A Conversation with Ron Edwards

Monday , 19, January 2015 8 Comments

Jeffro: I have spent a great deal of time the past six months investigating the Appendix N list to find out how to (among other things) use it to rejuvenate classic D&D by going back to its original sources. But in your case… when these games were relatively new, it was your familiarity with the literature that proved to be a barrier for you getting into the game! Could you please explain more about why that was the case? I mean, it wasn’t the term “fighting man” that would have thrown you for a loop. You probably knew who Phandaal was. And so on. And I know we can hash out why the rules might point you away from a swords and sorcery feel. But it sounds to me that your problem was less with the rules per se and more with the kind of culture that sprung up around the game: the things that regular people wanted to do with the early editions of D&D was just completely unlike the stories that supposedly went in to inspiring the game. Do I have that right?

Ron Edwards: In my experience of it, anyone who played D&D, or more accurately, played whatever they or we cobbled up at a table in the face of several contradictory documents, was tied into fantasy and science fiction. I don’t say “fandom” because although it was a distinctive culture, it was an underground culture, not a commercial one, as I wrote about in Naked Went the Gamer.

I played D&D with many different people for about four years, starting some time in 1978; I turned fourteen that year so you can get the right visual and wipe a nostalgic tear away. If they were adults organizing something for kids, then the main thing was to keep us focused on anything resembling play, to keep the more whacked kids from pulling knives or having full-on tantrums (I am not exaggerating), and to deal with the few of us who liked our characters trying to cope with being so ineffective in play. If they were in the military culture, then they had reams of wild homebrew rules and played mostly in-jokes, like having lower levels be IRS offices and turning characters into Elric because it was cool for a minute. If they were all kids like me, then it was mostly about the insiders killing things with apparent immunity to the rules and everyone else dying like flies in atrocious ways; this kind of play was notable for about four minutes of fictional time being played in six hours of real time. Here and there, people who liked fantasy in a creative way were quietly re-organizing – many of them found RuneQuest or Tekumel, many of them wrote their own stuff, and many of them sort of went on gaming sabbatical.

Going by my experience five years later in college, my generation was stuffed with people who loved the idea of role-playing and had had enough good experience with it that they wanted to do it some more, but who like me had not seen enough meat in the materials and considered D&D to be essentially failed. I can’t possibly explain it to you that the D&D literature list and mythological references were not authoritative – it was clear that the author was into the same stuff I was, but had no particularly better nor more insightful take on it than I did or anyone else I knew – in fact, arguably it generated a homogenizing effect, such that Fafhrd and Elric were somehow supposed to be similar, when we damn well knew they weren’t. The prevailing notion was that D&D sources simply weren’t very good at fantasy. A “fighter” was a pretty lame thing if you read The Savage Sword of Conan. A “magic-user” was pathetic if you read The Wizard of Earthsea.

We were a very direct-experience generation. There were no media outlets for unifying and explaining and introducing and contextualizing it for you – if you didn’t know who Fafhrd was through direct experience, you didn’t know at all. We were all veterans of Star Trek, Planet of the Apes, the distinctive drugged vibe of late 70s Marvel Comics, the V miniseries, the Six Million Dollar Man, Dangerous Visions, the Amber series, and tons of novels and short stories. Geekdom as a clique hadn’t really gelled at this point, so it was more like a person’s quirky take on this stuff – if they knew it well – which mattered.

This sabbatical category was, as far as I know, the “regular” people, best described as weird bright kids who were watching the 70s die before their eyes. I’d lay claim to “regular” for us with more confidence than I’d assign it to anyone else. Such a person had not found a solid group with enough basic creative similarity to satisfy them – and it wasn’t worth trying if you were busy trying to get your life together as a mid-teen. Which was, incidentally, perhaps more difficult for this generation than anyone grasps … even the name later invented for us was stolen … Anyway, in college I found literally hundreds of people who either had played and really wanted to get it together this time, or who had come close enough that they really wanted to try. But they wanted to do it without fanfare and arguments and pains in the ass.

Now, I should clarify that this group did include a lot of people who said they played D&D, but in practice they played something extremely idiosyncratic they’d literally made up but kept the “stamp” on, and so they weren’t really all that different from other people like me, the ones who would say, “Yes, I want to role-play, but I’m burned out on D&D,” referring to both the content – meaning not fantasy enough – and to the frustrating social scenes of play, which, going by the testimony of all these people, seemed very similar among us. I should also clarify that the overlap was pretty strong because among the latter, every one of us did love some snippet or piece or section of D&D, so we’re not talking about “haters,” but rather a general disinclination to role-play with it.

(What in the world did you mean by “regular?”)

Jeffro: Well, when I say regular… I mean the kind of kids depicted in E.T. They wouldn’t consider themselves hobbyists like, say, model rail-roaders. They weren’t necessarily geeks or nerds. They wouldn’t consider “geek” to be some kind of badge of honor, either. D&D was just this thing that was cool and they wanted to get in on it. The really regular kids would have thought it was cool in the same way as Black Sabbath records were cool. They were into it and would stay up all night playing. And they’d gravitate toward any number of things that would likely enrage anyone that’s a connoisseur of this sort of thing now. Sort of like how the text adventure scene of today will rail against the old Infocom games where you had to die in order to get essential clues. Or you could inadvertently put the game into an unwinnable state and not know it. That stuff is a big faux-pas that will result in instant rejection and critical outrage and games are generally engineered from the ground up to prevent that stuff from even being thinkable– to the point where character death is mostly just eliminated, even. But people playing that stuff back in the day… the “regular people” that didn’t know anything else… they just played and played and played and didn’t care. Even though it’s in some sense objectively wrong now. Or “bad wrong fun.”

Ron Edwards: There’s a lot to unpack in there. I think you may be mixing a lot of stuff together into a thing. One component is subcultural identity. You might already know that “nerd” meant a study grind, especially someone who didn’t meticulously tend to appearance – and that this meticulous tending was a very new thing in the late 70s, expensive and not accessible to many kids. It had nothing to do with hobbies or fandom one way or the other, and plenty of nerds were partiers, or to use the term of the time, they “partied,” meaning they smoked pot, did a pill or two, and possibly dropped acid. Whereas “geek” was a pure derogatory epithet, still close to its carny meaning of the lowest, most debased freak biting the heads off chickens, meaning someone who was deemed a failure at even the basics of getting along, and who was often targeted. A lot of kids tagged early as geeks found a way to carve out a personal niche: finding a style (punk was huge for this in the U.S.; an older style was being the girly-boy, which was surprisingly effective), learning to fight (ditto karate or the then rather brutal Taekwon-Do), or getting very good at one thing and gaining a protective group even if they were the weird band member or weird jock.

And then there’s the whole idea of being into fantasy and science fiction, for which the primary reference was “Trekkie,” although I should stress that many older science fiction readers were not into Star Trek. I do stress that being into science fiction and fantasy in a really knowledgeable way, for instance reading those Ballantine editions you just posted about, was not in any way associated with nerd-dom or geek-dom. Being into that was more associated with finding yourself, with some degree of alienation, with the counter-culture, with various degrees of nature-ism or questioning modernism (in its plastic/boring sense), with political disaffection, with mind-expansion, and with being kind of a pain in the ass. Tons of really tough and messed-up kids I knew were heavily into science fiction, fantasy, and horror.

You’re right that neither of the terms was a unifying sense of identity, and again, I submit that this identity was born in commercial spending in the 1980s, “we’re the people who buy this stuff,” as well perhaps in the new culture of school bullying which as I understand it underwent a quantum leap after I was out of range, or during my time but not so much at my school. I got enough of it to know it was happening. There’s a story there – political, based on Prop 13 in California, directly relevant to my life but too distracting to get into here unless you want to.

I’ve read over the first part of your reply many times to see if I can get at what’s itching me about it. I think that you might be looking more at a generational rather than a subcultural distinction. The “regular” you’re talking about wasn’t a real thing (yet?) because today’s notion of the “hobbyist geek gamer nerd” wasn’t a real thing (yet?). Wait! I think I see it. I’m challenging the idea that during the 70s, a lot of people learned about fantasy and science fiction through role-playing. I’m saying they were into it enough already – and that this had nothing to do with fandom/subculture as construed today – to be interested in the first place. The flip to people learning about science fiction and fantasy through gaming itself, or more specifically, through purchasing game texts, was an age thing – I associate it with the early-mid 80s, and I suggest that this is a whole different topic, probably post-dating the kids in E.T. or maybe that’s the start of it. It’s even a bit of a historical membrane, stopping inquiry in its tracks as people can’t wrap their minds around a world in which fantasy/SF wasn’t associated with a distinct hobby, high school subculture, or customer subculture.

You’ve read the pink slime fantasy dialogue at the Adept forum, so you might see it in those posts, where the guy I’m talking to – amazingly to my eyes – realizes or states how alien the “van-painters” are to him. His understanding of subculture, fantasy, science fiction, comics, and music is solidly 1989, such that his historical inquiry seeks the atoms of the larger anatomy of 1989, thinking they will be smaller/causal bits that look just like it (technical atomism), that were the same, only smaller and perhaps purer in some way. It’s really hard for him to conceive of reading Tolkien without being into role-playing or without being in a specific social category. He equates encountering Tolkien as a book with experiencing role-playing and then moving into other fantasy from those as a unit. Look as well at how baffled I am at his term “vanilla fantasy” which seems to me to be made of incredibly different parts that only unfamiliarity could begin to call one thing.

I think I see something else in your presentation too: the idea that we 70s-ers were all good at role-playing until the naïve not-fantasy-enough people came along and messed it up. I’m not really saying that either. There may be a bit of Golden Age myth-making in that. The relatively incompetent or plain disturbing elements of the experience were there from the start, right in there with the bright weirdos that I’m talking about. Nor am I talking about some way to play that any purist then or now simply happened not to like. I have no idea what you mean by “badwrongfun” when applied to kids pulling knives at the table (did I mention that almost all kids my age carried a knife, always?) or having full-scale screaming hysterics, or to DMs killing off all the male players’ characters so they could play with just the women at the table, or to arguments that lasted upwards of five hours, or to play that consisted of elaborately describing torturing prisoners. There’s this other myth that all ways to play are good, it’s all good, all good, man. It’s not, and it wasn’t.

Jeffro: Oh no, I would not say that the “naïve not-fantasy-enough” people messed it up. But on the other hand, yes… random people that are placed in a wide open role-playing scenario are liable to get kind of freaky in a way that kind of ruins everyone else’s fun. But that’s kind of a separate problem from the game rules and the literature. Role-playing games present a sort of “climb the ten-foot-wall” obstacle to game groups, and not every group can get it together.

But you do allude to something else that I wanted to ask you about there. Speaking as a child of the eighties, I have always looked back at the illustrations in The Fantasy Trip line and thought, “what was wrong with Metagaming that they presented everything like that?!” It ain’t Larry Elmore, that’s for sure. After seeing Bakshi and Frazetta’s Fire and Ice, I finally see that they were completely consistent with their times: mostly naked people killing each other with a single hit. Dinosaur-things instead of over-the-top dragons. Sorcery being more evil and scary and a lot less like Infocom’s silly (but brilliant) schtick in their Enchanter series. All of that got wiped out with the Shanarra, Illearth, and Dragonlance.

Now, I know that you were into Melee and Wizard. And I know you played a lot of Champions during the eighties. I guess… what I want to know is, do you remember anyone really getting”real” swords and sorcery back then, either as designers or as game groups? You’ve said elsewhere that, you “owned D&D for a little while and had not enjoyed my forays into its play. The problem was that [you] already had delved deeply into fantasy literature and mythology before I’d ever heard of the hobby.” But everyone in the late seventies and very early eighties would have been much more in tune with swords and sorcery– at least in comparison mid-eighties kids like me. Wouldn’t that have been an asset to gaming in general? Or was D&D’s “homogenizing effect” as you put it overwhelming even then…?

Ron Edwards: In the big picture, I’d love to know the answer to that question. Speaking only of my life, and turning to my senior year in high school (1982-83) and first year in college (1983-84), I can say that I knew (as I said) literally hundreds of people, of all ages but mainly speaking of my age group, who were in tune with sword-and-sorcery and this phantasmagoric fantasy that I’m always on about and designing games toward. Similarly, I don’t have any problem with conceiving nearly all the game designers at the time “getting” it, far from it, I think they lived and breathed it.

So apparently the problem or at least, the task at hand, was how to get it into action as text/instruction and at the table as a social thing. A lot of factors worked against that, regardless of how much success might happen at individual tables or in certain texts. In the 70s proper, I’d point to the tournament scene as fostering a different view toward the table, and I don’t necessarily mean only the hard-core competitiveness (which I have no real beef with), but the enforced sameness across the tables, the push toward table-objectivity, the murky idea of the DM as the ref as well as the over-controller, and the idea of the player as unbridled Id. Playing this way can downplay the bad-ass or exciting color of the content, in a way which I’ve observed for a certain amount of wargaming, in which the cover painting is the most amazing thing ever but inside it’s the same old chits and hexes and strategies. It also tends to decrease player agency except when playing exactly on-task, as defined by the parameters of the scenario. Keeping that color, intrinsic content, and agency alive in a Step On Up game is easiest when it’s comedic (the way Tunnels & Trolls tends to go in practice; or Paranoia, for an example that goes all the way to self-parody), but harder when it’s edgy and underground and hallucinatory. It’s a source of stress and defensiveness for a lot of role-players, who really want that combination but resist any criticism which suggests it’s not there in something they want it to be in (my “bitterest gamer in the world” from the 2002 Step On Up essay).

[Potentially distracting side-points:  I’ve noticed that a lot of purportedly old-school games today lose their competitive edge fast especially when people start providing supplements, becoming a lot more like 80s Call of Cthulhu adventures or 1990s Shadowrun packaged scenarios. I’ve also noticed that modern purported old-school ideology disdains D&D 4E which was a full callback to that tourney D&D, itself practically synonymous with the word “D&D” around 1980, and therefore 4E was more old-school than most of what’s called old-school today.]

But ultimately that’s merely a sector and subset of the hobby activity with a reasonably honest and honorable history of its own, and can’t be blamed for anything, although I remember that people did. The 80s factors that worked against the task at hand (fostering genuinely good game texts and solid play away from your own table) were external and much more powerful, hitting the whole hobby rather than a sector. One is the whole BADD crisis which did a lot to divorce role-playing from the general assimilation and commercial upgrade of science fiction and fantasy, which had its good side and its bad side, mostly bad because as I wrote about in Naked Went the Gamer, the hobby went into appeasement mode instead of embracing its underground roots. Another is something I’ve written about a lot, the emerging three-tier distribution system and the resulting issues; you’ve probably run across it in my interviews and essays. Yet another is the pink slime problem, which as I wrote about in that thread, probably originated in the changes in book publishing and film crossover, and engulfed poor little role-playing almost as an afterthought, basically assimilating it after all but without much recognition or inclusion with anything else. I’d point to these as the source of the next generation encountering all of it in a completely different way, and I suggest that this cultural cut-off is remarkably abrupt.

On the other hand, you can see the older sensibility shining through as best it could. No one stopped Ken St. Andre from being his own infuriating-wonderful self; instead, a sort of industry distributor-retailer silence descended over Tunnels & Trolls until the internet revealed in the late 1990s that people were not only still playing it, they were playing it like gangbusters; same goes for the 1983 Marvel Super Heroes, and others. Small publications appeared with great content, usually dying fast due to the distribution chokepoint or staying in due to force of personality like Prince Valiant or to a specific fanbase like Amber. Over the Edge was one of these. And the poor damned fantasy heartbreakers, too, which I keep trying to explain didn’t screw up, but got screwed over, especially really good ones like Legendary Lives. Almost all of this stuff was written by people in my age group (like Jeff Dee, Jonathan Tweet, Mike Pondsmith) or older (Greg Stafford).

Jeffro: That ties in directly to the other thing I wanted to ask you about. I know in my game reviews the past couple of months I keep having to point out that there really hasn’t been a better time to be a tabletop gamer. So many longstanding game design issues are getting addressed in astonishing ways. You said in an interview almost ten years ago that that the golden age of role-playing is now because it is recapitulating the first golden age in the mid to late seventies. So… are we still in the golden age that you observed in 2006? What trends can conceivably threaten it…?

Ron Edwards: Yes, we are still in a great and wonderful time for role-playing, especially compared with the 1988-2002 spread which should be recognized as a dismal, suppressive, and supply-blinded time (with a few rebels). Swing a dead mammal and you’ll hit a dozen games featuring a wide variety of topics and methods, across a whole range of formats and prices, and that’s great for anyone who likes this hobby activity.

However, several things have degenerated or been generated in the last decade which are really bad. They kind of go together. 1. Distribution chokepoint – I didn’t like consolidated sales sites for RPGs then and I still don’t; the farthest I ever wanted to see that go was at least six separate ones with lots of title crossover, in combination with individual points of purchase scattered all over the place for every game. 2. Sunk cost in publishing is back again – the idea that you print first, then cross your fingers. Kickstarter has turned into a preorder catalogue which often drags people right into the red, which is completely unnecessary in an age of POD. 3. Vapor – the best thing about 2004 was that you had a game in some form of playability and completion, or you didn’t, none of this “bestest ever in a moment or two” publication and pay. 4. Social media isolation – forums worked, social media doesn’t, not if what you care about is accountability and parameters; it’s not surprising that defamation and outright lies are the bread and butter of social media efforts in wildly criss-crossing directions, as well as who’s in whose ins and whose outs. 5. New mythology has arisen about role-playing, what it is, what happened back then, who did it, who does it, and what happens now, none of which seems especially grounded in reality – tied as well to unforgivably vague terminology, including “story game,” “old school,” “sandbox,” and more. 6. Identity politics based on sunk cost, taken up to the nines – contrast with the Forge booth, GenCon 2002-2012, where, if you had a creator-owned game and wanted to promote it there, you could – no content requirement, no vetting, no hassles, no rating. No one does that now.

Jeffro: Thank you for taking the time to fill me in on all this. As someone that only knows about the seventies through a few old games that look like the product of an entirely different civilization, it has been very enlightening.

Ron Edwards: Thank you! I greatly appreciate your interest.

Ron Edwards is the designer of the groundbreaking game Sorcerer. He co-founded The Forge and created the independent publishing company Adept Press. He is active in role-playing game discussions on Google+ can generally be reached there.

  • Daniel says:

    I’ve been thinking about this interview for several days now. I keep thinking about Dave Trampier and why he left the game in his prime. This is the first backstory that seems to remember that those who played did not think in terms of gaming culture, and – frankly, could not possibly have.

    • Jeffro says:

      Note that the greatest of all D&D artists left the hobby altogether the moment he found out that he had inadvertently given up all rights to his longrunning comic in Dragon Magazine. When he was told that he was not going to be able to publish a compilation of his work, he walked out the door and spent the rest of his life driving a cab. He wouldn’t even cash the royalty checks that TSR would send him.

      See here for more information on the man.

  • Daniel says:

    Starting with Moldvay, one legend has died every year in March. I can’t remember them all but it is something like:

    Moldvay – 2007
    Gygax – 2008
    Arneson – 2009
    Holmes – 2010
    Roslof -2011
    Barker – 2012
    Tramp – 2014

    Vance missed the deadline in 2013 by two months, and I think Arneson may actually have gone in early April. Other than that…it is a fairly tidy affair. I suspect a conspiracy…

  • Don says:

    I really like this interview. Lots of memories but new information as well. Van art as a means of understanding the culture including D&D is something I would have never considered, even though I am a huge fan of van art and my wife wanted to be a van artist.

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