Finding D&D: The Fundamentals

Here, hop into this handbasket with me. We’re goin’ for a ride!

It’s part of “Finding D&D,” focusing this time on fundamentalist belief and practice, including but not limited to the OSR. I thought about waiting until part 4 was done, as these two parts only make full sense relative to one another. But whatever; it’s a draft, and I might as well start collecting “what about” and “you forgot [some damn thing]” now.

I’m working on a pretty good graphic to include as a file. My hand-drawn one served as my notes.

About that draft part – obviously, precise phrasing and the proper sequence of points are desired, and I can already see what I should-have-said in a couple places. I really should have named the Second Great Awakening in U.S. religious history. I defy anyone to describe the interplay between the multiple releases of OSRIC and the Quick Primer without stumbling on the first try. I think I could have drawn a little better portrait of Munchkin, Hackmaster, and Elfs coming out about simultaneously; a more culturally-savvy writer would know how to tie that into the larger picture of Knights of the Dinner Table, the Gamers movies, and the gathering storm of geek-as-hip. During what I called Phase 3, I fumbled the point that Fourth Edition had multiple reasons to be rejected even apart from intrinsic problems, thus negating a debate about what the latter are supposed to be. In part 5, I’ll get back to whether or how anything called D&D published by TSR can’t be called “real D&D.”

I struggled to avoid detail, even interesting things. The idea was to stay on track for the primary argument and not vary the depth from thing to thing, and that meant reluctantly not deepening spots I could have, especially about Gygaxiana, Lamentations, and Fourth Edition. I was even more reluctant to go into how an allegedly strict retroclone like White Hack is composed of a good 75% retro-fitting.

I also wanted to avoid special pleading about me specifically, which is why I didn’t footnote the parade of titles and names with all the Forge veterans. Conversely, as if anyone’s going to believe me, the only reason I didn’t mention the RPGsite during the willful-stupidity part was because I forgot about it. Later, while editing, I figured, “well, if the shoe fits, they can wear it, and if it doesn’t, then I didn’t say it did.”

An interesting detail: prior to about 2015, James Raggi didn’t brand Lamentations of the Flame Princess as OSR. There was a brief note at the game’s site saying, “Some people call it OSR, and they can if they want, whatever,” or something similar. Since then he’s done so, which is a perfectly good promotional decision, but it’s a good indication of how the better authors of that second period really weren’t grinding any axe besides each person’sown.

There were a couple of minutes describing the co-option of U.S. fundamentalism by wealthy right-wing people, more or less ziplining from Republican Gomorrah, Wrapped in the Flag, and God’s Own Party, but I realized this would cause confusion about political wings or groupings in gaming, some of which purports to be an OSR vs. indie/story-games split. My point about the subversion of fundamentalism applies no matter what the exact political aims might be, and it was too detailed anyway.

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16 responses to “Finding D&D: The Fundamentals”

    • I really like the

      I really like the authenticity in this. It's too easy to run into simple flat rejection, "you must be saying something bad," or off-track associations which veer far what I'm talking about, or repeated familiar phrases used as mantras of self-reassurance. Forgive the sentimentality but I feel as if I'm seeing the real you.

      Buying the first-generation gaming stuff in music stores and head shops! Totally.

      Here are the things I'd like to follow up with …

      I completely agree that the intentions and even exact actions among anyone involved in making and publishing early D&D are of no interest to this discussion. Insofar as they matter, causally, all the information is available, and anyone can go look it up and try to figure that out. None of us knew these people and nothing about why they did what we did mattered to anything we did with these new, strange, scattered pieces of what we had been told were an instrument.

      So the more "hey this is what it was like for me" is so valuable in this case – not pronouncements about the entity or about a company ("they") or the hobby or the activity, not statements of identity or loyalty. Just us in a culture which is not preserved in any pop media version, the one which was rendered invisible by the heavy impact of the mid-80s whose version of the immediate past would become, for younger people, the actual past.

      About Dragonsfoot – you're kind of my inroad, at this point. Your description is exactly as I've perceived it and briefly encountered it, but have never been involved. I should point out that things were different there before the term "OSR" settled in sometime around 2008 – the big enemy then was Third Edition, definitely not old-school … the term "threetard" was frequently used if I recall correctly. That all went away when Fourth presented a bigger target, I guess, and as I suggested in the video, because a lot of the early OSR branding/identity old-schoolness was in fact based on D20/OGL play.

      I'd be interested in your observations of people who only know OD&D, as they call it, through inference and osmosis among others who claim to know, while playing D&D/whatever of suspiciously recent vintage. It's quite an experience to be lectured on the topic by someone who was born in 1990 and has no idea why you would line the floor of a van with a nice plush rug.

      You mentioned that what you found included "the game we revered." I think that's important, and not an analogy. I may say, "I revere the second edition of RuneQuest," and mean it in colloquial terms … but I don't regard it as culturally significant (despite being probably the single strongest RPG text of the whole early hobby), and I don't expect that people should regard it as the hobby, that being in the hobby entails knowing about it or caring about whether it's published or not, or some version, or how.

      The same goes for almost any other game. Their editions were sequential, for instance. Yes, one might prefer a given edition of them, may even feel strongly about the comparative merits or flaws (for me, 5th edition Tunnels & Trolls, 3rd edition Champions, 2nd edition RuneQuest, full stop) …but there is no other case I know of when there was, in practice, no edition, but a mass of material that indicated there must be, or was blithely offered as a piece of such a thing. And it's unique – amazing actually – for that to be the case exactly as the activity itself spread through pure cultural means – not mass-marketing – such that the name of the absent thing became considered the activity itself.

      Perhaps no actual single, observable game text could have become such an entity. Perhaps it had to be ephemeral, not quite here, yet everywhere … lost long ago, coming soon, here in our hearts.

      Some day, I'd enjoy a converation to visit some of what you perceived in the past as unfair, cruel, or unjustified outlooks of mine, to see whether what I said is what you were told or thought you saw.

  1. Right on ~ I forgot about

    Right on ~ I forgot about “threetard”! ~ every once in a while you would see that posted. 

    I also found no shortage of folk born late & ignorant of why you would shag out a van who were eager to tell you all about OD&D, etc. ~ That said, I did befriend some very astute younger “scholars” who did more homework than I had. 

     The interesting thing about dragonsfoot was that you were able to look back at the past. Piece together what really happened after-the-fact. ~ It was kind of like being involved in airplane crash, but also being one of the investigators.  Maybe not an airplane, but a roller coaster. It was a hell of a ride…. but we sat there looking at the debris trying to piece it all together. For The  first time saw what had happened in the cockpit, in the engines, and in the other seats.  Identifying categorizing all of the documents and sometimes even regional differences help us to understand the phenomenon that occurred while we were along for the ride. ~ This  often get muddled by a preference virus, but many of us plowed through they came out the other side of the strong understanding of what the thing actually was.  

    At the end of the day, it was more of an idea, or maybe an ideal. But, appropriately unknowable at the same time. “God’s ways are higher than your ways ~  Who can know the mind of god?” ~ We were the blind man each with a different part of the elephant, except we weren’t blind.  And, more significantly, we couldn’t actually assemble these parts to make a recognizable animal. 

    What has become increasingly fascinating for me about the OSR & the retro clones is various people have chosen to focus on different facets of “the idea” in order to create a certain game experience. Many of these games are written with far more intent than the originals were! Many of those hot rod modifications, (including shag carpet on the floor),  seem to be an effort to “design on purpose” in order to facilitate this experience, trying to preserve the essential quality of “the revered thing”while fixing or modifying a part of it that was incompatible, incoherent, or silent. 

    • I completely agree with that

      I completely agree with that last paragraph! (I mean, I like the whole comment, but the last bit is what I can speak to)

      My position about the games tagged OSR, or that have acquired the tag since publication, is that they are game design, not merely homage. I totally get that they felt like homage by their creators, but what they felt-like isn't what I'm talking about or looking at. Jim Raggi and I talked about this regarding Lamentations, for which he described himself as a terraformer of Mentzer '85 rather than a designer, but which I regard as a distinct game of its own on the basis of intersecting mechanics that its text uniqely employs.

      O'course, that isn't a marketable statement or concept considering the prevailing idea/ideal that you mentioned, so I get why someone would resist it even on practical terms rather than conviction … and the former can easily become the latter, behind the curtains. From there, it's probably hard to see my position as praise (which it is) … that game design based on a 4% deviation from a beloved text can be regarded as brilliant and original depending on which 4% and what has been done with it.

      This stuff is near to my own heart. The best colloquial phrasing for my most notorious idea about role-playing is "playing on purpose." In the Phenomenology videos posted earlier here in Seminar, for which I tried to use all-ordinary language to discuss what role-playing is, that's the phrasing I chose. Your phrase, "designing on purpose," is (wait for it …) what my input into the RPG scene has always been all about. The reverence you're talking about – arguably Talmudic, or hadithic, or catechistic – seems to me to be a perfectly good way of jump-starting or sparking the creative process toward that end. Even we irreverent anarchists or hard-agnostics – i.e., who have little or nothing against religion – can get behind that.

      P.S. Thought you'd appreciate the Love Rug! (warning: cannot be unseen)

  2.  And sure, I would be

     And sure, I would be delighted to talk with you about perceptions of things you have said and the ways in which sometimes thinkers bump against each other. ~ It is amazing how often we can get tribal not only over game preferences, but over personalities! ~ Just peruse the comments on my video.…

  3. Late to OSR-as-a-thing

    Objectively, I know something called the OSR had begun to coalesce well before an “opposite to indie/storygame” plank became part of its platform – but that’s when I first noticed it as its own thing. I mean, I knew about Hackmaster and related-stuff, but as independent things, I’m pretty sure. The “OSR is anti-(whatever)” plank never made sense to me, on any axis, but it is how I first experienced the OSR – so maybe someone outside Greater Appalachia not encountering Fundamentalists until after the main period you talk about.

    That leaves me thinking my comments about Catholic vs. Protestant (looking for a Reformation parallel?) in Communion … are really maybe just not right in the context of Orthodoxy vs. Fundamentalist revival as discussed here. But if I were to push it, I’d try to apply it to pre-OGL and let your Fundamentalist stand after (not sure how the many of the games you cite are before-OGL vs. after-OGL – certainly many of ‘em are NOT d20, right?)

    Interestingly (to me), my local experience of 3e in this era was a LOT more as a player than GM, and what happened was GMs who’d stayed more D&D-active/savvy than me adapted Dark Sun and Planescape to 3e, producing some pretty fun play. So I guess I *do* have some exposure to 2e things, but only through a 3e filter …

    But to answer the questions at the end: no, I don’t think we need RPG Fundamentalists. But I never saw an attack on “our D&D” from any of White Wolf, 3e, 4e, the Forge, “Narrativist” games, “storygames” – none of ‘em. Culturally, I guess the Satanic Panic was an attack, but it personally impacted me not at all. In my mind, the biggest “attack” on the hobby I so enjoyed came from the RPGA – and by the mid-2000’s, that wasn’t important to me any longer.

    I guess I’m still stuck on a “this sounds right, but it isn’t/wasn’t me” groove. Maybe part 4 will provoke a different response.

    • Answering the easy part first

      Answering the easy part first: the Castles & Crusades material, 3Behemoth, and Dungeon Crawl Classics are all OGL/d20, and the latter even had a 4th edition phase (shhhh! we don’t talk about that). Nearly all the rest map to specific texts that I tried to mention – most to the Holmes-to-Cyclopedia lineage, but as time went by, dipping into all the others. I think only one taps into 2nd edition, and only one (Adventurer Conqueror King) takes a syncretic approach is arguably not fundamentalist at all.

      You are really looking for identity in this series. I guess that’s inevitable, but I also think if anything applies (beyond my pointed reply in Communion), it’ll be the Part 4 material.

      To clarify a bit about those questions at the end: I didn’t challenge RPG fundamentalism (and thought I was pretty positive about it, as play-and-design), but rather its tendency to become reactionary and genuinely vicious.

      I agree that from my (our) perspective, the perception that … well, anybody is attacking D&D is hard to understand, even when ruthlessly criticizing this or that feature or habit of play. But you and I are not in the tent, and thus cannot understand how much conflicted and trembling emotion is involved.

      I've seen how little it takes to trigger horrifying reactions about it … I think it was Zak Arntson who posted something about “D&D will never be anything but hack-and-slash” at the Forge sometime in the first year, and Peter Seckler underwent what appeared to be a genuine schizophrenic break over it, as in, his real actual life. My phrasing in Sorcerer about a “party resembling a many-legged invertebrate” seems to be well-remembered and bitterly-repeated.

    • I meant to focus on how the

      I meant to focus on how the "Fantasy Heartbreakers" position around pre/post-OGL, rather than the "true" OSR games. I suppose Hackmaster is an intersting case in that they were OGL before there was an OGL (or at least via a different route – as I understand it via the internetz their … immunity from fear of lawfare sprang from a legal settlement about the KODT comics appearing without permission on the CD collecting Dragon content).

      You're right, of course, that opposing "reactionary and genuinely vicious" aspects isn't the same as opposing everything Fundamentalist/OSR – I'd say that's so obvious I didn't need to point it out, but reality says I should have been more careful.

  4. I have not watched Ep4 and 5

    I have not watched Ep4 and 5 yet and may go back to Ep2 and comment on the Wheel of Time there, but I definitely have a few thoughts. 

    I think there are two levels at play here: the perception of D&D as the alpha and omega of role playing and the purpose of role playing at one level and D&D as a game and how it is played. In terms of your overall analogy I am going to assume that play is analogous to practice? You may have said one way or another but I missed it if so.  In my head they are connected.

    Role playing as a cultural phenomena is defined by D&D. That creation, however it was created, gives us terms or has co-opted terms over the years that help define how the rest of the world interacts with those who play. Over time, what was once a, despised might be a harsh term, minority has now become one of the foundations of modern culture. Role Playing Games in general and D&D in particular have influenced or at least have been said to have influenced, our art in a very real way. Its absense outside of the dominant Euro-descendant culture may contribute to the ongoing cultural issues we face in some fashion. It has become an important fac of life whether one identifies as a geek or not, almost as important as the color one ones skin, ones religion, and ones sexuality.  There is an impact there, perhaps lesser than I perceive, perhaps more. 

    The point being I don't think that the cultural impact and possible cultural damage can be ignored. To the point that people now claim to be practitioners of this artistic ideology who possibly never were.  And I think this causes resentment among people who actually played the games back in the day. As much as I can say "Hey, you know other games existed and we played them" I can also say "But I also played D&D in 1982. I actually played it." And even at that point I was what I consider to be a second or third wave role player. Plenty of people played before me.

    And I have resentment when some kid wants to tell me how it was or how to play the game. Tell me how you want to play, great, but don't tell me how to play the game because I DID play it. Back then. It is a strange headspace, because it goes against what I actually believe and practice. Everyone can play. Everyone should play and play whatever you want to play in whatever form. Heck I will play with you, if you ask or run, if I know the game. How long I have been a role player should not matter, but I do feel like at times, it should matter.

    So I can understand when resentments flare into reactions and arguments. I have the feelings even when I fight against them.  But Rome has adopted Christianity and there is no way I can change that.  American culture has accepted D&D and to a lesser extent RPGs as valuable or at least marketable thing. We can't go back, even if we wanted to. It makes me think that no artistic movement should ever strive to become mainstream, because of what will be lost when it happens. 

    Even so, I find the OSR an odd movement and one that wants to recpature the feeling or perceived feeling of what it was like to open up that book or box the first time and feel the freedom to create. The freedom to play. The freedom to practice and it is that feeling they are seeking to recreate. I won't say the rules were garbage, but the rules were new and untested and raw. That is what made them great. The scratchy paper. The bad bindings of the 1980s. The textures and the smells and the freedom to live a little even as it slowly became more mainstream.  No offense to FATE but opening a FATE book or pdf for the first time could not have been the same kind "wow" moment that opening a old rpg book did.  Like hearing Jesus or one of the Apostles speak for the first time versus hearing the message from a disciple of a disciple. The new people get the message; rpgs are fun, but I remember when it was a fucking mess and it was STILL fun. The fun is different now and nothing the OSR can do will bring back that moment, because society and culture have changed. The Indie movement brought some of that back, for a while, and certainly White Wofl did too.  People argue that it is about a certain style of play and perhaps, it is, but I suspect it has much more to do with zeitgeist than it does with actual mechanics. 

    My other major issue is the ignoring of the other older games. And those thinkers are for the most part still alive.  We should play more Cyberpunk, which I preferred over Shadowrun for certain reasons. You are attempting to bring back Champions, which is as much old school as any other. OR should be. The fact that the OSR often excludes anything not D&D makes me shake my head, because here we are still talking about that same ole thing again.  Even when someone wants to make a case that minds need to expand, we often have a hard time finding language that does so without invoking either orthodoxy or fundamentalism. 

    Last thing I will say, though it may end up being more relevant for another part, is that I find myself amused by "old timers" who complain about 5E:

    They are destroying story and narrative with all these rules

    They are destroying the rules with all of this talk of story and narrative

    Two diamtrically opposed ideas, yet somehow they exist within the same community. It makes me wonder if these people have ever actually played an rpg of any sort, let alone D&D.

    • Fantastic comment – thanks

      Fantastic comment – thanks for being here. What follows are some minor replies in the middle of a big general agreement. Especially the point about one’s position being weirdly contradictory, because if it were about a certain title of game, hobby, activity, then yes, “let freedom ring,” “you be you,” “play as you please” … but it’s not any such thing. Your description of it as culture is exactly right, and I even suggest that it’s more than the usual co-option into commerce, such that saying D&D is religion is not clickbait or provocation.

      In that context, play is … sort of analogous to practice. Perhaps counter-intuitively, absolutely literal play, as in, making our characters “go” and seeing what happens to them, isn’t. As I see it, the key to practice would be doing it in the right way: buying the right things, following the right information venues, saying the right things about what you saw there, using the right phrases when encountering new people (either as statements of fellowship or to “represent” when in the midst of heathen), and being at a play-venue like a weekly group, convention, or store game-day with the right people and game. Sadly, and in perfect form regarding the religious content, actually playing may occur but takes second place in terms of practice. Therefore when someone, “kid” or not, tells you or me how to play, or what it is, they aren’t actually talking about how to play.

      My fifth video addresses that in more detail, because it concerns D&D as religion, not just the fundamentalist subset. The fundamentalists provide the clearest case study, however, because of the built-in defensiveness – when confronted with the “wrong,” they cannot dismiss (like the orthodox) or patronize (like the essentialists), but rather they’re baffled and feel threatened.

      I’ve been thinking a lot about the distinction that in retrospect can be located at about 2005, when work like McKinney’s and Raggi’s plucked particular texts, in each case well-known to the author, and launched game design and re-presentation from there in full experiential knowledge of exactly what it was and how it played. These and similar authors seem to me to be what the collective OSR claims to be but mostly isn’t, as the latter is built on passion/sentimentality for one’s old play-table or on retro branding for D20 (broadly defined). They also were collected by that latter online and commercial context and were not so foolish as to reject it, but their individual faiths remain untouched by the Chautauqua spirit even as they are included as flagships for it.

      The video in the first comment, posted by Ivan, was heartening to me, as it shows someone who dove headlong into the most hardcore Dragonsfoot side of the birth of the OSR, and after a while, kind of shook his head, identified the value he’d found, and owned that without losing himself in the tent. He and I had a great follow-up conversation which you can find here in the Seminar section. If it’s OK with you, maybe we can do one as well. Or maybe regarding part 4, because I suspect that one is going to interest you.

      As for your final point, yes indeed.

  5. Of course

    I would definitely be willing to further the conversation. As mntioned I will be commenting lightly on ep2 as well on a specific point.  I have ot watched Ivan's video yet but I will also be doing that.

    Some of my impressions are definitely wrapped up in my own design ambitions, projects I am working on, and being mindful of what I am designing and why.

  6. Straight Outta Discord

    So, I was curious about this statement:

    «I defy anyone to describe the interplay between the multiple releases of OSRIC and the Quick Primer without stumbling on the first try. »

    And wanted to know what you meant by it.

    If I'm being honest, that sentence resonates with me in a specific manner, but I'm not sure if I read it correctly. Namely, the curiosity of someone putting together a 400-ish pages long anthology of Old School rules and then writing a primer that says "you know what? it is not really about the rules at all". Probably, the other "principles" can also be fact checked against OSRIC, but that one seems the most obviously questionable.

    Incidentally, I've been always suspicious about the two first principles ("rulings not rules" and "player skill not character ability") as to me they seem like a perfect recipe for a think alike competition (i.e. if the only measure of "skill" is "rulings", this seems to me it can easily devolve into only doing what the GM would do)

    • Hello, and thanks for

      Hello, and thanks for commenting. I'm really feeling the pinch of receiving informative, personal, or and thoughtful Discord messages or emails about the Finding D&D series, rather than seeing the discussion here.

      The quoted bit may be less important than it looked to you, however. I'm referring to the historical sequence of who wrote what during 2006-2008, when "OSR" became a term. I'm saying it's hard to follow and I'll clarify here that the internet tracks and references are rather cloudy; Wikipedia, for example, is surprisingly unhelpful.

      I've been thinking about other things for a while, and my notes made sense to me back then but look disorganized to me now, so I'm worried I might get the details wrong. 

      Prior to 2006, nothing was called OSR that I know about. Relevant online activity includes Dragonsfoot Forum and later, Knights & Knaves Alehouse (not sure quite when this began). Jim Raggi was publishing the early stages of Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Relevant publications before this point include Dungeon Crawl Classics (adventures only, using D20/D&D 3/3.5), Castles & Crusades (also D20), and the Masters & Minions series (also D20) – all of these re-introduced the form factor based on B/X and AD&D.

      Now for the part I'm referring to in that quote:

      • OSRIC (Old School Reference Index) in 2006, based on first edition AD&D. I can't find my copy of this but it was really short. I think the author is Stuart Marshall (according to my notes).
      • The second edition of OSRIC was published in 2008, 412 pages, listing Marshall as Final Author and Editor in Chief, but Matthew Finch as Initial Author.
      • Also in 2008: the Quick Primer for Old School Gaming and the game Swords & Wizardry (based on 1974-1978 D&D), both by Finch, 

      I remember getting clear answers from somewhere about the OSRIC authorship five years ago, so I'm pretty sure Marshall wrote the original OSRIC and Finch mainly wrote the second one … but am not totally sure at this moment anyway.

      So, your commentary is much more interesting than what I was writing about at that point, which was to acknowledge that I'd found it hard to trace the authorship.

    • From my OSRIC copy:

      From my OSRIC copy:

      OSRIC: Old School Reference and Index Compilation

      Text © Stuart Marshall 2006-08 or contributing author 2006-08 and used with permission—see the Open Game License, Section 15

      Illustrations and maps © respective artists 2006-08, used with permission
      “OSRIC”, “Osric” and “O.S.R.I.C.” are trademarks of Matthew Finch and Stuart Marshall

      Final Author and Editor in Chief: Stuart Marshall

      Initial Author: Matthew Finch

      Venturing a guess as an armchair psychoanalist, it may be that OSRIC did not pan out as whatever Finch thought he was unearthing, so eventually he focused on Swords and Wizardry and then on the Primer.

      I've been interested in this lately as I first thought I had finally found the key to the OSR in this series of articles:

      Which to me where sort of an "a ha" moment, as this historical look reconciled what I thought were inconsistencies (like this insistence that early D&D was all about those light rules), and painted a picture which sat better with my own recollections of AD&D from the mid 90s.

      However, I later found some resistance when discussing these topics on reddit, from people who feel those articles are representative of a trend of historical revisionism and erasure of what they see as the OSR in earnest, which would have begun after the original OSRIC/Retroclone push. I would identify them as the Unitarian/Universalist strand, as per your video, i.e., people who find trying to make sense of the rules a little bit pedestrian.

      Still, all in all, I do believe there may be an underlying it that the OSR coalesces around, which isn't the it of D&D, but of all the threads of what the original D&D could do, the one that was more deemphasized by its successive iterations, and this would be the focus on exploration, dungeoneering, location based play, etc. However, I have not really been able to confirm this with actual play. Also, the aforementioned branch of the OSR is quite insistent that what allows that mode of play is just having light rules, which I don't really buy (or OSRisus would definitely be a thing).

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