Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Hodgson's Old School Gaming Appeal

In my last post, I promised to explain why William Hope Hodgson's works have such appeal in old-school gaming circles. And it's not just because of small coincidences like pig-faced orcs or the "Keep on the Borderlands/House on the Borderland" thing.

Illustration by Philippe Druillet
First, as I explained last time, the morality of Hodgson's writing is based on contagion, resistance and disgust. Evil does not consist in things you choose to do, even less so in your motives for doing them. It is a thing you catch, or are overwhelmed by. This is obviously closer to the "pick a team" alignment of original and basic D&D, than the meticulous graphing of alignment as a consequence of character behaviors encouraged by AD&D.

But it's even more primal than Team Law vs. Team Chaos. It is quite simply a morality of physical and psychic survival against forces of evil with purely destructive intent. You never meet people who have gone over to the dark side and make the case for corruption in Hodgson's tales. The closest you get is seeing wretches who have become half-assimilated, who lacked the pluck to resist. Chaos is insidious, relentless, but ultimately voiceless if not completely mindless. It is closer to games where the number one concern is not sticking to alignment, but simple physical survival, and avoidance of such curses and level draining as would render the character useless even if still technically alive.

In these stories, the Enemy is so visibly inhuman that its side is never a temptation. Indeed, as soon as humans recognize each other in these bleak and desolate landscapes of the soul, there is an immediate urge to mutual aid which never falters. Betrayal is not an issue in Hodgson. There are no politics, no clash of vested interests or cultural worldviews; the largest issues between humans concern the tactics of fighting the visible evil. The enemy has no babies whose fate can be debated.

I know that many game tables have involved inter-player intrigue, and even more (including my own) mix up their straightforward adventuring with embroilments in the world of politics and religion. Certainly, allowing players to steal, backstab and otherwise compete with each other smacks of a freewheeling, juvenile style that many players quickly abandon. But there's also something of innocence lost when erstwhile adventurers find themselves in the thick of things with guilds, courtiers, and ambassadors. A more mature subject, maybe, but there's a reason Conan the Barbarian pined on the throne of Aquilonia for his freebooting younger days.

Hodgson's stories appeal to this straightforward spirit of adventure; a band set against inhuman evil, pledged to help each other. They may be working to save the village or the world, but there's no grubby running after the errands of some duke. It also helps that the evil enemies and landscapes are, with only a few exceptions, described so inventively and compellingly (I still think he could have done a better job with "The Hog" but the horrors of the other Carnacki stories, and their constant suspense between supernatural and rational explanations, are first rate). It is this same spirit, I'm convinced, that leads people steeped in intrigue-heavy social campaigns back to the raw experience of adventure, whether within the same campaign or between campaigns.

Speaking of which ... there's an issue I want to raise soon, which deals with the role of the town or city in adventure gaming. It has to do with a recent session in my own game. Stay tuned.

1 comment:

  1. Had a feeling that this is where you were going with yesterday's teaser. Nothing to add except that I heartilg concur.