Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A commonly missed point

Another post from Jeffro about D&D and how much Tolkien influenced Gygax.  He's not wrong.  I think the notion that Gygax was indeed not all that thrilled with Tolkien, and only put in a few superficial Tolkien-like elements due to incredibly high demand for such from his players and his customers is probably completely true.  There's really not any good reason to disbelieve Gygax's claims on this subject anymore, in my opinion, and there are really good reasons to take what he says on this at face value.

The interesting thing, though, is how much guys like Jeffro miss the greater point here.  Let me quote just a small segment:
The architect for the sort of rules that form the bedrock of the fantasy role-playing game hobby derive from the works of a dozen fantasy and science fiction authors. Tolkien did play a role in influencing the formation of the game. Nobody argues that. But when the game was being put together, he was not synonymous with fantasy the way he is today. Indeed, in the early seventies he still had not yet displaced Lord Dunsany as being the most influential person in the field. And Gygax is not some kind of outlier in this, either. Tunnels & Trolls has pretty well the same set of literary antecedents. 
Again, Gygax was influenced by Tolkien. But he didn’t much care for the guy’s work. Edgar Rice Burroughs, Fritz Leiber, and Robert E. Howard are what fired his imagination. And when he sat down to play he was more likely to send his players to the world of Jack Vance’s Planet of Adventure series than to anything resembling Middle-earth. And most people today can’t imagine that being the case. 
I think the game is much more fun when you can...
He thinks the game is much more fun when you can.  But what, if he could imagine it, the vast wave of mainstream customers who came into D&D's fold in the late 70s and early 80s wanted the game to more closely resemble Tolkien?  What if—to them—that was the whole freakin' point?  What if continually telling them that they're doing it wrong, because they need to learn the Gygaxian canon and play according to the proper Gygaxian, ritualistic style of sandbox, mega-dungeon play will never do anything for them other than turn them off?  I get this explicitly because it is exactly my experience.  As a 5-8th grade D&D kid in the early and mid 80s, I had read Burroughs and Howard and Moorcock and Leiber, and even a bit of Vance.  I even liked them a lot (especially Burroughs.)  But what I wanted D&D to give me was the Tolkien and Lloyd Alexander experience, not the Planet of Adventure or Elric experience.  Burroughs is my second favorite author of all time, but Tolkien is still my first.  That's been true since I was 12 years old, at least.  To me, D&D was always disappointing, because it didn't do what I wanted it to do.  I wouldn't have had a better experience had I simply adjusted my demand to what D&D was supplying; I would instead of simply never picked up the hobby at all.

Supply and demand is a two-sided coin.  One common complaint about the American Big Three automotive OEMs during the 70s and early 80s—by coincidence, the same time period in which D&D was achieving mainstream success—is that they ignored demand and assumed that whatever they wanted to build would sell.  What was the end result?  The incredible growth of foreign OEM market share penetration in the American market.  Toyota, Honda, Volkswagon, and more recently Kia, Hyundai, etc. are the direct result of the hubris of GM, Ford and Chrysler.  In like manner, Apple (briefly) dominated the microcomputer market in the late 70s early 80s, in part because they got school contracts—but MS DOS based PCs eventually ate their lunch and replaced them.  Only to be in turn replaced by tablet and hand-held device based computers, many made (again) by Apple.  Market dominance can be a fickle thing, and the only way to gain and maintain it is to understand what the customer wants to buy; not necessarily what you want to make and sell to them.  The computer experience is interesting, because it shows that by a clever trick, you can influence to some degree what the customer wants to buy; get kids used to Apple computers by cornering the market on school computer contracts, for instance, was a savvy move.  But it wasn't sufficient.

For all of those OSRians who shake their fist at what has happened to D&D and how wrong and deluded players are today for not playing proper, Gygaxian D&D, and how high fantasy instead of sword & sorcery is the temptation to spiritual damnation, etc.—had D&D not done this, we wouldn't be talking about D&D today.  D&D would be a minor footnote as the one that started it all, but would today look a lot like Tunnels & Trolls—an older, outmoded game with a niche audience that appeals to only a small subset of the hobby.  What we'd be talking about is some other game that during the time of D&D's mainstream growth would instead have eaten D&D's lunch in the market place and relegated D&D to second class citizenship status in the very market that it created—because let's face it; supply didn't lead this parade after D&D created the market.  Demand did.  This is what the customers demanded.  This is what the customers wanted.  And a game that stubbornly refuses to create supply to meet demand; telling all of the customers that they are wrong and that they really should be buying what we're supplying instead of what you want to buy; well, needless to say, that doesn't really work very well.

The OSR really needs to come to grips with the fact that although the game was originally designed to work with a sword & sorcery sandbox feel which (most likely) also coincides with their taste, it is not the only way to play.  It is not the silver bullet that will solve everyone's problems with the game to just accept it the way Gygax wrote it, etc. because there was a vast wave of people who came into the hobby who didn't ever and won't ever want to play that way.  It simply doesn't interest them at all and it never did.  This demand is what D&D evolved to cater to, and any delusions that if D&D had held the line, that the hobby would be a continued Golden Age are just that—delusions.  What would almost certainly have happened was that D&D would have been replaced as the clear market leader decades ago by someone else who was savvy enough to meet demand.

And that isn't meant as a slam against OSR tastes—in most ways, I'm more sympathetic to some of their demands of the game than I am to people who prefer Forgotten Realms, certainly.  But y'know what?  It's not about me, and it's not about you.  It's about mass trends, not individual tastes.  Very few people are interested in playing the game that's perfect for me, either—at least with the OSR and games that liturgically style themselves after Appendix N sources and nothing else, and cater and hew very closely to the original Gygaxian modes of play, you've got a thriving community of like-minded people to play with and to read the material that they create.  I've got to do my own thing, because my own thing is too esoteric to be anything other than my thing.

Jeffro's main thesis online in general is of course more nuanced.  It can be interpreted as saying that our demand is influenced by supply; i.e., our heritage of pulp stories was stolen from us by a hostile publishing industry that had its own agenda.  I think he's also not wrong about that, but there is much more to the story too.  D&D's evolution—the Hickman Revolution if you want to call it that—happened while the pulp stories were still largely in print.  When I was a teenager in the 80s, it was easy to find Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock, etc. books in print, because they took up a ton of shelf space at every bookstore.  They weren't out of print yet. Everything on the Appendix N could easily be found in my public library when I was a teenager in the mid and even late 80s.  Heck; Robert Adams Horseclans books and John Norman's Gor books took up tons of shelf space in both bookstores and my library for much of that time.  But so was Terry Brooks, and David Eddings, and Weiss/Hickman.  D&D resembles extruded fantasy product rather than thud and blunder because the market was moving that way due to demand.  It was afterwards, when the sword & sorcery older material was being outsold that hostile publishing and literary and library groups decided to try and purge it from our memory altogether.

And let's face it; while the pulp tradition is an old one, with a fine pedigree, high fantasy (at least when it's done well) has a much older one.  Tolkien was specifically and deliberately calling on the foundational mythology of all of Western civilization to inform what he was writing.  It resonates in a way that pulp will never manage to do.  Now, it's easier to write good pulp, and it's (obviously) easy to really screw up high fantasy, but when you're Tolkien and you write something that's a cultural touchstone equivalent to Wagner's interpretation of Teutonic mythology that influences culture for decades if not centuries.*  That's the real reason extruded fantasy product exists in the first place; it's a bunch of lesser folks desperately trying to imitate the master.  Few of them even have any understanding of why Tolkien is a master, or why his work works, but they know intuitively that it does, so they ape him shamelessly, hoping that even a small portion of his genius will somehow rub off on them.

And that is (apparently) a rather bitter pill for at least some in the OSR to swallow; that the majority of gamers don't want to play what they're offering.  Not because they're brainwashed, but because they just simply have different tastes.

* We'll see for Tolkien, but Der Ring is already over 140 years old, and still a major influence on literature, music, and more.  I think Tolkien's work is just as iconic myself, but time will tell.  Probably after my lifetime.

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