Saturday, August 8, 2009

Much Ado 'bout Ol' Schoo' part 2

3. Wet Behind the Ears: Additionally there were already, in these early days, various divisions in the fan base. Not only did I experience the normal school boy underclassmen – upperclassmen prejudices, but there were D&D prejudices at every turn. These opinions had little to do with whether one was playing original, basic or advanced D&D. In fact, pretty much everyone was, by that time, playing AD&D. The Dungeon Master's Guide was the latest addition to AD&D, and by then it was basically old news. I owned all three volumes shortly after I joined the D&D Club. Few of the groups I played in, in retrospect, played the game in the manner envisioned by Gygax and TSR, but your street cred was established by using the AD&D books. Only a silly Freshman, like me, would show up with the basic D&D box. Most of the time us underclassmen had to make our own games, and they were, shall we say, probably what you might expect from a bunch of 14 and 15 year olds. I suppose you could say we were the Proto-New School of the time, and our games were somewhat unconventional. The only defining aspect of our Proto-New School was that we definitely ad-libbed and made rulings on the fly much more often than the older players, and we were all just fine with that.

4. A Spork in the Road: It wasn't long before us Proto-New Schoolers were the upperclassmen of the club. By then I had developed something of a reputation as one of the go-to DM's, and my regular group was expanding quickly. Soon it grew to include weekly gatherings on Saturdays at the Rec Center. So I was averaging 12 to 14 hours playing twice a week by then. I watched as the hobby grew. I witnessed the various media stories, and how preconceived notions of the game spun out of control. We were undaunted, and luckily our parents, with a few exceptions, had open minds. Especially my own, as I was consumed with the hobby. DM'ing that many hours a week meant I was spending a lot of free time in game prep. I watched as the non wargamers came onto the scene. Thesbians, Ren Fair folks, comic book guys, burn outs, the occasional jock or two, and the curious older siblings. None of which had any idea what they were getting into, and had never rolled dice except to move past Go and collect $200.00. The game was changing; the second revision of basic D&D was out. It was the first time that I felt uncomfortable with the way I saw the game being played, and was probably when I began running into Rules Lawyers more than ever before. Suddenly I was being told I was doing it wrong. The AD&D 1E Rules Lawyers caused us to become insular and selective, and from there we departed down a narrow path that would eventually seal us into an early 80's time capsule.

5. Because It's There: One of the things that many of us took great pleasure in accomplishing was a result of what was in print at the time. If Experience Tables went out to Level 29, so did we. Grandfather of Assassins? Check. Grand Master of Flowers? Check. Sword of Kas? Check. And so forth. I even recall one game that actually rubbed me the wrong way; I had a Dwarf who discovered all the pieces of the Rod of Seven Parts in the first game session. Now that's a really bad example of what I mean, the point is that we explored all the aspects of AD&D, including taking on various gods from the Deities & Demi-Gods hardcover. I mean come on, they had Hit Points. We had god-like PC's. Who says we shouldn't or couldn't? We did. And we talked about it for years afterwards. While my own campaigns ended up being of an extremely high power scale, the side effect was that I was forced to home brew a lot in order to keep things challenging. My players were crafty and shrewd. They were, and still are, meta-gamers. The game is a challenge, and they use every tool in their arsenal to persevere. After all, we were wargamers and we approach D&D with the same mentality; winning was more important than role-playing for us. If you print it we conquer it because it is there. Gamers will be Gamers.

6. Nebulous Stirrings: Obscure inspirations and unconventional themes always scored plenty of style points back in the day. At the time it was much easier to impress players than it is now, of course. There is very little new under the RPG Sun nearly 30 years later. Now we are often left with theorizing, philosophizing and waxing poetically about the old days. The concept is what was being explored. Mechanics and rules were secondary. Things worked, players understood the game, and the creative energy was spent on coming up with these unusual challenges or settings. Back then there was only one dungeon with aliens, mutants and robots. Yeah, that was old hat. You had to be much more original than that. The thing is that while the boundaries of the game were being pushed as far as themes and weird settings, no one, not a soul, even had the time nor inclination to worry about the rules themselves. The days of nebulous stirrings are long gone, and now it seems that mechanics and style are keeping everyone occupied. It was much more interesting when good ideas and interesting themes weren't simply rehashed ideas, and when the technical side took a backseat to the creative side.

7. Fire Burn and Cauldron Bubble: The mindset of the average D&D enthusiast during that ascent to TSR's peak was one which was likely forged by the fellows at Lake Geneva themselves. AD&D 1E had been foisted upon the masses in what was a stroke of marketing genius. First of all it was “advanced”, and second of all those hardcover books were, for their time, glorious and overflowing with Gygax's gushing descriptions. We ate it up. The thing is, we had been trained, by TSR no less, to essentially pick and choose the bits we liked, and change or ignore the rest. This of course left plenty of room for throwing the veritable kitchen sink into our games. Not only did we have OD&D and its supplements, Holmes D&D, AD&D and The Dragon magazine, we also had tons of Judges Guild material, and oddball “unofficial” publications galore. You never knew what to expect from one DM to the next. The mechanics themselves were nearly always the same across the board, but the options were never limited to AD&D. If you pulled out the Critical Hit table from the Arduin Grimoire, nobody blinked twice. If you used some strange monsters from the White Dwarf magazine, you were outwitting the players. That was part and parcel in the wild and woolly games of the day; the cauldron was bubbling over with material from a seemingly unlimited amount of resources. Even if you never once took up pen and paper and designed custom monsters or magic items, the scene was bloated with offerings in print from countless sources; and they were never out of place in anyone's campaign.

8. Under the Big Top: While this may have been more or less a reflection of the scene at the time, I have never since witnessed it again. In both our D&D Club and our Rec Center games one would find players who arrived at the game table with one or more “traveling PC's”. I've shared a story of one such famous Paladin in our club who met his demise in the then infamous Tomb of Horrors. Traveling PC's were almost expected. Very rarely did someone simply create a high level PC in order to join into a game. In such a case the DM awarded the new player with an exisiting NPC, who for one or more sessions went from Henchman to Hero, or the new guy rolled up a 1st level character and hoped that the other players would have mercy on him and keep him safe until he could contribute. Short of those options the player would show the DM his traveling character, and after possible alterations said character would be introduced to the party. I had some fun with this too many times, to the point that my players would essentially tie up and interrogate all newcomers. I had hardened them through the long campaigns. What I took from this over the years was that there was a unique sense of community amongst all of us; we were sharing in this hobby and marveling at one another's accomplishments at the same time. Even if said traveling PC's bit the dust in one of my dungeons.

~Sham Quixotic Referee


Christian said...

I like point 6. It is harder to please people these days. With all the interactive game media that is available, you can't thrill players with a description of a village and rumors of a dungeon.

They need more. They need role-play motivations, in depth exploration of alignment, masterful storytelling, etc.

Me, I don't mind things simple. I'm not intrigued by exploring a dungeon because I'm exploring a dungeon. What I like is the /act/ of role-playing. I like the ritual, the friendship and the fact that when I play an rpg, a part of me is always young and living in the 1980s.

Ragnorakk said...

This whole set is great. The chased off by rule lawyer point is spot f'in on.

Sham aka Dave said...

Thanks. I cannot disagree with you, Christian. I must say that when I collected these loose memories and observations I learned a few things myself. The game is the thing; by that I don't mean the rules or the published adventure, I mean the game session, the DM and the players.

Ragnorakk: Thanks! I still recall like it was yesterday that a player named Floyd pulled out the DMG and quoted Gygax, stood up and essentially told me I was wrong and that he would not accept my ruling. LOL. The other players ended up killing him later.

I eventually had a silly mechanic called Odin's Toes. When the meta-gaming became too much I'd roll some dice and the violator would essntially get Odin's foot up their arse for massive damage.

Crater said...

The other players ended up killing him later.

I know you meant his character, but the first time I read this I laughed out loud at the thought of them ganging up and taking out the rules lawyer.

So far you have described my early experiences with D&D and RPGs perfectly. Great series.

Sham aka Dave said...

Crater: Thanks. And oops on the 'killing him' bit, lol. :-)