Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Reflections of a Grognard on Grognards


Staring into the face of a veteran, and a grizzled old veteran at that, can be an intimidating affair. Whether you are facing a veteran of your workplace, your field, your family, etc. you are dealing with the weight of experience, the implied sense of owed respect, the potential for wisdom and the practicalities of success that are inherent in someone who has lived and practiced something far longer than you. If for nothing less than the fact that they have survived longer than you, you are inclined to show a sense of respect. 

If you don't know, as most of the OSR now does, a grognard is a very historically specific term. Historically the term is French and was a specific title for "a soldier of the original imperial guard that was created by Napoleon I in 1804 and that made the final French charge at Waterloo." For those who don't understand this context, just picture any grizzled old first sergeant who has seen more than one tour of active combat duty, looking down his nose at all the green recruits just getting off the boat. Movies do a  theatrically dramatic sort of justice to these sorts. Vietnam is a common theme, where so many short timers wouldn't even form friendships with these new, brash, freshly-polished greenies so full of themselves. The "grognards" would grumble about them "not knowing anything", and that "back in their day " blah, blah, blah. 

I'm not sure who coined the term for old school gamers, but it has become common parlance that gamers who were there bitd and are extolling the virtue of the way things were are now called grognards. But how soon is too soon? Can 2e have grognards? 3e? And thus begins the endless arguments about what is old school anyway. If we assume here that we are talking about 1e AD&D that helps. But even then, it becomes an endeavor at picking nits. As I talked about in my previous post, your D&D may not be my D&D simply because we came to the game at different times and operated under different assumptions. Grognardia (not the blog of the same name) as a past time is relative to who you're grogging on, or in other words, who you're grumbling about. 

The reason I bring all this up, is due in part to my recent tour of the online media about the OSR, and the evolution of the OSR in the past almost decade or more. A clear dividing line has occurred in the consensus of Classic AD&D and 1e AD&D. What I mean about that is the sense of the game before 1e became what was commonly referred to as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Some say that AD&D really existed prior to that time as OD&D plus all the supplements, and to a degree this is true. Those who played in that Pre 1978 period and saw the game as inherently flexible and run by DM fiat more than by rulebooks, approached AD&D in a very different way than 1979 players did. 

Those of us who approached the game through AD&D as a complete product were different players than those who were raised on OD&D but bought the AD&D books later. Though many AD&D players, with the advantage of hindsight, have now realized they weren't playing AD&D btb. Moreover, they have now decided that AD&D btb is not really all that appealing to them. These OSR converts have changed their D&D religion and gone back a step into OD&D or B/X and it's many fine clones. This is quite a common OSR phenomena. James Maliszewski is one such artful  OSR commentator who outlines this process for him.

Truthfully the large bulk of the OSR movement consists of such material, the pre-AD&D genre that is. And though much of it plays well with AD&D, making this whole diatribe seem a moot point, the ethos of AD&D is often lost in translation. 

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Will the Real D&D Player Please Stand Up?

 A strange thing happened on the way to 1986 ...

Gary saved D&D, and in true Lannister fashion Lorraine Williams had D&D's Ned Stark beheaded. 

Most of us in the rank and file of the TSR customer base, knew nothing about it. I didn't for years afterwards. All I knew was that D&D began to change with UA (the AD&D 1.5 era) and changed even more in the 90's with the advent of 2e. 

At the time I was a junior in High School, and for all I could tell, all was well in D&D land. I bought Unearthed Arcana, and was only a little dismayed by the new classes, the power creep and the idea of cantrips--but we rolled with it. I also bought Manual of the Planes, Dungeoneer's Survival Guide, Wilderness Survival Guide and eventually picked up a copy of Oriental Adventures; though I was admittedly least excited about it. I'll also admit to hardly ever using these resources at the table, and only reading them in patchy form at best. 

For all practical purposes, D&D for us was confined to the AD&D PHB, DMG, MM, MM2, the Fiend Folio, and only occasionally the Unearthed Arcana. And, yes, we played it a little more OD&D with supplements, than true AD&D btb. Lots of others have found they did the same. However, what we did do was resort to the rules whenever questions arose about what was or wasn't allowed. DM Fiat was always capable of being overturned if an official ruling could be found. That was even true if it was found in Dragon Magazine most of the time. We considered Dragon mostly as suggestions, unless it was in a Sage Advice or some other specific rule clarification. But those situations came up infrequently at best.

How was it then, that we developed such a reverence for all things TSR, and specifically Gary Gyax? For us, bitd, the two were synonymous anyway. At least until 2e came along and we eventually heard that Gary was no longer at the D&D helm. And when that revelation was made known, it all made sense to us. UA and the later products were a little un-Gary like (and hence un-AD&D like) to us in retrospect. (Even though Gary's name was on a couple of these works, we assumed he didn't write them. It would be much later that we understood these were works Gary rushed to print to earn some hardback cash for TSR to save the company. And it worked by the way. But they still kicked him out.) And 2e was clearly not AD&D. Which didn't stop us from adopting a few things that seemed like good ideas from the new edition, namely cleric domains, school of magic and d10 for initiative. We hadn't altogether rejected TSR after all.

I stopped gaming in about 1995 or so. 14 years of pretty much AD&D is where I left off. I picked up at the tail end of 3.5 in about 2006 or so. Surprisingly, it took me not too long to figure out 3.5. Just about the time I started playing again, however, they were talking about a new edition! It took a lot longer to figure out 4th edition, and about as long to realize I hated it. And to realize I hated all of it. I started my blog in 2008 and spent most of the rest of the time trying to get back to where I felt like I belonged. I haven't gotten there yet. 

The funny thing is that the place I feel like I belong simply doesn't exist anymore. D&D has created certain sorts of players over the course of its evolution. In truth, they are all D&D players, since anyone playing roughly the same game are all playing with the IP that is D&D. Nonetheless, each "age" saw it's kind of player develop:

Pre 1977 Players: Some players really only familiar with the Original D&D books. Some allowing, some not what supplements were played with. Many just "imagining the hell out of" their games. A large portion of these are also lumped into the Pre 1978 crowd.

1977 Holmes Players: Some, who heard that D&D was on its way out and that a rewritten game was coming, chose to transition to Holmes. I've heard some waited to see AD&D, but returned to Holmes because it was closer to their OD&D game. Most Holmes players were new comers to D&D who come through this edition.

Pre 1978 AD&D Players: Before and after the advent of the PHB, there were players who were  basically playing with what would become AD&D rules, but did not really ever adopt the advanced rules. Even if they bought them they did not use them btb and felt no real compunction to do so. Many just kept playing their OD&D. 

1979 AD&D Players: these are those who adopted the Advanced rules, bought these books and firmly maintained they were playing Advanced D&D. They may not have played with every rule, or even known them, but they deferred to these rules and considered them authoritative. That is after all, what TSR told us to do. This was the game, the "adult" game, as many saw it. Some returning to old school gaming have went back to this time, and left AD&D during the OSR when they saw it in retrospect as flawed or "not really the way they played." Some of these players would grow up to become Pre 1985 Gamers, and some go even beyond that to '89 or 2e and on.

1981 BX Players: These players came into D&D or chose to migrate to the new B/X, mostly from OD&D or Holmes. Many would go on to Mentzer and eventually RC, some to AD&D, some back to Holmes, and some would stay here.

1983 Mentzer players: the Red Box brought in lots of players to D&D and many die hard "basic" players would see D&D as synonymous with red box. And many of these players went on to become RC players.

Pre 1985 AD&D Players: Unearthed Arcana was a watershed moment for more than just Gary Gygax. Many players just didn't see UA as "in the spirit" of the game. Power creep had obviously gotten into the works, and though UA worked to pull TSR out of the financial crapper (thanks again to Gary), it did not work for many players of the time. These are those who use everything pre UA, but aren't too fond of things after this point.

Pre 1989 AD&D Players: these are 1e players. Who, in theory reject all or most of 2e, and if they do adopt things from 2e they still claim they are playing 1e. 

Post 1989 2e players: these are 2e players

1991 RC Players: I'm not sure how many came into D&D through RC, but lots of basic players took it for what it was an elegant and complete 1 book system for Mentzer style D&D play. 

Post 1995 2e players: not even sure who these guys are, as I had quit playing about this time, but this is the era of 2e Options some of which made it into 3e. 

The evolvers: many of us followed along in and out of certain categories and even played every edition of the game. We may even have settled on a certain edition, or continue to evolve with the current owner of the IP. I'm sure there are some who have done so--though I know of more who have their particular fondness for a certain era and prefer to stick with that era. 

So, who is the "true" D&D player? Well, all of them of course, but for me the answer is a little more specific. None of these categories are fixed, and the borders are amorphous and permeable. But I have strong roots in the 1979 crowd. Even though I started in 1981 playing with Pre '78 players and was taught the game by them, I found myself in the "true believer" crowd of early AD&D pretty hard core. Though I could be said to stretch up into the Pre 1989 crowd, I actually used little of the material post '85. 

But having delineated things out to this categorized scale, as useful as such things are or not, the subject isn't quite that simple is it?

The AD&D Ethos

 Ethos: the characteristic spirit of a culture, era, or community as manifested in its beliefs and aspirations.

I am, at this point, getting very close to past blog posts, so forgive the overlap and redundancies in an effort to get at a presently salient point. 

The AD&D game has an ethos distinct from the previously outlined ethos of OD&D AD&D. That is, the original D&D game plus supplements which included much of the AD&D rules, but retainined the high degree of rules light, flexibility and devil-may-care creative attitude that embodied the earlier game. 

Now, please note that I am not the authoritative voice on the ethos of anything. This is my take on the ethos of the game. If it resonates with you, great, take it for what it's value truly is: a harmonious voice to your own. 

But if the original way of playing AD&D-like games had an ethos, one which many seem to be hearkening back to via the OSR, there has to also be an ethos of AD&D itself. An ethos that transcends those who bought the books, said they were playing AD&D, but had little recourse to prove they were playing the game in terms of actual rules. In other words, if their game was subject to an audit it would be clear they are not playing an officially sanctioned game--as if there truly was such a thing. Which brings me to a very valuable point in this discussion of my interpretation of AD&D ethos. 

Game auditors might not be such a bad thing!

Bear with me. The ethos of what I would consider an AD&D player is one who bought the rhetoric of the early Gygaxian pronouncements in Dragon magazine that the AD&D statement of the rules was to be the final arbiter of what is and what is not AD&D. And that those who chose to stray from its boundaries were not playing AD&D. Whether this Gary-speak was for purely financial purposes, for wresting IP from the hands of any other claimants, or simple assertion of absolute control of product identity we bought it.

For us there was a brilliant white tower flying TSR pinions in the 1980's and from that tower proceeded forth the law, and the law was AD&D. Well, it was B/X also, but we concerned ourselves not with the clearly lesser rabble that played beneath us with a children's toy. (Please know I'm being satirical here--B/X was every bit as valid a D&D product and as creative, possibly more so.) But this was clearly a part of the ethos: that the rules were important. Many a debate at the cafeteria table was settled by reference to and mastery of the AD&D rulebooks. Particularly the holy trinity of the MM/PHB/DMG. Any other source was of somewhat lesser value. The closer it got to Gary, the more we gave it credence. 

I wholeheartedly realize this may have been farcical. In the sense of there being far more practical factors driving the rhetoric. That, if we had actually sat in one of Gary's games we might have been shocked by how liberal he was with his own rules. And the reflections of vast numbers of OSR adherents today have come to this same conclusion. Even conversations with luminaries such as Frank Mentzer and Tim Kask, both agree AD&D is not the game they reach for when they go to play. Mr. Kask has clearly painted the problems AD&D caused for the hobby in terms of generating the dread of all DMs everywhere, and evil killer of fun--shudder--the rules lawyer.

But that was the ethos. That is how we saw the AD&D universe. We would have never said we "weren't playing AD&D" bitd. That was our game and if someone pointed out to us an error were would have corrected it. Now, we were all obviously aware that we weren't using weapon AC modifiers and speed, but truthfully, I and most of the guys I played with weren't quite sure we understood them. We also had trouble with surprise--most of the time we just jumped to initiative. But if someone could have explained these things to us, we would have at least felt like we should be using them. 

In the excellent podcast GrogTalk, one of the show's hosts, James, made this very point to a guest on the show. That their group considered canon to be what TSR put out, and that other resources were considered of lesser validity and certainly not canon. He describe the way they viewed pronouncements and product from TSR as sacred in regards to what the game was and was supposed to be, and that the rules were there to be followed when questions came up. The echo of this sentiment, I think, confirms that it was not just me who felt this way. 

As much as my memory is valid about such things, this was our gaming world. And this ethos is clearly a part of what AD&D was for a certain segment of gamers who came into the game about the time I did. While it includes other things, many of which coincide with earlier and later games, this sets it apart from what came before it.