Monday, October 25, 2010

To the Sources!

One of my passions in life is Christian theology. Lately, I’ve been reading on the history and theology of 17th century Christian Orthodoxy (riveting, I know). One of the things that struck me as interesting is seeing what happened to inspiration during that era. The passion, drive, and enthusiasm of the 16th century (with its ad fontes return to the sources of biblical Greek and Hebrew, a return to the writings of the church fathers, and an unprecedented Reformation and counter-Reformation) were replaced with a somewhat dry and lifeless systematization of doctrine. The 17th century thinkers didn’t necessarily deviate from what had come before them, theologically, but their somewhat doctrinaire approach to the theology of their predecessors was a marked change from what occurred just a century before. Renaissance had been replaced with cold rationalism. Thus began the “scholastic” period of that era.

In the same way, it seems like the roleplaying industry has entered into a “scholastic” era of its own. Gone are the wild and wooly days of blazing new trails. Gone are the days when you enthusiastically figured things out as you go. Gone are ingenuity, motivation, and zeal. They’ve all seemingly been replaced by “systems.” Complicated systems which, though they may work just fine, nevertheless appear to those of us from the previous era as somewhat hollow and lifeless.

In thinking through both, I can’t help but conclude that the fault lies with becoming overly self-referential. The theologians of the 17th century weren’t so much using the sources those in the 16th century used, they were using the theologians from the 16th century themselves as sources. So, instead of going back to Scripture and the earliest church fathers, the theologians in the 17th century just ended up citing the conclusions of those just one century earlier.

In the roleplaying game industry, we became exceedingly self-referential in the 80s. By the late 80s, gamers  weren’t so much using the sources Gygax and others used, they were using Gygax & Arneson themselves as sources. So, instead of going back to Howard, Lovecraft, Moorcock, etc., the gamers in the 80s just ended up citing the conclusions & methodology of the desingers of D&D.

The result, inevitably, became a bland and somewhat lifeless experience for many. Worse, we forgot what they said and did in those early days and started going along with additional systemization which really just took us further away from the roots of the hobby.

That’s one of the things I love about the OSR (especially since “Renaissance” brings to mind a return to long forgotten sources). When I see retro-clones, I see us going back to the original sources. When I see new and exciting products like Lamentations of the Flame Princess I see those deeply steeped in the sources which inspired D&D blazing creative new trails. That’s what we need in the RPG industry today. Ad Fontes!


  1. I'm not a game historian but while I was young people pulled inspiration from novels instead of the pulp 'zine of yesteryear. Which is to say you got a singular consistent vision a couple hundred pages at a time unlike the Pulp era where you could read Howard, Lovecraft etc just by flipping the page and the lines between Sci Fi and Fantasy were not as hard. I don't think the sources were ever lost just delivered in a different format. Even now if you are reading Howard you are most likely getting a singular collection unlike the early days where you if you had the Pulp magazines you had to dig through dozens of other stories get the entire published Conan and might pick up numerous authors in the dig. Also consider in the change you have big stories versus a series of small stories. I guess I'm trying to say different sources not lost sources. Much of the division that came about really as a result of 4e I believe is just an attempt to draw new blood into the hobby. Get the kids give them something similar to what they find on their PC or Xbox. I don't like the get-off-my-lawn attitude you sometimes get with Old School which is why I have to argue that the sources are just not the same as they were more novels, TV and video games, less comic books, pulp mags and music. Weird that I say that but I never knew anyone in the early 90s to use an album as inspiration for an adventure or campaign. The GMs I played under used the music for mood but not for story. Maybe I'll try to make that a coherent thought some other time.

  2. Ghost,

    Yeah, I pulled inspiration from novels as a young gamer, too. The problem was that they were TSR novels. So, I was playing a game seeking to draw inspiration from the designers of the game who set their game in a novel. It was inspirationally incestuous, so to speak.

    And, as time went on, gamers tended to stick with the stuff that was modeled on or after D&D. It was to the point that when I initially stopped playing in the late 90s virtually none of the people I gamed with had ever read anything from Appendix N, for example. But they could all tell you about Raistlin or Drizzt in minute detail.

    In my estimation, we really lost something there, as a community. Thankfully, the OSR still has it and is promoting it quite well.