Saturday, September 16, 2017

What Frank Mentzer Taught Me

If anybody has gaming in their blood it is the old guard of the TSR D&D generation. Sure, others have it, I like to think I have it, but put up against a GBC (Gaming Blood Count) comparison I feel that the earliest creators and designers have the greatest percentage. Now, that doesn't mean what they say is law, or that it shouldn't be disagreed with or gone against--nothing of the sort. These guys are human, sometimes moreso than even they might like. But they have been in the gaming trenches for the longest. They have a level of experience and have dealt with things most of us haven't seen or even imagined. And they are the ones who broke through into the industry, piled up a string of firsts, navigated those unknown waters, defended the game against the Satanic Panic, the yellow journalism and carried on. Through it all, they brought gaming to us today. I have a lot of respect for these guys, and their stripes earn them more than a few passes on any number of faults they might possess or display in the industry. And as another aside these folks from early TSR have done a lot to help the gaming world understand the beginning of the hobby and how things worked in those foundational years--a shout out to Tim Kask particularly for the excellent insights he has given in this regard.

I'll be the first to admit that I put these guys on a pedestal they themselves probably don't want to be elevated to. When they make comments I listen. I try not to venerate or idolize, but I could certainly be accused of doing so at times, especially with regards to Gary Gygax, as my past blog posts readily attest. Today, though, I want to refer to something Frank Mentzer recently said, and how it has affected me. Namely, in response to recent troll related drama online Mr. Mentzer was quoted as saying,

"A common characteristic of most Old-School sites is adherence to one specific point in the Past, generally out-of-print game systems. Very cool. Nothing wrong with that, most systems have value to many. But of all the tabletop RPG fans, the OSR buys the fewest New Products. This is fine [if] I want to give things away... strongly preferred in these circles of course. Culturally the OSR is unique and priceless, and I applaud it. But they have chosen to be irrelevant to the current market."

Now, I analyzed this quote in my last blog post, which you can refer to if you like. Today I wanted to talk on a more personal level about what Mr. Mentzer has made me think and helped me clarify for myself.

I love AD&D as my mind remembers it, from back in the day. And the reason I emphasize those words is that the first thing Mr. Mentzer's words helped me process was that I was nurturing a false memory. I was talking to my brother, also an avid gamer, about it when I was able to first express the idea. I think I remember the AD&D game as something it really wasn't. That may not sound revolutionary, and in fact, I've talked around this idea on my blog before. I am not the first to realize that the 1e game was something none of us played in its entirety. We didn't use all of the rules. What most of us did was play something that was alot like the Original Game with all the added bits and the new 1e content. It varied from group to group, I'm sure, but this idea--that we all played a kind of sort of AD&D game--is what gave rise to many later simulacra and variants.

The two that probably come to mind strongest are Castles & Crusades and Labyrinth Lord with AEC. Soon after came Swords & Wizardry Complete (not quite as smooth, but certainly more "complete"). These were variously advertised as "The Rosetta Stone of RPGs", "0e with all the Supplements", and "1e the way we remember playing it". So, obviously I am not the first person to realize this. But my realization was something slightly more than this. I have written before on my blog about nostalgia and saudade--that melancholic ache that comes with the realization that something long ago was lost and is now not only longed for , but longed for along with the realization that it can never be regained. This too was a part of my realization, and still something more. Memories that come to us nostalgically, inevitably censor the unpleasant bits out. It is exceedingly hard for us to be honest with ourselves and admit that things are never quite as sweet as we remember them to be.

I recently heard a radio program about a wrongfully imprisoned gentleman who served 23 years for a crime he didn't commit. He talked about how bittersweet being released was. He said that what kept him alive for 23 years on the inside, what made him able to endure the harsh reality of prison life, was his light filled and beautiful memories of the outside. He explained how on the inside everything is gray, lifeless, lit by glaring fluorescent lights, and dirty. No matter how they cleaned it was always dirty. In contrast his memories of the outside seemed clean, sparkling, and filled with light. He said it even smelled sweet and the breeze was always just cool enough to refresh. Of course when he got out, while it was wonderful to be free, it far from lived up to his memories of it. He said the outside is often dirtier than inside, harsher at times, and the breeze is often hot and dry, or bitter and cold. His memories had been falsely elevated in spite of having been based on the reality of his life before.

Is that what I had done to myself in regards to AD&D? Was I lying to myself? I'm not trying to cheapen those memories or denigrate AD&D at all, I'm just trying to be honest with myself. I mean if all I needed was to play with rules that sought to mimic "how we really played" I should be able to just pick up LL AEC, or C&C. Which I had done and still not been able to recapture the "magic". That's why my realization had to go deeper still.

AD&D was culturally bound. In fact it is one of the reasons 1e and 2e are so very different, even if they are not all that mechanically distinct--in fact can almost be played interchangeably. 1e was born in an age of pre-fantasy glut. The majority of fantasy works at the time were a weird combination of Swords & Sorcery, Science Fantasy, Early Low Fantasy (JRR Tolkien, Le Guinn, Zelazney, Anthony, Aspirin, Donaldson, Alexander, Norton, Moorcock, de Camp, Howard,) Star Trek TOS, Dr. Who, Silver & Bronze age comic book production, Star Wars: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, & Return of the Jedi,  Led Zeppelin, Rush, Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult and a host of other cultural phenomena of the time. Heck it was even engendered in part by the occult, the rise of witchcraft, polytheism and the Satanic Panic. All of it came together, for many of us at the most impressionable time of our lives -- early adolescence and teenage-hood. It was a time of overwhelming biological chemistry  and psychological angst. For me tied up in my first true friendships, first loves, renaissance fairs and SCA camps. I lived and breathed Dungeons & Dragons, fantasy and adventure as deeply and longingly as I could. All of that wove together in the wild and strange time of the 70's and the early 80's. And by the time we had made it through, and were graduating, sweating in basic training, and stumblingly trying to come to grips with real life it was over and second edition had arisen.

2e scrubbed most of the hard, sharp edges off the game, just like society was trying to scrub it off of life as well. We settled into the age of early adulthood, and the chemicals, both biological and illicit began to rinse out of our systems, the world seemed less dangerous and a lot less magical. Even our game had been tamed down to a nice safe level. This too was a response to cultural forces. The same forces that gave us political correctness, bumper lined playgrounds, and stranger danger was increasingly working at making life sparkly and pretty and accepting and really rather dull. Or so it seemed to us who had grown up in the hard edged days of the rise of D&D.

In fact what you see today in the rise of games like DCC RPG, LotFP and it's much maligned supposedly x-rated and abominable Carcosa, have sought to reach back into those dark and dangerous times we recall from the early days of the games when demons were real and the Gods spoke to gamers. All elements that scared the Christian right and most of traditional society bat shit crazy. Such a phenomena is not unknown in other forms of creative expression as well. Music created today inevitably reaches back to the sounds the musicians heard in their youth, the movie makers seek to make real the fantasies they first encountered in their young hypersensitive childhoods. Thus we have Peter Jackson making over the top and epic rewrites of the LoTR, and Disney co-opting Star Wars for their own purposes, and a Marvel and DC cinematic empire that has strayed so far from canon I don't even recognize it anymore. The thing is, a work life Carcosa, brilliant though it is, is decried as unfit for consumption or gaming, but to me it was simply a delightful riff on the edgy tone of those early gaming days.

I'm not trying to be grumpy cat here, just trying to pull the lid back on a cultural phenomenon that affects us all, whether we like it or not. And I'm not saying we shouldn't have these movies, or music or the games we have today. My kids love them, hell all kids love them and a boatload of adults do to. Why? Because the production values are so good kids can't help but be enthralled and for the rest of us it reminds us of our childhood. Even though they are awesome and quite exciting though, they don't quite see to match up to what giants they seemed to us back in the day. They can't compete with a censored memory that nothing can quite measure up to. And the fact is the kids and teens of today will build upon the foundation of what today's adults create from the bones and artifacts of the dust covered cities of their youth. And so it goes.

That, my friends was the synergistic swirl of thoughts that came to me that night, talking to my little brother, now a 38 year old successful CEO of a multi-million dollar real estate company, myself a public school principal pushing 50 and both of us still as much in love with this game as we ever were. That, is part of what Frank Mentzer taught me. Thank you again Lord of the Red Box.