Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

In Praise of Poor Production!

Back in 1978, I fell in love with a game that looked positively terrible!  Seriously, I can't emphasize enough just how awful this looked right out of the box.  But I'll try...

The ARTWORK was AMATEUR.  Hell, it was SUB-AMATEUR, looking like something someone doodled during sixth grade math class (and pretty clearly traced from a Marvel comic book)!

The LAYOUT was PRIMITIVE and rough.  Although clearly typeset, it looked like someone had access to the college's printing lab or maybe had an old AB-Dick printer in their basement and played around with offset printing as a hobby (minus the proof-reading).

And the WRITING was, uh, UNIQUE.  In all its glory it suggested someone who read lots of older fiction, including the likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. P. Lovecraft.  All written in a flowery and antiquated style with plenty of passive voice...

But none of this mattered BECAUSE...

The amateur nature of the artwork made it look, and feel, like something created by my PEERS.  It was something I could make, which put me into the action.  I felt like I COULD DO IT...

This old illustration depicts
content from the game while simultaneously
leaving something to the imagination!

Ditto for the layout and design.  Modern, well-produced games are wonderful, but they often feel like something from on high delivered to us mere mortals.  It's pretty much a top-down affair, while the amateur stuff came across as PEER-TO-PEER.

And the writing became GAMING WRITING.  A genre unto itself, complete with its own style manual (some call it Gygaxian, although Burroughs and Lovecraft certainly got there first)!  It created a unique reading experience well-suited to its subject matter.   

This is because gaming rulebooks are both CREATIVE writing and a form of TECHNICAL writing that absolutely demands a unique style and approach.  One that reflects its inspirations...    

But its worth noting that the earliest D&D rulebooks failed on critical points.  Where was the sample combat?  And how would anyone know how to execute it?  Luckily, its central idea was so utterly revolutionary that people WANTED to master it, and in the absence of clear rules, they inserted their own interpretations.    

No one could get away with that today, but back then, it actually facilitated many of its own goals and objectives!

And so, here was a game that utterly defied every expectation of what a good product should look like.  We could simultaneously note its flawed production while praising its content and the exciting possibilities it offered us.  It was the POTENTIAL it seeded in us, rather than any directive from the rules, that mattered most.

This is GORGEOUS, and we're
not denigrating it.  Long may these games
be available, cause' they're GREAT
and all.  But notice how you've been given
someone else's vision here...

ESSENTIAL TRUTH: No one gathers to "ooh and ahh" at the rulebook, rather, they gather to play a game created by the GM and brought to life in a cooperative environment.  It's NOT the book...

And so the finest games; the ones that stick with us even though they shouldn't because they don't "look" as good, are the ones that engender a FEELING OF INSPIRATION IN THE READER and inspire them with exciting possibilities only they can create...

Ask not what the rulebook can do for you.  Ask what YOU can do WITH the rulebook.  Because THAT'S the game you'll actually play!

Forty years later, this ethos is alive and well in our own games, although adjusted somewhat for reality.  Amateur artwork that conveys atmosphere before detailed depictions that deny the reader their own imagination.  A stylized amateur design that tries to distill what made these games compelling while offering a quality product well-worth picking up.  And clearly written rules that cover the essentials but leave room for personal interpretation. 

This isn't corporate shill.  Rather, I'm pointing out that the amateur production Gygax and Arneson achieved out of necessity and lack of resources engendered an atmosphere that was essential to spreading the hobby and making it fun.  And we're not the only ones enchanted by this.  The entire OSR community is built on these bedrock values of gaming as a peer-to-peer exercise.  But we stand on the shoulders of giants, because OD&D did this first and best!


  1. One of the biggest attractions to the OD&D rules for me: the holes.

    The stuff they didn't mention. The inconsistencies and lack of information. Again the mark of a small press publisher that didn't really know quite what they wanted but had a good idea.

    The lack off completeness meant that people had a natural tendency to fill in the gaps. This was amplified by the supplements which provided expansions and additions that were effectively consider optional. Which carried onto fanzines and the early magazines. It made people's games - both rules and setting - subtly different. When you went into someone else's game (if you were lucky enough to be able to do be able to do so) you had to learn the rules they operated by - which may be similar to the rules you know, but were likely to be different in application.

    AD&D was produced in a reaction to this chaotic mess. One set of explicit rules that could be used in tournaments in the style Gary wanted. But the sad part of this meant that the rules became more important than the game (and later this was applied to settings as well). Suddenly rules lawyers started appearing - something that was previously quite rare. The later incarnation of this is "edition wars" where people prefer one particular set of the rules over the other (instead of, to my mind, liking someone's game because it is exciting and "we are currently trying to storm the Bastion of the Moon Gods, so come join us").

    It is the OSR (re)discovery that the rules are not sacred text and that you can bring the creativity to make the game (both rules and setting) your own, that I find is truly exciting.

    [If only because it gives me more ideas to steal for my game.]

  2. I am dedicated to trying to elevate game art.

  3. The counterpoint seems to be that there are a great many people that will simply not pay money for "crap I could do myself." If you want to earn any sort of compensation in a fairly crowded market, people seem to be saying with their dollars that it has to look good AND be well crafted from a game design standpoint. Of course, if you try and charge for that, you get a lot of grief as well. Kobayashi Maru.

  4. Agreed 1000%. Slick production shuts me out of the game world: it appears so definitive that I could get it wrong, which make me tentative about making my own stuff. Grody B&W old school art feels like an invitation to hop in and play.

  5. This is similar to the way I feel about old comics vs. current comics. There is no movement in modern comics, and the emotions are ironically flat. Too much detail leaves me no room to jump in with my own mind's eye, and leaves everything frozen. If someone 'flies' past me quickly, I'm not going to make out 100 details about the crinkles in their costume. Leave it loose and it moves faster....

  6. While I appreciate an occasional color illustration my preference is still for black and white art. I still find myself going back to the AD&D Monster Manual to just admire the monsters in there.