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Finding D&D: The Stand Alone Complex

Here's part 1 of my series "Finding D&D," or rather, my first pass at working it up into a formal presentation. I'm looking forward to a fair piece of response for it. There's some history, based on several discussions at my old Adept forum, and a lot of private correspondence since then across a number of people with very different views from one another.

This part concerns the 1970s and how D&D-ness became a perceived and revered thing in the absence of any such thing. Part 2 will pick up with the RPGA and TSR as an 80s entity, concerning those organizations as an orthodox church; Part 3 addresses fundamentalism in the context of the church losing its hold on distributional and financial control; Part 4 addresses essentialism and universalism; and Part 5 is, if anyone cares, my opinion.

Please see the attached file as well as a handy summary for publications, associations among them, and dates.


Santiago Verón's picture

Draft?! It seems pretty rounded out and it's very enjoyable. I wish I could share it. What's the sharing status of this? I assume that, as your other videos, this is unlisted on YouTube. I guess you wouldn't like it to go viral?

Ron Edwards's picture

It's horrible crap though - that's natural light coming through the window, which reflects off the board; I didn't have my good microphone so that's the room's own echo which actually generates feedback a lot of the time ... total F for technical.The content did come off better than I'd expected, so now I'm annoyed that I didn't set up for maximal technique (such as mine is anyway).

I think that's a good point about the videos. I should go back and make them all just ordinary. The idea was to keep the focus on this site and its related text and discussions, i.e., the videos should be pieces of a thing, not the thing by itself ... but that's not the way it goes these days.

I confess it was quite a joy pasting in all those covers and things for the graphics. Makes me want to play some more Holmes D&D like I did a few years ago, it's a pretty good, very quirky game when you really play it all by itself. I have a friend who played the hell out of DragonQuest; I ought to get him to post here.

Santiago Verón's picture

My two cents is that it's different for this kind of videos. Actual play videos I'm happy are unlisted, because it means this site is the place to discuss them, not the youtube video. This video where you basically give a video class makes me think of some YouTube channels I love, like Numberphile or Crash Course.

Then again, there's always the option of allowing or disallowing comments, so perhaps you could have "viral" actual play /consulting videos with a descriptive text going "comments disallowed, to discuss go to!" I dunno.

Ron Edwards's picture

That was my original plan, to post publicly and then hope to channel comments here. It got lost in the shuffle, plus I didn't really understand what |"unlisted" meant as it turns out, so I'm glad you mentioned that.

I've just changed this video for this post as well as those for Phenomenology and System Diagrams to public, added the relevant links to the accompanying text, and disallowed Youtube commenting. Share away!!

Hi! The general concept is rather clear from the description of D&D's and Jesus's publication history that precedes it, but it would be nice to have an explanation of the "stand alone complex" for people who didn't watch that anime...

About the theme of the video, I still remember getting (finally!) my shipment of AD&D books from the USA in 1986 (2 months of shipping time plus time lost for customs bureaucracy), and how I was confused realizing that we were really playing a very different game with our GM at the time... 

There is a certain time-shift (the 80s instead of the 70s) and different causes (importantion insitead of publication) but my memories of the Italian situation are very similar, with the added mythology of "they did like this in that far  away place, AMERICA!!"

Ron Edwards's picture

Fortunately you're a careful reader of From Hell, so I can reference Alan Moore's afterword which explains the concept perfectly: that "Jack the Ripper" is very likely not to have existed in any imaginable way as conceived and believed, and that so-called ripperologists can always make some actual factoid from that region and time "fit" because they're basically pasting it onto a fixed story that's both specific enough and nebulous enough so anything can be included. The fixed story is simply not subject to analysis, everyone knows "it" happened like that, so now we're all fascinated with whether Sir Augustus Poop or Jimmy the Perverted Barber or whoever is "it."

One of the most important features is how entirely sincere all the frenzied debate and "confirmatory" experience is, and especially, the copycat factor when a number of people do (what they think is) the same thing in the belief that they are themselves validating or confirming or conforming to the thing.

Oddly, the concept really didn't have a name until the manga/TV series came out. I don't know why, it's an important idea.

Ron Edwards's picture

Here are some excerpts from my text version.

The "new game" did not spread textually. Instead, word about this "new game" spread through the hobby culture, pop-culture grapevine. Out in these wilds and on the ground, instead of an actual original D&D, we only had a widespread belief that there was one. Role-playing as an activity went berserk, across the U.S. hobby and fantasy scene, but we weren't playing a thing called D&D, instead, D&D was the tag-name for playing, at all. In practice, that meant outright inventing the techniques for play, locally. Early role-playing was a real behavior, if disconnected, amorphous, and piecemeal. But the concept of a singular real-play D&D is a stand alone complex of the purest form.

Every would-be "Dungeon Master" had a haphazard handful of texts and a unique personal history of being shown how to play. This person and the others playing with him or her had to shape, socially and procedurally, just what the hell they did such that "role-playing" happened. How did you know it worked? What did you do it for? All of it, from the social circumstances right down to how to talk "in character," had to be created in the faith that it worked "out there" somewhere, and because of that "known fact," somehow, some way, it was supposed to work here. I think you can see why game groups soon acquired their unfortunate, all-too-prevalent component of arguing about how to play.

The belief in an actual, single D&D became a self-fulfilling perception of what role-playing must really be. This is the essence of a cargo cult: you tried to make this mélange of stuff work at your table, empowered by your faith that somewhere out there the real it, the pure it, the Big It worked … and once you made this litter of flotsam and jetsam work, that only validated your faith in the Big It's functionality and your sense of faith-based empowerment, overriding the evidence before your eyes that you and your friends had made it work, and that no higher power was involved.

The 1974 publication appeared in such a way as to validate and excite people who were all doing this-and-that-bits of a new thing, and then disappeared in such a way as to open doors for published materials vastly more sophisticated and usable ("complete" if you will) than it was, but which would be unfairly perceived as second-comers and imitations.

In thinking about the other early role-playing titles, I’ll start by quoting Gordon Landis from an older discussion about play during the late-late 1970s (lightly edited, Gordon).

What is it that makes D&D (more precisely, the history of D&D publishing, organized play, and traditions of play) matter? What does it represent that we should care about it? I don't think its history as (real or perceived) market leader is enough. What struggle does it represent, and in what ways did it propose to resolve that struggle? Stripped of "corrupting" influences like profit motive, ego games and intrinsic and extrinsic political maneuvering, what are the (far less grand than "human condition") issues that we can acknowledge this thing called D&D teaches us about, even if we don't like what that teaching ended up producing?

I found myself drawn to this possibility: it represents the struggle with creating a community of practice around this new, neat-o thing called "roleplaying." Without diminishing the exploitation, incompetence, and/or malevolence exhibited by people and/or institutions, I can see that wrestling with that was and is difficult, and that much of what happened (in the very early days, at least) was at least in part a consequence of sincere efforts to find a functional answer.

There was, I think, a very utopian ideal driving the pursuit of that answer. An idealist vision of "D&D" rules as a background for all play, a unifying principle of gamer "Christendom" that all could rally around and bask in the warmth of shared understanding. TSR was to be a "shining city on a hill," the source of illumination and guidance for this roleplaying thing. It was not to be oppressive - it should be uplifting. It was not to be controlling - it should be inspiring. It was not to demand obedience - it should encourage compatibility . That's a huge word in the early days, with the weight of ecclesiastical writ and as expansive a meaning as you can possibly attribute to it. Before (or at least simultaneous with) legalistic wrangling and copyright concerns, compatibility was a word to conjure with. Expansions compatible with core, modules compatible with systems, play in Peoria compatible with play in Poughkeepsie, gamers in the Deep South compatible with gamers in the High Sierra. By creating universally shared rules and procedures of play (that is, of behavior), TSR would create universal compatibility, and gamers could happily enjoy this wondrous new roleplaying thing without fear of mistakes, mutual toe-stepping, or embarrassing misunderstandings.

Now, I'd say time has taught us that not all roleplaying can thrive in such an environment, and that the power dynamics and etc. that it sets up are almost too easily abused and abusive (which, for me, reinforces the value of "indie" in the sense that Ron has always tried to use it - which given this I'd call a different way to answer the "how to create a community" question than the "shining city" model). Still, in some ways, at some level, it is a sincere effort to solve a real problem. The technophile in me might say it could have been the "right/best" answer before the internetz were spun, but in any case - just as we can't dismiss Abrahamic traditions simply because there is bad shit associated with 'em, so we cannot dismiss D&D because of the many ways in which it's fucked-up.

This is all very sweet and positive, but I submit that the cherished myth-narrative has to go. First, "D&D" as a term cannot be taken to indicate any particular form of play, especially in reference to the origins of the hobby. One cannot properly say "D&D does this," or that a game "plays like D&D," or even "I play D&D," without specifying exactly which D&D text(s) one means and what one has done with it or them. For one thing, the versions are so different they are obviously not versions, but different games. For another, what's being done at the table is possibly based on local practices and interpretations rather than on any actual game text. Why more so for anything with this title than for any other game? Because for anything with this title, it was necessarily so.

Back then, plenty of us began to suspect that somebody was making up D&D as they went along, and wasn't very good at it, especially since we were already familiar with the source literature and with T&T, TFT, or RuneQuest. Others, especially newcomers to pop fantasy via role-playing itself, buckled down to a faith-based intensity regarding the stand alone complex, and continued to learn to play from other people instead of from books. Many incorporated whatever the local Cargo Cult guy said and read the books, if they did, through those lenses, and many turned to subcultural membership to identify themselves with "real" play, specifically with the swiftly solidifying RPGA.

The thing I failed to empasize enough in the bit you quote, Ron, is how deeply misguided even I think much of that sweet and positive turned out to be. Wanting TSR (or who/whatever) to unify play, in a real "general unified theory" way ... it's just a bad idea that can't really work.

I think I need to watch the video more (only got halfway through so far) and think a good bit before I say more, but "not dismissing" D&D is a pretty low bar that most everyone (you, for sure) has already cleared, and the real questions are about how to get value out of (how much?) deeper consideration.

I'm really enjoying this view at the "primordial D&D" culture.

It rings as largely true to me, even though I didn't start playing until the early 90's.

Even then, however, I remember "playing D&D" with a bunch of friends and a bunch of different books. It took us, many, many years to notice (and realize) that there were different editions; we'd, rather, always just combined material from any-which-book and any other, freely and without seeing anything strange about that.

I've also had (and seen, repeatedly) that experience where what you think is in the book is completely different from what is actually there (even just about a month ago, with a bunch of "modern" D&D gamers fairly new to the activity and playing 5th Edition, but unknowingly using 3rd Edition and 4th Edition rules in many instances).

Ron Edwards's picture

I look forward to your response to part 2, which is about the role of holy texts in orthodox institutions, and the church of TSR from about 1981 through the mid-1990s. Your description could almost have been written as a made-up example of what I just recorded.

I completely agree about the curious illiteracy concerning D&D rules, which applies to a lesser extent to role-playing in general, but in the case of D&D, takes on a fierce certainty and associated sense of identity. My casual and entirely enjoyable game of 3.0, played in 2004 I believe, received posted responses I can only describe as fervently in error concerning skill rolls and interactions.

The Holmes-Moldvay-Mentzer line may be an exception, or it may not. At least some people I know were pretty solidly committed to some part of that as a text of its own, but on the other hand, I've encountered others who are profoundly confused about the relationship of "Basic" (by which they mean the Mentzer 1985 boxed set, usually) and "Advanced" (by which they mean the late-70s hardbacks, usually). They seem to think that the former preceded and fed into the latter, whereas (i) the two lines have nothing to do with one another, and (ii) the Mentzer set came considerably later.

So first, I have to whole-heartedly support the “there is no one D&D” argument. I definitely mail-ordered (the pre-internet!) my three-book version of D&D (via Lou Zocchi? Judges Guild?) in junior high, so that ought to be around 1975/76. I also had the Holmes Basic, but – it (as rules, anyway) entered into our play not ONE bit. Whatever sense we made of the three-books, plus modules, supplements, and magazines (I was a Dragon subscriber from around #3) … we were all about “Advanced”, anything “Basic” was at most a curiosity. Even before there WAS a “full” set of Advanced books. But that was just us.

Even more than the TSR texts or other rules, though … when, some years back, I unearthed my stash of gaming stuff from then, let the various scribbles spark memories, and just reviewed what was cut-up, used, re-used, and written-on … *I* didn’t play any one D&D! Play was guided especially by the modules used, a LOT – often, rules needed to make play comprehensible appeared there, or the strength of fictional setting (e.g., a haunted house in Tegel Manor; or Noir – at least, an adolescent understanding thereof – in The Maltese Clue) made play compelling regardless of rule-confusion.

So maybe it’s odd that I also entirely recall the religious appeal of Compatibility and the stamp of the Official. In the religion of D&D, I was baptized, but I didn’t practice the religion. What I happened when I encountered the birth of “real” RPGA play should probably wait on part 2, but .. I expect there are others like me out there. Though I know there were also True Believers. I guess the big thing I back away from in my quote above is the implication that “unity” in a community of practice is a basically, in-no-way-problematic good thing.

Still, I could say the myth-narrative sorta worked for me: even in doing VERY different things, most of my 1976-1981ish play was fun, socially rewarding, and (inaccurately) THOUGHT of as “always a kind of D&D”. Eventually it failed, of course. From 1983ish-1991, the only roleplay I found was either RPGA-regimented in a way that did not appeal, or so locally adapted I didn’t get it.  And I didn’t find enough incentive to put in the time and effort to get past that. That didn’t change until I moved to California and found RPG groups that a) played somewhat like I remembered/enjoyed, and b) FINALLY included, like my 1976-1981ish play, a good few women.

(That reads a little more like an outline of my personal history than I intended, but truthfully, seeing the many differences and intriguing similarities of other folks experiences with D&D has been for me a great way to avoid falling into the “one D&D” trap.)

Ron Edwards's picture

I totally agree that people claimed and sought compatibility and official how-it's-done without actually doing anything that would indicate either. Personal practice is one thing, and doctrine is another. In my cynical moments, I speculate that the uncomfortable secret that "we're not doing it like 'they' say" has a unifying function regarding loyalty to the institution providing or purporting to represent the doctrine.

At the point I reach in this video, about1980-1981, it's barely doctrine yet. At that point, I think we're talking about enough enthusiastic and committed cargo-culting, like you were doing and I was doing, to support someone popping up and saying And this is official. One might even say the entire history of TSR is an unstable grasp on that thing.

People had been seeking it from the beginning, whether it was "approved for use" as with Judges Guild, or using Dragon as an interpretive second-body of text like hadiths or the Talmud. Hold on, that analogous phrasing is probably premature. During this period, I don't think the initial experience and social practice could really be identified as religious. But it was certainly priming for it; I think D&D's curious textual absence (or effective absence via fragmentation and perceived contradiction) is crucial in that.

A bit later, those circumstances and experiences of play became either don't-mention-it or a "golden era," and in either case stripped of most of its factual history - pretty fast, in fact.

I’m pretty sure you already know this, Ron, but just in case I’m wrong about that, here’s another data point for the “people played all kinds of things and believed it was D&D” idea —

over in Scottsdale, Ken St. Andre, bless his heart, got a look at “D&D” and decided the books were dumb and he could do better, so he wrote his own “D&D” and played that.  Not T&T. D&D.  With a set of rules made entirely by Ken — without using TSR rules at all.  They called what they were playing “Dungeons &Dragons.”

It’s only when it came time to publish that Rick Loomis told Ken that he would need a new name for it because you can’t just publish your own D&D.  Ken wanted to call it “Tunnels & Troglodytes” (which would have been AWESOME IMHO) but somebody talked him out of it and we got Tunnels & Trolls.

You’ve got to love the fact that people could consider themselves to be “playing D&D” despite having looked at the stuff from TSR and rejected it completely in favor of a homebrew.


Ron Edwards's picture

I didn't know that!

On a related note, when I work up more of my material about fantasy and pop culture relative to role-playing, I plan to bring in the interconnections among relatively aggressive fantasy, with more connections to Creepy or Eerie than to the older magazines, somewhat underground and to some extent emergent from Dangerous Visions, tied strongly to comics and to rock-and-roll, yet also supported by new publishing subsets like the Spectra Editions line. One big example is Roger Zelazny's connection with Tunnels & Trolls, and the original short stories about Dilvish the Damned.

I hope to put these ideas into more useful form, but for now:

The spread of D&D commercially and within communities that you describe, minus the convention aspect, reflects my experience well. We had conflicting first impressions, few people had the books, fewer had dice, even fewer had the same books (despite the same name), so it was an environment primed for variance and development of independent conceptions of what the thing was.

The age gap between players when reading the rules for the first time, the awareness of and comfort with wargames, and exposure to advertisements all played a role, too.

The strongest reaction I had after listening to this and part 2 was that no one I met (dozens of groups) played with (really) the same rules. Different groupings of groups, however, played in ways that looked or felt similar, and that was fine. If you liked what they did, you stayed and played with them again.

Once AD&D became the common ground, arguments began, and the sense of 'doing it wrong' became stronger. We all had the same text to draw from, it was not or first text, and it was Advanced, so it should have been what comes after the "intro" game...


Ron Edwards's picture

My goal in this video is to break the myth of origins: the notion that there was a thing which was not, and then was. The reality of either experience or text-use indicates no such thing, and yet "everyone knows" that there was/is, and invests such effort - and verbal, social insistence - that to be actually even a role-player at all has often meant buying into it. I'm trying to show that absence through experience, but I stress that this isn't just about our generation and experience. It's about the perceived reality and "everyone knows" which was imbibed as reality for everyone to come after. It's really not about me or my peers in age - at least we knew the content was scattered and unusable on its face, even if we didn't admit it (and many of us did by mid-high school). It's about those who came after who could have no way to know that, and no way to know that it was there to know.

My knowledge of Gygax, Arneson, Holmes, TSR, the Blumes, et al., is imperfect. That's why I'm not claiming prof-lecture status in this series and actually embrace "around about now" language which gets up the nose of people who've studied the history month by month, paragraph by paragraph in contracts or verbal accounts. I'll be correcting as many outright mistakes as possible for the next versions, but I'll retain that insouciance because this is not a documentarian investigation. I'm making a point - that the standalone complex was and is inscribed upon the hobby culture, and that you are in or you are out based on whether you have professed the creed.

There are plenty of parallels - e.g., a favorite iconic rock band, conceived and thought of very much as a unit whose members' personalities, whose specific sound and musical details, and whose marketed/received impact are all considered a thing. Long ago, I gave up trying to discuss such things in any way; it is simply axiomatic to music culture, especially criticism, that this band with its distinctive everything was not, and then upon some instant, was. Such that you can be listening to any number of other bands at the time and just before, perhaps sharing members on and off with this one (which had not yet gelled), developing the sound in question among all of them ... and a fan or expert or both will say, as a finalizing conversational device, "that's a Sabbath clone," or "they've got that Black Sabbath sound." The conversation instantly shifts to Black Sabbath for which this fan-expert has read all the right interviews and roadie-ghost-written books, and the music you're actually physically listening to in that moment of reality is expunged from consideration as part of "rock knowledge."

But I'm talking about more. Enthusiastic and anti-intellectual as music fandom can be (and that goes for classical, jazz, whatever, and for academic/expert discussions as much as boozy monologues), it isn't a religion. It's "religious" enthusiasm in the colloquial sense, meaning extra-intense or dismissive of real discussion. Here, I'm talking about D&D as an actual religion and committed religious practice, not an analogy or metaphor, observed across a surprisingly wide sector for a considerable period of time, with its own body of orthodoxy, fundamentalism, and essentialists ... who believe. And by "belief," I'm referring to collective action, not an internal state.

The upcoming fourth video deals with the latter batch, essentialism, which is the hardest topic. It's a broad category, including unitarians, universalists, syncretics, and the most defensive and difficult sector, the self-described atheists. In our age group, that'd be the radical conversion to GURPS.

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