Sunday, October 19, 2008

Authorizing the Unauthorized

Frankly it's amazing to see how things have changed since 1977. I'm going to revisit the piece written by Gary Gygax that I mentioned in another post, from The Dragon Dec. 1977. Much of the article, "View from the Telescope Wondering Which End is Up" is a response to people at the time who were trying to cash in on TSR's success by releasing unauthorized D&D supplements, or in some cases, complete games that were basically rewrites of D&D. Consider this quote:

I cannot resist the analogy of a lion standing over its kill. The vultures scream, and the jackals yap, when the lion drives them off without allowing them to steal bits of the meat. Perhaps a hyena will manage to successfully grab off a mouthful, but that is all. Other lions may
also prey upon the same herd and make even bigger kills, but that is the law of the land. Pardon me, please, if you find the picture not to your liking. From my end it seems most
apropos, for I hear a good deal of screaming and yapping. TSR was the lion which brought down the
prey, and we intend to have the benefits derived therefrom. If we share with anyone, it will be on our terms. The hunter which fails to bring down its kill dies itself.

You really can't blame them. They hit on something that took off with such vigor, of course they would resent people trying to take anything away from them or piggyback on their work. However, this does bring to light a few issues. People often claim that when Loraine Williams took over TSR that this is when TSR became sue happy and the evil overload game company. I have no idea what the numbers are on how often TSR pre-Gygax threatened to sue versus post-Gygax, but I think no one can deny that there was certain an air of contention with competitors who claimed compatibility with D&D on their products. Probably rightly so.

The point I'm working around to though is the change, or transition, that seems to have occurred as D&D developed. I think that when D&D was first released, it was viewed more as a hobby effort. Then it took off and became a fabulous financial success. But in those hazy days in between you had all sorts of spin off products by third parties, and from little bits I pick up here and there it sounds like TSR wasn't totally opposed to them. I read somewhere that "The Complete Warlock" (which is an OD&D rewrite, essentially, but more complex) was unofficially accepted by TSR but later TSR began to tighten its policies and try harder to regulate who was doing what.

So keep in mind that the article quoted above was prior to the release of AD&D; it's no surprise then that in the AD&D books we find warnings to avoid unauthorized supplements, books, miniatures, etc. Thus is born the rhetoric that only official=quality. Again, I'm making no judgment on whether this was "good" or "bad," because it is certainly understandable from a business perspective. The side effect though is that it is a complete turn around from the early days when "do it yourself" was preached.

I remember begin at a con once where I overheard a lady dressed in a princess outfit declare that she only bought OFFICIAL TSR material, and wouldn't touch any of those Role-Aids (from Mayfair Games). I point out Mayfair because at least in my perception they were the third-party company that had the most visibility back in the day. I remember as a little kid going into the game shop and rifling through their supplements, buying some that looked interesting. From a consumer perspective, third-party products are great because you get different ideas that might not be explored otherwise.

So jump forward to today. After the openness of the OGL and D20 SRD, we have a shift back to a "closed" mentality toward D&D. Maybe I'm just cynical, but I think that the new GSL was made only as a PR move, and despite mutterings to the contrary I don't think we will see a revised publisher-friendly version, especially if rumors are true that Hasbro is going to do away with WotC after they finish the slate of products scheduled. Everyone agrees that the openness of the OGL was to encourage support of D&D, and while that certainly happened, other unpredicted things happened as well. I was at Norwescon, in Seattle, WA, shortly before 3.0 was released. I went to a WotC panel for 3.0 discussion (Ryan Dancey might have been on that panel, I don't remember for sure), where they said that one idea with an open game system is that there would be no need for people to invent their own system. The D20 system would be there and everyone can support that.

Well, surprise surprise, the general need of gamers to tinker caught them off guard! Who would have thought back then that all that open content would be used to create complete games like True20 and others? That license allowed people to go on, create D20 clones that they actually use to license major properties like Conan! It's really unbelievable when yo stop to think about that. Part of this is why it's so baffling that people got so angry when OSRIC came out. It was only a new concept in that it applied to OOP versions of D&D, not new in the sense of cloning D&D. I wonder if part of it is the deeply ingrained idea of game "evolution" and that ideas like True20 where seen as an evolution of D&D, while OSRIC is seen as a throwback that is somehow threatening.

Well, I've been all over the place in this post, sorry about that. Usually I have a focused point to make, but this time it's just a bunch of loosely knit thoughts. The general direction I'm heading though is with the idea that the future of "game design" is going to be in the hands of the hobby publisher. I really look for a return to the hobby mentality of the mid 70s, and it will be supported by the internet that allows so many people with similar interests to share their work.


Anonymous said...

Bless him, he's the greatest... but I think Gary must've had a low Charisma score back in the early days. I couldn't help thinking 'what a jerk!' whilst reading your quote of the TSR = lion analogy. I know the guy was just trying to protect his business interests and all, but he sure did threaten to sue a lot over the years. I'll grant that some it of may have been warranted, but some of his threats were just way out there.

Dan of Earth said...

I only met Gary once, and he seemed like a very nice guy. But even the best of us need to be careful not to get an inflated ego if we taste success. I think there was some of that going on there for a while.

Matthew James Stanham said...

I think it was something Jolly Blackburn wrote that first introduced me to the idea of "TSR Gygax" versus "Hobbyist Gygax". One did not replace the other, they existed concurrently; people wear different hats for different occasions, and Gary was no different.

With regards to Ryan Dancey and the OGL, his comments as to expectations for fourth edition are worth noting. His supposition was that D20/3e would be improved upon, and the best improvements would be incorporated into D20/4e. To some extent we saw that with "Star Wars Saga" and "Unearthed Arcana", but I think most of all the design philosophy had changed by the time "real" variant games were coming out (unlike, for instance, "Forbidden Kingdoms").

Games like "HackMaster" and "Castles & Crusades" (if I understand things correctly) were developed with the knowledge of Wizards of the Coast, and I don't know that any of the variants have made any significant inroads on the market. Indeed, TSR/WotC is still the lion amongst the jackals.

That said, I am also looking forward to a hobbyist future!