Monday, October 19, 2009

One Man's Primitivism

One of the complaints raised against the old school movement -- often good-naturedly, often not -- is that its most vocal proponents revel in "primitivism," which is to say, a philosophy of "older is always better." The complaint has merit, because it's sometimes true. I know I've indulged in primitivism over the course of the more than two years I've been immersing myself in the Old Ways. Contrary to legend, it was in fact v.3.5 of D&D that led to my re-evaluation of the editions I'd played as a kid. I felt then, as I still feel now, that the game had, both mechanically and stylistically, strayed from the things that attracted me to gaming in the first place and so I wanted to go "back to the source." Given that context, I suppose it's inevitable that I'd dip more than my toes into the primitivist pond.

Historically, the response to perceived decadence is often a reactionary one, sometimes an extreme one. I think that's part of the reason so many of us, including guys like myself who weren't involved in the hobby pre-1977, turned to OD&D and embraced it as our own. Initially, there was more than a little impishness to my casting aside all that came later. It felt good to metaphorically kiss off the brandified, cookie cutter thing the hobby had seemed to have become.

But then a funny thing happened: I found I really liked and preferred OD&D for itself. This wasn't a political statement or a publicity stunt; it was love. Not my first love, of course. You can never go home again and, as I've repeatedly stated, my first experience of D&D was with the Holmes edition, so I have no nostalgia for the LBBs. Rather, I found that reading -- and playing -- OD&D elicited a feeling not unlike I felt 30 years ago when I cracked open that box and tried to puzzle my way through its pages with my friends.

In many cases, I've found that I've softened my initially-hard stances of certain issues -- thieves, for example. I've also broadened my conception of what constitutes "D&D." In both cases, it was because of my embrace of primitivism that I was able to see things more clearly than I had before. If anything, that's been the main thrust of what I've been trying to do here on this blog, however haltingly and occasionally embarrassingly: understand D&D and the earliest games of the hobby in the light of their history. To do that, you have to take the games as they are -- don't assume they're "broken" or "less evolved" or any of the myriad other jibes made against them by gamers who've probably never read them, let alone played them.

I'm doing that and it's giving me a better perspective, one that simultaneously confirms some of my long-held opinions about the hobby and challenges others. It's a messy, confusing, and often frustrating experience but an immensely satisfying one too. It's resulted in one of the most intense periods of writing in my professional life, making and meeting new friends from across the globe, and, most important of all, some of the best gaming I've had in decades. All in all, a pretty good score.

But the process is ever ongoing, like all the best things in life. I'll keep posting the results of that process here for as long as I have them. Thanks to everyone who's come along for the ride.

(This is, quite coincidentally, my 1000th post since I began writing in March 2008. Go, me.)


  1. Yeah, everyone wanting to draw a line in the sand and say "here D&D, here not D&D" is especially frustrating to me.

    Cause I'm that weirdo running AD&D, and not the cool, pre-Unearthed Arcana D&D but the somehow not-cool post-Unearthed Arcana D&D.

    And then I alternate that campaign with Modern/Sci-fi OGL games (modern20, Spycraft, Star Wars Saga).

    I don't think the old stuff is good cause it's old, but cause it's good.

    Unfortunately, many folks I come across are engaged in a quasi-mystical, quasi-scholarly search for the pure exegesis of Gyagaxianism, while simultaneously trying DESPERATELY to repudiate the Gygaxianism of Unearthed Arcana.

    It's very strange.

  2. I'll also add, and this quite possibly makes me a big jerk-

    Asking people on forums to review something new for AD&D/OSRIC and being told they don't have time, because they're reviewing the entire GDQ series in depth is one of the most "through the looking glass" moments I think one can experience.

    For me, that's where the feeling that many in this movement want to remember a purer, simpler time in their lives, like how my parents watched "Happy Days".

  3. Very good post, James.

    I've had a similar situation vis a vis reevaluating the rules. After playing an entire session of 3.5 that was one combat, and not even finishing, I realized that things had gone terribly wrong. So I started going back, as I saw others doing, and looking at the old stuff. This process was of course informed by the 3.0/3.5 stuff and how it differed.

    Even though I started with Moldvay (and I just recently started running B4 for a small group), I have found that OD&D (and its child, EPT) best supports the style of play I prefer.

    I still find it depressing when people speak as if 4E is the natural, inevitable evolution of D&D and greater than all that has come before it. Even if Chess had actually evolved into Curling, that doesn't mean that there's anything wrong with playing Chess outside of an ice rink.

    It's a strange situation, though, that you have two different communities playing two different games that have the same name.

  4. It's very strange.

    Frustrating perhaps but not strange. In my experience, most people who try hard to hew closely to a single philosophy/ideology/way of life run into the problem that there are contradictions within that viewpoint and so decide to accept X and not Y and only Z under certain circumstances. They do so by trying to find the underlying logic behind their philosophy and applying it rigorously, even if it means excluding some things.

    I'll grant that too rigorous a scheme like this can be soul-crushing, but it's definitely not strange. I understand it very well in fact.

  5. For me, that's where the feeling that many in this movement want to remember a purer, simpler time in their lives, like how my parents watched "Happy Days".

    There's value in remembering purer, simpler times, though, and while I think some people take it too far, I'd much rather be part of a movement that includes lots of people who are skeptical of, if not downright hostile to, the "new and shiny" than those who embrace it just because it is new and shiny. I may not share their skepticism and hostility but they serve a useful purpose.

  6. James, I see no difference between embracing the new and shiny on principle, and rejecting it on principle.

    I check out games that interest me, and continue to play the ones that hold my interest.

    Star Wars Saga and AD&D have 1 thing in common: they're both good.

    AD&D is better, I've often said that Gygax is the greatest game designer who ever lived.

    But I'm not on a desert island, forced to pick a single game.

  7. While it is easy for some to suggest the OS community is all about nostalgia, the truth is, most of us have widely divergent reasons for returning to the roots of the game.

    I was drawn back to 0e after a long hiatus from the game. I followed the development, and release, of 4e, and realized that it's "full implementation" was not for me, as I am more of a "casual gamer" and prefer my rules light, for that reason. I have too many other demands on my time to digest the multiple tomes of the current version of the game.

  8. But I'm not on a desert island, forced to pick a single game.

    No one's asking anyone to choose. I just have a hard time getting too worked up about gamers who have chosen.

  9. I think there's another factor at work as well ... something that is well-constructed is going to hold up and remain attractive for a long, long time.

    Monopoly, Yahtzee, Risk, and Axis and Allies still get played for a reason. People still watch Casablanca and Citizen Kane for a reason.

    And you're right -- often it is a negative (or frustrating, or simply "wanting") experience that takes people back and makes them reexamine the classics.

    But I don't think there's anything "primative" about prefering to sit in a lovingly-crafted old-school hardwood piece of furniture instead of the newest piece of IKEA flat-pack.

  10. One man's 'primitive' is another man's 'optimised'.

    I'm put in mind of those Australian aborigines or American Indians who could head out into unsettled areas and happily survive with only a bundle of tools they could hold in their hand. A few miles away non-natives who *didn't* know the terrain would be dying under the weight of their accumulated clutter.

    More stuff != better. More knowledge though, that's another matter entirely...

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. I'm with you.

    Many people are too simple-minded to understand the difference between:

    -going backwards along a path to where it's safe and building a house there


    -driving back until you reach the crucial fork in the road, then taking the path that nobody's taken yet.

  13. Congratulations on reaching 1000 posts James, it's been a fascinating and enjoyable ride and I'm looking forward to the next 1000.

  14. I understand the need of going back to a time of more "magic". As a 3.5 player/usually DM I know enough of the frustration of one combat taking hours. Especially now since I run GDQ in 3.5 and the last battle almost took the entire day.

    I have to admit that I switched to 3.5 only in 2006, sticking to AD&D 2nd edition up until then.

    The reason for the change was simple: no more arguments with one player, the 3.5 system with minis etc eliminated most discussions about fireball-placement etc. Plus, with all bonuses now being added to the die roll, I avoid a bucketload of confusion for the casual gamers in my group.

    Yet, there also is a part of me who'd like to switch at least parts of the game back to how we used to play it.

    I like elegance in a game, and to me the older versions do have more flavor but less elegance in terms of accesibility.

  15. One thousand. Daaaaaaammmmmnnnnn.

    After around 30 years of AD&D 1st ed, I'm actually thinking of breaking out the OD&D ( pdf of which a kind fellow adventurer in the Dwimmermount play by post gave me - my original D&D booklets evaporated around 1989) to have on hand in case a couple key players are missing. None of my current players goes back that far in D&D, so I think it might be fun to revisit (ten foot poles and gelat cubes and all) and see how different my D&D really is now that I am a hundred years old. I really want to regain that feeling of just having nothing in the world but a tavern and a dungeon.

  16. "Driving back until you reach the crucial fork in the road, then taking the path that nobody's taken yet."

    That's very wise, and i think it is the reason i turned into a "retro-gamer".

    I've been a rules tinkerer since day one (because I had a mixed bag of rule books, some in English some in Spanish to add to the confusion).

    I welcomed 3rd edition and beyond, devouring all the rules that i could fiddle with, but soon realizing that I was moving towards a more complex version of warhammer (not a bad thing per se), and further away from roleplaying games in general. And neither of those directions allure me in their current iterations!

    I strongly believe that there is design space beyond creating tactically complex combat scenarios, and to explore those options I have to go back to before
    that was the prime directive.

    Today, while perusing Pegasus Magazine Nº1, I almost choke with coffee when I read Arneson's interview... The guy predicted the PC game modding scene a decade before it happened.

    That's just one example of the untapped creative energy on those magazines and early fanzines, most 90's gamers like myself have only seen the reified stuff on TSR era books, and there is so much more to explore!

    word verification: "Crear", that is spanish for "Create"

  17. Primitive? Shares roots with "primal", right?

    Primal being "Of first importance; primary" according to my dictionary.

    Yeah, that sounds about right to me. :)

  18. > is that its most vocal proponents revel in "primitivism," which is to say, a philosophy of "older is always better."

    *g* Dangerous semantic territory, perhaps, James?
    To some "primitive" will mean "first", to others it will mean "simple", "unsophisticated" or "fundamental".

    Was Midgard on single character scale automatically better than D&D, or Chivalry and Sorcery better than Runequest purely because of age?
    When talking about "old ways", even attempting to shoehorn that into the evolution of a single system (D&D) is kinda fraught with danger since that might imply that the rules /are/ the game, no?

    There is definitely something to be said for "getting back to basics", though, to help obtain more clearly a perspective onto the path ahead. Even if one does not then continue to pursue that in a "purist" manner... heh.

    Anyhow; you like OD&D. *yay* for that & Keep on enjoying. :)
    *yay* to for 1k. 'grats! ;)

    ... It has sometimes worked for good."
    "Chaos is not wholly evil, surely?" said the child. "And neither is Law wholly good. They are primitive divisions, at best-- they represent only temperamental differences in individual men and women. There are other elements..."
    "All are primitive," said the child.

    (quoting Stephen Marsh, quoting Moorcock; - apply as one will...)

  19. To me, OD&D, AD&D, D&D 3e and 4e... are different games, not iterations of the same game. I think some definitely do things better than the others, but on the whole it's apples and oranges. I lean more towards 3.5 because it's what I know, but the older folks in my group have run games like AD&D 1e and Villains & Vigilantes, and I don't mind. There are very few games that can't be fun, and those are such bizarre outliers as to not even really deserve mention.

  20. Aaron Allston once told me he thought D&D was a setting, not a game.

    "Fluff" elements, such as the effects of magic (you always have a fireball, a magic missile), and the forms of the monsters (red dragons are always fire oriented, you always have beholders with a spell effect per eye) and such remain the same, but how they work mechanically changes almost completely from edition to edition.

    Over time, especially in the transitions to 3e and 4e, both of which are VERY different from what came before, I've seen the wisdom in what he said.

  21. Aaron Allston once told me he thought D&D was a setting, not a game.

    That's a great way of putting it. It's superior to my original and more cynical idea that D&D is strictly a marketing construct that joins all editions together.

    My feelings of what defines D&D in regard to it's rules have become infinitely wide. It's the tropes of fantasy monsters, ambitious adventurers, delving into the unknown, and nefarious traps that transforms the game into D&D for me.

  22. James,

    Curiously enough, I had posted a comment to the Arduin XP entry, lamenting how the old school renaissance can descend into primitivism. I have almost immediately deleted it because it was phrased in a somewhat bitter way which I found not "good natured" enough for this blog.

    I wonder if you have read that post I somewhat regret. Anyway, thanks for the answer whether it was intended or not.

  23. My philosophy is “just because it’s newer doesn’t mean it’s better”. I’ve gotten very frustrated throughout my life when the “new thing” ends up losing half the features of the “old thing”. Often it seems it is the newer that is more primitive rather than the older.

    e.g. The way that TeX and LaTeX would do things automatically that the “desktop publishing” revolution made hard to do manually. Sure, the new programs had some new things to bring to the table, but they should’ve built upon what was good in their predecessors.

    As much as I love my iPhone, it annoys me that there are things my Pilot back in 1996 got right than the iPhone doesn’t.

    On the role-playing front, shoe-horning everything into one mechanic is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is more primitive.

    Old is not automatically better, but it has experience and wisdom on its side. If new is smart, it will respect that and attempt to learn from it.

  24. James, congrats on 1000 posts. It sounds like I'm not alone. I really questioned the merit of going back to basic D&D. My sons thought me strange for going back to the game I started playing over 25 years ago, but now we have a weekly session of BD&D.

    Thanks for posting and keep up the great work.