Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Inventing a WG

Last week, I was generously given the rules booklets and box of the first system of D&D that I played - for all of four months back in 1979.  That is, Men and Magic, Monsters and Treasures and Underworld and Wilderness ... along with a rather pristine copy of Chainmail (clearly not used in gaming) and a copy of Blackmoor.  Well, I think it was Blackmoor.  I haven't got the books at my elbow right now, and it could have been Greyhawk.  I haven't bothered opening that one yet, and the fact that I can't remember the cover should indicate the total lack of interest I hold for either.

I haven't seen a copy of Chainmail since about 1980.  I could have, I suppose, had I been looking for one - but again, I just haven't cared.  I will at some point be going through the book and discussing it here, along with all the books, as a kind of fuck-does-this-annoy-me sort of series of posts.  I know we are talking about holy relics and all; I know there's at least one reader pissed off right now because they'd kill for a copy.  My frank opinion is that all this glorification and praise is misplaced ... and now I have the actual text to prove it.

I have read through Men and Magic and Underworld and Wilderness.  I rather humorously remembered when there when armor class extended only down to 9, and how weird it was when AC 10 was introduced with AD&D.  I have said before that everyone I knew connected to the game rushed from these ratty little books to the fabulous DMG the day it made its appearance at what was then a shitty little storefront called The Sentry Box on Crowchild Trail just off Kensington Road.  I'm adding that as a little shoutout for the two or three Calgary readers of this blog, who might only know the 'Box' from it's days in Mar de Loup, or its present massive warehouse in Sunalta.  Sorry, these are Calgary references to neighborhoods.  Out-of-town readers need not worry about them.

(if there was anything I'd want from those days, it was a framed page that used to sit in the storewindow of the Sentry box in those days that 'defined' Dungeons and Dragons - given that explaining the game to non-players was considered next to impossible, and here it was managed in 10-point-font on one page ... but this was 1979, and the only journalists knew what fonts were)

Instead, I have these crummy books.

I know that a huge structure of rules and imagination have been built out of the original flimsy rules described within, but I don't think that on their own they are much to speak of.  It is achingly clear how amateurish is the design; no, I do not speak of the layout or the format, I speak of the throwaway uselessness of at least half the text's helpful hints.  There are constant references to the lack of space the creators have in printing out their rules (which itself wastes space), made worse by the number of times it is said your imagination this or your imagination that can do so much more (than the pathetic bits we've written out here).  The last is not said, but it is implied with every encouragement like Euripides' preponderance of a little bottles of oil.

It is clear that Arneson and Gygax (and a host of others connected to them) stumbled across something a lot bigger than they had the talent to exploit (as became painfully clear after D&D hit it big and they were both put on a bus).  Roleplaying was clearly something that a certain part of the people cried out for - and when the first steps were taken towards it, the people picked up the ball and ran.  They're still running.  The real impetus, I suspect (and I'll know for sure after I delve deeper into it), was Chainmail, which I noticed from glancing through it is of FAR better quality and depth than D&D's sad little addendums to it.  Once Chainmail came into being, someone was bound to produce some sort of follow up that was bound to make them as famous as either Arneson or Gygax.

What's interesting, and very obvious from Underworld and Wilderness, is how little attention is paid to roleplaying at all.  The descriptions of the "world" seems to be a collection of justifications for getting the players from one combat to another.  Here are the passages in the dungeon between rooms where you will fight combats.  Here's the mapboard you should use so you know where to find combats.  Here's the rules on how other people will give you reasons for combat.  It is described as little more than a loose "wargame" where combat is clearly the be-all purpose for everything the party could expect to do in a given night's gaming.  This makes sense, after all.  Arneson and Gygax were wargamers who had spent more than a decade playing wargames with other wargamers.  They thought like wargamers, and when they invented their "RPG," they didn't.  Invent an RPG, I mean.  They invented a WG, which others made into an RPG because there's a very vague sense from Men and Magic that it could be played that way.

Men and Magic, however, really doesn't say so.  Isn't that interesting, too.


JB said...

Yep, yep, and yep.

There is, of course, more to the story than a huge heaping amount of scorn to pile upon "our beloved founders," and there are (in my opinion) some positives with which we can credit them (I won't bother to enumerate them here), but I don't disagree with anything you've written here. More's the pity.

Aaron E. Steele said...

You had me at Crowchild and Kensington, since I spent many an afternoon at that dungy, dark store.

I wonder, though, if you can appreciate original DnD for what is is, not what it could or should have been? After all, you've been refining your game, based on the original and advanced materials, for 30 years.

Those guys stumbled upon the game and had to invent everything. They didn't even have the language to describe it as a role-playing game, as you can see from the subtitle to the original books.

Alexis said...

As suggested, JB and Aaron, I shall try to work up some positive posts for this series.

The problem with positive posts, as you know, is that they're boring. There's no conflict, no one reads and no one comments. Obviously the AC idea was a good one; it wasn't invented from scratch - it follows ideas from wargames that were around in the 1960s - but it was an excellent implementation that provided a solution that is spot-on beautiful.

Makes a pretty dull post, though.