Thursday, April 16, 2009

A New Leaf

I'm still a bit swamped with various things besides the blog, but I've also been cogitating about a big post I plan to make over the next few days, sparked in part by Dave Arneson's death and by a number of interactions I've had with various people in the hobby over the last couple of weeks. The post is about a change in perspective I've had about OD&D and the constitution of old school play generally, a change nicely summed up by the wise words of Calithena in issue #4 of Fight On! when he calls the late Dave Hargrave "Gary's greatest disciple."
Anyone who comes to this hobby authentically and finds a way to make it their own is really continuing the original spirit of those three little brown books. And at a time when that spirit was most up grabs, Dave Hargrave unleashed the Arduin Grimoires, three more little brown books, on the world like a shydra with twenty-four vorpal battleaxes, and said: take a troll to lunch. It's whatever you want it to be.

The genie is out of the bottle. So in the end the reason that I call Dave Hargrave Gary's greatest disciple is that you and I are Gary's greatest disciples, at least to whatever degree we're really playing these games the way we want to play them and letting our imagination and desire drive the action on the table. As long as we keep creating something that we ourselves love, we're playing it right. Now go thou and do likewise.
I think this is just awesome, inspired stuff and I can't help but think the more widely this attitude is held, not just in the old school community, but throughout the entirety of this hobby, the better it'll be for all of us, regardless of our particular commitments and interests. I have a lot to say on this topic and will do so in the near future, but I thought it important to offer up a taste of what's to come.

30 comments:

  1. Wonderful stuff, though I have to admit that's been my bias all along. I think the greatest gift of the OSR is not just exposing people to older RPGs and the tropes that drove them, but its emphasis of RPGs as more than a game but a full-on hobby. Never let yourself get bound between the covers of the game you're running or playing. Tweak the game until it's the game you and you friends want to play.

    This is a train I think anyone can get on board with, no matter what you play.

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  2. Fantastic quote, looking forward to seeing where this takes your posts!

    If you'd asked me a few months ago I'd never have thought, considering my gaming preferences, that a blog called "Grognardia" would be the one I most look forward to reading each day. The sheer scope of your appeal, whilst still maintaining a focus on your own preferred area of gaming, is truly impressive.

    If any blog's going to prevent an old/new-school war breaking out, it's this one.

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  3. I couldn't agree more with those sentiments. That has always been my approach to running D&D games, to the point that many of my campaigns might be almost unrecognizable as D&D. There was no gaming store (or even book store!) in the small town in Alaska that I grew up in, and shipping from the lower 48 (as we called the contiguous United States) was very expensive. I took the player's handbook and DM's guide and used them to make everything from old west style gunslinger games to mutant future games with tons of biomech stuff. The point should always be to play what you want to play and have fun with what you are doing. If you allow some dogmatic interpretation of a rulebook to restrict you from doing something that you would have otherwise enjoyed doing, then there is something clearly wrong with that picture.

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  4. Loved the Arduin Grimoires. Especially the gunpowder weapons. Nothing like Dragon hunting with an elephant gun.

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  5. I haven't seen the Fight On article and am commenting solely on the excerpt you posted in this entry.

    I don't get it. Regardless of one's preference for old-school, citing Dave Hargrave and Arduin as exemplars doesn't support the point this excerpt wants to make. The point is for each DM to use his own imagination to play the game he wants to play, right? Yet by publishing Arduin as a product, or rather a dozen separate products, Hargrave was saying, "Here is my imagination, my vision, for you to use." How is Arduin conceptually closer to "the original spirit of those three little brown books" than is the latest White Wolf hardcover or the Fifth Revised Hero System?

    It's also pertinent, in the context of the old-school community, that Hargrave himself was -- well, I never met him, so I shouldn't -- what the hell, he was crazy as a bedbug! a wigged-out agent of chaos! The Arduin mechanics, especially in the later books, are not just incoherent but actively nutty. I'm all for passionate vision, but the later Arduin books honestly didn't serve the audience. "It's whatever you want it to be." Okay, I get this, but it's also important that you want it to be useful.

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  6. James V said:RPGs as more than a game but a full-on hobby.Damn; that's a nice quite too.

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  7. Allen V.: First you assume that Hargrave is saying something about his products by publishing them. Then you say he's crazy. Then you say that Arduin makes no sense as a product. Maybe it's time to re-examine your assumptions.

    I think hobby things overlap deeply into publishing. The hobbyist spirit does not disappear at the first whiff of printer's ink. Your college buddy's music zine is not coequal to Rolling Stone. Etc.

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  8. I soak up published stuff for my hobby, and I do use it for inspiration, but mainly I use it as it's presented, and make my games out of it. I don't necessarily write much myself.
    I'm all for people doing their own thing, AND publishing it, if that's what floats their boats. But I don't think I'm out of step by using other peoples creations, and that's what irks me about your quoted post.

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  9. But I don't think I'm out of step by using other peoples creations, and that's what irks me about your quoted post.I think you're judging too harshly. While there is no true way of making the game your own, just by picking your favorite game and running it you're following the sentiment of doing what's best for you and yours, if that's what it is.

    Where this statement really matters is for those who do tinker and house-rule. It's a reminder that hobbies are supposed to be enjoyable when you take part in them. It's what should be the one big understanding every time a rule or idea is made and shared:

    This is what rocks for me. I hope you like it, but if you don't continue to rock on with your own gear.

    The OSR was a big reminder for me that the game is a hobby for those of us with the urge to tinker. What we have to remember is that once you start to tinker, the outcomes will always be a reflection of your tastes. Where a RPG is concerned, tastes should be allowed to vary.

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  10. @James V
    I don't disagree with anything you've said there.
    Question: is there a place in Old School Gaming for folk like me who want to play in others worlds?
    Question 2: what about people who play, rather than GM?

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  11. When you like certain setting or product so much that you wouldn't change anything, there is nothing wrong with that. Better still, you are lucky to find something published that nearly exactly matches your tastes!

    I think Hargrave's quote is reminding us that we must never feel obliged to follow canon or "the official" if we simply don't want too, and that we shouldn't make a scandal out of what other people are doing in their own games. He motivates us to do our own stuff if that will make our games more enjoyable, and not to follow "the official" if we don't like it, just because it's "the official".

    - Zulgyan

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  12. I don't think we need to interpret James as saying that Hargreaves material was the bomb. I think he's reacting to the kernel of joy the person he quotes possesses about Arduin. That's quite different.

    Your New Leaf seems to begin a departure from fundamentalism, since it is egalitarian. BRAVO!

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  13. I agree with the post and the sentiments expressed here.

    Let's be sure to check ourselves though. You are "preaching to the converted" here (so to speak) and thus find agreement and resonance.

    Pretty much all D&D players over 30will agree that customization is core to the experience of the game. No surprizes there.

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  14. If any blog's going to prevent an old/new-school war breaking out, it's this one.We shall see. I make no bones about my dislike for a number of styles of play that evolved after the heyday of the old school and contributed to its marginalization in the hobby. That said, I don't have a lot of interest in knocking games I don't play or the people who play them, so this blog will remain one that's focused on what I like and why. If that's useful to people who play games I'm not fond of, all the better.

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  15. Question: is there a place in Old School Gaming for folk like me who want to play in others worlds?I certainly think so. D&D pulp fantasy was just first, so it's bound to get a lot of attention. Eventually there were other games, and other settings. Traveller, Villains & Vigilantes, En Garde!, etc.

    Question 2: what about people who play, rather than GM?I do both, so again a hearty yes from me. As a GM, you can make as many house-rules you want before the game, but the real fun in tinkering is when your players ask for something not in the rules. If everyone's okay with it, why not have elves with access to druid spells if a player asks? Or create a martial arts system for a guy who wants to make a monk? Like all social situations, a little trust and a a lot of communication go a long way

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  16. Yet by publishing Arduin as a product, or rather a dozen separate products, Hargrave was saying, "Here is my imagination, my vision, for you to use." How is Arduin conceptually closer to "the original spirit of those three little brown books" than is the latest White Wolf hardcover or the Fifth Revised Hero System?I think Hargrave would be the first to admit (and he does in various places in the Grimoires) that nothing he wrote is Holy Writ or to be taken as such. It's this acknowledgment that even published ideas are just ideas, to be accepted or rejected according to one's own lights, that I think makes the Grimoires very different than many later games, which have a much stronger implicit message of "This is the way things are."

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  17. I think hobby things overlap deeply into publishing. The hobbyist spirit does not disappear at the first whiff of printer's ink. Your college buddy's music zine is not coequal to Rolling Stone. Etc.I think it was Trent Foster who noted, probably over at K&K, that the real dividing line between "old school" and later games lies not so much in the content as in the role of the author and his presumed audience. Old school games are largely written by hobbyists for other hobbyists rather than by professional "designers" for "consumers."

    That may seem like an artificial and fuzzy distinction and I suppose it is if you make too much of it, but it does speak to a truth, namely, that, as RPGs were written and marketed more like mass market entertainment products, they lost those ineffable qualities that made them so appealing to us in the first place.

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  18. Question: is there a place in Old School Gaming for folk like me who want to play in others worlds?Of course there is. My only caveat would be those rare individuals whose interest in others' worlds preclude their ability to change those worlds in response to play. Slavishly adhering to the work of another certainly isn't old school in my opinion, but cribbing notes from someone else has a long and storied history. To think otherwise would be to banish Tékumel or Greyhawk from the realm of old school and that doesn't seem right to me.

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  19. Your New Leaf seems to begin a departure from fundamentalism, since it is egalitarian. BRAVO!Had I ever been a fundamentalist, I'd agree.

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  20. Let's be sure to check ourselves though. You are "preaching to the converted" here (so to speak) and thus find agreement and resonance.

    Pretty much all D&D players over 30will agree that customization is core to the experience of the game. No surprizes there.
    All true, but my intention here wasn't (and won't be) to win the favor of gamers who don't share my general principles. Rather it was meant to remind those of us who already are here not to get to worked up about "rules as written" or the official word from a game company about this or that. Roleplaying was born with guys like Dave Arneson asking "I wonder what would happen if ...?" and then finding out. We need more of that in the old school community and not less.

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  21. Anyone who comes to this hobby authentically Uh, what does that mean? How is one way into the hobby authentic, but another not?

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  22. what about people who play, rather than GM?This brings up another vexed question, about how hard the line is or should be between DM and players - more like author and audience or editor and co-creators, or some other relationship. For all the free expression tone of the early rulebooks, the culture of gamers seemed (to me) to lean toward a clear demarcation between DM's role and player's role early on, and only in the later 80s did I see products that really tried to mess with this. Can I request a post on this, and how it relates to the history of RPG publishing?

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  23. For all the free expression tone of the early rulebooks, the culture of gamers seemed (to me) to lean toward a clear demarcation between DM's role and player's role early on, and only in the later 80s did I see products that really tried to mess with this. Can I request a post on this, and how it relates to the history of RPG publishing?I may write about this in the future, but I think the explanation is pretty clear: the second wave of referees wanted the rules to help bolster their authority and so the games evolved in ways to support that desire. This went hand in hand with publishers' desires to make themselves the final authorities and thus bolster their sales, I think. I don't think there was a serious philosophical underpinning to the demarcation at all; it's more an accident of history.

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  24. rpgtreehouse said:
    Question: is there a place in Old School Gaming for folk like me who want to play in others worlds?If there isn't, then the movement has already gone horribly wrong.

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  25. Wow! I got quoted at length on Grognardia. I must have hit the big time!

    Glad I struck a chord with you, James. I see where you're mining the Arneson quote above for a similar vibe.

    Rich aka Francisca, I wrote that "authentically" and I'm not sure what I meant. Weird. I think what I was trying to get at was just if you're trying to get something out of gaming. How could you not be though? Maybe you just made a Spot Rhetorical Maneuver roll, I don't know. What is the importance of being earnest?

    Richard, the question about 'player empowerment' in the old school setup is an interesting one that probably deserves a lengthy discussion. The prospects for meaningful player input are better in many old-old-school games than they are in a lot of eighties games but they are not exactly mechanically supported either. The sandbox is partly about player empowerment, actually, but this is a big topic that needs more discussion elsewhere. I'm glad you brought it up though.

    Allen, I don't read the Arduin Grimoires (let's stick to the original three in this context) as a worldbook or as a game system so I guess I don't mesh with your "I don't get it" paragraph. I agree with you about the mechanics, many of them are terrible (though the alternate hit point system is interesting, the crit chart is fun and first of its kind in an RPG I believe, and there are a few other good ones).

    But I also think Hargrave was in his way a genius at expressing process. The manic creativity is part of that, but also just putting "this is how I do it in my campaign" down in his explanatory sections, and publishing things like lists of coins and inns and highwaymen rather than a comprehensive world guide. Suddenly you see how to put together something impossibly big piece by piece. Barker and Stafford (to name the two greatest RPG worldbuilders, IMO) don't show you how to do that at all, and in fact their creations are somewhat intimidating as examples.

    Or to put it another way: if you're all about the nouns whether you like Hargrave depends on whether you like his sources and his sort of heavy-metal seventies polyphonic fantasy kitchen sink. If you're all about the verbs you probably won't like Arduin much at all. But if you have a thing for adverbs, there's some real gold there.

    - Calithena

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  26. Sean: I was trying to get at was just if you're trying to get something out of gaming. How could you not be though? Maybe you just made a Spot Rhetorical Maneuver roll, I don't know. What is the importance of being earnest?
    You mean something beyond the obvious recreational aspect?

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  27. Or to put it another way: if you're all about the nouns whether you like Hargrave depends on whether you like his sources and his sort of heavy-metal seventies polyphonic fantasy kitchen sink. If you're all about the verbs you probably won't like Arduin much at all. But if you have a thing for adverbs, there's some real gold there.

    That's beautifully said.

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  28. This is how D&D has always been played, I don't see anything praise worthy here: its just a rehash of what the rule books themselves state.

    I would say that your quibble is not really about "old school" vs "new school" but with *rules lawyers* who have always been with us, vs the rest of us that prefer a more freeform play style and use the rules to support that rather than beating people around the head with them.

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