Wednesday, March 3, 2010

There's Gold In Them Thar Books

From: Dungeons and Dragons, Book One: Men & Magic, page 4, Introduction: "These rules are as complete as possible within the limitations imposed by the space of three booklets.  That is, they cover the major aspects of fantasy campaigns but still remain flexible.  As with any other set of miniatures rules they are guidelines to follow in designing your own fantastic-medieval campaign.  They provide the framework around which you will build a game of simplicity or tremendous complexity -- your time and imagination are about the only limiting factors, and the fact that you have purchased these rules tends to indicate that there is no lack of imagination..."
Complete?  Hardly.  Supplements were getting cranked out almost as quick as the first edition got tossed into the market like a gauntlet hurled into the face of traditional wargaming.  Complete as possible within the self-imposed constraints of the three Little Brown Book format?  Maybe.  There is something just weirdly satisfying about little booklets packaged in a box, probably it is a nostalgia thing.  It surely hasn't hurt the Swords & Wizardry White Box edition which has come out via Brave Halfling.  For better or worse, boxes are making something of a comeback.  Personally, I'd rather that they didn't, but hey it does at least give more artists a shot at getting some exposure (maybe even some cash...), so it isn't a bad thing.  I just don't have a burning need to stack boxes on my shelves, books already take up enough space...

In any case, the above chunk of text lifted from the Introduction to Men and Magic really packed a punch when I re-read it yet again this morning.  I really like what is promised here: a complete framework that supports and facilitates the major aspects of building my own damn campaign on my own damn terms.  At least that is how I choose to read this passage.  Cool.  That's exactly the sort of game and rules-set that I've always wanted, and it is exactly how I've always approached D&D and it's all Gygax's fault--the idea is implicit right there in the very Introduction to the very first edition of the Original Rules.  The OD&D set was intended, at least at first, to provide a flexible framework and guidelines for people to take this stuff into their hands like so much clay on Prometheus' potters-wheel and to mold, shape and re-shape it into own own image.  The incompleteness is more of an open invitation to develop your own methodology, the ambiguity is more a reflection of the protean nature of the thing more than any failing on the part of its authors.  It is, was and always will be intended to be modified, revised, and further developed by everyone who comes into contact with it...a truly Crowleyean memetic-level center of pestilence indeed.  The rules as presented in OD&D are more like the stakes and trellises used in a garden to support the healthy growth of plants and less like the rigid restrictions of say Chess.  They are there to get you started, point the way and then quietly and unobtrusively hum away merrily in the background like a teacher in Art class letting you find your own solutions as you experiment with materials that have been used professionally by gifted masters and geniuses as well as dabbled with by dilettantes for centuries and millenia.

Every revision, edition or major iteration of these original Core Rules, whether they are Retro-cloned, simulacrum-itized, revised, sanitized or even WOTC-itized are all completely optional supplements and other peoples' takes on the Original.  Every and any musician can attempt to play any and every song, as can be witnessed by the corporate crap that congeals out of the radio internet these days, to paraphrase something Robert Plant once said.  Any schmuck with a guitar thinks that they can play the Blues.  Likewise anyone with a vague grasp of the English language thinks that they can write...and just about every imaginative person who is exposed to OD&D, or any of its myriad insidious and multitudinous spawn, thinks that they can improve upon the game...and as evidenced by the words of the prophet quoted above...that's exactly what they are supposed to be doing, that is precisely what the Original game was all about.  We are supposed to make the game our own, develop it into whatever our own unique ingenium, inspiration and Visionthing guides us, drive us, or drag us kicking and screaming into bringing into existence through our writing, our art, our role-playing interactions.  Fairly radical stuff to be passing out to impressionable young minds.  Thank Hasb the Megacorp for making such a ecstatically inspirational terrifyingly dangerous thing safe for little Timmy who is just so precious and special for having shown up to the table after reading all of three paragraphs from Tolkein before opting to watch the DVDs instead.

The trouble with frameworks, guidelines and open-ended tool-sets is that they can only be put to right, proper and good use by someone with the appropriate mind-set, background, skills and inclination to put them to work.  Designing your own fantastic-medieval campaign is diving into the very same murksome, treacherous and deep waters that Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkein, C. L. Moore, Fritz Leiber, Leigh Brackett, Mchael Moorcock, Henry Kuttner, H. P. Lovecraft, Andre Norton, Alice Sheldon, H. G. Welles, Jules Verne, Jack Vance, Robert Heinlein, Clive Barker, China Mieville, and a vast host of others have likewise jumped into and fought/found their own way through, each in their own unique and highly idiosyncratic manner.  They, and countless others like them, wrestled with the angels of creation, danced with the Muse, ran roughshod through out-moded shadow-echoes of previous dreamers' visions of faery, and waged their own private war with the demons that conspired to snuff out their voices and blind their vision that we might not share in the treasues of the imagination that they brought back from their respective forays into the unknown and that they shared with the world.  There is poetry and madness, passion and something mythic in this process, this collective endeavour of stealing imaginary fire, of threading our way through the labyrinths of the unconscious and discovering new answers to ancient riddles.

Heady stuff.  Powerful.  Shiny.  Like the gold glittering just below the fast-running waters of the Rhine or the twinkling of loosely scattered gems just at the edge of a guttering toches' rapidly diminishing light in a dim, dusty, ancient place we know not the name of...

Your time and your imagination are about the only limiting factors, (especially now in an era of free pdf downloads of the various retro-clone versions of the various editions of the Core Rules) and when it comes to the persistent and enduring appeal of OD&D (and it's sometimes noisome multitude of half-feral/half-bureaucratic offspring), it still seems to indicate that there is certainly no lack of imagination amongst those drawn to the fantastic, even if it is sometimes hard to discern amidst the hackneyed cliches, clumsy plot-holes, repetitious pastiches, and seemingly endless homages that have proliferated and infested Sword&Sorcery, Fantasy (Medieval, Dark, and otherwise), Weird/Pulp Fiction, Science Fiction, or any other genre, marketing category or commodity-label you prefer.  The imagination is in there.  But imagination alone is not enough.

It takes skill, hard-won through perseverence and honed to a razor-edge through discipline and constantly tested by continually being willing and able to start over again despite any fleeting failures or lingering successes.  What Gygax and Arneson did that is so damned radical and ground-breaking was not delivering unto the unsuspecting world a freakish amalgam of medieval miniatures and out-of-fashion pulp fiction, but rather they produced a hackers' tool-set for dismantling and revising the very fundamental root-level command-line code that handles the connection between imagination and fiction, and they disguised it as a set of game rules.  Granted it was a bit crude at first and the results of their work have been uneven to say the least, but the overall impact has been indelible, unmistakeable and overall quite incredible.

And that is with Sturgeons' Law in full effect.

And that is one more reason I have every hope of seeing a real Renaissance arise from out of the morass of dreck and nonsense that came before and is providing nutritious compost and an educational context for where things go from here.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post!

    "The incompleteness is more of an open invitation to develop your own methodology, the ambiguity is more a reflection of the protean nature of the thing more than any failing on the part of its authors."

    You have to "get" this to really use these rules to their full potential. In a sense, this is what makes D&D a hobby as opposed to simply a game that people yank off the shelf once in a while. It's not about instant gratification, and that seems to be a hard pill for the MMORPG generation to swallow.


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