Sunday, December 16, 2012

What is a Dark Age?

"Desolation" by Thomas Cole, from "The Course of Empire"

The thread "Do we live in the d20 Dark Ages?" over at EN World got the Forum Thread Highlight for yesterday. Yes, its a microscopic blip of an achievement on the Internet, but I'm thankful for it anyway.

During the discussion on that thread, it dawned on me that my argument needs some definitions beyond the simple "Dark Ages" analogy and trends established back in this blog's first post.

So, what do I mean when I say "Dark Ages" or "Dark Age?"

In layman's terms: 
D&D/tabletop roleplaying gamers used to be more unified during the 1970s and 1980s ("The Golden Age") than they were in the 1990s, and today. D&D players have fragmented into different groups based on what version of D&D they play. As evidenced by the Edition Wars, interaction between these groups can be antagonistic. Beneath all of this is the desire to return to the "Golden Age," as evidenced by the OSR, certain modules, and Wizards of the Coast's attempt to unify D&D players with D&D 5th Edition.

Here's a more in-depth definition:

1. A Dark Age is a cultural perception, based in both the collective mind-set and memory of the tabletop role-playing game sub-culture. It can, at times, include sub-cultures other than those who play tabletop RPGs, because there is a lot of overlap, say between computer/console gamers and tabletop gamers. But both groups identify themselves as "gamers", even though they play games that are different and distinct from each other.

  • 1a) Often, an entity establishes the primary discourse for the sub-culture. In our case, this was TSR throughout most of the 1970s and 1980s. Now it is Wizards of the Coast, but they are rivaled by Paizo over the D&D discourse. The OSR has also been vocal
  • 1b) A Dark Age can include economic downturns or decline, usually by the entity establishing the primary discourse. For example, AD&D 2e is often synonymous with TSR's eventual buy out by Wizards of the Coast.
  • 1c) To avoid economic downturns or decline, the entity establishing the primary discourse will often produce further discourse which harkens back to the "Golden Age," trying to unify as much as possible, the different smaller cultures that arose out of the main sub-culture (see #2 below).

2. A Dark Age cultural perception begins when both the collective mind-set and memory of the sub-culture fragments further into different cultural groups. Each new group see themselves as part of the "correct" group, while "the other" groups are somehow "wrong." The primary discourse also breaks down.

3. A culture with a Dark Age perception will look back to a "Golden Age" and often will seek to replicate the achievements of that age, such as the common experiences that both help form or bring the culture to its zenith, before it "fell." The entity establishing the primary discourse while often take the lead in this endeavour, if it can (see 1c above).

These definitions will be update as further insights surface. I welcome you to join the discussion and contribute your viewpoint.


  1. I don't fault the analogy, but it seems to me, from an OSR perspective, that we've passed through the Dark Ages and into a new Golden Age. Today we are spoiled for choice.

    Back when the world of D&D was controlled by the monolithic power of TSR, who actively attempted to suppress all opposition (copyright infringers), we were pretty much limited to what they offered us, at the price they offered it.

    In contrast, today we have so many publishers offering a multitude of product for TSR D&D that I challenge anyone to say they can keep up with it all.

    And I scorn those who would say it's all inferior product to that which TSR used to produce. Sure, TSR gave us some absolute classics, but there are many publishers and authors producing products just as good as the good old days and in some cases much better.

    Then there's pricing. Never has it been possible to buy so much for old school games at such reasonable prices.

    Nostalgia is a wonderful thing, but from my old school view, the world of RPGing has never been so golden.

  2. I agree with the previous comment however, I believe that the Dark Age would apply more toward the player side of the house. Today players seem more focused the rules in systems then the game/story. It’s all about “loots” and “xps.” The last session I was GMing one of my players wanted to question a hostage about some information to do with local gangs. Asked them to go ahead and he rolled some percentile dice and said “I succeed” what do I know? I told the player that is not how it works at my table but he looked very confused. I can’t count how many times I need to elicit action descriptions from my player rather than dice rolls. So I feel the way players think of their characters actions has changed, it is less artful and descriptive and more numerical and detached.


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