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!