I’m going to try to talk about what it was like to be a pop-fantasy teen in the mid-late 1970s. A minor qualifier: I don’t claim to have been in on the absolute origins of role-playing. I’m from the California coast, not the D&D belt between Madison, WI, and Springfield, IL. I encountered role-playing in 1977, not at or near GenCon 1974. But I was close enough and can speak about what those times were like.
It was a different world. We saw or had no rock videos, no video games, no anime, no VCR (in fact, no way to see movies at will), no cable by modern standards, and no personal computers, much less internet. Forget cell phones; we didn’t even have cordless units in our houses, or call waiting. Nothing was digital, so recording devices all used film or tape.
A pop culture snapshot: “ninja” was an unknown term. Superheroes weren’t mainstream, and if they tried the results were embarassing, with few exceptions. Star Wars was a new movie, but not yet a franchise. No Alien much less Aliens, no Blade Runner, no Indiana Jones, no Terminator, no Transformers, no G.I. Joe cartoon series. Steve Austin was a cyborg, not a wrestler. Mainstream Fantasy-SF, as a target market, was only just beginning to gel.
Therefore I didn’t enjoy science fiction and fantasy through a socially recognized subculture or even fandom in the modern sense. Instead, I shared an interest with others personally and verbally. The material was vastly diverse: Barsoom and a host of imitators, Lord Dunsany, Charles Dexter Ward, a mash-up of Conan authors, Jurgen, Greek and Norse mythology, the unfinished Amber series, the Planet of the Apes movies, Narnia, Prydain, Poul Anderson, Fritz Leiber, The Worm Ouroboros, Jack Vance, Creature Features, the one and only Star Trek, Cheech Wizard, Heavy Metal (the magazine) including Richard Corben’s Den, the Batman, Wonder Warthog, Battle Circle, Mr. Natural, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Larry Niven, Earthsea, Karl Edward Wagner, Elric and company, Wizards, The First Kingdom, Elfquest, Silver Age Marvel comics and their “Cosmic Zap” phase, Dune, the Tolkien revival, Berni Wrightson, Frank Frazetta, and that newcomer, Boris Vallejo.
None of this was common knowledge. You were either into it or oblivious to it. Socially, that meant nearly anyone might be a pack member, and we met individually while doing something else. Marilyn was a woman doing gestalt therapy with my stepdad, and we talked about Star Trek, which led to her giving me a copy of The Hobbit in 1974, and I discovered and devoured the trilogy in my elementary school library. Mr. Whitemeyer, my seventh-grade history teacher, gave (gave!) me his Lancer paperbacks of the Fafhrd and Mouser stories. Cammie was a woman in her late twenties at the local liberal church who wanted to learn to play D&D, and she taught me some things too. We kids loved this subculture. These elders were willing to treat us seriously as peers due to a common interest and familiarity with the source material, and we enriched ourselves as well. Ed Doolittle, a fellow trumpet player one grade ahead of me, saw me reading “Adept’s Gambit” and quoted a line, which turned out much later to be a central concept in my college philosophy classes. Matt Tobiasen, a kid one grade behind me, was first to get the AD&D Monster Manual and I bought it from him.
Our interests overlapped with the techie, older-school science fiction folks, whose tastes ran to Asimov, Clarke, and Analogue magazine, but they weren’t the same. Their stories seemed corny and mannered. Our stuff ran more underground, more enthused about bloodshed and pulp-style driving plots, and the associated science fiction was rebellious and rude as in Dangerous Visions. As often as not, the stories spun off into hallucinations and horror, or cut off at the dilemma’s height, rather than tie up neatly and logically. I sometimes think that we kids experienced it a little differently, even more extremely. Our older friends and siblings enjoyed cracks in their universe, but to us, the kaleidoscopic material made a phantasmagoric whole.
Two powerfully important aspects of that material were the monstrous and the naked.
The monster part
We were hungry for monsters, especially visually and in some way we could share. Film at the time didn’t really cut it; Harryhausen animation as in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad was fun but no comparison to the imagination, and most movies featured painfully bad technique, or guys in rubber suits. Illustration was still the single most powerful medium for monster-enjoyment.
D&D delivered. It was the passion, I think, expressed by the occasional turn of phrase and the illustrations, not so much their skill or rendering, but composition. The net effect was instantly to want to be there and to imagine this thing doing whatever it does next.
For me, it was Dave Trampier’s minotaur illustration in the 1977 AD&D Monster Manual. It’s bold pen-and-ink, so starkly black-and-white that it’s practically a woodcut. There’s no panorama, no depth, no shading – not bad things in themselves, but in this case, any more would make a mess. The thing is coming right at you, and you can see it holding that axe preparatory to one more stride and an awe-inspiring strike; the mind leaps forward to the next pose. Nor is it an “it,” as the body is human and instantly familiar … so much so that not only do I see it coming at me, but I feel as if I were indeed that monster, in motion. 
Now that I think about it, the crop choice is crucial too; it establishes proximity, and also means that the reader’s understanding of the minotaur’s posture is largely imagined rather than seen, invoking your participation in his forward drive.
I have to clarify that I’m not talking about Trampier’s remarkable skill or anyone else’s, but rather the passion that underlay it, which in his case found expression through technique. You can find that same quality in far less skilled pieces by other artists, and to me, its presence compensates for any number of technical shortcomings. In such art, the monster is undeniably present in a scene in which you are present as well, even if the immediate locale is not shown, and it is doing something immediate and enthralling, even if it’s just looking at something.
The naked part
Naked was in! Pop culture exploded with explicit unclothed male and female presence throughout all the art. Its roots lay in myth, literature, classic art including figure drawing, and the fairy tale. It had a body-savvy, art-school quality: characters weren’t illustrated solely to display their body parts so much as they simply had them while doing whatever it was they were doing. Strands of hair, leafy branches in the foreground, and casually placed hands concealed nothing. It wasn’t isolated from the mainstream, either. Remember that elementary school library? During first grade I read every book they had on Greek and Norse mythology, and one of the former featured gorgeous illustrations with nude characters. Our librarian, Betty Allen, must have been a century old by my estimate at the time, but she clearly thought it perfectly all right to order that book for us to borrow and read.
D&D and early role-playing, the Old School as it’s now called, was right in the thick of this. Amazon boobs were front and center in the first publication of D&D in 1974. Tékumel certainly demonstrated pure continuity with the Barsoom books, for instance, in which all the characters were habitually unclothed except for sword-harnesses and the odd pendant or cape (anyone remember Queen Nayári of the Silken Thighs?). Dave Sutherland’s succubus illustration in the 1977 AD&D Monster Manual flashed her bush. The cover of my copy of the original Melee, published by Metagaming in 1977, features some adventurers battling an unclothed gargoyle with anatomical cock and balls hanging out. The detailed Humakti sword hilt in Cults of Prax (1979) was nothing more nor less than a full-frontal woman. Liz Danforth’s sorcerer’s clothes shredded off his body as he summoned a demon on the endpage illustration in Tunnels & Trolls, 5th edition (1979); her warrior’s naked breasts hung down as she crouched to meet the orc’s leaping strike in Death Test 2 (1980). (correction: the latter illustration was by Pat Hidy, in Death Test, 1978 – RE).
What I’m trying to emphasize is not how risqué any of this was in gaming, but rather the opposite – how consistent it was with all other pop culture was at the time, and how diffuse and non-branded most of pop culture was, although that was already changing. I’m also trying to describe, probably badly, how the illustrations were more naturalistic and more loving of the human form itself than typically found in porn. Check out that weary-succubus-and-sunset picture at the end of the 1979 Dungeon Master’s Guide.
Along came what can only be called sudden national hysteria. It had a lot to do with the emergence of the Moral Majority in the run-up to Ronald Reagan’s nomination, but it penetrated deeply into the mainstream. Strangely, it managed to subsume and include what had been anti-establishment activism as well. Tipper Gore kept us all safe with warning labels on Frank Zappa albums. Mothers everywhere threw their kids’ stacks of comics into the trash in a replay of the late 1950s. Much of this activity was the direct sequel to the Zap Comix obscenity case, exposing a split between pro-sex women’s libbers and puritanic second-wave feminists , and paralleled the run-up to the Meese Commission Report in 1986.
And as a minor player, D&D was tagged as devil worship, one of the bevy of obvious conspiracies to pump the souls of American children to Satan. Maybe not as bad as rock music, evolooshun, or baby-killing, but to be spotted and rooted out fast just the same. Taken by itself, BADD was a laughably incompetent, marginal, and short-lived endeavor . But as a member of the new phalanx of organizations that co-opted humanist activism, it gained media presence through association and found expression in families and institutions that were not concerned so much with Satan as with kids becoming “troubled” or “maladjusted.” That meant it hit far harder than it had any right to based on content.
And since Satan or maladjustedness were sort of hard to observe and combat, this more mainstream effort instead went after exactly what you might expect: the monsters and the naked bodies.
Characteristically, distributors of books, movies, comics, and games fell all over themselves trying to prove that the products were innocent of all intent or content to offend . Never mind them; they were and are cowards with only a few exceptions. I want to focus on how gamers themselves internalized the criticism.
I don’t know whether it was due to the current enthusiasm about the “hottest new hobby” breaking into the mainstream or what, but the newly-organized role-playing hobbyists performed a huge, collective flinch. Instead of defying the pressure, they apologized. They promised, yes, in fact, all that naughty stuff wasn’t really there. They put the lid back on and themselves into a self-created closet. There, they hoped that one day, if they were very good, the mainstream would accept that gaming was OK after all. (They’re still in there and still hoping.)
Then as now, role-playing publishers were themselves gamers. They flinched too, and the 1980s RPG books saw a dramatic downturn of all this content I’m talking about. D&D went Disney. GURPS shed Metagaming’s zesty illustrations. Rolemaster, Rifts, and the Hero System were born eunuchoid and stayed that way. T&T and Tekumel remained marginal, and the latter’s The Book of Ebon Bindings vanished. The Arduin Trilogy, of all things, cleaned up its act too. RuneQuest content floundered and was eventually scrubbed to nothing by Iron Crown (correction: Avalon Hill – RE).
I’m saying that role-playing publishing became monster-ly and naked-ly cleansed, in as stunning a victory for the Far Right coalition as anyone could have imagined . I’m also saying it’s time to stop playing the victim about it. We the gamers bear some of the blame for giving them that victory both in magnitude and in longevity.
That blame isn’t abstract either. Genuine suffering and loss were involved. A few years later, the new teens and pre-teens coming up through the hobby just when it was beginning to be apparent as an available hobby never even saw the original stuff. Collectively, the incoming generation learned that to participate, they’d have to parrot the official line that gaming was squeaky clean, nothing to do with backwards-played Led Zeppelin, dee-mon pictures, or bare titties. Some few who rebelled went off to counseling, deprogrammers, and medication, and no, I’m not kidding or exaggerating.
Such absurd stupidities as Dark Dungeons (1984) and Monsters & Mazes (1982) should have been laughed to scorn, not tolerated in squirming silence. But the battle had been lost by then, and when the wonderful game-comics-bookstore Novel Ideas, in Gainesville, Florida, was hit with an obscenity suit, it beat the suit but was driven into bankruptcy. The moral high ground didn’t save it in the absence of the cultural bedrock that would have thrown the case out in the first place. It was not an isolated example.
The Old School Renaissance
The current Old School Renaissance is an opportunity for great celebration and renewal of the untrammeled origins of the hobby. But is that happening? This question worries me.
What’s there to like is wonderful: investigation of real play, finding one another and bouncing ideas around, better institutional memory of texts and influences, insights for techniques and preferences … all the enthusiasm and the casting-off of often-repeated claims about role-playing are pure fun.
There’s something else not to like, and a lot of it. The most obvious examples are the response to Geof McKinney’s Carcosa, including his agreement to publish a censored version, and the similar decision to edit down the content of James Edward Raggi’s The Random Esoteric Creature Generator for its publication by Goodman Games. Feel free to run a few searches for the details.
The posted disapproval of the content doesn’t concern me. The far more common high-sounding capitulation does. Tolerance, getting along, understanding of others’ views, and similar ideas are raised not in defense of letting content stand, but as masks for acceding to that content’s suppression and even for recommending it. “YMMV” is not being used to defy censorship or bowdlerization, but rather to excuse them.
I’m also seeing conformity to basically Victorian societal values: explicit content is permitted and considered non-pornographic in certain mainstream venues, limited to specific themes and standards, all under effective oversight and tagged as specific consumer items (horror fiction, romance fiction, film). Outside of that context, all the very same visual or stated content is labeled pornography. However, since commercially-effective porn consists solely of display, such a value system neatly excises from the landscape explicit imagery associated with ideas, especially inspiring or provocative ones.
Regarding fantasy, I referred earlier to a specific phantasmagoric effect, which came about in part because the sources were so diverse: ancient literature, modern literature, underground fiction, visual media, and more. Fantasy was not a genre, but an activity which cut across time, across media, and across sectors of society; it did not describe parameters but rather broke them open. The difference between participating in that activity and discovering a new medium (gaming) to apply it with, vs. encountering gaming sourcebooks as one’s primary source of fantasy itself, is profound. The former has been excised by the Victorian trick, leaving only the latter.
Another form of censorship is revisionism, which is related to the previous point in that not only are RPG texts cited as fantasy sources, their content is also being described inaccurately, i.e., as free of all such explicit content. Therefore such content is cast as an intruder upon “original fantasy” in an outright falsification of history.
To summarize, the current discourse about explicit material in OSR publications not only illustrates illiberal capitulation to anti-intellectual establishmentarianism, it hides behind high-sounding fake-free-thinking phrasing, then compounds this already-gross act by mistaking gaming texts for fantasy itself, and compounds it all yet further by ignoring the blissfully and wildly-individual gaming material from the 1970s to source the much more homogenous and exponentially tamer material from the 1980s instead.
This isn’t directed toward those who simply disapprove. I’m directing this to anyone who flinched and failed to defend these works’ original content even while disagreeing with the criticism, and to anyone who cleans up an OSR product in the face of moral critics. I simply and fully condemn such actions, and it’s nothing to do with mileage, but because doing this is wrong. Why, if you concede that others’ mileage may vary, do you dial it back? Why do their preferences prevail? I mean, who are you trying not to offend? Anita Bryant? Andrea Dworkin? Ed Meese? Who are you trying to protect? Yourself? Your store owner? “The hobby?”
My question is whether all this, Fight On! and otherwise, is rediscovering and re-brewing the real bug juice, or tamely sipping the second-stage, caffeine-free, sugar-free version. It’s a choice between a fearless recovery of the birth of a new (small-a) art and game form or a nostalgia wave for one’s pre-teen and teen years. Such a recovery is long overdue and should be cause for rejoicing. But if nostalgia for 1980 is accidentally including 1980’s repudiation of 1974-79, retaining the collective flinch as a feature, then the OSR is a mere curiosity.
Role-playing originated precisely in individuals publishing what they wanted to publish, and violating this principle harms no one worse than ourselves. Which finally brings me to my own little latest offering, now available.
S/Lay W/Me as a game didn’t strike me originally as good OSR. I thought it to be way too free-form, with totally different starting points for imagination and means for seeing things happen. Then I remembered friends who conducted long-term, back-and-forth correspondence regarding characters and their adventures, and realized I was being more old-school than I thought.
Aside from procedures, though, its content is what I saw, did, wanted, and still seek in gaming. That content was vibrantly present in what I encountered in 1977. It is as pure to the hobby’s origin as red dragons, saving throws, and Gutboy Barrelhouse.
I hope the OSR can take that content more seriously. I’m not only talking about pictures. I’m talking about the cracking-open of “the normal,” into the hallucinatory, gory, gleeful, sexy realm of fantasy before it became Reagan-era teenfic, Hollywood’s PG-rated bitch, and canonical fantasy-RPG motifs. The visuals matter too. Let’s see monsters in motion, fully present, engaging the viewer rather than merely posing for them. Let’s see bodies as they are, the whole form in its positions at rest and in action, with titties by all means, but especially pussy, and cock and balls.
1. Trampier’s genius is that he could do all this with still figures as well as moving ones, as with those spooky wererats.
2. Zap Comix vs. New York, 1970, and its later follow-up; see also Miller vs. California, 1973.
3. See The Escapist for the history.
4. The de-politicizing of fantasy and science fiction is a larger story out of the scope of this esssay, including issues of Hollywood, the re-framing of acceptable venues for fictional sex, and bookstore economics.
5. The “mature” motifs in White Wolf Publishing in the early 1990s were so compromised by branding and target marketing as to nullify any actual underground content or importance.