Friday, August 25, 2017

Reading James Maliszewski

James Maliszewski's Grognardia


I have been re-reading all of James Maleszewski's blog entries over the past few days. I miss Grognardia and I miss James. Frankly, I think the internet gaming community did him wrong. I don't know the whole story, and I'll probably earn myself some enmity as well, but I have to to think he bowed out from the fallout over his failed Kickstarter campaign. I know some people probably have the right to be pissed off, failed Kickstarters seem to be endemically plagued with this sort of thing. And honestly I don't know the whole story and don't want to. James is evidently a sensitive soul, as this early post points out. I think most creative souls are inherently sensitive, and James was no exception. I think those who chewed him up, besmirched his reputation and bad mouthed him, failed to see the forest for the trees. Before we knew it, the Pope of the OSR (a title he never asked for) had fallen silent and we lost a strong and eloquent voice for the OSR. But, please, this is not what I want to really talk about. I prefer to remember James for the amazing ideas he had, the voice he spoke with and the OSR philosophy he espoused. He has helped me frame a few things in my mind and that is what I wanted to talk about here.


I have spent alot of pixels lately on writing why AD&D is my preferred edition and opining on AD&D's place in the arch of D&D history. Some have disagreed with my conclusions which has sent me looking for answers, mostly for myself, but for the blog as well. For, see, this blog has caused me to wonder if it has outlived its usefulness for others and myself in the gaming world. The OSR is not what it was. It has entered a phase past the hobbiest stage and into the professional production stage. The products now available to pursue old school gaming have high production values and are at least beautiful to look at if not always perfect representatives of the OSR James had envisioned. But I think James argued quite persuasively that the old school ethos of OD&D was aimed at the "hobbyist" and not the professional producers. 

OD&D, if I understand James' take, was a system that was designed for the creator. You were taking the framework provided and "imagining the hell out of it" as the early books encouraged. It was a platform to build not only your own world, but your own version of the game based on what you wanted to achieve. The Original version clones that have come out since '08 have all aimed to one degree or another at recreating this approach; and the simulacra that now flood the market are the end result of what this approach to Original D&D can achieve.

I think this approach is great, and in many ways would agree that this was the original inspiration that allowed Dungeons & Dragons to manifest. And by manifest I mean this creative momentum was the "snapshot" that was captured in the three LBBs and sent out to the world. I would also argue that the original creators thought others would do the same thing they were doing--"imagine the hell out of it". Now whether you can call all the different games that were being played across the land based on this fertile seed D&D is a matter open to discussion. I would say yes, basically. But I present a question to you: is the wonderful game Crypts & Things D&D? Or Astonishing Swords ans Sorcerers of Hyperborea? Or Adventurer, Conquerer, King? What about Lamentations of the Flame Princess? And how about Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG? In this way, yes--these simulacra are all D&D. They are clearly based on a rough D&D outline, and therefore they have a direct descendancy from D&D in the original spirit and intention.

What they are is an approach to play that is strongly flavored by campaign differences implied in play. The rules of the game make strong world and campaign implications as to how the game is played. And this is fine, as the original approach to D&D really required that a DM make these kinds of adjustments and decisions and creative elaborations to fill out the game. This approach to D&D, the original approach, is what James makes clear and others, like Matt Finch, still argue for and prefer. I don't know if argue for is quite the right approach. While they may at times lament that games took a different turn, they generally don't throw stones, but instead like and encourage this particular style of play. 

If you haven't read the Grognardia posts, I strongly encourage you do so--even if you don't play in this way. They are an amazingly insightful journey of one gamer grappling with what he feels D&D is and what style of play he really prefers. James calls this style of play pulp fantasy, and bases its genesis in the pulp fiction of early to late middle 20th century speculative fiction of the day. He also makes subtle insinuations that, though he cannot be entirely sure, this inspiration is what D&D is really based upon. I think, to a large degree he is correct. But I think this has less to do with what D&D "is" than what flavors colored the early imaginings of the game. For we have to admit, if Original D&D is this open ended rule set designed to allow people the thinnest skeleton of a starting point from which to build up their fantasies on, then it should not be constrained to pulp.

Defining D&D

One thing James did not do, which I have done many times :-), is undertake to definitively say what D&D "is". In fact in one insightful blog post he deliberately avoids defining D&D, but rather gives evidence to what is once was and what he wishes it were again. In yet another he hits on, I think, the real issue of defining D&D when he says "That's because, to read OD&D out of its proper cultural context is to misunderstand it." He points out that those who saw problems with the old editions only saw them because they were not a part of the culture of the older editions. In tying the definition of D&D to culture James hit upon something that narrowed the definition of D&D as well as widened it. D&D could be defined as the game you were playing and or preferred. Of course, endless edition wars have been fought blind to this inherent truth. I admit I have made the same error in trying to focus on the narrow approach that D&D is the way I play it, instead of the more magnanimous and realistic approach that we are all "right" and that the way you play D&D can just as easily be defined as D&D as well.

Doesn't that feel all warm and fuzzy? Perfect for our overly politically correct world today :-) And no, in case you were wondering, it doesn't sit well with me. And it didn't sit well with James either. In numerous entries, James lamented the overly commercial approach to games in general and D&D in particular. The "brandification" of the name and the game to James' eyes (at least as far as I can tell) bothered him and pulled the game further and further away from what it once was, and it seems to me what it was intended to be.

Something became clear to me recently when I read a post somewhere about an older gamer walking into a game store and seeing young gamers salivating over tables of MTG cards and totally engrossed in the digital additions to the tabletop world. What this observer pointed out was that it reminded him himself back in the day when he walked into the hole in the wall shops we used to frequent. The looks on our faces drooling over Judges Guild supplements and the latest module on the small shelf space they took up back then. These new young gamers, so vital to the continuation of our hobby, are experiencing the same feelings and emotions we had. And they experiencing it over the latest editions and the culture that surrounds the game today. Are we wrong to decry this excitement? Should we crap on their interest simply because it's not like we remember? Of course not. The danger of course is that our preferred style of play gets forgotten or avoided or worse goes extinct, because of lack of new blood, new interest.

Are these young players playing D&D? Of course they are, regardless of edition. I might have disagreed with that earlier in this blog, in fact I have. And really, the expansive nature of the original edition has brought us to where we are today. I still maintain that part of what D&D does is encourage imagining outside the lines and thus we have the continual reimagining of the game in edition after edition. I personally think the differences in the last three editions of D&D are much greater than in most revisions of other game systems. Even 5e went to its roots and built up a new game from those original inspirations. But this gift of D&D: creative freedom, is also its curse. As I said, the differences of each D&D far outweigh the similarities, and I think that is bad for the game overall. As long as D&D can bring in new blood and old gamers switch to new editions the D&D market commodity will live on. And what D&D is, like James points out, is more about what you think it is, rather than what edition is currently sitting on the store's shelves.