Friday, April 18, 2008

Do It Yourself Days

I've often been heard to make a sharp distinction between "the hobby" and "the industry" of roleplaying games and I think I do this with good reason. In the early days (1974-1977 or thereabouts), there really wasn't much of a RPG industry. Sure, there was TSR and there were a handful of other companies selling RPGs, but those companies were (mostly) just extensions of fandom. You have to remember that this was all before the advent of personal computers, easy to use desktop publishing programs, and print on demand services. This was also before the rise of the Internet and PDFs. Back then, if you wanted to get your RPG out into your fellow gamers' hands, you either had to create a fanzine or found your own company to do so.

I think it's fair to say, though, that the appearance of AD&D over the period between 1977 to 1979 changed the face of the hobby forever. Not only were its books the first hard cover RPG volumes -- a fact Mike Carr boasts of in his foreword to the Monster Manual -- but they were also the beginning of a shift in the way companies and, eventually, fans approached RPGs. To begin with, AD&D had its genesis in a number of non-hobby factors. By "non-hobby," I mean factors other than ones related strictly to gameplay.

OD&D was, by all accounts, still going strong in 1977. Indeed, its popularity was very much on the upswing, as more and more copies of the game and its supplement were being sold than ever. Likewise, attendance at gaming conventions were growing as well, as was interest in RPG tournaments. The tournament scene is an example of a "non-hobby" consideration that led to AD&D's creation. Gygax, in his June 1979 Dragon editorial leading up to the release of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, explained that the demands of tournament play created a need for standardized rules of the sort that AD&D would provide. Likewise, he noted that OD&D was too "vague and often ambiguous" to bring in new players, many of whom were not "familiar with medieval and ancient history, wargaming, military miniatures, etc." that OD&D assumed. Finally -- though I hesitate to say so -- there was almost certainly a calculation on the part of TSR to cut Dave Arneson out of the D&D equation entirely by creation a "new" game with a "different" name that was wholly the creation of Gygax.

All of the factors I cite above are non-hobby ones. They all pertain to TSR's desire to maximize the popularity -- and sales -- of Dungeons & Dragons. Obviously, this isn't a bad thing in itself, but AD&D marks the real beginning of the "the industry" with interests and agendas that didn't always match up with those of "the hobby." At the time, AD&D was in fact quite controversial among OD&D players and many vowed, as D&D players have with every edition change, not to buy or play it. The saw it as a money grab and an unneeded revision, as well as a "betrayal" of the open-ended and do it yourself ethos of the original game.

Gygax acknowledged this himself when said that "there is no similarity (perhaps even less) between D&D and AD&D than there is between D&D and its various imitators produced by competing publishers." Obviously, I think he overstates his case a great deal, because, mechanically at least, AD&D is clearly derivative of OD&D. On the other hand, the spirit of AD&D is indeed dissimilar to that of OD&D. Again, Gygax acknowledged this by saying, "AD&D rectifies the shortcomings of D&D. There are few grey areas in AD&D, and there will be no question in the mind of participants as to what the game is and is all about. There is form and structure to AD&D, and any variation of these integral portions of the game will obviously make it something else."

That right there is when "the industry" began, maybe not literally but spiritually. It's an interesting counterpart to the lengthy Gygax quote I posted yesterday, because it's also clear that Gary never intended what he saw as the immediate needs of TSR to set any kind of precedent that would deform the way RPGs would be made for the next 25 years. And yet it did. Since that time, the demands of the business side of gaming have been in the driver's seat. This was probably inevitable and it hasn't always resulted in either bad games or in the destruction of "the hobby" side of things. Still, I can't shake the feeling that we're still coasting on the momentum of the crazy, gung-ho, rough around the edges, and not entirely consistent early days of gaming. We're living off the dwindling interest of the imaginative capital from the Do It Yourself days.

What thrills me so much about gaming lately is that technology is allowing a return of the Do It Yourself days. Not only are clone games ever more prevalent, but gamers with great ideas can now disseminate them without having to form their own companies if they don't want to do so. While I fear that "the industry" itself is about to be lost, I am far more sanguine about the prospects of "the hobby" side of things, which is probably as vibrant and creative as it's ever been. It's a great time to be a gamer and I expect we'll see some really remarkable things over the next few years.


  1. Where do you judge "the hobby" to have the greatest activity and vitality?

    Put plainly, do you drink the Indie-RPG Kool-Aid?

  2. I think there are plenty of "indie" RPGs that are pretty exciting -- Spirit of the Century to cite one example -- but I wasn't speaking specifically about published RPGs so much as the network of really remarkable fan sites, forums, and projects out there nowadays. Old school D&D alone is probably more vibrant now than it's ever been, with several well-populated, thoughtful forums discussing its rules and gameplay. There's a brand new OD&D fanzine available through, with more such projects in the works.

    I find this all pretty exciting. It certainly reminds me of the days when guys with mimeographed sheets of house rules were the state of the art and we had a blast trying out all these crazy ideas. I think we'll be seeing more of that in the future, but more slickly produced and more collaboratively produced rather than being the singular vision of one or two obsessive guys. This is what I want out of gaming and I'm glad to be getting it.

  3. As one of those 'obsessive guys', I too have to admit that I am reminded of the old days with a lot of the current grass roots offerings now available. Too often, though, I feel like a kid in a candy store with only a few nickels to spend, those nickels now unfortunately representing my available time. Nevertheless, I can happily drop some of those nickels on OD&D and marvel at the new old school movement.

  4. Great post, James; I agree with you, completely. I, too, am enthusiastic about the hobby and the activity, there, separate from the concept of the "industry" and the "market."

    I think several factors have come together at this particular time, including the OGL, the WWW, PDF, and POD. Also, there's the new edition looming, which makes gamers evaluate how they want to continue in the hobby (e.g. stay on the market-driven carousel, do their own thing, some combination, et cetera). And there's a pool of gamers who grew up with RPGs, and are now mature and in a position to contribute to the hobby and its community in a manner they may not have been capable of when they were younger.

  5. Good to see you, Philotomy. You're one of the guys who brought me back into the old school fold with your excellent posts on various forums and, of course, your OD&D Musings site.

    Speaking for myself, I think you're exactly right about the maturation of RPG fandom. When I was a kid, I wasn't in a position to contribute to my hobby in any meaningful way and so I just took what was given me at the time and was happy with it. Now, though, I can't help but feel that we turned a corner somewhere and, rather than continue down that path, I'm going back around the corner to the hobby's original trajectory. I know for a fact that I'm not the only one who feels this way, so I don't think it's implausible to see full-fledge old school renaissance before long.

    Fight on!

  6. "Likewise, he noted that OD&D was too 'vague and often ambiguous' to bring in new players, many of whom were not 'familiar with medieval and ancient history, wargaming, military miniatures, etc.' that OD&D assumed."

    Imagine if TSR had published oD&D supplements about medieval and ancient history. Not mechanics, but background. What if they published books that--instead of providing more mechanics--went into more depth about the different ways groups could play the existing mechanics. That explored the ambiguities rather than solve them. Design notes to explain the rationale behind the existing mechanics.

    ( I type this, I've started thinking about some of the Gygaxian Fantasy books that Gary edited. Also the Historic supplements for AD&D2e come to mind. And, of course, GURPS worldbooks.)

    Frank did some great things with the D&D game, but despite following his orders to make it different from AD&D, his expansions were in large part the same kind of expansions that AD&D offered.

  7. The line of HR historical supplements was one of the few things from that "D&D era" that I really liked (and still reference).

    WRT an old school renaissance, I think we're seeing the beginnings of it, now. Heck, just look at all the old school blogs and sites that are popping up. It's great.

  8. Re: old school renaissance

    I will say this in defense of 4e: the way that it has radically re-imagined D&D was a wake up call for me. I don't doubt that I'd have eventually returned to the roots of the game eventually anyway, but 4e's announcement hastened my return and gave me a clarity of purpose I might not otherwise have had. I get the feeling that I'm not the only one for whom this the case and while OD&D fans will always be a minority within a minority there are more of us now than there have been in years and that's amazing.

  9. Heh. I’ve been known to say this in defense of 3e: It showed me what I want by giving me what I thought I wanted. (^_^)

  10. That's a really good way of putting it, Robert. I feel the same way.