Sunday, August 9, 2009

Much Ado 'bout Ol' Schoo' part 3

9. The Great Unknown and The Great Unwashed: One of the early lessons I learned with D&D is, I think, still true to this day. There is a correlation between how good the game is, and how much unpleasantness one can stand. A pleasant, inviting and friendly DM might run a crappy game of D&D, but one will play in it week after week because of friendship, respect or just the social aspect and the rest of the players with which to mingle. At the other end of the spectrum is the altogether weird, antisocial mess of a DM who runs the most enthralling game of D&D ever. Games move back and forth between these two extremes, sometimes meeting at that sweet spot where you find a DM you might actually hang out with outside of the game who also happens to run the best games of D&D you've ever played in. Once that sweet spot is found, you'll probably have a gaming crew for many, many years. You might even chase off newcomers that you find seated at your table in order to protect the traditional balance of the group. In order to find the right balance, though, you need to experience as many different DM's styles and approaches as you can. Even if it means politely finishing a game when you would rather stick your pencil through your eye.

10. Writ by the Finger of God: I'm not sure this is true any longer, but at one time, early on, the entire collection of various groups I mingled with waited with baited breath for anything new offered by TSR. The Dragon was our regular fix, and the modules were our irregular binges of gaming goodness. By the time Monster Manual 2 came out, this feeling was waning. Before then, however, it felt like we were a wild-eyed, crazed pack of Gygax-addicted junkies. We'd arrive at the after-school club hoping we were the first ones to have this vital new information. Man was it cool to be the first to show up with Dragon 83 and tell the players that today they would be entering Roger Moore's The Dancing Hut. Yep, I did that. It was new, it was from TSR, and I had to limit the number of participants for fear that they might steamroll the adventure. At the time it seemed like it was impossible for TSR or anyone else to publish too much material. We were ripping through all of it and asking for more.

11. The Radiant Egg: By the time we graduated in 1984, things had turned quickly from TSR-worship to Gygax-bashing. I suppose we had devoured everything we could, and found ourselves wanting. There were some new, interesting non-D&D titles on the shelves that took the Gygax & Arneson concept, and offered fresh new themes and settings. Perhaps it was a time for change. I do think the TSR marketing at the time had a lot to do with this. D&D ads were in comic books, and there was a Saturday morning D&D cartoon that made us cringe. Only a year later Gary was actually gone from TSR. We turned upon TSR and ridiculed Gary and Greyhawk. We stopped accepting and playing everything from TSR. We started homebrewing a lot as we had done in the earliest days. I created an alien planet in my campaign called the Radiant Egg; a parody of Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits and the high fantasy of Gary's efforts, all ruled under the iron fist of a ruthless tyrant. We all had a good laugh for a number of years and settled in to a customized/kitchen sink hybrid one would loosely call D&D now. The years passed and people stopped talking about Gary. AD&D 2E was out, but by then we didn't even pay attention. Our regular games weren't quite as frequent. We had sealed ourselves off from the industry. To this day I look back and realize that the Radiant Egg was some sort of misguided pent up frustration stemming from our own reliance on TSR. Along the way we had learned enough about D&D and its concept to continue playing in perpetuity without any outside source of gaming material. In just six years we had seen it all, and come full circle back to taking pencil and paper and making the game our own. I miss Gary, I miss the old TSR, and the Radiant Egg will never be a part of any of my games in the future.

12. Winter of our Discontent: Not long after the heady days of twice a week play, after college saw many of us scatter and eventually reform, we found ourselves in something of a transformed state. Interestingly enough, our state of mind also coincided somewhat with the state of affairs at TSR. The great 80's fad of D&D was on a major downswing. Gary Gygax himself had been ousted from the company. None of us gave a damn about AD&D 2E. The guys were settling down; some engaged, others already entering the careers which they would still be in nearly 20 years later. I'm not sure if it was the gang getting older and facing real responsibilities, a loss of teenage gusto, or the game not being as fresh to us at is once was. I think it was a combination of all of these factors. We had separated and reunited after some very formative and influential years. Sure we gamed a lot during college as well, but it was never like the marathon Saturday games of the early 80's. Something happened, though. The games became more serious, more realistic, more grounded, more mundane. We had entered the long winter of our discontent, and slowly over the course of the following years the group drifted apart. Again, was this families, careers and kids, or a lack of interest in this more mature version of the game? Whatever the case may be, I have shed such unnecessary and burdensome concerns and returned to my roots; what matters now is the concept which once united us, best enjoyed in its undiluted form.

So what is old school? I'm just a Proto-New School Neo-Grognard, why the hell are you asking me? I know for a fact, based on the divergent styles I experienced in the first six years, that many readers who played during that era will offer entirely different memories and observations from the period of 1979-1985. The fact is that D&D exploded onto the scene in those years, and very soon after nearly went bankrupt. From the penthouse to the outhouse, as they say.

If hard pressed my only answer is that old school embodies the free form approach of the first decade of D&D. The one unifying element at the time was that there was no right or wrong way to play, and that everyone did so differently.

Thanks for reading, even if you only skimmed the initial summary in part one.

~Sham, Quixotic Referee


Timeshadows said...

It was a nice, heart-felt series.
--Thanks. :)

Sham aka Dave said...

Thanks, TS. I'm still a bit uncomfortable with number 9, because I think that anytime you find a good game you should consider yourself lucky.

I'm not sure if this really relates to old school or just high school; for me they were the same thing in many regards.

JB said...

Sham -- I had no idea you were!
; )

In all seriousness, with so much gaming experience under your belt, I'm surprised anything us 2nd generation folks say can be interesting (I only say this because you were the first person to subscribe to MY blog).

Anyway, I found your old school stories, reminisces, and thoughts on D&D in general to be both thoughtful and interesting, as well as food for thought.

I'm starting to think I may need to make my own paradigm shift in thinking (with regard to some of my soapbox ideas). Reading your perspective on the hobby is helpful. Thanks.

Timeshadows said...


9). Seems timeless.

I had to drop this game that was just plodding along, with nothing but either endless, pointless clue-gathering treks, or purposeless combats just to give the players something to do.
--Sadly, I was the odd fish in that game, and although I liked everyone in the game, I just couldn't stand it, and left after perhaps a half-dozen sessions.

Sham aka Dave said...

JB: One thing I've picked up along these 42 years is that you never really stop learning. In fact I've learned more about the history of the hobby in the past two years than I ever learned playing it back in the olden days. I still feel/act like I'm 23, though.

TS: Half a dozen sessions means you gave it more than a chance. My experience is that if someone shows up for three or four sessions they're going to become a regular.