Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Nostalgia Project

A frequent jibe against old school gaming is that it's all about "nostalgia," by which the critic generally means that it's all an attempt to recapture the feelings associated with bygone youth. I used to dismiss such taunts out of hand; now I recognize some truth in them. I do think, in the case of many old school RPGs, particularly Dungeons & Dragons (but also Traveller), my fondness for them has a great deal to do with an attempt to recapture the feelings associated with youth. Where I think the critics are wrong is that they feel to see that it's not my youth I'm trying to recapture, but that of the creators of these games.

Had Gary Gygax lived till July, he'd have celebrated his 70th birthday. Think about that for a moment. The man was born in 1938, making him older than my own parents. His childhood and teen years were in the 1940s and 1950s. The books he read, the movies he saw, the experiences he had took place in a very different context than the one in which I grew up. Dungeons & Dragons reflects that difference. As I noted in an earlier post on the matter, D&D was "old fashioned" in its approach to fantasy even in 1974. Gygax was drawing primarily on sources that were 20-30 years old at the time OD&D was released. Yes, there were newer sources of inspiration as well, but most of these were themselves influenced by the older sources Gygax favored -- a consequence of the pulp fantasy reprint revival of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Note too that, even if one wishes to give Tolkien more credit for influence than I think is deserved, both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were themselves old fashioned even when they were first published in the 1930s and 1950s respectively. D&D is nothing if not a snapshot into the youthful influences and obsessions of its creator.

Part of the appeal of old school D&D for me is that, because it's inspired by the feelings of someone else's youth, it has a degree of "alienness" to that it wouldn't have had it been inspired by feelings from my own youth. Yes, I read a lot of the same books as Gary Gygax, but (for the most part), I read them because of D&D, not the other way around. I'm not sure I'd ever heard of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser or Cugel or Dwayanu until I got into the hobby. When I did, I read their adventures with great relish, my pleasure amplified in no small part because they didn't seem like anything I'd ever read before. There's a reason for that and it's that "fantasy" had long since moved on from the days when Gygax's influences were writing. What I knew to be fantasy was quite different. Not only did this new fantasy not feel like D&D to me, but they also seemed much too familiar, almost certainly due to temporal proximity. Nevertheless, the relative antiquity of Gygax's sources gave them a magical air that contributed greatly -- and still does -- to my fascination with them, a fascination that only grows as I get older.

What's becoming increasingly clear to me is that, far from chasing the Zeitgeist, Dungeons & Dragons was always a "retro" project out of step with what was au courant at the time of its birth. That's part of its appeal to me and the shift away from that retro sensibility is one of several factors that has alienated me from later editions of the game. I really do think this is an important insight. I offer not to condemn games and their players who prefer something more "up to date," but to explain that there is a component to old school D&D that is more than just about light rules, sandbox play, and a sovereign referee. Likewise, I offer it to dispel the self-serving myth that D&D, from its inception, did as the Romans do. Certainly Gygax was never afraid to try and ride the coattails of existing trends -- hence the Tolkien references -- but that's a very different thing than saying that OD&D was born out of a studied attempt to emulate whatever was popular in fantasy in the mid-70s. I don't think that's a tenable position at all and, given that, it's something we can then use as a signpost for determining when the conception of D&D shifted away from its original one.


  1. A lot of the literary influences on D&D were authors who had enjoyed a resurgence in the late-60s and early 70s as their novels were first printed in mass-marker paperbacks. Even Tolkien, which had been out in expensive hardback by Houghton Mifflin, only really caught on in the US with the paperback edition. REH, Lovecraft, CAS, Merritt etc. were all but forgotten until the paperback reprints made them 'household' names.

    I think this resurgence more than any one author, was the central stylistic influence on D&D. In a rather short period Midwesterners, like Gygax, went from having little to no access to fantasy lit to having a smorgasbord of classics for sale in the corner drugstore. D&D's patchwork of influences is a reflection of that great eclectic moment before fantasy settled down into a genre rut.

  2. I always thought, that fantasy, especially sword and sorcery, is fairy tales for adults... So there is a nostalgia element, but it's not for someone's teenage years, but the time of bedtime stories, and not a special 10-20 year literary period, but an ancient influence, from which the fantasy authors draw their ideas. I, at least, found the fairy tales and the arabian night stories (children's version) of my early childhood in the fantasy literature of my early teenage years and the D&D gaming of my late teenage years etc., and I'm always looking for that in art or gaming.

    At the time, that I started gaming, in high school, it was already an escape from reality, I feel nostalgic about D&D, but not, for example for my school, and the atmosphere of it... And what is good in literature, or movies, or art, or games, take me back to a much much younger age.

  3. You raise some interesting points. I suspect there is more than just little truth behind nostalgia. There was something special in the early days, that is similar to an explorer landing on a foreign shore and settling out to conquer the unknown. The feeling of unknown has faded quite a bit now, as most of us can site verse and page of the core books. I think that takes away a bit of the feeling that we were on a special journey in the early days. Going back the old rules feels like an attempt to journey back. Now I am in full agreement that the new rules have a totally different feel to me, and I am not sure that is what I am looking for. It is interesting to note that when I GM for my son, using the C&C rules, I see a bit of what was special in the early days. He is just starting his adventure, while I am well along in mine.

  4. I recently started a 1st edition campaign, and I wasn't even aware then that there was all this old school D&D nostalgia. I'm so glad I accidentally stumbled into a movement! God bless weird, pulp fantasy.

    Playing D&D as a kid got me into all the fantasy stuff I would later love. With two older brothers who were into sports, I might never have experience a lot of that, but luckily they also had read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings and I got my hands on those old copies. After I discovered D&D, I munched-up all those great old pulp novels: Conan, John Carter, Faf and the Mouser. My dad had read Zorro and Tarzan to me as a kid, so I was already into Marvel Comics type heroes - and pulp fantasy stories were an easy sell to me because of that.

    I remember every time there was a weird, old school D&D scene in a novel, I would get this great thrill. Like when Conan went into city ruins, and got chased around by a gigantic slug. Or when John Carter spied the field full of weird-ass plantment hopping around. I couldn't wait to do my own versions of those scenes in my games (and I did.)

  5. More and more I think there is no one reason for the retro movement.

    Grognardia's reasons seem to be heavily based around a mix of nostalgia, the original pulp influences the game had, and the lack of perceived "corporate" feel to it.

    Some folks go retro because they enjoy the generally terribly written "house rule/tinker or DIE" way you do OD&D.

    Others its pure nostalgia.

    To others its because its inexpensive, and not the power gamer's Braunstein with persistent characters 3-4th is.

    Me I like it because the rules in Moldvay/Cook, Mentzer, and BECMI are simple, elegant, easy to use, and are compatible with a TON of gaming material out there. I never saw the pulp influence, and to me its actually ALIEN to the way I play fantasy RPGs. I never saw any of this in the game, and even the old editions don't sing this to me. My fantasy influences included the D&D cartoon, He Man, Thundercats, Ultima, Bard's Tale, the Hobbit cartoon, LOTR, the Endless Quest books (and similar books), and The Crystal Shard.

    There are many reasons and ways to play old school D&D, and damn anyone who says otherwise!

  6. Very interesting. The idea that D and D was nostalgic in its earliest forms represents a pretty significant insight into the history of the hobby and into the history of the fantasy genre. It may, however be more complicated.

    While Gygax was indulging in some nostalgia when he conceived of D and D, many of the older texts that influenced him were in fact enjoying a huge resurgence in popularity at the time that D and D was being conceived.

    Kellri has already pointed out in an earlier comment that Lord of the Rings only became wildly popular in the US in the 1960s after Bantam released their paperback versions. Also at that time, Howard's Conan tales were enjoying enjoying a huge resurgence in popularity based on the famous Ace paperback reprintings of them. These reprintings, edited by L. Sprague DeCamp and sporting those awesome Frazetta covers, were a significant part of the reason why fantasy became popular.

    In fact, some would argue that the Bantam versions of Tolkien and the Ace publications of Howard were a huge reason the "Fantasy Literature" as a genre exists at all. It was at this point that "Fantasy" as we know it began to coalesce into a recognizable genre in its own right and distinguish itself from the amorphous mass of SF, horror, and just weird stuff to which it had previously belonged. The narrative history of fantasy, like all historical narratives, was retroactively created from the vantage point of the present, the present in this case being the late 1060s and early 1970s.

    One could argue that, by creating and popularizing D and D, Gygax was himself participating in and having a huge impact on the shaping of this narrative. There may then be a really cool paradox here. Gygax was being nostalgic for a genre and a literary history that his very nostalgic longings were helping to bring into existence.

  7. It may, however be more complicated.

    Oh, it certainly is! There were a lot of complementary influences bubbling to the surface in the late 60s and early 70s and I'd be loath to peg any single one as the driving force behind the appearance of RPGs generally and OD&D specifically. My only point was that I think, given the books and authors Gary had long admitted were the sources of the game, that it's baseline take on fantasy is very "old fashioned" and would have appeared so even to people playing at the beginning in 1974. Gary wasn't chasing the Zeitgeist except to the extent that the Zeitgeist happened to coincidentally coincide with his own preferences in fantasy.