Saturday, November 18, 2017

D&D history in context: some like it demanding (a polemic against the commercialization of our hobby, if you need to know)

Every time I see the argument made that we don't need more than light rules because "the story is the thing" and how all the Great Old Ones rolled that way, I get the feeling that it can't be true. Never really was able to put my finger on the why, though. Now, I just saw this floating past in my stream again and felt that same concern rising. However, this time I remembered a good friend of mine telling me he translated the Nibelungenlied again, in his free time, just for leisure and to experience the original in all its glory. I am now prepared to address this topic among other things. This one is for all the nerds out there.

But Gary did it!

It starts harmless enough. Yes, if you dig deep, you'll find the first big names in our hobby saying something to the effect that they use simplified versions of the games they sell. You just need a die and the yes/no resolution is enough to keep the game going, is what they seem to say. Because, the story is the ... you know the gospel. Fun fact is, though, that none of them stopped writing games (Gygax certainly didn't and his games didn't get less complex, too) or just relied on the established to play their games (Barker, for instance, never stopped expanding on his setting and had a HUGE corpus to loot from for his stories ... actually to an extent that you could say that the setting superseded the rules).

So, there is no "easy" answer to the question how many rules are "just right" for a game. One thing should be clear, though, games with "light" rules certainly aren't the solution to everything. Especially not because of some obscure quotes used out of context. There is an argument to be made that light rules are, in fact, not the "better" tools to tell stories, because that would be like saying that using fewer words would make for better stories as well.

That said, I'd like to add that everything has its place and function and a game being light in rules does not necessarily mean it's bad. There is just no universal truth attached to it other than that it is one way to game.

Furthermore, to claim it is "old school" to use rules light systems is just as much bullshit. If you need proof of this assertion, look how the hobby developed in it's early years, commercially and on the DIY front (check out Arduin, for instance). You will find that it is very much about diversity and individual solutions before anything else. The tenor has not been "less rules" but "make it your own!".

Hence, what all those new light rule systems flooding the market seem to forget (conveniently so, I might add) is that the bare bones version that is the first edition of D&D not only specifically states that it is just to show how it's done and that a DM is to make his own game following those examples (something many, many groups did, btw), it also wasn't considered as "finished".  Here is the quote from the tome itself (OD&D, Vol. 3, p.36, 1974):
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.
Gygax is saying this after having completed roughly 100 pages, spread over 3 booklets. Printing in the 70s most certainly also had an impact on that (limitations we tend to forget nowadays since it is fairly easy to print and/or spread books). Sometimes I wonder how thick those first books would have turned out to be if they could have printed what they wanted. I think how the game developed after that first edition gives us an idea.

Let's take the deep dive here.

A short and partial history of D&D

Of course they added more supplements with the success of the game and a revision of the rules shortly after that (B/X) until the game had matured enough to evolve to AD&D 1e as early as 1977. That's 3 years after the original release! Here is another fun fact: while the last revision of the AD&D 2. edition had been published in 1995, development of that iteration of the game had been going strong until as late as 2009 when Kenzer & Co.'s HackMaster 4e, the true successor of the original D&D, got discontinued. HackMaster had been published as a pure revision of the AD&D rules in 2001 and should be considered AD&D 3e. In other words, it took 27 years of development to get what started as OD&D in 1974 to the level of maturity that is the HackMaster series.

I'd like to stress at this point that this is only talking this specific strain of D&D, not including a plethora of magazines and hobby efforts that also added to it during that time. It also disregards the commercial successors of the D&D brand (3e onwards) and completely ignores every other role playing games written in that specific quarter of a century (for now). Still it's a whole lot of material to go with the original premise of those early books and not just 2 pages of rules with supposedly everything said that needs saying ...

It is only after the corporate attempt to get rid of the original (A)D&D (no new publications and no reprints or pdfs of the early versions of D&D) that the so called old school movement got enough traction to become popular (namely with OSRIC and Basic Fantasy in 2006 and Labyrinth Lord in 2007, all being not that popular in the beginning and falling right into the decline of HackMaster while referencing older/different editions/versions of the game). OSRIC runs 400 pages, btw.

After that Swords & Wizardry (in 2008) and Lamentations of the Flame Princess* (in 2010) made their debut and at some point after that it started earning enough money that the Wizards of that Coast took notice and not only started to make stuff available again as reprints and pdfs, but also incorporated as much as they could into D&D 5e (in 2014). It's also somewhere in that last phase that publication cycles started shrinking dramatically, a development we see now reaching its peak (or already being in full decline, not sure what it is ... the market has reached saturation long ago).

A history to learn from?

The point is, when someone tells you the game needs just one die and one rule to be played and that's how they did it in the early days or that that's "old school", well, then that person is feeding you a line. The history of our hobby is, if anything, one of development and exploration of the possibilities. And while those first games openly embraced and accommodated that fact, while the DIY-corners of the hobby still celebrate it to this day, there is a concerning amount of people openly not only ignoring it, but also trying to re-write that history for their own marketing endeavors (a trend arguably starting with D&D 3e, as far as the corporate version goes).

The things people do to earn a buck, right? However, there is an alarming tendency to not only flood the market with product, the feedback loop is vanishing as well: it's just not possible to find enough meaningful reviews to do all that material justice (considering that people might actually have to have played a module or game to get a proper impression of it's potential makes this even more difficult!). In consequence, published material is reduced to short-sighted and (unfunded) opinionated marketing schemes, innovation gets mostly short-handed or ignored and earlier developed insights/achievements get hand-waved or re-written.

It's crazy. The Taxidermic Owlbear lists over 210 entries of games as D&D "retro-clones" and from what I have seen, it's not complete (the whole Black Hack movement is missing, for instance). It's not far-fetched to say that in the last ten years there have roughly been 2 new and complete D&D clones published per month (on average, of course). Add other games to that, add modules, adventures, supplements. Nowadays no month goes by where you couldn't buy at least 10 new OSR related products. Plus those you can get for free. All mostly unchecked and (or consequently) unplayed. For all we know there might be some brilliant unknown games among them (there are some great known games for sure). It's just all rather unprocessed, I think.

This is neither "old school" nor in the spirit of the hobby. Not to that degree. Right now it's nothing better than milking the masses and adding to the pile. I admit that I partly came to that conclusion due to the latest climate in the gaming community at large where it's no more about the quality as much as it is about the person who wrote/published/talked about it that decides whether something has merit or not (mostly using so called ad hominem argumentation as business model).

The only thing "old school" about the whole affair right now seems to be that it shows the same patterns of inconsiderate and greed-guided commercial harvesting our western culture is known for, if need be by going as low as using politics, elitism and gate-keeping. It's not about the art or the game as medium, it's not (as much) about exploring what's possible or about diversity or being welcoming. It's all become cyclic in a way that people don't do the research for their stuff anymore. It's not important how many times people already have written about a topics or the insights they had, it's about being the first to voice an original thought about descending AC (or whatever), as if that is possible.

It's about ignoring history to keep the train running.

That's not to say we shouldn't write or publish ...

Sounds a bit counter-intuitive at first and I've heard friends already say that they don't dare publishing something because of the thresholds they see in the community. As I said above, the market is saturated and it is mostly not about content or the effort, but about how well something looks or who is associated with it. It's also tough competition, especially if you are not being all political, polemic or loud about it in general.

However, if you are willing to put in the time to write a game or an adventure, you should of course give it your best effort and put it out there. Not because it's published and there are prestige and fame to gain, but because it is all about the journey. Nothing will make you understand a thing better than making it yourself with the attitude to do it as good as possible. As much as this is true for, say, building a boat, it is true for writing a role playing game or an adventure or a monster ... You will gain every time and if you have patience, people will take the time and discuss it with you. Honestly, even if one person reads what I wrote and takes something away, that's a win in my book.

Well, and that's why history is so important. If we take this DIY-ethos seriously, we rely on what is established so that we can move from there. Standing on the shoulders of giants and all that jazz. We need communities that are open for that kind of exploration, but communities start with a couple of like-minded people. We help each other getting better at what we love and, in consequence, maybe get to be better people than we where before. That's why you write, that's why you publish.

If that also gains a little profit and makes you somewhat famous in your corner of the Internet, it's just as well. But if the recent developments have shown anything, than that there comes responsibility with being a public figure and many aren't ready to take that responsibility, it seems (again emphasizing the importance of learning from history, btw).

Anyway, don't do it for a buck, don't do it for the fame, just do it for the thing itself. You'll find nothing more rewarding than that (which goes for everything or whatever you chose).

Now going full circle!

So what has all of this to do with my friend translating the Nibelungenlied just for the fun of it? The short of it is that he was able to do it and he liked the exercise. Even so, there is a whole mindset behind it and it is the opposite of going the easy road. Some people like a task to be demanding, even for leisure. It can't be surprising that the same is true for our hobby. Looking at crunchy but popular games like GURPS or RoleMaster is easy proof of that and they are almost as old as the hobby itself.

However, there is a deeper meaning to it. Something that relates more to the second part of this post, the part about doing it yourself or what that really means. First of all, there had been no pressure but the one he gave himself for doing this. There is a lesson in that, as time is now our highest commodity. He could have gone for a translation instead if he wanted to revisit the story, translating it takes so much more time. It's about dedication.

If you "just" cater the market needs you will have the pressure of deadlines and all kinds of restrictions for form and content. Add competition and market saturation and you'll get an ill climate to be productive. It's so easy to forget that we are not only able to create without pressure, but that pressure actually diminishes and restricts innovation (also and as an aside, giving a market what it wants works to earn money but produces something exceptional only in the rarest of cases, see your standard Hollywood movie).

The market is like a greedy raccoon, just not as cute ... [source]
Or to put it another way: how much time does it take to write a complete role playing game? Done properly, maybe an average of 3 to 5 years? That is including testing and assuming it's done on the side but on a regular basis. You'll also have writing and publishing to consider ... According to the market, you won't get the attention span from the crowd you need to make this worth anybodies while (although kickstarters brought the illusion that it is very much possible ... although for a price and without guaranties). How long does it take to write a proper setting? Or a module like Stonehell? A book? It takes time and dedication.

What I'm saying is, the audience cannot be taken into account for this. No one will listen to you babbling about something for that long unless you are able to keep it interesting all the time (which is unlikely if you are actually working on it, right?). Which is another way of saying, if you do it, do it for yourself before anything else. Forget the market. Let them make the noise and do your thing. If your thing is writing the crunchiest game ever written and takes 25 years to finish, I'd say, hell yeah, please do.

Explore, experiment and create. Question what is already done. Embrace obscurity instead of the mainstream, it's what true nerds always excelled at. And don't listen to people that try to tell you that their marketing scheme to produce as much content as fast as possible by producing light weight copies of already existing games is the "true way" or old school. It isn't. It's more often than not just people looking at your wallet. 

I hope this resonates with some of the people getting this far. I'd appreciate it. Our hobby can do so much more that just sell empty books with funny pictures and we are barely at the beginning to find out what exactly that means (or can mean). As long as people interested in finding out where this journey is headed manage to gather and exchange, it's all good.

For me, well, I guess I will halt and start to look at what was accomplished in the last couple of years. I couldn't keep up with all the noise if I wanted to. There's so much unread stuff on my hard drive, it's uncanny. Enough to read and talk about, I'd say. And then I have to keep writing my own fantasy heart breaker no one is going to read ...

*Which has, interestingly enough, no English Wikipedia entry, but a Finnish one instead ...


  1. Great Post ..A great deal to unpack in every paragraph, we'll have to have a live conversation about it all sometime.
    Let me start with this.
    Do you think the proliferation of "light" versions of classic RPG's may have something to do with a portion of the Old school RPG crowd getting older and just having less time to dedicate to things like game prep and manual reading? Not that any thing you wrote is incorrect I agree with all of it , but this might just be one more factor. A priority shift among the Old school consumer. Perhaps even a subconscious shift.
    From my personal perspective I'm 42, a house, wife, Job.. all things you know. Sometimes it's great to have a game that I can just grab and say "OK pick from these options, lets play." Without having to go through an hour or two of set up.
    Any thoughts?

    1. Sure thing. I'm free tomorrow, actually :) I think some of this is due to the fact that I waited too long to write again and it all came out at once. I hope I can get productive again now that that's out of the way! Glad you like it, though.

      Regarding the argument you make for light rules, I'd have to say that I have heard this before and every time I'm confronted with it, I think "Yeah, right, but you are also a gamer with 20-30 years experience under your belt. You really don't need more than a couple of rules to make it work for you." A luxury a beginner doesn't have, for instance. And that's part of the problem, it might even be some hidden elitism right there: by telling people that that's the way to play and also associating it with terms like "old school" while withholding that experience is the key ingredient, it's pretty obvious that it is not much more than a weak social power play (you suck if you can't roll that way). You form an "in"-crowd with those who agree. That's been going on for a long time now, actually. Mainly because it's also a great marketing strategy to take an easy premise and sell as many different flavors as you can think of. It's also why great free games like Hulks & Horrors never got traction while games like White Star, which do very much the same but cost a pretty buck, get all the noise no one needs ... I could go on and on.

      So, yes, part of the attraction is from getting older and too busy to invest more time. But do you play more because of those games being around? I'm not sure. It's what I say above about time being a commodity. If you want to find the time to read and understand a more complex set of rules or prepare a campaign, I'm sure you'll find it. The bigger problem might be to get others stoked for what you want to game (which I know we agree upon). And I don't see anyone tackling those problems, btw. It's all about selling shit, not about actually using it. They sell dreams. Maybe. Shouldn't be enough, though.

  2. Win!

    That was pretty good. Long but good. In this day and age there really is no reason to create anything other than the fact that you want to see it done. What's going on with all the celebrity and politics. I think that will eventually pass. It's really a part of the nostalgia cycle. Culture rhymes in twenty year intervals so in a way we are revisting the late 70's and the late 90's. Instead of the LoTR movies giving popular interest to gaming we have Stranger Things. It will all pass in time.

    As far as rules lite games are concerned. They're a bit like short stories - easy to write just so long as you don't care about the quality. Then they become the hardest things in the world. Unfortunately, its hard to tell one from another at a distance.

    I have been spending the last week writing on OSR clone in a mad flurry of pages currently called Komo Dosr. No one will ever play it. It's highly unlikely I will release it to the public, but I have to admit I have had a great time writing it.

    It beats solving jigsaw puzzles but I think the idea is the same.

    1. Thanks, JD! I agree somewhat about all being cyclic and that it will pass. However, sometimes I feel like we are stuck in that loop in a bad way. I mean, you could argue that people never learned from history and aren't going to start today with that for some reason or another, but it feels like it's getting worse. If you see some old x-files episodes they'll tell you the same stories, wearing the same clothes hearing the same music. Sure, there's some nuance to it and we all carry mobiles and what-not, but other than that, very much the same in so many aspects, it's horrifying. And that's 25 years ago ... Maybe I'm just getting old :)

      I like the short story analogy and think it's very much true. And yet, rpgs add another dimension to the whole thing in that they aren't just to be read but also to be played. It's less effort for a consumer to just read a thing (thus, more likely), but a totally different animal to read it, plan a game and convince a bunch of people to go along with it, which is incidentally also the only way to find out if they work or not.

      Damn it, I want to know more about Komo Dosr. You tease :) Seriously, if you don't publish it, I'd love to hear about your choices and thoughts while writing it. Share your thoughts (if you are so inclined and have the time, of course)! That's what blogs are for, right?

      Ultimately I think what we are doing here is a bit better than completing jigsaw puzzles, as you are not creating something when doing a puzzle. There's no transfer and no reflection in completing a puzzle. The benefits of writing something are not necessarily the written result, if you know what I mean? Well, at least that's what I keep telling myself.

  3. Jens, I always enjoy reading your work. A lot to think about.

  4. Stumbled onto this post via another post on USR Sword & Sorcery Deluxe, but I'm glad I found it. I'm "new-again" to RPGs (never was much more than "new", anyway), and I've got to say, I've simply been overwhelmed since I started back up around 6 months ago. It's been a heck of a knot to unravel (the rules-light and OSR movements) and, while I attributed a large part of that to the nature of this imaginative, creationist hobby, I can't help but agree with your observations on the saturation of the market. It's problematic, really, especially for someone like myself (ADHD), and simply settling on a game to play is a trial in its own right (woe be unto the folks with a group of friends who are similarly overwhelmed -- will they ever sit down and roll some dice?).

    I, as I'm sure most of you do, have more PDFs amassed than I'm quite sure I'll ever read more than only a percentage of (bundles... It's gone so far that we're bundling things at huge discounts -- and I can't help but bite is the strangeness of it), so I've spent considerable time trying to sort wheat from chaff. Not to mention, the incredible amount of "meta" content in the form of blogs, zines and the like. Great scott!

    I do appreciate "the OSR" ideals, however, particularly like what's expressed in Matt Finch's "Quick Primer", which oddly enough emphasizes that it's not about the rules, when it boils down to it, which I think is distinctive from the "one rule and a coin" over-simplification.

    It's kind of a collision of worlds between hard wargaming roots and super soft mind-theatre storytelling that is still undulating since its own big bang however long ago. The dust may never settle entirely, so I think the best we can do is strive for that middle ground of doing what feels right and fun for you and yours, and the rules should aide in the telling but largely be transparent, so much ao that perhaps _which_ rules might even become irrelevant.

    Now if I can just convince myself to get out of the consumptive rat race and just play.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Spencer! Yeah, way too many pdfs for many of the reasons you state. I think it's time to slow down and look back at what's been done in the last couple of years (there's still some publications I'm really looking forward to, though ... dammit). Slowing donw and ignoring the noise is the healthy thing to do, in my opinion. If you need a good base line for orientation, I'd recommend checking out the grognardia blog:

      Just start at the beginning and work your way forward. It's a lot to read, but it is great stuff all the way (the history of the hobby and the origin of the OSR are all in there). And it's all in one place.

      I actually don't agree with a lot of the ideas formulated in the old school primer, but it's a damn good point to start from. Maybe that's worth a post on it's own, though.

      Hope you get your game going. That's what it's all about.


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