Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Out with the Old

It happened like this in the world. Old things lost their grip and dropped away; not always because they were bad things, but sometimes because the new things were more bad, and stronger.
- TH White, The Goshawk

I am a lover of old things. Not all old things, and of course the principle only stretches so far, but I think in general I prefer the tried and tested to the new. I prefer Bach to Jay-Z, test cricket to t20, Shakespeare to Zadie Smith, old-fashioned real ale to fancy ciders and "fursty ferret" style ironically fashionable old-fashioned ale (I write this blog entry drinking a can of Courage Director's), classic cocktails to passion fruit fucking mojitos, classic rock to whatever it is kids listen to nowadays, analogue to digital, karate to MMA, hand-carved wood furniture to stark modernist stuff, gothic architecture to brutalist concrete, etc., etc. It isn't a hard-and-fast tendency by any means - and I have basically no tolerance for fakeness (I don't know about in the US but pseudo-Victoriana is the fashion of choice these days amongst hipster knobheads in Britain) - but it's a certain leaning.

Is my leaning towards old things the reason I like old RPGs? Undoubtedly yes. I like them because they are old. Not necessarily because there is an intrinsic value in oldness (though I do believe that there often is), but simply because I like things that have been around for a long time. I like having a connection with the past and with older ways of doing things. The new, the glossy, the shiny, the sparkly, is not usually all that attractive to me. I find it off-putting and ephemeral. I tend to view it with suspicion and often find its success to be attributable, as TH White did, to simply being more bad, and stronger. Much of the modern RPG industry, if its possible to speak of such a thing at all, strikes me as being that: more bad, and stronger, than what was being played in decades past.

Our preferences tend not to be rational, and I think we kid ourselves if we pretend otherwise, but I also think a rational argument can be made as to why one should prefer old things - which is simply that, if something has been around for a long time, there is probably a reason for it. The onus ought to be on new things to prove their worth: we can take Shakespeare as great simply by dint of him still being considered so important 400 years after his death, whereas modern authors have the burden of proof to demonstrate they aren't passing fads. The world of rock is the same: the latest NME flavour of the month may be a great band but let's wait 30 years or so and see if people are still listening. Of course, nothing of this is set in stone - there are plenty of things that have been around for a long time which are criminally awful (e.g. Bono) and sometimes unutterably terrible things become grandfathered into greatness for no good reason (e.g. Star Wars Episode II: The Clone Wars). And this is contingent on survival: the preference is not for old things at all costs, but for old things which have proved themselves by surviving. But I think there are strong reasons for the following rule of thumb:

Faced with a choice between purchasing or using two cultural artefacts (e.g. books) where one is significantly older than the other, the significantly older one should usually be preferred.

This is why, for instance, I'll rely on BECMI rather than buy D&D 5th edition, and why I'll try to track down the Top Secret RPG before looking for other, newer games. It's not that I'm sure the old things are better, it's that faced with a choice and with limited time, I'll go for the tried and tested. I'll trust that rule of thumb.

(There are other, less prosaic arguments too, of course. I'm thinking here of Burke's metaphor of the flies of the summer, whose lives are meaningless because they are self-contained, without past or future, neither inheriting nor bequeathing but simply living. I'm thinking also of MacIntyre and his 'goods internal to practices'. But I'll leave those for a future entry.)


  1. cf. Edmund Burke.

    Your list of opposing new vs. old items was interesting for me ("fursty ferret"? t20? eh?), and required a bit of Googling -- I mean, that is to say, I went down to my local library and spent some time with the card catalog. ;)

    1. Oop.. just saw that you mentioned Burke in your final parenthetical.

    2. "Real" ale is very fashionable at the moment, which means that you're getting all these pseudo-Ye Olde type brands appearing and it's hard sometimes to figure out if you're drinking an ancient recipe handed down through the generations or just some soulless brewery slapping Merrie Olde England names and logos on cans of John Smith's.

  2. Having a career in a field where the shittiest are often the ones that survived the test of time while we have no way of knowing what wonders were lost to the philistinism of past generations (Vermeer, for example, was ignored for 200 years and only rediscovered by sheer accident, as Finelli is forgotten today) I could not disagree with you more.

    1. Bach was also apparently marginalized for a long time before being rediscovered.

      I think you are under-weighing the power of contingency in history (this is a form of hindsight bias).

      All that said, aesthetically I do think there is power in tradition.

    2. (The "you" in my comment above refers to Noisms, not Zak.)

    3. Hey Zak,

      Are you saying that Vermeer was the only decent artist of his era and that the rest of his peer group--aka the Dutch Masters--though more consistently remembered than him, were the shittiest paint slingers in the business?

    4. No, did you read what I wrote or skim it? It's only 4 lines long.

      Sticking only with the Dutch: Kalf, Vermeer and Rembrandt are great. Franz Hals (for instance) is shit. As are many other people who were remembered better than Vermeer when he was remembered.

      The fact that Vermeer was forgotten and Hals remembered proves the test of time is unreliable.

      My comment extended to all of painting though, not just the Dutch.

    5. Brendan, I take that point, but contingency is a funny thing. We don't know how many long-forgotten baroque-era composers were rediscovered and then reforgotten because they weren't very good. The fact that Bach was rediscovered and recognised as great might simply be evidence for the fact that the cream eventually usually rises to the top, whatever happens. (Not that I believe it's as simple as that, of course.)

    6. Although Zak's attempt at making a point is, characteristically, phrased in an unpleasant way (use of "shitty" and "philistinism"), rests on broad-brush unsupported assertions ("the shittiest are often the ones that survived," as if the "often" actually meant anything), and self-contradictory (his claim about Vermeer is belied by the fact that we know who Vermeer *was*) - despite all that, his basic point is valid.

      To rephrase: recognition and survival result from many factors aside from quality. Fads, politics, accidents and disasters, the creator's personality (+ or -); these can elevate an undeserving work or suppress a deserving one. Noisms' counterpoint - that statistically, over enough time, the cream will generally rise to the top - is also valid, *but* it depends heavily on great expanses of time and on the law of averages. There may be masterpieces that were never known, or that remain undiscovered, that put Bach or Vermeer to shame.

      A larger reason that I disagree with the thesis of this post, though, is that it seems to suggest substituting an algorithm for consideration. If "cream rises to the top" in history, it is only because many generations sample both the cream and the whey and, on average, choose one over the other.

      But other selection factors exist: tradition, for example. In to the social sphere, slavery is thousands of years old - but historicity alone doesn't make it better than the alternative! That may feel like an extreme example, but I hope it illustrates my point: that examination and invention are necessary, and that nothing should be chosen simply because it is "old."

      The specific case you seem to be blogging about (RPGs) is a little different. I assume that you *have* "examined" BECMI etc., in which case what you mean to say is probably not "I will stick with them instead of moving to 5E because they are old and it is new" - but rather "I will stick with them because they are good, and they work, and I see no need to invest time and effort in replacing what I like." Nu?

    7. Confanity you are lying:
      " rests on broad-brush unsupported assertions ("the shittiest are often the ones that survived,"

      The word "often" makes that _instantly_ not a broad brush assertion. And it is supported, there's an example there and more available on request.

      "(his claim about Vermeer is belied by the fact that we know who Vermeer *was*) "

      Wholly incorrect. It is (of course) logically impossible to give an example _of someone we have never heard of_ so I have to give an example of someone who, had we been born not long ago, _would_ have been undiscovered.

      Vermeer being unknown for 200 years would be like as if we, in 2014, didn't know about Goya, Ingres, or Delacroix now.

      Please do not lie about other people on the internet any more, Confanity.

    8. Thank you, Zak, for demonstrating how to be incompetent in debate.

      1. "Often" is a meaningless weasel-word. How "often" IS "often"? 50% of the time? 80%? 95%? 25%? What are the criteria for an artist's "survival"? What are the criteria for "shitty"? You cite nothing beyond Vermeer and a couple of contrasts, and even if Vermeer were an example of a non-shitty artist that DID NOT survive, one data point would hardly be enough to support a case. Hence, "broad-brush" and "unsupported."

      2. Your one example given actually supports the post's argument and damages your own. Yes, sure, Vermeer may have gone through a period of obscurity, even a two-century-long period. But Vermeer is now not only known, but one of the better-known artist names. Even a non-artist like me has heard his name.

      But "me" is just one data point, so here's more proof that I, unlike some people, offer before being called out: if you google "top famous artists," Vermeer is one of the "artists mentioned frequently on the web" that appears. Biography Online includes him in their top ten. That sounds like survival to me, even if it took a while for him to become really well-known. Given that the opposite of survival is death, and if his works had died he couldn't possibly be famous, or even known at all.

      In other words, mentioning Vermeer *weakens* the argument that it is the shitty who ("often") survive. Because not only is he NOT an example of something shitty that survived, he's an example of something non-shitty that survived. The post's argument about cream rising to the top, as I said (or did you forget to actually read the words in my comment?), depends on time and the law of averages.

      2.5. If you want to support your argument effectively, you could try giving criteria for survival and shittiness, give us a list of "surviving" artists, and demonstrate that x% of the survivors are indeed shitty. A counterfactual thought experiment ("What if Vermeer had not survived, instead of surviving?") doesn't help your case.

      3. Even if I were wrong on the above points and you were somehow correct, it still wouldn't be a case of lying. If you really really can't tell the difference between "disagreement" and "lying," then you should probably be taking up the issue with a therapist instead of with me, even if I did have the audacity to disagree with you.

      I do not lie about people online; I disagree with them and try to explain why. Claiming that I do lie is actually a lie on your part, unless you are truly so messed up that you can't even tell the difference between an opinion that differs from yours and the darkest of calumny. Please do not lie about other people on the internet any more, Zak.

    9. Obviously Confanity is too nuts to see he or she didn't actually address what I said in my 2 points, just pretended to.

      But anybody else reading should be able to tell. So I'll just leave it there.

      Anyone who is _not_ Confanity who thinks Confanity has a point--contact me. Otherwise we can assume everyone sane realizes Confanity is wrong.

    10. Actually, we can assume that everyone sane wants to stay away from Zak's infamous verbal abuse and poisonous personality.

      In any case I must apologize to Noisms for poking the troll. I kind of had hoped that in this venue he'd be a a little more rational and a little less nasty, and that he'd allow an actual discussion to take place in his presence for once, but apparently not. :-(

    11. Well we'll see, won't we?

      Either someone will go "I think Confanity has a point" or they won't.

    12. True, either they will, or they won't. But everyone sane enough to merely read and then avoid getting involved, note the (again, characteristic) failures of logic and pervasive bullying.

      First, I supposedly "just pretended to" address Zak's points. No explanation; no clarification; just common goalpost shifting. Either Zak doesn't understand his own points, or he didn't understand the post he was trying to respond to, or he didn't understand my points, or perhaps a combination of the above. In any case, I accept his maneuver for what it is: an admission that he has lost.

      Second, note the fake call for referendum. Zak, if he has two neurons to rub together, knows that the number of people who actually read his comment will be minimal, and the number who feel compelled to actually put their two cents in is likely zero. Simple reasoning suggests that nobody is likely to get involved.

      Two questions remain - 1. Is Zak intelligent enough to realize that? Or did he actually believe an audience of thousands was poised to take sides, in this comment thread, on this post of this blog? I suspect he realized; even someone so bad at logic, if they've spent as much time getting wound up on forums as he seems to have done, should catch on.

      2. If he realizes, then what was his purpose? Did he want to make himself feel better by pretending that *silence* was somehow all the support his arguments ever need? Or is he just a bully? A nasty piece of work who can't handle dissent and needs to make himself feel better by abusing strangers on the internet?

      Given that he goes to great lengths to tongue-lash into silence any who disagree with him, well, you know what my conclusion is. 8^(

    13. I find the most telling part of this just how good the word "shitty" is in any discourse. The word is a classic, beautiful old English word, which has stood the test of time.

  3. As someone who is currently using Top Secret 2nd edition to run a few '50s era spy adventures, I am not sure if it really exemplifies your premise... it's not a very well designed game by any means. (It does have a certain flavor, though.)

    1. Top Secret certainly had its flaws, but it remained playable and easy to jump into. It was a lot more approachable for newbies than D&D, which has its mental hurdles ("What again is the difference between a kobold and an orc?")

      Similar games worth looking for if you want some Top Secret-like variation are Bureau 13 and Crimefighters. The original B13 has one of the most complicated combat systems I've ever seen, an inevitably every group forms their pared-down house rules, much like every AD&D game I've been in.

      Crimefighters was a 1920s noirish game that came as a supplement in one of the old issues of Dragon. Simple, perhaps too simple, but the rules were surprisingly open-ended. It was a snap to make a Depression-era game of gangsters and then move it to the jungles of South America a la Indiana Jones.

  4. I feel your point but I recently played Basic D&D and 5th Edition and 5th is simply better. Its also amply old school enough for me and the other OS aficionados in the group as well.

    Simply sometimes things do get better with design improvements. For the most part, D&D 5 is very good and I think in time it will be remembered too with more than rose colored nostalgia glasses.

    As to what Zak said, I think he is saying cultural memory of old quality is subject to fad as much as new stuff. I tend to agree. I''m probably a shade older and less well educated than Zak and I've heard of Vermeer and Rembrandt but never Kalf or Hals , with whom I agree with Zak on the quality -- yech

    1. 5th is simply better? The whole thing isn't even published yet. It is by definition incomplete and anyone playing it is imposing a set of assumptions on something that isnt here yet.

    2. We certainly got more and better play out of the Mines of Phandelver than we did with basic

      Anyway 5e has got two books out thus far (PHB and MM) and a wide range of adventures.

      Even without the upcoming dungeon masters guide it compares quite favorably to AD&D 1e with all 3 books, is better (IMO YMMV) than B/X though not as complete as it or especially Cyclopedia and is as good as or possible better than 3e at the same time frame. Again YMMV

      Unless they really really screw up the game going forward I suspect its going to be among the best D&D ever written. Does it have quirks and dumbth? Yep. Is it perfect ? Nope. But its a very advanced well thought out design .

      And yes I am,pretty sure some of the upcoming books will be ass. That's life..