Monday, January 26, 2009

Sorcerer's Scroll: March 1980

Flipping through old digital Dragon magazines, I find an article by EGG which jumps out at me, considering how I've been ruminating lately about exactly how I got into the hobby. This is Dragon #35, March 1980. Basically it's a corporate planning presentation, which touches on all the explosion of products that TSR would be working on in the 1980-1981 era and beyond.

For starters, it's interesting because right in the first paragraph EGG comes out and lays down the sales figure for the last 5 years of the company. Nowadays this kind of information from the publishers of D&D may as well be sealed in a cold, inacessible tomb on Neptune:
The course of TSR Hobbies’ development has been rather like a D&D campaign. When we finished our first fiscal year back in 1975, we were pretty much a low-level-character sort of company, with gross sales of only about $50,000. We had excellent experience the next year, with a $300,000 figure, and in 1977 we doubled that to $600,000. TSR didn’t quite double again in fiscal 1978, ending the year at a gross of near $1,000,000, but in ’79 we did a bit better, finishing at a gross of well over $2,000,000.

From the way 1980 is shaping up, there is no reason to doubt that we’ll at least double in size once again. It is possible that we’ll be the largest hobby game company—and ready to start toward the really high-level game producers such as Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers—by 1982. (To those who doubt, think about the relative size ofTSR and Avalon Hill, for example, in 1975 . . . .)

It's kind of fascinating to think, in retrospect, about what became of TSR and those other "really high-level game producers" mentioned above. But more importantly for my purposes, EGG then goes and discusses the delayed AD&D line, and the thought process surrounding the Holmes Basic D&D edition. (My first edition of the game. Warning, this quote is a bit long.)

Most of the personnel at TSR took part in design and developmentin years past. As we realized that “Original” D&D (the first three booklets and the supplements) wasn’t anywhere near adequate for the needs of the readership it was attracting, it was decided that a simplified,clarified, introductory piece was needed. Shortly after this was decided, as if by divine inspiration, J. Eric Holmes got in touch with us and actually volunteered his services for just such an undertaking. All of you know the result, of course.

All of you also know why something had to be done. The “Original” work had been aimed at a small audience, one (wrongly) assumed to be highly conversant with military miniatures and basically non-critical. The booklets were hastily put together in late-night and spare-time hours, by and large, with little or no editing. Each supplement further-more reflected development and evolution of the game, so there was contradiction, duplication, and vast areas of ambiguity and non-direction.

I saw this as a second problem, one well known to you also. D&D was too flexible and unlimited, in my opinion. The game was actually unrecognizable as played from group to group in the same locale, let alone different regions of the country! As plans of reorganizing and rewriting D&D were developed, I began my own work on Advanced D&D, and this kept me busy for some three years, more or less. By the time the final manuscript from Eric was in our hands, the rough of the Monster Manual was also finished, rough outlines of Players Handbook and Dungeon Masters Guide were typed up, and several portions ofboth works were likewise in manuscript form. We had two choices to consider with the new Basic Set: As it took players only through three experience levels, they could thereafter be directed to the “original”works, or we could refer them to AD&D. This put us on the horns of a real dilemma. Sending them into the morass of “Original” D&D put us back on square one, with all the attendant problems of rules questions, misinterpretations, and wildly divergent play. Yet there was no time to undertake a revision of the remainder of the “Original” works immediately—that was a project to take place sometime in the distant, dimly perceived future, when TSR could actually afford the luxury of a staff of designers!

On the other hand, Advanced D&D, even then obviously a different game system, could be offered as a stop-gap measure. Its classes, races, characters, monsters, magic, spells, and so forth were similar to, but certainly not the same as, those of D&D. Was it better to send enthusiasts into the welter of the “Original” material and let them founder around there? Or would it be better to direct them to AD&D, even if it meant throwing out what they had begun with the Basic Set and making them start a fresh? Faced with a choice between chaos and a clean slate, we opted for the latter. (Although there are occasional letters from irate D&Ders who refuse to move into the new system, that is far preferable to what would have happened had we directed readers to the “Original” volumes!) After we selected what was actually the lesser of two evils, things went into high gear.

Pieces and parts of the various components of AD&D were grafted into the Basic Set rules manuscript so that D&D would be more compatible with the Advanced game. Readers were directed to AD&D throughout the Basic Set, with muttered prayers accompanying these directions, I am sure, as our production people had no idea then just how well it would all work out in the end, because much of the AD&D system was still on rough notes or in my head at the time. It turned out to be relatively acceptable as an interim measure, too.

I think that now, almost 30 years later, there's a lot there that I can be critical of.

First of all, there's the classic claim by EGG that AD&D was motivated by a desire to standardize D&D and make it consistent game between all the playgroups that utilized it. I'm not sure that EGG was actually the man for that task alone. When I look at AD&D it seems like it has "more" stuff, but it's rather a stretch to say that it's been streamlined and clarified from OD&D. The complicated ability bonuses from Greyhawk I don't like anymore. Changing hit dice and monster damage wasn't thought out in a systematic way. Ultimately EGG struggled with this over his career -- his attempt at clarifications really just being piling up and more more stuff through AD&D and Dangerous Journeys -- and wound up back playing OD&D at the end.

Secondly, on the same point, I think we can look skeptically at the motivating point that "D&D was too flexible and unlimited... The game was actually unrecognizable as played from group to group...". We can now see that this wasn't a problem with the D&D game system per se; that's the result of a natural cycle of a hobby game that permits supplemental rules and add-ons to be published. Some will pick them up and some won't. At the end of the cycle a thousand permutations will exist and few games will look like any others. So it doesn't matter how "Advanced" you make the rule system, or how many cases you try to cover; after some number of years of pushing supplements, the games will be out-of-sync. Radically bulking up the core content is not going to permanently fix that.

Obviously, from the perspective of most modern big game publishers, this is a virtue, not a vice. But we can likewise be skeptical about whether it's been good for the health of the game itself long-term.

Finally, we can address the attested soul-searching about whether players of the Holmes Basic D&D should have been thereafter directed back to OD&D or forwards to AD&D. Here Gygax in 1980 concludes, "After we selected what was actually the lesser of two evils, things went into high gear... with muttered prayers accompanying these directions... It turned out to be relatively acceptable as an interim measure".

In the past month or so, I've decided explicitly the opposite. (And this is what stunned me running into this particular article tonight by chance.) You can see in my post from a few nights ago that I really feel a loss that no one could, in 1980, recommend looking at OD&D to me; because in general that was what I was looking for via AD&D and its successors all these years. To know that we were intentionally being directed to an incompatible gaming system, with a radically different philosophy, is a somewhat tart mouthful to swallow at this time. In fact, I think maybe a HUGE mistake was made back then, when D&D was standing at the crossroads of 1980.

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