Sunday, January 15, 2017

What Comes Close & What Doesn't

If the reasoning in my last post is sound, then one might think that the old AD&D magic is forever lost. Is it? Can anything come close? Can we recreate TSR? The gaming culture of the time? And should we recreate the old school ruleset or use the originals? If we are to try to summon that old magic, I believe all three of these factors must in some degree be achieved in order for the true spirit of the game to be achieved.

I've played the original rule set with younger gamers between about 2008 and 2011, and it comes close, it does. I also played OSRIC in the same time period with younger kids as well, and it was in the same vein. Not as good as the original rules for AD&D feel, but you can tell that it's meant to feel like the original. Of course, OSRIC exists primarily as a tool set to publish new material for the AD&D ruleset and not violate copyright. It does an awesome job in that regard. Though some groups use it as we did, for the primary ruleset when getting the originals wasn't easy for them. Now with the original PDFs easily and cheaply available online through D&D Classics OSRIC has returned as the primary ruleset of choice for would be AD&D game designers. What I'm saying is that just playing the ruleset gives you an AD&D experience, but it doesn't quite create the same mindset of the old magic--the true spirit of AD&D.

I've written before about the desire to live in a world where TSR is still king. So I won't rewrite that post here. But I will restate the point from that post that while Wizards of the Coast may be King it is most definitely not TSR, nor can it be. For one, the ruleset is wrong. For another, the ethos (the same ethos that developed the rulesets) is all wrong. Mind you, I'm not making value judgments here. Wizbro is great at what it does, and they have turned out some tight games. So have Paizo and others, but they are not the TSR we knew and loved. In some ways this can't be achieved at all, because the gaming market has been so saturated that it is very unlikely for gamers to flock back en masse to any edition. 5e has made quite a few converts, and it is a decent system, but it is not AD&D, nor has the Wizards of the Coast become the Magic Users of the Great Lakes. The simple fact is a new TSR would have to largely monopolize the gaming market and set all the predominant trends in gaming, and given the market as it is, this is very unlikely to occur.

However, we could recreate an old school company that drew enough players to create the kind of community we are looking for. However, doing so is not easy and requires a special kind of magic that I will come to in a moment. There are some likely candidates in this regard. Lots of designers have put on their old school thinking caps and dreamed up all sort of novel homages to Classic D&D and their memories of it Some have even mined Appendix N's Swords & Sorcery genre more so than AD&D ever did. Can't these new companies fit the bill? Well, in order to fit the bill I think we need to have a company that has created a system that is at the core AD&D. While there are many new games out there that draw their lineage and inspiration from D&D, how many truly fill our order? I could mention several here, most of which I've covered in other posts on my blog. But in an attempt at brevity I'll just point out that though some come close to the original either in late classical form or as AD&D itself (by late classical I am referring to the original books plus supplements) they are in some way variants instead of clones. This alone is not a deal breaker however.

Sadly, what most of these companies lack, even though they are awesome each in their own way, is that tone and mood that was distinctly TSR. How does one recreate that? Now, I'm acting as judge and jury here, but unless others are willing to engage with me thus the state will remain. I'll admit, TSR was never a monolithic entity. It had many creative and independent minds that made up its culture, and Gary was actually only in control for a short time; though much of the nature of TSR is likely due to his influence. As TSR evolved into the late 80's and 90's things took a decided change of direction. Though much of the culture of the company had been set by then, a certain shift in magic had already started to occur. I am aware of all of this, and of the fact that much of what TSR did was problematic. But this convoluted and chaotic synergy makes it almost impossible to achieve in any recreated form. One almost, by definition, cannot recreate something so spontaneous and raw as what TSR was in the mid 70's to about 1990.

So cannot Goodman Games, Steve Jackson Games, Troll Lords or someone of their ilk come close at least? Perhaps. Even if their games are variant to one extent or another it might be achievable. But before we proceed, let us address the OSR and the open gaming movement that made it possible.

Many have argued that the OSR is the salvation we have all been looking for. After ll the OSR it were the clones live--the rule sets that are closest to the originals themselves. First with OSRIC, then Labyrinth Lord, and Swords and Wizardry, and now countless others. Can't they replace the TSR monopoly with the chaotic and highly individualistic community that is the OSR. Sadly, I say no. And here I make an argument that I am only slightly comfortable with, but feel is sound enough to proceed. The OSR existed during the age of TSR. In fact Original D&D (and to a lesser extent continued in the BX/RC line of D&D), game creators and wild individualists existed during the age of TSR.  An integral part of the community, they made up rules, classes, magic items, campaigns, and on and on. Even reinventing the rule set to do what they wanted it to do. They played alongside the more traditional D&D gamers who cleaved to the rule set and the word from on high as to how to play the game. TSR encouraged while at the same time decrying that rogue crowd. But the point is they were already here during the age of TSR. They have resurfaced in the OSR, and been made legitimate by 3rd edition and Wizards open gaming license. (Something they have tried again with 5e's DM's Guild in a slightly more codified form, which btw will be interesting to watch.) But the OSR has no single voice. It is the very freedom that works against the OSR, since everyone is allowed to have their own interpretation and idea of what D&D is and can be. Some voices came through the din as luminaries, but none with the authority to speak as "the voice". The OSR is a movement looking for a company, if you will. Not a company looking for players. [As I re-read this I realize that the OSR has better served the early Original D&D crowd than perhaps the AD&D crowd, but this will have to wait for later analysis.]

The difficult thing is to recreate that brand of pride, hubris, and gaming arrogance as well as genius and brilliance that was TSR and a culture that permeated the community it serves. The company that came closest, humorously enough, did so through parody and satire. These timeless literary techniques have served writers, playwrights, cartoonists, and other creative types well in communicating their point through humor and over exaggeration. They achieve a point by painting a picture of excess and absurdity. Now, often the point is exactly the opposite of that desired by the satire. But in the case of Knights of the Dinner Table, the satirical ode to D&D was written as a loving tribute. Well, perhaps initially it was simply to get a laugh, and by Jolly Blackburn's own admission it was designed as filler for his RPG rag Shadis. The effect it achieved however was much more profound.

Gamers found in this new vehicle, KODT, a voice that spoke to their gaming souls and passions. Frankly, I believe that it was because KODT embodied the hidden truth of D&D and in the humor and satire and parody gamers not only saw themselves they were shown what they wanted to be. Now, it was probably not this simple, and it some cases it was probably simpler--it takes all kinds. But the fact is, soon after release in 1990 gamers began looking for this "Hackmaster" the Knights were playing and wanted to know how they could get their hands on it. Now you can take this as an amusing by-product of satire that it is often so accurate and "true" in its depiction of reality that people mistake the comedy for truth. In missing the point they "get the point". Or you can be even more profound with it. Allow me an historical diversion.

In Kassel, Germany, 1614 a curious tract appeared entitled The Story of the Brotherhood of the Rose Cross. Yeah, you guessed it, the Rosicrucians. Now, whatever you personally know or believe about such things, in this case I use the example as one in which a pamphlet designed to be an politico-spiritual source of inspiration was taken as something else entirely. The Story told of a secret brotherhood, over 200 years old, founded by the discoverer of the Philosopher's Stone, one Christian Rosenkruetz. Christian, the tract explains had lived a long time, due to the wondrous properties of the magical stone, and the order was said to teach aspirants the same secret along with the other secrets of the universe. Well. Well, well, well.  Again, whatever you might believe about such things notwithstanding, the effects of The Story, and the tracts which followed had a profound effect on society. Whether the brotherhood existed or not, something definitely happened. In point of fact the organization of Free Masonry likely owes much to the pamphlets, and by extension many of the subsequent magical orders like the Golden Dawn, the Ordo Templi Orientis and others. The point here is that most scholarship points to the Rosicrucian Manifestos as a hoax. Perhaps a well intentioned hoax, but essentially rooted more in a hope of what might be rather than a reality that was. Whether the Masonic Brotherhood achieved the goal of the pamphlets in question is not for discussion here, but rather stands as an example that by putting truth out there, even in the form of fictional literature we can effect reality profoundly, and reveal a deeper truth in the hearts of men than we might have imagined. Overly dramatic? Perhaps.

The fact is that the staff of Kenzer & Company decided to do something about all those letters they were receiving. Why not make the game? From what I've heard, read and watched at first they were just like, "Ha! No, it's just a spoof based on AD&D guys" with smiles and chuckles. But somewhere along the way the idea came forward. We should make Hackmaster real. Not only would people obviously buy it, based on the letters they were getting, it would be fracking cool!

Now, this is important. Because Kenzer and his gamer-employees knew and understood the style of gaming that KODT embodied. In fact many of the ideas and thoughts in the comic had come from their own games and campaigns--just amped up to "Eleven" as it were. It would be cool exactly because they were going to write the version of AD&D they had been playing all along, and even maybe make it more cool in the process. And I can't say too much here about the process. They haven't given a lot on the details of the; They have said that they didn't think they would be allowed to at first. But when they got permission, dumbfounded, they were given the caveat that it had to be satire. No problem, that was the whole point wasn't it? And of course it would be based on AD&D, the best and worst of it--all that made it what it was--drawn in high relief. It was as if the writer of the Rosicrucian Manifestos had actually created a Rosicrucian Order exactly like the tracts had promised

I've wondered if there wasn't some secret hope that Dave Kenzer and the other designers would be able to write a game more to their liking. In other words, change things mechanically to "fix" some of what was wrong with the system. I'm not sure, but the final version is clearly a lovingly and well crafted work of devotion to a game they clearly knew very well and loved all the more. But the end product appears to reflect the decision that this game is AD&D on steroids and with an anger problem. Whatever the case was, I am so thankful they did just that. Because in so doing they were achieving something that they wouldn't have by going another direction. Constrained by license restrictions? By creative vision? Or was the end product simply their vision of all the awesomeness that AD&D was? Who knows--but it was a magnificent blessing.

I have run across too many gamers to count who explain something similar to "I found AD&D again!" upon discovering HM 4e (the first edition of the game was released as 4e to parody the many "editions" of D&D and the inevitable edition wars that followed each release). Gamers who, after a long hiatus, were returning to D&D after an absence entered the market confused and overwhelmed by the state of the industry. They would stumble across HM 4e and realize, holy snit, somebody rewrote AD&D and its Badhats! Gamers saddened by the decreasing quality of the game, the sale of its IP to WoTC and the noise of a "third" edition of D&D on the horizon, pining for the "good old days" would find a copy of HM 4e and realize someone had obviously picked up the AD&D torch and re-lit it! Huzzah!

I came to the game myself in much the same way. I found KODT again around the year 2006/7. I was fully in the throes of the budding OSR, and lamenting the current state of the gaming industry and the loss of the games of the Golden Age. Coming to KODT in that frame of mind perhaps primed me, but my story is like so many others it can't be just coincidence. In the covers of that comic I felt like I had come home. Here was my gaming world. All was not lost, it was alive and well here with the Knights. By the end of that issue I was searching online to see if this game Hackmaster was really a thing--and lo and behold it was! To try and describe to you these feelings is, well, you have to be an old school gamer to really appreciate it maybe. I was on cloud nine. That is until I found out they had surrendered their license to WoTC and were developing their own game. But more on that in a minute.

You see, what Kenzer & Company had done was develop the idea of KODT into something much more coherent and real than just a funny satire. They developed an alternate world where a caricature of Gary Gygax still ran TSR, called Hard 8 Enterprises (a brilliant joke in itself) and he rules the gaming world with an iron fist. The rule books were written from that half antagonistic, arrogant point of view as if the company and the game ran that way. In short they had recreated a parody of TSR and the gaming age and culture that existed in the 70's and 80's. Then Hackmaster came along as the expression of that very culture. By the time the game rolled off the presses there was a hungry and willing group of fans ready to jump on board and play in a community of people who operated under the collective fiction that was the Hackmaster universe. Thus perhaps without meaning to, KenzerCo had recreated a model of TSR, a culture to go with it, the community to support it and a game that was as kickhats as AD&D.

Some have criticized the game (HM) on the grounds that it made no sense to play a game that was about a bunch of gamers playing a game. As if they were the Knights of the Dinner Table. But that was never the point. I don't know if the designers really knew what to expect from their game , but what they created was a full fledged role playing game that could be played on its own count. Nor, am I sure what the fans first expected when they picked up that shiny new HM book still hot off the presses. What many people discovered however was that HM was all the game they ever could have wanted. And no, Dave, Brian, Barb, Jolly, and Steve were not exactly like TSR, or Hard 8. They are nice people, and hence my recent post on being magnanimous as a gamer. But what they did have in common is that they embodied that old school ethos that so any of us recall as the heart of the age. The TSR clone existed within KODT, the culture was influenced by the stories, play and writing in the magazine and the rulebooks. And the fans ate it up.

No other company has managed to achieve this illusion. I say illusion, because Hard 8 doesn't really exist, nor does the KODT community. Not exactly anyway. But I don't think it really can in this day and age. The best we can do is enshrine it in the context of the game we play. And though we can try and sometimes achieve it, Kenzer Co and Hackmaster have something special and that ace in the hole is KODT. I'm not sure if they know how important that element is to their success, but I'm sure they are more aware than even I am. But the comic book (which isn't really an apt description of what it is) is the beating heart of keeping that illusion alive. AD&D still lives, within the pages of KODT, and within the writing of the brilliant staff of designers. And as long as it lives so will the community of gamers who believe in the true spirit of the age.

Having said that ... Here comes my broken hearted bombshell. Above I mentioned that Kenzer has rewritten their game, did so in about 2009. Now, I've played the new game Hackmaster 5e or Advanced Hackmaster (a term which never quite caught on). It's a good game, with some solid old school sensibility and some cracking new mechanics. A tribute to designers who love to game. But I worried, and my worries weren't unfounded. I don't know if it impacted their bottom line any, but HM 5e is not HM 4e and it is not AD&D--I'm not even sure it can be called a variant. Now, I will also readily admit that HM 4e was not exactly AD&D, but it was clearly trying to be. You could see it as clearly as the blood on the overkill cover art--this was an AD&D game. But HM 5e is its own game, only moreso. And it does what it does very well. But remember above when I said that I believe it takes all three elements to recreate the spirit and heart of AD&D: A TSR like company shaping the industry, a gaming culture shaped by that industry, and an AD&D game. KCo removed one of those pillars and the illusion has suffered.

By the way, I don't blame them for this. I don't think they ever asked or intended to be the heir apparent of AD&D, or to recreate the past. They are smart and capable designers and as they have said: create the games they want to play. I have read the magazine now, worried that it would lose some of its magic as well. I have seen hints of that happening, but that just might be my own perspective as much as any real change in the background against which the game is set (5e now instead of 4e). Their new game, while a fine one, is distinctly divorced from KODT. While they retained some of the edge and highlighted satire of 4e, they were aiming at a distinctly more serious and "grown-up" game if you will. However, the magazine continues to successful and it appears that 5e is doing fine. Which has taught me that it isn't just the fact that KODT recreated an age in its pages, but that it parodies and satirizes gamers generally. We have seen the point and the point is us--to shamelessly twist a phrase. We see in KODT the truth of our own gaming hearts, and the heart of not just AD&D, but of gaming perhaps. Praise to KCo for that.

However, as I draw this entry to a close, finally (phew), I am left still wondering where the magic is and if any can truly sustain it. I could have just as easily written about all the games and groups in which they are having as much fun as they did "back in the day" or even more--without a TSR clone, or wider community. I still have fun gaming--even D&D Next (currently). But it is not the same. I have tried to play the old way with new rulesets--it does not work. The conclusion is inevitable. We have lost something. We have not just preserved what was good and cast off what was not. Yes, change is inevitable, but we also lose something in the process, and despite what we may think it is not always for the better. That is at the heart of nostalgia. We don't just long for the good times because we have forgotten the bad memories. We long for the goodness inherent in what we long for. We are longing for something, and that longing represents a desire of something we consider valuable. Something that roused our passions, gave us purpose in a way we do not now feel. Saudade, the Portuguese word for something like nostalgia, includes the haunting realization that despite our longing for what we once had but have lost, it also represents the feeling of becoming aware that we can never regain it. It is lost forever. I've written about this too. But it apparently is time for a correction to that post. For the revelation here is that I was wrong. Saudade is not the correct feeling here. We can find it again. Some have come so close it was almost perfect, but let it slip away.