Monday, January 16, 2017

Who the Hades am I to ...

Undoubtedly by now some have taken issue, at least silently, with eye rolls, or expletives and curses on my gaming progeny. Then again, maybe you've just ignored my philosophical prattle. I mean just who the Hel am I to decide what the spirit of AD&D is, or whether and if it has been achieved or not?

You are absolutely right. Sort of. And you deserve an answer. Who I am is just the person to decide for myself. I might also be the person to perhaps help others who consider the same questions; or are at least interested. However, I might not be the person for you.

I suppose, if anything, (and I've said this before) I have learned over time that gaming is not so much about rulesets and editions and such. It is about having fun and the people you are playing with.

What I haven't been able to figure out is why, given that this might be true, I still feel as if something is missing from my gaming. Hence the origin and rationale of the last three posts. And, after all, though I might best be described as an OSR philosopher (a rather mediocre one at that) this blog is ultimately about me and my thoughts. So take my philosophical ramblings with a grain of saltpeter. (There's a joke there:-)

Who Got Served by the OSR?

I also wanted to cover another point in detail that I had alluded to in my previous post. While making the point that the OSR can't emulate TSR (not that it ever intended to), it became clear to me that the OSR actually has become the perfect culture for those seeking to emulate the Original/Classic D&D era. Classic D&D is one name by which the Basic/Expert series of D&D books were known. B/X D&D being the heir to the original three little brown books.

Allow me a necessary aside: there are a number of ways to look at the development of early D&D, but this is more or less the way I understand it.

Original D&D consisted of the first three books: Men and Magic; Monsters & Treasure; and The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures. These were written in 1973 and '74. The ethos of this time was one of unbridled creativity in regards to the game. The game itself was so skeletal and ill defined, that it almost required judges and players to make up rules to cover areas that were left undefined. In fact at the end of the third book, Underworld and Wilderness Adventures it was stated as such,

"There are unquestionably areas which have been glossed over. While we deeply regret the necessity, space requires that we put in the essentials only, and the trimming will oftimes have to be added by the referee and his players. We have attempted to furnish an ample framework, and building should be both easy and fun. In this light, we urge you to refrain from writing for rule interpretations or the like unless you are absolutely at a loss, for everything herein is fantastic, and the best way is to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way! On the other hand, we are not loath to answer your questions, but why have us do any more of your imagining for you? Write to us and tell about your additions, ideas, and what have you. We could always do with a bit of improvement in our refereeing." (p. 36 bold, underlined emphasis mine)

Phase 2 can be seen as a trend that started in the Strategic Review and was more formalized with the publication of what Tactical Studies Rules called Supplements. These were titled: Greyhawk, Blackmoor, Eldritch Wizardry and Gods, Demi-Gods and Heroes. These were written in '75 and '76, and with their release and the continued work of the Review (which morphed into Dragon in mid '76) the foundations were laid for what would become Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. However, it is key at this point to realize that although the basic rules that would constitute AD&D were more or less in place, the characteristic culture of the time was still very much creative and free and chaotic. What was essentially being communicated to the fans and players was you can do just like we are doing with these supplements--anything is possible!

Phase 3 represented a shift that had been occurring, however, over the months in which TSR had published the supplements. This shift has been admirably covered by others far more in the know than me, but several salient points bear repeating. Tournaments had been a noteworthy success of the early wargaming societies such as the Castles & Crusades Society, and likewise had been an amazing early success for D&D. Not to put too fine a point on it, tourneys were money-makers for the new company. What was also becoming clear is that people were hungry for content. The early success of the supplements as well as the first D&D modules were a clear signal that pointed the company towards their next step. That step was official AD&D. It was also the prelude to the first edition war. The fact was the method of gaming that was free and unfettered was very popular, but there was so much variety and individual rules interpretations that D&D was losing a coherent identity. They needed an "official" version. However, the last thing they needed to do was lose customers, and there were lots of loyalists who preferred the "open gaming style" represented by the existing playstyle. Thus it was decided that AD&D would become the codified "official" rules for use in tournaments and new products at the advanced level. Basic would encode the early version of the rules represented by the first three brown books. In a nutshell anyway. [For any who would like a more detailed account of this change I would recommend Empire of Imagination by Michael Witwer and, as mentioned before The Tim Kask interviews at Dorks of Yore.] However, B/X would also preserve the open freedom enshrined in the Original version of the game.

Phase 4 happened over time, and was not so much a "decision" made by the company as it was a result of the decision to make a basic and advanced version of the game. At least as far as I can tell. Dr. Eric Holmes, who favored the earlier style of play, authored the Basic version of the game which TSR released in 1977. This version was very similar to the original three books with some small material from the supplements, mostly Greyhawk Supplement I. It was designed to be accessible to younger, more inexperienced players; and, most controversially, was designed as an introduction to AD&D play. I'll admit the model stinks. The idea is okay, but the game is clearly not apt as a preparation for AD&D; it is more like an incomplete game that gives you the general idea of roleplaying until you get to level 3. I've wondered if Dr. Holmes didn't approach the project more as a way to conserve his desired style of play instead of as an intro to AD&D. If so, this was a wise ove, because for a time it would give Original players a place in the fold. However that didn't stop this edition from fanning the flames of the edition wars among some fans. Essentially the compromise of a basic and advanced edition had failed, and all those who preferred the earlier playstyle were left out in the cold. The company continued, however, to focus on releasing its advanced books which it did with the Monster Manual, Players' Handbook and Dungeon Masters' Guide. These were released by 1979, as Basic was re-released in up to eleven printings. (By the way this was the time during which I entered the game, and explains why I saw Basic as an "inferior" or introductory style of play and not worthy of my time. My reprinted Holmes basic set with art by Dave Sutherland said as much. We did however, play B2, we just played it with Advanced rules.)

Phase 5 started with the revision of the Basic line. Tom Moldvay and Dave Cook were hired to rewrite the Basic line, but I must admit I can't prove why this was done exactly. I assume that it was clear that the Holmes Basic set had not acted as an introduction to the Advanced set, and that there were still players who preferred this style of play. On the positive side, the company could be seen as supporting those players with their own version. For the revision did not bring Basic more in line with the Advanced game, but rather father away from it. It would ideally, give these players a supported home. But it could also been seen, more cynically, as an attempt to bring those more creative, rogue players, who were largely doing their own thing, back into the paying customer mode much like AD&D had done to many others. A revised Basic would also serve to set up a more "official" version of the Basic game that could be supported at tournaments and serve as a platform for Basic supplements. In the final analysis it was probably a combination of the two. Either way we get the Moldvay Basic Set and the Cook Expert Set. (Again, as a personal aside, this also explains--since I came into the game in 1981--why I ended up with a Holmes/Sutherland boxed set, and a Cook Expert set. I could tell they were not meshed, which just confused me more at the time. Why did my Basic set say it was an introduction to Advanced, but the Expert set went to level 14? Only much later would that become clear to me. Though again, we did play X1 a few times.) The intent here was to expand the level advancement to 14 from the Basic set, as well as incorporate more rules for the edition covering wilderness play. The intent was always for Cook and Moldvay to extend the Basic/Expert game to a Companion volume, but that didn't happen until '83 with Frank Mentzer.

Phase 6 was the era of BECMI (Basic/Expert/Companion/Master/Immortal Sets) which started in 1983 and was engineered largely by Frank Mentzer. BECMI was likely the most popular of all the "Basic" sets. Though, by this time, Basic was no longer Basic at all, and was established as a distinct game from AD&D. It could also be argued that by this time, the "rogue" 0e crowd who wanted a free and open game had been disowned. Further elaborations from this set, notably the Rules Cyclopedia and the Black Box, were just clarifications and consolidations of a theme. Anyone who has read these sets or RC can easily tell we are dealing with a game every bit as complex in its way as AD&D.

The point of all this being that by the early 80's the old guard of 0e had either been converted to AD&D, or to the "Basic" line, or wer left playing "out of print".* The group we are talking about, the initial rebels, the proud grognards of the first edition war are those who loved that early, freer, more creative, improvisational style of play of the Original game. Some moved on to Holmes, even Moldvay/Cook, and some "Basic" players loved those versions but never played with the Original books, and still embraced the wild, dangerous, free style typical of early play. TSR sidelined these players early on, and in my opinion are the heart of the true OSR. They are its primary benefactors and its primary benefitors.

The OSR has flourished by their efforts largely because this group and this playstyle thrives without authority. They have no need of TSR, and they never did beyond the receipt of the original "idea" of D&D. They took that idea, made it their own and ran with it. Though TSR shut down their official efforts for over three decades, that didn't stop them from playing and enjoying their games and making their own design efforts. I feel, by and large, the OSR has served them well; this is in essence their golden age. To give a brief list of some of the ones we are talking about:
  • Mythmere: Swords & Wizardry
  • Goodman Games: Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG
  • Lamentations of the Flame Princess
  • Goblinoid Games: Labyrinth Lord
  • Astonishing Swords & Sorcerers of Hyperborea
  • Crypts & Things
  • Adventurer, Conqueror, King
  • Troll Lord Games: Castles & Crusades**
And we could go on and on. The communities that have arisen around these play styles are strong and very creative. In short they rock, and they do not need TSR or anyone else telling them what to do.

5e has tried to bring some of these players back into the fold, and more than a few have tried those boots on. But 5e hasn't really quite captured the freedom inherent in this play style. Most especially in terms of character creation and development, though it has done a few positive things in terms of DM fiat. The problem is that Original style of play is not just "rules light". Some of these games can become very complex and crunchy rules-wise. The key is that those rules arise out of play and the minds of the GM and players, not from a central source. 5e can allow this, but it also spells out a lot of the way things should be done if you are going to use additional rules. And my experience is that going a different direction with the rules than what WoTC has outlined does not work all that well. A true Original game allows for that to occur without ruining the basic design of the game's framework. While it's true that all homebrewed rules have to be tested and discarded if they are broken, a strong rules set allows the greatest strength of the core system with the greatest flexibility of rule additions. 

This being said, what has not happened is a strong sense of support for AD&D. Now, OSRIC is there, as are new modules and supplements from companies like Expeditious Retreat Press, Goodman Games and others. Admirable sources of community support like Dragonsfoot, Knights & Knaves and others tried, they really have. But if that was all that was needed--community support--we should be right were we need to be, no? What is missing? Well, as I mentioned in my previous posts--AD&D was an official vehicle that thrived under the environment that TSR created and the culture it supported. The same could also be said of BECMI/RC play, but I am not as familiar with those editions. Simply put, AD&D is not just about free PDFs of the originals and ongoing supplements and adventures. It was about something else. That's why 2e continued the flame to a degree and could extend the AD&D era into the 90's--although there were differences--AD&D continued to thrive because TSR was at the helm. We do not see a thriving AD&D community like we do an Original D&D community.

I think that has to do with the fact that you must have a rule set that is largely AD&D--you can't get away from that. You can make slight changes or additions, but the ruleset must scream AD&D. Hackmaster did this and thus kept it in the running. Few others have--though I am going to mention one other candidate in the next post. The thing about the games mentioned above are all clearly their own games to one degree or another. They are variants built up from an Original chassis if you will. The AD&D chassis, its system is so large, expansive and all inclusive it is hard to build a new vehicle up from that foundation without basically recreating the game--few have done this. Fewer still have built the kind of support such a system needs. 

And thus it doesn't change the ultimate conclusion: I do not feel the OSR has served the needs of the AD&D community like it has the Original D&D crowd. Just saying "here's this out of print game and we are writing lots of new adventures for it" is simply insufficient. Such model is missing exactly the elements I wrote about previously. 

* It can here be mentioned the "Basic" game deserves a different name than basic--hence the Classic moniker. But this too is not without difficulties. For when you are talking about the Classic game one really has to discern whether one means the Holmes style (which is rooted more in the 3 little brown books sans supplements); Moldvay-Cook style (which is essentially its own game, but still a very free and open basic style which was never officially elaborated beyond Basic and Expert); BECMI/Mentzer style (a more codified style of play reminiscent of Moldvay-Cook, but more codified and "official"); RC (which includes most of the popular and effective elements of BECMI); or Original style (being play rooted in the three brown books and possibly including supplemental material including home-brewed house rules). Though honestly, Original was generally a different beast from expanded Basic play; though I've known those who blend supplemental material (Supplements I thru IV) with Holmes or Moldvay/Cook rules.

** I feel the need to make a special case for Castles & Crusades. Why it wasn't included in my previous post about why some come close is that C&C is not an AD&D clone. C&C is a rules lite version of the original rules plus supplements. Even the Castle Keeper's Guide is clear that the rules they offer there are suggestions of what one could do if you wanted to bring in additional rules. Such is not he case with AD&D. One could say the same for Swords & Wizardry Complete, and Labyrinth Lord's Advanced Edition Companion. They are sometimes billed, as the way we really played AD&D. And while this may be true for some, if you were playing AD&D that way you were really playing Original D&D with supplements. Perfectly acceptable mind you. I have played both C&C and LL + AEC, and they are nice, quick games. What they are not is AD&D. OSRIC comes much closer and has a somewhat supportive community; but as I've mentioned lacks the central support of a TSR-like entity.