A Picture Is Worth…?

After having read through Dave Arneson ‘s now classic 1977 Judges Guild book The First Fantasy Campaign I felt that if there was some simple way to arrive at a deeper understanding of it, I needed to show a picture.

This picture, of Arneson  and his friends playing Napoleonic war games, is the best way to grasp what’s going on in the FFC. It’s not just the glasses and the haircuts – though they certainly help. It’s seeing the way these kinds of miniatures games morphed into the “campaign” that became D&D. Every time you come to some point of confusion and mystification in the text, go back and look at the picture. Then it will all make sense.

For me, the FFC‘s most notable feature is the intensity of activity in it. Arneson made a real effort to keep all the plates spinning in the air all the time. Armies were moving, forces were gathering, building was being done everywhere in the campaign. Most campaigns now seem calm and almost static in comparison – and my own is no exception. I marveled at the way the terrain described seemed so, well, lively. If anything, Blackmoor and the rest of the environs looked like a endless frantic mass of activity.

Another part of the book describes the campaign’s villains or bad guys. The infamous “Egg of Coot” reminded me of the “Supremor” from Marvel Comics – the “supreme intelligence” of the Kree space empire:

Many of the “super villains” of the FFC seem like they were, or easily could have been, taken directly from comic books. I enjoyed this aspect of the “campaign” far more than I thought I might and considered adding these kinds of malevolent, but reasonably complex, personalities to my own game.

Throughout the FFC, I kept getting the idea that the players used the game to do what they wanted to do – to set up battles and simulations that each enjoyed or wished to pursue. In other words, they didn’t make their play conform to the rules – they made up rules to facilitate the kind of game they wanted to play. This kind of creative direction, of making the rules serve the game and not forcing the game to serve the rules, is of the utmost importance to the OSR and it’s what happens when you have innovators, rather than mere helpless consumers, at the helm. Arneson, as the games co-creator, obviously felt empowered to do whatever he wanted to to – to try whatever he wanted to try. Kids buying his game, and even adults coming later, wouldn’t necessarily feel that same sense of freedom. That’s what we have to get back to – and that’s one of the most important lessons I came away from studying the FFC with.

I suspect that if I had read this material closely as a teen, I would have been surprised by, and annoyed with, the goofy and wacky elements on display in the FFC. Without realizing it, and probably influenced – if not governed by – the dictates of my literary tastes at the time, I was more inclined to support “Gygaxian realism” – even if that isn’t what I would have called it, or even recognized it as such. Without realizing it, that’s what I aspired to and that’s what I imagined as the D&D ideal. I would have thought the DMG was vastly superior to the FFC. Now, obviously, I’m not so sure. Like David Hargrave’s work, Arneson’s approach seems to me to be less about achieving some kind of deep realism and more about, you know, having fun. Paradoxically, as I get older, I get less censorious of what might have seemed to me then as childish or “unrealistic” elements. When I played D&D as a teen in JHS, I wanted D&D to be “real” and be something more “adult.” Now, as an adult, I’m more willing to loosen up in order to just have fun.

“It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”

– Pablo Picasso


5 responses to “A Picture Is Worth…?”

  1. Chris Scott says :

    My old childhood friend, who plays in my campaign with his wife, and I have talked about, in particular, our slavish drive to provide a sense of realism when we were teenagers in our RPGing. Looking back, with adult eyes, it seems now, almost silly, the think in those terms. But back then, it was of vital importance that game seem realistic – perhaps because our own imaginations had not been cultivated sufficiently to successfully explore the alternative – and perhaps, it much easier to try and impose “realism” in the game then to try and solve many of the problems that can arise in a session in a creative, or even, fun manner.

    Later in life, both my friend and I had come to similar conclusions… the game is about Fantasy, and a game, being a game, ought to be fun. How we suffered in those teenage years!

    • citycrawl says :

      I think I was trying to create this kind of perfect world back then – to be the best and most impressive Demi-urge I possibly could be, rather than having simple fun. I actually got away from this model by reading Vornheim by Zak S., because his criticism of that approach, and the way he presents an alternative to it, is brilliant and utterly convincing. As soon as you start APPLYING what Zak teaches his case is made.

  2. Stan says :

    That picture is just excellent. Please, is there a higher resolution version? I can’t read the text of the little article and I’d like to know who’s in it.

  3. Stan says :

    With regard to ‘realism’ I think a lot of what people really want when they add rules is consistency more so than realism. An “If something worked one way today then it should work that way tomorrow” sort of idea. While this adds verisimilitude, which is good insofar as it promotes suspension of disbelief and helps people get invested in the proceedings, I agree it really can get to be a problem when it goes too far down the ‘realistic’ route. I guess my real point is that people don’t always set out consciously to be more realistic even when their changes ultimately tend that way.

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