When I made an off-handed remark about "the deracinated hobby we have today" in a post yesterday, I didn't expect it to elicit much comment. One of the purposes of this blog has always been a discussion of the early history of the hobby of roleplaying, a history I feel too few gamers know nowadays and the ignorance of which has led to many trends I find infelicitous. When I call modern roleplaying "deracinated," that's part of what I mean: out of touch with its roots, both literary and mechanical.
I think I've covered the literary angle pretty well. I don't think at this stage that anyone can doubt that most early RPGs, D&D first and foremost, have very specific literary origins and that the form those early games took was, in many ways, a reflection of those literary origins, or at least a reflection of a particular understanding of those literary origins. I don't think I've dealt with the mechanical side of things as well, or at least in as focused a way, which is why I can understand why someone might see my continued liking for OD&D as primarily nostalgic in character. After all, roleplaying game design has "evolved" since the 1970s; what could those "broken" games of the past actually offer us more than 30 years later?
Perhaps "mechanical" isn't the best word to describe this other aspect of RPGs, as it's not solely about rules as such. Rather, it's about the content and presentation of early games, part of which includes rules but part of which is, for wont of a better word, esthetic. Early RPGs look, to modern eyes, to be incomplete. There are "holes" in their content, things either left unsaid on purpose or on the assumption that the reader would fill in the gaps for himself. And fill them in they did. If you look at the early history of the hobby and the explosion of fanzines that appeared discussing OD&D, you very quickly realize that, far from finding the little brown books "broken," many gamers found them spurs to their own creativity.
I wasn't part of the fanzine culture at all, but I remember well that the lacunae in the Holmes rulebook inspired me to create my own material. I don't believe that most of these lacunae were intentional. Back then, game design was still at a stage where most designers never even considered the inclusion of certain things that nowadays we take for granted. There simply was no perceived need for detailed social interaction rules, for example, so they were never created. Once gamers saw a need for such -- and there were gamers who did, even back in the day -- they made up their own, wrote them up in a fanzine, and distributed them via mail, at game clubs, or at conventions, where other gamers read them, used them, criticized, and modified them.
This culture of gaming still existed in late 1979 when I entered the hobby and it's what I strongly associate with it. Let me be clear: I know many contemporary gamers are just as keen on tinkering and kit bashing as those of old and, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, can do so more easily and more widely than was ever possible in my youth. That's not what I miss or what attracts me to games like OD&D. Rather, it's that, in those days, you had to do this. Playing OD&D out of the box was not really an option, because you very quickly discovered that the rules, as presented, didn't cover many situations that would come up in the course of even fairly simple, straightforward play. Consequently, early gaming was, by necessity as much as by design, an exercise in "co-designing." That is, to play an RPG meant that you were also designing an RPG of your own. You couldn't just pop open a book, read the rules, and play. No, you had to create a lot of new rules to cover situations the printed rules did not. If you didn't, you didn't play.
What this meant was each individual "D&D" campaign was highly individualistic and eccentric, a reflection of the decisions its referees and players came to when grappling with the holes in the original rules. Some had their own character classes, spells, initiative rules, and so on. If you went to another campaign, you had to learn how they did things; you couldn't just assume they did things the way you did. That's why, back then, we regularly talked about playing in "Bob's campaign" or "Joe's campaign" rather than some other nomenclature, because the fact that Bob rather than Joe was the referee made a big difference in how they game was played. Sure, there were standard interpretations and commonplace house rules, but none were so standard or so commonplace that one could assume that someone else's campaign ran just like yours. Take a look at the Perrin Conventions, for example, and you'll very quickly see how wildly interpretations of OD&D's combat system alone varied.
For myself, this individualism and lack of standardization is a feature rather than a bug of early games. I consider it an element lacking in many modern games, with their obsessions about "balance" and ensuring a unity of play experience regardless of who the referee or players are. It's the same reason why, for all my appreciation for certain canned campaign settings, such Greyhawk or the Wilderlands, I think the advent of prepackaged worlds (and, to a lesser extent, adventure modules) signaled a huge shift in the culture of gaming and one that wasn't entirely a positive one. Gaming as I was introduced to it was about making stuff up for yourself. If you had a question about the rules, you consulted your referee, not the "Sage Advice" column. Rulebooks were there to offer the raw materials from which to make your own RPG.
This state of affairs had nothing to do with the mythical "Viking hat GM" that everyone decries these days. Rather, it had to do with the simple reality that, to play many early RPGs, someone had to decide what those rules meant and that person was very often the referee. Of course, there were bad referees back then but there were also plenty of referees from which to choose. Jerks didn't keep their players very long, which is why, even as kids, my friends and I soon realized that you could be "harsh but fair" as a referee, but it was the fairness that was the more important of the two qualities, hence the name "referee," which I think makes things clearer than does Game Master.
The point of this over-long rambling is that I think games like OD&D still have relevance today because they demand a degree of active engagement that later designs often do not. OD&D shows us that game design is something that happens at the game table more than at the game company that produced the original rulebook. These games inculcate a do-it-yourself ethos that led to an explosion of different "D&Ds," each one a reflection of the people who played it. And while I am generally hostile to the notion that you need to play a game to judge it, I think OD&D tends to one of those rare examples of a game that is more than the sum of its written parts. Simply to read the little brown books is to see a broken, incomplete, amateurish thing rather than the lightning in a bottle whose electricity is still, 35 years later, energizing this hobby.