Sunday, February 28, 2010

Questioning Assumptions and Where We're Headed

I recently finished re-re-reading those three Little Brown Books from the Original D&D set with a pen and paper close at hand to take notes as I read along.  My stack of notes is now quick a bit thicker and has more of an overall word/page-count than the books being commented upon.  I suspect that this is not in and of itself unique by any means.  In fact I know of one other person who has done the very same thing and posted his efforts on his blog--Sham's Grog and Blog and the Cover to Cover series of posts which you can find here.  In the next few days, schedule permitting, I will attempt to go over Shams' Cover To Cover posts and compare his insights with my own, if in fact I can find something worth sharing and that isn't a load of Me-Too crap or pointless nit-picking.  The real point to my own analysis of the LBBs has not been to uncover the thinking or intent of the masters, but rather to go back to the very roots of this game and to challenge those underlying assumptions I have identified and to build my own system up from the very bedrock of where it all began.  I do not feel that we should be restricted or constrained to hold the original system to be a religious icon of perfection--it is far from perfect, nor should we slavishy become custodians of a museum-piece that preserves the genius of some dead guy who wrote about a game he once played back in the old days.  Screw that.  It is the very imperfections of the OD&D system that I think give it relevance and meaning and power--acting out against these flaws, rejecting and replacing those sections we detest the most, tweaking the core rules with our own 'House Rules' is intrinsically part of the very heart and soul of the game and an intrinsic part of the over-all D&D gaming Weltanschauung.

The glorious mess presented in those three LBBs remains a persistent, insistent center of pestilence and inspiration that continues to infect peoples' imaginations with all manner of notions for how to tinker with this rule, revise that section, rework how these things get handled, etc., etc.  It is almost as much a game in and of itself to re-edit the rules and to revamp them to suit your own unique vision and ingenium.  And that is a major reason why the OD&D booklets continue to exert such an influence upon peoples' psyches. 

It is the very vagueness and incompleteness, the broken and irritating parts of those rules that inspire and drive otherwise sane and sensible individuals to spend hours upon hours ranting and raving and researching and writing about ways to model the effect of antique gunpowder weapons on various forms of armor, how much of a load can a typical peasant/footman carry on their back, how much actual coins from Byzantine times (or other time periods) weigh or what the limitations on spell-casters ought to be based upon whether they are using a runic approach, classical grimoiric-style conjurations, upper-class Hermetic magick or something more shamanic in character.  Everything was wide open and available for personal interpretation.  Back in the earliest days of the game literally anything could happen.  Wellesian Martian war machines could pop up just as easily as Barsoomian White Apes or something completely new and just whipped-up by the DM only moments before.  Imagination was king and spontaneous improvisation was the rule, aided and abetted with tons of random tables, a DIY ethic that gleefully ripped-off appropriately and respectfully made use of Copyrighted and Trademarked properties, and so on.  So much was left to the imagination, unlike now.

My favorite supplement of all time is The Fantasy Gamer's Compendium from Gamescience (1983).  It combined the previous smaller booklets of Mystery, Monsters, Demons, Sorcery, Shamans and Treasures into one collected supplement.  The cover art is still cheesier than all get out, the type is tiny, there are hardly any interior illustrations but you could use the thing with any edition of any fantastic/medieval RPG out there with a minimum of fiddling around with it. 

And that brings me to the point of this particular enterprise.  Like many another kid ensnared in Gygax and Arneson's literary snare at an early age (it was the Seventies), I became enamoured with the notion of developing my own rules for my own settings and running my own games and I've been doing so, off and on, more or less for most of my life, in-between brief periods of lucidity, social activity, and so forth.  I've been Old School as far as D&D goes for quite some time, and after re-locating my set of the OD&D booklets,  re-reading them and realizing that no matter which books I bought or what setting I wrote, I was still using a variation on the rules I first learned way back when.  Tinkering with the rules, developing settings, cobbling together Sandbox campaigns, intertwining my fiction and home-brewed mythos into the game and distilling it back out again...those things are very much part and parcel of the Old School Renaissance and my goal with this blog is to map out my personal efforts in peeling back the accreted gunk and get down to the roots of the system, challenge the lingering assumptions and maybe sacrifice up a few sacred cows to the process of developing a stripped-down core system that might or might not go anyplace or ever get used...but the process will be fun and in the course of things I expect to develop a few spin-offs such as Settings, mini-settings, alternative magic systems, new spells, new monsters (we most definitely DO plan to create a stand-alone S&W/LL/OSRIC compatible Bestiary!), and more.

This blog will focus on the mechanics, the discussions surrounding things like the role of alignment and how to convert it into a numbered attribute and/or stuff like that.  The companion blog will flesh out a setting, be more fiction-oriented, and deliver on the new spells, new monsters, new items, etc.  It will also flesh-out the notes on how to incorporate attributes to chakras, ley-lines and planes, alternative demonologies (driven by alternative cosmologies), the spectrum of consciousness as it applies to spirits/elementals/constructs, and more. (Yes, 101 Homunculi, Hybrids and Horrors will be among the things offered)  Anyone who has participated in our old Italbar/Talibarr, Bazra, Xembor games--either from the old groups or from our various events at the local Cons--can tell you that what we are bringing to the table is definitely not more of the same old crap, not by a long shot.  The companion blog will be ready to go in another couple of days, as we're in the midst of some other projects that are demanding a lot of attention.

So, hang on, things are about to get crazy-fun and you haven't seen anything yet.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Something of a Beginning

Let me begin with a couple of quotes:

“Gary Gygax never played AD&D as published, so why the hell should we care so much about that system? Or why should we give a rat’s ass about cleaving unto the systems offered by the lesser lights that followed him? Furthermore, I reject as ridiculous any argument that the original Gygax campaign ever played OD&D as published. Have you read OD&D lately? I can’t believe that anybody can play it as it appears on the page. It’s a goddamn mess. A glorious one, full of wonder and mystery, but a mess nonetheless.”
Jeff Rients, Jeffs' Gameblog, Tuesday, August 11, 2009 
“To me the Old School Renaissance is not about playing a particular set of rules in a particular way, the dungeon crawl. It's about going back to the roots of our hobby and see what we could do differently. What avenues were not explored because of the commercial and personal interests of the game designers of the time.”
Rob Conley, Bat In The Attic

I'm not used to agreeing with very many people, but I find myself agreeing with these two gentlemen above, at least in respect to these two quotes.  The game that Gygax and Arneson both ran as DMs bore only a superficial resemblance to the game that they passed on to us, and for good reason: they were creating a framework for people who did not necessarily have an exhaustively encyclopedic grasp of the fine details of medieval pole-arms, military history, or deep immersion in pulp fiction that they brought to the table.  It is, was and always will be a jumping-off point, not an end-point destination.  I believe I read somewhere that Tim Kask once stated "D&D was meant to be a free-wheeling game, only loosely bound by the parameters of the rules."  That sums things up very nicely.

It's all about imagination.  The first iteration/edition of D&D was definitely a glorious mess full of wonder, whimsy and mystery that still sparks imagination and spurs creativity while providing a great deal of entertainment and enjoyment.  That's a very cool thing.

After taking some time off from gaming, I was boxing-up some dusty D20 books and stuff in order to make more room for other things that were more pertinent to my work, and in the course of packing-up a bunch of glossy-covered manuals I re-discovered my copies of the Little Brown Books and the first few OD&D Supplements.  I glanced through them, then set them on a shelf and finished clearing-away the debris and got on with other things.  A few months later I took them down off of the shelf and started to re-read them from front to back.  Something was nagging at me.  It was the quote from the Foreword from Men & Magic that I have placed on the upper-righthand of this blog.  Silly, innocuous, even obvious...those words have proven to have been extremely influential upon me ever since I first laid eyes on them back around 1978-79.  (Thanks Tim!)

Editions and editors have come and gone, Gygax himself reversed himself later on, but none of that mattered: the cat was out of the bag and having started-out with the Little Brown Books, I will always approach Role Playing Games as tools and means for the exploration and expression of my own worlds, not the slavish recreation of settings mandated by corporations seeking to dominate their customers' brain space even more perniciously than anything IBM or Microsoft ever dared attempt.

Old School, in terms of D&D, has always been about doing your own thing, building your own worlds, running your own setting, and cobbling together your own rules.  Over at Eiglophian Press they're calling it Imaginative Anarchy.  I like that.  You can almost hear the Sex Pistols in the background...at least I can...what a glorious mess!