Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Derivative D&D

Books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren’t very new after all.”
Abraham Lincoln

I’m constantly amazed learning about the origins and influences behind Dungeons & Dragons, how even today the roleplaying game hobby continues evolving based on past works “improved” by those who feel they could do a better job...and sometimes actually do. Two publications best illustrate the movements from which D&D derived much of its imaginative power and mechanical implementation: Jon Peterson’s monumental scholarly history Playing at the World and the visually impressive coffee-table tome Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana by Peterson and a host of others who have reflected on the origins of the roleplaying game hobby.

I’ve discussed Peterson’s book before (“Playing at the World: An Essential Gaming History”); it demonstrates how numerous forces – among them the works of fantasy novels, films, and comic books, the long and varied history of wargames, groups like the Society for Creative Anarchism (SCA), and fan associations and publications supporting those interests – coalesced in the minds and at the game tables of D&D’s creators and their inspired followers. D&D Art & Arcana provides a rich graphic history of the game, from its earliest antecedents to its latest incarnation under Wizards of the Coast (WotC). Personally the first half of the book – covering the game’s artistic development during my “Golden Years of Roleplaying” (the 1980s) – reminded me of the excitement I first felt exploring D&D’s fantastic worlds of adventure. I turn to it for a nostalgic look at my earliest days immersing myself in roleplaying games, along with a dose of the background behind the game’s creators and artists. What I didn’t realize but only suspected was how derivative much of early D&D’s artwork was from other sources, such as the comic-book posture borrowed and adapted to the fantasy genre for some of the original edition’s artwork or poses and styles inspired by classic artists. D&D was certainly an original and groundbreaking work; yet like many “original” works it took inspiration and elements from many other sources and merged them into a more innovative format...that of a roleplaying game. And in that spirit it continued to inspire others to put their own spin on the concept, developing new rules, exploring different genres, and creating wholly new yet derivative games.

Two developments – enabled by the Internet Age putting desktop publishing and worldwide PDF distribution into the hands of ordinary gamers – advanced the development of new game iterations derived from D&D: the Open Game License (OGL) and the Old School Renaissance (OSR). In both cases gamers both professional and hobbyist took the foundational work of others and made it their own, sometimes simply adapting it to a genre or format or house rules, other times crafting some true innovations within the form itself, yet still derived from that original. The OGL appeared with the third edition of D&D, the first under WotC’s ownership. It allowed (within certain limits) anyone to publish material based on certain core mechanics of D&D as outlined in a System Reference Document (SRD). At first this resulted in numerous established publishers releasing a deluge of d20-compatible supplements and adventures to take advantage of the renewed popularity of D&D among gamers old and new. Some were truly inspired and quite useful at the gaming table; many were not. A few “all-new” games emerged using the core D&D mechanics: Fantasy Flight Games’ DragonStar comes to mind, though Pathfinder was a successful third-party challenge to the 3.5 edition of D&D. Many seemingly popular products had their 15 minutes of fame, only to fade into the background as new material poured forth from publishers.

As established publishers lost interest in producing OGL materials, fans realized they could harness the OGL to produce their own interpretations of D&D. Some wanted versions of the classic early editions of the game – the little brown books of original D&D, the trio of core hardcovers for AD&D, even versions of the Holmes and subsequent Moldvay Basic D&D – in the absence of affordable reprints or PDFs from WotC. Others saw opportunities to integrate their own interpretations and improvements – mechanical as well as thematic – on the original game. The subsequent flood of OSR games went beyond simple interpretations of gamers’ favorite versions of D&D...it exploded into another deluge of product, this time from hobbyists as well as professionals with a similar range of quality as the earlier d20 flood. Given the wider range of creators (and hence interpretations) and the ability to publish without the backing of an established corporate infrastructure, the results brought a vast diversity in content pushing the bounds of the roleplaying game experience. I tried some OSR products that appealed to my interests and expectations in gaming, not so much to emulate the earlier D&D rules I still owned but to see where people took rules and settings. Some I used to explore solitaire roleplaying, others informed my own refinement of my personal favorite B/X D&D rules, integrating elements like Ascending Armor Class and single saving throws into my own home rules.

Roleplaying games encourage derivative development. Most invite individual players and gamemasters to make adjustments to suit their own play styles. Developing settings and adventures has always been a major activity for gamemasters when not actually running games. Goodness knows some of my own creations – back in my high school days and up into my professional game publishing efforts – merged my favorite elements from media with my roleplaying adventure design and writing much as such things inspired the creators of D&D. Some of my earliest D&D ideas drew inspiration from Ray Harryhausen films like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. As a kid I wrote Star Frontiers and Traveller scenarios based on episodes of Doctor Who, and even managed to work in some Star Wars elements after Return of the Jedi premiered (no, not Ewoks, just AT-ST walkers and speeder bikes). Over the years I’ve been known to integrate ideas from Alien, Predator, and the Cthulhu mythos into my games. I even once wrote an article about porting the essential plot and other story components of Akira Kurusawa’s acclaimed film The Seven Samurai into any game genre. Much of my work at West End Games dealt with developing roleplaying game material from licensed media like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, even Men in Black and Hercules & Xena...all derived from previously established sources and given a roleplaying game interpretation.

Somebody, probably several somebodies, once said there’s nothing new; that all works are amalgamations and evolutions of an author’s past experienced story elements. This is no less true for a pastime as seemingly novel as roleplaying games. They derive their essence from numerous past sources, from the most ancient storytellers huddled around the campfire to modern wargames, media, and fandom. Their creative energy flows from the very people who play them.

An original idea. That can't be too hard. The library must be full of them.”
Stephen Fry

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