I had a delightful conversation with Victor Raymond last night, a considerable portion of which was devoted to discussing a seeming oddity of the early hobby. As I've mentioned many times before, I was "initiated" into the hobby in late 1979/early 1980 by older gamers, some of whom had been wargamers before OD&D was published in 1974. From them, I picked up a number of prejudices about the "right" way to play RPGs, one of which was that, while house rules were fine, there was a limit to how much you could/should change a game before you had house ruled it out of existence. I took me years to shake off this idea -- or, rather, not to care about it -- but I nevertheless think there's some validity in it.
This idea carried with it a disdain for "California games," which the older guys held up as paradigmatic examples of "what happens when you change too much." In particular, they seemed to have huge chips on their shoulders about RuneQuest and, especially, Arduin. Now, leaving aside the substance of those early grognards' opinions of the games, it is interesting to consider, as Victor and I did last night, that, within a few years of OD&D's release, California was the origin point of not just one but three different major variants to Gygax and Arneson's creation. (The third being Warlock, about which I had never heard until a few years ago).
Now, back in the days of my youth, I just took the word of my elders at face value -- after all, they were in high school or college. I never saw a copy of Arduin and my direct contact with RuneQuest was limited until the '90s. Having rectified this over the last few years (and having become more familiar with Warlock, too), I'm not sure there's a common thread that can connect Arduin, RuneQuest, and Warlock as "California games." For example, RQ and Warlock certainly share a similar fascination with "realism" in combat that probably owes its ultimate origin to medieval re-enactment (the SCA started in Berkeley, remember), but Arduin doesn't feel the same way. Likewise, RuneQuest drips with the need for a "coherent" setting steeped in the logic of myth and legend, something neither Arduin nor Warlock seems to care about.
So, I'm not at all convinced there really was such an animal as "California gaming," as I once was taught. On the other hand, I do find it really intriguing that California was a hotbed for D&D variants in the '70s in the way that the East Coast didn't seem to be (though someone who knows better can correct me if I'm mistaken in this). Was this just a function of its large population? Its extensive university system (Warlock was created at CalTech)? Something else? I'm not sure there is a single, definitive answer to this question, but it's a question worth asking nonetheless.