Archive for November 22nd, 2010


Of Wizards and Wookies

Of Wizards and Wookies: A Panel Discussion on Gaming & Fandom” is taking place tonight from 7:30 – 8:30 at the WORD bookstore in Brooklyn (see event page). The featured speakers are Tony Pacitti, author of My Best Friend is a Wookie, and Ethan Gilsdorf, author of Fantasy Freaks & Gaming Geeks, who clued me into this event via a comment here at the Mule.

I’m looking forward to it, and hope to see other readers there! Since an announcement of an event in NYC is not useful for many of y’all, however, here are some preliminary thoughts about gaming and fandom.

Back in the ’80s, when I was in high school and college, I was among the nerdiest people I knew. But these days, doing things like Nerd Trivia at Recess makes me realize that, in just about every aspect of nerdlidom, I just can’t compete.

I think what’s happened is that geek culture has expanded. When I was younger, the domain of nerdliness was small enough that it was possible to master it all. I knew and cared more about computers, about science fiction and fantasy, about videogames, about tabletop games, about anime, about Hong Kong cinema, and about comic books than almost all of the people I’d ever encounter.

But as geeks have taken over the world, each of the domains that falls under the nerd umbrella has expanded. One thing this means is that the bar has been raised; nowadays a great many people know more about computers than I do, because computers have become interesting to just about everybody so there’s a lot more competition.

Another implication of the expanded umbrella is that each of the things it covers are farther apart. Back in the day, if you were a manga fan, the weather was unfriendly for you elsewhere in society; you’d need to take shelter under the same little umbrella as me, so we’d get to know one another and gain an above-average familiarity with one another’s interests. As the worlds of manga and gaming have spilled into the larger culture, this expansion means that if I’m at the center of my world I’m further away from the borders of yours; what happens over there has largely become foreign to me.

The umbrella has grown not just because there’s more room for nerdery in the world at large, but also because the size of each sub-domain has grown. TOR editor David Hartwell has said that he remembers 1970 as the year when there was enough science fiction and fantasy published that an average fan could no longer read it all. Before then, everyone seized upon every scrap there was; you might not like the Gor novels, but you read them nevertheless because you had a monkey on your back that would accept them as food. After 1970 there was enough SF/F around that you could afford to be choosy about what you consumed, subcultures formed that didn’t share a mutual experience of reading all the same stuff, and their disagreements were no longer based on the same corpus.

Back in the ’80s, it simply wasn’t possible to know all that much about role-playing games. By the end of the decade there were Usenet discussions on and books like Lawrence Shick’s Heroic Worlds, but I don’t think I read either of them. It’s hard to remember what things were like before the Internet made it possible to read a blog that gets you interested in an obscure title, which you can then research on Wikipedia before picking it up used from a vast decentralized used-book marketplace. I have less time for and interest in other aspects of geek culture because, for the first time in my life, it’s been possible to dive really deeply into the one thing that particularly suits my taste; the monkey on my back has become a discriminating connoisseur.

To tie this back to gaming, I think it’s important to realize that Dungeons & Dragons is the product of an even more concentrated nerd culture than the one I grew up with. The reason that it made sense for the Judges Guild Journal to run a comic strip in which a parody of the Star Trek crew visits the starship Nostromo was that their audience was defined by its appetite for all things fantastic, monstrous, and heroic; movies and TV shows that fed this appetite were so few and far between that they were certain to be a touchstone for all gamers. The tendency of modern gamers to disdain admixtures of science fiction and fantasy reflects a world in which there’s enough published in each genre to support fans of one but not the other. I get the feeling that in the ’70s you’d be running games for the motley crew who all happened to be under the nerd umbrella: Society for Creative Anachronism medieval recreationists, Japanese monster movie enthusiasts, hard science fiction fans, hippies sporting ‘Frodo Lives’ buttons. The gonzo cross-genre spirit of early D&D reflects this catch-all audience, unlike today when you can fill a gaming table with people who are all deeply into a specific D&D universe like the Forgotten Realms or Paizo’s Golarion; such games can put much sharper limits on what is or isn’t part of the fantasy, because the great mass of published material means there’s plenty to work with even when you stay within the narrowest of lines.

The old-school renaissance in RPGs is a phenomenon made possible by the expansion of the nerd umbrella. We take advantage of the fact that there’s been such an increase in the amount of D&D stuff that exists to focus on the one particular thing we like. The amount of stuff published by the OSR far exceeds what I could easily get my hands on in the ’80s, and the vast increase in information (commentary, evangelism, scholarship) means that an ordinary enthusiast like me can learn much more about the roots of role-playing forty years after the fact than I could when they were only a decade old!

The OSR is also a reaction to the loss of a unified geek culture. Back in the day, I could be pretty sure that I knew enough about Star Wars to have a conversation with someone I sat down to play D&D with. Nowadays, both universes have expanded, so that I’ll get lost when the conversation turns to mitochlondrians and Sith Lords, just like you may be lost by at-will powers and Reflex defenses.

The reason the old-school movement spends so much time going back to the books Gygax listed in the DMG’s Appendix N is because they help us form a canon that’s finite enough for us to use it as the basis of shared experience. It’s a relief to be able to say yes, Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance are what we’re talking about here, but not Terry Brooks and David Eddings or Record of Lodoss War; we spend a lot of time worrying about the importance of Tolkien, and being purists about Howard’s Conan vs. Sprague/DeCamp’s, because these are the authors who spill over into a mass audience big enough to be its own thing, distinct from the little geek culture Arneson, Bledsaw, and Gygax came from. The virtue of having a manageably-sized and mutually-agreed-upon canon is real and valuable even if it’s a self-conscious exaggeration and ossification of what the original scene was about.

Why is a canon necessary? I think it’s because role-playing games thrive on cliches. To make a shared fantasy, we need shared assumptions. And the one thing we share is Dungeons & Dragons itself. The mash-up of genres and traditions under the original nerd umbrella is one of D&D‘s greatest strengths. The reason I want to work with the ’70s sources – that I look to “Kung Fu Fighting” instead of Bridge of Birds for my monk, to Blackmoor and Expedition to Barrier Peaks instead of Chronicles of an Age of Darkness for my fantastic high technology, to Ray Harryhausen instead of Soldier of the Mists for my Greek myth – is that I can be sure someone who’s interested in playing TSR-era D&D is drawing from that same well. Even if you’ve never seen or read any of these originals, you’ve read the game that sprang from them. It doesn’t matter if we’ve both read Poul Anderson and Michael Moorcock; if my extrapolation of ideas like Law and Chaos is based on their work, it’s more likely to accord with your purely D&D-based conception, because D&D is itself a similar extrapolation.

Sure, the OSR is revisionist, but it’s also wisely said that everyone has 20/20 vision in hindsight. I think it’s remarkable that we are now able to know so much about the particular geek culture out of which D&D created its glorious syncretism, and in my personal experience, becoming a fan of the things that inspired the game’s creators makes playing D&D more fun regardless of which edition you play.

Past Adventures of the Mule

November 2010

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