Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules
Tuesday, November 26, 2019
Gaming, with its rulebooks and miniatures, is a surprisingly visual medium, especially for theater of the mind stuff. That said, it's always depicted personal grooming by the standards of the day because that's how we see ourselves and, more importantly, how the customer sees their most idealized self. Paradoxically, depictions of armor and equipment have moved steadily away from historical accuracy towards the increasingly fantastical because these things have no contemporary parallel. Let's call it fantasy fashion.
We form our standards of beauty and style growing up, although I won't pretend the 70s or 80s had a clue about some things. And as D&D and its imitators became products marketed to others, it only made sense that buyers see themselves. Hence, the piercings and body tattoos that started popping up in the 90s in time with contemporary fashion. But armor and equipment changes in response to stylistic shifts, which are far more subjective.
Anyway, we can see this trend play out across the decades of the hobby:
1970s: The Tolkien Calendars offered a gorgeous look at Middle Earth, courtesy of the Brothers Hildebrandt. Nice, but their depictions were definitely a child of the times. Aragorn had a serious pornstache and everything had a 70s vibe. Fantasy wasn't mainstream yet, meaning no need for mass marketing. The clothing mostly followed a historical template or cinematic precedent with Robin Hood tights and storybook tassels. D&D did the same, owing to its identity as a pseudo-medieval wargame, with an emphasis on accurate armor and weaponry. I have a soft spot for this, especially the 19th century storybook look.
1980s: Fantasy had gone mainstream, and it all converged on D&D. Larry Elmore was a dominant force here, and the 80s slant was undeniable. I've always felt like his artwork channelled He-Man just a little too much; but that's obviously a personal bias and in no way reflective of his great talent. Let's be clear: I couldn't draw my way out of a bucket, so no poisoned pens, please. But Elmore was also a child of his time, and demographic changes were increasingly on display; especially in the women's hair, which looked suitably blow dried. Snarfquest absolutely nailed the 80s in terms of personal grooming.
1990s: This decade saw big changes. The mainstreaming of fantasy, begun in the 80s, propelled its fashion far from any historical blueprint. Starting with 2nd edition's apocalyptic Dark Sun through D&D's third re-imagining, the humans sported body tattoos and various piercings as the non-humans became exotically alien, especially the (almost insectoid) elves and (muscular) halflings. Armor and weapons also got the extreme treatment, with heroic, sometimes ridiculous, proportions to match characters who were increasingly superheroes in an Iron Age Star Trek setting. Looks-wise, it was the MTV generation slaying orcs.
2000s: The rise of self-publishing changed everything. The hobby was less of a monolith, and independent voices had more of a say. The art, and its implied fashion, was quite literally all over the place. Of course, the rise of the OSR saw a return to the hobby's more traditional leanings. Peasants looked like peasants, and the halflings were fat with hairy toes after a decade of channeling Adam Ant. But this conservative pivot stood alongside some great modern fare, proving it's not a zero-sum game; and while I prefer the pseudo-historical approach, there's no wrong way to do this. It's called fantasy for a reason.
Art imitates life; and if we somehow get to 10th edition D&D, we can be damned sure its characters will look suspiciously like what the kids are wearing. This isn't new. Conan the Barbarian looked like a silent movie hunk on the covers of Weird Tales. But fantasy is a convention-busting genre. There's always some new creative vision; and just like art deco once ruled the popular fashion, kids will find new ways to see everything from warrior kings to the weapons they carry into battle. After all, what always changes can never die...
Tuesday, November 19, 2019
We oldsters, conservative or otherwise, rolled lots and lots of dice. And we absolutely understood the role of dumb luck. It would be damn near impossible not to. Good decisions and prior planning don't make it impossible to roll a "1". Don't worry, we figured this out almost immediately. But these things do ensure that luck isn't the only thing influencing the outcome. Do nothing and it comes down to luck; act, and players have a say.
Giant spiders are dangerous. And poisonous. Once engaged, dumb luck could get a character bitten; and the same blind chance could easily cause the victim to roll "1" on their saving throw and die a terrible (and instant) death. But due diligence might ensure those oversized arachnids never get within melee distance, so fire missiles; throw oil; do whatever it takes to avoid getting too close for comfort lest dumb luck rule the day.
In other words, strategy reduces the need for saving throws and therefore, the chance of rolling low. Make no mistake; there'll still be plenty of dumb luck in a universe where adversaries lurk in every dark corner. But old-fashioned planning goes a long way towards stacking the deck and allowing the players to manage risk. Thrusting your arm into that jumble of garbage invites an attack from the centipedes hiding within, which in turn invites a save vs. poison. Both are reducible to luck, so use your ten-foot pole instead...
Of course, those centipedes might come scrambling out of the trash heap to attack the nearest exposed foot. There's always that risk. But with a little distance and the whole party waiting to stomp 'em flat, it doesn't look good for the bugs. At this point we're reduced to maybe a single roll and perhaps not even that much. A clever party might encircle the heap with oil and drop a lit torch at the first sign of trouble coming out to play.
And this is the challenge of old-school. This is what you come for when you want the authentic old-school experience. It's not better or worse, just different - and it's something worth preserving, especially if you want to be properly challenged. And here the hobby imitates life because; really, aren't we all doing this? We lock our doors at night, buckle up on the highway, and avoid smoking crystal meth because these choices mitigate risk.
Old-school gaming was never unfair. Character classes are carefully balanced and the dungeons survivable with effort - and a little luck. It just so happens that many of its challenges require active engagement, which shouldn't be too much to ask of its intelligent participants. Rules don't make a game fair - people do. No amount of rules can ever defend against an asshole, and it takes little effort for friends to treat each other decently and recognize good ideas when they come. Nothing is more old-school than that.
I firmly believe that anyone, regardless of age and/or politics, can appreciate old-school gaming as a unique experience with their respective worldviews intact. In my five decades on planet Earth I've observed that everyone is a person with a fundamental drive to act, improving their lives one decision at a time. It just so happens that old-school gaming, with its emphasis on personal choice, taps into that human urge to shape our destinies...
Tuesday, November 12, 2019
So first off, I'm a retired military officer. To some, that means I'm a stodgy conservative who thinks The Constitution was hand-written by Jesus himself, who then used it to clean his modified AR-15 while wearing a DON'T TREAD ON ME t-shirt. Um, not quite. I'm an active secular humanist (although I avoid the subject here), with at least some of the political leanings to go with it. I’m also a retired meteorologist who accepts that anthropomorphic climate change is happening and bears attention. Rush Limbaugh would disagree.