Searching for the Magic

Last entry I asked myself, what magic eludes me in terms of my gaming? What made AD&D so special? What made that age so special? What strange mojo came together to weave the spell that still enchants my soul yet eludes my grasp?

I would argue that AD&D is more than a ruleset. It is a mindset. No amount of retro creation can turn back the clock that brewed the eldritch alchemy of the golden age of gaming. Endless gaming grimoires now now line the modern gamers' shelves which purport to summon up the spirits of gaming past. But no mere shades of memory offer satiety to a hunger that longs for the true spirit of an age.

I've quoted it before, but Gary Gygax, sometime ago in Role-Playing Mastery, said that changing the parameters of a game changes its spirit. I've talked about this numerous times before on my blog, and so will not spend the time proving this again. However, if this is true, the many games that have come after the AD&D game have fundamentally changed its spirit. If we accept this, then we have already a part of our answer as to whether one can recreate the same feeling of one game with a different game. You can't. However, the spirit is an elusive thing--difficult to define; but we'll come to this later. If this was all it was, "the system", then all we would have to do is play the original game and viola we would be in the midst of the old magic. Or at the least, one of the many high quality and faithful clones. Sadly, it isn't quite that easy.

My somewhat poetic introduction above is perhaps more than mere metaphor. If we liken the recreation of AD&D's past spirit to the summoning of a spirit of a person from the past then several key inspirations reveal themselves. First, a spirit divorced from its past is incomplete. Such a spirit is like a fish out of water. Like a long dead hero awakened from his tomb confused and uncertain. If we summon Einstein, or Charlemagne or Aristotle from the depths of the dusts of memory what can they tell us but memories of what was. They will not allow us access to their times, for their times are locked within their soul, and does not accompany them in the triangle of art as part of the magic.

Allow me to perhaps give a real world example of what I'm driving at.  A dear friend of mine was in love with feudal Japan. Though he majored in computer science, he minored in Japanese and took extra classes in Japanese history, art and culture. His junior year in college he was able to do a semester exchange program to Japan. This trip offered him the chance to fulfill a lifelong wish. Not only would he be there, but he would at least in part live some small portion of his dream. I recall getting letters from him, and photos in front of Kyoto castle and other historic locales and could not imagine what he might be feeling now that he was finally achieving his dreams. I even worried it would be so fulfilling for him that he might not ever come home. Well, he did. Gratefully in fact. As we eventually had the chance to sit down and talk about his experiences, I would sum up his attitude in one word--disillusionment. He carefully explained that he "knew" that Japan wasn't feudal any more. That it was a modern first world country was obvious to him long before he left; but he expected some of that spirit to at least be present today. For him, it wasn't. Japan was a disappointment because the great works of art from long ago were carefully preserved behind glass, the great castles and shrines were kitschy tourist attractions. Japan had moved on, and was in his estimation much more western than he could have ever imagined.

How much is the spirit of AD&D a product of its past? Unavoidably more than we might care to admit. Now, I've talked about this next point before and so won't belabor it again, but AD&D was as much a product of TSR as it was its time. The industry that supported AD&D with all its warts and imperfections was an essential component of the spell that was the magic of the game. Another point I've spent less time upon was the culture of the gamers that arose during the 70's through the 90's. There were cut of a certain cloth that is not the norm for today. It's not that it doesn't exist today, but gamers of today live in a different time than those early fans. I haven't looked at the numbers recently, but it wasn't a matter of gaming bodies. There were more gamers during that time than there were at times since the 2000s as D&D's influence waned. But even though there were more people playing the game, D&D had an edgy, fringe feel to it. It had been almost outlawed in the 80's by society's moral police, and had developed a reputation as sinister and dangerous. In the general public's mind the game became unmistakably allied with steam tunnels, occultism, heavy metal and bizarre subcultures.

Gamers were a clannish lot, easily forced to the fringes since most of those who joined the game had already felt unaccepted by society at large. It gave a huge segment of society a social vehicle through which they could begin to feel as if they belonged. I personally feel, though I have not done this research either, that the rise of hobby shops occurs at this same time because of the rise of this culture which began for the first time to form collective bonds. The comic-book/hobby shop becomes the social gathering place outside of dining rooms and basements where most of the games were happening in which this new group could meet publicly. I'm not saying there weren't shops like this before, but they were the exception rather than the rule. These shops also developed as a sort of underground face for the subculture that was the gamers' domain in those days. For that reason they were often dark holes in the wall. They appeared a bit dangerous, unsafe and not a place your mother was all that comfortable visiting. Risque Vallejo's hung beside violent visions of Frazetta; and the soft porn of Heavy Metal magazine stood proudly by Superman and X-Men comics. The knowledgeable purveyors of all this treasure were often bearded, unwashed, fan-shirt wearing men in their middle years, who withstood fools unpleasantly and fans at times less so. These were a far cry from today's high-end, well-lit, open-aired models of retail commercialism that are our friendly local gaming shops of today.  But these old standbys--mine was inconspicuously called Austin Books; a corner location in a dilapidated complex that might have been a head shop had one not noticed "Comics and Games" scrawled in smaller letters under the store's moniker. This was the age of AD&D.

Lastly, I'm going to point out something I haven't yet connected to a gaming quality I indeed have defended against the growing rhetoric of the "politically-correct-soft-gamer-style" of today. I have talked about the importance of the adversarial nature of AD&D. The DM vs players ethos was an unmistakable part of the old guard to which many today have bid a joyous good riddance. I get it. But you don't. Have you ever argued Star Trek technicalities with a friend? Have you enjoyed the heated discussion over alternate timeline chronologies of the Marvel or DC universes? Have you enjoyed correcting the Klingon or Elvish grammar of friends who dared try and show up your abilities in either Tolkien's or Trek's con-langs? Let's face it, nerds are cantankerous. I distinctly recall being in my 7th grade year at Junior High. I had been playing AD&D a little over a year and our gaming group was the sum total of three misfit individuals: my overweight, sci-fi afficanado, hispanic friend, my underachieving, comic book collecting, stuttering neighbor, and my bone skinny, bowl haircut, halitosis suffering, overly intellectual self. We were not cover of Teen-Beat material by a mile--and we didn't want to be. But the point here was that my two gaming buddies had met a like-minded soul. He was the Japanese history lover mentioned above. He was also a pasty skinned, curly-haired, misfit who would become my intellectual equal and more. Comic book collector had run into him in one of his classes and promptly been blown away by his command of the astronomical lore we so often debated in our group. He just had to have me meet him! So, what did he do? Invite him to a game? No. Ask him to sit with us at lunch? No. He arranged a debate! Yes, outside of one of our nerd gathering places--the band hall--we were to meet after lunch and argue the finer points of astro-minutiae. Me? I could not let such an answer go unchallenged. In fact I was excited. One, to have my clear superiority so acknowledged by my friends, but also the chance to prove myself in this duel of honor with another worthy. When I was done with him, he would be 1) the tailings of comet dust and 2) a new friend. We went through with it too, oh yes we did. And though I'll spare you the nerdy details we became fast friends and our gaming group swelled to four. That was just how we rolled. And if you don't get it, you just don't get nerd culture.

These were the people to which AD&D was marketed. These were the same kinds of people who created the game back in the day. Most who knew Gary Gygax admitted he could be a crotchety, grumpy and overly confident pain in the ass, but he was also highly creative, gifted and a savant in medieval lore, wargaming trivia, mythology, legends and swords and sorcery fantasy. He was the quintessential gaming geek. So were Arneson, Kask and numberless others who laid the foundations of the hobby. I love Kask so much you should just watch some of his History of D&D videos over at Dorks of Yore and you'll quickly get what I mean. He could easily be one of those guys behind the game shop counter I talked about above, except that he is a giant of the game. And when you see him, your getting a good taste of Gygax as well--probably why the two got along so well, and argued so vociferously at times too.

Why should AD&D be any different? Rules lawyers? The game was made for rules lawyers! We came out of the womb arguing obscure, esoteric, and technical particularities noone cared about. Put us with a group of people just like us and raise the stakes to the life or death and glory of a beloved player character? Holy snit-storm that was a recipe for an intellectual world war 3! We reveled in it. My two friends, best-of mind you, would ride the bus home with me from school, engaged animatedly on the topic de jour, usually gaming related, and then to my house, laughing and having a great time. Then we would game for hours and finally when it was over they would leave. It was only later that I found out they would go up to the comic book collector's house and play Space Invaders on his Atari and pretend that I was the flying saucer that occasionally flies over and try and blast me out of the sky. They also plotted and planned how to outsmart me in the next dungeon. And this didn't bother me at all! I wasn't trying to kill them. I was playing the game to be a challenge. I knew I could just lightning bolt them into dust if I wanted, but that was crap and not how the game was played. My job was to outthink them within the context of the game. There would be no honor, nor fun in just killing them because I could. But to put together a challenge that met the rules of the game and was in the spirit of the game that they could not argue with or feel cheated about--that was the essence of the game.

Today? There are more blog posts and essays and forum threads on why such playing is not only wrong, but dickheaded and unfair and downright evil. Bullsnit I say. However, I don't just blame gamers for this shift. I blame society. Political correctness, social justice and fairness and equity for all has been pushed far beyond its intended original boundaries. Though my point here is not social commentary, I think it is relevant that gaming is a product of its time, and in our time these values have been commandeered by do-gooders and employed as feel good measures instead of true ethical justice. I see it constantly in the public school system where I work, but that is another story altogether. The point is, we have not been immune as gamers to feeling like everyone should come away with a trophy from the gaming table, regardless of how stupidly they played. This was not supported in the old vanguard. And in fact we had a name for it--Monty Hall gaming. When a fool of a game master was given the keys to the DMG before he was ready he might hand out treasure like candy, and experience points like rain. Death was anathema, and in the rare circumstance it did occur, resurrection was ready to be had. Today this style of play is just seen as another way to play the game, and as equally valid as any other as long "as everyone is having fun." It makes me nauseous to even type that. As the growing gaming circles I ran in expanded through High School and College, the worst thing you could be called was a Monty Hall gamer. Why? Because it was made fun of officially by TSR and the designers of the day! It was an understood element of the game, of the spirit of the game.

Today Monty Hall gaming doesn't seem as common, but the power creep of today's games sort of take away the need for it. Your class comes built in with its own set of Monty Hall power expansions to forgo the need of the GM handing out +5 Holy Avengers like lollipops. The name of today's games seems to be making sure "everyone has a chance to shine", "everyone should have fun", "each class needs to be important", "death should be avoided to allow the story to carry on", "deaths when they do happen should be memorable" and other death defying mechanics like negative H.P., healing surges, hit die (which means something totally different than it was supposed to), the death save, no three death saves, no ... well, you get the idea.

Such was not the gaming culture back in the day. The old culture was ruled by TSR; in which Dungeons and Dragons was born and in which it developed and grew. To say that we can just recreate a ruleset and achieve the magic that was AD&D is just wrong. AD&D is a mindset--it is a culture that is hard to achieve in today's gaming age. You can't even download the books from DTRPG and play a 1e or Classic game and expect to achieve it either. Maybe if you read the books, I mean really read them--particularly the 1e DMG--you might be able to achieve it. You could also get a fair piece closer to it by reading Dragon magazine issues 1 through about issue 150 or so, especially the editorials and columns. But the whole point is, the magic isn't just there in the rule set. AD&D and the magic it represents was a mindset. One rarely achieved today, even by the OSR crowd.


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