Sunday, November 27, 2011


Nostalgia began life in the Baroque era as an entirely different animal than how many think of it today. 

Apparently desertions, suicides, and sudden deaths were so common among the many homesick Swiss mercenaries who fought their way across Europe that it was called the “Swiss Illness”, a disease that supposedly came on with a preoccupation with strong feelings for the mountains of home. Nostalgia, a Greek compound formed by adding  algos (pain, grief, distress) to nostos (homecoming) was coined in 1688 by a physician to describe the malady. 

Later it would get mixed up with Romanticism in particular with it's connections to natural landscapes and spiritual senses of homeland.

As a rpg blogger who steers toward the moldy oldies, I bristle at the charges of nostalgia that get bandied from time to time. Bristle, not because it's not true, but because it is. I bristle because it's confused with shoddy old sentimentality, the sugary sap we have all been trained to by our maudlin, self-obsessed culture. We fetish youth and the new, to the point that we are encouraged to piss away later years basking in an afterglow labeled at your local Walmart as “nostalgia”.

But when I look at my own return to the hobby the welter of things I brought back with me are just more complicated than that. Truth be told there were indeed hefty doses of golden-edged memories, and the joy of reconnecting with the physical artifacts of the game. That sudden charge when flipping to that first page of the Holmes book, undeniable.

But if you have followed this blog—and have winded through all the wool gathering and yarn spinning of my more personal entries (self-indulgently the ones that made the blog experiment truly worthwhile to me) and some others—you'll note a preoccupation of mine to try and pick at the all deeper feelings and thoughts that swim around these games of fantasy.

On some days the game really is just a game, a folded up board and some dice that I pull out to have a good time. On others, the quiet moments when I am designing some new piece of the setting or just day dreaming it goes over to that thought train. How do our thoughts and feelings about religion color our fantasy pantheons? When is D&D

Much of it is tinged with that older nostalgia, a longing for some other place both real and imagined that was close once and now feels far. Isn't that one of the essences of fantasy as much as the Weird? That bittersweet holdover of Romanticism? Cyclopean crumbling ruins, the seeking of long-lost treasures, the vanquishing of ancient evils?

It's my birthday and as I walk into the first years of so-called middle age, these trains come naturally. The hell with it, let's game.  


  1. I won't speak for anyone else, but nostalgia underlies at least a part of my resurgence of interest in gaming (which led to gaming blogging). And fantasy will always have some of that romanticism to it, as you suggest.

    For me (and again, maybe just me, maybe not) I'm not interested in ritual dance of doing exactly the same thing I did back in the day--and hoping for the same emotional response. I whether from gaming or literature, I need to experience some of those same things, sure, but to really come closest to recapturing how it felt back in the day, it has to be somewhat new, at the same time. I suppose that's the goal, at least.

  2. @Trey
    That is a profoundly accurate description.

    That's what I think some don't get, it's not musing about glory days like an aging high school quarterback--or at least it shouldn't be--it's about getting back to that impression of something wondrous and fresh: an emotional and intellectual take-off point.

    The reality is when examined closely there is all truckloads of not-so great practices with the actual gaming of that period: the nasty, dumb as a box of rocks arguments between preteen boys; the clumsy handling of adventures and settings; etc.

    But there was something salvageable about the overall experience, something that did in fact it get lost or shoveled under as the industry swamped the hobbyist aspects of the game.

  3. Nostalgia is seriously under-rated. I'm not exactly sure when the word transformed into something negative or derisive, but I think there is a lot to the concept worth rescuing. (Much like there is much worth preserving in old-school gaming.) Like you say, nostalgia isn't about viewing the past through rose-tinted glasses but rather about the emotional-aesthetic experience of memory and joy. It's a bit like Walter Pater's maxim, really; nostalgia too allows us to "burn always with that hard, gemlike flame."

  4. In addition to reliving the fond memories of my youth, for me gaming offers the chance to express my creativity through collaborative play. This, in turn, sparks my imagination and leads to more expressions of creativity.

    P.S. Happy birthday!

  5. Nice post, great comments too. Happy Birthday!

  6. First: Happy Birthday!

    Regarding nostalgia and The Hobby... it's almost unavoidable to consider the mythical 'high point' of gaming in the eighties without remembering the context of non-gaming things around it:

    The price of gas and everything else. The friends I had who could work part time stocking shelves on a night crew and afford to game for hours every day. When the big 'tech' toy was an electric typewriter. The availability of game magazines that formed the 'internet' of the time. The age when being a dork was uncool (before 'geek' culture went horribly mainstream). Less bills to worry about, and having so many social issues seem 'far away'. The pre-global economy here in the U.S. The collection of records (and they're album art) that served as a personal art gallery. How so much gaming stuff seemed to carry flavor and sentiment in the author's 'voice'. The expanding toy industry and the mom-and-pop game/hobby/model railroad stores. The glory of drive-in movies.

    We may have been a throw away generation, but we were still very fortunate.

  7. I was thinking about visiting Switzerland, but now I'm having second thoughts now that I know that you can get ill once you're away from those beautiful vallies and mountains.

    Happy Birthday!

  8. @Scott
    It's something I have been interested in, the connections to other trends of the time. Here's a thought, is there a relationship to bursts of energy and creativity in RPGs and recessions? Think about it 1973-75 then 1979-81. Can't account for 91-92 as I wasn't interested in the hobby. But skip ahead to the recent Great Recession. Coincidence?

  9. Now, on the topic of nostalgia - it doesn't really do much for me.

    I find gaming in my forties totally different than gaming in my teens. I didn't return to gaming from a long hiatus with a sense of longing or nostalgia. It was, literally, an evolving need to spin tales of wonder (with Freudian undercurrents ever present) that kept me engaged with gaming for most of my life.

    The depths of expression and humanity in the games are far greater now than 30 years ago. The purpose of gaming is still about epic struggle and there's plenty of monster bashing. That much is in common across the decades. But I don't think back on particular gaming memories with a sense of nostalgia (except, perhaps, last month's Pendragon session when the boy Arthur pulled the sword out of the stone for the first time.)

    The longing for another world so commonly evoked by fantasy literature does indeed strike me; but, I don't think of it as nostalgia in any way. Its a dreaming desire for what is forever out of reach rather than yearning for days gone past or home far away.

  10. @Ckutalik: Ahhh, you clever bastard. Absolutely spot on. Consider the recession cycles of the past (say 1965 onwards). Overlap the Energy Crisis - the 1973 Oil Crisis was followed by the '73-'74 stock market crash.

    And that's just in the seventies - in the earliest growth of D&D.

    Anything that keeps Dad from handing over the car keys will cause a bump in 'homebound' activities in the 1960-1980 period.

    After all, young boys should be playing outside, not sitting around a table... they might be using a Ouija board, for heaven's sake!

  11. Happy Birthday!

    As more adult responsibilities and the lingering sense of impending doom both have increased, I find myself looking more and more fondly on the past. I think it has to do with the same kind of world-weariness that those mercenaries encountered as they got farther from home. It's not so much that I want to escape the time and place where I am as that I want to hold onto the simpler pleasures and ideas of the past, despite the present. I want to spend time in the idyllic mindscape as a way of coping with the present.

    As far as your comment about recession, the recession in 91-92 was coincident with the resurgence of tabletop gaming that happened with the publication of Vampire and the explosion of White Wolf.

  12. @Scott and Bob I am hungry to explore that vein. (And thanks, Bob, for shoring up my hunch.)