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.