Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Classic RPG Books as Gaming History

The task of each generation is to interpret accumulated experience and to adapt it to new conditions. The past and the present are useless to us unless they enable us to see boldly into the future”

Major Alexander De Seversky, military aviation advocate (1894–1974)

Now and then I try expanding my horizons gaming-wise, whether trying new games (successfully or otherwise), reading more “academic” game books, or stepping back to look more closely at how newcomers (especially children) approach games. I’m a firm believer in examining history to see where we’ve been and how we might approach the future. Looking back has certainly changed the face of the roleplaying game hobby; the success of the Old School Renaissance movement (OSR) is only one example. I recently perused a few of my oldest game books from my first forays into the adventure gaming hobby during my high school years. They stir nostalgic feelings and resurrect faint memories of characters and games long gone. Yet they occasionally strike a more analytical chord with me, making me consider how publishers used to approach game issues and how we might learn from their successes and mistakes.

Years ago I maintained a short list of classic, out-of-print game resources I sought to acquire. Some of these I’d seen while immersing myself in gaming in high school, others I’d just heard about. Part of this came out of nostalgia; I wanted books I’d seen or heard of in my early years in my collection. Part came from an urge to see how publishers produced product, imparted core mechanics, and graphically presented their games; perhaps by examining them I could learn which techniques worked, which ones didn’t, and how they compared to current approaches.

At first I’d comb game stores with bargain bins of old games, or ancient stock sitting on shelves with 1980s price stickers still on the covers (a regrettable rarity today). When my duties with West End Games sent me to GenCon each summer I’d spend some of my time off from booth duty to dig through bins at the few vendors dealing in old game books. I still keep an eye online for bargains or trades on classic titles and maintain some faint hope of finding a trove of old game books at some used book store, game shop, or convention flea market.

Today finding such materials in one form or another seems far easier than the arduous quest to conventions and game stores. Online merchants and ebay sellers deal in classic game books, though they often list at exorbitant collector prices. Some social networking communities host forums for members to sell or trade games, though one must often wait and pounce on classic books on the rare occasions they surface. Online networking among friends and gaming groups can also make finding specific titles easier. Some publishers offer legitimate PDFs of classic titles, while others provide what I’d call “facsimile” print copies. A collector still has to do a good deal of leg work and networking, sometimes paying a premium price, but the materials remain far more accessible through the internet.

I remember my excitement when I found a copy of a long-sought classic game. On a trip to visit my brother at college in Florida I discovered a game store with a copy of TSR’s Conan: The Role-Playing Game. I was a fan of the Conan comics at the time and enjoyed the film; I ignored the game mechanics (based on the Marvel Super Heroes rules) and reveled in the setting source material. Years later I found a copy of Yaquinto’s Man, Myth & Magic at a GenCon dealer. A neighborhood friend had the game in my youth, and we spent a session or two rolling up characters and stumbling through the first scenario, exploring the genre of fantasy adventures in ancient Rome. I successfully bid on several Traveller alien modules at a game convention charity auction.

I added these to my small collection of gaming artifacts from the hobby’s earliest days I’d consider essential classics. A gamer’s garage sale yielded a copy of Avalon Hill’s seminal wargame, Tactics II. My attentive wife found a Craiglist ad for some other Avalon Hill titles, where I picked up Panzer Leader. Early on when I explored Dungeons & Dragons in my youth I found and bought a copy of Swords & Spells, not quite knowing what it was or where it fit into the D&D rulebook pantheon. Along with my original AD&D rulebook trilogy and my cherished B/X D&D materials, I also have a boxed set of the original Traveller “little black books” and a handful of similarly sized supplements and adventures.

Jon Peterson’s history of roleplaying games and their origins, Playing at the World, went a long way in bringing many other classic titles to my attention, particularly for the roles they played in developing concepts later refined for Dungeons & Dragons. I’ve already acquired one of these in a nicely compiled, edited format – Fletcher Pratt’s Naval Wargame – which spoke to my occasional interest in wargames set in World War II. The book emphasized the role early board and miniature wargames played in D&D’s formation, particularly the Chainmail rules by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren.

I still maintain a short “wish list” of classic roleplaying game titles I’d love to acquire someday, even in reprinted “facsimile” format. They’re not essential reading but more historical artifacts to examine to better inform my own game design going forward, identify what elements inspired gamers back then, and explore firsthand the evolution of roleplaying game product and mechanics. What’s on my gaming artifact wish list?

Original D&D Booklets: No doubt these remain the holy grail of many game collectors. I recall Wizards of the Coast released a deluxe, wooden-box edition a few years ago at some exorbitant price, a sum that’s only increased with time and the secondary game market. I’ve occasionally seen them in person and flipped through a copy; while the layout and presentation seem unimpressive and amateur by today’s graphic design standards, their approach and concepts still offer lessons to learn in releasing still-developing game elements piecemeal to a hungry audience. I’m somewhat surprised Wizards of the Coast hasn’t simply released facsimile copies of the booklets in non-deluxe format for the non-collector audience; affordable editions could become standard reading for a generation of gamers far removed from such extremely basic game materials.

Chainmail: In that vein I’d love to find a copy of the game that transitioned from miniatures wargaming to roleplaying. Playing at the World spends a great deal of time examining the various evolutions of the game and the growth of some of its concepts into more familiar roleplaying terminology. As a miniatures wargamer myself I’d love to give it a try to test its value as a stand-alone game in the greater context of hobby game development.

Tekumel Resources: I’ve dabbled in the world of Tekumel and Empire of the Petal Throne for years and written about it occasionally at Hobby Games Recce. It was one of the first unique game worlds published in conjunction with D&D (or any roleplaying game, for that matter). Although I own a host of more recent iterations of the game and its innovative world, I’m always hungry for more...and for glimpses of its earliest forms. Thankfully The Tekumel Foundation has slowly yet steadily examining the vast wealth of resources left behind by Professor M.A.R. Barker, the setting’s creator who poured so much linguistic and cultural detail into the world that it’s been compared to J.R.R. Tolkien’s effots with Middle-earth. The Foundation is working to release more edited and facsimile editions of past work I hope to acquire as well as encouraging other officially licensed efforts to keep the game world alive. Alas, if only the Foundation would release the web-based solitaire text adventure Choice of the Petal Throne in some kind of print edition....

Cthulhu Solo Adventures: I’ve dabbled with Call of Cthulhu, though not as long as D&D and other high school gaming pursuits. Frequent readers know my penchant for solitaire games; I’ve long sought Alone Against the Wendigo and Alone Against the Dark for insights into plotting an extended adventure in what some might consider an offbeat genre.

The Traveller Book: This compilation of the rules originally presented in the three “little black books” could provide a good comparison between the traditional, full-sized hardcover roleplaying game book and the digest-sized booklet format. I like the original Traveller rules, but I find them poorly illustrated and spread out in the booklets; I assume The Traveller Book contains illustrations (even good line art can serve as inspiration), all the rules, and some additional material. I’d also like to find The Traveller Adventure as a companion piece demonstrating the kinds of epic adventures one might have in the Traveller universe.

Metamorphosis Alpha: Like Empire of the Petal Throne, my interest in Metamorphosis Alpha arises from its roots as an early variation on the D&D form, in this case a science-fiction interpretation of the rules and a unique setting. I’ve seen a facsimile version of the game on Lulu.com, so I might have to order one in the next time a substantial discount offer comes up.

The OSR movement forged an entire branch of roleplaying games by looking back at the original material, enhancing what designers find most effective for their own sense of a game, and reinterpreting it with their own innovations. We can learn from examining past products, find positive lessons in both their good and bad qualities, especially when compared to contemporary publications with far higher production values several decades later.

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