Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Cargo Cults of Yesterday

Once upon a time every group of D&D players were not at all unlike a cargo-cult. Each group of players had very limited contact to the game and only a handful of game products by which to relate their common experiences. Meeting up with other D&D players was very much likely to result in a clash of cultures. We each had different entry points and very different cultural backgrounds even though one wouldn't think that would be the case.

 My introduction to D&D was purchasing the original basic set in a chain hobby shop. I had some experience with games from Avalon Hill but in the main I was totally ignorant as to what D&D actually was when I first purchased it (I had imagined it to be a skirmish game that allowed one to play surviving characters in further exploits) and was totally blown away when I realized what the game actually was. The folks I initially played D&aD with were my family (father, younger brother, uncle and grandfather), a neighbor kid, and a schoolmate along with some of my father's co-workers. These co-workers were a couple of older teens (5 or so years older than I) and two experienced war gamers (neither of which had played any D&D); so there I was at 11-12 years of age DMing for a group that varied in age from 10-60 and I was their introduction to D&D and RPGs. For some odd reason all my first games took place on dungeons that fit huge sheets of graph paper setup so that 1" = 10 feet and players ended up building a dungeon map/board in scale as we went along. It took me more then a year to make sense out of the sample dungeon and the module included in the basic set but we all still had fun. Hideously powerful monsters weren't uncommon and players won by trickery and guile far more often than they would have prevailed by successful hit rolls.

We moved when I was in 8th grade and I met several new D&D players and experienced the clash of cultures that was present when cargo-cults bumped into each other. One group of players had tons of high level characters who ruled nations and they knew their game as "The Wars", another group hardly knew the rules at all and played in a game utterly dominated by DM fiat. I played with both groups and the differences in play were amusing (one group didn't know waht an Ogre was). I had little experience with characters over 4th level in my own games as we played about twice a month and even clever players had a hard time staying alive so my experience with high level play started in the deep end. I ended up poaching a couple players from the dm-fiat campaign as I paid some attention to the game rules and gave the players a fighting chance. I had to explain to one group of players that character ability scores were rolled with 3 six sided dice and not on 1d20 (they had been re-rolling scores of 1-2 and 19-20 and found it annoying).

 I also joined a briefly lived D&D club; this club was very interesting as pretty much everyone owned the 1st or second basic set and possibly a few AD&D books. A couple of the players had older brothers who had been playing D&D for whole year or two longer and they helped us out but generally stayed out of the club games as they were for younger players (some of them having moved on to Traveller and Runequest becasue they were more sophisticated than D&D). New concepts leaked into my play such as critical hits and hit locations. It was in this campaign where I had the only character (who was totally average in scores except for a fairly high CHA) to survive from the beginning of the game because I understood encumbrance and movement rates: you don't have to outrun the thief and MU, you just have to outrun all the fighters in the party wearing plate and carrying thousands of gp when the party decides it's time to run.

 Near the end of highschool I discovered a group of football player, biker, burnout, C-Bers mostly a couple years olde r than I also played D&D regularly. Two of these fellows play D&D with me to this day. This group of players had critical hits and fumbles, they also gained a level after each successful adventure and would cycle through DMs. They had 25th level paladins with +6 holy avengers and ability scores over 20 (they didn't seem to understand experience points) but really liked the game and several of them ended up playing in one of my longest running D&D campaigns where we played twice a month for 7-8 years. I recall killing 3 dragons in one session of a game run by a DM in that group without having to roll a single die...sometimes I look back at that in ridicule, other times with gleeful nostalgia.

 As the years rolled on I would bump into plenty of D&D players but I noticed a familiarity in campaigns and player expectations that were missing in the earlier days (and man oh man would I tire hearign about peoples 25th level multi-classed paladins). Availability of products and more available contact between gamers was creating it's own gamer culture. Gone were players who didn't know how saving throws worked, or how to calculate AC, variants were so common they seldom needed much explanation.

With the modern internet the last culture clash came about the time third edition D&D came to be as players who had managed to be isolated discovered the game had changed when they weren't looking, and all the changes were not for the better.

 Eventually the time will come when no players remain who was part of a cargo cults. No one will ask "what's an Orc?, everyone will know dwarves are bothersome scottish/norse greedy drunks and dark elves are leather fetishists into spiders. Maybe there are cargo cults out there yet reaming to be discovered huddled around a table with only a single twenty sided die used by a half dozen players all passing about a handful fantasy paperbacks who have yet to discover they have been playing the game wrong...


  1. I get what you're saying, about different dialects and misunderstanding or wilfully reinterpreting the rules, and emergent "gamer culture" (most of which I hate, BTW), but not the cargo cult aspect...

    I'm an old B/Xer, never reformed, who spent decades playing homebrew variants of James Bond and CoC and Dr Who and GURPS (not the crunchy variety) with my own little ghetto gang of players, happily without reference to what anyone else was doing. And then I moved away and played nothing at all for a decade, and now I'm constantconing Carcosa and I'm frankly amazed and gratified that there's this bunch of people out there online who:
    aren't munchkins;
    aren't assholes;
    aren't concerned about post-anime, post-WoW, hipster nth-gen-er gamer culture speak that I can't understand.

    Maybe that demonstrates the well-known power of the internet to allow me to find people as weird as I am - maybe I've found my cult, in other words.

    or maybe out there in cult-land there were always large numbers of people who were just laid back about system, open to playing lots of different sorts of games, and up for some let's pretend fun.

    I hope it's the latter.

  2. Great post, JD. I really enjoyed reading it :)

    My community was small enough that I ran the only ongoing game in each school that I attended throughout the 80s. With each jump in schools I took over the DMing duties for whatever gaming group already existed there. A number of shops in town sold TSR products, though, so there must have been groups in other schools, or composed of adults, but I never met them.

  3. Maybe there are cargo cults out there yet reaming to be discovered huddled around a table with only a single twenty sided die used by a half dozen players all passing about a handful fantasy paperbacks who have yet to discover they have been playing the game wrong...

    I hope they never discover it.

    It's good to imagine there are still some cargo cults out there. We'll need them again one day.