Monday, 7 September 2015

Paradigmatic D&D, Or: A Verbeeg, Grell, Ankheg and Orog walk into a bar...

I don't think it is controversial to say that one of the great side-effects of the creative flowering that is the OSR is what people have done with settings. Whether it's Corpathium, the Swordfish IslandsCenterraHMS ApollyonStraits of Anian, the implied setting of Deep Carbon Observatory or Carcosa, wherever you look people are redefining what a D&D setting is "supposed to" look like in new and interesting ways.

And yet. And yet. I feel a deep and abiding longing when I flick through the AD&D 2nd edition DMG, Monstrous Manual, or BECMI Rules Cyclopedia, for the many worlds - all unique and yet all so very alike - which DMs have created and run for their groups down the decades and which all drew from that same soup of basic ingredients: elves in the forests, dwarves in the mountains, storm giants and golden dragons, grell and illithids, gnolls and ettercaps, ankhegs, thri-kreen, githyanki and mimics. We are free from the tyranny of generic D&D world building nowadays, but like an old Bulgarian man who looks back at his youth and feels a sense of unjustified nostalgia for how things were under the Communists, so I can't help but sometimes think there is an eternal charm in the implied settings of the 1980s. Running a game in a simulacrum of Mystara, as so many people did, is to be free from the pressure or need to be interesting. The melange of cultural influences which together comprised "D&D-land circa 1987-1994" are like a comfortable, warm blanket to swathe yourself in; a big, bland, cottage pie to eat; a pint of John Smith's at the pub; a song by The Beatles. It isn't particularly interesting because you already know it intimately, but it is wholesome and enjoyable for all that.

Like most RPG bloggers, I am guilty of overcomplicating things at times. I am on an apparently unending quest to try to do something new. That has its virtues, but I can't help but feel overwhelmed by a yearning for the simplicity of yesteryear sometimes. Or, to put it another way, the enduring naff-ness of the Keith Parkinson image below calls to me in a way that is more than a little embarrassing but cannot be denied.



18 comments:

  1. I've often felt the same about the Ultima Online "cover" painting.
    http://ultimacodex.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/ultima-online.jpg

    It's from '97, but I think it just captured the last moments of the zeitgeist.

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    1. I've never seen that picture before but yes, that is absolutely it.

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  2. I call it the fun vs. interesting paradox....and totally empathize. I've recently forced myself to focus on the "fun" part over the "interesting" part as a way of combating a bit of burnout....basically aiming for "stuff my players will love even if I don't feel like I'm at my creative peak doing it" and just enjoying the ride.

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    1. Yes, I am feeling in that kind of position myself lately.

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  3. @ Noisms:

    True, true, true.

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  4. Ok. I'll have to take your word for it.

    With the exception of Carcossa, and Zak Smith's Red and Pleasant Land, I'm amazed by the overwhelming sameness of it all.

    Unless I am misunderstanding the meaning of the post. I am looking at that Parkinson piece and thinking, great artist but that's just D&D fantasy. It's all just D&D fantasy. I've not seem much OSR stuff that doesn't look like that artwork by Parkinson would fit right in.

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    1. You're not paying enough attention then.
      It doesn't look like Yoon Suin at all, or Straits of Anian.

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    2. You're not paying enough attention then.
      It doesn't look like Yoon Suin at all, or Straits of Anian.

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  5. Oddly enough, I remember 1987-1994 as being a period of extensive D&D book collecting, but relatively little actual play. If you did try to play, there was always someone around to make you feel inferior about choosing such a retrograde system, when there were better and more innovative games available. The result was that I spent a lot of time looking at the high-end production values of new TSR releases (which today look as silly as you noted above!) and wishing there were games of this stuff occurring, without ever actually getting use out of the investment.

    Today, sure, I know there are plenty of snobs writing blogs on the internet, but it seems rather easier to put together a bog-standard fantasy campaign and have everyone enjoy it -- without the constant nagging guilt that we're supposed to be trying something more artsy and avant garde. I ran a campaign all summer for a dozen players, and none of them tried to convince any of the other players that they shouldn't be having fun because it was trope-laden derivative fantasy. They just seemed to be having fun by abusing the NPCs in a bunch of my old modules, like it was 1980 all over again and no one had ever seen a gnoll before. Virtually no edition warring, either. It was amazingly low-stress and unpretentious.

    I suppose there's someone out there on the internet reading our session reports and wrinkling a sophisticated nose in disgust, but I've gotten too old to care very much.

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  6. Recapturing the zeitgeist of those two pictures is what the OSR is all about! (I don't see anything wrong with or cheesy about them, btw. )

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  7. ",,,but I can't help but feel overwhelmed by a yearning for the simplicity of yesteryear sometimes."

    I get this warm, comfy glow when I work on AD&D 2e material while listening to Soudgarden. Gaming made a lot of sense to me then and I feel a bit of that when I combine the games and music of that time.

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  8. I like the approach of Gygaxian naturalism - taking those elements, but then elaborating on a hidden logic behind them.

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  9. The thing is if you take all of that era`s implied setting and shove it all together in one place and really really think about how it all fits together and what effect each bit has on the other instead of compartamentalizing everything you get something as weird and horrifying as anything out of the edgier bits of the OSR. Its like tasting bland mass market cider and making apple jack out of it.

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    1. Yeah, I absolutely agree with that and think the potentials for interesting ideas there are pretty much endless.

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    2. Exactly. Just like in your 2ed MM read-through, there's so much interesting stuff there if you put some thought into it and especially knock two pieces of canon together and see what sparks fly out.

      The problem with a lot of D&D settings is you get the pretty mundane big picture (human kingdom here, elves in the forest, dwarves in the mountains, monsters in the swamps, blah blah blah) and then all kinds of great weirdness on the microscale (all kinds of weird monsters and stuff) but all of the micro-scale weirdness never seems to have much effect on the overall picture of the setting, they're just weird aberrations. But if you build stuff from the bottom up instead of top down and think about how all of those weird little things interact you get a really bizarre setting even if all you've built it out of is bog standard D&D.

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  10. Sean Robert Meaney18 September 2015 at 07:51

    Prefered communism to pretend democracy. Also loved soviet national anthem. Big hunt for red oktober fan. So you are not entirely alone in your disapointment at the abandonment of mystara.

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    1. The communists were pretty big on pretend democracy as well, we abide by the decisions of our representatives in the central committee comrade!

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  11. What I find is that that kind of thing lulls me into a false sense of security; I remember doing a game of dungeon world, all ready and set up to play out classic tropey fantasy, nothing clever, and then before we know it wizards are secretly stealing their powers from sleeping gods, elves worship reindeer, and it's all gone weird again.

    I think it helps that you don't have to be clever or original, because then it's actually easier to do it whenever you feel like it.

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