Saturday, January 14, 2017

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.

Friday, January 13, 2017

OSR Philosopher

So I was reading old OSR posts, articles and online essays recently and came across this little gem at The Escapist wherein the author made the comment,

"If the retro-clone creators are the "engineers" of the movement, the bloggers are its "philosophers." They provide the rationale behind the rejection of modern rules sets and in favor of the hobbyist approach to gaming that they believe harkens back to its earliest days. It is here that controversy often arises, since the opinions of many old school bloggers are seen -- rightly -- as a challenge to the verities of the modern hobby, especially its increasing commercialization and detachment from its own history."

You could have knocked me over with the proverbial feather. "Philosopher" of the OSR. How many days and nights, months, years even, had I struggled inwardly with what role I and my blog played in relation to gaming generally and the OSR specifically? I had even come to the conclusion that I had been basically "wrong". That my struggle was naught but the inevitable pushback against the new wave of gaming and the personal journey of release and acceptance that the gaming past is past and the new gaming world had arrived. 

The trouble was I never felt it. I never fully felt at peace with this acceptance. I was still plagued by gaming angst of a better world we were surrendering in favor of a hollow, plastic coated future imitation. Sorry, but there it is. 

Now, here was this 2009 essay coming along like a gentle breeze of the recent past, laced with the hint of exotic spices and fond memories. I was a "philosopher" of the age. I had never really intended that, in fact had actively noted my embarrassment that all I did on my blog was philosophize, theorize and justify the reasons the old was worth preserving and contained, as a truth, the real heart of the hobby. 

As you can tell, by my sporadic blogging efforts as of late, that despite my best efforts I can't maintain my interest in the new age. I post once or twice and then lose interest. I have tried to enter the ranks of the OSR engineers, started several websites to put my creations out there, adventures, races, classes, rules variations, etc. But none of them got off the ground--that is just not my forte'. So, like it or not, I'm guess Maliszewski was right--I am just an OSR gaming philosopher.

So ... What the heck does that imply? I mean I'm playing D&D Next (5e to most of the rational world) in a weekly game now, and busy working on my campaign world and the next adventure. Aren't I just a one of the apparently many, happily reformed OSR grognards? Happy that 5e tried to at least nod towards old school? Happy that the OSR made real change? That 5e happened at all? 

Well ... No. I have looked back on my time playing 3.5, 4 and now 5e and frankly each experience was about equal. There was I time I had fun playing 4e, and 3.5. Even Pathfinder. But each of them left me wanting, and none lasted more than a year or two. And then I was left with a stack of new, very expensive books, a gaming group that was all wrapped up in the new game--many never even having heard of AD&D at all--and wondering what the hell I was doing. 

None had the real magic. None had the old heart and spirit of my time spent with AD&D. 

Meaningless notalgia? Saudade? Sehnsucht?

To be truthful, I don't know. I am more than aware that those suffering from nostalgia, see the longed for past with rose colored glasses. We pine only remembering the good and not the bad. All the angst I experienced in "the good old days" over the yellow journalism of the 80's, the Satanic Panic that made members of my church burn their D&D books and forced me through no small vale of true moral torture as I chose to hang on to the hobby I loved despite the best efforts of the morality/spirituality police. Also the deep longing I felt as a teen to leave this gray dismal existence for the much brighter, magical and seemingly real existence of my fantasy worlds. The friends who seemed eternal at the time, best bosom comrades who I felt were the center of my universe that, slowly, one by one, got picked off by life's hardships and faded away into my past; the few that remain, now only reaching out with the occasional distant annual, or less, email. My teenage years from 12 to 24 were a time of vapid preoccupations, all consuming passions, whirlwind social crashes and explosive burns. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I most decidedly do NOT romanticize those years. I made lots of mistakes, my friends did too, and it very literally killed some of us. I would not want to live those years again, except only perhaps to fix some of those broken hearts and lives--mine and others. They are years tinged with regret, bittersweet pain, and yes, fond memories.

But our actual gaming. Dungeons & Dragons. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons to be exact. That was something special. I don;t know of bad memories associated with the actual game. That was what made the moral crisis of the 80's so difficult for me. Here was this amazing, liberating, inspiring, soul filling purpose. This creator of dreams, that drew the best from within us and pulled us together--that was incredible. Yes, I vacillated back and forth over whether I was supposed to play or was committing some modern new "sin", as intimated by my church. But the game itself, the games we had--bad memories? No. Not only no, but hell no! Those were literally the best of times. Perhaps only closely matched by the times we LARPed without knowing we were doing it. We ventured into the woods and expansive parks surrounding our neighborhoods to pretend sword fight, cast spells, imagine goblins, orcs, dragons and fairies alive within them, and hoping against hope that we might stumble upon the gateway into the world of D&D for real. It's what led me to start reading Tolkien, Conan, Comic books, C.S. Lewis, Zelazney, Anthony, Aspirin, etc. etc. It filled my life with wonder--even when I was questioning the source itself. None of that was bad. None of it.

Why haven't I been able to recreate that? What is lost that seems cannot be found? And how much of it was the actual system of AD&D versus something endemic to the time? Was it the gaming culture that existed to support the game in those days? The culture of gamers that arose around it? Or something else entirely?