Sunday, March 9, 2008

Lineage and Tradition

I've been thinking about what the death of Gary Gygax means for role-playing as a hobby. If you accept that role-playing isn't just about games, like Sorry or Scrabble, but a sub-culture, you can start asking some larger questions. For example, when a sub-culture is new, its founders alive, its media available, it's about right now, products rather than texts, writers rather than founders, without a lineage going back to the past, no tradition, it's just there, defined by those who profit by it and buy product. We have a game industry rather than a gaming tradition. The general public may not appreciate it. People in very similar sub-cultures may even denigrate it. Society at large may even denounce it or scorn it. There's certainly a sense of self deprecation and occasionally self-loathing from players themselves who haven't put their head around what it means to do what they do. When that same sub-culture has a history, a lineage, a tradition beyond the here-and-now, it has a certain level of respect. That respect is both self respect for those within it and the respect of the culture at large.

Rock and Roll is a sub culture. Up until the 1970's, it was still considered fairly new, a potential flash in the pan, and very dangerous. It was about the music industry and the fans who bought records. The parents who criticized Elvis for wiggling his hips were still anxious parents with children, albeit adult ones by then. When Elvis died there was examination of the sub-culture, self examination from within and examination from outside by the general public, the press, and academia, many of whom were fans of Rock and Roll and wanted a closer look. Rock and Roll evolved from just a profitable part of the music industry to a well understood, albeit controversial, sub-culture. Rock and Roll gained the respect given to things worthy of examination.

Rock and roll now has a lineage and tradition. It is taught in colleges as literature. In one rock and roll class I took in the late 80's, we studied something a little frightening and controversial, rap music. There was a lot of controversy about including Rap in the lineage of Rock and Roll, like a bunch of grognard wargamers scoffing at role players. Nevertheless, it was debated and eventually accepted as the latest addition in a lineage that goes back to jazz and the blues, much like D&D, it's armor class system derived from miniature naval combat rules. Nobody in that class disagreed with the premise that rock and roll was an important part of our culture, although our parents were probably not sure if we were being truly educated. Nowadays, nobody hides their music collection and most parents don't rail against rock and roll, provided the performers don't push on societal values too hard (it is their job, after all). But I think it was the death of Elvis that cemented rock and roll into our culture.

I'm not saying Gary Gygax is at the same level of cultural importance as Elvis, but he is the Elvis of role-playing. There are other names in the lineage, and he shares the D&D founder distinction with Dave Arneson, but he is the first and most iconic. His death cements that. I also wouldn't make this comparison if it was 1990 and role playing was D&D and a few other iconic classic games. Looking at role playing games now, we have a growing sub-culture, not just a mature market. We can talk in terms of culture and not just markets. D&D dominates for sure, probably accounting for at least half of role-playing sales, but does that mean it accounts for half the games being played? I doubt that. I think it's probably far less than that due to its tendency to grind out volumes that fans of that game consume in large quantities (that's how you know you're a D&D fan).

There are trends within the industry, within this sub-culture, that represent a shift beyond just business. The garage bands of role-playing, for example, the indie press crowd, is more a movement than a business. It's the "rap" of the role-playing world and it works outside of the system for the most part. It gets little respect accordingly and is scorned by all but the fans and serious critics. The same could be said about the PDF movement, which no longer requires that a game product be appealing to mass audiences to be successful. As long as these small clearing houses can pay for the electricity of the server they sit on and it's Internet connection, there aren't a lot of expenses associated with selling them.This has transformed what people play probably more than anything. Games will never die now, they'll just go to PDF. Games have a long tail, surviving well beyond their print runs. Combined with online role-playing, tabletop gaming played in online venues, you can play nearly anything ever printed. Want to run that hard to find Tomb of Horrors adventure? A print copy is $35 on eBay but a PDF is $4.95 on RPGNow.

So you're probably rolling your eyes at all this, but think about how we will feel about role-playing games in another 30 years. The founders will be gone for the most part, some forgotten some enshrined in our minds. We'll have their legacy in rare print products and electronic archives, along with mentions in the footnotes of future game editions. We will have grandparents who have played these games when they were new and full of wonder, the equivalent of when Elvis first shaked his hips on the Ed Sullivan show. They may have sons who played the game right now, where computers and technology begin to play a role. The grandsons of these early adopters may also be playing. The game they play may not be Dungeons & Dragons. It may not even resemble our role-playing games. Hopefully they'll involve good memories of getting together with friends, opening up and playing pretend (in a manly way), eating unhealthy foods, working as a team, fighting the bad guys and taking their stuff.


  1. Aren't these PDF modules illegal? The copyright should still be in effect. Not to mention how can you play the adventure without the full-color cover acting as the "DM screen" to protect your notes?

  2. They've all been licensed out, so it's legit, unlike some other "compatible" stuff that people are selling.

  3. Yep, the IP from companies that people think of as out of business is still held by somebody, and most of those somebodies have at least licensed it out for electronic publication. For example, GDW has been defunct for years now, but Marc Miller still holds most of the rights to their products. He's licensed those rights so that you can get most of GDW's RPG catalog online now.

    The same goes for most of the other old companies.

    There are some exceptions, but mainly as a result of licensed properties where the permission of all those involved can't be obtained.