“[I]t is assumed that the work of art,” Artie Vierkant wrote in The Image Object Post Internet, “lies equally in the version of the object one would encounter at a gallery or museum, the images and other representations disseminated through the Internet and print publications, bootleg images of the object or its representations, and variations on any of these as edited and recontextualized by any other author.” The RPG resonates with this condition as a thoroughly cross-media phenomenon, one that exists between rulebooks and games; its codes travel among tabletop, computer, and simulated battlefield.
If you’re an outsider, it makes sense to see role-playing games as part of this huge phenomenon in modern culture that involves having an avatar that levels up through experience gained in many separate but inter-related imaginary worlds. D&D is, after all, where all this transmedia stuff got started, and over at the GaryCon boards Emperor Xan is making a case that D&D is specifically responsible for the internet, via an article by Julian Dibbel:
n 1969, BBN had won the contract to build a new, decentralized kind of computer network for the Defense Department. Called arpanet, the network was the beginning of what would eventually be called the Internet, and while it would be a gross exaggeration to say Crowther invented the thing, it doesn’t seem too far off the mark to say he wrote it. Not single-handedly, of course, but if there was one coder on BBN’s small programming team who was truly indispensable, Crowther was it. “Most of the rest of us,” one teammate later recalled, “made our livings handling the details resulting from Will’s use of his brain.”
Here was where Will’s own historic moment began. As he later explained to an interviewer, he had lately taken to playing a new kind of game called Dungeons and Dragons, getting together with some of the guys from BBN whenever enough of them had the time. The particular D & D scenario they were playing involved a lot of imaginary traipsing through the woods and caverns of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and in it, Crowther role-played a thief character, called simply Willie the Thief. The game was intensely absorbing, and though he didn’t exactly play it to escape from reality, the distraction couldn’t have hurt: Will and Pat’s divorce was on its way and soon enough arrived. “And that left me a bit pulled apart in various ways,” said Crowther. “In particular I was missing my kids. Also the caving had stopped, because that had become awkward.” Between wife, kids, and cave, the divorce had taken from him most of what had given his life its shape, if not its meaning. Faced with such a loss, many men Crowther’s age would have turned to desperate consolations — drinking too much, having affairs with twenty-year-olds, blowing paychecks on high-end audio equipment. Others would have simply despaired. But Crowther, being Crowther, had a different idea: “I decided I would fool around and write a program that was a re-creation in fantasy of my caving, and also would be a game for the kids, and perhaps [include] some aspects of the Dungeons and Dragons that I had been playing.”
So yeah, D&D is responsible for the modern age. But I think the OSR is against it. As Ethan put it in his Salon piece,
Pure and simple, for many, D&D represents a lost age: It was an individualized, user-driven, DIY, human-scaled creative space separate from the world of adults and the intrusion of corporate forces. As Allison rightly noted, D&D recalls that day “before orcs and wookiees were the intellectual property of vast transmedia corporations.”
The OSR isn’t into D&D itself; we love D&D because it was the original role-playing game, and we celebrate what it was originally. A thing you do in a room with other people, some of whom are maybe your wife and kids. An activity you do in a physical, social space that relates to your passions for similar real-life group experiences, whether that’s spelunking in Mammoth Cave (like Crowther) or recreating medieval life (whether in miniature, like Gygax and Arneson, or through the Society for Creative Anachronism like guys such as Poul Anderson who were their literary inspirations).
The Protestant Reformation started as an internal debate within the ecclesiastical structure of the Catholic Church, but it wound up lighting a fire under all of Europe. Likewise, the OSR started out as an internal argument among hard-core roleplayers, but ultimately I think it’s the whole glittering transmedia edifice that we take issue with. When we say that modern editions of D&D are too much like videogames, we’re taking issue with videogames themselves. When we rail against dissociated mechanics, we’re saying that we want the things we do with our imagination to have traction in our day-to-day experience of the real world. And when we express dissatisfaction with the way the RPG industry leaders are increasingly chasing the development of intellectual properties that can spawn profitable transmedia enterprises, we’re fighting to prevent devaluation of the original miracle of role-playing games: the greatest way ever invented to collaboratively create ideas that soar in the mind’s eye and explode like fireworks, leaving nothing behind but memory and satisfaction.
Martin Luther wanted to save Christianity, not end it. Likewise, I’m not arguing for a Luddite overthrow of everything that’s come out of the intersection of D&D and computers. Internet tools like the New York Red Box forums are uniquely great for finding and organizing players for open-table gaming, maintaining narrative continuity, and mixing play-by-post solo adventures with big group heists. Desktop publishing has generated an unprecedented wealth of gaming materials. And this blogging thing is a great way to create a community in which to refine and share ideas.
Nor am I saying that transmedia is anathema to the old-school spirit; on the contrary, the founders scarfed up as much fantastic inspiration from as many different media as they could. Old issues of the Judges’ Guild Journal were happy to run cartoons spoofing Star Trek and Alien, and a disintegrator from Larry Niven’s Known Worlds fits right into Erol Otus’s Booty and the Beasts. But when movies and books started being about role-playing games in turn, this circular, self-referential process started spiraling away from the DIY spirit that made D&D unique.
The Reformation fought for the primacy of the individual religious experience, and so they wound up fighting against the people who were invested in maintaining the whole glittering edifice that distracted from that experience. Here in the OSR, I think we’re fighting that same battle. We stand against the people who want to take imagination out of our real lives and make it a virtual commodity. We fight for the new ways that technology can enhance the experience of shared social creativity and make it more true to the original miracle of 1974.