Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Dangers of Imitation

I'm in the midst of re-reading S.T. Joshi's excellent The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos, a survey of the writings of both Lovecraft and his successors, which advances a well-argued and (largely) convincing thesis about which stories hold most true to Lovecraft's esthetic and philosophical visions. In his epilogue to the book, Joshi states the following:
In the youthful writer, sedulous imitation can serve as a valuable stepping-stone to the development of literary skills that can be put to better use elsewhere; for the experienced writer who seeks to mine Lovecraftian conceptions in a work purporting to have independent aesthetic value, the exercise can result in an augmentation of power and distinctiveness if those conceptions are used within the framework of the author's own aesthetic vision. Samuel Johnson's blunt axiom, "No man ever became great by imitation," remains true more than two centuries after its utterance. But those writers who do something more than mere imitation of Lovecraft have a chance to produce work that will live, and deserve to live.
This quote struck a chord with me, because, in the old school movement, the shadow of Gygax (and, to a lesser extent, Arneson) looms every bit as large as does that of Lovecraft in the realm of cosmic horror fiction. The shadow of TSR itself is similarly impressive and rightly so. In all of these cases, there's good reason that we look to the past for inspiration. Goodness knows I do it all the time and one of the pillars on which this blog is built is that the hobby needs to know more about its own history.

At the same time, as I've said before, I see a danger in the way many old school products use past products as explicit models, right down to the trade dress, typeface, and layout. I am nostalgic about the look of products from 1979 too, but I worry that the fixation a lot of us have with a very specific look only serves to lend ammunition to those who'd dismiss the entire old school movement as nothing more than nostalgia run amok. I would hate to see that happen any more than it already does, which is why I'd much prefer to see less imitation and more inspiration.

The same holds true not just for presentation but for content. Joshi quotes from an article by David E. Schulz called, "Who Needs the 'Cthulhu Mythos'?" and there's again some relevance for the old school renaissance:
... the pseudomythological elements to which Lovecraft referred were only part of the fictional background of his stories. They were never the subject of his stories, but rather part of the background against which the main action occurred. That is to say, Lovecraft did not write about Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, the Necronomicon, or any of the other places or creatures or books in his stories. The subjects of his stories was typically the small place that man occupies in the uncaring cosmos, and his fictional creatures were only part of the means by which he sought to demonstrate that.
That's the other danger inherent in imitation: the conflation of elements intended to support content with the content itself. That's why I am (generally) much happier with material that has its own integrity and doesn't depend too much on what came before to provide context. Again, I find myself guilty on this score, so I don't mean to single anyone out here. I know all too well the desire to pay homage to one's personal gaming past by recreating it in some form.

Lately, though, I'm finding that unsatisfactory, or at least insufficiently satisfactory, which is why I've been much more interested in blazing my own trails through the wilderness rather than merely walking the same well-trodden paths of my youth. Dwimmermount, for example, was never intended to be a recreation of "the way things were" back in 1974, even if I did begin the campaign by trying to start off in a similar place. But, having read a great deal about the way those early campaigns were run, I am pretty sure I wouldn't have enjoyed them as much as I've enjoyed Dwimmermount and that's in large part because I'm doing things my way and that way was formed not by a meticulous adherence to what Gary or Dave did back in the day but by what I am doing right now.

Don't misunderstand me: there's certainly nothing wrong with covering the same ground as others have already done and there's genuine value in the tried, true, and familiar. By the same token, there's much to be gained by striking out on one's own and I really do want to see more of that. I can guarantee you'll be seeing more of it from me in the days and weeks to come. There's a difference between knowing and honoring the past and being forever cast in darkness by its shadow.

21 comments:

  1. In my own games, the main thing that I try to imitate from the early days of our hobby is a DIY approach to my campaign world and house rules.

    That said, I do like the aesthetics of many 'old school' products, and don't think that there is any harm in using the same font as TSR modules in the late 1970s, or whatever. However, what I like the most -- in terms of presentation and aesthetics -- are old school products that draw inspiration from the old school style, but put their own twist on that style.

    A good example would be Pete Mullen's art. It definitely reminds me of the work of Erol Otus, but at the same time it is clearly it's own thing. Mullen's stuff has an 'Otus flavour', but it is not 'imitative' in nature.

    (Word verification: "comic"!)

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  2. I'll have to track down the Joshi book -- I'd never heard of that one, though I've read STJ's HPL biography and some of his criticism.

    This is sort of tangential to your main point, but I think Thomas Ligotti comes closest to Joshi's ideal of using and expanding on Lovecraft's ideas to create his own oeuvre.

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  3. But, having read a great deal about the way those early campaigns were run, I am pretty sure I wouldn't have enjoyed them as much as I've enjoyed Dwimmermount...

    Would you be willing to expand of this? I'm quite curious as to which Old School elements don't make the Grognard cut. :)

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  4. I think that's part of why I like OSRIC so much. It keeps a lot of the key elements I like about AD&D, but there are things that are (welcome) wholesale replacements.

    The combat system, for instance, is far clearer, easier to manage, and accomplishes what I always wanted out of AD&D.

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  5. Good post but it raise the questions of what paths we take moving forward. Will the general history of the RPG Market unfold in miniature? Or will we explore avenues that were ignored the first time around?

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  6. Another great post. James, your penultimate paragraph is what "old school" play is all about to me: taking raw material and bending it to suit your own needs and those of your group, and hang what others might think of it! :)

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  7. Dear James,

    Great blog entry. The gems you have illuminated here include a crucial issue, one that haunts Lovecraft adaptations more than those of most authors: that the readers and imitators fail to understand what they are imitating.

    They like it; they just don't get it as well as they think they do, which is why the Lovecraft pastiches all end up with the obvious elements - tentacles, bad books, a sense of dread - and completely miss the Lovecraftian core these element were marshaled to serve.

    Man's collision with the uncaring universe is certainly one of the central veins Lovecraft mines. (And one is put in mind of his contemporary Kafka's famous quote "In the contest between yourself and world, side with the world.")

    But when you explore what unifies the Great Old Ones of Shadow over Innsmouth with the seemingly different take on them from the Dreamlands works, you discover another subtler theme that meant a huge amount to Lovecraft, as evidenced more clearly in his letters; a theme that, once you realize it's there, you see it rather starkly throughout his work, but until then is nearly invisible; a theme that explains a great deal of what's missing in the imitators.

    That theme is the relationship between our worldview and the truth of the cosmos, and the consequences of that relationship.

    When the self-righteous hubris of an overly confident worldview collides with the quite-different, seemingly alien truth, the horror felt takes many forms. Lovecraft explores nearly all of them - denial, dread, cataclysmic shattering and insanity.

    Likewise, though, the otherworldly but survivable fantasies of the Dreamlands are a trap to the ignorant and misinformed, but barely navigable by one as thoroughly versed in the truth of the cosmos as Randolph Carter. In these stories, Carter interacts with beings who we can be sure would have blasted the sanity of many other Lovecraft protagonists/victims.

    The many fail because their reason was twisted into brittle forms by their excessive education based on a false understanding of the cosmos, leaving them with the lethally vulnerable combination of being wrong but certain they are right. The few succeed because they retain their sense of curiosity and wonder about the cosmos, which lets them adapt to new information, no matter how initially alien it seems; because they delve deeply into the truths of the world that cannot be learned from the many, and so are prepared for what surprises and shocks others; and because they respect the dangers as well as the wonders of the cosmos, and so do not let their obsessions and passions lead them too far into harm's way, even though from the perspective of the many they venture far beyond the pale.

    Lovecraft could write such things because he believed these underlying truths, even as he cloaked them in fantasies he did not believe. His imitators could not write such things because they cherish the fantasies and yet are wholly ignorant of the deeper truths in which they are rooted.

    So, no matter how strange, his stories always strike us as mysteriously profound, as rooted in something that really matters, no matter how strange and whimsical the contents. His imitators' stories (with a few exceptions) strike us as full of sound and fury but with no deep, vital, essential truth to root them in us, and so they pass from memory while his linger and bear strange fruit.

    Yours truly,
    Rick

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  8. I'm quite curious as to which Old School elements don't make the Grognard cut. :)

    I can say with certainty that many early campaigns, including Gygax's, were much more whimsical than I could stomach. I like even my "funhouse dungeons" to have some logical explanation for their existence, not simply "a mad wizard did it." I have similar problems with huge swaths of Arduin and Blackmoor as well.

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  9. Will the general history of the RPG Market unfold in miniature? Or will we explore avenues that were ignored the first time around?

    So far, my bet is on the former, but there are enough wild cards in the deck that it's possible we'll avoid that.

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  10. "What [is] that which hath been? it [is] that which is, and what [is] that which hath been done? it [is] that which is done, and there is not an entirely new thing under the sun." -- Ecclesiastes 1:9

    I understand part of your concern, the desire to grow as an individual artist, but couldn't care less about what the larger world thinks of our hobby as regards new v. old.

    Also, I think fol sometimes fail to notice epistemological argumentation, or at least, a use of dialectical address to the original themes being riffed-upon, in seemingly derivative works.

    For instance, I found little but pastiche in the Kane of Mars books, but the same setting/milieu could easily be utilised by a modern writer to lance some of the more exaggerated elements found within Burroughs' works (all of the -isms), and though seemingly running alongside them, expose their nastier consequences.

    I endeavoured to do that with my early fiction, which itself, has led to a much richer milieu than I likely would have crafted if I had started out 'whole-cloth' (being, as we are, often unaware of unconscious adopters of others' ideas and notions).

    Inversion from accepted forms can only take one's work so far from the original before it merely caps the far end of the same spectrum; whereas loving ... satire can lead to a freedom from the ideas and notions themselves.

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  11. In my own games, the main thing that I try to imitate from the early days of our hobby is a DIY approach to my campaign world and house rules.


    That's the greatest lesson that I've taken away from this revival of the old ways. That RPGs can be a hobby, and the DIY aspect is the centerpiece. What really matters is how my group and I package our inspirations (and I can thank the OSR for broadening them) for our own consumption at the table each Saturday night.

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  12. I agree with you, James. We're not seeking to take something as entirely temporally conditioned and "ape" it. Rather, we acknowledge the temporal conditioning (and its unique elements of contribution) of the subject matter but seek its substance.

    To conduct Old School play, we have to first undertake to understand what "Old School play" actually is. Then we have to take it and make it our own. If we didn't perform that latter step, it wouldn't actually be Old School.

    Word Verification: "faciery"
    The avocation of fabricating material items, taken as such.

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  13. That's the greatest lesson that I've taken away from this revival of the old ways. That RPGs can be a hobby, and the DIY aspect is the centerpiece.

    Hear, hear, James V. Everything else, from the megadungeon to the random tables to the resource management, is just a question of set dressing.

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  14. I feel that the OSR does need some forward movement and not completely mimic the past. We should remember it and learn from it but not go for a complete recreation of the past.
    This is why I like S&W so well. It remembers the roots of the game but does not cower from making changes to make the game run smoother.
    I do think that many of the clones are marketable as they stand but, they would be more so with updated cover and interior art, and some smoothing out. This would not kill the spirit of the game but would help get others interested instead of writing them off as nostalgia trips.

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  15. I think the key to the OSR establishing it's own place in the hobby from now on is going to come from the fecund imaginations of hobbyists sympathetic to Old School cultural inspirations.

    It already has plenty of folks sharing and comparing the rules of the games they play now, and how they add, subtract, or revise them to make their games distinct and fun for their groups.

    It now could use folks willing to not just clone older rules, but to spin whole new RPGs with an intent of emluating Old School friendly-genres. And they'll be doing it realizing that whoever uses it should not only be able to play it, but be able to edit the rules to meet their needs. The best RPGs will be like unbaked clay on an armature: A sturdy shape at it's core, but still free to be molded into variations.

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  16. I'm not sure that I agree with the thesis that embracing new stuff of a vintage look, feel and production value is detrimental to "the hobby". AD&D and original D&D gamers are a niche within a niche within a niche (people who play pen and paper RPGs, a D&D RPG, and an out of print version of the rules). Frankly, we all know what we're in this for, and what we want out of it.

    There is quality work out there, I've gotten some kudos for my stuff, there's James Boney's wonderful stuff, Matt Finch (of course) - the list is endless.

    That it looks/feels like the "Good old stuff" is icing on an already delicious cake. If someone brought me, say, their own homebrew AD&D module that had the production values of an Exalted book (especially the book of magic...ahem...anyway) I'd still give it a look, and if it fit what I wanted, I'd use it and enjoy it. It would be a little incongruous with the rest of my AD&D books but, whatever. I mean, even some of Gary's published stuff from TSR switched from the "Old school" two column century gothic font monochrome or four color cover - Isle of the Ape, the World of Greyhawk (boxed), Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure, The Temple of Elemental Evil, etc.

    As far as imitating the writing style? There's a reason the dungeon crawl - beyond D&D's ruleset - is successful. Because it works. It is what many people want, it's enjoyable, it brings a lot of known quantities while still having room for surprises and a lot of fun - and it's big enough to innovate in. Is D3 a dungeon crawl? It's rooms underground, it's a complex full of monsters and treasures...but it's also a city, a society. It's both, and I'm sure when it hit the scene in '81 or thereabouts when it was released that it made quite a splash - Gary got chocolate in our peanut butter (so to speak) and the result was very good.

    So I don't really grok the need for absolutes - you must be like this or you must not be like this - in vintage gaming. All artists, for that's what we are, regardless of whether we're painting, sculpting, composing or writing (adventures), know when to blend things. And when to keep thing separate. Me? I'm a dungeon kind of guy. But my next project (my next free one, anyway) is a dungeon with a twist from my usual stuff. At least I think it will be, in that it'll be larger and have different things going on in it. Other guys, they're city guys, maybe they'll throw a little sewer "dungeon" in.

    But the point of it is, there's nothing wrong with embracing the values of vintage gaming. It doesn't deny you any creativity, it doesn't "hurt" the "hobby". There's an aesthetic, and we like it, and we use it.

    ...

    Oh, as an aside, this quote:

    "That is to say, Lovecraft did not write about Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, the Necronomicon, or any of the other places or creatures or books in his stories."

    ...shows that the original author didn't do his homework much at all. The Festival wasn't about the Necronomicon? Call of Cthulhu wasn't about Cthulhu? The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath was free of Yog-Sothoth lore?

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  17. Dear Bill S.,

    I believe the secret to interpreting the Lovecraft quote you cite is the italics on about.

    Mr. Schulz is arguing that the subtext was more important to Lovecraft than the text, and I agree with him. Of course in Call of Cthulhu Lovecraft literally writes about Cthulhu, but he does it so he can write about a subtler topic that is difficult to portray literally but that is near and dear to Lovecraft's heart. And that deeper about is what is missing from so many imitations of his work, which is what leaves them so forgettable.

    As for the rest of your response, I believe you misread James's intentions. He would be the last person to argue that there was something wrong with embracing the values of vintage gaming. He's more concerned about the all-too-real risk that people will not embrace the values of vintage gaming, only its aesthetic.

    Yours truly,
    Rick

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  18. As an aside, the link you have to Joshi's book doesn't work.

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  19. As for the rest of your response, I believe you misread James's intentions. He would be the last person to argue that there was something wrong with embracing the values of vintage gaming. He's more concerned about the all-too-real risk that people will not embrace the values of vintage gaming, only its aesthetic.

    Correct.

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  20. Old School is conceptually different from the WOTC D&D. Not old and new. Different game mechanics, different game dynamic, different target audience, different take on a similar battleground.

    Having said that, I believe that Retroclones become trapped by choice. I believe (correct me if I am wrong) that Gygax has written AD&D, Lejendary Adventure and Castles and Crusades (I guess the first retroclone of AD&D). Same man writing about the same milleaux can not help but be trapped in his own writing.

    The really interesting thing would be to compare the game mechanics and play styles of OD&D versus Labyrinth Lord versus Swords and Wizardry. Just as it woud be interesting to trace the DMing though as it evolved from the DMG 1st Ed to the 4th. How it defines and directs adventure writing is the intresting part. Up to the Second Edition supplemets (Creative Campaigning) the DM was writing about the dungeon existing in the society at large. Starting at Edition 3, on one side, WOTC brought overt sociology into play -i.e. a Dungeon is a town underground, and at the same time shifted the DM from writing about the world to esentially placing tile sets into a stage set where the players can have their battles, in the way a computer game generates play screens. I am still planning to do a comparative study of the all the DM guides, but it semems to me that the Old School DMs role was that of a writer/narrator, while the WOTC DM is more of Stage manager/referee.

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