The Original Dungeons & Dragons had dwarves and elves, a certain kind of magic system and other notions that stuck with the game as “Dungeons & Dragons.”
But in the section entitled Scope in Dungeons and Dragons: Book 1 you’ll find the following words from Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax:
“DUNGEONS and DRAGONS will provide a basically complete, nearly endless campaign of all levels of fantastic-medieval wargame play. Actually, the scope need not be restricted to the medieval; it can stretch from the prehistoric to the imagined future…”
So, the game was really, from the start, a frame work for sitting around making up challenges for your friends. But the setting, the fictional color, the details of the fiction, were supposed to be all up for grabs.
Part of what OSR is (though not always) is a celebration of this very point. While a lot of OSR products continue the imaginatively straight-jacketed settings of the OD&D Tolkien-Pulp-Fantasy Pastiche, others are taking the spirit hinted at in the rules of OD&D and making up new places and worlds and genres to explore.
That’s a point that I don’t think can be stressed enough.
The 1974 D&D rules have a specific flavor to them, which I will here refer to as “vanilla”.
The various versions of A/D&D through the decades (as well as their support products) have not travelled far from 1974 in terms of flavor. Thus we have “French vanilla”, “vanilla bean”, “vanilla with nuts”, “vanilla with chocolate syrup”, “vanilla with ______”, etc.
Consider: “This setting has crusty dwarves who have wars with goblins who have chests full of gold and elves living in forests with dragons flying overhead while regenerating trolls live in caves and every town has a cleric to heal people and magic-users will zap you with fireballs and etc.”
I just described almost every published D&D product. Those that supposedly “innovate” from that merely A) add more stuff to that mix (“…plus laser guns and crashed spaceships and robots!”), and/or B) give the above mix some twists (“In this campaign, elves live in the desert and ride anhkhegs.”).
The only two publishers that I know of who are giving us actual innovation are Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Goodman Games (with their forthcoming DDC RPG and with James Raggi’s Random Esoteric Creature Generator).
Ever since the 1970s, people have typically failed to distinguish between A) the D&D game and B) the sample playing pieces included with the game. Just about every D&D product is full of monsters from the standard lists, magic items from the standard lists, spells from the standard lists, and etc. I think that shows a reticence to really unleash the imagination.
As far as I’m concerned, all of the D&D monsters, magic items, and spells are merely suggestions/options/examples. I chucked all but 6 of the standard monsters from Carcosa, and I dumped ALL of them from Isle of the Unknown. All the standard magic items are absent from both those products, as well as all the spells and even magic systems. Demi-humans aren’t there, either. All gone!
The bedrock, the basis of the game is pretty much the standard character generation system for making a human fighter, plus the rules for him to operate: to hit, saving throws, etc. And I think that’s it. Even the equipment lists and prices are merely options. Everything else is wide-open for the referee to make as he wills.
By perceiving all these options as necessities, all too many people will say, “Yeah, but without magic missiles/orcs/dwarves/you-name-it, it just isn’t D&D anymore!” Which is like saying, “If it’s not some kind of vanilla, then it just isn’t ice cream anymore!”
I have as my authorities the very highest: Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.
They write at the beginning of the 1974 D&D rules under “Scope”: “DUNGEONS and DRAGONS will provide a basically complete, nearly endless campaign of all levels of fantastic-medieval wargame play. Actually, the scope need not be restricted to the medieval; it can stretch from the prehistoric to the imagined future…”
Then, on the very last page of the rules in the “Afterward”: “We urge you to refrain from writing for rule interpretations or the like unless you are absolutely at a loss, for everything herein is fantastic, and the best way is to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way!”
D&D can have any setting whatsoever, from the prehistoric to the farthest of futures. And YOU decide (based on your whim alone) how EVERYTHING will be.
That’s from Gygax and Arneson in January 1974.
It’s too bad that those three sentences have been basically ignored by virtually all publishers of D&D material. There is enough published D&D stuff (of all the vanilla variations) to last anyone 20 lifetimes. I for one have no desire to see another orc or another +1 sword. I want to reach back to the exhortations in the 1974 rules and have some really imaginative stuff published.
So I am very thankful for Lamentations of the Flame Princess and for Goodman Games. They are driving the OSR truck through unexplored terrain rather than keeping to the safe, well-trodden paths.
There is nothing wrong with vanilla ice cream. Just don’t neglect all the other flavors. I occasionally play a game of vanilla D&D, but most of my D&D games are of various other flavors. Variety is the spice of life!
Geoffrey McKinney created Supplement V: Carcosa — an imagined fifth supplement for the original Dungeons and Dragons if the spirit of forging your own creative path had been followed from the original D&D books. It’s an example of the DIY energy that is, in my view, the OSR at its best. Whether or not one uses Carcosa as a setting for play, it is an excellent inspiration for the kind of play one can have.
Here is how Eero Tuovinen summed up Carcosa:
The world is a broken, post-apocalyptic place of dinosaurs, primitive tribes, isolated citadels and monasteries of strange beliefs. Carcosa is true home to the monsters of the Mythos, up there in the far Pleiades. In the long-ago past it was a world ruled by the Snakemen, who bred humanity as sacrificial victims for their blood-magics. Now the snakemen are gone, but far too often human sorcerers take their place, or humans prove that they do not need the excuse of magic for their brutality. What’s more, humanity is not alone: space aliens have descended upon doomed Carcosa like flies buzzing upon a carcass, competing with whoever dare face them in untangling the legacy of past magi-tech. Brutal sword & planet fantasy with racism, psionics, ray guns, radioactive dust in your throat just because why not.
Carcosa was built to work smoothly with games from the OSR. That is, it is built from the bones of the original Dungeons & Dragons. There are rules tweaks, of course, to handle all the weirdness. But the original D&D encouraged such tweaking.