Friday, January 2, 2009

Silver Age Obsessions

Issue 88 of Dragon was released in August 1984, which puts it outside what I generally consider the Golden Age. The cover art, as you can see, is by Jim Holloway. I'll admit to having an inexplicable soft spot for his work -- probably having to do with fond memories of Paranoia -- but I think it's fair to say that that the presence of his artwork is a pretty good indicator that you're looking at an artifact from a period outside the period I regard as the hobby's apex, but perhaps only barely. Call it the Silver Age.

One of the fascinating things about the Silver Age -- indeed of many Silver Ages -- is that it was heavily focused on commenting upon and embellishing the works of the Golden Age. This is very evident in the pages of Dragon from the period, which, if looked at today, would no doubt seem unduly obsessed with minutiae, such as a "realistic" method of calculating a character's height and weight based on his ability scores or determining how far a character could jump up or across based on the same. "Realism" was a watchword of the Silver Age. Indeed, I recall an exhaustive review of the then-new Rolemaster series which reviewed the game primarily on the basis of how realistic it was.

This concern about realism is why issue 88 could, for example, boast not one but two different articles on the physics of falling damage (and a further article on the subject by Gygax himself a few issues later). To some, arguing over whether falling 40 feet causes 4d6 damage or 10d6 damage might seem like needless nitpicking and, on some level, it is. What it really is, in my opinion, is two things. First, it's a consequence of the maturity of D&D. The game had been out for 10 years by this point and was so firmly established in its essentials that all that was left to do was gild the lily, so to speak. In short, there's a hint of decadence even amidst the enormous creativity of the Silver Age (and there was a lot of creativity, as I'll discuss in a future post).

The second thing that the obsession with realism indicates is how unquestioned Gygaxian naturalism had become in the game. Most gamers at the time simply accepted that the rules of the game were intended to simulate a reality, albeit a fantastic one. Consequently, the more closely the rules modeled that reality, the "better" they were, which is why you see lots of arguing back and forth over the best way to do so. There were, to my recollection anyway, comparatively few voices arguing that D&D shouldn't be as realistic as possible within the constraints of the magical world it portrays. This is something even the Hickman Revolution didn't seek to overthrow, as it was a largely unquestioned pillar of what D&D -- what a roleplaying game -- was supposed to be (superhero games are something of an exception and, I think, one of the primary gateways through which non-simulationist approaches gained greater popularity).

Naturalism thus reached its height during the Silver Age and, on reflection, I realize that, coming to the hobby as I did during the late Golden Age, I didn't see the transition between the two ages as clearly as I do now. Moreover, the dominance of naturalism was not a foregone conclusion during the Golden Age. One need only look at things like Arduin or even Blackmoor to find plenty of examples of non-naturalistic approaches to gaming during the early days. But naturalism is what Gygax, through TSR, raised to the level of dogma and it's what informed my own contnued conception of what D&D is and how it ought to be played. It's clearer to me now that this approach wasn't the only one, even within D&D, prior to the end of the Silver Age. However, it was the favored one and, for good or for ill, it's (until recently anyway) been a core part of the way the game has been played and published. It's certainly my preferred style, which probably explains my general dislike for more "wahoo" approaches.

I'll be returning to this and related topics in future posts. There's a lot of history to mine here and I would like more time to do so.

24 comments:

  1. "'Realism' was a watchword of the Silver Age."

    Another excellent post. I've tried to make that observation over at ENWorld a few times, and caught quite a bit of flak over it. Glad to know I wasn't hallucinating.

    I do remember the primary debate at that time as being over "realism vs. playability", as opposed to the current fetish over "balance". Those were also the Dragon issues that started my collecting (#88 in particular -- Marvel Superheroes Thor!).

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  2. Have you thought about writing a book? Maybe a series of essays?

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  3. The Regents of Miskatonic University on recommendation of the faculty of Miskatonic University, Arkham, have conferred upon James Maliszewski the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Table Top Roleplaying Games, Old School Studies, with all the rights and privlidges appertaining. Given at Arkham on the Second day of January A.D. two thousand and nine and in the 319th year of the University.

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  4. I came into AD&D in the late silver age, around 1985. I always felt a bit iffy about the more extreme naturalistic approach - the 1983 WoG weather tables are a precursor of the Wilderness Survival Guide's excesses, which I have to consider decadent and close to fetishistic.

    My reading preferences are more towards the decidedly non-naturalistic, The Dying Earth series for example, and I love the weird Otus art, but as a GM I tend to default very much towards naturalism, it's a much easier play style for me to ground the setting in quasi-reality.

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  5. Yep, gotta agree with this one.

    Lots of neat stuff came out of the "Silver Age", but there was a strong emphasis on realism. I think that accounts a lot for the prominence of artists like Elmore and Parkinson, who, like Michael Whelan, made our fantasies feel like real, three-dimensional worlds and less like the fever dreams of earlier artists.

    I think you can take this a step further and say this nudged D&D towards things like Dragonlance and away from the pulp stories. The phantasmagoria images of Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith lacked the grounded solidity of Tolkien, Joel Rosenberg, or David Eddings.

    - Brian

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  6. Oops! Yeah, ok, you hit the art angle in the next article. That's what I get for posting before I finish reading. ;D

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  7. "...the 1983 WoG weather tables are a precursor of the Wilderness Survival Guide's excesses, which I have to consider decadent..."

    Got to agree with that. Trying to use the WSG in its entirety literally killed my college D&D game. I've been on a lifelong quest for good, gamey weather rules ever since. (Add that to the mass-combat, domain-management, naval-action wishlist...)

    My favorite DMG quote is now "This is not to say that where it does not interfere with the flow of the gome that the highest degree of realism hasn‘t been attempted, but neither is a serious approach to play discouraged." (p. 9). I think losing sight of either part of that is damaging -- attempt the "highest degree of realism", but be on a stern watchout for when it might "interfere with the flow of the game".

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  8. The "Ecology of the..." articles starting at #72 might mark the transition pretty well. I think the first one (the Piercer) was a bit of a joke that stuck serious, and in #72 you still have the Valley Elf.

    The Electrum Age, perhaps...

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  9. Glad to know I wasn't hallucinating.

    You weren't. Anyone who read Dragon during that era -- from mid-70s to the early 100s -- should remember how many articles there were that included complex mathematical equations or that computer programs designed to help test or model some aspect of the "realism" of D&D's mechanics.

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  10. Have you thought about writing a book? Maybe a series of essays?

    I have, but then I wonder: who would buy this stuff?

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  11. I think that accounts a lot for the prominence of artists like Elmore and Parkinson, who, like Michael Whelan, made our fantasies feel like real, three-dimensional worlds and less like the fever dreams of earlier artists.

    I think you're on to something here. What's interesting, though, is how quickly artists like Elmore and Parkinson became so stylized in their illustrations. After a while, they tend to blur into one big mass of art that I find hard to distinguish from one another (with some notable exceptions, of course). I'm not sure what that says about the Silver Age, but it's worth noting nonetheless.

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  12. The "Ecology of the..." articles starting at #72 might mark the transition pretty well.

    Absolutely! The Ecology series is emblematic of the Silver Age.

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  13. James - I think you underestimate the interest of RPGs. It might not be a best seller, but it might be worth your time. FWIW, I'd probably buy a copy.

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  14. Yeah, I'm a Silver Age gamer myself. Also weaned on old had sci-fi (Asimov etc.) which has made me a simulationist at heart. I look forward to reading more about your campaign!

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  15. I'll just join the chorus of approval for this observation about silver age "realism," and note that D&D was a very funny place from which to try to derive such a "realistic" rule set.

    I think the "realist" strand was there right through the 70s, with Aftermath and Squad Leader; perhaps the 80s take credit for wedding the obsessiveness of the wargamers to the world-encompassing completism of the RPG crowd. And, of course, the much-maligned GURPS owes its origins to the same impulse toward simulation. I confess, between Lego and RPG design, during my teenage years I had a highly distorted view of how the world might be understood and the role of model-building in epistemology.

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  16. My first subscription to Dragon was for issues 62 through 73. I generally enjoyed those twelve issues, so I renewed Dragon for issues 74 through 85. I didn't like those issues so much, so I didn't renew again.

    I must not have liked the Silver Age.

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  17. James,

    Good stuff as always. However, I think you probably overstate the case for realism as the cause for the dramatic changes in Dragon Magazine during the period in question. I don't think it was an increased interest in realism so much as it was an increased concern within TSR over "officialness."

    During this period TSR -- particularly through Dragon magazine -- really developed, enforced, and ceaselessly promoted the reasonably new distinction between "official" versus "unofficial" material. "Official AD&D" material could only be issued by EGG himself or one of his appointed disciples (like Lakofka) in a manner akin to a papal bull. That meant that anything else was "unofficial" and therefore of suspect value. And could be potential heretical, to boot!

    Now, there had certainly been earlier attempts to distinguish third party material. Judges Guild, for example, had the "Approved for Use With" designation. But the Dragon magazine had, from the beginning, been a safe haven for all sorts of wonderful little variant rules with little discussion of "officialness." The Dragon's Bestiary and the Bazaar of the Bizarre columns were regular sources for new monsters and magic items, for example. But all this changes at the dawn of the silver age. This is also the era, remember, that sees an increased obsession over capitalization and trademark and copyright symbols. A simple D&D book becomes an "Official AD&D (tm) Supplement."

    Several reasons probably spurred the suddenly increased emphasis on the "officialness" of material. The most important was likely the desire to shut off third party material and drive all consumers to TSR.

    But a couple of immediate and important consequences stem from this new distinction of official and unofficial. First, a whole series of beloved categories of articles -- new classes, races, monsters, spells, etc. -- suddenly become verboten for Dragon unless they stem from Gygax himself. Second, this leaves a gaping vacuum that can only be filled with two types of articles: either systemless historical research pieces (the "real barbarians," "true medieval coinage," "authentic cobbling styles from antiquity," etc.) or else fairly humble extensions or elaborations to the existing AD&D system. Instead of new monsters you get "ecologies." Instead of new magic items you get things like "new charts for generating magic items." Instead of a new magic system you get "random weather generators" or "More Accurate Falling Damage." And so on, and so forth. This is the decadence, the dinking around with fluff, that you single out in your original post.

    Realism certainly was a very important and highly valued concept during this period, and I certainly think it informs much of the content that you discuss. But I also suspect that if you look at contemporaneous RPGs (say, RuneQuest), you will not find such a sudden shift in content like you do in Dragon Magazine during this period.

    And in fact, after Gygax left TSR (taking Mohan with him) Roger Moore assumed the helm. And you almost immediately see a flowering of the exact sort of articles that had been banished from the magazine: Tom Moldvay, for examples, publishes the first in his excellent series of articles on new undead.

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  18. I think the "realist" strand was there right through the 70s, with Aftermath and Squad Leader;

    Oh, it was. That strand was always present, but I think it became the dominant way to play RPGs in the 80s, as opposed to before when it was simply one approach among many.

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  19. I must not have liked the Silver Age.

    A lot of people didn't. I did at the time and I still, on reflection, retain a healthy appreciation for its virtues, but it's not my preferred idiom for fantasy anymore.

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  20. However, I think you probably overstate the case for realism as the cause for the dramatic changes in Dragon Magazine during the period in question.

    I almost always overstate my case in my initial posts, both because it's easier to frame an argument that way and because it tends to engender just the kind of conversations we're having :)

    That said, I think you're right that there are several other factors at work. As with most things relating to D&D, there's no single cause for the shift (or rather, increasing emphasis) and figuring out just what all the factors were and how they interacted with one another is part of the whole project of this blog. So, thanks for your thoughts on this; they are very helpful to me.

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  21. Garnfellow said: During this period TSR -- particularly through Dragon magazine -- really developed, enforced, and ceaselessly promoted the reasonably new distinction between "official" versus "unofficial" material.

    I disagree with the idea that the Silver Age started with TSR's officalness in the 70s+ of Dragon: Dragon was already practically a D&D house organ by issue 50 or so, and was far-less freewheeling that The Dragon or Strategic Review had been, given how much it focused on D&D compared to its earlier years. That shift to house organ is what strikes me as the transition marker for Dragon's devolution to Silver Age from Golden. (Also, where do editor changes fit into that timeline---does the shift from Jake Jaquet to Kim Mohan to Roger Moore occur somewhere in there, and can we point to that as a possible policy shift in content prefencing??).

    Dragon continued to publish a number of variants (classes, magic items, poison systems, etc.)---including "official but not yet final" ones from Gygax, Lakofka, and others---with regularity through issues in early 90s or so, but the decline from Golden Age strikes me as one of a narrowing of vision and inclusiveness of games systems vs. just one of officialness.

    Allan.

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  22. I think we may be in agreement, of sorts: I think the 50s are the key inflection point. By issue 60 Dragon magazine was a very different animal than it was at issue 50.

    Tim Kask's last issue as editor was 35; Jake Jaquet and Kim Mohan were co-editors on 36. Jaquet and Mohan (along with others) were listed as editors for several issues, and then Jaquet's last issue as editor was 48. Mohan's last issue was 114, with Moore taking over after.

    So yeah, Mohan really oversaw the transition of Dragon into the silver age. But his tenure also coincides with the rise of offialness as a rallying cry and only ends with the ouster of Gygax, so I'm not sure how easy it is to separate one from the other. To me they are inextricably tied together.

    Moore's tenure marks a rather different -- and I think more interesting -- magazine. His vision was much broader than Mohan's and the normal silver age Dragon standard. But by the time he took over I think much of the damage had been done, and many people had stopped paying attention. (I know I had; my last subscription issue was 112.) Unfortunately, I think we missed out on one of the stronger runs of the magazine.

    Of course this doesn't mesh with the nice, neat thesis that the magazine had a golden age and then descended into a lesser age of silver and (presumably) from there to electrum, copper, iron, and even lesser dross. I just see it as constantly waxing and waning throughout its history. I think parts of the Moore period, the late 2nd edition period (right before TSR went under), and the late Paizo period were really the three greatest runs of Dragon. But what about when AD&D was at its height? Me, I would have much rather been reading White Dwarf.

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  23. This is actually a favorite cover of mine, mostly due to a mistake. The issue has game called Elephant Hunt and is mentioned on the cover. Between misreading that mention and the cover art, I was disappointed not to get to play Elf Hunt.

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  24. I started buying Dragon regularly at 136, from there up until the 170s it was very good I thought, much better than what you describe in the 50s-114 epoch.

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