Welcome to the Flaming Faggot

Callovia is called "the boundless empire" yet you have managed to find its northern border - a notorious roadhouse deep within the Madrasan Marches on the edge of the wilds of Llanvirnesse. The sign above the door reads "Flaming Faggot," which would suggest a cozy, homey inn with fresh biscuits served at teatime if not for the severed troll heads mounted on pikes at the gate.

As you cross the threshold the raucous din quiets momentarily as all eyes dart to the door and calloused hands drop instinctively to well-worn sword hilts. The threat, instantly assessed, is dismissed and roadhouse patrons go about their business hardly missing a beat.

Grim, hard-eyed men huddle around tables in close conversation thick with conspiracy; caravan guards gamble away their earnings; Caemric rangers sit close to the fireplace cooking the damp of the Black Annis from their clothes as they warm their innards with Red Dragon Ale; minstrels play and buxom wenches dance for the pleasure of men who pay them little attention - until they need a companion to warm their bed.

As you approach the bar, a huge, bald barman with a greatsword slung across his back slides a mug of freshly-pulled ale towards you, its frothy head dripping over the rim.

"Pull up a seat, lad," he says, "and let me tell you a tale of high adventure."

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Lazarus Taxa and the Old School Movement

A Lazarus taxon is a group of organisms that was believed to have gone extinct but turns out to have persisted, undetected, in small numbers to metaphorically rise from the dead at a later date.

One of the most famous examples of a Lazarus taxon is an order of lobe-finned fish commonly known as coelacanths.  Related to the earliest tetrapods to inhabit land, coelacanths were long thought to have gone extinct in the Late Cretaceous mass extinction, more than sixty-five million years ago.  Thus, it came as a great shock to the world when a living specimen was caught by a fisherman off the east coast of South Africa in 1938.

Similarly, old versions of D&D that were believed to be extinct are, to quote Monty Python, "not dead yet!"  I imagine that every iteration of the game has had its loyal supporters that kept right on playing their favourite version, refusing to switch to a newer edition.  Thus, like small populations of coelacanths lurking in the ocean's depths beneath notice, small pockets of gamers lurked unnoticed in the depths of their basements keeping alive old games no longer in print, awaiting the chance to rise again.

One of the first signs of life from the long-dormant clade of "true" D&D games, which I have previously referred to as the "TSR clade" to distinguish OD&D and its legitimate offspring from the genetically unrelated rpgs produced by Wizards of the Coast, was Castles and Crusades, published by Troll Lord Games in 2004.  C&C adhered closely to the spirit of AD&D while introducing some changes by way of an elegant, unified mechanic called the SIEGE engine.  Thus C&C is a descendant of AD&D and has greater moral claim to the title of an edition of D&D than any of the WotC games.  Indeed, the unofficial motto of C&C adopted by many of its fans is: "what 3rd edition should have been."

The close affinity of C&C to AD&D was recognized by Gary Gygax who was working with Troll Lord to publish his famous Castle Zagyg Campaign (can't call it Greyhawk anymore) for C&C.  He was quoted as saying: "AD&D per se is as dead a system as Latin is a language, while the C&C game has much the same spirit and nearly the same mechanics. So why not accept the latter (as the logical alternative)."  I used parentheses because I couldn't recall his exact words at the end of the quote, but they were something to that effect.  Happily, Gary was wrong about AD&D being a dead system.  He said this before the rise of the Old School movement and the widespread proliferation of retro-clone games.

Perhaps coelacanths aren't the best analogy for the this recent proliferation, as the group, represented by only two species, Latimeria chalumnae, and L. menadoensis are threatened and are vulnerable to extinction.  This is not the most auspicious example to use to describe our Old School movement, and a more optimistic analogy would be the repopulation of corals throughout the world.  Throughout the Palaeozoic Era corals were represented by two orders: the Rugosa and the Tabulata, both of which went extinct during the Late Permian mass extinction.  This should have been the end of the line for corals, but a new order, the Scleractinia, representing the modern corals we know today, arose in the Middle Triassic.  At least one species of coral must have survived the mass extinction that extinguished 96% of all species on Earth to give rise to a whole new branch of anthozoans after an approximately twenty-five million year absence in the fossil record.

My hope is that the current crop of descendants of the TSR clade does not represent a last gasp of air before going under for good, but rather a radiation that will repopulate true D&D within the gaming biome.  Let's keep our fingers crossed.


A Paladin In Citadel said...

The explosion of blogs suggests that there is still some life in the old ways. The fact that Chevski has also tripled his readers, from 120 to over 450, in the course of a year, is encouraging.

Sean Robson said...

I'm overwhelmed by the proliferation of blogs dedicated to old-school gaming, as well as the many lovingly produced retro-clones over the last few years. I have no evidence to support this, but I suspect that a combination of 3E fatigue and 4E backlash has encouraged a lot of people to return to their roots.

Returning to old-school play after many years of 3E play is refreshing and feels like a big weight lifted off my chest - I can breath again. I'm inspired by the many old-school blogs and their thought-provoking essays.