Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Gaming's First-Generation Non-Wargamers...

I'm a first-generation non-wargamer.  Ok, but what does that even mean?  Que the history lesson.  Dungeons & Dragons was created by historical wargamers who just happened to like low-fantasy sword and sorcery.  Gritty stuff that bordered on the real.  Gygax famously (and perhaps ironically, given where the hobby ended up) disliked Lord of the Rings, with its elves and (to hear him say it, tedious) pretensions.  I disagree, finding this a reverse-conceit, but whatever.  Strokes.  Folks.  But it did impact how these early games were played... 

Primordial D&D was two-fisted action with swords.  And spells.  It was at once both ridiculous and serious, historical and fantastic.  Your fighter might pass a nearby castle, armed with historically accurate armor and weapons (and polearms, of course), aware that yonder fortress housed a squadron of knights mounted on fire-breathing rocs.  It leaned heavily on wargaming because it was created by - and for - wargamers, and approached its fantastic elements with a nod and a wink because it couldn't take them too seriously. 

Now Gygax delighted in John Carter's exploits, so he must have genuinely admired the fantastic.  Even so, this was pulp, with its shirtless-men-fighting-bears aesthetic.  Magic was window dressing at best, which translates to the OSR's emphasis on human choice over superhuman power.  Monsters became a strategic challenge, and magic a strategic cheat he was keen on limiting.  In short, OD&D was a serious wargame with a sense of humor, a beer-and-pretzels diversion for those who'd rather relitigate the Battle of Trafalgar.

Early D&D was wargaming - and wargaming was its endgame.  Level up, build a fortress, and it's back to protractors and green felt tabletops.  The fantastic stuff was its sense of humor, hence the gonzo, but in all fairness to its adherents, a strategic challenge as well.  This was the hobby's first generation, and it deserves our deepest respect.  But the hobby saw its second wave in the form of non-wargamers.  These were fantasy enthusiasts drawn to the storytelling potential of a game where magic figured more prominently... 

And more seriously.  We were Tolkien fans who longed to recreate the adventures we thrilled in and to walk within their lavishly constructed worlds.  We (and I say that because I was there) were geeky types who devoured comics, haunted the aisles of our local bookstores back when everything was lumped under science fiction, and stood in line for hours to watch a groundbreaking film called Star Wars.  And as we read Starlog, we became aware that there were others like us: fantasy lovers in search of a community - and a voice.

Geekery wasn't mainstream, but Star Wars was changing that.  God bless America, but once you can sell a thing, it becomes a thing.  There was a sea change brewing, and we kind of knew it, although it was hard to put our finger on it.  This was 1977, the year AD&D's Monster Manual appeared in hobby shops.  You'd walk in to buy some Testors model glue for your Shogun Warriors kit and get slapped in the face with that.  Oh, and the strangers in the back cheering about the damage their fireball just did was a powerful siren song. 

Holmes aside, there was no coherent instruction; and no one, however brilliant, was going to actually learn to play from the original digests or the slick new hardcovers.  You needed a mentor, often, a first-generation wargamer who imported much of their gonzo idealism.  But we were quick learners eager to put our own stamp on things - and we nailed it.  From the beginning, Gygax cited those who were by no stretch of the imagination ardent wargamers as keys to the hobby's growth.  And for a guy who hated Tolkien, he was pretty right on...

2 comments:

  1. One of my players whose relatively new to D&D, told me recently (while waxing nostalgic over our recent covid-cancelled campaign) that, "I can remember everything that has happened like it happened."

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I feel that way about life in general these days...

      Delete