Thursday, September 15, 2011

Ouch!

I've commented on the snarky reviews in SPI's Ares before, but I've been re-reading my collection of them and came across some more amusingly harsh comments I wanted to share. Here's Eric Goldberg on the cover of RuneQuest from issue #3 (July 1980):
RQ costs about as much as the three parts of "The Fantasy Trip" combined, with slightly less component value. A little over 100 pages are contained inside a soft cover. The second edition is distinguished by a color cover and is worth the higher cost than that of the original edition. The first cover is absolutely priceless; it depicts a somnolent young girl dressed for a Marquis de Sade Costume Ball proferring [sic] an oversized tortilla to a ravenous, deformed gila monster -- all done in brown crayon.
Here's another one by Goldberg, from the same issue, about Tunnels & Trolls:
Stripped of annoying distractions, T&T is a pleasant puff-piece. The production values have increased from amateur status to a nearly professional standard. The rules have been ordered, and can be understood in no more than two readings. The package includes pregenerated characters and an adventure for beginners. The game will be passed over by all but the completist; there are better buys on the market now. Still, T&T was a nice try by those fun people at the airborne herbivore.
AD&D fares little better. Again, by Goldberg and in the same issue:
The design has many flaws, which have become apparent as it has aged and are magnified by TSR's intransigence when it comes to changing a system or rule in response to valid criticism from players. The presentation of the package is amazingly poor. The original rules rate as one of the worst of all time, including fractured English, garbled text, contradictory rules, a re-invention of mythology, and passing references to crucial rules. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons was meant to remedy this situation. Actually, in place of previous rules maladies, the gaming public received an overwritten, jumbled mass of discourse upon D&D which can only be assimilated by making a life-long study of the text. Given the choice between stringing together rules in AD&D and discovering the proverbial needle in the haystack, the adroit gamer would make for the farmhouse.
I post these comments not just because I find them funny, but also as a reminder that gamers have always been contentious and sarcastic, particularly about games they don't play. So, while a lot has changed in the hobby since 1980, other things are still very much the same.

32 comments:

  1. That's some vintage snark right there. Things haven't changed as much as people would think: change the wording a bit, use the names of currently popular games, post it on a forum of your choice and nobody will notice.

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  2. Yeah, but don't forget that Gygax gave as good as he got with his swipes at SPI in Dragon. There seemed to be little love lost on either side in that particular rivalry.

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  3. Snark goes way back and is not limited to gamers. There is a passage in "Electric Coolaid Acid Test" where Tom Wolfe describe a wall as looking like a wino exploded nearby. The book was written in the late 1960s.

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  4. All of the reviews for movies, books, and games in Ares always made me believe that the editor and staff of the magazine were thoroughly displeased to be working on that sci/fi magazine and not the military branch.

    Of course they are harsh on all the SPI game releases as well.

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  5. "Actually, in place of previous rules maladies, the gaming public received an overwritten, jumbled mass of discourse upon D&D which can only be assimilated by making a life-long study of the text."

    A bit Comic Book Guy ("Worst! RPG! Ever!"), but not exactly wrong.

    AD&D *is* a mess, in both layout and clarity of writing. Three books with rules, tables and commentary all scattered hither-and-yon in apparently random fashion. Less than ideal.

    It's a glorious mess, but AD&D is no B/X in terms of concise elegance.

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  6. Actually, in place of previous rules maladies, the gaming public received an overwritten, jumbled mass of discourse upon D&D which can only be assimilated by making a life-long study of the text.

    I've been reading my old copy of the 1979 "Ifrit-Grabbing-a-Damsel" AD&D DMG recently, and boy, does this comment ever ring true. The book is a mess. Gygax built this massive, towering kludge of one-off rules and exceptions to deal with the minutiae of simulation on top of a system that was highly abstract at its core. The result is incoherent. I wince when I re-read the rules about helmets: "one in three blows to unhelemeted targets will be to the head at AC 10, while intelligent foes will strike at the head one in two blows"... How did he manage to drill down so far into blow-by-blow simulation without moticing that the underlying combat mechanics of AC and "to hit" rolls are still essentially the Chainmail rules about whether a cavalry unit defeats an infantry unit over the course of a minute of combat?

    And the whole book is just that same mindset, time and again. It was never so clear to me until I started re-reading AD&D that Gygax would have been much better off starting his own game from scratch rather than trying to build AD&D on top of D&D.

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  7. It's funny (to me) to see the bile strewn in the RQ review. That's an iconic cover; one of the few positive female images in early RPGs. I guess our hobby's he-man-woman-hating has deeper roots than I thought.

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  8. Chris and Picador beat me to it, lifting that particular quote. I guess what Goldberg didn't know was that there would come to be, in fact, a body of Talmudic scholars making a life-long study of the text.

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  9. richard beat me to my comment.

    Which suggests another post for James: finding and posting contemporary reviews of Tolkien.

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  10. I'd love to see Gygax's "swipes" in return, at SPI. Not because I need to see AD&D defended... just because these snarky exchanges are entertaining to read.

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  11. I have The Complete Book of Wargames by the editors of Consumer Guide with Jon Freeman (also published in 1980) and it has a good bit for snark for D&D as well: "The essential elements—saving throws, hit points, experience points, and so on—are undefined or poorly explained; the ratio of substance to 'holes' compares unfavorably with the head of a tennis racquet. Presented in the most illiterate display of poor grammar, misspellings, and typographical errors in all of professional wargaming..."

    They rate Holmes' Basic D&D a little better saying, "It was written by someone who knew a noun from a verb, and the difference shows. It's still a long jump short of perfection, but can read this and generally understand what's going on."

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  12. Thanks for the post, I was a big SPI advocate in the early 80's since I played Dragonquest and a few other SPI board games. While I may consider Dragonquest superior to AD & D in design, in terms of support and available materials there was none. The neutered 3rd edition from TSR is somewhat of a sham. But it was fun to read his snarky comments.

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  13. This sort of thing was why when TSR finally bought out SPI the destruction of the latter was quick, brutal and efficient. To the victor goes the spoils....

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  14. Spot on about AD&D, but I guess he could not forsee the mysterious and ironic nature that would eventually come out of that clusterfuck of rules and poor editing.

    But the Runequest cover was not only different and provacative, but that tortilla chick was hot. Hotter than any girl in greek armor has the right to be. In color even moreso. But a lot of space in those rules was wasted on things that would have been better used to give a bit more background on the setting.

    Yeah, some of us who rise above the level of total geektardism very often feel like taking a swing at other gamers who make us ashamed to be gamers ourselves. More often than not though, we just end up clocking ourselves...

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  15. @joseph

    Actually Gygax have way better than he got, since he founded the company that would destroy not just SPI but the entire hobby it supported.

    (
    http://www.costik.com/spisins.html
    )

    So, y'know, be careful on who you snark on, kids.

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  16. Given the choice between stringing together rules in AD&D and discovering the proverbial needle in the haystack, the adroit gamer would make for the farmhouse.

    I'm a little unclear on this last bit.. Is he actually recommending D&D over AD&D?

    Looking past the snide delivery, all these reviews are dead on target, IMO. A bit harsh, but not wrong.

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  17. @dhowarth

    I think he means that a person would be well-informed to search through a haystack for a needle rather than try to figure out 1e AD&D's rules.

    Quite a load of hyperbole, but I cannot disagree.

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  18. Picador said: "How did he manage to drill down so far into blow-by-blow simulation without moticing that the underlying combat mechanics of AC and 'to hit' rolls are still essentially the Chainmail rules about whether a cavalry unit defeats an infantry unit over the course of a minute of combat?"

    I would invert that. It's clearly not the latter except in the one place that he has to justify not bothering to change the length of the 1-minute-long round.

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  19. the one minute round is so daft, I had house ruled it away into 6 second rounds before I was even in high school.

    It's high-larious to go to forums like DF and read diehards comments defending it. They would probably have you believe the sword fight between Wes and Montoya in Princess Bride boils down to two rounds. Faint! Duck! Dodge! Parry! One minute later, you actually get a chance to hit your opponent. Take that, suspension of disbelief!

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  20. It's pretty true so I'll quote it again...

    "an overwritten, jumbled mass of discourse upon D&D which can only be assimilated by making a life-long study of the text."

    ... and yet how many of us commenting on James' post here have kind of done that very thing?

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  21. They rate Holmes' Basic D&D a little better saying, "It was written by someone who knew a noun from a verb, and the difference shows. It's still a long jump short of perfection, but can read this and generally understand what's going on."

    @Jeffrey Fleming

    Thanks for posting that quote from the CBoW book. Is that the entire review of Holmes Basic in there, or is it longer? It's something I'd like to include in my Holmes Basic site.

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  22. @Blacksteel

    Yeah they say "life-long study of the text" like that's a bad thing. :)

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  23. @Zenopus Archives

    Sure thing. There is more to the Holmes review so I'll copy it and send it off to you. Glad to help!

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  24. Considering the state of discourse around all the versions of D&D that still exist today (and are the lifeblood of this very blog), he was pretty dead on with the "life-long study of the text" comment! :)

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  25. @Michael:

    Apparently some early reviewers of 'The Hobbit' assumed that hobbits were "a kind of 'fairy' rabbit" - which actually makes sense given their pacific and hole-dwelling nature, and the tradition of talking animals in fairy tales, and writers such as Lewis Carroll.

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  26. PS Which I guess isn't snark, more the equivalent to the review that said that D&D would be best played over the phone.

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  27. @OlmanFeelyus

    While there are gamers who pore over old manuals as if they were holy writ, a sizable contingent, including the OSR, toss out or rewrite rules that don't work. (Again, much like holy writ.) The archetypal Fantasy Heartbreaker tries to "fix" D&D, but I suspect every system directly or indirectly is a reaction to D&D ... even if the reaction is "tear it down and start over".

    @Zak S.

    Maybe it's a law that the proverbial buggy-whip makers heap scorn on those who are destined to put them out of a job. Western Union saw no use in the telephone, talking pictures were a fad, and the computer had no conceivable purpose in a home.

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  28. "...by making a life-long study of the text..."

    As others have said: This is rather shockingly, unintentionally prescient.

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  29. The mostly poorly written set of rpg rules I've ever come across are 2nd Edition Dragonquest; absolutely appalling.

    A fun enough rpg but the rules...

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  30. As somebody who subscribed to S&T and Avalon Hill's The General at the time (and occasionally thumbed through Dragon when at the FLGS), Avalon Hill tended to ignore TSR, while SPI's Jim Dunnigan was downright dismissive of TSR on a nearly issue by issue basis.

    Still, I will say that while I played the heck of 1st Ed AD&D, and still have a lot of the book, I will say the Dungeon Master's Guide was still the most poorly edited RPG book I've ever owned. There was no logical order, the layout was amateurish even by late 1970's standards, and Gary Gygax, for all his conceptual brilliance, never found one word to make a point when six would be more obtuse.

    While a lot of Dunnigan's and SPI's snark aimed at TSR was nothing more than jealousy as TSR eclipsed SPI and AH in the marketplace, he wasn't far from the mark on some of the specific criticisms.

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  31. I would say that the "life-long study of the text" is pretty true of any RPG. I've certainly never encountered a group of players who didn't debate the corner cases of their game's rules (or their own houserules) endlessly when they don't have a game running, it is the nature of the beast and the root cause of feature-creep in editions and supplements.

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  32. re: the death of wargaming... since when did that happen? I'm pretty sure that wargames are going strong, *especially* relative to D&D.

    Advanced Squad Leader is still in print. GMT, Columbia Games, Academy Games and MMP are still churning out hex-and-chit product and suchlike and it is still selling. The top board game on Boardgame Geek for the whole year has been GMT's Twilight Struggle, which while not a hex-and-chit game is in fact a box-and-chit game. And I just picked up GMT's "Infidel", which is indeed the chit.

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