18 March 2013

‘High Gygaxian’ and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons

I recently started re-reading the 1st edition AD&D Players Handbook (mainly as a PDF on my iPad mini whilst on the bus, so I haven’t gotten very far yet).  Like everything else written by Gary Gygax during his time at TSR, I find the text quite enjoyable, and am discovering minor things that I never noticed before (or perhaps have long forgotten).  More generally, I now appreciate that Gygax’s idiosyncratic writing style actually was part of AD&D’s appeal 30+ years ago, not a barrier to it.  

By chance, I stumbled upon this post by Trent Foster from 2009 that makes essentially this point (though far better than I could):

The secret of AD&D's marketing success in its peak years (early 80s) was based on a sort of paradox, or even a lie -- the game was aimed at, and written for, adults, even though the core audience was actually kids aged about 10-14. These kids were the ones buying the books and playing the game (and even submitting stuff to Dragon and TSR -- there's tons of examples out there of people sheepishly admitting that a letter or article they wrote for Dragon magazine with a studied "adult professional" tone was really written when they were 14 or whatever) but they all thought they were doing something adult -- something above their expected level of intelligence and sophistication, something vaguely dangerous and forbidden. Hell, this dynamic existed within the very Gygax household -- two of the primary playtesters of his "adult" game were his teenage sons -- Ernie in the 70s, Luke in the 80s (and, for that matter, Alex in the 00s). 

A big part of the appeal of AD&D for us 80s kids was the difficulty of understanding it -- that you had to be smarter than average to understand it and, once you did, you earned social cachet by explaining it to the other kids (who didn't have their own copies because they couldn't afford them or their parents wouldn't let them, or who had the rulebooks but couldn't make any sense out of them because they didn't understand the Latinate abbreviations and words like "milieu" and "antithesis of weal"). Likewise with the illicit artwork with violence and nudity and pictures of demons and sacrificial altars and stuff -- and the media-panic surrounding it. Sure anybody who had read the books and played the game knew the accusations were all total crap, but it definitely made the game seem "cooler" (and yes, hard as it is to believe nowadays, there was a time -- when I was in 4th-6th grade, so 1984-86 -- when D&D (or, rather, AD&D -- the D&D boxed sets by Moldvay and later Mentzer were the dirty little secret, the way those of us who understood the game had by and large actually learned it, but we'd never admit that openly because that was "kiddie stuff" whereas AD&D was the Real Thing -- just like we'd sure as hell never admit to watching the D&D cartoon or playing with D&D action figures, even though most of us did) was considered cool, where the kid with the biggest collection of stuff and best understanding of the rules (usually because he had an older brother who he'd learned it from, or because he secretly had one of the Basic Sets (see above)) had an "instant in" with the popular (note: middle-school popular, which is different from high-school popular when cars and drugs and sex are involved) crowd). 

When TSR started changing the game around -- making it more kid-friendly by simplifying the language and sanitizing the content, actually marketing it towards the age of people who were playing it rather than the age of people those playing it looked up to and wanted to be like -- the appeal was lost, and D&D went from being the cool, dangerous thing that the smart and sophisticated kids played to being the boring thing that nerdy kids play, which is how it's been known ever since. By making D&D into something safe and accessible that anyone could understand and play, it became something nobody wanted to play.

(Originally posted here.)

My only quibble with this post is that, despite being a few years older than Foster, I don’t recall AD&D ever being especially ‘cool’, even during ‘middle-school’ (though it did seem not especially nerdy in the early-mid 1980s). 

15 comments:

  1. I don't personally recall anyone in our town calling Holmes/Moldvay/Mentzer "kiddie stuff." B/X was "the version of D&D that Rob ran" while AD&D was "the version Scott ran."

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    1. I actually had -- and continue to have -- a great fondness for the Moldvay Basic set. Even though I started with Holmes, it was with Moldvay that I actually managed to understand how to play/run D&D. And even when I moved on to AD&D, a lot of the core rules were from Moldvay (since they were so clearly explained). Also, I was fond of Otus's art style even back then.

      Nonetheless, there was a widespread perception amongst my 'gang' (especially grades 6-10) that AD&D was more... ADVANCED!

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  2. Hmmm I think we could all come up with various anecdotal observations about what the hobby was like in our respective corners of the world. I certainly think AD&D fostered more attention from some kids by virtue of its complexity and adult nature, but I know of so many more people who came back to the game in college with 2nd edition, due to the fact that the game was suddenly more accessible and (at least where I was) had a community around it now, whereas we all had "weird loner" tales from High School....and no one I knew was concerned about 2nd edition being less complex or more articulate and accessible in how it presented its content. As a result, most of my middle and high school years were spent in other games that AD&D 1st, which was nothing more than a gateway drug to better RPGs, and when I hit college 2nd edition was brand new and we were all ready to return to it.

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    1. Yeah, Tori, you're right that this is all anecdotal. The fact that a few other people had similar experiences to mine doesn't mean much.

      I stopped playing AD&D long before 2e was released (I switched to MERP around 1985-86, and didn't play much RPGs, aside from a little Rolemaster and BRP, at Uni). Nonetheless, whenever I checked 2e AD&D out at the LGS (which I frequented throughout my college years, despite not playing RPGs much), the art and tone always put me off. Some of the settings looked really cool, though (esp. Dark Sun).

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    2. Dark Sun was an innovative mess....but definitely indicated the best and worst of what 2E was about. I didn't mean to come off as dismissive in my post, sorry about that....I just find that the 2E vs. 1E debate depends heavily on where people were at in life, and what their personal level of exposure was to the older edition vs. the newer edition. I do remember that one issue friends of mine did notice about 2E was its excision of demons from the game, which ironically bothered them because they were mostly Mormon, and I put the demons back in, adapting them from 1E, specifically so they could enjoy "battling evil." And of course removing the demons from 2E still did nothing to assuage the concerns of the BADD crowd, who were still more than ready to ground even their college-age sons for attending my games. Crazy stuff!

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  3. I used to be a Secondary School geography teacher (11-15 years old in the UK) and once a week let a group of pupils play D&D (not sure what version it seemed to combine bits from AD&D and the Rules Cyclopaedia) in my classroom at lunchtime. I never let on that in my free periods as well as marking their work I was drawing maps, writing encounters for my own adventures set in Mystara for my players! Always wished I had used D&D as a teaching aid for drawing scale maps and the importance of a key and scale!

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    1. Great story! We had a RPG after-school club at my High-School for a couple of years, but no teacher showed any interest in our activities.

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  4. A big part of the appeal of AD&D for us 80s kids was the difficulty of understanding it...

    This was a big part of my love for AD&D. Not only did the game involve fantastical and magical themes, but the language itself was arcane! I loved just reading those words, working out the meaning, expanding my vocabulary at the same time. I was hooked, because just learning how to play was a mystical experience of reading an often-obscure tome.

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    1. Yeah, I remember feeling pretty chuffed once I figured out what "dweomer", "phantasm", "eldritch", "milieux", "melee", etc., meant!

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  5. This post caught my attention so thought i'd comment. I'm sure everyone had their own subjective experience. I was introduced to dnd with the original three booklets. They were so sparce as to be almost unplayable except that we had to make up a lot to fill in the gaps in the rules. Would have been 14 in 1981 or so.

    Quickly switched to ADnD which was much more playable. Well I guess I wasn't a kid exactly, but I would agree the early stuff up to ADnD was written for adults (or as if) even as it increasingly moved down the age cohorts.

    Not sure that it was ever "cool" even in its infancy as a growth out of miniatures warfare gaming. But I totally agree that the vocabulary and language of the early versions added to the mytique of the thing. For me at least.

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    1. Heh, I imagine that the 1e AD&D books would have seemed to be the very model of clarity in comparison to the 0e books. (I only obtained 0e after playing B/X D&D and AD&D for a few years, so I always read them through the lens of how things were done in the later versions.)

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  6. This reminds me of Zak's great post recently about Dense and Difficult art and media, and how that can be as much of a draw as a barrier. I would love it if the new D&D books (or some more of the OSR, for that matter) sported a bit more 'forbidden' looking art and didn't shy away from more explicit subject matter, not to mention allowing some arcane and difficult settings and monsters to just be... arcane and difficult.

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    1. I didn't read that post, but I certainly agree with the overall point.

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  7. Wow reading this post really brought back some memories. I first became aware of D&D in 1982.I was in 4th grade and D&D WAS cool. The kids who played it in my apartment complex and school were the older kids who listened to ACDC and had girlfriends. AD&D was the shit, although I played Basic because I couldn't understand the AD&D rule books till a few years later. The older kids wouldn't let me play with them so I proclaimed I would DM for them to get in a game. I failed miserably trying to run B2 because when they got to the kobold pit trap I had no idea what to do and the session ended with my neighbor saying I told you so. Crazy memories.

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  8. I would agree with you 100% - not only does this snippet speak to me directly (born in 1970, started playing with the blue and white basic set in 78-79), but I, too, am unfamiliar with any time when we gamers were anything but the reviled set who happened to have found one another.

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I'm a Canadian political philosopher who divides his time between Milwaukee and Toronto.