Thursday, May 29, 2008

How It Got Infected

I can’t be certain when adventure modules became all the rage; the earliest one I can remember was Keep on the Borderlands, which Wikipedia says was printed in December of 1979. If so, I had only been playing for a few months…but as I live in Canada, I don’t think any of us saw this module until sometime late in 1980 or possibly ‘81. I remember clearly a time playing when it was universally assumed that you made up your own adventures—and if you weren’t good enough to do that, you had no business being a DM.

But of course TSR, by then run by people who weren’t Gygax, had begun to recognize that role-playing games, as a business model, had a limited appeal. What’s worse, by 1980 if there was any press about any of the games (and most of the press was about D&D), it was BAD press…often very bad, about teenagers killing themselves in their rooms because their characters died or killing parents who tried to stop them from playing. Which meant that the game was never going to become popular on a widespread basis—and once everyone had the rulebooks that said, “make your own,” the company was doomed to go bankrupt.

The solution was to pabulum feed the less gifted advocates of the game, with modules which had the inherent quality of being made useless once they were played—thus creating an ongoing income even after the basic books were bought. My friends and I generally scorned those who played modules, primarily because the modules themselves were rather pathetic. They gave out too much treasure, they were repetitive (guard room to chief’s room to treasure room) and they were so badly written as to be laughable.

But we were not the norm. Modules were certainly the main thing by the time I graduated high school, and by ’83 I was an odd duck in that I never played them.

Meanwhile, TSR sought new ways to make money for the company. A flood of completely different games, each with slight modifications in the rules (and many being mostly shit, without any play testing), erupted on the market. Crap like Buck Rogers and Indiana Jones took advantage of fads, while little groups of excessively effete gamers took up Boot Hill, Empire of the Petal Throne, Top Secret (admittedly, I played this one), Gangbusters and so on. In the long run, all of these were simple-Simon games with no real power to hold a long-time audience.

Something was definitely wrong, but young kids with money were willing to go along with the program. While Deities and Demigods was a fairly decent addition to the game (coming out about eight months after the first three Advanced books), the Fiend Folio in ’81 was generally a piece of crap. The quality of the book had clearly gone downhill—not only in content, but in terms of it's binding as well. At least half the monsters were useless. A considerable number of them had no purpose but to steal objects from players; others were outright repeats from the Monster Manual. A few were purely laughable: the “snail flail” continues to be a steady joke around our gaming table. Still, it was about ten times better than the Monster Manual II, which came out in ’83.

But by then the golden age of the game (at least in terms of its possible growth) was definitely past. On the production side, RPG companies were all in the hands of penny pinchers and lawyers; on the consumer side, the public face of the game had moved into convention mode.

I attended conventions all through the 80s, created and arranged by acquaintances of mine I knew through the city university. Generally the participants numbered about 2,000 (I don’t live in New York), much defined by their social ineptitude and gullibility. All conventions are designed to sell junk to neophytes—people who don’t know anything but are interested—and they exist to enable veterans to lord their knowledge over the neophytes.

I don’t do well in such environments. There’s nothing special about being superior to morons—its much more fun to be superior to superiors, who always get pissed off when their experience fails to award them with instant worship. Worse, I found that even by ’85 I had been playing the game longer than most, and as I had not embraced the TSR company revenue plan, there were fewer and fewer things bridging the gap between me and others. Games I sat in on were still fundamentally hack and slash, haul away the loot, with nothing in the way of plot, purpose or sense. The Game Show version of the game became standard, with rooms full of gold raising characters to the 22nd level in spite of not being bright enough to check a dungeon door for traps without opening it.

(I’ve ran a few parties like this in convention competitions; they’re remarkably easy to kill).

Yet I had been playing for so long, I was pretty well known in those days. Both as a shit disturber and as a good, original-thinking DM. But I couldn’t get into the adventure-for-a-day mentality that grew up around those forums, and other venues over the years that followed. I couldn’t see the point to running an adventure just for the sake of running an adventure. That would be like a one-night stand; I wanted a relationship with my players.

(When Gygax died recently, I received two different invitations to come play the traditional characters associated with his party in the traditional adventure. I declined).

So I drifted away from conventions and I drifted away from RPG shops selling globs of crap for ridiculous prices. Now and then I have to go back and buy something like new dice or a vinyl hex map and such. By the time the 2nd Edition was released in ’89, I had gone completely rogue. I heard about the changes, the removal of demons and devils, the addition of “skills” which could be bought (similar to the system from Middle Earth, which had always been shit but adored by a particular brand of player), and I thought, that makes sense.

Once you’ve sold the shit out of something, the only thing you can do as a company is try to get everyone to buy the same shit once again. So far, the game has been resold in its entirety three times, and another edition is due out in June.

It will be bought, primarily because D&D players continue to be confounded by the game—none of the products released in the last twenty years have done anything to solve the real problem: how do you play?

It is like giving a series of weekend lectures on how to play football…then showing up every Saturday with a new color and shape of ball. See the ball; pretty ball; buy the ball. Followed by a new collection of rules every time, often disagreeing or “modulating” the rules learned last week. And finally, nothing about how to set up a team and play.

I don’t think even the lecturers know how. Not anymore.


  1. Boot Hill was a hilarious parody of itself and the genre it was attempting to emulate. I thought it was hilarious even though my characters tended to get shot in the head quit early on.

    The first module I ran across was X1-Isle of Dread (1980) because it was included in the box for the Expert set. Yes, it was as bad as the name implied.

    You seem to be dancing around the question of "How do you play D&D". Are you warming up to writing it? I would like to read that.

  2. Yea, modules were crap. I've always avoided them like the plague. The best I can say is they've sometimes saved me some time making maps, just steal them from the module and they populate them on my own. I also have a tendency to pick and choose which parts of the 4 or 5 versions of D&D there are that I will use. The first thing I ever remembering reading when I started DMing in High School was that the rules were all optional, use what works for you and chuck the rest.


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