Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Kiddie D&D

One of the things one soon discovers if one is a parent is that guidelines of "age appropriateness" aren't the least bit reflective of the age range at which a toy, game, book, movie, or TV show is really aimed. In my decade of parenthood, I've discovered that my children, like most children, are (generally) more interested in things that are supposedly "above" their age category. That's why, for example, all the books my 10 year-old daughter reads have teenaged or young adult protagonists rather than those closer to her own age. Children have a very keen desire to grow up, or at least be older than they actually are, and one socially acceptable outlet for this desire is to take an interest in subjects or activities that are deemed the province of those older than themselves. By the same token, children also have a desire not to be viewed as "babies," "little kids," and so on. And while the appropriate age listed on toys and games may be a lie agreed upon by parents and manufacturers, children in my experience often take it deadly seriously. If a toy is listed as being ages 4 and up, many 6 year-olds will turn their noses up at it, considering it beneath someone of their clear sophistication.

Which brings me to Dungeons & Dragons. When I entered the hobby, the Basic Set I first acquired was the one edited by Dr. J. Eric Holmes, which carried on its cover the following blurb: "The Original Adult Fantasy Role Playing Game for 3 or More Players." My 10 year-old self took inordinate pride in this blurb, because, as it seemed to me, D&D was an adult game. Aside from my friends, the main people I knew who played it were actual adults and high school kids, which were close enough to adults to our way of thinking. The guys down at the hobby store were of similar ages, with a few other precocious kids like ourselves, but, by and large, the hobby was made up of people older than ourselves.

That was, I imagine, a big part of the appeal: playing with the Big Boys. That's why I regularly use the word "initiation" when I discuss my entry into the hobby in Fall of 1979, because that's what it felt like. It was as if I was being made a member of a secret, exclusive club and my friends and I were among those rare few who somehow bucked the odds and met the club's difficult entry requirements despite our youth and inexperience. That also probably explains why it was that we were so enthusiastic about conforming to the gaming culture we saw around us -- it was what the older guys were into, so of course we had to get into it as well.

Flash forward a couple of years to 1981 when the Moldvay-edited Basic Rulebook was released. It too was geared toward "adults" according to its cover, but it added a clarification: "Adults, Age 10 and Up." That struck us as odd. Since when were 10-year olds considered adults? By this time I was 12 and seeing a reference to 10 year-olds made me and my friends worry that perhaps these new rules were somehow for "little kids" and not "the real thing." Still, we bought the boxed set and used some of its rules, despite our initial misgivings, as they were admittedly clearer than either the Holmes set we started with or the AD&D books we all owned as well. And the Expert Rules, despite carrying the same recommended ages was something we all agreed was very useful.

Flash forward again to 1983 when the Mentzer-edited Basic set came out. They dropped all references to "adults," instead opting for the phrase "Ideal for 3 or more beginning to intermediate players, ages 10 and up." That small change in phrasing made a world of difference and, unlike Moldvay, we simply shied away from the new boxed sets. We were already deep into AD&D anyway -- "real" Dungeons & Dragons -- so we had no need for another intro game and we ignored Mentzer entirely, dubbing it "kiddie D&D," a term that stuck because we saw many more kids buying and playing it, most of whom were not only younger than we were but younger than we were when we were initiated into the hobby. (Interestingly, we either didn't notice or ignored the fact that even our beloved AD&D books were starting to include references to "ages 10 and up" on their covers)

This perception of "basic D&D" -- the boxed set descendants of the LBBs -- as a "game for kids" lingered for years. I avoided anything having to do with the game line, as it was beneath me, especially once I was now one of those high school kids who'd first impressed way back when. I realize now that I missed out on a number of excellent products during this period, but the perception I had was not mere prejudice; it was reinforced by the way these later boxed sets were presented and sold and by the ever-younger audience I saw buying them. This ties in somewhat with the post I made over the weekend about the TSR Code of Ethics. Clearly, TSR itself started to see D&D in all its forms as a game for children and adapted themselves to that reality. The older market seems to have become less important, which probably explains why, in the late 80s and throughout the 90s, most of the high school age and older gamers I knew -- the adults to whom the game had originally been pitched -- move on to other more "serious" games. I know I did.

All of the foregoing is a rambling way of saying that I think it was a mistake to try and sell Dungeons & Dragons to kids by making it more "friendly" to younger players, eliminating all the "adult" things that made it so attractive to us in the first place. The reality is that a product's real market is almost always younger than the one you perceive it to be. Kids have always wanted to be older than they are and they're very quick to see anything that's "age appropriate" as being for kids younger than themselves. D&D, in my view, came to be viewed as a child's game once TSR stopped explicitly pitching it as a game for adults. That view wasn't of course wholly correct but it didn't have to be. The fact that even people as well inclined toward D&D as myself saw the Mentzer sets as being for kids was probably enough to keep us from buying these products and precipitate further changes in the way the game was written, presented, and marketed, thereby making the perception reality, at least in part, and coloring the way many gamers would view the later history of the hobby for decades to come.

36 comments:

  1. Hmm . . . it's dueling anecdotes time, I think. In Delhi, NY, my friends and I knew there were older kids playing AD&D, but we didn't play in their campaigns at all. For us, B/X and BECMI and AD&D were just different flavors of the game: in fact, I think my friend Scott was the only person in my group who ever bothered to run AD&D. Everyone else ran B/X and BECMI (with the exception of Jeff, who ran TRAVELLER). We certainly never felt like we were playing "baby D&D," and no one ever implied otherwise. It's possible that the year's difference between my starting date and your starting date is a factor here (1979 for you vs. 1980 for me), but then my first set was Holmes as well.

    Also, was it really the case that older gamers switched to different systems in the second half of the 1980s and later because D&D was increasingly perceived of as a kiddies game? Or are we looking at a fully developed hobby industry with a broader set of options coming along at the same time that a large number of people felt that they had quite possibly played out the possibilities of D&D and were simply ready for something new?

    I know that my own switch to TALISLANTA was motivated more by the desire for a unified mechanic than by any sense that my friends and I had outgrown D&D--the latter was still the default fantasy game of choice.

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  2. Bob's observation about the switch to other games rings more true to me, but that may just be a reflection of my own experience. By the mid-80s, AD&D felt played out to me, and I wanted something different (such as escaping the class and level system). WFRP and CoC came along just as this need was hitting me. I don't ever recall any of us thinking of Basic D&D as "the kiddie game."

    Security word: "adionyba," the name of the Otyugh that lives in the sewers near my apartment.

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  3. I love reading about others experiences when they first became acquainted with the game. And after reading this post, I couldn't agree more with you more, author.

    Even though we started in the summer of 2000, more than two decades after your beginnings, we still had the same feelings towards the game. A friend's older brother had a D&D group together
    , so he was always allowed to watch them game. Ofcourse, we were jealous, we wanted to watch too. We had no idea what the game was even about, or what role-playing really was. But everyone that played were either in high school or older, and they all had Slayer t-shirts and long hair. And since we were all about fourteen years old, that was as cool as it could get.

    So yea, I couldn't agree more. Even though we were immediately drawn to the game because of the fantasy aspect, the fact that all of the "older cool dudes" were gamers, made us want to game too. Great post, maybe later I will re-visit some old memories! And I hope to read about some more of yours.

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  4. I, too, started with Holmes 'Basic' around the age of 10. The 'adult' aspect/image of the game and the way those rules were written, even the rough illustrations, though challenging as it was to comprehend, enhanced my feeling of playing a mature fantasy game. When the Modvay rules came out, I was totally turned off by the look of the book, the larger print,the cartoony pictures. Though the rules were much more clear, I saw it as more geared towards children. A very subtle difference but huge to me at the time.

    I don't think things need to be 'dumbed' down for children. Kids get what they want out of it, whether it's a movie, book, game, etc. Things that may be over their head they sort of just bypass and attach onto what they can relate to even if some of the themes are more adult orientated.

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  5. I present the jury with Moldvay exhibit A: Morgan Ironwolf. More sex appeal in a single image than in the entirety of Holmes. ;)

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  6. My experience is totally different. I find the age recommendations generally as useful as I'd expect from any such thing. Depending on the match up of specific child to specific product, they'll be off. With experience, however, I generally know how to adjust it for those specifics.

    My kids completely ignore the recommendations. As I & my friends did when we were kids.

    As for the criticisms of TSR, when it did happen it looks more to me like a symptom of the general incompetance of the people in charge rather than a fundamental mistake.

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  7. I think that when discussing the "kiddifying" of D&D marketing you can't ignore a very important part of selling something to a 10 year old; you also have to sell it to their parents. While kids want stuff geared towards older kids and adults, parents are often a bit more conservative about what they want their kids exposed too. You also have to keep in mind that TSR was dealing with a bit of a PR problem with regards to how parents percieved the game at that time.

    Making it look more family friendly was important so that parents would let 10 year olds play it.

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  8. Since I didn’t play D &D, and only used the books for resource material for Dragonquest I don’t think I paid much attention to the age descriptor. I pretty much played Dragonquest from 1981 to 1986 with brief interruptions of other games when we wanted something other than a fantasy setting. The pejorative “kiddie” moniker often haunted the entire hobby, let alone versions of a marketed game. A person playing a pretend character doesn’t sound adult. Guess they don’t go to movies or the theater much either. Dealing with those comments from time to time as well as the ever popular “devil worshipping” was enough of a challenge for the PR side of the hobby. I quit Dragonquest in 1986 because of a horrible argument with a roommate, but still very much liked the game. In a true fit of irrationality I gave away all my gaming material and had to start from scratch in 90 when I returned to Dragonquest. In the mean time I had a few great years playing Battletech and then Mechwarrior.

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  9. I present the jury with Moldvay exhibit A: Morgan Ironwolf. More sex appeal in a single image than in the entirety of Holmes. ;)

    On that point, I will readily concede your point. Just so long as none of those dirty Aleena lovers comes round here, spreading their perversity I'm sure you and I can come to an accommodation.

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  10. Not a Golden Age, but a Gilded Age made a very similar point.

    Huh. I'm not sure I ever saw that blog entry before now. The curse of so many excellent blogs and not enough time to read them all!

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  11. Making it look more family friendly was important so that parents would let 10 year olds play it.

    Oh, no doubt, but there's a complex calculus going on here that has to balance the kid's desire for something "older" with parents' desire for "appropriate" entertainments. I personally think that Moldvay struck the balance better than did Mentzer, even though I prefer Holmes to both of them.

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  12. The pejorative “kiddie” moniker often haunted the entire hobby

    Yes, absolutely. That's one of the reasons why I find the early days of the hobby most interesting. When the assumed audience was college-age kids and older, I don't think the game had quite the same stigma as it acquired later, in part because it was so much more obscure.

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  13. As I said in a previous discussion, D&D was initially designed by adults and for adults.

    Of course, that didn't mean a thirteen years old boy could not play, but in order to do it, he had to make an effort. That was rewarding.

    D&D became later a more childish game, and we all can deplore it. Many hardcore players were attracted by more "mature" games, at the time, and I realize now that was the main reason.

    I think this perfectly matches the transition from the "Golden Age" to the "Silver Age" when:

    " is also the age where the Great Wyrm begins to eat its own tail, being influenced not just by epic fantasy generally but more specifically by second or third order epic fantasies that were themselves influenced by D&D".

    Abandoning references to Howard, Vance, Leiber or Moorcock for a smoother and harmless literature was a big mistake. In my opinion, of course.

    I guess they thought that's where the money was: teenagers and their parent's purses.

    Maybe they were right in a pure mercantile way, but this led D&D to a sad end.

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  14. I distinctly recall an 8 year-old me reading the label on the Moldvay box and wondering if there was a chance I might get in trouble for reading the books I was clearly too young for. Not that it stopped me, but I remember thinking those thoughts.

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  15. Yeah, I was surprised to see "Places To Go, People To Be" also. I had it bookmarked a while ago, but thought it had faded away around 2008.

    Here is the site I am referring to:

    http://ptgptb.org/

    Weird.

    Anyway, me and my friends always considered ourselves to have "graduated" to AD&D sometime in the early 1980's, and passed up all the subsequent iterations of D&D like the BECMI sets.

    Eventually, like Anthony above, we maxed out on AD&D and its mechanics and moved on to other games like WFRP and Star Trek.

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  16. I see your point James, but is cleaning up the presentation and clairifying the rules really making the game more "kid friendly" or just easier to teach and play?

    Was the label actually just a marketing thing or a substantive change to the rules to appeal to kids? They may have been trying to enlarge their audience, even though the rules were mostly written for older teens and up. Certainly 3e wasn't a kid's game. 4e, maybe.

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  17. Eventually, like Anthony above, we maxed out on AD&D and its mechanics and moved on to other games like WFRP and Star Trek.

    Sure, I did too. I didn't mean to imply that the kiddification of D&D was the only or even the primary reason that a lot of teens and adults abandoned the game in the late 80s and into the 90s, but I do think it played a role.

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  18. Was the label actually just a marketing thing or a substantive change to the rules to appeal to kids?

    I think, if you look at, for example, the artwork in Moldvay and Mentzer and compared it to the artwork in earlier editions, you'll see a clear shift toward stuff that was more "kid friendly" and based on different archetypes. I also recall the way that Mentzer downplayed the role of clerics as servants of gods. That was a change that served no purpose other than to meet head on claims that D&D promoted "paganism" and thus make the game more acceptable to Middle America. That's the kind of stuff I'm talking about.

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  19. Question for James (or anyone else who is now a parent)--

    what "flavor" (by which I mean more than version) of D&D do you think is "good" for which ages of kids? my almost 6-year-old is allowed to lie on the sofa in the next room with the lights off while we play and while he's awake we use a variety of abbreviations, euphemisms, and foreign words. (OOC = "out-of-commission" = dead; wakufa watembea = "walking dead in Swahili = any kind of undead).
    Whenever I've made a compromise in response to his pleading, his experience has confirmed my caution; his imagination must be incredibly vivid. The close identification with one's character that makes RPGs so cool can also be kind of scary.

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  20. I started with AD&D. I would not think the art in those were kid friendly with the boobs and demons. Was AD&D targeted at a more older audience in tone?

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  21. what "flavor" (by which I mean more than version) of D&D do you think is "good" for which ages of kids?

    Do you mean in terms of mechanical complexity or in terms of its content? In both cases, I think either Moldvay or (better yet) Mentzer would be good introductions to the game. That said, I think almost any TSR version of the game could be used profitably if the referee bears in mind his audience. In my Dwimmermount campaign, in which my 10 year-old daughter plays, for example, I don't dwell on anything too "gross" nor do I present any "adult" situations. However, I don't shy away from things that could be frightening or that could threaten her character (who's come close to death several times), because I don't want her to get the wrong impression about what the game is like. She's slowly adapting her expectations to my refereeing style and that's a good thing to my mind, even if there are often bumps along the way.

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  22. Was AD&D targeted at a more older audience in tone?

    Prior to the new covers in 1983, I don't recall any age information being given for AD&D, but someone can correct me on this score if I'm mistaken. To my friends and I, 1e definitely was the "older" game. Whether that's what TSR intended I can't say with certainty.

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  23. I definitely mean content. D&D can be a lot of fun when the players (even adults) have no awareness of the mechanics at all. But that's another issue.

    And sure "gross" (gore?) and "adult" (sex?) are obvious things to avoid, but there are other things-- maybe the biggest is just the violence that's central to the game. recently, we were playing a war game (Conquest of the Empire-- similar to Risk, but Romans and really pretty army markers) and he made the observation that "every game helps you learn something, this one is for helping you learn not to be scared so you can fight in a war."

    And this got me to thinking about what impressions I'm making and even what it is that I so much enjoy once my mother once referred to as "sitting around talking about killing people."

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  24. To my friends and I, 1e definitely was the "older" game. Whether that's what TSR intended I can't say with certainty.

    In the Mentzer set, TSR definitely played up the fact that AD&D was "more complicated" than Basic, almost to the point of apparently pitching it as a wholly different game. Certainly made an impression on me.

    I just posted about the Moldvay-Mentzer divide, and for me personally I never felt an urge to move on beyond BECMI. I only made the eventual, reluctant switch because everyone else played AD&D and (thanks in part to the Mentzer set's language about AD&D), I felt that the systems were wholly separate and distinct. At the time, it felt like a "when in Rome" sort of decision.

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  25. I agree with James.

    I started with Holmes and the AD&D Monster Manual in 1980 when I was 10 years old. I instantly gravitated towards the demons and devils. Now THAT was Advanced. A few months later I bought the brand-new AD&D Deities & Demigods, and the Cthulhu Mythos section soaked deep into my imagination (giving rise to CARCOSA 28 years later).

    Sometime in 1981 I saw the Moldvay/Cook B/X books, and I was turned-off. They seemed "kiddy" to me. I liked the difficult Gygaxian prose. I liked the demons, devils, and especially the Cthulhoid gods and monsters. I liked the D trilogy of modules. There was nothing in B/X that could compare.

    So I was a 10-11 year-old who definitely liked the adult aspect of AD&D, and disliked what I perceived as the kiddy aspect of B/X.

    Humorously enough, now that I'm an adult, I admire B/X more than I do AD&D. I think "kiddy" stuff tends to appeal more to adults than to children.

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  26. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  27. Exhibit A, from the 1983 TSR catalog:

    Friendly Wizard, Come to Me

    Sure and that'll calm parents down about their 8 year olds playing the satanic game.

    The rest of the thread on the Acaeum forum is also pretty enlightening. As cringe-worthy as the ads from the kiddie era are, the earlier marketing to adults and teens is just as bad.

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  28. I've noticed this as a dad: boys want to read about adults, but adults want to buy them books about boys.

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  29. @mksiebler: I'm not affiliated with that site, having only learned about it from a friend after I started my blog. The similarity in name is accidental and I've often considered renaming the blog because of it.

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  30. Hey James - no worries. I totally agree with you that it played a role. I think "maxed out" was the wrong turn of phrase for me to use, anyway.

    Also, I think that by the mid-1980's a lot of other RPG's had started to get some traction in the minds of gamers, and that gamer ADD was starting to rear its ugly head for many of us.

    :-)

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  31. Exhibit A, from the 1983 TSR catalog:

    Friendly Wizard, Come to Me


    That's ... horrifying. I don't believe I've ever seen that one before. I don't know whether to thank you or not, though.

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  32. Nice summation of what we said in the previous post. I don't know - remember the 80s were a strange time. Suddenly the boomers were having children reaching their teen years yearning to discover all the bad things their parents - that being Sex, Drugs, Rock 'n Roll and D&D.

    So, yes, there was an older generation who could chaperone the younger group away from the lurid images and adult themes of D&D. It did not stop, kids from wanting to discover them on own terms.

    But, what is a game company that wants to expand do? Play it safe. So, they become more conservative (also in keeping with the times which remember the Christian Right ralled against RPGs - now they are making them). So again, James, think of the times in which the industry had to find a niche. No longer could there be experimentation by long haired freaks but standardization, corporatization and blandification. Sure, not all companies went down that route but experimentation only started up again later...why because a generation had passed.

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  33. I know as an 12 year old in 1985 I went straight from Fighting Fantasy to AD&D, and I think I did have a vague idea that Mentzer D&D was a kid's game, or at least less interesting.

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  34. "Was AD&D targeted at a more older audience in tone?"

    "Prior to the new covers in 1983, I don't recall any age information being given for AD&D, but someone can correct me on this score if I'm mistaken. To my friends and I, 1e definitely was the "older" game. Whether that's what TSR intended I can't say with certainty."

    Well, it was supposed to standardize rules and cover enough bases that strangers playing at tournaments would have a common ruleset and vocabulary. I guess to an extent that means aimed at older people with enough autonomy to get to conventions.

    Also, has anyone considered that as the 80s went on, for reasons that had little to do with gaming per se, teenagers and adults got less interested in gaming and more interested in other things? I mean, it *was* the 80s. There was coke and post-punk and New Wave and glam metal and Rocky IV and Reaganomics and capitalism and all sorts of distractions. Maybe D&D had to move kidward for survival. It might be harder for us to see that older people just weren't interested, since clearly we *are*, but it's possible.

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  35. " I think it was a mistake to try and sell Dungeons & Dragons to kids by making it more "friendly" to younger players, "
    While I think you are right about young people being drawn to material aimed at an older audience, that doesnt change the fact that the Mentzer Basic Set was one of TSR's all time best selling products...
    Also it should be noted that the later boxed sets in the series had older age recommendations on them.

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