Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Ages of D&D

In a recent post, I inadvertently coined a couple of terms that seem to have struck chords with a couple of my fellow bloggers: the Silver Age and fantastic realism. At the time, I intended both to be throw-away terms that would let me distinguish between the era of D&D under discussion -- that of the mid-80s -- and the preceding one. Looking back on it, though, I think there's a lot to be said for establishing a lexicon for describing the various "ages" of the game, if only because it'll save me a lot of time in future. Even if people don't agree with the precise way I characterize a given age (or its extent), they'll at least know what I mean by it.

Prehistory (1811-1973): In general, this period doesn't get a lot of discussion on this blog, because, though I have played wargames and enjoyed them, I'd never call myself a wargamer and it's wargames of various stripes that inhabit this era. Nonetheless, the period is very important, as it produced several games besides Chainmail that had powerful influences on the development of D&D.

Golden Age (1974-1983):
This is the era of D&D's ascendancy and, for me, its perfection. The argument could be reasonably made that the "pure" Golden Age ends somewhere between 1979 and 1981, depending on whether one considers the completion of AD&D or the mass marketing of the game through the Moldvay Basic Rules to have struck a heavier blow to the culture of early D&D. If one wants to make such fine distinctions, the period between 1979/1981 and 1985 (or thereabouts) is the Electrum Age, which straddles the tail end of the Golden Age and the beginning of the Silver. The Golden Age is one of "gonzo pulp fantasy," with a hodgepodge of influences, particularly Howard, Vance, Leiber, de Camp, and Pratt. The dungeon remains the linchpin of adventure design and the sandbox is the assumed role for a campaign setting.

Silver Age (1984-1989): The Silver Age is a transitional age that marries a sophisticated (some might say "decadent") interpretation of Gygaxian naturalism with a growing concern for "dramatic" coherence. The Silver Age is one of "fantastic realism" and the construction of believable worlds and stories is its great concern. It's also the age where the Great Wyrm begins to eat its own tail, being influenced not just by epic fantasy generally but more specifically by second or third order epic fantasies that were themselves influenced by D&D. The Silver Age is when the mass marketing of the game begun in the late Golden Age reaches its fullest flower.

Bronze Age (1990-1995): The Bronze Age is the age of the boxed campaign set. Whereas the Silver Age generally retained a Golden Age sensibility about the necessity of building one's own world (even if the principles behind that construction were quite different), the Bronze Age is characterized by world consumption. During this period, TSR published no fewer than seven new campaign settings for AD&D, in addition to supporting -- and considerably expanding -- holdovers from previous ages. Most are exhaustively detailed through many products, some of them impressively so. D&D came increasingly to be seen as a generic vehicle for the publication of a wide variety of "fantasy" settings, almost none of which bore much resemblance to the game's literary roots in the Golden Age. This age encompasses not only of the apotheosis of the gaming novel but also when such novels become the primary drivers of product development.

Dark Age (1996-1999): The Dark Age is one of decline and fall. D&D products during this era vacillate wildly between recapitulations of works from earlier eras and bold, if often eccentric, experimentation intended to find an elixir vitae that might sustain the slowly dying beast for a few more years. The acquisition of TSR by WotC in 1997 resulted in an attempt to roll back the worst excesses of the Bronze Age by discontinuing most of D&D's campaign settings and to focus on the "core" elements of the game. Ultimately, this proved unsuccessful, resulting in the perceived need for a new edition of the game.

Whether what followed was in fact a rebirth of Dungeons & Dragons -- a new Golden Age -- or its replacement by something else is beyond the scope of this brief post. I will say, though, that my own growing feeling is that it's probably most constructive to sidestep the entire "D&D/not D&D" debate entirely by making a distinction between "TSR D&D" and "WotC D&D." Even if WotC D&D shares certain bits of TSR D&D's genetic material, both mechanical and thematic, its origins are sufficiently different that it ought to be judged on its own terms rather than as a continuation of the Gygaxo-Arneson lineage. In any case, post-2000 versions of D&D are mostly outside my area of interest in this blog and I intend to avoid discussion of them in the future, except in cases where it has direct bearing on the topic at hand.

68 comments:

  1. I have to admit, I am no fan of dividing things up like this. The distinctions are too absolute, especially with hard dates attached. The idea of assigning "ages" to design approaches is reasonable, but I think as well intentioned as it might be, it may obscure more than it reveals in the long run.

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  2. The idea of assigning "ages" to design approaches is reasonable, but I think as well intentioned as it might be, it may obscure more than it reveals in the long run.

    The main issue I expect to arise is the inevitable complaints from people about how their preferred version of D&D really fits into the scheme of things.

    And, to be fair to me, the dates are intended are rough guideposts not absolutes. I touch on this slightly in my mentioning of an Electrum Age and the same principle applies across all the ages I've established.

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  3. Here's one thing I'd like to see your thoughts on, that is left out of this bestiary something you're not alone in): the D&D tournament game.

    While you're speaking a lot about campaign structures, I find it important to recall that practically all of the original classic D&D adventures (G, D, A, S series), were originally developed and run in a convention tournament setting.

    I only went to Gen Con once (in 2004, I think), but playing in one tournament game was enough for an "Aha!" moment for me, that allowed me to understand a lot of the design and tone decisions in the earliest, most widespread adventures.

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  4. I like the distinction of an Electrum Age in 1980-1985. Gary himself said that he lost control of TSR to the Blume brothers in 1980. Awhile back I started a thread on dragonsfoot in which I claimed that the pure gold of TSR's AD&D line was all from 1977-1980:

    http://www.dragonsfoot.org/forums/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=25708

    After that we started getting the "pure electrum" stuff.

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  5. I would go forward from 1999 with:

    Gilded or Brass Age 2000-2007): Third Edition from Wizards of the Coast sought to return D&D to its Golden Age, but really is a whole new device that looks like gold. Like most things of gilded metal, it works well, and does the job, but it's still not the same thing...

    Iron Age (2007-2008): Fourth Edition leaps from brass down to iron, skipping over copper entirely and dropping out of even the "semi-precious metals" rating. Whereas Third Edition at least tried to maintain a veneer of that which went before, Fourth Edition rejected all that went before in favor of something entirely different.

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  6. Are you starting the Silver Age with Dragonlance?

    If the Bronze age is boxed sets, is the Dark ages the splatbooks? I can't find a good timeline of their publication. "Cardboard age" and "Splatbook age" might be more memorable if so.

    Another way of restating the arc,
    1) "We made this great thing, everyone, let's play this!"
    2) "No, THIS is mine, THAT is yours. (I want to make a living off this stuff.)"
    3) "I will now hammer down the definition of the original thing and lay down a framework that I can monetize."
    4) "Okay I'm filling in gaps now, things are going great! New cars for everyone!"
    5) "Still monetizing, but the old guard's mostly gone. Why aren't sales growing? Does anyone still care? Man, even I know this stuff is unnecessary."
    6) "It's dead, Jim." / "Blah blah long tail blah blah."

    I might say Gary took D&D to #3, maybe even started on #4, but then he got ousted and D&D went back to #2.

    It's off topic but I'll posit that 3E went through the same steps, just faster. 4E, I would call it a #5 product, essentially a monetization of the same framework (and customer base) created by 3E.

    Thank you for another thought-provoking post.

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  7. Dividing up history into pat eras is just something we humans like to do. I don't see a problem with it, as it facilitates discussion and helps focus interests.

    I like "Gilded Age" for the 3e era.

    I think nowadays might better be called a "post-modern" age, since we seem to be moving past a perception of "official" D&D and into an era where D&D is what you make of it: OD&D, C&C, 1e, 2e, LL, BFRP, and other such alphabet soups.

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  8. I like Mishler's terminology.
    Gilded age makes it sound too fake, and in spite of it all, 3.x IS the D&D I grew up on, so I'm a little loth to dismiss it. It's for that reason I second Brass age (or possibly even bronze).
    Iron age works perfectly for the current period, though, especially because it conjures up (to a comic fan) memories of depressing crap like Punisher or Wolverine, with their grim, unheroic natures.

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  9. If this is trying to define the ages along a similar line as comic books, I think it's all wrong...

    The golden age starts with the publication of D&D.

    The silver age, trying to inject more serious themes and characterizations into RPGs, probably starts at Runequest (and is equivalent to Spider-Man and such in comics in the early 60s).

    "Realism," what you're calling the "silver age" here, is the "bronze age" of comics (arguably starting with Gwen Stacy's death in the comic book field, 1973).

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  10. If this is trying to define the ages along a similar line as comic books, I think it's all wrong...

    I don't read comics, but I do read Hesiod, so this has absolutely nothing to do with the former.

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  11. I think that with 4E, it's time to draw a line and say (as with the fall of the Western Roman Empire), "Here is something different." Trying to appraise it as more of the same seems to me unhelpful. At the same time, there's a Byzantium rising in the retro-clones and so on.

    However one divides the '80s, I certainly recall a growing sense of decadence.

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  12. the D&D tournament game.

    Tournament play is the fly in the ointment of D&D's history. The demands of tournament play are so different -- and I'd argue, so contrary -- to the demands of ordinary campaign play that meeting those demands would inevitably lead, as it did, to changing the game in ways at odds with its origins. AD&D is, by many accounts, the result of attempting to meet those demands and I think it's pretty clear that both v.3.5 and 4e took "organized play" very seriously in their designs.

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  13. Gary himself said that he lost control of TSR to the Blume brothers in 1980. Awhile back I started a thread on dragonsfoot in which I claimed that the pure gold of TSR's AD&D line was all from 1977-1980:

    This is good stuff! Thanks.

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  14. I would go forward from 1999 with:

    Those are terrific. I especially like Gilded Age, because it hits exactly the right note. Brilliant.

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  15. Are you starting the Silver Age with Dragonlance?

    Roughly. It's an artificial waypoint, but it's also a convenient one.

    If the Bronze age is boxed sets, is the Dark ages the splatbooks? I can't find a good timeline of their publication. "Cardboard age" and "Splatbook age" might be more memorable if so.

    The Dark Ages are indeed the splat book age. They're also the encyclopedic age, when TSR produced multiple multi-volume compilations of earlier products just to index and keep track of them all.

    Thanks for list of steps on the way to decline. It strikes me as very close to the way things worked out.

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  16. I think nowadays might better be called a "post-modern" age, since we seem to be moving past a perception of "official" D&D and into an era where D&D is what you make of it: OD&D, C&C, 1e, 2e, LL, BFRP, and other such alphabet soups.

    There's definitely something to that. The OGL really did let the genie out of the bottle in a way no previous edition ever had. The explosion of the old school movement wouldn't have been possible without it.

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  17. Gilded age makes it sound too fake

    Yes and no. I like it because it harkens back to the Gilded Age of American history, which seems very apropos.

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  18. However one divides the '80s, I certainly recall a growing sense of decadence.

    Very much so. The game was clearly "over-ripe" at that point. 2e strikes me now as a failed attempt to ensure future growth by pruning the branches, but what resulted was not a healthier plant so much as one that bore lots of extremely colorful blossoms.

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  19. I think nowadays might better be called a "post-modern" age, since we seem to be moving past a perception of "official" D&D and into an era where D&D is what you make of it: OD&D, C&C, 1e, 2e, LL, BFRP, and other such alphabet soups.

    I feel the same way. I feel that Dungeons and Dragons as a brand name is dead! The 3.x rules has added anther .x to its belt, and now calls itself Pathfinder. And 4e is D&D in name only! But the general disdain of all the stupid splat books and for the strange directions the owners are taking the brand has resulted in forming a new age outside the mainstream. This new age keeps true to the spirit of the golden age, and it nothing less then a true Renaissance Age!

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  20. Thanks for the post. After reading your post I have some ideas of what you wanted to say which each different age. But now its all perfectly clear.

    Its curious but I always arrive in the bronze ages In rpgs and in comic. But while in the comics I think that the bronze age comics are the best for my taste (and because I grew reading them) I dont share the same feeling for the rpgs.

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  21. I have been calling the 70's "silver age", but now that I think of it I have been confusing it with comics.

    I think the timeline is great, and as a vet from the late 70's gaming scene it feels right to me. And of course it is the timeline that suites James' history and gaming tastes in particular. That can be kind of assumed by his choice not to talk about the last several years.

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  22. I like the way James Mishler characteristed 2000 and beyond with the Brass & Iron ages. Very nicely done.

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  23. "Whether what followed was in fact a rebirth of Dungeons & Dragons -- a new Golden Age -- or its replacement by something else is beyond the scope of this brief post. I will say, though, that my own growing feeling is that it's probably most constructive to sidestep the entire "D&D/not D&D" debate entirely by making a distinction between "TSR D&D" and "WotC D&D." "

    I generally think of it like this... Throughout history, there have been instances where a settlement is abandoned or destroyed, followed by someone new coming along and building another settlement right on top of the old one, with the new inhabitants calling the new town the same as the old one.

    Is "New D&D Town" the same as "Old D&D Town?" It's in the exact same place and has the same name. On the other hand, it doesn't have a single building or inhabitant in common.

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  24. "The demands of tournament play are so different -- and I'd argue, so contrary -- to the demands of ordinary campaign play that meeting those demands would inevitably lead, as it did, to changing the game in ways at odds with its origins."

    And yet (not to repeat myself), all the original adventure publications which framed our understanding of D&D play came out of the tournament experience.

    Perhaps it would have been different if a "megadungeon" product (or parts thereof) had been the first thing published by TSR. But, as you point out in your Castle Yggsburgh review, that was something that never, won't ever, perhaps couldn't ever come out of TSR.

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  25. WotC in 1997 resulted in an attempt to roll back the worst excesses of the Bronze Age by discontinuing most of D&D's campaign settings and to focus on the "core" elements of the game. Ultimately, this proved unsuccessful, resulting in the perceived need for a new edition of the game.

    Mostly incorrect.

    3rd Edition had been in development prior to the WotC acqusistion, although virtually nothing that was created before the acqusition was used in 3E.

    The collapse of the D&D worlds was underway before the acquisition, but I finalized it by cutting everything out of the schedule in 1998 that was not Forgotten Realms, or a 1-shot. This proved to be very successful, and returned the D&D business to profitability by trimming the number of different products we were producing and letting customers concentrate their dollars. It's one of those times when selling 7 of one item makes more profit than 5 each of 2.

    Ryan Dancey

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  26. 3rd Edition had been in development prior to the WotC acqusistion, although virtually nothing that was created before the acqusition was used in 3E.

    That is interesting. I had heard that a third edition was in development prior to the WotC buyout, but I always assumed that it took its lead from the Player's Option Books. Certainly, the D20/3e combat system borrows heavily and obviously from Player's Option: Combat & Tactics. Was that the sort of thing carried over from the proto third edition, or was it a WotC innovation to look back on that volume? Can you tell us anything about what sorts of things were under development for TSR's third edition and why they were not used?

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  27. I'm hesitant to put things into "simple ages" because it's way to easy, especially as I see it you're saying that the old days are better than the new days, since this is a rather subjective list.

    It's fine for defining things on your blog but I'd hate for this to become some sort of Internet meme that becomes a standard. If we were going to define ages, I'd like to see a bunch of people from all perspectives, not just one.


    Plus I think "ages" shouldn't be so short anyway.

    One of the biggest things I'd have to correct is that the OGL allowed old-school gaming to florish. I disagree. The OGL allowed new games to be created from the D&D base that had the old-school feel, but you would have needed a critical mass to do that. And old-schoolers could always play with their old books and modules.

    I think the Internet itself lead to old-school gaming resurgence. With the Internet reaching mass status, more people were online and a lot of isolated fans of the older games were able to get together. Places like Dragonsfoot were established.

    Also, old school writers could start communicating better--Gary Gygax ended up spending a few hours each day corresponding with people, and other designers from the old days as well.

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  28. I think I have electrum age sensibilities where style is concerned (in my campaigns) but I have all the bronze age boxed sets and prefer WOTC's Brass Age 3e to the old original D&D because of my simulationist tendencies. I'm a weird melding of old school pulp fantasy framework with silver age storytelling influences with Brass Age refined mechanics. D&D is definitely the Iron Age. I think 4e is a most pronounced break with anything that has gone before and is entirely gamist (focus all on function, with a corresponding loss of the beauty and style of the other ages) as opposed to simulationist. And its main (almost sole) focus is definitely combat. A little role-playing can be inserted if desired.

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  29. What pretentious twaddle! Only a bunch of grognards could come up with such a total waste of time classifying the "ages" of a roleplaying system, and in doing so fail to state the criteria or standard by which the judgement is made.

    Seriously, I loved it. A great bit of pointless juvenilia and just right for the subject.

    Now.. why are Golden Ages always in the past in such schemas?

    ;-)

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  30. James: Ah yeah, okay, that makes sense. Corruption runs deep but there are a few brilliant minds out there on the side of good. Very gilded age.
    MtB: I feel very much the same way.

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  31. Its curious but I always arrive in the bronze ages In rpgs and in comic.

    That's true for a lot of people. Unless by fortunate happenstance you get in on something when it is just beginning, the Golden Age will always be in the past and you'll have missed it. There are far more D&D players who came to the game during its Silver and (especially) Bronze Ages than during its Golden Age, at least among those still playing, which is why I'm trying to give more thought about those times and why they proved so successful and attractive to many players.

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  32. I have been calling the 70's "silver age", but now that I think of it I have been confusing it with comics.

    I think a lot of people do that, mostly because the comics usage is well known, especially among gamers.

    And of course it is the timeline that suites James' history and gaming tastes in particular. That can be kind of assumed by his choice not to talk about the last several years.

    That's all it's meant to be: a personal take on the history of the game. I think there's more than a little universal applicability to it, though, so I do hope others start talking about my scheme and making corrections to it.

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  33. I generally think of it like this... Throughout history, there have been instances where a settlement is abandoned or destroyed, followed by someone new coming along and building another settlement right on top of the old one, with the new inhabitants calling the new town the same as the old one.

    That's a superb analogy. Thanks.

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  34. And yet (not to repeat myself), all the original adventure publications which framed our understanding of D&D play came out of the tournament experience.

    Two points:

    1. Some of those early modules do, certainly, but not all of them. The G modules were used in tournaments, but were the D series? I didn't think they were. T1 wasn't a tournament module.

    2. These modules in question were (mostly) written before AD&D was completed and I'd venture to guess that it was the perceived "inadequacies" of how they played out in conventions that provided part of impetus toward the codification we see in AD&D.

    In short, I think we need to make distinctions between ages of convention play as well. The early days of such were pretty wild and woolly, in keeping with the nature of OD&D, which is why there was such a perceived need to hammer things down more fully. I think there's a world of difference between what a convention module was like in 1977 and 1987, never mind 2007.

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  35. I'm hesitant to put things into "simple ages" because it's way to easy, especially as I see it you're saying that the old days are better than the new days, since this is a rather subjective list.

    Of course it's subjective. What else would it be?

    It's fine for defining things on your blog but I'd hate for this to become some sort of Internet meme that becomes a standard. If we were going to define ages, I'd like to see a bunch of people from all perspectives, not just one.

    Anyone who wishes to make suggestions for corrections/amplifications of my schema is welcome to do so. In fact, I encourage it.

    Plus I think "ages" shouldn't be so short anyway.

    D&D only has a 35-year history, so, of necessity, its age will be short than, say, geological eras.

    One of the biggest things I'd have to correct is that the OGL allowed old-school gaming to florish. I disagree. The OGL allowed new games to be created from the D&D base that had the old-school feel, but you would have needed a critical mass to do that. And old-schoolers could always play with their old books and modules.

    What the OGL has done is not only allowed the creation of retro-clones, which is absolutely vital, because using old books and old products is not a firm foundation for a long-lasting revival, but also released a large portion of D&D's "DNA" into legal usage by anyone who wishes to do so. I can now talk about, for example, most of D&D's iconic monsters or spells without the need for circumlocutions. That's huge.

    Also, old school writers could start communicating better--Gary Gygax ended up spending a few hours each day corresponding with people, and other designers from the old days as well.

    I'd love to see this myself, but a lot of the old school writers have no interest in this, alas.

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  36. And yet (not to repeat myself), all the original adventure publications which framed our understanding of D&D play came out of the tournament experience.

    Perhaps it would have been different if a "megadungeon" product (or parts thereof) had been the first thing published by TSR. But, as you point out in your Castle Yggsburgh review, that was something that never, won't ever, perhaps couldn't ever come out of TSR.



    YES! This point can't be understated. I think that the early published modules had a tremendous impact on the way most players perceived D&D game play. I also think that it paved the way for the adventure path mode of campaigning that became popular after the advent of Dragonlance.

    I think that the published modules ended the "Platinum Age" in 1978. Perhaps it ended a year earlier with the publication of the Monster Manual in 1977.

    Anyway, I think that the mass popularity of D&D started off on the wrong foot with modules. A standardized method of sandbox campaign play was never formalized. Yes, many of the tools for sandbox play are present in OD&D and AD&D. But the method of bringing it all together into sandbox play was never properly introduced to all the new gamers out there that had never played D&D before 1978.

    Me and my friends in grade school purchased D&D books in stores during the "Golden Age." Exactly how we conducted the campaign was a mystery to us. The modules were our only guide. And they affected the way we perceived RPGs should be played. And once the modules started presenting plots, this fostered the appreciation for the adventure path.

    If only Castle Greyhawk was published prior to 1980...

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  37. Dwayanu said...
    I think that with 4E, it's time to draw a line and say (as with the fall of the Western Roman Empire), "Here is something different." Trying to appraise it as more of the same seems to me unhelpful. At the same time, there's a Byzantium rising in the retro-clones and so on.

    I'd have said the exact opposite. WOTC's 4E would be Byzantium (claiming cultural continuity, but mutated beyond all recognition by changing circumstances).

    The retro-clones are the scriptoria of the western monasteries; a small, dedicated network keeping the flame of classic knowledge alive in a world gone mad. But then, grognards always have made for the best crazy ascetic hermits. ;-)

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  38. In partial response to tzunder, I don't think this is pointless: it's a bit of historical work. Periodisation is always problematic, but it raises difficult questions about how to conceptualise the past as a continuum: trying to avoid it altogether generally just ducks these difficult questions, unless some other synthesising schema is put forward, that makes sense of the whole historical arc and not just of moments.

    The criteria are, I think, littered through James' previous posts and can be pieced together with a little research: this post definitely does not stand alone as a thesis statement. Standards are never truly universal outside mathematics: history is necessarily a subjective discipline, an attempt to make personal sense of events.

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  39. I tried to relate the history of D&D/RPGs to the artistic periods: classical, medieval, renaissance, baroque, romantic, modern, post-modern, &c. Didn’t come up with anything I really liked, though.

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  40. A little late to the party today, but I feel not too late to drop a few coppers in the pot.

    In the end, I can't, really, disagree with your categorizations of the "ages" or their framework. D&D as a game has clearly undergone changes in paradigm throughout its 35 years and, whether you did so conciously or not, you fairly closely mimicked the comics ages.

    The only thing I really have to say here is that your post is, of course, colored pretty heavily by your own opinion. This is not to say, of course, that this is bad, merely that it's there.

    I don't think one can classify any "age" as good or bad, or objectively better or worse than any other. This is, above all, a supremely subjective concept as to preference.

    While yes, the so called Bronze Age led to a proliferation of campaign settings, some of them very wonky, it still led to some very interesting things. Even if you don't like, for instance, the Dark Sun CS, you have to admit that it is quite an inventive little thing. It's something that went above and beyond the standard pseudo-medieval Europe setting of pretty much 90% of D&D that came before it. Not to mention that, with the excisement of the ridiculous metaplot and the execrable novels, it was "pulpy" enough even for some of the hardest core of grognards. An entire world, metal poor and inimicably hostile, wasted by rampant sorcery and replete with psionic powers? What's not to love?

    Yes, a lot of the Bronze age and Dark age's materials were . . . well . . . complete garbage. I don't think any of us are likely to forget the elven bionic limbs from a certain splatbook. However, it's unfair to say that such categorized the entirety of the age, or that there is little of worth there.

    At the same time, saying that the Golden Age was D&D perfected is simply overstating things, IMO, since it seems you're cominmg from a static point of view. You're purposefully dismissing a huge amount of material because it came at a time when TSR/D&D began to move away from the principles you find most appealing.

    Maybe this is beyond the scope of a single post, but I've always found that the best way to approach the entire thing is to start wherever you need to, and then take what you want from the rest. There's always something worth looking at.

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  41. I'm not surprised to see Hesiod evoked in the aftermath of a post on Tolkien, James. I of course will opt for an alternate telos and pick the current age as one in which the promise of old was at last fulfilled. :)

    (As always an interesting read, even if my preferences are nearly 180 degrees away from yours.)

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  42. At the same time, saying that the Golden Age was D&D perfected is simply overstating things, IMO, since it seems you're cominmg from a static point of view. You're purposefully dismissing a huge amount of material because it came at a time when TSR/D&D began to move away from the principles you find most appealing.

    Yes and no. I happily acknowledge the goodness of things published after the Golden Age, but this post isn't intended to be exhaustive, which is why I didn't praise things like, for example, Dark Sun, a setting I actually like a great deal, even if I felt its execution and development was flawed from the outset.

    So, to be clear: I don't think everything published after 1983 is worthless nor do I think that everything published before it is pure gold. What I do think is that, trend-wise, D&D has been slowly declining -- "decline" defined as moving away from its foundational principles -- since the early 80s, a process exemplified on the one hand by an obsession with "story" and on the other the confusion of tactics with strategy. Despite this, quite a few great products have been written since the Golden Age, but they are clearly exceptions rather than the rule.

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  43. One thing that stands out to me is this here Web; I almost had to break my neck thereby, stumbling over The Dragon, Alarums & Excursions and Lords of Chaos back in the day.

    This is pretty cool, actually!

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  44. Especially cool when I look back at delivering to the musty, jazz-filled (insert R. Crumb illo) "head" shop the literally purple (as in "spirit master") prose of my FRP fanzine.

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  45. My point is twofold:

    1: This is a silly taxonomic activity that imposes a quality standard that is unstated and subjective.
    2: This is quite normal for roleplayers and quite fun.

    However, could I posit a totally different arguement?

    OD&D was the Stone Age, where primitive roleplayers banged together small white books in the hope of making rpg fire. Many succeeded and had a good time.

    Basic D&D was the Copper Age when roleplayers were led by the hand into a codified but simple game that led to Mystara and much happiness and good times.

    AD&D was a parallel Copper Age when roleplayers were inducted into a deeply codified but occultic game that appealed to those that like rules and a semi Messianic leadership. Much happiness and good times were had.

    [Some roleplayers lived in both Ages in a clever bit of pan dimensional doo-dah-ery.]

    AD&D2 was a Bronze Age which didn't fully replace the previous Ages but which began a struggle to make the game more accessible to the lay people with a more naturalist/simulationist game, yet one which still pursued complexity to explain. Much happiness and good times resulted.

    D&D 3e and 3.5e were a Silver Age when the 2 strands came together with a wish to make all able to read the core texts, with unified systems and a nostalgia for the 'Olden Days'. Like most D&D it had a tendency to pursue complication, despite the creators' wishes. Much happiness and good times resulted.

    D&D 4e is not yet known. It may not even be D&D. It may be the Golden Age, or it may be a Platinum or Electrum Age, maybe even in parallel with those that follow the older Ages. I personally feel that the Golden Age will never come, but that much happiness and good times will result.

    How's that? Just as valid and just as much based on an unstated criteria and entirely subjective.

    Best wishes and remember, if you're playing it, it's good

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  46. So, to be clear: I don't think everything published after 1983 is worthless nor do I think that everything published before it is pure gold. What I do think is that, trend-wise, D&D has been slowly declining -- "decline" defined as moving away from its foundational principles -- since the early 80s, a process exemplified on the one hand by an obsession with "story" and on the other the confusion of tactics with strategy.

    I know you didn't say anyting published after '83 was junk. I've read too much of your stuff to think that you actually would say such a thing. However, your post, likely as a result of its intentional brevity, started to come accross that way.

    As for the word "decline," to be sure I feel that it, in itself, is a loaded word that betrays more than you may have intended. Say, simply, "changed" as decline is a value judgement.

    Oh, and I'll say that there are plenty of great things published during the Bronze Age at least. As much in terms of volume as during the Golden Age. The difference was that there was so much dross to wade through to get to the good, thus creating a false impression that there was less good to be had.

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  47. imposes a quality standard that is unstated and subjective.

    I won't (for the moment) quibble with "subjective," but I do take issue with "unstated." This entire blog, nearly 500 entries over the last nine months, is one giant statement of what I think about D&D and its history and development. Taken by itself, sure, this one entry might look a bit thin in terms of corroboration, but, taken as part of an extremely long conversation begun last March, I think it stands up quite nicely.

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  48. As for the word "decline," to be sure I feel that it, in itself, is a loaded word that betrays more than you may have intended. Say, simply, "changed" as decline is a value judgement.

    Why is making a value judgment a bad thing? I've never made claims to being "objective" in the sense of keeping my own likes and dislikes out of my discussions. That would, I dare say, be rather dull. What I have been, I think, is open and honest about my own perspective and everything I write here proceeds from them.

    In that context, words like "decline" make perfect sense; they don't "betray" anything. They're a reflection of the underlying premise of this whole blog, namely that D&D, for a variety of reasons, both intentional and otherwise, has lost touch with its origins as a hobby and its inspirations in literature. I don't write anything here from a "neutral" perspective. I have an agenda and I've always been very clear about that. What I hope I have done, though, is provide evidence in support of the rationality of my agenda, whether one ultimately agrees or disagrees with it.

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  49. James: Don't get me wrong.

    Their's nothing wrong with making a value judgement, and I know that's the point of your blog to a certain extent. I am merely saying that I disagree with the value statement part of your post and that I would substitute "change" for "decline." I'm not challenging you, or arguing with you, merely explaining a difference of opinion.

    On the other hand, I frequently strive for a sense of neutrality in things, so it's not all together odd that I talk about it here.

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  50. James, if this was a Ain't it cool News forum, or other undermoderated chat, you'd be getting hammered on this one!

    This is all great stuff - obviously a very thought provoking post!

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  51. Michael,

    Forgive me. I'll admit to being a little sensitive of late to perceived implications of being a narrow-minded stick in the mud. I know you weren't saying that and I fully understand where you're coming from. It's just that I have a certain impatience with mischaracterizations of my points or of the way I comport myself. Again, you're not doing either and I'm sorry for having reacted so strongly to your comment.

    One of the consequences of the ever-increasing traffic of the blog is that I get a lot of people coming here who haven't been following since the beginning and so don't have a lot of experience with my manner of writing or the perspective from which I'm coming. That's led to a lot of frustrating commentary, but then I should take them as opportunities to hone my arguments and better connect to gamers who don't share the same history as myself.

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  52. Such would be the way of the internet I think. Fervently held opinions shouted from behind a comfortable mask of anonymity, damn the consequences, full speed ahead.

    No worries on my end. My feathers remain unruffled. I just didn't want to ruffle anyone elses'.

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  53. The acquisition of TSR by WotC in 1997 resulted in an attempt to roll back the worst excesses of the Bronze Age by discontinuing most of D&D's campaign settings and to focus on the "core" elements of the game. Ultimately, this proved unsuccessful, resulting in the perceived need for a new edition of the game.

    Quick factual note: Development of 3rd Edition started as soon WotC had control of the company. While it may be accurate to say that WotC was working to roll back the excesses of TSR's latter years, the success or failure of that effort had no impact on the eventual publication of 3rd Edition.

    My own relationship with 3rd Edition is very different than yours, largely because 3rd Edition is -- with the exception of feats and prestige classes -- an almost exact duplication of my own house rules for AD&D. 3rd Edition, for me, plays almost exactly like the D&D of old. The mechanics have been standardized and cleaned-up, but the quirky and contradictory nature mechanics were never the defining element of the game for me. For me, playing a wizard in 3rd Edition feels like playing a magic user. Playing a basic fighter in 3rd Edition feels like playing a fighter. Other options were also available, but the core of the game was still the core of the game.

    The big change with 3rd Edition, for me, was less in the core rulebook and more in the supplements. Through the OGL, 3rd Edition became something of an Everyman. At the same time, WotC's own supplements became largely packages of feat and prestige classes. The result was something almost schizophrenic.

    With 4th Edition, however, D&D has died. It's fundamentally not the same game -- wizards don't play like wizards; fighters don't play like fighters. It may be a fantasy roleplaying game, but it's not D&D. (Statego may be a grid-based boardgame based around a military simulation, but that doesn't make it Chess.)

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  54. While it may be accurate to say that WotC was working to roll back the excesses of TSR's latter years, the success or failure of that effort had no impact on the eventual publication of 3rd Edition.

    On the publication, possibly, but I suspect -- or perhaps, I would hope -- that the eventual form that 3e took would have been impacted by the outcome of WotC's late attempts to course correct the direction of the game.

    For example, I seem to recall Monte Cook saying that early designs for 3e were much more radically different from AD&D but WotC pulled back from that as a result of their internal data collection about how gamers played the game and what they considered to be the core of D&D.

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  55. Jim,

    That's eerie. I'd totally forgotten about that comment.

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  56. Yeah. I’d completely forgotten that as well.

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  57. For what it's worth, I can support Dancey's claim: 3e was under development before the WotC buyout.

    I worked for a TSR contractor, and during a visit to TSR just after the WotC buyout, I was told that they were working on a new edition, and had been for a while.

    (For the curious, my tale of visiting TSR as a new programmer just out college might be of interest.)

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  58. Alan,

    That's very fascinating. Thanks for sharing it.

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  59. Dear James,

    Yet another excellent blog entry, which I apologize for responding to so many months late. It is useful and interesting to try to make sense of D&D's history as you have done, and I think your lines of demarcation are well placed.

    I would, however, like to suggest a different interpretation of the Wizards era. I assume that the choice of gilded or brass for that era is based on the 3e rule system, but there was a far more important development for D&D during this time, something that gilded and brass do not capture well.

    To make sense of this you have to understand that the inside scoop on Wizards is that most of the founders of Wizards were serious die-hard grognards.

    Take Peter Adkison as an example. He and the rest of the Walla Walla gamers played with every supplement they could lay their hands on. Arduin, Judges Guild, the white box, the blue box, Runequest, anything was fair game for the gamer culture in Walla Walla. Everyone home-brewed their own campaigns and customized their rulesets with every good idea they could find. They called what they did SAD&D (Super Advanced Dungeons and Dragons), because they didn't stick to the official rules of AD&D but instead followed the original ethos of treating everything as grist for the mill to help spur DM and player creativity. SAD&D bore little or no relation to 3e; it was definitely OD&D in spirit and execution, no two campaigns the same.

    You would have fit right in with that crowd, and your blog certainly takes me back vividly to an ethos of gaming that they lived.

    They had many of the same reactions you did to the silver, bronze, and dark ages, and felt real anger about the mismanagement of D&D and TSR that emerged. When Peter heard that TSR had been steered into a near-bankruptcy state, of course he rescued it. Any fan with the resources would have done the same. He was a serious D&D fan and couldn't stand to see our community's flagship game in such dire straits. He used the resources Wizards had earned from Magic: The Gathering to fund the rescue of TSR and D&D, which had always been the kind of contribution he had dreamed of making someday.

    Calling the era that followed the gilded or brass age obscures the point of what happened. Fans of D&D bought TSR from the business managers who had nearly bankrupted it! And having rescued D&D from near-death they were determined to ensure that D&D could never be in that kind of danger again.

    The Open Gaming License was not some odd aberration of this period; it was essential to the core strategy of fans determined to rescue D&D forever. (And many blessings upon Ryan and the other OGL champions for helping turn this idea into a reality.) The OGL did not just permit companies to create 3e products, but also largely made possible the current flowering of old-style D&D gaming by liberating as much of D&D as possible.

    So here is the crux of my point. It is a mistake to define the Wizards era in terms of 3e, the ruleset.

    Yes, most of your other eras are defined that way (although the golden age is more important for inventing D&D in the first place), but in the Wizards era something unprecedented happened, something so vitally important for the history of our hobby that it will always overshadow the 3e ruleset in significance. 3e was not the heart of the Wizards effort - it was just one result of it.

    The heart of the Wizards era was the rescuing of D&D and making it possible for anyone who wanted to take D&D in their own creative directions to do so, whether with rule systems or simpler supplements. The Wizards era, which ended when Hasbro purchased them, was only the second time in D&D's history when the game was owned and managed by people who above all loved the game and wanted it to succeed for its own sake.

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  60. I'll go one step further and argue that in one important way the Wizards era was a step forward from the D&D golden age that preceded it, the next logical development in its evolution, which had been stagnant in this particular way since the end of the golden age. Fans of 3e would argue that the next step was 3e, which you may well dispute, but I argue that it is not the ruleset but the legal framework that most desperately needed to evolve. The creators of D&D failed to protect it for posterity, left it in a legal situation in which people hostile or indifferent to D&D could and did legally lock it up as intellectual property, could and did block new access to old editions, and could and almost did wreck the whole legacy and take all the past versions down into the depths with them by making poor business decisions.

    This is not a minor detail of history. Without Peter and Ryan, without the many many other people whose work and passion and dedication made everything else possible (but most of whom you will never even hear about, because the truth of history is always lost in its passage) TSR would have gone bankrupt, all editions of D&D would still be locked up in legal limbo, there would not have been a D&D renaissance in the 2000s, and most of these blogs (including yours) and new D&D spinoff systems (including the grognard movement) would probably not exist in anything like their present forms, if at all. Wizards' financial and legal rescue of D&D is the most important thing to happen to D&D since the end of the golden age.

    The golden age invented D&D and fostered a spirit of creativity. The Wizards era finally gave D&D a copyright model compatible with the needs of a creative community, the legal framework needed to permanently protect a state of perpetual creative renaissance for D&D.

    When you characterized the Wizards era as gilded or brass - as a cheap imitation - I believe you were referring to 3e and the ways in which it deviates from OD&D & 1e. Yet, as written, as the characterization of an age, your words also implicitly characterize the rescue of D&D and the OGL as cheap imitations, or perhaps as so much less important than 3e that the sum total is still a cheap imitation.

    I am not sure this was your intent. I think you intended your model to characterize the relative merits of the rulesystems created during each era, but the time-oriented model you used may apply more broadly than you intended, resulting in unintended implications such as this one.

    Again, I offer my apologies for the late and lengthy reply, and thank you for the excellence of your blog.

    Yours truly,

    Rick Marshall
    Seattle, Washington

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  61. Rick, I'm glad that somebody with insight into a particular "foggy area" of the whole ages debate is out there. There certainly is more story to be told there. I think you need to start a gaming blog and tell it! Especially since James M. has commented recently that he no longer has much time to view replies in older posts.

    I am hoping James sees your posts to the thread, and even delves further into it.

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  62. Rick, thanks for the insightful comments. On a related note, I still recall the words of Peter Adkison (on Dragon Magazine IIRC) in which he stated that D&D 3e would have been closer to its roots than 2e had been, and that WotC would have not repeated the past errors by TSR. D&D 3e would have lived with its three core books only, not by creating tons of splatbooks and campaign settings.
    Obviously when Hasbro bought WotC things became rapidly (as another poster wrote) "schizophrenic", and D&D 3.5 (like D&D was a piece of software...) was the beginning of the end...
    I had bought the D&D 3e core books on the enthusiasm of Peter Adkison's words. But in the end, my playing of 3e only lasted 2 years.

    Cheers,
    Antonio

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  63. I have to say, IMHO Mister Maliszewski is Spot On. He may have breached the taboo of categorizing things, but that doesn't make him wrong. Rather people pointing that out merely emphasizes how right he is.

    Keep Rollin' - Drew

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  64. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  65. Italo Calvino said it best:

    Clarice, the glorious city, has a tormented history. Several times it decayed, then burgeoned again, always keeping the first Clarice as an unparalled model of every splendor, compared to which the city's recent state can only arouse more sighs at every fading of the stars. . . . In its centuries of decadence, emptied by plagues, it height reduced by collapsing beams and cornices . . . the city slowly became populated again as the survivors emerged from the basements and lairs, in hordes, swarming like rats, driven by their fury to rummage and gnaw, and yet also to collect and patch, like nesting birds. They grabbed everything that could be taken from where it was and put it in another place to serve a different use . . . Put together with odd bits of the useless Clarice, a survivors' Clarice was taking shape . . .The order of the era's succession has been lost; that a first Clarice existed is a widespread belief, but there are no proofs to support it. The capitals would have been in the chicken runs before they were in the temples, the marble urns could have been planted with basil before they were filled with dead bones. Only this is know for sure: a given number of objects is shifted within a given space, at times submerged by a quantity of new objects, at times worn out and not replaced; the rule is to shuffle them each time, then try to assemble them. Perhaps Clarice has always been only a confusion of chipped gimcracks, ill-assorted, obsolete.

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  66. Hi!

    I've been inspired by this and posted my own Ages of Gamebooks here:

    http://fantasygamebook.blogspot.com/2011/01/ages-of-gamebooks.html

    cheers

    Andy

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  67. I wonder how aware you were of the change from golden to silver at the time it was happening ... or is this in retrospect? I remember being slightly aware of some kind of change in tone, especially in Dragon articles, but also with Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms.

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