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".


  1. "Cargo cult" gaming is still alive and well, thanks to the Net. What's changed from the early days, though, is that the producers of RPGs place much more emphasis on "official" content than they used, with "official" sometimes being a synonym for "right."

  2. Indie games are to old school games as Engadget is to Make Magazine, both in the philosophy and the fact that the shiny may be clever and interesting, but there's a lot less charm and love under the hood than something somebody puts together in their basement.

  3. In most (not all) forge games too narrow in focus for my taste. They limits potential possibilities too much. Because of that I find they have limited replay value.

    It is not just Forge any RPG that homes in on a singular aspect of a gameworld (Vampire, Ars Magica, etc) has this issue.

    In the past I use these types of games to further develop the background of the Majestic Wilderlands. The sewers of City-State crawl with the Nosfertu, while the Questors of the Guild of Arcane Lore enlist the PCs aids in hunting down demon summoning Sorcerors.

  4. Awesome!

    I wish I had seen it this way back then. You are so right about that. It explains the 'gap' as you put it; the antipathy to so-called broken games (which just need a bit of cargo-cult faith) and how embattled they've become.

    I'm going to think about that situation in this fashion from now on. Thank you so much!

    Fang Langford
    Creator of the Scattershot Role-Playing Game

  5. I don't know if Cargo Cult is intended as a slight, but I think I may start wearing it like a badge of honor... Must be a way I can even work it into the plot.

    I think of Old School or Cargo Cult gamers as hot rodders. The precision design of the Indie or Forge game is often fun, but you can't drive a F1 racer the same places you could drive a 41 Ford Coupe.

  6. I consider myself part of a strange Cryptic Alliance that's 2 parts Restorationists, 1 part Archivists. Preserving the past while putting it to uses that the Ancients might never have intended. ;-)

  7. You're not allowed to be that nice to Ron. Watch out, you'll get yourself kicked out of the old school club.

  8. Anonymous12:56 PM

    Funny, when I read the article, I didn't take "cargo cult" as a slight as all, in fact I thought he sounded like he missed it.

    In any case, I'm a proud old-school cargo-cultist of rpgs.

    I began with a mishmash of AD&D and the various Basic sets.

  9. I think the very fact that we even *have* concepts like OD&D, Holmes, Moldvay/Cook, AD&D, Mentzer, etc, is a pretty good indicator that the "cargo cult" era is long ended.

    The lack of such clear distinctions and the standardized "big picture" of the game that they allow one to form is the key thing.

    "hardly anyone knew much about what books "went" when, or made much distinction between TSR products and anything else"

  10. @Restless: Agreed, but charm and love aren't everything. The pre-compiled circuitry and software of the typical Engadget product is more likely to work for larger numbers of people. Large numbers of professionals are, sad to say, likely to do a better job of producing useful products than most folks. Do-it-yourselfers will always be more rare and fringe than gadget-consumers.

    I guess the "problem" with indie types is an inclination to take gaming seriously. If it's worth doing, then it should be worth engineering. If I genuinely think that roleplaying is something that should be as common an experience/pastime as reading books and watching movies (hint: I do), then I would want people to set about making or figuring out how to make the slickest, least demanding and most broadly appealing range of products possible.

    Some days, I find it the distinction between "Old School" and "Indie" as clear as that between "Existentialism" and "Philosophy." People play what they like, right? How could we not be in agreement on that?

    Also: the randomly-generated word verification captcha as I write this comment is "dorko." Sweet.

  11. I think that passage typifies my problem with heavy theoretical thinking. The thinkers sometimes lack the vocabulary to express their ideas, so take pre existing phrases or words and invest them with new meaning.

    As far as I can tell, describing the playing of Dungeons & Dragons (of any era) is unsuitable at best and misleading at worst.

  12. Anonymous8:05 PM

    I think the difference is that Gygax's D&D gives you some relatively unconnected subsystem structures to 'get you started' in producing your own FRP experience; Forge games, on the other hand, use the rules as a truncheon to beat you into submission until you are playing exactly and only the game that the designer insists that you play.

  13. Anonymous11:37 PM

    @ James Maliszewski; I'm not sure I agree with you that "What's changed from the early days, though, is that the producers of RPGs place much more emphasis on "official" content."

    I just read an article by Gary Gygax from an early Dragon in which he cribs about all the unauthorized third party material that was popping up. I also seem to recall that there were warning in the 1e books about unauthorized or unofficial material. So to me, the idea that official=better really began at least just before 1e was released, and was in full swing after 1e was released. I think it was a reaction to competition by unauthorized sources.

  14. Anonymous2:00 AM

    I don't get the cargo cult metaphor at all. The thing about cargo cultists is that they saw people doing something (building airstrips, getting cargo) and imitated them as best they could without understanding how how or why it worked. Naturally, it didn't work for them.

    So who were the D&D cargo cultists imitating? What key part of playing D&D did they misunderstand? What Edwards describes in that paragraph after mentioning cargo cults, though it's interesting and for all I know perfectly accurate, has nothing to do with cargo cults!

  15. Dan,

    1e is definitely the beginning of the industry's obsession with "official;" that was pretty much the whole point of AD&D. The hobby, on the other hand, by which I mean the average player, was much less obsessed with officialdom until comparatively recently (late 80s, I'd say).

  16. Sentence above should ahve read:

    "As far as I can tell, describing the playing of Dungeons & Dragons (of any era) as "cargo cult" is unsuitable at best and misleading at worst.

    Whoops. :)

  17. Yet another example of my love/hate relationship with Edwards and his opinions. He's a smart guy, with some good ideas about gaming, but damn, sometimes he thinks just a liiiiitle too much. Sorcerer & Sword is a great supplement, but it backs a pretty crappy game and while it's got some really good ideas, they are couched in a totally unappealing manner. I think the same thing goes for what he's saying in that quoted material.

  18. Jeff, we all know you keep referring to your 1E DMG for the random prostitutes table, not for "moral support".

    Or wait, is there even a difference?

  19. @dave:

    Speaking of which, does anyone know if there's a story behind why the Hackmaster DMG doesn't have the Wandering Harlot Table?

    I mean, if there was one single thing from AD&D that should have been turned into a gonzo Hackmaster d10,000-roll, it's that, narmean?

  20. Hi Jeff. I know this post is months old and the conversation, but as I'm the guy that came up with the term "cargo cult" I thought I'd pop up with a slight clarification - more for some of the comments to this post than to anything you say, which I think sounds pretty accurate.

    First, I shouldn't and wouldn't speak for Ron Edwards, but I think Wulfgar is right: whatever you want to call it, he was not criticizing the "Cargo Cult" / "Old School" era. Indeed, I think Ron is nostalgic for it in many ways.

    But then Lawful Neutral asks: "So who were the D&D cargo cultists imitating? What key part of playing D&D did they misunderstand?"

    In the post of mine that Ron was citing when he said "Rob MacDougall said it best," I was describing MYSELF as a cargo cultist: myself at age 10 to be precise, when I wasn't old enough to go the hobby store by myself and had never seen an issue of Dragon magazine and had to piece together how the whole game and hobby worked from the odd mix of books I had somehow acquired.

    I want to make it VERY clear that in using the term "cargo cult" I was never looking down my nose at any other gamers and claiming they were "doing it wrong." I don't think Ron was either, but again: not speaking for him.

    OK, thanks for letting me get that off my chest. :)