Monday, January 16, 2017

Adventures Dark & Deep Redux

Some time ago I covered a promising new game called Adventures Dark & Deep by Joseph Bloch of Greyhawk Grognard fame. This post is a reboot of that post in light of my recent discussion on the magic that was AD&D. In that post I saw in Bloch's AD&D a true Gygaxian Legacy. I still feel that way. But the reason I want to revisit the game today is to consider if it can reach our goal of the true and living spirit that is AD&D.

Now I'm sure that this doesn't matter a hill of beans to Mr. Bloch. Unlike me he hasn't wandered all over gaming creation in the past ten years or more. He went on to found a company BRW Games, finish his work on AD&D and produce numerous expansions, supplements and the like, attend conventions, market his product and slowly build a community that would support it. All this in addition to his loving tribute to Greyhawk and his continuing work thereon. And my estimation one way or the other is not likely to slow his roll in the great direction he has been heading since then. But when when we're talking about AD&D magic we can't go far without reckoning with Joseph's work and what he has accomplished. Let us then take each of our criteria in turn and see where it takes us

First, as we said, the game should be a true AD&D game.

I would really urge you to read my old post on Joseph's AD&D to get the backstory, but I'll summarize here. Back then I was entertaining a thought experiment on what Gary Gygax would have done with a second edition of AD&D had he been allowed to create it. We all know he was not a part of the redesign of 2e in any significant way, as he was being sidelined and eventually would be shoved out of the company. However, he was actively thinking about it and had dropped a few clues as to what he might change should he get the chance. As I was researching these clues I came across a post by Joseph Bloch on this very topic. Turns out Mr. Bloch had thought about this long before I did and had already compiled the research. Not only that, he was already writing his own version of the edition that "might have been." A game he called Adventures Dark & Deep ~ nice. 

As a result what we have is the original AD&D with a few updates. The Adventures Dark & Deep system is essentially AD&D, and unlike Hackmaster it is produced with absolute sincerity and fidelity to the original. Bloch's game is in fact a very close model of what Gary might have done had he had the chance--at least it seems to me that it is, only Gary could say for sure. So, a system that is clearly AD&D? Check, in spades.

Second, a company that can take the place of TSR?

Here, by guess and by golly, I am going to give a hesitant yes and no. First of all most game design companies today have learned from TSR's mistakes and, as mentioned previously, are unlikely to recreate the raw, stumbling days of gaming's infancy. What I'm saying is the BRW is a conservative, small company, mostly made up of contributors as the opportunity presents itself. Slow and steady, as they say. They all seem to be nice people aimed at trying to simply stay productive and creative, not become millionaires. Thus they aren't quite like TSR, but they have something else very powerful going for them. Greyhawk. 

With Joseph's work as Greyhawk Grognard and his expansive and deep knowledge of that game world he brings something to the effort that makes up for the hard edged TSR ethos. But the fact is BRW is the final word as regards Adventures Dark & Deep and its associated supplements and rules. It is their game, they control it and any who play know that. They aren't opposed to people making stuff up for their campaigns, and even give guidelines in their bestiary has to how to accomplish that. Who knows? They might even welcome the interest of others putting their stuff out there to build interest in the game--but take that up with them, don't take my word for it. And one can forgive the fact that these are gamers not only with lives, but careers outside of gaming, so for a part time effort they've accomplished a lot in the right direction. 

So, Greyhawk and a decently supported and well controlled version of AD&D? Wow, I'm becoming impressed. It's thin, but it's developing. And though Mr. Bloch's presence is steady on his Greyhawk Grognard blog, BRW and production was quiet during 2016. As an aside there are some projects in the works to support GH even more thoroughly, but I'm not sure where those stand just now. Likely still since the IP for GH is still unavailable. 

Third: A community shaped by the game and company?

This is the area where the work continues. Things move slowly in the indie gaming world, and though Adventures Dark & Deep does have its supporters it is a small group. The online presence is soft, and mostly centered on Joseph's continued presence on Greyhawk Grognard. 

So where does that leave us in terms of Adventures Dark & Deep fulfilling our order? Well, I feel like he has certainly made a good effort in that direction. Possibly enough to make a person like myself jump on board and support those efforts. But I also think the road is a hard one. The idea of building up the game in the way I am talking about is a Herculean task--possibly even Sisyphean.

Which, although I am embarrassed to ask myself--what am I going to do about it? At least Joseph got his project off the ground. I could have chosen to help him back then, but didn't. Sure, I covered it in a blog post? (Actually the club I ran almost selected Adventures Dark & Deep as our preferred game and I did enter into a discussion with Joseph about the possibilities. But in the end we didn't and it didn't go anywhere.) But what did I do tangibly. And I ask myself again: What can I tangibly do? 

I mean, it's fine to sit here in front of my computer and pontificate about gaming and editions and what is and what isn't this or that--but what the hell am I doing about it? If I don't think the magic is there, then maybe it's time to weave some magic. I sort of used to think that my blog was a part of the effort, part of the fight to reclaim the old school and perhaps make some sort of difference. At least a voice in the crowd. However, in the end, if that's all I do, waiting around for someone to do someone else do do something ... After all, here I am, still. At least Joseph got out there, like Kenzer did and actually accomplished something. There's going to come a day when my game books are just someone else's inheritance, or GoodWill donation. And what will I have left behind?

What will I have left behind?

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.

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.