Wednesday, November 8, 2017

There's Mainstream Role-Playing and There's Old-School D&D

This post originally went up on May 17th, 2017.

Normally I don't pay any attention to cyber-drama, let alone the bawlings of some of the drama queens out there in the larger gaming community. So it's a strange thing to find that the latest little drama-bubble percolating in the OSR has actually led me to notice something.

First, the background in brief:
• Back in March, this utterly bizarre blog post about "mapping the OSR" (and characterizing the political leanings of its participants) ticked some people off, or at least set a whole bunch of people on edge.
• Then came this anti-OSR tirade from The Dungeon Delver which raised some eyebrows (NB, I don't actually disagree with a lot of what it says, more on that later, but I do find it at least a little bit narrow-minded).
• Then, as I was reading through the Save Vs. All Wands blog not long ago (I've been enjoying the author's analysis of Tunnels & Trolls), this inane Kotaku article was brought to my attention, and it was this article that made me notice something that I found personally unsettling.

Now the article is basically a hatchet-job aimed at Gary Gygax, but disguised as a review of the recent graphic novel about his creation of D&D, Rise of the Dungeon Master.  The thrust of the article is basically: D&D is good now, but it wasn't back then, because Dungeon Masters like Gary were authoritarians. Ooh, shudder.

And, of course, cue the reactionary counter-articles eager to dismiss anything published on Kotaku, because Kotaku is on the side of liberals, feminists, and "SJWs", while old-school gamers are all apparently supposed to be on the side of Gamergate and internet libertarians (a political school that actually manages to be even more vacuous than the usual kind of libertarianism—imagine that—because as near as I can tell, its only concern is to paint all forms of identity politics as the end of free speech and civilization as we know it, with no concern whatsoever for actual threats to civilization like environmental catastrophe or massive income inequality).

This kind of idiocy is precisely why I try not to pay attention to the drama.

But in reading that article, I couldn't help but notice how the hack*cough*I mean author got D&D so wrong that my eyeballs spun back into my head:
It is he, the smiling, all-knowing dungeon master, who controls the game’s mysteries. An afterthought, players are the puppets who act out the fantasy.
That's how she characterized old-school D&D. And this is what she said of modern D&D:
Today’s Dungeons & Dragons adventures ask more of the player and less of the dungeon master. Scenarios are open-ended. Dungeon dimensions are less particular, to leave room for players’ whimsies.
And that was when it really, truly struck me: she didn't know what the fuck she was talking about. Today's D&D adventures are open-ended? The fuck they are. They're railroads, pure and simple. They cater to the "frustrated novelist" sort of DM and to players who just want to go along for the ride—like a video game, but more freedom to torture NPCs or indulge in personal power fantasies along the way.

And I very much doubt that the author of that article is at all unique. It is, in fact, a fair bet that the vast majority of people now engaged in this hobby called role-playing are utterly, tragically ignorant of how role-playing games were originally intended to work. I was utterly, tragically ignorant of how role-playing games were supposed to work until the Old-School Renaissance came along, and I'm grateful that I know better now. The best thing that the OSR has ever done has not been to produce a product: no set of rules, no retro-clone or neo-retro game, no adventure module or supplement amounts to anything in the grand scheme. Rather, it is the broad rediscovery of a play-style: the sandbox, the mega-dungeon, the impartial referee who is also a maestro world-builder, the freedom of players to carve out their characters' destinies, and experience points awarded mostly for treasure. That matters. That is the OSR.

It's a very specific thing. So specific that I think it's fair to say that you're either on board with old-school gaming or you aren't. Either you play D&D or you don't. And me? I play fucking D&D. Sure, I have house rules, I have table rules, I have my own neo-retro game that I set in a 19th century milieu rather than a medieval one, and I don't even use Vancian magic anymore—but I'm still just playing D&D. We explore dungeons, not characters. And to me at least, even if it says Engines & Empires at the top of the character sheet, it's still clear that I'm just playing D&D, as plainly as if you're playing Monopoly when there's a Monopoly board and colorful play-money on the table.

But it also means that most of the rest of the role-playing hobby—the whole glorious, messy, chaotic entirety of it—is not playing D&D. Even when it says D&D on some of the rulebooks and character sheets (generally the ones published by WotC rather than TSR), those folks are not engaged in the same activity that I'm engaged in. It's a related activity—it's closer to what I'm doing than, say, Magic: The Gathering or Warhammer 40K—but it's still distinct and different. I'm playing a game that sits comfortably in between old-fashioned miniatures war-games and whatever the heck it is that they're doing.  It's a lonely realization: their hobby is not mine, their subculture is not mine.

And this brings me back to that "Fuck the OSR" post by The Dungeon Delver. I understand where he's coming from, a bit. He doesn't want to be associated with neo-retro games like Lamentations of the Flame Princess, or games that brazenly seek to capitalize on the old-school aesthetic (like Torchbearer and Dungeon World) without actually containing a fragment of old-school anything in their DNA. They're not part of what he's doing, which is playing AD&D 1st edition and nothing else.

I get that now. I think it's narrow-minded: I think, for example, that it's quite possible to use LotFP to play old-school D&D.  But LotFP also has a default mode: namely, you normally use it to play something more akin to Call of Cthulhu, and to the extent that it's meant for that, I don't have any interest in LotFP either. I don't play Call of Cthulhu, I play D&D.

I also think that you can use AD&D 2nd edition or BECMI to play a perfectly cromulent game of old-school D&D, and if you sneer at a game just because it was in print in the 90s, at that point you're just being obtuse.

So I'm not going to say that I play a particular edition and nothing else, because it isn't true (I'm playing E&E, which is kind of its own little edition), and because I don't genuinely believe that OD&D (in all its versions—LBB, B/X, BECMI, etc.), AD&D 1e, or AD&D 2e are really different games. They're D&D. So is Labyrinth Lord. So is Swords & Wizardry. So are OSRIC and C&C and Dragon Fist and Dark Dungeons and Basic Fantasy RPG and Beyond the Wall and ACKS and also dozens of other retro-clones too numerous to name. I play the game that lies at the heart of all of those.

I'm not a role-player.

I just play D&D.

PS—sometimes, when you just want to play some fucking D&D, a one-page "micro-light" game is called for, and this is one of the better ones. At the very least, it conveys the spirit of what I'm feeling right now better than anything else I can think of at the moment.


  1. Thanks for sharing! It's a funny thing, but I privately came to this conclusion myself a few years ago. I had always assumed that I was a "role-player" because I played D&D, and yet whenever I tried to play any other RPG with friends, I found myself at a loss as what to do. I would always try to make more money, or get more leverage on the "world" than the system allowed, and end fouled up in the rules, uncertain what I was doing.

    At some point, I realized that old school D&D has clear goals laid out for the players, goals I understand. Other RPGs often don't--and not that that's bad!--but I just don't know how to play them ... I play D&D (and the OSR helped teach me to love D&D again).

    1. "Clear goals" is one of those things that makes all the difference in the world. I mean, I've played Call of Cthulhu and Paranoia and Alternity and so forth from time to time, but I've never enjoyed them anywhere near as much as I've enjoyed D&D, and I wouldn't ever consider taking any of them up as a regular hobby. They just don't interest me, and part of it is that these games are comparatively lacking in structure. And for players who love those games, I'm sure that's precisely what they love about it — but it doesn't grab me the way it does them.