There's a big fuss being kicked up about Geoffrey McKinney's new homebrew campaign setting for OD&D, the grandiosely titled 'Supplement V: Carcosa'. It has generated a lot of understandable outrage about its depictions of demon-summoning rituals (most of which seem to involve a level of sexual violence against children which would put Gary Glitter to shame), and a predictably vehement defense from some quarters to the effect that the violence is fictionalised, we should respect free speech, villains in the source literature do similar things, etc. etc.
This post isn't about that issue, directly. All my points have been made already, more eloquently, by other people, and you can and will make up your own minds. I should also say that I absolutely support the production of new 'old school' products and I'm glad the author has made the effort to put his creativity out in the public domain. I also think he's a very brave individual for risking the obvious backlash his publication would invite. However, I think that 'Supplement V' brings up some other worrying issues for the little niche of the RPG world we call 'old school gaming'.
My biggest concerns about 'Supplement V', rather than the infantile - and I use that word advisedly - reveling in blood and gore, are these. First, there is the near unforgivable hubris of its title, deliberately setting the supplement up as some sort of spiritual successor to the OD&D supplements. I find this distasteful. It's grandiloquent. It's putting oneself up on a pedestal. Frankly, it lacks class. More seriously, it panders to the notion that people who play older versions of D&D have to continually walk in the shadow of its creators. Again I'm forced to ask the question that I have before in this blog, numerous times: what's wrong with doing something new? Why does this have to be 'Supplement V', unable to stand on its own two feet as something novel?
Second, the continued use of paranoid shibboleths like "Supplement V: CARCOSA is a book of rules options for the original fantasy role-playing game published in 1974" really gets my goat. It's a completely unnecessary rhetorical genuflection designed to avoid being sued by Wizards of the Coast for using the words 'Dungeons & Dragons' - something which has a likelihood of precisely nil. Wizards of the Coast do not own the words 'Dungeon', 'and', or 'Dragon'. They own trademarks of certain logos and sets of lettering which happen to have those words in them. The level of concern exhibited by some members of the 'old school' in this regard is completely misplaced.
Third, I have a broader anxiety about 'amoral' games, and I've noticed a tendency among various old school bloggers to over-egg that aspect of Original D&D to the point of absurdity. Yes, grave-robbing and theft of treasure in an amoral (or immoral) manner was a cornerstone of the game, and the fantasy genre, for many years. It's a trope, and happens to be a lot of fun. It's also a truism that D&D characters are almost never truly 'good' in any meaningful sense of the word, unless ones definition of 'good' includes unthinking slaughter. And the characters in the source literature which inspired/inspires D&D were never angels.
But there's a point at which behaving amorally in a game turns a corner into the vicarious acting out of urges - urges that are better left at the very bottom of the id. Murder, theft, and even matters like torture and rape (on the part of the villains) are not something that I would absolutely forbid from ever arising in my games. And the moral ambiguities associated with the killing of 'evil' creatures are worthy of exploration. But there is nothing morally ambiguous about, for example, sexual abuse. I don't have any interest in exploring that as an outlet for the player-characters (villains are a different story), because it's an intrinsically negative, destructive and, dare I say soul destroying thing to do. Just as I gave up playing the original Grand Theft Auto because I realised it could have a numbing effect on my attitudes towards other people, so I don't wish to be involved in D&D play which involves something similar.