Sunday, May 16, 2010

RPGs: The Old School and Post-Modernism

An email I just received from an old metal colleague:

Oldschool rpgs and oldschool metal:

The discourse/apologea is the same. It's fascinating. I've been reading Grognardia a lot lately and on several posts about the difficult-to-quantify 'it' of oldschool RPG gaming that he tries to hone in I am reminded of the similar 'x factor' of great HM [Heavy Metal]. I read his 'The greatest problem with D&D' concept piece where it's how rpgs became about themselves and not about fantasy and all I can think of is the parallel to 'self aware metal bands being basically about themselves being metal' versus the more naive/child-like initial NWOBHM that explored a lot of adventurous territory that we have now somehow crossed out as 'not metal anymore'.

What I gather from the parallels is that nothing survives post-modernity. All niche art forms and hobbies will eventually learn that 'they' are something, and they will have to tackle how they talk about what they are. And then, hopefully, they must move past talking about what they are and go forward to using their aesthetics to communicate externalities in a self-informed manner. The conundrum with a lot of oldschool RPG design and obviously a lot of 'true'/classic/retro metal is that it emphatically doesn't do that, it doesn't work through this post-modern phase into adulthood, it merely searches for artificial (and mostly transparent) ways to return to being a child. Effectively, playing dumb. Some oldschool rpgs do it though, as does some modern HM with a good sense of history. That's the needed element, not being 'rooted in the past' but having a complete sense of history of the art-form.


  1. I agree. And part of the process is realizing that a lot of things you thought were "mature" in (the hobby's) adolescence and young adulthood actually weren't all that great - like simulationism, character bloat, railroaded storylines, abandoning adventure as a setting ...

    Yet tradition as a reason to hold on works only insofar as it forms a basic lingua franca that allows people to communicate and feel somewhat familiar with what they are doing.

    We are fortunate that most computer-based incarnations of adventure gaming speak this lingua franca - of "health points," hits and damage, levels and spells, clerics and wizards, um, mana points (well, nobody's perfect ...)

  2. I know who that is. As pretentious as ever, of course, and still taking the longest allowable route to his point! It's a good point, though.

  3. >>I know who that is.

    I bet you have the wrong guy. :)

  4. >> I bet you have the wrong guy. :)

    You know more than one dude who writes like this? Oof!

  5. [[What I gather from the parallels is that nothing survives post-modernity.]]

    I don't buy it. My own take on it is that individuals may not be able to survive their embrace of the post-modern way of looking at things, but only if they actively adopt that particular lens through which to view the world - I don't think it happens naturally, unless you're an old french existentialist professor with tenure somewhere.

    In other words, the hobbies don't necessarily change: people certainly can.

    I remember reading a book about the history of jazz. The author was basically arguing that the genre was dead. There was nowhere else to go. Etc. Typical heard-it-all bullshit.

    All I could think was, "Well, maybe for you, bub, but jazz is still unexplored territory for roughly 99.99% of the population. It ain't dead until EVERYONE's had their fill, and until then it's always going to be new and fresh for SOMEbody." And, of course, since jazz is about nothing if it is not about in-the-moment improvisation, it can't ever really reach a point where it has nothing left to say. Jazz "lives" every time some yokel whistles an ad hoc riff.

    Anyway, ditto D&D, which is a wonderfully jazz-like game.

    [[The conundrum with a lot of oldschool RPG design and obviously a lot of 'true'/classic/retro metal is that it emphatically doesn't do that, it doesn't work through this post-modern phase into adulthood, it merely searches for artificial (and mostly transparent) ways to return to being a child. Effectively, playing dumb.]]

    Eh. I'm only going part of the way here. I stop at the "playing dumb" remark. However, I have no patience with post-modern theory as a rule, seeing it as an aberration of logical thought rather than a progressive step forward, meaning I'm more inclined to argue that a "return" to old-school D&D is more in the line of fixing a broken system than in trying to return to the crib.

    Although a return to the crib, so to speak, is definitely a part of it all, so what the hell do I know anyway?

    Fun stuff to think about, though.

  6. A hollow voice elicits "Fool"

    That was a well articulated, cogent, post-graduate response. I like it! But, motion denied.

    I am not impressed by Lit Crit theorism built upon the veiled ediface of discredited Freudianism, and the dizzying array of false paradigms and metaphiors - e.g., "childhood" and "adulthood"

    Things do have intrinsic meaning.
    And, some greatness comes specifically out of disrespect for prior genres, rather than respect for the history. Indeed, not being a scholar, isn't HM founded as such, yet we are instructed it is best when it harkons back to it?

    I think there is no hard and fast rule. Everything "that guy" said is sometimes seemingly right, which is conveniently called upon to render the argument.

  7. I thought the problem was that most later RPGs (and presumably HM efforts) have become commodified--reproducible, soulless regurgitations of trite themes and hackneyed formulae. In effect, that as soon as the industry could be called such, it was no longer "art" (or more properly, "hobby") at all, just another product that anyone can make. This is my basic problem with the OSR. It's like a bunch people living in a skyscraper deciding they need to reject agrobusiness and return to their farming roots, and therefore planting vegetable gardens on the roof. Yeah, you get your hands dirty, but it ain't quite the same. Hey, but at least it doesn't make you any money.

  8. Cameron, I agree with the spirit of your post. Keep in mind that the letter was hastily written and not as well considered as it could be. I'm often chided on the internet for being too verbose. The reason I usually am is to avoid (some) misinterpretation. Here a brief (though for some commentators still not brief enough) personal e-mail leaves gaping holes into an argument that could very well take dozens of pages to convey with the slightest amount of rigor.

    So then, what I meant to say is that no hobby or art form survives post-modernism unscathed just like no living being goes through life unscathed.

    Post-modern outlooks on life are often adopted, but what I am talking about is not a matter of adoption but instead of how realities inform realities. The world at large is informed of post-modern principles ("what is invented can never be discarded") in every aspect of daily life. One might be a stead-fast modernist (positivist, rationalist, Plato-ist, whatever) and regardless of how well their particular world-view works (as a consequential system that explains experience) it will fuel friction with how the world tends towards nonsensicalness, recursion, self-referentiality, madness. One might make sense to one (though I doubt it) but not everything in the world makes sense to one just because of it.

    Post-modernism in the way I used it above is not about the willful adoption of a credo, it is about the hostile friction of a confusing world on any 'naive' a priori worldview. Being a naive person myself, I did not mean to imply the only solution is a surrender, quite the opposite. In a post-postmodernity influenced world the people, no matter how brave, will have to work through the constant, daily artifacts of post-modernity. This is relevant to HM and RPGS and everything else.

    "I have no patience with post-modern theory as a rule, seeing it as an aberration of logical thought rather than a progressive step forward"

    I do not disagree (read this as a softer shade of 'I agree with stipulations'). I do not subscribe to a model where progression is linear. Steps might be taken sideways or end up in labyrinthine confusion and return to where they started (spatially) but never without the 'knowledge of the detour'. That is my point. I think RPG design (and HM, and other things) might be starting to 'return to where they started'. Nobody here needs subscribe to post-modern theory or hold it any regard to accept that it colors the world we live in and as such, needs to be addressed in some more proactive method than 'I don't like it I doesn't exist'.

  9. It is in that way I am talking about childhood and adulthood. Not in embracing positions and hating their antitheses (a teenager reflex if there was ever one) but in being informed of all points of view and equipped to deal with how they influence one's life, loves and desires.

    bear-sophie: I am not a post-graduate of anything. My e-mail to James was not very well articulated. I am however, no fool.

    Freud's work be it discredited or not (I find the notion of such things being discredited or reinforced epistemologically absurd, personally) leaves its footprint in my way of looking at reality. You do not need to agree or disagree with Freud (whose writing has several 'periods' actually, not all of which are complementary and so there is no clear 'Freudianism' like of which you speak) to deal with the repercussions of his concepts, as seen in our world around us. Again 'I don't agree it doesn't exist' is not something I'm interested in debating. Let's pretend that all things exist (as the world certainly does) and then see how we can survive them all.

    "And, some greatness comes specifically out of disrespect for prior genres, rather than respect for the history. "

    I think also it may be so. But perhaps a disrespect for history of a form does not exclude knowledge of it. Perhaps the opposite, actually.

    "Indeed, not being a scholar, isn't HM founded as such, yet we are instructed it is best when it harkons back to it?"

    I am far of a scholar on HM (or in anything) but since you're asking I will say that yes, that is often how people think about it. And yes, this leads to a seeming contradiction in some interpretations but I do not suffer from it because as I say above I do not think an understanding, a consideration of the history of an art form calls for a slavish adherence to its particular 'intrinsics' but instead it only requires a honest passion for what it not only is, but could be. History as fuel for imagination, not as some prescriptive cage of dos and do-nots.

    I hope I've been clearer with this follow-up comment than in my original e-mail. I mean no antagonism though I might appear to disagree with this or that. I am pleased at the response. Please don't hold my way of writing against me. I am no more pretentious than any other human being characterized by hope. Because what else is hope than a pretension, that things will be good, tomorrow will be a better day, some clarity and meaning will be achieved and so on?

  10. Sounds to me like we are just coming up with more complex ways of describing simple nostalgia so that it sounds like nostalgia is some brave stance against the evils of modernism.

  11. I did not play OD&D until very recently (and my experiences with 2ed AD&D while plentiful were most of all frustrating). I am just 26 years old, I've ran CoC and 3rd edition D&D most of my gaming life and I investigate, let's call them 'oldschool principles of gaming' for completely different reasons to nostalgia.

    Similarly to HM the decade that formed me the most was 1995-2005 (and there are very interesting things in there), I wasn't around for the grassroots naivety of the metal early 80's.

    I distrust nostalgia and do not indulge in when I can help it.

    Also note, modernism and post-modernism are regarded as antithetical by most. If anything hobbies such as wargaming and role-playing are the results of modernism, socially. A proactive communal fairy-tale fantasizing, subverting and including any pre-fabricated written fantasy to serve the ends of players-as-humans, not passive-readers, all this sounds very modernist and 'Make it new!' to me.

  12. Helm, great response, and thanks for the clarifications! It certainly helps distract me from the sometimes task of designing exploitative products for emerging markets... I like it, we could use someone with your acumen around here.

    We will agree to disagree regarding beliefs in deconstruction, memes, and our opinions on anything that sounds like Lacan. I tend to passionately defend that which has inherent beauty, and do not trust bucketization that truly has no rules and blurred lines.

    Cheer brother

  13. I feel an urge to kill you all and take your stuff.