Monday, May 4, 2020

The Unwritten History of Role-Playing Games

It turns out that there have been some exceptional historians of role-playing games in the decades during which I have not been paying attention at all. (Never mind "game studies.") I am surprised at my own excitement in reading Jon Peterson's blog or some of the posts by Arthur at Refereeing and Reflection, for example.

Partly, I'm excited by this because I'm a professional historian (my real job) and it's always rewarding to see solid historical research backed up by sources. I look back now on the immersive gaming years of my youth with the acquired mindset of a historian, and things make sense in a way that I could not have conceived as a boy. Mostly, though, it's exciting because a flood of memories returns to me.

One thing that continues to fascinate me is that the hobby has become mired today in myth-making about its own characteristics. If you read online gaming blogs and recent publications, you will have seen plenty of assertions about the early hobby and debates about what is and what is not "authentic" and "original" in gaming. I am certain we never talked about "authentic" gaming in the old days. We thought the Original Game was irremediably dysfunctional, not out of snobbery but because they were impediments to our play rather than facilitators. We only talked about the styles of play that we liked and disliked. The application of history can unhorse cavalier attitudes about what is allegedly old-school or cutting-edge and reveal it as merely amateur commercialism mediated by the internet.

There is one very important aspect of the history of role-playing games that will never be written, however. It cannot be written. It is not documented and, even if it were, hardly anybody would care. Yet it is the very heart of the hobby.

It's the actual games and shared fantasies. Games between friends, lasting hours and hours, unrecorded, unrepeatable. I have heard that there are people today recording their games and there are even audiences watching gamers role-play, all via the internet. That will change how gaming is documented, of course, but it can't be the same. Gamers will play differently knowing they are performing for an audience of donors and "patrons."

But I'm thinking of something still more specific when I say that the heart of the hobby will always remain unrecorded. Let me illustrate it with a personal example.

Ben's Game

I'm lucky to have known a lot of creative people: artists, playwrights, authors, actors. Ben was one of the earliest outstanding ones. Ben went to a private high school not far from my public one and ran games for boys there. I met him through another gamer friend at my school who knew those guys. Ben was a few years older than me, so he finished high school first and went on to study at an art institute, but it was within driving distance. He could draw, paint, and write beautifully. His style was bizarre, showing a touch of the mental illness that always haunted him and ultimately drove him into homelessness and drug addiction. But before that disastrous turn of events, we had some wonderful years collaborating as gamers. He played in my games and I played in his, sometimes several times per week. We became friends outside of the game. He was always more adventurous than I was in real life. He might disappear for days and then reappear with wild stories, like the time he took off and drove all the way to New Orleans, without telling anybody, to explore seedy bars and go on a boat ride in the swamp. That's how he was.

Ben had his own fantasy role-playing game. He never published it. He wrote it by hand, the way we all wrote everything in those days with pencil or pen on paper in notebooks or loose sheets. He drew his own monsters and drew his own maps, and they were all beautiful. They'd qualify as "OSR art" today, but we never thought of it that way.

Because he was the sole master of his fantasy setting, it was internally consistent. We were lucky to explore it with him. I would study his map and ask him questions about the world and he would answer me creatively on the spot, making up the world which became real and fixed immediately as he spoke. It was collaborative in this way.

There were three of us who played it regularly, with others coming and going, and we all just called it "Ben's Game," because it had no other name (though occasionally he called the game by the name of the game world). He devised his own rule system. There was nothing revolutionary about it, but it was distinct. He just hated to use anything that anybody else had published. It had to be his own work. He told me that he wasn't going to pay for somebody else's imagined setting or rules. It was a matter of creative principles. The mechanics of his game were based on the d12, I think just because no other game was using that die for much, but the system worked. Always one to resent straight-jackets, his system was without levels and classes, but that was normal in those days of the late '80s when nobody I knew was playing D&D anymore. D&D was not retro, but retrograde.

Ben's game gave us at least a year of fun. We had some wonderful tales. We traveled through several countries in Ben's world and partook in deadly adventures. Our characters matured and their stories never ended.

There are no records of this game. No character sheets shoved away in old folders, no samples of Ben's monster artwork or maps hidden away. It's all gone. It was immersive then, but from a removed point of view, it was just a private, and cost-free, experience of enjoyment between friends.

I was in plenty of other games like that when I was young. Now they call them "home-brew" games, but it was just normal then. We'd say, "What's he running?" "Oh, he has his own game." "What's it like?" and so on. Several of the people I played with had their own games. I had my own sometimes.

All of that is gone. Then I think of all the other gamers, who must have been out there, just like us, making their own games. Their rules, their worlds, all gone.

A wave of new creativity? Or just the internet?

People talk about the creativity supposedly unleashed by the OSR. I cannot see it the same way. It's not as if these OSR and Story Game movements came along and suddenly gamers got creative and interested in amateur game design with a fresh feel, giving the finger to Hasbro with one hand while gladly accepting the Open Game License from them with the other.

No. It's nothing new to write your own games and adventures, especially those based on already-published games. We were always doing that. The difference now is that everybody has a computer and everybody has the internet and everybody who wants to learn to do so can create and edit documents for sharing and can learn at least amateur graphic design. People have the means to share their creative work for role-playing games without even standing up from their chairs.

If we had software editors and uploads and downloads when we were kids, we would have published our games, too. Our labors of love, rules and settings written up by hand, would have been mediated by keyboard instead, and then we could share it with a press of a button. Ben's game might have been a known thing with name. Somebody would have downloaded it and recombined ideas from it and other sources and done the same. I would think that Ben would have been commissioned to draw pictures for other people's games.

I just searched for the two other main players who joined me in Ben's world. I lost touch with Jack years ago when we moved to separate places, and it turns out he's now involved in the television industry and has won Emmy awards. I can't find Paul. The last I heard about him, he was involved in designing gory special effects for haunted-house experiences every October.

We had a good group of fellows full of ideas and creativity. I can't imagine that if we had the internet at our disposal that we would not have done something with it. The new people are not different. The difference is the internet. That's a good thing, as far as the hobby goes, though one can do without the flame wars, factionalism, and the posturing about who plays the right way and who doesn't.

Forgotten Realms

Ben's game ended definitively when Ben disappeared. I knew something was wrong with him because of his erratic communications and the creepy stories he told about some new drug-addled friends. I actually thought he was dead after months had passed without word. We found out afterwards that he had finally had a psychotic break. Ben's fantasy game world, which he shared with us, probably fizzled out of his mind through the crack pipes he shared while homeless on the streets of a distant city, where he ended up starving. A year after he vanished, he located a relative who contacted his parents. The few times I saw him again after his return, when I visited, he was a different person. The diagnosis was schizophrenia. He suggested playing again one-on-one, and I really tried, but it was not possible. He could not concentrate, whether because of his changed mind or the medications, and he was too sensitive to bear even fantasizing about adventure. In any case, I soon moved away permanently and was swept away in another direction.

Most fantasy campaigns don't end so dramatically, I hope, but I know that there are games like Ben's without number. Even for the gamers who use pre-fab materials bought from others, every one-shot and every campaign is a figment of locally shared imagination, wish-fulfilling fantasies and expressions of needs we hardly understand ourselves.

This part of the hobby can never have a history. It would be like telling the history of dreams: impossible. Nor should it ever be possible.

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