Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Interesting Tracy Hickman quote.

Courtesy of former TSR/WotC fiction editor Phil Athans.

"It is true that the story was the foundation of Dragonlance and came out of the personal desire of both my wife [Laura Hickman] and myself to use role playing games as a medium of storytelling. You have to remember that at the time adventure games were largely of the ‘kill the monster, take its treasure, buy more weapons to kill bigger monsters’ variety. We wanted to introduce meaning into gaming through story."

Which got me thinking:

How sad that they probably meant well but simply couldn't understand that "meaning" in gaming can only be collaboratively constructed from the bottom (individual players and GMs) up, never simply decreed from the top down. Indeed, the fact that Hickman was apparently unaware that campaigning not of the "kill the monster, take its treasure" mold had been alive and thriving at countless gaming tables across the world for years before he made this statement evinces a startling degree of myopia that went on to handicap his subsequent designs severely.

It's really a fundamental misunderstanding of the entire nature of the medium. A tabletop RPG writer can, at best, hand the players a solid set of tools and a bit of good advice. If you try to build the whole house for them, it will only ever be your home. And they'll sense as much.

That's just the sad part. When you throw millions of dollars behind a misunderstanding this basic, that's where things get tragic. TSR finally learned this lesson when they found themselves forced to sell all their assets to Wizards of the Coast in the late 1990s.

After the sting of the tragedy fades, you move onto the bittersweet ironic amusement phase. In this case, that means the ability to do just what this post is doing now: Look back on how a simple bit of mistaken but well-meant idealism gone out-of-control toppled a once invulnerable titan of the fantasy gaming hobby after little more than one decade in earnest practice.

Which leaves one where? Sadder but wiser? I would hope so.

Hickman, continued: "In practice, however, it became a ‘chicken and egg’ sort of issue. The game was being developed ahead of the story—which actually adversely affected the story itself."

Ouch. Nevermind...


  1. Dragonlance is the death of gaming and I didn't even have to put on my pants this morning to figure that out!

  2. Still...Could you...I mean, could you still put on some pants maybe?

    No offense.

  3. Let's face it, Hickman's statment that "adventure games were largely of the ‘kill the monster, take its treasure, buy more weapons to kill bigger monsters’ variety." was true then and is also true to this day to a large extent. Like he says, he tried to shift the emphasis towards more story elements for those groups who fell into that camp, not the ones who were fine all along. The fact that the DL modules didnt offer more freedom than the average, "here's your dungeon entrance" type module is a different matter. I like your analogy about building the house though Will. That really pins down an important lesson in successful gaming. OTOH, I have had some pretty successful games where I have built the house, but then let the players burn it to the ground, rebuild and remodel as they saw fit. Not harmonic, but fun :)

  4. "Like he says, he tried to shift the emphasis towards more story elements for those groups who fell into that camp, not the ones who were fine all along."

    That's the problem. He didn't realize two things: a) This wasn't needed and b) this wasn't within the powers of him or any other game designer.

  5. Sorry, but...who are you to say it wasn't needed? Clearly, there are those who felt it was needed, or (a) it wouldn't have happened to begin with, (b) there wouldn't be an ongoing debate, and (c) the World of Darkness storyteller system would never have been created to begin with.

    It's the worst kind of superior-minded, dismissive arrogance to say that just because Tracy Hickman preferred a different kind of game than you, and introduced story elements to foster that type of game, that he has a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the medium.

    Or, to quote Rob Gordon from High Fidelity: How can it be bullshit to state a preference?

  6. "It's the worst kind of superior-minded, dismissive arrogance...to say that...Tracy Hickman...has a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the medium."

    It may be all three of those things, I'll leave that judgement to you, but I feel I've made my case and that one thing it is not is incorrect.

  7. Dragonlance did make a buttload of cash for TSR, probably extending the company a few years beyond it's natural lifestyle. The tragedy is that instead of using the influx of money and gamers DL brought to supplement the other world and adventure styles, they went MORE that direction and eventually killed the goose that laid the golden egg.

    For the record, I don't see a thing wrong with promoting the storytelling style AS A STYLE of D&D, just not as THE style. Face it some DM's of the "Kill the monster, take it's treasure" mold really suck and I can see a segment of players getting bored of this and wanting to try something different. The thing is D&D can accommodate any style from storytelling to sandbox to adventure path, etc. Dictating a style instead of merely handing the DM a toolbox as you said Will was the fundamental flaw and eventual failure of the "old" TSR.

  8. How fascinating to read reflections on events by those who were not present at the time and whose perspective is limited.

    TSR crashed as a company in spite of its products ... not because of them. Dragonlance was only one of a pantheon of products being produced at the time (Gangbusters, Star Frontiers, Indiana Jones RPG, Boot Hill, not to mention an entire variety of other D&D and AD&D modules that followed their own course rather than the Dragonlance exploration of storytelling in game form.

    TSR collapsed because it did not understand its business model properly, its leadership failed to grasp changes in the marketplace at the time and essentially got into trouble with the banks that were providing them financing.

    Your argument is, quite simply, wrong.