Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

The Real OSR Taliban

This post by Tim Kask is just plain great. It provides a lot of insight in just what was happening in the early days of D&D when it transitioned from OD&D to the split between AD&D and “Basic”.

We had a little pride, but a lot more arrogance, now that I look back on it. We absolutely felt that we “knew” the way the game “should be played”. We fought off the waves of sexual weirdos on the East Coast with their fascination with Girdles of Sex Changing and more; no Moms were going to let their kids play that stuff. We outlasted the hordes clamoring for Spell Points, the most unbalancing feature at the time that would have had wizards ruling the worlds…. We persevered against the adherents of critical hits and hit locations; didn’t they realize that fighting a really bad guy with something like a Vorpal Sword was going to cost them limbs causing them to bleed out? We preserved the original abstract concept of hit points. We felt that these challenges to the game, as well as many others too numerous or petty or insignificant now to name, needed to be quashed so that the game remained true to Gary and Dave’s vision.

At one point a bunch of would-be “improvers” flat-out told us we did not know what we were doing and should let the game out into the world, giving up all rights. Now that was arrogance.

We shaped and guided the evolution of the game with the supplements.  When magic began to proliferate, we saw a way to shape it and expand it in an “approved”’ fashion with new spells and artifacts. We also addressed an area of imbalance overlooked for some time; monsters with psionic powers like Mindflayers were too horrible even in a fantasy game as they wielded an unstoppable weapon. So we came out with a psionics system that was grotesquely misunderstood and misused from its very publication. (As the author of a great deal of it I acknowledge that it could have been done better and explained more clearly—hindsight.) This was Eldritch Wizardry. These were always presented as suggestions and ideas, never rules. It said so in every Foreword I wrote, but we also hoped that our “gentle nudging” would steer the game back.

Read the whole thing!

My favorite thing about it? That side by side, two seemingly contradictory beliefs could be held with utter conviction.

On the one hand, you have this: One of the founding tenets of D&D as it was played in its formative years of ’74 to ’77 was about rulings, not rules.

But on the other hand, you also have the idea that masses of people out there are playing it wrong– and that, if they have their way, they will RUIN D&D.

Many of the things Tim Kask mentions in the post are of course written right into the AD&D manuals in passages from the Dungeon Masters Guide that are singled out today as being written in “High Gygaxian”. That stuff is completely mind blowing to the ecumenically minded gamers of today, of course. But I have to say… if you’re going to play first edition AD&D today, I really do think you need to get into the spirit of things by trying to recapture that zealousness and passion.

Sure, it’s your table and you can do whatever you want. But if you don’t… I think you’re doing it wrong.

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16 responses to “The Real OSR Taliban

  1. Sky June 9, 2016 at 11:20 am

    There is quite a lot to chew on there. Quite a lot. OD&D was beset from the beginning by people trying to ruin it. They weren’t malicious, the thing was just so new. Imagine D&D was the first firearm ever. Gygax and crew sends it out, telling people “hey, you can go hunt with this thing.” People write back, “I have been using it to turn out the lights in my house and now there is glass all over the floor. What should I do?”

    People didn’t anticipate how it would get out of control. Now we live in a world where the basics are taken for granted, so looking back people might think that Kask & Co. were overly harsh. But thanks to their efforts we are at a place now where we can try all sorts of things knowing that the core will always be there to anchor us.

    This discussion the last few days has been so interesting! For those late to the party like me it has been extremely edifying.

    • jeffro June 9, 2016 at 11:29 am

      There are two complicating factors from game rules standpoint:

      1) People in the seventies used D&D to play ANYTHING. Kitchen sink was the norm– more Burroughs-verse than carefully crafted Tolkien setting.

      2) In the eighties, with an rpg covering every conceivable genre… the cultural expectations shifted such that D&D was expected to also focus on essentially one style of play.

      A third layering occurs when the weight of modules and campaign systems and rule books becomes so great, that an entirely different type of game is built directly on top of the Olde Game. (!!) With people running the classic rules… but with piles and piles of product that obviate the need to read books or create setting and adventure from whole cloth.

      But that’s another blog post I guess.

      • Rainforest Giant June 9, 2016 at 5:38 pm

        Yes please that is one that needs to be examined. I am working on a post about how this created the environment for that dreaded vermin the ‘Rules Lawyer’ to flourish and thrive.

    • jddyalblog June 10, 2016 at 8:02 am

      I see your point, mostly, but what a gamer wants out of the experience is so personality dependent that I think a too proscriptive or prescriptive approach can be at least as damaging as one that’s “out of control.” For most early gamers, I think the experiences of their fumbling through trial and error into figuring out how they wanted the whole experience to work is one of those important, formative rituals that turned them into gamers.

      • Sky June 10, 2016 at 9:27 am

        You are right and that’s the interesting part of the discussion. AD&D wanted to reel things in. Its a question of whether or not the cure is worse than the disease. From where we are now I think everything worked out just fine but it might have been a little dicey back in the day. If I recall from previous posts either here or at Castalia there was some bellyaching in Dragon magazine from people decrying the rulesy aspect of AD&D.

      • jddyalblog June 10, 2016 at 2:37 pm

        Well, the interesting thing is that I didn’t really get into the hobby until AD&D was out and had pretty much taken over the hobby (although BD&D and B/X and shortly afterwards BECMI sets were all out too) but I never connected with the AD&D paradigm at all. The OS paradigm, as Kask calls it, is the one that fits me. It would have been much EASIER for me if that were more available when I started; as it is, I had decided that D&D simply didn’t meet my needs for gaming very well, and I spent a long time looking for the Holy Grail system that would work better.

        If the paradigm hadn’t been to “push everyone towards AD&D” I would have had a much easier go of it, and I probably wouldn’t have spent years actively rejecting D&D.

        And is it just me, or did Moldvay kind of go against the grain, actively subvert the intent of Basic, and create a much more free-wheeling successor to OD&D than AD&D ever was?

      • jeffro June 10, 2016 at 2:45 pm

        There’s definitely something special about Moldvay Basic. I am occasionally jealous of the Holmes guys simply because they are cool. OD&D turns into AD&D very fast with the addition of the supplements. Much like the early Christians very quickly became surprisingly, overwhelmingly Catholic. The First Council of Nicaea, for example, didn’t innovate. They merely codified existing practice. That’s what AD&D is. B/X is thus an entirely different stream in some sense. It’s also the one that has garnered the most actual play overall.

  2. Rainforest Giant June 9, 2016 at 5:36 pm

    I just recently did my own blog post that touched on this. I think it was in part inspired by our correspondence. I should give it a more comprehensive treatment just to see what shakes out of the trees. Only way to get feedback is to say something.

    Keep up the good work on this series you’ve given me a lot to think about and have me challenging my own assumptions. You’re also digging deep into the early years of the hobby. My own thoughts are colored by my experiences and this gives me a chance to step out of my own shoes and see it from a different angle.

  3. oakesspalding June 9, 2016 at 9:09 pm

    One great example of this tension–or rather one side of it–is Ed Greenwood’s negative review of The Fiend Folio in Dragon #55:

    “The beauty of the AD&D rule system is its careful attention to detail, ‘serious’ (i.e., treating monsters as creatures in a fantasy world, not as constructs in a fantasy game) tone, and consistency.

    “There are many incomplete or inadequate monster entries…Certainly not enough information is given to ensure that one DM will present them in a manner similar to another DM’s handling.

    “Minor quibbles? Not if the careful ‘international tournament standard’ consistency of the AD&D game is to be maintained.

    “Why are the languages of the Dark Creeper and the Babbler incomprehensible?…DMs should be
    told why these two are special. And phrases like ‘mysteries so far unexplained’ (in the Berbalang listing) are not good enough — in an official rulebook, complete listings should be required.

    “Other monsters seem to have no ecological niche…

    And so on.

    (I’m writing a Fiend Folio knock-off so I’ve been thinking and reading about it a lot.)

  4. Brooser Bear June 9, 2016 at 10:20 pm

    Great read by Tim Kask! Just now I am doing a little study of my own – I listed monsters from all the OD&D Boks and through to Fiend Folio and Monster Manual II, and I coded them to see in which books they appeared, so in this way I can track which monsters were “left behind” in previous editions. So far I am working OD&D Books, through Moldvay and Mentzger and to Monster Manual. A few trends became glaringly apparent to me: Most of iconic D&D Monsters, such as Beholders, Gelatinous Cubes, etc, appeared in the Greyhawk Supplement. Backmoor introduced a lot of sea monsters almost to a point of ridicule – there were Aquatic Elves (did not make it into MM; there were Aquatic Ghouls (Made it) and Aquatic Hobgoblins (did not make it). Most of Blackmoor monsters made it into MM. Mind Flayers and practically all of psionic monsters were introduced in the Eldrich Wizardry. Gods, Demigods and Heroes introduced a number of mythological creatures, such as Klepnier, the 8 legged horse, it did not make it to Monster Manual, but Klepnier became the Gamma World’s Centisteed.

    There were two transitions – one was ODD creatures to Monster Manual, and the other was Moldvay Creatures to Mentzger’s Basic expert etc. Most of ODD creatures made it to Monster Manual. Holmes’s Basic set included creatures from Monsters and Treasures, Greyhawk, and a little of Blackmoor and produced no new entries.

    Moldvay made a significant departure from AD&D and added creatures into his B/X books that do not appear in Monster Manual. Mostly these are variations on giant fishes and instects, but it included Cyclops, which AD&D did not have.

    Mentzger books were a dumbed down version of Moldvay, and included fewer monsters, and had shorter and sparser descriptions. There were about 10 less entries in the Mentzger b/x than in Moldvay b/x. There was also a significant variation in how humans (types) were presented in AD&D and in Basic D&D, and Mentzger Basic had an entry for “Normal Humans” that would be monsters’ pupets, bait and co-conspirators to act against the players (roll the die to see which “Normal Humans” turned out to be. Finally, the monsters in the Mentzger Master book, are all contrived and abstract high level abberations that belong more in a video game than in pencil and paper.

    I started with Moldvay and moved on to AD&D 1st Edition. I don’t feel the tables to be stifling – they provide a framework for realism whilst I concentrate on the fantastic stories to run. I never use a Caller – I talk to each player individually. Sometimes, when players act as a team, a caller would emerge and give the players’ plan. I don’t let the players be anything other than a human. Here’s why: Elves can live up to a 1000 years. Picture an 800 year old aging Elf. He or She would have been born in 1216! That Elf would have witnessed the high Middle Ages, Age of Exploration, Merchantilism. Imperialism, the New World, both World Wars, Age of Enlightenment. Never mind the sheer knowledge, wisdom and practical experience, can you imagine the sheer wealth and political power that a clan of Grey Elves can accumulate and pass down through generations? These are the Elves in my Midlands campaign, and I hadn’t met a player, who was able to convince me that s/he can adequately play an alien centuries old being. Mr, Spocks with pointy ears and vaguely Celtic motifs for girls a la Elrond don’t count.For that reason mine is a Humans Only campaign, though Gygax’s assertion and disguist with Half-Breeds smacks of racism.

    • jeffro June 9, 2016 at 11:06 pm

      That’s an interesting study! I don’t have all the books. Do you know the full story on White Apes? I may have missed them, but I’ve only seen them in Moldvay Basic.

      • Brooser Bear June 10, 2016 at 5:37 pm

        Ah, yes, the White Apes! I came into D&D without any background in literature. AD&D MM has the Carnivorous Ape and a Rock Babboon, Moldvay Basic has the Ape, White, and the Rock Babboon in the Moldvay Expert book.

        I don’t think that the White Ape in the Moldvay B/X has any connotations or inspiration from Appendix N. It is described as a regular ape that went albino as a result of many generations living underground. It is nocturnal and forages for fruits and nuts. Not particularly war-like, it throws rocks, if threatened, and is kept as a pet by the Neanderthals.

    • BobtheCertifiedIdiot. June 10, 2016 at 2:48 pm

      It isn’t necessarily anything to do with racism or taboos against miscegenation.

      Firstly, our American culture is at the extreme outside end of marry outside-marry inside spectrum. Simulating other cultures will have more marriages between people who are more closely related. Yes, marriages to seal political alliances, and stuff like the viking marrying a captured Irish princess. Whether humans have any options for nonhuman alliances is a world building matter. War brides are a matter of taste.

      Secondly, what are the biological assumptions? Yes, today D&D assumes just about anyone can breed fruitfully with anyone. If two types are close enough to breed fruitfully, why are they distinct? If they are as far apart as horses and donkeys, it makes sense they are distinct because mules are sterile. If they are further apart, there might well be no viable offspring.

      There are many choices that someone can make in world building. If Gygax happened to prefer assumptions that made hybrids seem bizarre, there is not necessarily any racial politics to it.

      • jeffro June 10, 2016 at 2:55 pm

        Tolkien’s half elves and half orcs were way different from anything in D&D. Though C. S. Lewis’s half dwarf was REALLY weird. I’m glad that didn’t catch on!

        At any rate, I think elves should be way more alien and that human-elf marriages should be an epic level event that changes the course of history, not something that is a ubiquitous racial type that is useful to min-maxers looking for the right race/class combination to get the perks they want.

    • jeffro June 10, 2016 at 5:39 pm

      Thank you! Yes, they definitely watered it down.

      I think they got a lot of play in hombrew dungeons in the seventies, but it’s a shame they could not include the fact that these things had four arms and were from another planet!

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