Thursday, April 20, 2017

Oh The Early Days...

Broadly, two popular views attach to "The Early Days" of collective movements--games, musical fashions, art movements, stock-car racing, whatever: technological and cultural.

The popular technological point of view is nearly unanimous about The Early Days: they were a huge pain in the ass.

To get to the recording studio we used to have to walk three miles uphill in the snow both ways, we used to have to use saves vs death ray in order to decide if you touched the flytrap part of the plant, we tried to paint Jesus but didn't know perspective, before we played we used to have to wait for the internet to dial-up.

So much we know now was not known, so much was utterly avoidably inconvenient and often pointlessly unsafe. We are nearly always better off now.

The popular cultural view of movements is usually the opposite (sometimes, yes, because people who were there romanticize them and people who wish they could live to see new things be born--which is everyone--believe them). The popular idea is that movements explode creatively and then calcify over time.

While, yes, the Early Days were by definition embedded both in the past and actual human history and so therefore were more racist and sexist and homophobic than now, they were--leaving aside the things they shared with the entire rest of human activity in their era--a time which pointed to more freedom rather than less. Things In Those Early Days are regarded as wide-open, inspiring, full of potential and possibility.

Those Early Days at CBGBs when punk rock could be Tommy Ramone playing 16th notes on the drums as fast as was then thought possible or David Byrne just showing up and being weird in 4-4 time or Debbie Harry doing disco all wrong, Jackson Pollock spattering paint when it was new and dangerous and got him accused of being a communist, Buster Keaton making comedy when it could be all about his sad eyes.

The idea isn't that the content was necessarily better (Who would want punk rock without Leftover Crack? Nobody smart.) but that the vibe was, at least for those allowed in: cooperative yet also in exciting opposition to the old and oppressive, disruptive but creative, individualized but still collective, diverse and inspiring.
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Looking back, there were several obvious technological problems with early games: having to look up to-hit bonuses on a chart was stupid and could be done with plusses, the saving throw business made no sense, etc. These made the games harder to play to no purpose.

People attracted to Old School Renaissance games and DIY D&D tend to see these technological problems as fairly minor, easy to fix or ignore, and are more interested in the creative atmosphere of the Early Days--or rather what we hope it was like. What we want is not to be like Arneson but to be in Arneson's position: inventing.

People who broad-brush hate OSR tend to congregate on forums and in cliques dedicated to obsessing over specific technological solutions. If you don't trust your group to build a story where your flights of fancy are important you can hang out on RPGnet or Story-Games with people who will recommend Dungeon World, if you don't trust your group to be tactically detailed and realistic enough you can hang out on the Gaming Den where they recommend Pathfinder or 3.5, if you don't trust your group to do anything right you can hang out on Something Awful where they recommend 4e, if you don't trust anyone but Gary Gygax there are pre-OSR forums dedicated to True Oldness for that, too.

These technological solutions work for these people. The mistake haters make is they think the part of the Early Days the OSR is  most excited about is the technological side, that we talk about Old School because we're excited about waiting for the dial-up to work. (There are also, of course, those who claim an attachment to old games comes from people yearning for the social order of the 1970s, which is a bit like saying if you like Mughal miniature painting it's because you yearn for an Islamic monarchy--but the people who say that are psychopaths and unreachable.) No. We get it: Death Ray saves are a pain in the ass, ascending AC is easier for most people than descending AC.

The old Caves of Chaos is a shit module, but the enthusiasm about "Hmmm...people want a module--an adventure in a book?-- That's a new thing--what new thing might you be able to put in it? What might they want in there? What could we do?" drips off the page--and that mindset fuels newer takes like the better presentation in Stonehell and the broader canvas in Veins of the Earth and the genuinely useful beginner advice in Broodmother Sky Fortress.

The old RPG folks could've sat and technologically refined post-napoleonic wargames forever until they had the Perfect Military Simulation One and the Playable In An Evening One and the Good For Children Ages 10-14 One and instead they invented a whole new thing and a zoo of things to support the whole new thing, in the process creating-, but also discovering-, all new problems to solve. They solved them wrong sometimes but that's not important because we're here now.

The actual Renaissance outdid the Greeks and Romans by taking the old Greek and Romans' ambitions to describe the world seriously while not accepting their description. Does the sun go around the Earth or the other way around? What happens if we mix this with that? How do you make a drawn face look like a face?


What's exciting about the old games isn't the answers they came up with, it's the questions they were asking.
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9 comments:

Charles Saeger said...

My impression has always been that the OSR is folks playing old RPGs the way they wish they had played them, or, for those who came later, the way they think they would/should have played them.

Zak Sabbath said...

(and new ones)

SC78 said...
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SC78 said...
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Matrox Lusch said...
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Matrox Lusch said...

Ha, even better old days... (1992) https://youtu.be/X5O7qgTIYUY

Matrox Lusch said...

Huh, 1991 actually. Our group started essentially in middle school, 1978, with Holmes Blue Book Basic When the original AD&D Players Handbook came out we used "speed factors" and divided rounds into segments which was a major diversion from "by the book" (i.e. Gygax DM's guide) combat. During the interim after PBH we also adopted stuff from Judges Guild Ready Ref Sheets and Dave Hargrave's Arduin, so our rules were a hot mess. We switched to 3.5 in 2005 (our first edition change after 27 years) we had issues, but when after a member died in 2011 there was a renewed call to go back to 1st ed., however, several players said they absolutely would not play if we used 1st ed. because 3.5 eliminated many silly, esoteric arguments. We ended up mixing 1st ed. with 3.5 and that has worked out for the past 5 years.

Zak Sabbath said...

Neither of your comments seem in any way related to the post they are a comment on, SC78.

Dale Morrell said...

"The popular idea is that movements explode creatively and then calcify over time." I feel this is a post-hoc rationalisation and that most people involved at the time carry a nostalgic yearning for a still earlier (and better) way that it was. And of course, we don't recognise that we are pinging in the best of all possible times because we are living in them. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.