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Monday, April 20, 2020

Clarifying Thoughts with Tim Kask

Recently, Tim Kask gave an interview on the highly esteemed GrogTalk show, where Dan and James have hosted a number of the original D&D crew. Dan and James are a great listen; they are honest, straightforward, humorous and display an eagerly curious and humbly deep approach to the game that has filled a void in today's 1e community. And of course, Tim Kask is a true gem; also honest, straightforward, and a delightful storyteller to boot. He is simply fun to watch and to listen to. And deserves a great deal of respect, not just because of his roots and history with gaming, but because he is an awesome gentleman.

Now, I must mention, that in a search of the "ground" of D&D and its fertile subsoil, anyone we talk with is bound to give us their opinion of what occurred lo those five decades and more ago. But Tim brings a unique perspective on two counts. One, he was one of the very first at TSR, and two he was clearly a close confidant of Gary Gygax. The mere fact that Tim was asked to help "midwife", as he puts it, AD&D into existence speaks volumes for the trust Gary had in him and his, strongly held opinions aside, insight into what the game should and should not be.

Far be it from me to have to defend Tim's pedigree in the D&D history department, but original sources don't get any more authentic than Tim. Moreover, his story doesn't change much in the telling. I've listened to at least three different renditions in which he tells this story, and the basic story is the same. I go to the trouble to point all this out, because I am going to quote him here to back up some of my own thinking. And I feel this thinking is sound, based on the fact that it comes from a damn near impeccable source.

So about a quarter of the way into the interview, Dan eventually asks Tim about his "midwifery" of the AD&D game, and in doing so mentions that he knows Tim's preferred version is OD&D when Tim responds.

"Well, my game of choice is frozen in amber right between, forget Swords and Spells, that's for minis. Right before that and the publication of AD&D."

Just in case you aren't aware, this is considered the Original plus supplements age. It included almost all classes, races and optional rules in AD&D, but was still a very open ended game that encouraged lots of freedom and flexibility.

"The operating ethos of OD&D was, "We are the Borg." See an idea, take it. See a setting, use it. Spin it into a new web. It's what I do with the Wheel of Blame. You give me things and it's up to me to weave a story out of them. It's like story dice. So, we wove tapestries. That's what we did. We wove tapestries, and we tried to show other people how to do it."

This is an important statement, and is backed up by the phrase "imagine the hell out of it!" This was a game that encouraged, even required improvisation, creation and radically different approaches to the game, its milieu and the rules. This was the fire in a bottle that was the original game. And in my opinion was the fire that blossomed into a creative inferno with the OSR. It was also an incredible success in terms of the last part of the above quote, "and we tried to show other people how to do it." That they did, in spades. more on this to come. 

"At that point in time, Gary said, "Alright it's time." Now, there were a lot of reasons we did AD&D. One of the primary reasons was monetary. We made stupid amounts of money on the tournaments that we ran at conventions. Stupid amounts. For what it was back then. Different economy. But stupid amounts of our operating capital and our profits came [from tournaments]. We would have 400 people sign up for our tournaments. Well there were only 1100 people at that particular con. We started making regional cons bigger because of the draw we had. We had a DM shortage. O.K., we can't train DMs to think like we do, let's straighten out the rules."

Now, this is one of the most interesting statements I think has ever been made about the genesis of AD&D. Not the part about needing to maximize the money, or create a set of rules that could facilitate tournament play. That is fairly common knowledge. But the way Tim puts it when he says, "we can't train DMs to think like we do" opens a window into the possible etiology of their thinking. And this isn't contradicted by what Tim has said previously. He has said that Gary and he were simultaneously shocked and entertained by the letters they got from players saying that DMs were running games where players were fighting and killing gods! The extreme nature of some of the games inspired by Original Edition clearly showed that D&D had been turned into something they had never intended. But how could this be if they were playing the same edition? Well, saying that "we can't train DMs to think like us" possibly means that there was a style of the game that old schoolers were used to playing with 0e that you had to be of a certain mind to understand. You certainly could take it in crazy new directions, but that is not what they intended. In this light, much of what Gary says in RolePlaying Mastery makes so much more sense. I could go on now, but there's more to come. 

"So, Gary told me on a Thursday or Friday what's your next week look like. Or no, that was a Tuesday,  I said well I put a magazine to bed on Thursday, meaning it goes off to the printer for the final shot, which means I had four or five, six days before they would come back, depending upon where the weekend fell. He said, "Clear your next week." "Okay," I did. So I cleared my next week. He didn't tell me why. I came in, and well, over the weekend, we are still in the old gray house, across from the card station, next to the Pizza Hut. Well, he had gone around and taken every bulletin board, every cork board in the whole damn place down. He screwed every one of the boards to the walls! He covered every available square foot of his office. He had two windows in his office, he had the best office in the house, because he had two windows. He covered every other square foot and had two standing up against the wall. I looked at it and said "Okay, I guess I won't ask what we are gonna do." He said "We are gonna re-do the game." "Oh!" So I believe, it might be that Kevin's wife was hanging around then. Whoever was on phone duty was given orders that no calls were to be forwarded to either of us unless it was our wives. And we closed the door, and there was a little pile, I say a little pile, there were seven or eight brown box sets which we proceeded to cut up and mark up and trashed generally as we put them on the different bulletin boards. "Okay, this is for Basic and this is for Advanced. Okay, in Basic how are we gonna modify this?" And we put up the notes on how it's gonna be modified for Basic. And basically over the course of, well, it was all that week and most of Monday and possibly part of Tuesday the following week, that's what we did. We took breaks for lunch. He'd walk home. I'd go across the street to Pizza Hut or go up to the A&W or you know, whatever and we'd have lunch and we'd come back And that's how AD&D was born. And sometime later he showed up--we used to use these big gray cardboard boxes for manuscripts--and a couple of weeks later he showed up with the first manuscript and started churning them out. Because this was all typewriters back then. We had no digital files. We had to rewrite it every time. And Gary was a machine when it came to punching out typewritten pages. He was an absolute machine. And, it was decided that Mike Carr would be the editor and so he gave it to Mike to edit and then, on a Friday, and it was years and years later that I told Mike about this. On a Friday, Mike was supposed to have it back on such and such a Friday. Mike was a workhorse, god love him, I'm still friends with him. He had it finished before Wednesday before the deadline and Gary literally dropped it on my desk and said "Check this out and see how he did." I was appalled. I was being asked to check the work of my co-worker. I was really embarrassed. But I did it, and I brought it back on Monday and I said, "he did a great job." And so Mike became the editor for the series.

I left this in not for the newness of if, as I said this part has been shared by Tim multiple times before, and not just because it is a great story--because it is--but to point out the seemingly arbitrary way in which the division was originally made. Now, I know this is just a rough start to the process, and I'm sure the hefty manuscripts that Gary subsequently turned out only partially resembled the initial brainstorm that Kask and Gygax undertook. It would be interesting to know how much of a match there was. But the fact is, this massive revision of the game, if it were to be the masterwork, would have seemed to have required a more elegant masterplan. Certainly Gary had a specific vision in mind of what the game was going to be. Apparently not. This point informs what I believe was the organic nature of the development of D&D. We are going to expand on this as Tim expounds further.

After this, the next question Dan asks is how decisions were made in cutting up the original books and how decisions were made about what went in AD&D and what went in Basic. He also points out that we are talking about Holmes here, since that was the first Basic rewrite. Tim again clarifies,

"There's a distinction. The Holmes edition was way, way way watered down with the violence and the demons and the devils and the dragons and the lethality was way watered down. Because we wanted that to be for neophytes. Whether there were children of 9 or young adults of 17, we wanted a watered down version. Also we were taking tremendous shit from the religious right who thought we were calling up demons. We laugh about it now, that was real back then. They threatened our livelihood. Had they gotten more traction, they would have hurt us. As it was they brought us a lot of negative publicity and for awhile I'm sure they dampened sales. So, Holmes was a step away from that. It's not gonna have the dark stuff.

This is interesting as well. The idea that Holmes was designed as a reaction to the Satanic Panic. This is the one thing I was unaware of, because Holmes was published in 1977, and this seems a tad early for the Satanic Panic, James Dallas Egbert disappeared in 1979, but regardless of these Tim was there, so I don't doubt him. And it is clearly stated elsewhere that Holmes was designed to be a beginner's game. Anyone can see that AD&D did not make clear the way to actually start playing the game. It was perhaps ore clear than Original had been, but Advanced was not for newbies to gaming any more than Original had been. Holmes is clearly for people new to the game. And it is also clear fro the frequent references that to get more one had to go to AD&D. It failed at this, and even Gary admits as much when, in Dragon 35, he forecasts an entirely new game to follow in Holmes' footsteps, what we'll call true basic. But, that's another story. 

"Rules heavy AD&D was [because] we needed rules to run the tournaments by. "These are the rules." We dropped the guise of Tom Bombadil, making it up on our own. Making it up as we went. Everybody's campaign being different. Now, to this day, everybody's campaign is different. To this day, unless you're one of these RAW goose steppers about rules as written, everybody's campaign uses different interpretations of the rules. Let's face it, you got six buddies sitting there and they all think rule so and so is stupid, then you modify it to whatever you all can agree to. That's the ethic of the old school of war gaming. With minis. That's where it all started. Miniatures are the beginning, they are the root-stock of our hobby--are miniatures replaying at the world. Prussian wargames. Flats(?). Those are the roots of our hobby today. The original game was written for minis players. Because Gary didn't know who to aim it at, other than minis players, because it came out of a minis campaign. Minis guys were campaigning all along. A club like the Minnesota group, a club like the Lake Geneva group, a club like the Chicago group. Okay what are you buying this year. Well I'n gonna field up the Prussians, okay I'm gonna field out the Hanniverians. Clubs would do that. Tom Wham was known for his Brunswickers. Black uniforms with yellow facings. Now, if Tom's Brunswickers were from 1746, they fought in the Napoleonic wars, they fought in any kind of war they found a place in, because that's the way minis groups did it. Alright? So that is the ethical, the moral basis of where this whole hobby started. Never forget that. Know that and you'll have a better understanding of it. We are a collegiate group because we share a very small shared interest and a lot of people think we're weird. Well we've always kind of thumbed our noses at 'em."

And here it is. The real key, I feel to this article that I perhaps never truly appreciated. Thank you Mr. Kask! And I think we, as roleplayers, are averse to realizing this point. Our game is an outgrowth of miniature wargames. Why does OD&D read the way it does? Because that is the way that minis supplements were written, and quite frankly, read and understood. Minis players understood what he was referring to, and most of the early D&D players, contributors and TSR employees were wargamers. And as much as we might not like our connection to this aspect of gaming, it is strongly ingrained into the foundation of the game. Not so much in the Original rules themselves, but in the style in which they were intended to be played. What I never understood until I listened to Tim Kask in this interview, is that minis players had style of playing that was assumed in the the Original ethos. They were, of course, used to making rulings and rules up on the fly, and changing them when they came up with something better or that they liked more. As Tim points out with Tom Wham's Brunswickers, that they didn't just fight in Napoleonic wars, they would fight anywhere he could get a war up. This idea, that we aren't just playing "strict by the book" is what minis players also brought to the game. When the fantasy supplement came around all of a sudden anything was possible. However, you had a general agreement that you wouldn't go completely crazy. You kind of knew generally that there were some accepted limits, some boundaries to keep verisimilitude.  I think that is what Tim is talking about that we couldn't train DMs to think like us. The new generation of DMs weren't miniature gamers, and they they didn't have that collective background. They were going a bit crazy. It's like a mini gamer coming to an 1920's era aerial battle with UFOs run by a godlike alien beings, or pilots who upbuilt their biplane so quick and easy they have laser canons, guided missile systems and fission bombs. At least that's what I'm hearing here. And this is not contradicted by Tim in earlier speeches either. In speaking of those Monty Hall games where over the top PCs are overthrowing the Gods he points out, "what's the point?" The early guys saw 6th level as huge, and that the fun was in the early struggle, blood, sweat, laughter and tears in grappling with dangers that you barely overcame to arise a hero. By that time you retired, became a desk general, inherited a keep and 1,000 men. So, at least in part, AD&D was an attempt to spell out the scope of the game they were playing, the way they were playing it. An this argument goes to my recent post on defining the possible set of all D&D worlds. Notide that Tim says we dropped the guise of Tom Bombadil. The make it all up as you went along was fine, but they weren't imagining just any old thing, there was an ethos and a style they wanted to impart as well as a set of rules. They now needed to craft a game that could not only unleash the imagination, but define it within a set of relatively well understood boundaries. Or else if you changed too much, as Gary has said in Roleplaying Mastery and elsewhere, you weren't playing D&D anymore. 

Later when talking about Magic Missile and the differing opinions on how it should work, particularly with Len Lakofka, Tim says something else enlightening,

"As I recall one time Lenny was espousing the spell spoint system.Well that was the worst abomination I had ever heard. And Gary was first time I that showed up in a one of the fanzines, Alarums & Excursions, one of those, that's the only name I remember, Lee Gold's old thing, and I read it to him and I swear to God it visibly shuddered. What a horrible Idea! Cause he saw it as making magicians more powerful, cause if they had all those points at their beck and call then they had more choices. That's why you have to read The Dying Earth by Jack Vance, you have to read at least one of those books to understand how magic works in the old game and why it worked that way. He says from the very beginning, anybody that ever asked him, where does that stupid magic come from? Jack Vance and Dying Earth. He's always been real up front about that. And if you don't like it, well, we were always of the opinion back then that if you didn't like it change it! But then we had to do AD&D and we said quit changing it."

Len Lakofka was known for his radical changes to the core rules and his "out there" ideas, such as the Pyrologist, a specialist in fire magic not to mention the spell point system referred to above. The point worth making here is that Len was thinking in the Original mode here. He was taking the genie in the OD&D bottle and pushing it for all it was worth. There is nothing wrong with coming up with a spell point system, or a Pyrologist. And OD&D encouraged those kinds of things. The only reason Gary poo-poos the idea is because it will overpower Magic Users, of which he was not fond. I don't know if they would have said they couldn't get Len to think like they did, but they did shoot him down, often it seems. Now, Len was a wargamer, so clearly it isn't just being a wargamer that makes you think like Gary did. He did have an idea in mind of what should and shouldn't be done in his game, perhaps apart from his wargaming roots. Thus the minis roots helps us understand the make it up as you go sort of ethos that defined the Original game, but the unleashing of "fantasy" perhaps extended the boundaries further than they were comfortable. The idea too, expressed at the end of this quote that if you don't like it change it, which even though it has been reiterated in every edition ever written, was really only adhered to in the original version of the game.

And then in an effort to clarify and perhaps avoid edition wars, James seems to want to make it all okay. Tim generally agrees, but clarifies.

"The thing that makes us grogs consistent is, you know that we're gonna be close. There's gonna be little idiosyncrasies. Just like if you go to France, you got a good idea of what's going on, but there's little idiosyncrasies. Screw the language, cause everybody speaks English to one degree or another, so English aside. You go to Portugal, you know what's going on, but there's gonna be little idiosyncrasies. Well, you go to any of us old school guys, you're gonna know what's going on and we're each going to have our own little idiosyncrasies. But you're gonna have enough of a framework to feel comfortable being there. I was very reluctant for many years to play in celebrity games. I didn't want to wave my bare fanny in front of all those people. You know, showing my ineptitude. But, I got comfortable with it. Finally because, what it was they were doing was ... for charity and stuff. Okay, so what? I wave my fanny [and it] ends up being bare and waving in the breeze, alright I'll follow along with everybody else. And I learned to live with the idiosyncrasies of people running those celebrity games. They were all basically the game that they were running, but not quite. All the games that we play are the game that we're running but not quite. And that's good. You know, the bottom line is if you're having fun, fine. If you're not having fun, find something else to do, a different game to play, a different DM, whatever the case. A different group to play in, if you're playing style doesn't fit their playing style. God knows there's enough playing styles out there, just judging from all the interesting Facebook pages that I've been asked to join. There's some things, there's some playing styles I wouldn't, I would just rip their throats out. The thing that really, really is aggravating me and totally understandable is, why do we have to have, what is it, 30 some player classes now? Are you kidding me?! Our thief, our Hobbit, started as a fighter. He was always a fighter, 'cause we didn't have the thief class back then. But why do you need, you know, an Ethiopian Sun Dancer or, you know, I mean, my God I saw a list on Facebook the other day of character classes that have proliferated down into 5e. Geezus! Are you kidding me?! You gotta have one of those Zocchi d100 just to decide what you're gonna be! And then you've got all the rules that only apply to you! Are you kidding me?! There's way too much complication. I suggested on my video last night that all the DMs that are locked in here and looking for something to do, is watch some Forged in the Fire episodes, look at the weapons they create, and then you can make your own chart of how those incredibly wicked and vicious weapons are really good against this kind of armor, but really not so good against [another], and you can really write yourself into or spin yourself into a Mobius strip I guess. You know how detailed do you need it to be to sit around with a bunch of people and have fun?"

I know what Tim is getting at here, but honestly, the snarky part of me wants to answer, well apparently at least 540 pages if you count the AD&D DMG and PHB. Now, Tim might disagree with this, as his favorite edition has far fewer pages, but according to the line of thought presented above AD&D was, at least in part, created because DMs weren't having the "right kind of fun". I suppose, if my snarkiness were to be analyzed in any depth it would have to be said that you need far fewer pages to have fun, but lots more to have the "right" kind of fun. And clearly AD&D is a lot closer to the "right" kind of fun Gary had in mind as the game developed. To truly give it the definition and direction he desired you had to understand and come to terms with the spirit as expressed in AD&D--a much more focused Genie. 

Though as we all know, AD&D can be pushed off the rails too. Monty Hall games are as possible there as anywhere. The difference was you really have to stretch your acceptance of the "rules are only suggestions" guideline to go all out wacko in AD&D that you do in the Original version. Antyhign was possible in Original D&D and noone could really say anything about it. I surmise that Gary and the early writers knew this, and so they had to define a game that followed the spirit they had in mind and the result of that effort of communication was AD&D. I also know that Gary even rarely used all of the rules or restrictions in AD&D when when played. He violated level limits and other seemingly sacrosanct rules in his own game, but he did so keeping the spirit of the game he had in mind. After all AD&D still mentions that there is space for flexibility in the game and even rules alterations--as long as you are staying within the spirit of the AD&D game. That was, I believe the ultimate purpose of AD&D. I believe it is the epitome of the spirit of the game Gary originally intended.

...But then I have to answer the question of why they continued to publish the Basic game ...

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