Friday, June 10, 2016

The Death of Old School

This is an eye-popping article by Tim Kask, one of the "original" roleplayers from Gygax's inner circle, and literally the first hired employee of TSR.

A few interesting points.  While maybe the OSR has recognized this, I had not—to me, old school most definitely included AD&D; in fact, the very first retroclone was OSRIC, which specifically cloned AD&D, and Dragonsfoot, the redoubt of Old School before the OSR (which is still rumbling along as near as I can tell) was heavily focused on AD&D.  But according to Tim Kask, Old School (or OS as he calls it) died with the publication of AD&D.  AD&D was the specific rejection of OS and what it meant; largely for commercial reasons (supplements sold.  They were cash cows.  So were tournaments.)

For old timey gamers like me who weren't quite old timey enough to have played much before the publication of AD&D, BD&D or even B/X quite frankly(*)—although I did play one game with the LBBs, I was too young (as was the GM) to have made it a meaningful experience for either of us—this is pretty eye-opening, because it shows a real rift in intent that was harder to perceive for guys like me.  Sure; I knew that there was a big difference in tone between the B/X sets and the AD&D books, but it was a long time before I really knew much about the background that led to that.  Finding out as it happens that B/X was, in some respects, Moldvay's attempt to subvert the purpose of the Basic game to make it more like the OS ethos is hardly surprising.

Anyway; a few salient points:
TSR came to the conclusion that it was time to actually codify D&D; thus was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons born, and the death knell of the loosey-goosey, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants OS style of play. There were so many things we did not see coming, the most reprehensible of which is the rules-lawyer. 
I have told the story elsewhere: Gary and I spent a week in his office at the end of which the general outline of Basic D&D and AD&D had been laid down. Basic was toned down for younger players and made simpler to understand for easing them into it. AD&D was a tarted-up, codified version of OD&D that would now compel everyone to play the same. Worse, it was now a whole hell of a lot less engaging to the imagination; everything could be found on a chart or table. OS, or OD&D if you will, is more mentally engaging and more challenging than all the subsequent editions, not less. It is also tons simpler to play. 
The sequencing of the releases of those first three hardbounds was a masterpiece of marketing. We knew everyone would have to have the whole set and released them in an order sure to sell them all well, and it did. And it killed the OS style of play for a great portion of then-current players; new players only saw AD&D. 
So why do I continue to play OD&D when I mid-wifed AD&D? Because it is all the things 1st Edition AD&D (1E) is not. It is not slaved to charts and tables, although it has some. It is not arguable; it works that way on my world because I say so. It is about gathering information, not relying on Skills and Abilities to do the work for you. It is about playing well, having fun and living to fight another day.
That was how I always wanted the game to be.  Because I came in through a hybrid of B/X and AD&D, I thought the D&D game simply didn't do what I wanted it to, and I spent years looking for the Holy Grail system that did what I wanted in the way I wanted it to.  If I had stuck more specifically with B/X, or better yet, been introduced during the heyday of OD&D, I might have come to a different conclusion.  Maybe not, but then again, I might have.

I wonder if the OSR hasn't already figured this out, though.  It doesn't escape my notice that the biggest name in the OSR doesn't seem to be OSRIC, it seems to be Swords & Wizardry which is a retroclone of OD&D.  At least from my perspective.

* Just to be clear on notification; the following are common abbreviations with regards to various versions of D&D.

  • OD&D—Original D&D; the Little Brown Books (LBBs) and the supplements that added to it.
  • BD&D—the Holmes Basic book.
  • B/X—Basic/Expert; the Moldvay Basic set combined with the Zeb Cook Expert set.  If I were to go back to an old version of D&D (I won't; I'm quite happy with m20) this is the game I'd probably go back to.
  • BECMI—the Mentzer modifications to Basic and Expert, plus the three additions that followed.
  • AD&D—Advanced D&D; the Gygax authored triple book sets that started in the late 70s.  Technically this includes both 1st Edition and the much later 2nd Edition, but for the most part, when someone says AD&D, they mean 1e.  Sometimes abbreviated also as 1e to separate it from 2e.


Brandon Stewart said...

A good read. Some excellent points. I'm in that same generation. Not QUITE old-school to remember OD&D, but I was around...and there is DEFINITELY a difference. I mainly notice it in the fact that people who haven't played MY games don't bring 10ft poles.

Gaiseric said...

Although I wandered in and out of D&D systems without much regard for their differences when I first started, my first REAL D&D experiences were almost exclusively with D&D itself, not AD&D.

It occurs to me that the intent of the various authors of what is today known as "Basic" D&D was actually quite different (and not necessarily aligned with Gary's own pronouncements about BD&D when announcing and discussing AD&D.)

That whole topic probably deserves more attention. Quite honestly, although people tend to put Holmes led to Moldvay led to Mentzer led to RC all together into a series, in many respects, they aren't a series at all; they're just games that had a similar architecture and format, but which had different goals and intent.