A common theme in the old-school renaissance is that there was a “Hickman revolution” that ruined everything in the development of D&D. There is no doubt that the TSR modules Tracy and Laura Hickman helped create sold like crazy because they met a demand that hadn’t previously been satisfied, that this commercial success helped set the publishing priorities for the expansion of the RPG industry, and that we are still experiencing the consequences.
However, neither the way that their work was marketed nor received can really speak to the Hickmans’ original creative intent. Thanks to the generosity of Scribe from the Tome of Treasures who let me take some pictures of the works in his collection, and Tim Hutchings who took me along to be awestruck by said collection, I was able to get some insights into the values that Tracy and Laura created Daystar West Media to pursue. From the introduction to their version of Pharoah, which was intended to be the first in a series of NIGHTVENTURE products:
The first two of the four requirements that NIGHTVENTURE endeavored to meet – a player objective more worthwhile than simply pillaging and killing; an intriguing story that is intricately woven into the play itself – certainly can be seen as containing the seeds of what we now know as the “Hickman Revolution”.
The fourth – an attainable and honorable end within one or two sessions playing time – speaks to one of the creative tensions that emerged with the Dragonlance series. Many gamers wanted and still want to strive toward an end that will provide a satisfying dramatic resolution to the events being played out. At the same time, as genre fans, we always want more of the same. Our desire to have the adventure continue on and ever onwards led as surely to the trend of sequelitis which Dragonlance came to exemplify as did TSR’s commercial motivations in feeding that desire. It is interesting to consider whether an independent Daystar West Media would have maintained the goal of having an end never more than a few sessions away, and whether a Hickman revolution and OSR-style counter-revolution would still have occurred if so.
The goal I found most striking when examining the original Pharoah , however, is the third – dungeons with some sort of architectural sense. Scribe told me that Tracy had been trained as an architect, and each section of the module begins with a beautiful cross-section illustrating which area of the pyramid is being described:
Some of this architectural sense is visible in later Hickman modules like Ravenloft, but the layout, cartography, and visual presentation in Daystar West’s version of Pharoah is, to my mind, far superior to that in its later TSR release. I think that this idea of complex, fantastic architecture is the virtue that the old-school renaissance is most ready to celebrate – it’s certainly one of the things that I admire so much in Paul Jaquays’ work.
Might there have been a different kind of Hickman revolution if more people had been exposed to this virtue of architectural sense, both by having it stated directly and elegantly displayed?