Thursday, March 12, 2009

Alternate Histories

The always-insightful Victor Raymond offered up a brief comment to my post about Swords & Wizardry psionics that hits very close to something I intended to talk about today. He says:
What's interesting here, I think, is the way in which we're recapitulating the evolution of Original D&D - various discussions of various supplements, like here, and finding ways to adapt or recreate these systems for availability and use today. This doesn't surprise me, but there is an interesting possibility in all of this: at some point, Original D&D will have been fully re-imagined, but it's not at all clear that AD&D 1st Edition is the "natural" next step. Nothing against the fine folk who have put together OSRIC, but fairly soon we will be able to take our "Original D&D" in directions that were not thought of "back in the day" - and that will be a good thing, I think. YMMV.
Victor hits several nails solidly on their heads here. Much as I love AD&D, there's very little question that its appearance between 1977 and 1979 was not a wholly organic development, except from a business standpoint. By that I mean that, if one reads editorials in The Dragon from the early days of the hobby, not to mention other fanzines and even the OD&D supplements themselves, AD&D doesn't seem to have been inevitable and one could argue quite cogently that it was in fact a volte-face on the part of TSR, a repudiation of Volume III's question, "... but why have us do any more of your imagining for you?"

I exaggerate, of course. For all its ponderousness, at its core AD&D is still a very "light" system compared to many of its contemporaries and successors. I wouldn't hesitate to call its mechanical design principles old school, though I would feel compelled to note that the way the game was sold and promoted laid the groundwork for much mischief later, both by Gary Gygax and others. AD&D was only possible in the wake of the twin legal battles with Dave Arneson and Dave Hargrave and the rise of convention play as an important element of TSR's business plan.

Let me reiterate that I'm not trying to saying AD&D is the Devil's own game or that Gary or TSR or anyone associated with those days were involved in some kind of conspiracy to suck the soul out of the hobby, as I think no such thing. However, I think it's quite possible to imagine an alternate history, one in which the inclusiveness and open-mindedness of the early days of the hobby hadn't disappeared once roleplaying became a big business. In such an environment, I don't think AD&D would have come about at all, as there'd have been no need, let alone demand, for it.

To imagine what such an alternate history might look like, you need only consider the current state of the old school renaissance. What you're seeing now is a "retro-clone" of this possible past. We have multiple games -- Swords & Wizardry, OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, to name just three -- that all derive from the same root stock. Each is supported by a variety of third parties, as well as a fan community that freely and easily moves between them all without any sense that it's "wrong" to do so. There are fanzines and the latter-day equivalent of APAs, the blogs. This community is a chaotic, roiling mess, bubbling with creativity and discussion -- and arguments -- about how best to do this or that or what would happen if you mix these two things to build a third thing. There is no one true way here, even if there are some who will occasionally try to convince you otherwise. At the very least, there is no single True Game®, as no one has the resources to create the perception of one in the fans, who are frankly too happy with the embarrassment of riches to care anyway.

Again, I exaggerate, of course -- but only slightly. One of the reasons why I don't shirk from talk about an old school "renaissance" is because, in a very real way, this is a rebirth of the hobby. It's like it's 1977 all over again, except this time Supplement IV really is the last OD&D supplement and there will be no cease and desist orders sent to the House of the Dragon Tower.

How cool is that?

28 comments:

  1. The downside to this is, to my mind, that without the extra exposure of AD&D and "Basic D&D", you and others probably would never gotten into this hobby in the first place.

    And I doubt that would have happened. Alternate history would have indicated one of two things would have happened.

    1) D&D dies on the vine. The fad disappears, and there is no "old school" revision since it would have been forgotten. It's very likely if TSR didn't do things to expand the hobby it would have been replaced by another fantasy game, or RPGs might never have taken off.

    2) D&D still expands. Even if there was no reason to create an AD&D, do you honestly think TSR would not have produced additional supplements and rules, or even made attempts to revise or reprint the game? Do you think the fecund creativity of someone like Gary Gygax would have even said "no more rules, ever". Part of those earlier statements were made when TSR wasn't sure how long-term D&D would have been, since they were producing a lot of other things like Wargames.

    I highly doubt it would have happened as you'd like. And the creative types would have had their own fans and authority would have come from them. Tournament play alone helped pave the way for the "official" vs. "variant" camps. I doubt tournament play would have ever been discouraged, seeing as this came from wargaming routes.

    Based on other posts, I suspect you believe it would have been better if it this was in the public domain before "the suits took over". That is somewhat naive and horribly simplistic in attitude.

    The old school movement is sort of a "counter-culture" to the current state of the game, however, if your alternate history turned out, there might not even be a "culture" to "counter".

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  2. It's like it's 1977 all over again, except this time Supplement IV really is the last OD&D supplement and there will be no cease and desist orders sent to the House of the Dragon Tower.

    I think of it as less Supplement IV is the last and more "everyone gets to write Supplement V" (or LV).

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  3. I think the appearance of AD&D was inevitable, simply for the fact that it collates information in one place. I for one had a laboriously typewritten copy of OD&D (at least Men & Magic and Treasure) with all the additions and corrections from the supplements compiled in, because it made a much easier reference. I'm sure other people from that era did too.

    Monsters would have been the next on my list to do, except I discovered a new D&D supplement was just out (the Monster Manual) which negated much of the need to do that.

    Because the Monster Manual amd Player's Handbook were the first two AD&D books released I don't think that that many people really considered them as something that was much different from OD&D, just compilations of existing material.

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  4. ". . . laid the groundwork for much mischief later, both by Gary Gygax and others . . ."

    Phrases like this always make me laugh. I just love the idea of the creator making mischief in his own creation. Can we, then, truly call it mischief?

    My word verification is "swilkeig." Now that sounds like mischief.

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  5. So, my question is less about history and more about future.

    If you see this possibility of the cloned OD&D movement (neo-rennaiscance? Old School Revival? Raise Mostly Dead?) as moving into something totally new, where is that new? I'm not challenging your assumptions or disagreeing with you, merely challenging you to, as one of the most visible and most heard advocates of the Old School Revival, chart a possible course of your own.

    You're recreating Eldritch Wizardry's psionics system for S&S yes? Why? That strikes me as just more cloning, which is fine and dandy if that's your aim, but it's really not forging your way into unexplored territory. Why not create your own version of S&S or LL psionics? I'd probably buy it, or at least download it.

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  6. Lance: Phrases like this always make me laugh. I just love the idea of the creator making mischief in his own creation. Can we, then, truly call it mischief?

    Well, according to Roland Barthes, the answer is a firm and unyielding "maybe."

    On the serious side, I never really saw AD&D as anything more than, really, the other side of the coin from the little books. The one side was for individual groups and really makes the claims of "customizability" of today's games downright laughable. The other was about "shared worlds" and "shared experiences" and was just as good for the hobby as the unlimited creativity of the original books.

    Word verification: "potspeed" That right there just spiked my company's security firewall.

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  7. With response to the first post, I don't think James is saying anything about the direction in which the development of "alternate" AD&Ds will go. He's merely saying that the community is positioned to begin the process of starting a huge number of alternates, discussing them, modifying one group's version based on cool ideas from another group's version, etc. Once this process takes off, the internet will facilitate it like nothing that existed in 1974. It's not a matter of what James wants; it's a matter of what he's looking forward to seeing. This sort of thing is going on at the Swords & Wizardry boards at a frenetic pace. Many of the Swords & Wizardry blogs are offering bits and pieces of an alternate 1e. It's also significant that S&W and LL both offer Word or RTF files of their rules (BFRPG might, too). These files allow a group of gamers to cut and paste their own version of the game. That's also technology far beyond 1974.

    As to whether things like a psionics clone are or aren't a step in this direction, they are. Not because what James writes will be new, but because it is foundation material for the step into psionics (which no one has done yet). Once James' clone is released, it will instantly get dissected, re-arranged, re-written, and changed by people. Add-ons will appear on the blogs. Gaming groups will mull over whether to include psionics in their campaigns. The clones aren't the renaissance; they are only the foundation stones for it. But you need the foundation stones before you can build.

    It's an exciting time, and the creativity that's being released on boards, and in blogs, and at individual gaming tables is ... almost alarming. :)

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  8. AD&D was only possible in the wake of... the rise of convention play as an important element of TSR's business plan.

    I think exactly the opposite on this point, but then I've said that a few times now.

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  9. Matt has correctly interpreted my intent.

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  10. Delta,

    Forgive my forgetfulness: where have you addressed this topic before? I'd be very interested in hearing your alternate perspective.

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  11. It's also significant that S&W and LL both offer Word or RTF files of their rules (BFRPG might, too). These files allow a group of gamers to cut and paste their own version of the game. That's also technology far beyond 1974.

    BFRPG actually does provide the rules in a text format (.odt). It has allowed me to hack and slash bits of text for my own purposes and has really made prepping and running the game a joy.

    I've said this in the past and this post seems like an opportune moment to say it again:

    My favorite edition of D&D is the one I play with, house rules and all.

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  12. The old school movement is sort of a "counter-culture" to the current state of the game, however, if your alternate history turned out, there might not even be a "culture" to "counter".

    John, I think you're missing James' (and my) point: not that this alternate history would've been "better" or "worse" than what actually happened, but that what is going on now provides an opportunity to re-imagine that past. From a creative perspective, that's a good thing.

    I've said this in the past and this post seems like an opportune moment to say it again:

    My favorite edition of D&D is the one I play with, house rules and all.


    I agree 125% - and have written about that here.

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  13. @Grognardia:
    If you value your independence then I think you should examine your recent love-in with at least three professional game designers that I can see. Perhaps it's a sign of the community bonding but you may want to leave your reviews aside in that case.

    imagine an alternate history, one in which the inclusiveness and open-mindedness of the early days of the hobby hadn't disappeared once roleplaying became a big business. In such an environment, I don't think AD&D would have come about at all, as there'd have been no need, let alone demand, for it.

    You are presenting an emotionally confused history of the hobby here. If Gygax had been on a desert island with some friends in the 70s it is likely he would have produced AD&D as he did. There is nothing wrong with an archaeological examination of the hobby and imagining how else the material could have evolved but your new way is less persuasive for applying the deprecatory epithet 'big business' to AD&D.

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  14. John, I think you're missing James' (and my) point: not that this alternate history would've been "better" or "worse" than what actually happened, but that what is going on now provides an opportunity to re-imagine that past. From a creative perspective, that's a good thing.

    Correct, all around.

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  15. If you value your independence then I think you should examine your recent love-in with at least three professional game designers that I can see. Perhaps it's a sign of the community bonding but you may want to leave your reviews aside in that case.

    Thanks for the concern but my independence isn't in danger, nor is my objectivity.

    If Gygax had been on a desert island with some friends in the 70s it is likely he would have produced AD&D as he did.

    That seems very unlikely to me.

    There is nothing wrong with an archaeological examination of the hobby and imagining how else the material could have evolved but your new way is less persuasive for applying the deprecatory epithet 'big business' to AD&D.

    Possibly, but the creation and presentation of AD&D seems more in line with a big business model than does OD&D, a game that was quite clearly hobbyist in origin and development.

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  16. As I have heard it told, Gygax introduced AD&D because of the diffusion of the game. He saw D&D being run with so many varient rules that he was afraid of gamers becoming unable to play together because of rules creep. AD&D was ment to be a permanent framework to hold the greater community together. I've always seen AD&D as the Major league official rules set for D&D. Now, no one I know has ever run AD&D totally by the book, we play sandlot D&D, not professional league. That's for official convention games. or at least it was when there was a TSR. I see AD&D as a tool kit or a buffet of rules to pick and choose from as needed. And as a generally agreed upon adjudicator of last resort if some conflict arises that results from disagreements over a homebrew rule. AD&D often takes some heat for being as expansive as it is and trodding on homebrew creativity, but I don't think that's what its for. It's there to provide an anchor point, a central pivot that ties the greater D&D community together. It's our "common language".

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  17. >Now, no one I know has ever run AD&D totally by the book, we play sandlot D&D, not professional league<

    Me too. Been using AD&D 1st e, since it came out, and never even considered trying to use even 20% of the DM Guide. As some have pointed out "...there's a fucking page about using mirrors in there..."

    GYGAX: We need to cover EVERYTHING that might come up in a game.
    STAFF: *sigh* that's a lot of data. Is all of it really going to be necessary? Isn't half the fun players and DM working things out, figuring out for themselves how to use a mirror against Medusas, or too see around corners in dungeons? Aren't most people who buy our stuff fairly above average in smarts?
    GYGAX: This project will keep you in paychecks for a year or two.
    STAFF: Hooray, AD&D!!!

    I haven't looked at psionics rules in years, but isn't the chance to have them so low for a PC that only 3 or 4 out of a hundred characters might have them? Using that rare rule, is it even worth it to consider it? How many GMs who us psionics have actually had players make that tiny roll to have the powers? I just don't get psionics, why they were included in D&D, or why anyone would bother.

    And why anyone would be compelled to tweak them.

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  18. James said: "Possibly, but the creation and presentation of AD&D seems more in line with a big business model than does OD&D, a game that was quite clearly hobbyist in origin and development."

    Hi James. I'm going out on a limb here of course.

    I see AD&D's advent from OD&D less as a move towards big business than as a move to grow and disperse the idea as it was gaining world favor and was in ever widening demand. As the game was a new idea, more was added to it, and not IMO lessening the flavor but indeed illuminating where it could go.

    The whole premise is somewhat odd to me. I bought Monopoly because I enjoyed the game, Life too, and Battle Cry, etc. Would I have been more induced to buy such a game already produced by a large corporation (a big business) if it had been presented in lesser trappings or by some obscure company? No. But then again, I would have bought it based upon its merit, not because of a philosophical ideal. That concept has never entered my mind. Trivial Pursuit was indeed a hobbyist venture also that caught on and was indeed fun to play at times, and that it was marketed to the masses for all to enjoy I found a plus, as that created more players and more people to relate to and socialize with. That TSR moved to promulgate a popular game so that all could enjoy it on different levels (OD&D, Basic, AD&D) is a plus IMO, for look at the results today. We are all gathered here, aren't we? And not all of us are gathered here because of D&D's beginnings, but of what came after which informed the world and its thousands of participants that there was something new afoot and that they too could share in it. Now if that's big business, then serve some more, but do it the way it should be done, and not how it is being done by certain Wizards these days, IMHO, of course.

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  19. I didn't start playing (A)D&D until 1981, in my first year at university here in New Zealand -- pretty late, by some standards. I'd heard of it before, in the late '70s, through some ads in Military Modelling, Omni and Heavy Metal magazines, but I had no idea that there was any D&D besides AD&D. The only advertising I ever saw was for AD&D. I'm not saying that such advertising didn't exist, but it certainly wasn't omnipresent.

    How is this relevant? Frankly, I'm not sure. I do know that without the financial resources that were put behind AD&D, I doubt that I (and many like me) would ever have got into roleplaying at all. Even as it was, I probably just sneaked in; I've found that once people get into their twenties, they're less and less likely to become addicted to this ludocrous -- and wonderful -- hobby.

    I loved AD&D for many years, and though I eventually got frustrated enough with its many faults to move on to other systems, I'm eternally grateful to Gygax and others for that entree. If it wasn't for the love that I had for the game then, I wouldn't be looking twice at games like S&W or LL to build on to recapture that magic.

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  20. I've always seen AD&D as the Major league official rules set for D&D.

    I think that's a very good way to look at them. Goodness knows that, even now, that's how I use my old AD&D books. That said, I think, as the game evolved, it was treated as more normative than that and that's where my issues with it arise.

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  21. "...there's a fucking page about using mirrors in there..."

    The section on the use of mirrors is one I frequently point to as an example of what bugs me about AD&D, then and now. I can certainly see value in a referee making a ruling about how mirrors work in his own campaign. It's actually something that can and does come up, so a ruling may be necessary. But in the DMG? That's seems unnecessary and sets a bad precedent.

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  22. I see AD&D's advent from OD&D less as a move towards big business than as a move to grow and disperse the idea as it was gaining world favor and was in ever widening demand. As the game was a new idea, more was added to it, and not IMO lessening the flavor but indeed illuminating where it could go.

    I know that's a claim Gary made back in his editorial in The Dragon when AD&D was announced. OD&D was intended to be a hobbyist's playground and AD&D a more "mass market" game accessible to people outside the wargames culture that gave birth to the hobby. Had OD&D been allowed to thrive, this approach might have been a very positive one. Unfortunately, OD&D effectively ceased to be, replaced by a different mass market version of the game (the B/X line) and AD&D soon became the normative edition. I hope I can be forgiven for thinking this wasn't the best outcome for either the game or the hobby.

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  23. Not at all James. Though I see it as an inclusive, as I stated. People who didn't want to shift to the basic rules or advanced set stayed with the white box edition. They still exist today, of course, and even Michael Mornard, an old time Greyhawker and friend of mine, plays such and no other. There was really no support needed for that audience now, was there? Just as there isn't back-end support needed for anyone who truly understands the fan-driven aspect of any version of the game,and they are there. But people are like water, they rise to their own level, and you forget that this game ended up first in tried and tested wargamer's hands, then later in the masses' palms. More and more had to be explained and codified; and it seems that with any crowd sampling, what input required on the level for each varied widely.

    The point being, if you played OD&D you were not abandoned as TSR moved to other versions, as you accepted your part in creating everything to begin with.

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  24. Frankly, I'm not sure. I do know that without the financial resources that were put behind AD&D, I doubt that I (and many like me) would ever have got into roleplaying at all.

    Oh, indeed. I too wouldn't be in the hobby either if there hadn't been a Holmes Basic set, since, at the tender age of 9, I wasn't involved in the wargames culture out of which OD&D sprang. Like a lot of things, it's not an either/or situation, but I do wish things had turned out differently than they had in some ways.

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  25. The point being, if you played OD&D you were not abandoned as TSR moved to other versions, as you accepted your part in creating everything to begin with.

    The problem, as I see it, is that the advent of AD&D not only enticed a lot of OD&D players away to the newer, "better" game, it also ensured that the pool of potential OD&D players would be a very small one indeed. Had OD&D remained in print throughout the 80s, the situation might have been different, but, as it was, OD&D's last printings coincided with the publication of the DMG (more or less).

    There were no PDFs back in those days, no eBay, no Internet. If you weren't already playing OD&D or knew someone who was, odds are you never would. I'm not clear how that isn't TSR's doing. I don't think it was unethical or immoral to have acted as they did, but, again, I hope I can be forgiven for thinking that AD&D's arrival wasn't wholly beneficial for people whose approach to the hobby is similar to my own. There's a reason it took some effort and expense to purchase a complete OD&D set for myself, whereas I could do the same for AD&D or B/X without any difficulty whatsoever.

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  26. Well, I can see your point, James, that there was no longer an option to purchase that set of rules after a time, yes.

    Perhaps we would agree that a lot of games go OOP and circulation and still remain classics, yes? I suppose then we could find all and different levels of remiss about this one or that one, indeed. But as long as we are playing something we enjoy and truly understand, what's the difference? Some of this
    discussion appears unintentionally circular, as what is from an historical perspective is what is.

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  27. Matt:As to whether things like a psionics clone are or aren't a step in this direction, they are. Not because what James writes will be new, but because it is foundation material for the step into psionics (which no one has done yet). Once James' clone is released, it will instantly get dissected, re-arranged, re-written, and changed by people. Add-ons will appear on the blogs. Gaming groups will mull over whether to include psionics in their campaigns. The clones aren't the renaissance; they are only the foundation stones for it. But you need the foundation stones before you can build.

    I understand that, and wasn't overly critiquing the idea of cloning Supplement III (or at least part of it) as a foundational stone of the rennaisance. I think it's a good idea at heart. My comment was more directed at my question of "why stop at a foundation stone here"? After the first section that brings Supplement III back into the fold, why not include sections of completely reimagined psionics of your own forging?

    That, in my mind, would be a better foundation. Starting with the original, but throw in alternates right from the beginning and start rolling that stone alone instead of waiting for the next guy to pick it up.

    Anyway, I'm not going to trample around in your playground. I'll carry this over somewhere else I think.

    In the end: a cloned Supplement III is a great idea, and I'll definately be someone who will pick it up when funds permit. I look forward to it.

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  28. Some of this
    discussion appears unintentionally circular, as what is from an historical perspective is what is.


    Of course. My thoughts here are musings, nothing more. I enjoy considering what might have been in an "ideal" world, even if the likelihood of such a world ever having come to be was slim to none.

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