20 December 2011
A Response to "Kiddie D&D"
This is a lengthy reply to two posts James wrote at Grognardia last week.
The first is a review/reflection on an old Dragon Magazine article, written by Frank Mentzer, that introduces the (then) new Red Box Basic set. James sees this as a large shift in D&D, a shift mainly from a hobby into which one is initiated by "experts" to one which one can join and learn on one's own through reading the Basic books.
I think James is right here. As I've argued before, in my Mentzer reflections, the Basic set is an explicit teaching tool, designed to gradually bring a solo player into the game. As James notes, this makes sense from a business perspective; TSR wanted as many people to buy the game as possible. It also makes sense from an "expanding the hobby" perspective. If you have a fun thing, you want to share it with as many people as possible. You want to make it easy for people to "get", in both senses of the word. You want to make it easy for people to put their hands on it. And you want to make it easy for people to understand what it's about.
Of course, doing so carries with it consequences. In earlier iterations of the game, you had to be brought into the tribe by an existing member. One needed to be taught the game by another person, since the game didn't do a good job of teaching itself. This created immediate personal contact within the tribe; you knew people. Thus, a sense of community was created, as one depended on others to learn the game. This also created more room for customization. Because everyone learned the game from somone else, rather than directly from the same book, there was inevitable differences between games in the form of house rules, rules interpretations, and styles of play. These differences certainly did not dissappear with Mentzer Basic, but one could see how they could become muted, as individuals learned the game not from a variety of ideosyncratic misfits, but from a nice red book with Elmore and Easley art.
James is clear he doesn't necesarily think the shift was some horrible development, but is clear that there was a change and it had consequences. As someone from rural South Carolina who began playing with Mentzer, I have different touchstones for the hobby. There was no tribe for me to join; there was only a red box. I learned the game from the box, then created my group from my assortment of 11 year old friends. It worked for me, since there was no one around to teach me how to play.
The other thing that James discusses in the Mentzer post and a subsequent photo is the how the game skewed younger after Mentzer. Again, he's correct. The age range on the boxes changed. There were the toys and the cartoon. The expansion of the hobby to a younger age set is something that James' younger gaming self found deplorable; D&D was becoming a "kiddie game" which is something no self respecting teenageer/early adult wants to be assoicated with.
But look at the comments to James' post about the D&D figures. Most of them say "cool" or some other form of positive feedback. I had the same reaction -- those look cool! I think this points to something I've been struggling with for some time -- the blurring of the line between childhood (and it's associated accpetable activities) and adulthood.
I think that the current list of what's acceptable for a kid to do and an adult NOT to do has shrunk considerably here in the 21st Century. The reasons for this are undoubtedly complex, but I'd pin in mostly on constant media saturation and the ascendency of "geek culture" in that media. It's not just geek stuff, however; I have friends that play in a kickball league.
There are certainly postives to this blurring of acceptable activities. Playing D&D as an adult and being upfront about it is one of those positives. And, while I am upfront about my hobby with most of the people I work and hang out with, there is still a difference in reaction depending on age. People my age, even those who are not gamers, don't particularly care. People older raise eyebrows. The lines between adult and kid are bolder for people who are older than I am by a generation or so.
Generational differences aside, I am generally for people doing whatever they are enthusiastic about that doesn't hurt other people. D&D, poker, fastasy football, kickball -- whatever makes you happy. But I am also not sure that this blurring of adult/childhood lines is entirely positive. I see a lot of supposed adults acting like children in terms of failing to resolve disputes between themselves, often as a result of being unable to back away from something that they are passionate about. And, as father, I see a lot of things that are offered to/for children that (I think) are unacceptable for children to be engaged in. I don't think I am being overly prudish here.
I wonder how much "kiddie stuff" really remains out there and whether or not that's a good thing.
Thanks, James, for some provocative posts.