Monday, June 23, 2008

Arduin Musings

I think I've mentioned before that my introduction to gaming was through a childhood friend's older brother. He was a metalhead teenager and he was my first Dungeon Master. Consequently, a lot of my early gaming prejudices and idiosyncrasies were inherited from him and his circle of friends. One of those prejudices was a dismissal of David Hargrave's Arduin Grimoire series as being beneath the "serious" gamer.

At that time, the Arduin series consisted of three volumes (the Arduin Trilogy, as they've become known) that were the same size, color, and general format as the three little brown books of OD&D. This was not a coincidence. Starting with the first volume in 1977, it's clear that the Arduin books were Hargrave's hacks to OD&D, a fact not lost on TSR, which issued a cease and desist order because the books used D&D-related trademarks without permission (or so I am led to understand).

Bear in mind that, at the time, I was young and not at all plugged in to the wider gaming community. I never knew exactly why Arduin and Hargrave were treated by some as the Second Coming and by others as the Antichrist. I saw ads for the Arduin books in Dragon and other gaming publications. I saw references to the books and heard my elders in the hobby speak of them in somewhat hushed tones. However, I never actually saw the books myself. When I inquired about them, I was informed by my friend's brother that they weren't worth my time. They were "silly" and "unbalanced" and "Monty Haul" and this judgment was enough for me to cease my delving into Things Man Was Not Meant to Know.

I'd honestly forgotten about the Arduin Trilogy into fairly recently, when my love affair with OD&D was reignited. What I discovered was that a great many people whose opinions I'd come to respect, such as Jeff Rients, for example, thought very highly of the books, going so far as to declare them among the best old school gaming products ever written. At the same time, there were naysayers. I could hear the voice of my friend's brother whispering in my ears, reminding me not to walk the path of the Dark Side. But I'd learned that many of the things I'd taken to be true from my youth weren't necessarily so, at least as far as gaming goes. So I screwed up my courage and ordered copies of the original Arduin Trilogy. They arrived two weeks ago and I've been reading them ever since.

What I found was a bit of a disappointment, on numerous levels. There was nothing "subversive" about the books at all. Indeed, I found myself bored at times. The books were certainly old school: no concerns about balance, verisimilitude, or even logic, amateurishly produced (though some of the art was quite good, far better than anything in OD&D), and positively in love with random tables of all sorts. None of it clicked with me, though. There were individual bits and pieces I found intriguing (the experience rules, for example) and some that made me reconsider long-held opinions (on the mixing of genres, for instance), but most of it generated a resounding "meh" from me.

I realize that, on some level, the impact of Arduin can't really be judged adequately thirty years after the fact. At the time these books were published, the ideas contained within their covers were new and original and a little bit subversive. Why else would so many people back then have made a point of dismissing them? Now, though, Hargrave's best ideas seem pedestrian while his wilder stuff strikes me as silly. I'm reminded of my experience seeing reruns of the TV show "Laugh-In" for first time. My parents had always spoken of how funny the show was and, more importantly, how "naughty." So I expected it to be this uproarious, boundary-pushing comedy extravaganza -- and it wasn't. It was boring and often just plain stupid. But I was watching it in the 1980s, decades after comedy had changed, in no small part due to the influence of "Laugh-In" and so it was impossible for me to view the show with the eyes of my parents, who grew up in a pre-"Laugh-In" world of comedy.

In much the same way, I entered gaming in a post-Arduin world and so its impact is very hard for me to see and appreciate. I started playing in late 1979, by which point Arduin had already made its big splash. Many of its better ideas were readily accepted and incorporated into gaming, while its more outlandish and/or outré ones became those that became "quintessentially Arduin." Its those things that my friend's older brother objected to and that formed a significant portion of the opposition to Arduin.

Reading it in 2008, even those outlandish things strike me as banal. We've had 30 years of people trying their damnedest to push the boundaries of gaming, some of them even successfully. Consequently, it's nearly impossible to read the Arduin Trilogy now and see any of its ideas as original as they once were. I feel bad about that, because I'm constitutionally predisposed to giving people their proper due. Whatever else he was, David Hargrave was a very imaginative guy and, by all accounts, an amazingly agile referee. That he's not more well known is a shame, because he certainly influenced the development of the hobby in numerous ways, probably more than even I realize.

I'm glad I bought and finally read the Arduin books. I feel as if a hole in my gaming education has been filled. I can't honestly say I'm ever likely to use anything from these books, nor can I say that I find them inspirational in the way that I find, say, many early Judges Guild products. Arduin feels very dated to me; these are not timeless books. They're important historically but only historically. Bits and pieces of Arduin have certainly had their influence (D&D's thri-kreen are almost certainly knock-offs of the phraints) and Encounter Critical strikes me as a loving homage to gonzo silliness of Arduin (being first "published" in the same year), but I'm hesitant to say Arduin is "important" without qualification.

Arduin represents a part of the old school heritage that I have a hard time connecting to, so perhaps I am biased in my estimation of its virtues. I know that many people see it as a gleeful, glorious romp filled with boundless imagination, whereas I find most of it ridiculous. That said, I certainly don't think Arduin should be kicked from the clubhouse. However, you can be sure I myself won't be inviting it over to dinner anytime soon. Fortunately, Arduin has enough admirers among us grognards that it won't starve for affection nor will it pine away for lack of mine.


  1. Excellent post, James. This pretty much sums up my fears about answering the question "Should I try Arduin?"

    You kinda had to be there, and even now when I read the books again, I have many of the same feelings you've described here.

    It will always hold a place in my heart for what it was.

    That said, and NO I'm not telling anyone to rush out and buy Vol.s 4-8, but there's some nuggets stashed in those later books that I find much more useful than the original trilogy.

    Thanks for taking the time to read these and form an honest opinion.

    ~Sham aka Dave

  2. Strangely, it wasn't until about a decade ago that I even heard about Arduin and then it was in the context of "boy, them were some wacky rules".

  3. I first heard about Arduin about 15 years ago when my friend and I were getting into gaming and were looking for a group. I posted a notice at my FLGS and received a call from some guy a couple days later. He asked me what we played and, being 15, I replied Rifts. He said, "Well, we play a system called Arduin and that's sort of like Rifts..."

    We never followed up on his offer, but I wonder now what it would have been like to immerse ourselves in a set of OD&D houserules at that tender age...and what that group, still playing Arduin all those years later, was like. Weird stuff.

  4. I'm 26, a 4E fan, and definitely not a grognard...

    ...and yet, strangely, I find myself wanting to go out and buy this module.

    Probably has something to do with the fact that the first RPG system I memorized was OD&D, and all the coloring I did with crayon in B2: Keep on the Borderlands when I was a wee lad.

    Excellent review, and gave me (as a game company co-owner) some food for thought.

  5. Back when, a copy washed up in our D&D circle in Edinburgh, and we had no idea what to make of them. There was something enticing about the mashup they offered, but nobody could work ou thow to use them.