Sunday, October 22, 2017

Lords of the Budgies

I'm not surprised that I didn't get more feedback for my post about Frank Mentzer.  People who read this blog know that once I've begun to rant, it's not safe to approach too close, else I shall viciously rend the poor soul limb from limb.

That aside, I've given some thought to why I dislike, so vehemently, these creators of the game I love [deconstructing my own thoughts], the only game I play.  There are so many others who see these fellows as great men, to whom they owe so much, because without them this game wouldn't exist ~ at least, not in the form it does now.

Though of course it doesn't exist in the form they created, except for a few; that form has been mashed and hashed and cut to pieces, only to be reassembled into various Frankenstein's monsters that roam everywhere.  As such, I'm not sure what we're celebrating in what these men did, as clearly what they did was not enough to sustain the actual format they created for very long.  Within six years of D&D cresting the wave, growing popular enough that it's presence made itself known to the media and the general public (about 1979), Gygax was gone from TSR.  Four years after that, 2nd Edition was launched.  One could argue that almost from the beginning of the appearance of real money, the game was a corpse for buzzards come to feed.

But this is not why I dislike this gang of creators.  They were clearly out of their depth; none of them had any business acumen.  None demonstrated a cold, practical sense about how games worked or the technical acumen necessary to sustain themselves in the industry.  They were just guys doing something neat and different; mostly, they let themselves get caught up in the radical thrill of having a "job" that enabled them to play games.  And they pursued their jobs with the zest of any worker who finds themselves in a similar situation ~ they rode the train, knowing that one day it had to hit something and crash, but why worry?

It's not the guys themselves that I despise.  It is what they supposedly stood for.  These were not bright guys.  They did not have any special ability to turn a phrase or express themselves well; their thought processes are similar to those found in any university newspaper: the vague, stumbling expression of half-considered beliefs, defending social justice or the right of students to drink beer openly on the common (since it's private property).  They meant well, of course, but in fact they had a tiger by the tail and not one of them had a real notion of the game's potential.  They saw it as a simple game, no better and no worse than the Avalon Hill games they played already, just another way to while away the time on a random evening.

I think the evidence for that is that none of them moved on.  Readers won't understand what I mean by that, thinking that most of them moved on from designing games to writing fiction novels or going to cons, or creating other games, etcetera.  That's not what I mean at all.  These were university educated men; supposedly creative, imaginative, celebrity-worthy fellows, due great respect and the outpouring of love upon their deaths.  But aside from chancing into being a component in the chance-creation of something much bigger than themselves, what did they do?

Please don't misunderstand me.  Most of us will never "do" anything of great purpose, unless it is to fight in a war or participate in the production of some composite piece of art, like a film or a festival ~ but again, these are things much bigger than ourselves.  Celebrity is owed to people who do something of their own accord; while the status of immortality is owed to people who do it more than once.  Or, who arguably sustain something against all real opposition for a long time.

That is why no one outside the role-playing community knows who Mentzer, Holmes, Moldvay or Arneson are.  Even inside the community, these guys were only sustained because we, the players, were so damn obsessed with the game we perpetrated a sustainable community that could usefully beckon these fellows to come forward and serve as icons ~ well, pets, really.  Beyond being alive, none of them had the acumen to hold the game together by sheer force of will or capability.  None were able to defend their ideals indefatigably against their critics.  None kept making new and profound changes that took the game forward to great heights.

When times got tough in the 1980s, they all crawled away like dogs, tails between their legs, gratuitously begging to write awful pulpy fiction books to sustain a businessman's notion of what young, dumb game purchasers would buy.  They traded on their names, not their abilities, not their abilities to innovate, not their collective superior inventive faculties, to produce the same dreck material they had been paid to create in the late 70s and early 80s, right through the 90s and 00s until meeting their actuarial ends.  Same, same, same ... only a little worse each time, as we well know, for they are celebrated not for that great module they wrote in 1997 but for that thing they wrote in 1979.

Mentzer just happens to be one of these that is still alive: but looking at his recent failed attempt at a kickstarter, it is clear it was just going to be more of the same, more derivative re-tellings of two-dimensional settings and stories, plastered with the same artwork available everywhere on Google.  In a computer age, when bookstores are dying and the tablet rules, it was Mentzer's idea to build his new Empyrea kickstarter and really well made 200-page tomes fashioned of good, high quality paper.

These were not bright guys.  They were lucky guys.  And in a way, they were very unlucky guys, depending on one's perspective and what they might have done if they had not sold their souls to stay in the game, whatever the cost.  These are not guys who went to the cons thinking of how they were building their careers towards a greater future.  These were guys going to the cons because they had nothing else.  The adulation they got from the budgies (fans with bobbling, piercing, darting eyes) was the only thing that made these guys feel alive.

Some, like Mentzer, let it convince them that they were somehow important to the industry; that their word could make or break the careers of other people ~ and they made that threat to hundreds of people, in the hubris of feeling self-righteous.  It was the budgies that made them feel that way; who tricked them, with their adoration, into feeling that they deserved that adoration ... but in fact, most of these guys are just lazy, dull, repulsive old men, sitting on cheap chairs and pretending they are thrones.


Vlad Malkav said...

Hello Alexis !

I don't have much to say about Frank Mentzer (or Holmes, Moldvay or Arneson) - my own path in RPGs (in France) didn't put me into contact with D&D as "The Game", but merely "a game", so I didn't idealize anyone from it.
Although I blindly gave some measure of reverence to Gygax for a time, it was over before I started reading your blog, which cleaned such notions clean from my mind ^^.
And as gaming conventions are far more diverse here too (from what I gathered looking at US conventions' photos and blog articles), maybe it helped prevent such things ... Although I don't have "D&D grognards" in my close friends, so maybe they exist here too.

However, as usual, your two posts really helped me to better understand the subject of those "icons" of old, the sad truth of their situation. And I can't help but feel that many a known name in this industry, even if still "young" and producing more successful content than the Old Ones, are growing in the same way - with perhaps more talent for some (not necessarily at making game, however ...).
Another sign of the stagnation of the major part of the "big money" commercial part of the hobby, I guess.

Anyway, that was enlightning, thanks for that.

PS : people, get on the Patreon please, I need more of this !

JB said...

This may be the harshest condemnation of the Game's originators that you've yet written.

That's not saying it's inaccurate.

We live in an age of such intense scrutiny and such celerity of "reactionability" (I don't think that's a word) that the chance of individuals becoming honored "legends" is dwindling to zero. The legacies of individuals like, oh, say Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein or Joe Paterno have become so tainted that all their accomplishments are rendered null and void. Hell, even death isn't necessarily an escape from the skeletons in our closets (look at Marion Zimmer Bradley). All our human ugliness is easily put on easily that individuals who look like squeaky-clean role-models (say, Russell Wilson) are viewed with some suspicion, as we wait for the "inevitable" dark secret to be revealed.

And, sure, it's a Good Thing. We shouldn't condone or cover up bad behavior and we should be holding folks accountable for the pain and damage they cause, not lauding them or electing them President of the United States (*ahem*). Our Aquarian Age has turned to that phase of Aquarius that requires authenticity or iconoclasm. But even as I celebrate our newfound Age of Accountability, I'll feel at least a bit wistful of the passing of our Golden Age of Legends. For all my rants and gripes about the "system," I probably lean more towards the Get Off My Lawn type than the "Che" revolutionary.
: )