Monday, 4 January 2016

Thomas Wolfe May Have Been On To Something

Fair warning: I’m going to say some things about The Force Awakens here that you might not care for. If it would spoil your enjoyment of that movie to hear criticism of it, do yourself a favour and skip this. I have my problems with it, but I also have no interest in shitting on anyone else’s fun.

I also have no interest in discussing the merits and problems of The Force Awakens in the comment section below. Feel like arguing about it? Take it somewhere else.

Nostalgia is the will-o-the-wisp lurking on the moors of nerd culture. Unapologetic affection for the things we like is a fine thing, but too often that leads you into the noxious bogs of sentimentality. It’s easy to get lost there, losing sight of problematic content, giving things a free pass just because we enjoyed them when we were young.

I’m going to come back to that, after a few cases in point. One of them involves lightsabers and droids.

I’ve recently been reading games that fall under the loose aegis of the “Old School Renaissance” (OSR), a body of modern roleplaying games that draw on the rules and play style of the early days of the hobby. Some are deliberate re-creations of those seminal games, while others try to retain the old school “feel” but bring modern sensibilities to the party with regard to rules. I enjoyed the retro style of MUTANT FUTURE, which hearkens back to the handmade feel of early games in the industry, but CASTLES & CRUSADES really hits my sweet spot. It strikes a nice balance between old and new, assessing with a sober modern eye the things about original AD&D that made it fun and the ways in which contemporary games have surpassed it. It’s a lovely essay on what third edition D&D might have looked like if it had cast aside layers of complexity and instead embraced a streamlined, back-to-core-principles approach. I like that a lot.

Each of those games is a commentary on the gaming industry, past and present, in its own way. MF seems to me to have gotten lost on the moors, while C&C remembers where it has been without needing to take the old, well-trodden path that leads into the bogs. As Roger Ebert would have it, it’s not what these two games are about (as their goals are very similar), it’s how they are about it.

It happens that a Facebook friend wrote a long post about the issue of revisiting old-style games at the table, one of those posts that inspires a long tail of comments responding to it. He was attracted to the idea of returning to games like the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS of old, which is to say the kinds of games he played as a young man. He concluded that it was probably impossible to recreate the experience as an adult, although he could see the attraction. I think it’s correct that you can’t have the same experiences you had as a teenager, because (hopefully) you’re not the same person you were then.

A few years ago, just after Gary Gygax died, we sat down at our game table and played a short session of Basic (Moldvay) D&D, as a kind of memorial. That didn’t go so well, partly because the rules were alien and unforgiving to modern sensibilities, but also because the GM didn’t seem to have much interest in bringing his “A” game to the table. It was clear that he didn’t think “old school” D&D was about anything more than hacking up monsters, and didn’t offer us anything beyond that. Sure, that’s probably what the game was to some people, but I’m not sure any of us would still have been playing roleplaying games as adults if that was all it had to offer. Old school games still had characters, and roleplaying opportunities, but there wasn’t a lot of scaffolding for that in the actual rules. As C&C has reminded me, a lot of the game was alive in the negative space around the rules; unless the rules specifically said you couldn’t do something, you could. We were not only not playing the game the old school way, we didn’t bring any of our modern sensibilities to the table either. That session was stillborn not out of lack of interest, but lack of effort.

This was essentially my reaction to the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens. J.J. Abrams was given the most beloved set of Red Box D&D in the world, with the backing of Disney’s deep pockets, and a decade of fan complaints about the prequel trilogy to steer him in the right direction. What he chose to do was dig out one of the same modules he played as a teen, change the names a bit, and work in a few of the old characters as NPCs. There is virtually nothing new about it, nothing to surprise and delight. I find it baffling that so many people are embracing this movie, which was such a massive disappointment to me, because it is literally offering us nothing new. After all these years of complaining about Jar Jar Binks, are we really that happy to go back to mud dice and encumbrance tables? Are there that many grognards out there content to sink in the bog?

My wife is a historian, and she often talks about the issues involved with looking at people in the past. There is an awful temptation to look at them either as Our Heroic Forebears, whose travails lead to our glorious selves, or else as bumpkins who held beliefs that are unacceptable to modern minds. The truth, of course, is much more complex. People in the past can be heroic, forward-looking, and still act in ways that are confusing or angering to us as we look back. There is the temptation to give them a pass because of other admirable things they did, or because they were limited by their times, but that’s just slapping a coat of whitewash on history. History is rarely simple and neat, and arguing for complexity and nuance is a responsibility.

Returning to those old games has to be an exercise in complexity too, if it’s going to work for those of us who haven’t been playing the same AD&D campaign for forty years. It starts with a sober consideration of what it was about those old games that we liked in the first place, and then a careful assessment of what modern tools we can bring to the party. In short, it’s like any successful game – you need to put some work into it. For myself, I think there is promise in playing modern games that borrow the “sandbox” style of early gaming, where gameplay was by its nature emergent and surprising. What does that look like when you add HTHD style dramatic interactions and character development? I’m not sure yet, but I think that would be interesting to see.

I am not at all interested in a lot of the trappings of the old school gaming experience. I don’t care much about the accumulation of experience points and gold pieces, or long, drawn-out battles, or grinding my way through massive dungeons that sprawl over a handful of sheets of graph paper. But that doesn’t mean I don’t see the potential for good gaming there. Being old doesn’t make those games good or bad on their face, it makes them historical documents that you need to approach with modern eyes and see them clearly: their warts, their problems, and their potential. Good modern takes on the old school play experience like C&C or DUNGEON WORLD know their roots, but they’re doing something new.

Let’s stop digging out those dusty old red boxes and trying to pick up from where we were in 1982. Let’s build new games together that know their history and look forward to building something fresh, something that requires imagination and effort and love. Following those flickering lights on the moors only leads to stagnant waters.

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