Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Tenuous Golden Ages

Over on Google+, Chris Kutalik shared some photos of an old TSR board game called Knights of Camelot. I never owned the game myself, but I remember it well from ads I saw in the catalogs included with lots of TSR games back in the day. Looking at the photos Chris shared, it was the layout and graphic design that caught my eye. With a map by Darlene and interior artwork by Jeff Dee, it's a very attractive product. Equally eye-catching was the presentation of the rules, which looked like a dry run for the Basic and Expert Rulebooks (no surprise, given that Knights of Camelot was published in 1980, shortly before the B and X books came out).

I commented that, for me, TSR was at the height of its powers, between 1979 and 1982. While the fact that those coincide with my earliest in the hobby certainly plays a role in my estimation, I don't think that's all there is to it. Fond as I am of TSR's earlier efforts, I don't think any of them, taken as a whole, are as well done as the aforementioned B and X rulebooks or Star Frontiers or Gangbusters or any number of other products of that era. I mean, I love the Dave Trampier's cover the Players Handbook to death, but the presentation of the PHB itself? It's OK but it's got nothing on even TSR's more lackluster efforts between 1979 and 1982.

Looking at it as objectively as I can, what strikes me most about that era is that the products still exemplify the wild-eyed enthusiasm that makes the earlier stuff so intoxicating, while at the same time looking professional but not "slick." A lot of my dislike of TSR's output from 1983 on is that it feels soulless and uniform, more like that of a mass market widget manufacturer than a purveyor of "products of your imagination." Again, some may disagree with this assessment on my part, but it's one that comports with the recollections of at least some of the company's former employees, who saw a sea change at TSR.

I mention all of this as a kind of prolog to presenting this link a post over at Gamasutra, which presents the history of the TRS-80, Radio Shack's personal computer. Interestingly, the heyday of the "Trash-80" (as we called it), roughly coincides with that of the period I so admire at TSR. Consequently, I tend to strongly associate the two in my mind. One of my closest friends in elementary school was a computer aficionado and he owned a TRS-80, which he used to write programs to aid him -- and us -- in playing D&D and other RPGs. We also played some early computer "RPGs" on that computer, like Zork and Temple of Apshai, among others, thereby cementing the mental connection. The fact that that computer and D&D's publisher both used the same three consonants probably also had an effect on my young mind.

I've often wondered if the reason that putative golden ages are often so brief is because they only arise during a period of transition between one era and another. In the case of TSR, it was the transition between being a hobbyist company and a more professional one, while, in the case of the TRS-80's ascendancy, it was a period between personal computers being a curiosity and a consumer product. Younger friends of mine often talk wistfully about the days "before the Internet became big" in a similar fashion. I am sure enthusiasts of other hobbies have their own versions too. Great work seems to arise in periods of tension, while the old ways still exert their influence and the new ones are just aborning. They're great times to be involved and I consider myself lucky to have been there for several throughout my life.

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