Manifesto of the Hickman Revolution

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?


17 Responses to “Manifesto of the Hickman Revolution”

  1. March 23, 2012 at 4:35 pm

    The architecture is nice, and dungeons that “end” aren’t so bad, but points #1 and #2 are definitely the seeds of railroad.

    “(a) A player objective more worthwhile than killing and looting.”

    Worthwhile according to whom? And who decides the objective? In the written adventures this ended up becoming “An objective decided by the creative team at TSR, and player’s interests are meaningless.”

    “(b) an intriguing story whose objectives are woven into the play itself”

    Who’s story? Do the players get any input? Dragonlance answer: No.

    Which is not a dig against campaigns that don’t revolve around killing things and taking their stuff, but it should still be player choice and player directed.

    The “Hickman revolution” was real (not in the OSR’s collective imagination), and it’s right there in the manifesto. Very, very cool historical document sleuthing.

  2. March 23, 2012 at 10:31 pm

    The smoking gun. It really is Hickman’s fault.

  3. 3 Greengoat
    March 24, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    I don’t know, after playing through some longer OS campaigns I can totally see the impetus behind the listed objectives. Sometimes the OSR method of coalescing around objectives through play generates a null result and player benchmarks become a existential exercise of surviving and getting stuff. The desire to “flag” the story is something that is just built into later generations of games.

    I agree that the railroady execution of that early TSR stuff is rather unfun however (I do love Rahasia).
    Is it a lack of vocabulary for talking about the group story element that hampered things? Maybe the only conceivable way of talking about story back in the day was to hard-wire it in there. Previous TSR modules certainly didn’t give a whit about “feelings”.

  4. 4 Mark Mueller
    March 24, 2012 at 9:32 pm

    It’s definitely interesting to look at these and compare them to a latter day game like Burning Wheel, wheel explicit character goals are a requirement and drive play, in terms of the fiction that is imagined, but also mechanically, fueling the reward cycles and character advancement.

  5. 5 artemislamprig
    March 25, 2012 at 5:13 am

    Actually, if you’ve read Tracy Hickman’s XDM: Extreme Dungeon Mastery, he explains that he believes in the closed matrix, not railroading. Somewhere between railroading and the sandbox game is the closed matrix. You don’t force the players to follow a story, but you also don’t just turn them loose on the world. There are events that happen, say a wizard with an army is marching from the East and the kind wants to hire the players, but the players are free to choose to go East, go West, talk to the King, or choose whatever method they think is best to meet or avoid the problem.

    Or at least that’s what he said is his preferred method in game playing. Whatever other people have done with his stories and modules is their own doing.

  6. March 25, 2012 at 10:30 pm

    Sorry, but the closed matrix is just soft-core railroading.

  7. March 26, 2012 at 5:22 am

    It’s interesting to see what Tracy is saying nowadays in XDM, but I don’t think it should be a substitute for looking at what he was saying in 1978 as a separate thing. With other designers like Paul Jaquays or Gary Gygax, you can see a marked change over time in what they’re saying about their goals and the kinds of design they produce. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Tracy’s intent had changed over the years, and it would be quite surprising if he didn’t have some new tools in his kit to achieve his aims after 25 additional years of work on RPG design.

    The nice thing about looking at stated goals is that it lets us ask “do we want these things?” as a distinct question from “was Dragonlance a well-executed way to help GMs achieve these things?”

  8. 8 Antonio
    March 26, 2012 at 8:24 am

    The dungeons in the Dragonlance series of modules are almost all extremely interesting and well-thought out, with a very realistic sense of “place” and “space.” Xak Tsaroth in the DL1 module is a great example.

    Regarding closed matrix vs. railroad…in my experience running the Dragonlance series (many times), not once I got the same results. The modules never tell the players what they should do, but they setup situations in such a way that some choices are naturally more appealing, usually strictly woven with time limits and events. For example, in the first module there is an advancing army which is slowly pouring into a kingdom, so the PCs are quite likely to meet the front lines, but that is most likely to end in disaster (there is no attempt at balancing situations, so the PCs are likely to get killed.) Many of my players jumped entire modules with their choices! The DM is also given a lot of freedom to customise elements of the campaign. For example, Fizban need not be Paladine.

  9. 9 D. H. Boggs
    March 28, 2012 at 4:13 pm

    Awsesome post Tavis! Frankly, I find the movement to label Hickman as the “father” of the Railroad campaign to be a steaming load of crap, to put it mildly. Everyone seems to conveniently ignore the fact that TSR printed the wildly popular “Against the Giants” series and the linked Descent into the Depths years before they ever hired Hickmann. Hickmann did bring in creative stories and interesting characters to the mix, but he is in no way responsible for creating story arc gaming in the first place.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

March 2012

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