Sep 13 2016

Why the Old School Got Old

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Powers & Perils by Avalon HillDuring my preparations to run The Keep On the Borderlands I happened to remember that in my early days of gaming there was a game I’d see advertised in Dragon magazine that always intrigued me, but that I never heard of anyone actually playing, but I couldn’t remember what it was called.

It turns out the game was Avalon Hill’s Powers & Perils, and the reason I never heard of anyone actually playing it was that it wasn’t a very good game. “Feels as if it was written at gunpoint” is the most entertaining comment I found about it.

But the quest to remember the title led me to an online cache of PDFs of the first 15+ years of Dragon magazine, starting before I had really connected to the gaming community, and lasting well into the years in which I was a HERO System snob and would sniff disdainfully at the notion of playing so “mindless” a game as D&D.

Ugh. There are so many things I would like to slap Young Gneech for. 😛 But that’s not what this post is about.

The neat thing of it was, for me, watching the history of gaming unfold like time-lapse photography. Reading the early issues for the first time provided a lot of context I wish I’d had in the early days– but I never even saw an issue of Dragon until 1983 or so. Seeing defensive rants by Gary Gygax about what is “really” D&D or whether or not Tolkien should actually be considered an influence for the game was entertaining, but also helped me understand why gaming in general had the reputation it did. The letters in the magazine had the exact same psychology as your average internet comments section today, if at least with a profanity filter on, just in slow motion as arguments played out over months instead of hours.

And the game mechanics. Oh lord, the game mechanics. For all the OSR grognards praise “simplicity” and “light” rulesets? The actual old school had no such thing. There are articles with tables for rolling to see how many inches of rain your setting got that day. There are articles spanning two issues with very-slightly-different game stats for 25 different breeds of dogs.

Of course, gaming in those days was a boys’ club, and pretty much a white boys’ club at that. It wasn’t deliberately exclusionary, so much as just existing in a bubble formed by pop culture and socioeconomic circumstances. To be in the circles where RPGs were a thing you pretty much had to have a lot of free time, a certain amount of disposable wealth, and a particular type of eduction. Like the writer in Hollywood Shuffle who “learned about blacks from TV,” your average ’70s and ’80s gamer nerd wasn’t hostile to women, people of color, etc., so much as living in a world where anyone who wasn’t also a nerdy white male was viewed as a creature from another planet, strange and curious beings to be cataloged and categorized.

This led to things like the recurring proposals that “females” in any game should have reduced physical characteristics but enhanced social or appearance stats; or Oriental Adventures, an entire sub-line of D&D products that mashed together all of Japanese, Chinese, and Tibetan history and culture into one tiny space and reduced them into “Shogun Meets Kung Fu Action Theater.” Again, usually not done with malice, just… myopia. [1]

There were things to love about the era, don’t get me wrong. I found myself repeatedly grinning in nostalgic glee when I ran into something I remembered fondly, such as the first advertisement for the Ghostbusters RPG, or a review of Sam and Max Hit the Road complaining about the fact that it couldn’t use the native speakers in a PC to at least make beeps and buzzes.

But I could clearly see, as time went on, the “Gygaxian” aesthetic (for lack of a better term) of D&D-as-mental-puzzle fading and the “Greenwoodian/Hickmanian” aesthetic (again for lack of a better term) of D&D-as-storytelling-vehicle rising in its place, and it was also clear to see why this was happening. If you didn’t share that very specific slide-rule-and-sneer mindset, the “old school” got old. How many times can you fight the same orcs before you’re sick of it? How many thieves can be disintegrated by pulling the wrong lever before the novelty wears off? The late ’80s and the ’90s brought the proliferation of the Universal RPG (GURPs, HERO), the storytelling game (Vampire: The Masquerade) and new campaign worlds to the slow-moving juggernaut of the industry, D&D, precisely because gamers were looking to take the hobby in new directions.

  • Ravenloft– “D&D meets Universal Horror!”
  • DragonlanceD&D as literary simulator!”
  • Darksun– “D&D goes post-apocalypse!”
  • Spelljammer– “D&D… in spaaaaaace!”

Honestly, I don’t think any but the cultiest of the OSR cult actually want the return of the “old school” days, so much as going through life with nostalgia-colored glasses and/or reacting to specific issues that have hit the hobby over the past decade or so. Because there’s a reason the old school got old! But that doesn’t mean we can’t pull out what was best about it and bring that forward. There wouldn’t be the awesomely fun hobby we have now, if there hadn’t been those table-cross-referencing ubernerds back then.

-The Gneech

[1] When you consider that women had roughly equal chances of showing up as “witch,” “coquettish damsel,” “vampy sex demon,” “nude tied to a pole,” or “competent adventurer,” it can be hard to tell where myopia ends and malice begins. Certainly only having a one-in-six chance of not sucking is not a great place for female characters to be, but consider that most villains and just about every monster or dumb thug was male. The real problem wasn’t so much that women were badly portrayed, as just plain rare, and especially rare in a way that didn’t treat women as basically vehicles for their own breasts.

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