Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Ken St. Andre and the alternative to D&D

For the most part, when people talk about the OSR, they refer to D&D clones.  Sword & Wizardry seems to be the leader here (although lacking any data, my impressions there may well be wrong) edging out a number of other contenders.  Which still exist, mind you, just not necessarily as segment leaders.  Dungeoncrawl Classics, Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, ACKS, etc.  But all of them are, at heart, iterations of one of the early D&D games—OD&D (with or without supplements), B/X, 1st edition AD&D, etc.  Most of these add small changes or "fixes" to various small items in the old rules that are seen as either unpopular, clunky, or otherwise having been fixed (a common one is ascending rather than descending armor class).

I wonder what would have happened had the second role-playing game ever published (in early 1975), Tunnels & Trolls been seen as a viable alternative to D&D to a wider audience back in the day?  T&T is still available today, but it farms a somewhat different vibe than D&D.  It's seen (by some, at least.  I don't know if this is really credible or not) as the start of the idea of the boxed, introductory set that was sensibly written and organized, and therefore can be seen as a spiritual antecedent to the very notion of Holmes' blue BD&D, and later the entire B/X line.  Ken St. Andre, the primary author of T&T has said that he's not really very familiar with the Appendix N, but gives an interesting list of influences all his own


Check out that interview (among others) for some discussion of the lay of the land back in 74-75 and thereabouts.  A few notable comments:
  • St. Andre, in an earlier interview, which is alluded to there, suggests that Tarzan (and ERB generally) was actually his primary inspiration.  I like the idea of his "Hollywood pitch" for the game, too: "[T]he T&T world was based on The Lord of The Rings as it would have been done by Marvel Comics in 1974 with Conan, Elric, the Gray Mouser and a host of badguys thrown in."  Although OD&D is often equated with wild and woolly van art post-pulp fantasy, this is considerably more true for T&T in some ways.  In this interview, he almost suggests that Greek mythology and Harryhausen movies are more important than even that.
  • St. Andre says that he was a fan of the genre and that's what he wanted to emulate, and had no interest in miniatures wargaming; a significant point of departure compared to the milieu in which Gygax and Arneson worked.  This is much more up my alley too; and yet, somehow it still has this board-gamey feel of dungeon exploration.  Considering that any such activity is of limited exposure in the fantasy fiction that he claims is his inspiration (not no exposure, but it's hardly something that I think of as standard and integral to the sword & sorcery genre until D&D made it so) I don't quite know what to make of that. 
  • I like how his initial incarnation of magic was, he claimed, based on Dr. Strange comic books more than anything else, and complicated hand gestures was the most important component of spell-casting.  Not that anyone necessarily thought this, but somewhat Vancian style magic was, of course, hardly the only way to go, even mining the same influences.  I kinda like using a Lovecraftian magic system—even as I've adapted existing D&D spells into a Lovecraftian system, for Fantasy Hack and other m20 fantasy games that I've dabbled with.  To be fair, in a lot of fiction, magic is more of a plot device than a "system" that can be explained, but sometimes some of those early works did at least attempt to lay out an explanation of some kind, even if it was somewhat implicit, in how and why magic worked.  
  • T&T had a solitary play mode, which is sometimes seen as the genesis of the Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks and other works of that ilk.  I'm actually kinda intrigued by this solitary play business; I'd like to see how it works.
  • Not that I would expect to see a lot of it in a fantasy game, but St. Andre appears to be more of a fan of space opera, and associates it more strongly with the pulp era than Gygax and Co. did.
  • I've been meaning to read some Abraham Merritt for a long time.  After this additional recommendation, I really need to get on that.  I've got a Kindle collection of 8 novels (including The Moon Pool and The Ship of Ishtar, the two that I most want to read) and 8 short stories, but I haven't started it yet.
All in all, I wonder if I had really discovered Tunnels & Trolls back in the day, instead of merely knowing of it off-hand as a supposed rip-off of D&D, I might well have been much more interested in playing it than I was in playing D&D anyway.  T&T still embraces the DIY ethos that D&D abandoned many, many years ago, it is more gonzo and fun (although to be fair, D&D used to be more like that too) is a simpler system, yet sufficiently robust to keep you happily gaming for years, etc.  It sounds like everything I always wanted D&D to be... with the exception of still embracing the dungeoncrawling paradigm.

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