Tuesday, September 23, 2008

In which I pick on Ron Edwards just a bit

Unlike a certain inhabitant of Uruguay, I don't hate "indie" guru Ron Edwards' guts. Some of what he writes is intriguing. The fantasy heartbreakers essay helped me tune in to taking a fresh look at crummy old games. And I really like Sorcerer & Sword, his sword & sorcery supplement to Sorcerer. He's way more of a Howard purist than me and I'm not interested in playing his approach to S&S, but I feel enriched by reading the book.

But more than those, I keep coming back again and again to one piece of of Edwards'. It's an essay of his called A Hard Look at Dungeons & Dragons. You might want to check it out before you read the rest of this post, but I'll quote what I consider the key part:
Early D&D as hobby culture
I think that the available discussions, interesting as they are, about Arneson's and Gygax's relative contributions (a) to the hobby activity and (b) to the actual publication of Dungeons & Dragons is overlooking a crucial issue regarding late 1970s role-playing. Prior to AD&D2, the available texts were reflective, not prescriptive, of actual play. Their content was filtered through authors' priorities which were very diverse. Furthermore, any particular area or group had only piecemeal combinations of the texts. In 1978, one might find a group with Chainmail, ten issues of Dragon, and a copy of the Monster Manual; as well as a group with the 1977 boxed set and three or four volumes of Arduin's Grimoire. No one, or very few people, had all of it, and as I recall anyway, hardly anyone knew much about what books "went" when, or made much distinction between TSR products and anything else.

Rob MacDougall stated it best: we are talking about Cargo Cults. Everyone knew about "this new great game." Everyone had on hand a hodgepodge of several texts, which in retrospect seem to me to be almost archeological in their fragmentary, semi-compatible but not-quite, layered-in-time-of-publication nature. Also, although newly-available texts obviously modified local oral traditions, they also arose from them, generating a seething hotbed of how-to-play instructions in print in other locations. Everyone had to shape, socially and procedurally, just what the hell you did such that "role-playing" happened. How did you know it worked? What did you do it for? All of it, from Social Contract right down to Stance, had to be created in the faith that it worked "out there" somewhere, and somehow, some way, it was supposed to work here.

So everyone just did it locally. I consider role-playing to have been constructed independently in a vast number of instances across the landscape, sometimes in parallel, sometimes very differently. Over time, further unifications or contact-compromises occurred, whether through tournament standards, military bases, conventions, or APAs, or simply by people meeting when they converged on college campuses. Full unification never occurred. There never existed a single, original D&D.
Let's set aside for the moment the fact that D&D obviously had an origin point. On my umpteenth re-read of this passage it sunk in why I keep coming back to it: Edwards writes as if the Cargo Cult era of D&D ended. Did it?

Personally, I don't think so. My gut has always led me to run D&D using a frankensteinian hodgepodge of materials. As a kid my group bolted cherry-picked AD&D mechanics onto a superstructure of Moldvay/Cook Basic/Expert D&D, which we then filtered through our favorite Dragon articles. Later we played Menzter Basic/Expert modified by Paul Crabaugh's "Customized Classes". My most successful campaign in the 90's involved me using my 1st edition corebooks and modules, and my players referring to the 2nd edition PHB, Unearthed Arcana, and Oriental Adventures. When I ran 3e and 3.5 I kept my Arduin Grimoire handy for critical hits and my 1st edition DMG at my side for moral support. Now that I think about it, I've probably looked up something in the DMG for every D&D campaign I've run in the last 25 years, regardless of edition. And those few occasions when I tried to run a D&D edition "straight" always felt like they were missing a dimension or two.

Which leads me around to why I now suspect that the Forge and the Old School movement, despite a do-it-yourself grassroots approach in each, will always have a wide gulf between them. If I may be allowed to use a sweeping generalization, the Forge folks are trying to engineer games from the bottom up. That's generally not what the Old Schoolers are about. We're tinkering and puttering, crafting by trial-and-error rather than building from theoretical precepts. On some level we accept the tools in the box and try to do something neat with them. The Forge folks construct games, what we do is more like bricolage. Not that I'm trying to run down the Forge or Edwards here.

Well, maybe I'm dogging Edwards just a bit. I'm starting to get the idea that he thinks the way I game is like a Cargo Cult. I'd totally play in a game bound by "Chainmail, ten issues of Dragon, and a copy of the Monster Manual" or "the 1977 boxed set and three or four volumes of Arduin's Grimoire".