Friday, February 29, 2008

D&D by Gygax and Arneson

My love for games and in particular role playing games and the entire dice rolling experience began almost 30 years ago in what is now, at best, a cloudy recollection of events. I’m not even sure at this point how I heard about D&D. Certainly none of the kids in my neighborhood were playing it, or even talking about it for that matter. It wasn’t something that had reached the middle school level (not my school, anyway). As best I can recall, I discovered it myself at a hobby shop. I saw the books, the funky dice, the miniatures…like most kids of that age, I was very curious, with a mind like a sponge, coupled with the fact that at that time I was enamored with comic books and games in general. It certainly helped having an older brother who liked fantasy and sci fi books, and who had some pals that played strange Avalon Hill games like Diplomacy. In other words, I was shown how to let my inner nerd out of the closet at a very young age. (And I later learned how to shut it back into the closet in high school and college, but that’s another topic).

I believe I begged my Mom to buy me the Holmes Basic box at some point, during a visit to the hobby shop, me not even knowing exactly what it was. I think in that same visit D1 was purchased. I vividly remember reading D1 on the way home in the car, but being upset I couldn’t find certain features of D1 anywhere in the rule book! This was very disturbing to me at the time, I knew something was amiss. Luckily, the box had another module included. Even though my earliest memories are of B2, I’m pretty sure in retrospect that my Holmes Box included B1 (which I honestly completely forgot ever owning until recently when I found a very old copy of it in my parents attic while searching for the above mentioned Holmes Box, which, by the way, I have not relocated).

My very first D&D session was shortly thereafter. After another trip to the hobby shop to just soak in more information, and stare at all of this D&D stuff, I convinced my Mom to buy B2 for me. I tried to get her to pay for The PHB (I knew I needed it after reading D1...what exactly were all of these spells that that Lich could cast. It was tearing me up!), but no dice. I think the DMG had just come out, but this whole AD&D thing was so…expensive! According to my Mom it was, anyway. I’m 100% sure that I didn’t actually believe it was expensive at that time, being 12 or 13 years old. I was sure that I HAD to have all this AD&D stuff, after all I wasn’t a kid anymore, I didn’t need Basic D&D. I HAD to have Advanced! It must be better, it’s ‘advanced‘ for crying out loud!

So, returning home with B2 in hand, I decided enough time had been spent reading the rules…it was time to try out this game called D&D. I had my friend Alex come over, and made my Mom play with us. I did my best to describe the rules to them, and they made some characters and off we went. I laid the module cover down flat on the game table, so everyone could see the map of the dungeon. I asked them where did they want to go, and told them what was in each room, and gave an idea of exactly how strong the monsters in various areas were, and they agreed to start with the Kobold area. I do remember my Mom rolling a d6 so they could begin moving on the map. I had to stop at this point and go over the rules again *sigh*.

That’s my first D&D memory, a self taught youngster who was ready for advanced, but mired in basic.

So, what exactly does this mildly anecdotal introduction have to do with the original D&D, as penned by Gygax & Arneson? I’m glad you asked!

It wasn’t until a few months later that my friend Alex introduced me to this other kid who had recently moved into the area, a kid named Lee. Lee was a year older than us, liked skateboards too, and played D&D! I had never met anyone else who played or even knew what D&D was! So, it was agreed that we would play D&D with Lee, in his established campaign, at the first opportunity. Alex never made the group or the sessions (his Mom was like that sometimes, Alex never ever even played D&D again as far as I know…which just boggles the mind after having such an excellent teacher show him the ropes of D&D).

Apparently I had misinterpreted a few of the finer details about D&D, for the first session I joined in on was, shall we say, incomprehensibly good beyond all possible expectations of preteen geeky dreaming. At that point, I was prepared to leave all worldly cares behind, to never so much as rise from the gaming table, not even for food or drink, I was prepared to sit there, rolling dice and battling Orcs forevermore, exploring the deep, dark dungeons of the underworld, and possibly sending messages home via carrier pigeon to my parents that all was well, at least once a fortnight. And then it was dinnertime, and we all had to shove off and allow Lee to eat with his real family. Nevertheless, I was hooked. Forever. Luckily parental units had interceded or else I bet we all would’ve passed out from starvation at any minute.

Amongst the many revelations from that first session were these strange, almost erudite little brown books, and even a little white one with a naked lady on it. No one was using Holmes or AD&D. This was truly old fashioned stuff, it must‘ve been from like the mid 70‘s or something! I quickly came to realize, though, that these little books must have spelled the rules out much more clearly, because the game ran smoothly with very little rules referencing, and clearly there had been no confusion about some of the basic D&D conventions that I had somehow missed.

I kept quiet about the small errors I had made in my own early DM’ing sessions. They were, after all, minor mistakes that were probably to be expected given the vast differences of the new rules as compared to these almost mystical little brown books. I was just glad at that point Alex hadn’t been there to point out that “Hey, you guys are doing it wrong, Dave said it was played like this!”…yeah. Very glad. Oh, and I saw for the first time what those miniatures were for. Obviously they were made so that people could paint them and show off their artistic skills. Kind of little mini collectible models. What other purpose could they serve? No one actually used them in the games, but everyone had brought some along with their little brown books.

So, I played more in Lee’s campaign, which was basically Middle Earth. Everything was Tolkien. If a little known passage from one of the Lord of the Rings books somehow in someway could possibly be referenced during play, or for the resolution of a rule decision, it was used, and it was gospel. Lee even had a fully developed Elf language, and Elf alphabet. I later came to realize that Lee was a bit off, but at the time I was willing to do anything to keep playing D&D, and rolling dice. Even at that young age, I was thinking of ways to improve upon the campaign, and the way we were playing the game (which, surprisingly, didn’t involve starting a module by laying the map on the table like a game of Monopoly).

At a later date, I saw the three little books and some of the other supplements at my local hobby shop, but by then AD&D was sitting there as well, with those three gigantic colorful hardback books seemingly dwarfing the little white box of booklets. AD&D was new, it was improved, it was cooler. Well, to a kid thinking about going from middle school to high school, AD&D *had* to be cooler. It was the next step UP from D&D or Holmes. And I was all about stepping up at that age.

To this day I am kicking myself for never buying D&D back then. I know through the many, many later years of gaming that I had all of the little books in my collection at one point or another, but by that time I was entrenched in AD&D, loaded to the gills with large, hardcover rule books (like 9 or 10 of them!) and I think I loaned them to a friend who wanted to ’borrow’ them, just as I had months or years before from someone else. I lost track off all of those books. I don’t think I ever really read them back then. I was all about AD&D, as mentioned.

Now, here I sit looking back at all those years of D&D (well, AD&D anyway). We just called whatever version anyone was playing simply D&D. Truthfully, what we called it was “DnD”, just that. After that stretch of original D&D in Lee’s campaign, which was far too short lived as Lee moved again the following year, I was once again the DM. Now, though, I understood the basic D&D conventions that had eluded a younger, much less wise gamer the year before. Armed with this vast wealth of gaming experience, I soon entered high school, joined the after school D&D Club (in secret, I NEVER told anyone about belonging to this club!), and met the core of gamers that would end up being my gaming group for the next 20 years.

Through those years, my personal favorite aspect of DnD was the joy of the unknown, the true mystery which surrounded home brewed DnD, just the absoulte feeling of being involved with some mysterious hobby that seemed to possess layer upon layer of new discoveries. For me, I was part of a gaming revolution. I could spend hour upon hour upon hour making maps, filling rooms, designing classes, monsters and artifacts, and then allowing my efforts to culminate in fun filled gaming sessions at the local rec club, after school or at a friends house. What a great five year stretch through high school it was.

I think those years were the peak years, when I ran my campaigns every Saturday. The DnD didn’t end with high school, and the sessions went on for years and years after that, but I think that was the pinnacle for me. Was it perfect DnD? No. I would’ve changed a lot of the things we did back then. I think that as a DM I improved vastly in the years that followed, as did my campaigns and the cohesiveness of the entire game. From a sheer ‘fun’ standpoint, though, those five or so years were the most magical, and the most nostalgic…there was just a feeling in the air of gaming greatness.

Recently, feeling myself to be an absolute dinosaur in the pen and paper scene, I decided I would do a little internet searching and see what information I might be able to find on some older DnD stuff, not this 2nd edition new fangled craziness.

Fortunately for me, and for my gaming future, I stumbled across an awesome forum at Dragonsfoot. Whoa, thinks I…other people who enjoy old DnD. Now, I’m still thinking I’m an AD&D player, first and foremost. So I start by checking all the AD&D stuff, the links, etc. I’m giddy as a school kid again, knowing that I am not a dinosaur out here in the gaming scene (maybe more of a Dodo Bird, actually).

Now, I was never, ever a ‘by the book’ DM. I had plenty of clashes in the past with rules lawyers, and some very memorable instances with players who knew the rules better than I, but didn’t know DnD better than I. I know for a fact that my core players can remember Floyd. I grew up near a military base, so luckily Floyd moved away after tormenting us all for a couple years with his knowledge of all things Gygaxian. Rather, we played to keep things moving quickly, lots of dice, and just general great gaming fun was had by all. It was when I was sitting at home that I would read my DMG. Every once in a while we would crack open the PHB to read a spell. Normally this would result in me stopping before finishing the entire text and just going with what felt right. It was never detrimental to the players, but they, like me, wanted to keep play running and not get bogged down in too many rules or technicalities. Wait a sec…OK more on this later.

So there I am spending hours surfing the net reading all these great retro gaming forums. Wow, is that just the coolest, or what? So then I read about Labyrinth Lord. Meh, sounds like Tunnels and Trolls or something. Wait, huh? It’s Basic D&D made using something called the OGL…now my interest is piqued. I start seeing things like OGL, OGC, SRD, I get curious. Although my brain is more like a twice baked potato than a sponge now, certain things do indeed make the old noodle al dente. This was one of those times.

I learned more about the history of DnD publications in the next few days than I had learned in the previous 30 years.

So, I end up checking out this Labyrinth Lord. I remember having to unlearn many of the rules I had picked up by starting with Holmes, I remember thinking back then that Holmes had been a horrible starting point (and no, I don’t actually blame Holmes Box for my *ahem* less than stellar beginning). But this was Moldvay. Now, the whole B/X and later BECMI blah blah Mentzer and RC stuff had been published long after I had reached the pinnacle of DnD, the throne of AD&D! The rest was for kids in middle school who couldn’t even figure out how to use B2 yet. But now, being more open minded and curious about new work in the field of old DnD, I had to check this LL thing out.

Very soon thereafter I decided to begin a new DnD campaign using LL. I would be making the ultimate old school campaign setting, a mega dungeon, large enough to host an entire campaign. And…I would be using the LL rules. I realized that my shelves and shelves of old AD&D home brew notes would just clutter up what I was planning to make into a rules light, online chat game. So, Ulin-Uthor was born, beginning with the Of Fortunes and Fools campaign, set in Illand’r. I managed to fill a few maps, and sent my 13 year old step son into the mega dungeon for a handful of old fashioned dungeon crawl sessions.

LL held up well, and I don’t think I opened the rule book more than once or twice over four sessions. One small issue though kept gnawing at me. It still does, actually. Maybe after 30 years of thinking about DnD, certain conventions are simply too ingrained to be changed about. This is not to say that the author (Dan Proctor) in fact changed anything, or that he is responsible for ruining my DnD experience. Not at all, LL is an outstanding product that allows a very classic, seamless, old school rules light gaming experience, presented in a professional manner. Sadly, though, I can’t wrap myself around a rules system that makes races and classes synonymous. There, I said it. I’m not a LL or Moldvay B/X man. Sorry, Labyrinth Lord, I hardly knew ye.

(That said, I have given the LL rules to my step son, who is diligently working on his own dungeon now. I must say that after glimpsing some of his maps, I am eagerly waiting to dive in, playing a Halfling as per the LL rules! I will certainly give the rules another go, but it’s just not the system I want for Ulin-Uthor and OF&F, which I will be putting hundreds of hours into designing).

I looked into a couple other retro simulacrum games, like BFRPG and OSRIC. They didn’t grab me the way LL had. I didn’t want modernized versions of old games, I wanted old games. So, I was considering limiting my new campaign to *just* the PHB, DMG and MM, when it hit me. What about those little brown books that I had written off so many years ago?
So, I finally broke down and coughed up the staggering cost of obtaining my own copies of the original D&D box. Yep, those little brown books from the mid 70’s that started it all. I was amazed at how much getting these old books set me back. That $5.99 PDF download is one less vente mocha latte for me.

I’ve spent the past handful of days reading the real D&D. It was after a few hours that I had what can only be called an epiphany. That the original D&D is a guideline, a jumping off point for making one’s own version or world or campaign, using D&D conventions, tailored to your own taste. There is no right or wrong way to play. It is a collection of abstract ideas, which the authors have somehow managed to write down in understandable terms. It was truly groundbreaking for it’s time. Obviously, it changed gaming forever. I understood this concept back in those first five years of DnD, so did Lee, and so did many other DnD players. I brewed and brewed and brewed, coming up with some really off the wall ideas back then.
What’s funny is it took me this long to have this realization. The knowledge of looking back and seeing the truly fun times of DnD, when we used bits and pieces from Arduin, Booty and the Beast, The Necromicon, Dragon Magazine, fantasy books, movies, pretty much everything was fair game. As long as it was fun, we made it fit. This was, after all, a fantasy world, not some world where I needed to stop and think about ecology, the environment, politics, history, reason or logic…it was fantasy. Now, there is nothing wrong with those things, as long as they do not interfere with the real game. Those things are dressing that add realism for the players, and really, more so for the DM since few of the players ever learn about much less remember these campaign tidbits.

Well, this so called epiphany has set things into perspective for me. I don’t think I was ever truly a AD&D player or DM. I was actually an original D&D player who just never read the volumes and understood them. Now that I’ve read them, and can honestly say that I don’t need to ever pick them up again, I can play D&D from this point forward the way it was meant to be played. My way, the way the players want to play, with no ‘set in stone’ rules whatsoever. Weird stuff coming from a self professed AD&D DM. I will of course read them again, and probably my AD&D books, the thing is, I’m technically ‘back’ to thinking the way I thought back in high school, that there are no limitations or hard and fast rules. The differences and fine points between rules and versions are, for that matter, overrated.

It is with this new mind set that I am moving into my upcoming campaign. The ‘rules’ used will be original D&D by Gygax and Arneson. I took the time to type up several pages of clarifications and house rules to Men & Magic. I’ve scoured the volumes trying to find the rules for Turning Undead, and had to break down and ask online (they’re hidden in M&M, Spells Section, p. 22 by the way). Thanks to various links to D&D, I’ve cobbled together changes and ideas from different D&D players across the globe, and I’ll be incorporating these as well. The fact is, I’ve always been playing D&D by Gygax and Arneson, I just never knew it.

~Sham

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