quaint curiosities and at worst cantankerous evolutionary foot-draggers.

I say none of this to be depressing. Truth be told, I find the embrace of the cold, hard facts of the matter to be liberating. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being hobbyists who produce niche products that appeal only to other hobbyists, if doing so satisfies your desire to create and share what you create. That's what roleplaying was in the beginning; that's what it was for a goodly number of years after its invention. Just because it changed in various ways since doesn't mean we should acquiesce to those changes or, worse yet, despair about them.

"Imagine the hell out of it" just isn't a catchphrase; it's why the old school community can survive and prosper despite being beneath the notice of the industry. To that I say, "Good!" Play. Imagine. Create. Share. That's what this is all about. Never forget that. Never lose sight of that. The rest simply doesn't matter.

33 comments:

  1. Wow, James. I had no idea that you had written so many RPG books.

    I agree with your post. As Rob Kuntz I believe wrote: "You too can make hundreds of dollars a year as a RPG writer!" That's where I am with CARCOSA, and where I'll undoubtedly stay. I was never under any illusions that my home-made book for my fellow hobbyists would put more than a few hundred bucks in my pocket.

    And that's a good thing. I, too, want our niche to remain a hobbyists' haven, and never turn into an industry.

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  2. So now, it's 1974 again, at least for some of us.

    A call to arms is good...but how many people can we get to actually become creators? The Dragon had the advantage of quite a few authors offering their thoughts to the hobby. The old-school movement does not yet have that.

    If every one of your commenters wrote an article for Fight On!, that'd be a step in the right direction.

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  3. Great post, James. You certainly have a way with words, expressing your points so eloquently. Four words in particular which really hit home:

    Play. Imagine. Create. Share.

    Suitable as a motto or creed, and I think the very reasons so many of us will continue to share this little corner of the hobby we love.

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  5. I don't think that is what James is saying here, really. Certainly, it can never be 1974 again for me, I wasn't even born then...

    The point is that it is 2008, going on 2009, and there are a growing number of people displeased with the general direction of RPGs, and the particular direction of D&D.

    An alternative to that direction, which looks back towards earlier design concepts and approaches, is what this "renaissance" is all about. 1974 is long gone, proponents of traditional adventure gaming are looking to the future.

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  6. Agreed on all counts, James. Very well said!

    Sure, this is a rallying call ... but it's not all about writing, is it Ben? ... If everyone who ever responded here contributed in accordance with their talents, whether as an artist, writer, editor, or whatever ... then perhaps we'd really have something!

    Having said that, I've been keeping a close eye on the OD&D forums, particularly the Fight On! threads concerning needed artwork, and as of this upcoming issue, have contributed a piece or three where the muse grabbed me - and I'm looking forward to contributing more in the future - perhaps even for the S&W magazine as well, should there be a need.

    JM.

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  7. I doubt that I'll ever have the body of creative work behind me that James has, but the old-school renaissance has definately relit the fading creative fires I once had.

    The simple fact that I'm more familiar with and have more experience playing the older editions of the game has a lot to do with this revived need to homebrew my own contributions. I'd never have attempted to return to the hobby with the energy I have had I not dicovered this niche-y little movement. Hopefully I'm not a singular case.

    I not sure about other folks, but the smaller size of the audience actually encourages me to create and submit. If other people feel like I do, the ranks of creators will grow with such encouragement.

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  8. If every one of your commenters wrote an article for Fight On!, that'd be a step in the right direction.
    I'd love to, but D&D has never been my game, and Fight On!, good as it is, is too focused in that direction for me. Still, there are other avenues.

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  9. Well put, James.

    I agree there is a lot of confusion between nostalgia and a simple preference for a different style of game. However, due to the evolution of RPGs and the media around them, it's often difficult to separate the two.

    I am a RPG creator, and I never expect to do better than break even. That said, I do think there are younger gamers out there that would love and 'old-school' style play, and even connect with it on an aesthetic level. I think it's a worthy effort to try to include them. I don't think you are guilty of this (not purposefully anyhow), but I do see some in the old-school community almost proactively shutting initiates out with unexplained archaic references, or old-school code.

    I would love to see the old-school spirit continue to burn on. However, as someone that was initiated at a young age in 82-83, I hope that keeping the flame burning, means keeping an inclusive, welcoming community. -One that cares less about your knowledge of very limited print pubs or about your birthdate, but more about your preferred playstyle and willingness to "Imagine the hell out of it".

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  10. While we don't agree on much, I will agree with this: D&D and Role-Playing Games in general are a niche hobby, and always will be. To push the boundaries and try to make pen-and-paper gaming "mainstream" means watering everything down to the point where no one is happy.

    I think this was the one good thing that happened in the Indie movement of the 90's - with the advent of the internet, the desktop publishing revolution meant that everyone's "homebrew" could be a new RPG, supplement, setting, or whatever. The only problem, at the time, was that the Indie movement carried with it a very heavy Elitist attitude that turned off a lot of people.

    So my big "issue" with the Old School movement is that many aspects of it carry just as much of an Elitist attitude as we saw in the Indie movement of the 90's. The attitude is just pointed in a different direction.

    At the end of the day, you're right - play the game, share your creations with others, and be content with knowing that you're doing what you love and sharing it with like-minded people. I just ask that people leave their egos behind.

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  11. I very much agree with what MK said. Most newcomers to gaming come through WotC marketing. They often know no other way. A certain percentage of them are not going to find the open-ended worlds of imagination they were looking for and only a small percentage of that sub-group is going to really go out and look hard for it. It would be great if there were some kind of "welcoming document" that would introduce people to the tenets of the "old school" and give them concrete steps for how to find out more and actually start playing. And of course, a welcoming and non-elitist attitude would be very helpful as well.

    I think of it not as trying to attract people to the movement, because it's clearly sustaining itself, but rather as a resource to rescue those trapped in a playstyle that is not to their liking.

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  12. Our Esteemed Host wrote:
    "There is absolutely nothing wrong with being hobbyists who produce niche products that appeal only to other hobbyists, if doing so satisfies your desire to create and share what you create."

    I couldn't agree more!

    If we ever were to have something like olman feelyus's idea of a "welcoming document" to old school gaming, shouldn't it include something about the hobby being about creating, and sharing your creations with others, rather than shelling out megabucks for someone else's ideas?

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  13. I think Matthew Finch's Old School Gaming Primer does that job quite well.

    Another thing to consider is that there are probably just as many people involved in the Old School Renaissance as there were designing games back in 1974 - or the difference is relatively small. There are a LOT MORE gamers today than there were in 1974, so our "tiny fraction" is perfectly fine. We've also got better tools to communicate than in the past - between POD, PDF and teh interwebs, it's far easier to get stuff out than back in the day. All of this is just a wordy way of saying "we're doing just fine!"

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  14. I think Matt Finch's OSGP is very close to such a 'welcoming document'. But as important as a 'how-to' primer is, I think supporting a friendly attitude of inclusiveness is key. In fact, I would argue this attitude is inherent to the old-school experience. -I was taken under the wing of older gamers in the early 80's, probably because they could relive their first encounter with the game vicariously through me.

    To me, old-school is more than a game. To me, it's more than an era. In fact, it's even more than a playstyle. To me, old-school is about RPG hobbyists that are interested in creativity, challenges, intellectualism, and the sharing ideas and goodwill. It's almost a way of life. :)

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  15. Olman Feelyus: I think of it not as trying to attract people to the movement, because it's clearly sustaining itself, but rather as a resource to rescue those trapped in a playstyle that is not to their liking.

    Exactly where I'm coming from.

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  16. l.beau said [i]If we ever were to have something like olman feelyus's idea of a "welcoming document" to old school gaming, shouldn't it include something about the hobby being about creating, and sharing your creations with others, rather than shelling out megabucks for someone else's ideas?[/i]

    I would say absolutely. I think in many ways it is the market (and I use that term in the loosest sense) and the community that truly defines old school gaming. It is great that the free exchange of ideas and material is still alive and well in our hobby, in most niches (not just among the old-schoolers). But I imagine there are still a lot of people who think that because something isn't hardbound or expensive or produced by a company whose name they know that it isn't valid. That is a perception that should be fought.

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  17. Play. Imagine. Create. Share.

    I couldn't agree more. As someone who GMs often and really loves to make his own material, I have the most fun gaming when all 4 of those itches get scratched.

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  18. I made a post at my new blog expanding on this concept, but I think the important thing now is not only to keep the flames of this old school renaissance burning, but to pass the torch onto a new generation as well.

    It is a mistake to think of the movement as being composed of grumpy Metamucil drinking men. This perception can be changed by fostering growth and interest from new and modern gamers.

    Which is why I get so excited when I see things developed for OSRIC, LL, and S&W.

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  19. I was an Apple ][ user. I was a Mac user. I was a Linux user. I’m a Mac user again. (& I’ve never been a big fan of the zealots within those camps.)

    I took 3 years of Latin in high school & another 3 years in college. I learned—& used—Esperanto for a while.

    I type using the Dvorak layout.

    I learned long ago that it is OK to like what I like. I don’t need everyone to agree with me. I don’t want the companies who make the products I like to worry about conquering the world; I just want them to continue to make products I like.

    Oh, I’m happy to share my thoughts with others because—like me—they might like these things after they learn about them. But I’m also happy to let others have their choice whether out of ignorance or preference.

    (I happen to also enjoy a good preference war...I just don’t take it seriously.)

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  20. I agree that it really can't ever be 1974 again, but I have to admit jealousy towards those gamers who were there at the time; helping forge the game that I would later on discover. I was too young and too isolated in the middle of rural Iowa to hear about wargaming, let alone D&D.

    But, now, with our little "retro-revolution" going on, I have a chance to become really involved in the hobby in a way other than a consumer. I can't write a lick, so you won't get any epic modules or supplements from me. But I can supply art for old-school projects and run games at local cons.

    So, keep it up, folks! Keep creating and blogging and drawing and imagining the hell out of it!

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  21. If anyone is interested, I put up my notes from running the sample adventure at the back of Labyrinth Lords up on my blog here: http://therecursionking.blogspot.com/2008/11/labyrinth-lord-sample-adventure-notes.html

    I recently (on sunday) played this with my younger half brother and one of his friends - they are both only 18. Newbloods into the old school ;-)

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  22. Wow, James. I had no idea that you had written so many RPG books.

    I have been at this writing thing longer than I care to admit, for all the good it's done me :)

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  23. An alternative to that direction, which looks back towards earlier design concepts and approaches, is what this "renaissance" is all about. 1974 is long gone, proponents of traditional adventure gaming are looking to the future.

    One of the reasons I prefer the term "renaissance" to "revival" is that I don't see what's happening as turning back the clock. That's obviously impossible. Instead, what we're seeing is using the past as an inspiration for the present and a guide for the future. D&D, as most of us knew it, is dead and isn't coming back, but games inspired by that version of D&D are starting to appear and I expect more will do so in the coming years. It's an exciting time.

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  24. I'd love to, but D&D has never been my game, and Fight On!, good as it is, is too focused in that direction for me. Still, there are other avenues.

    The terrific thing about our present circumstances is that creating your own fanzine is easier than ever. The one way that it is 1974 all over again is that the APA-driven hobby of that era could be reborn if gamers are willing to use the technology that exists to bring it to life.

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  25. One that cares less about your knowledge of very limited print pubs or about your birthdate, but more about your preferred playstyle and willingness to "Imagine the hell out of it".

    Provided that newcomers into the old school community don't running around like bulls in a china shop when it comes to hallowed traditions of the past, there's no reason why they should encounter exclusionary elitism. Speaking only for myself, my issue with many younger gamers is not that they don't know or understand the history of the hobby, but that they shrug and say, "So what?" when confronted with things from before their time. That's what gets my back up, not the fact that someone is younger or unschooled in the esoterica of the hobby.

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  26. I just ask that people leave their egos behind.

    I'm not at all convinced that it's about egos at all. As I noted above, my problem with many younger gamers is not their age, their preferences/inspirations, or even their lack of knowledge about the past of the hobby. Rather it's the suggestion that knowing and understanding the past is pointless or mere "trivia." For many of us, it's not, both on an emotional level and on a practical one as well. I'm more than happy to talk to younger gamers and explain my perspective; this blog is at least partly intended to do that. However, I expect to be met halfway and that involves abandoning the presumption that the things that matter to old schoolers have no relevance any longer.

    I don't make it a point of wandering into 4e-centered forums and pointing out all the things I think are wrongheaded, idiotic, and ahistorical about its design, because that'd be rude and inappropriate. I expect gamers unfamiliar with the old school to behave similarly when venturing into our blogs and forums. For me at least, it's not a question of ego; it's a question of politeness.

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  27. All of this is just a wordy way of saying "we're doing just fine!"

    I agree. I didn't intend my post to come across as defeatist -- far from it! I did, however, want to throw a bucket of cold water on the notion that the old school renaissance will inevitably blossom into something that'll take the hobby by storm. Such a thing is possible, but it's far from probably. I don't think it wise for anyone to hang his hopes on its inevitability.

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  28. "I don't make it a point of wandering into 4e-centered forums and pointing out all the things I think are wrongheaded, idiotic, and ahistorical about its design, because that'd be rude and inappropriate. I expect gamers unfamiliar with the old school to behave similarly when venturing into our blogs and forums. For me at least, it's not a question of ego; it's a question of politeness."

    I was actually more referring to all the hate and vitriol that gets spewed out of places like K&KA or some of the forums in DF. Calithena's famous "Old School Dungeon = &%*#ing Vietnam!" being a prime example. I made nice-nice with him the last time I grouched about that DF thread, but some of the more hyperbolic threads on DF and, well, most of K&KA is just a lot of whining elitist crap, and I really don't care who that statement offends.

    People want to talk about how great old D&D is/was, that's fine. People wanna talk about how much better it is than modern games, that's fine. People want to talk about how everyone these days plays those "crappy modern RPGs that just play like video games, and oh by the way don't video games these days just suck, and that reminds me, movies these days are just a pile of CGI nonsense...", now you sound like Andy Rooney on 60 Minutes, whining about how men don't wear ties much these days and how nice it was when everyone wore a tie and looked so proper.

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  29. Best way to deal with any hate and vitriol? Two options:

    1. Ignore it. Don’t give them the power to spoil things at all.

    2. Laugh at it. Don’t take it seriously. Assume it’s all really tongue-in-cheek.

    (Just wish I could always follow that advice myself...)

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  30. I tend towards a frothy blend of #'s 1 & 2, cuz I ignore most of it, and laugh at the rest. But, it still doesn't mean I don't think it's bad form.

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  31. Badelaire...and I really don't care who that statement offends.

    I think you should, Badelaire. We all should rise above animosity if we wish to promote a positive community.

    I think James is talking about respect. -That younger gamers respect the unique perspective and insights of those that have played as the hobby evolved. Both young and old have to want to talk, play and share with each other. Both should look forward to each others perspective and what they can bring to the game. It will never be 1974 again, but we can make these years of the 'old-school renaissance' ones to remember fondly as well.

    I applaud James for promoting a civil tone and place for intelligent discussion. I haven't agreed with his every point-of-view, but always appreciate the the manner in which he asserts them.

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  32. You know, with everything I've seen and heard, there are a comparatively tremendous amount of players and groups out there still playing some older edition of D&D and just enjoying the hell out of it. I've been thinking for a while about trying to organize an "Old School" booth next Gen Con, showcasing the wide variety of products folks have been making--supplements, guides, and simulacra alike. I think it would be a great way to show a lot of potentially interested folks what people are up to, and to show these products to an audience that's quite likely to appreciate someone--and let folks out there still rocking the old edition know that if they want, there's a support network online just waiting for them. To my mind, that's something practical that could really open things up and give some folks and their products the exposure they richly deserve.

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  33. As one of the guys who only started with AD&D 20 years ago, embraced 3e and is currently giving 4e a honest try, I still find myself appreciative of people going out of their way to support and share their love of the old ways of doing things.

    I might not share fun behind how the game was played back then, I am stoked that so many people do and keep churning out posts, books, and fanzines for it.

    Many younger players, at least the web savvy ones, are curious about about the games' roots and travel the web looking for reviews, primers and thoughts on old school gaming.

    I'll likely won't play classic D&D again, not my cup of tea, but I'm happy I can read about it as its still being played now.

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