Grognard Musings & The Old School Renaissance

The term “grognard” is a French word meaning “old fighter.” It started being a term for older, more experienced strategic war games players and has been appropriated by the D&D crowd to refer to people who played the game when it started. How does one qualify to be a true D&D grognard? Some insist the term only applies to the folks who played the game in the mid-to late ’70s. Others insist it can apply to the people who were involved in the early ’80s. Some, who missed the boat entirely but who still see the virtue of the game in its earliest forms, refer to themselves as “grognardlings” – or those who aspire to true grognardhood. Since I began playing D&D with the “white box” set of the “little brown books” (“LBBs”), I feel it’s safe to see myself as a true “grognard.”

 

 

TSR (which stood for Tactical Studies Rules, when it was an upstart, traditional war game company), was the firm that first made D&D. As a corporate entity, it went through a period of tremendous expansion, was laid low by the frenzy around “collectible” card games (as well as its own poor business decisions and too rapid expansion), was bought by the company that started said card game frenzy, and then was sold to Hasbro. For awhile, you could buy the old, original versions of the game, adventure modules, and supplements from them in pdf versions online. Then, some genius at the company decided that selling the pdfs this way might result in “computer piracy” – so this practice was discontinued. After that, people could either buy the original games on Ebay and from other rapacious dealers at crazy exorbitant prices… or easily download pirated copies on torrents and elsewhere. So, an effort to prevent “piracy” made many people become… pirates. Brilliant! And we wonder why American businesses are in such a sorry state!

Many people, some my age and younger, hated what had happened to D&D over the years. They despised the commercialism that had infected the games as they had become a huge, mass market phenomena. They disliked the complexities and layers of changes that the games had suffered in an effort to continually boost sales and make people buy more over-priced stuff. And they detested the new playing style that eliminated free form play and, in its place, substituted increasing limited narrative procedures with pre-formed, standardized characters – a form that many derided as “railroads” – as in, you stay in a car and go from place to place without any individual initiative or freedom. Each new revision and change just made everything worse.

In response, more and more people started returning to the original game. Peeling away all the additions and changes that had been added on over the years, and returning to the first version of the game in its pristine form, proved to be quite liberating. Excavating the long abandoned, and out of print, original rules revealed a simplicity and offered a keen pleasure that, when combined with a rediscovered and potent nostalgia, many found intoxicating. Thus, the “Old School Renaissance” (OSR) was born. This movement has spread to other role playing games as people decide to throw off the burdens imposed by various failed business models and the crusty, accumulations of time and the market… and go back to the basics.

But here was a problem. What if you didn’t have copies of the original rules? Buying them on Ebay is like trying to buy 1940s “Golden Age” comic books. The costs are astronomical. Go look if you don’t believe me. It’s mind boggling. You could easily just find the pdfs online via torrents, or by cruising forums like 4chan and 7chan. But that would be, you know, illegal, and only terrible, terrible, evil, evil, awful, awful people would even consider breaking the law this way… as we all well know. So another solution was arrived at. People began creating “original D&D” “clones.” These were games that were almost exactly like the original – except they weren’t total, word for word reprints. They were also better organized and presented than the first sets of rules – which were a notorious mess of typos, poor formats, and terrible artwork. Some of these clones include “Labyrinth Lord,” “Swords & Wizardry: White Box” (how obvious is that name?), “B/X Blackrazor,” “Lamentations of the Flame Princess,” OSIRC, and others. New ones arrive all the time. These “clones” allow people to play the “old school” game without having to own copies of the original books. Many of them were presented free in pdf form, or are available at nominal cost – certainly hundreds of dollars less than copies of the originals!

But what are the “real” “old school rules”? Some insist that they are only the “LBBs” that came in the iconic “white box.” Others include the four original supplements to the “LBBs.” Still others insist that “Basic rules” – a later, beginner version of the game is “old school.” Was the first edition of “Advanced D&D” (AD&D) really “old school”? Some have insisted, and I tend to agree with them, that there isn’t a lot of significant differences between the first edition of AD&D and the LBBs plus the original four supplements. Some of the new “clones” acknowledge this and their rules resemble the first edition of AD&D more than a little bit. A few of the clones offer a “basic” version and an “advanced” version to distinguish between the two preferences.

My friend Connor got a copy, from his clueless, but well-meaning parents, of the blue box 1977 “Basic Set” back when he started playing. He was quite disappointed to discover it was the “kids’ version” that did not cohere with the game his friends were playing – so he had to go and get the “white box” set like the rest of us. Later, he insisted that the “holy” nature of the LBBs meant that they deserved that to be placed in a special, medieval “book shrine” he imagined for them. Yes, we revered the “white box” just that much. No one liked the “Basic” box. We had nothing but contempt for it.

Therefore, it amused me to discover that, in fact, some of the grognards actually LOVED the Basic set and they make a big deal of its original editor, the late John Eric Holmes. I found this bewildering until I recalled Terry Carr’s hoary observation that “the golden age of science fiction is twelve.” Following this unimpeachable logic, the “golden age” of D&D is whenever you started playing it. Thus, we find people getting all misty-eyed while they staunchly defend even later versions of the “basic set” and its editors: the late Tom Moldvay and Frank Mentzer.

There are plenty (plenty!) of blogs and forums where people debate the virtues of the various “clones” and celebrate the “old school.” One guy, in particular, advocates a kind of LBB “fundamentalism.” He insists that the LBBs are the first and the best role playing game (rpg), that all others proceeded from them, and that any question or game problem can be resolved by going back and applying the rules in these books. His fiercely and constantly articulated position is that you look hard enough, all the solutions to any game issue – the definitive answers – may be discovered therein. I know why people think this guy is a nut, but I have a sneaking sense of admiration for him anyway. The LBBs are wonderful and returning to them, while gleefully and forcefully rejecting everything that came after, is tremendously satisfying. This is why I love the OSR.

OSR devotees also delight in the way that the original rules came before the whole “D&D = Satanism” scare. Therefore, the LBBs were not PC, nor were they written and edited with nervous, Midwestern Christian parents in mind. Indeed, the third supplement to the LBBs – the iconic “Eldrich Wizardry” – sported a painting of a nude woman tied to an altar on its cover. In this sense, the OSR captures part of the era of freedom that existed in the ’70s – before the Reagan-era reaction set in and TSR bowed to the pressure of the parents and the churches.

Will I start playing the games again, rather than reading about them and studying online materials? This is the question some of my friends have asked me. I will note, as I have said before, that there are plenty of people who collect and discuss role playing games, of all kinds, who do not themselves play them. There is a thriving collectors market in “vintage” role playing games that, as I alluded to earlier, increasingly resembles the rare comic book collector market. Many of the game companies actually used a comic book distributor – Diamond – and as the games have moved from free form (or “sandbox”) play to more “narrative” driven (or “railroad”) play, this connection to comic books and graphic novels has only intensified.

I went and looked at the tremendous number of rules and supplements for the “Weird Western” role playing game “Deadlands.” I have to confess that, after examining many of them, I had a hard time convincing myself that anyone actually plays this game – although it seems like some people do. Image Comics is releasing comic books based on the game this summer and at the end of each story they include rule notes for the game itself. Again, I had trouble believing people would actually use these ideas from the comic book in a real game, but I caught part of an online discussion with people talking about doing just that. Nonetheless, I still think many rpgs are being sold now as reading entertainment and are not being used to actually game with. The OSR grognards distinguish between people who actually play the games on a regular basis and people they refer to as “BNGs” – or “bitter non-gamers.”

Second, playing any rpg well and seriously is tremendously time consuming. The introduction to one of the clone games quotes D&D co-creator Gary Gygax:

“You, as the Dungeon Master, are about to embark on a new career, that of universe maker. You will order the universe and direct the activities in each game, becoming one of the elite group of campaign referees referred to as DMs in the vernacular of AD&D. What lies ahead will require the use of all your skill, put a strain on your imagination, bring your creativity to the fore, test your patience, and exhaust your free time. Being a DM is no matter to be taken lightly!”

It’s the “exhaust your free time” bit there that puts me off. As I have noted before, I had a lot of free time as a kid in the ’70s. Now that I think about it, all I had then was free time. That’s not true any longer and the free time I do have… I can’t see devoting it to D&D again, even to the rich glories of the OSR.

Third, finding other people to indulge the OSR thing with me is probably going to be a fraught business. Getting my “grognard on” with the other grognards… Even assuming I could find any around here, uhhh, have you seen these guys? There’s a usually a good reason why they have a lot of free time too, you know. I don’t want to be mean, or indulge in unnecessary stereotyping, but the fat guys with the beards and the no social skills and the prog rock… Look, if I wanted to hang out with these people I could just start going back to Gnostic Mass and buy tickets to Notocon, right?

Each time I feel the need to reply to another grognard online, and actually see a picture of the guy, I stop in my tracks and my hand, seemingly of its own accord, gently lifts off the mouse. Every time I think about running one of the clone games myself, and I see a picture of people actually gathering to play them… and I shudder. One of my very best friends used to play “Axis & Allies” for hours every single weekend. No, really, I mean EVERY single weekend. This is not the kind of life I have chosen for myself. It just isn’t. Most of these people, no matter how pleasant they were, seemed like eunuchs. They had just given up on ever finding a girlfriend or being married. The overweight thing, the beards, it was all there in the living room each weekend.

Many of the online grognards talk about the need they feel to introduce the “pure” game to kids. Dude, no adult introduced the game to us when we were kids and adults don’t need to do it now. This is stuff kids can do on their own. Leave them alone and get a life. These guys and their blogs… even on the best and most entertaining of them it’s impossible to go over their posts and not hear the voice of the comic book guy on The Simpsons talking.

I spun the idea of starting a game on Sunday mornings when my wife does volunteer work at a wildlife hospital. “I could set up the garage and do it there,” I explained. I knew Peggy would not like the idea of bearded fat guys in their 40s coming over to our house each week. She doesn’t relish the idea of our home turning into the set of The Big Bang Theory any more than it already is.

“You’d never lose any weight,” she told me. “You’d be comparing yourself to them and you would never think you’d need to!”

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