Friday, August 7, 2009

Much Ado 'bout Ol' Schoo' part I

A dozen observations from the front lines by a Proto-New School, Neo-Grognardian Dungeonista.

What follows is a collection of thoughts and observations that I recall from my own experiences in what many now call the old school era. Ranging from 1979 to 1985, these were my peak D&D playing years. All 6 of them, yet it feels like a landmark event in retrospect. Very little changed in fact after 1985; that is until 2007 when I embraced OD&D. But that is not the topic at hand.

My motivation for sitting down and collecting these memories is to tackle the oft asked question, what is old school? I'm part of something dubbed the Old School Renaissance. I'm not sure what the rest of the members of the OSR think old school is, or what they believe the OSR represents, so I cannot speak for anyone else other than to say that I support the OSR because I'm a fan of TSR era D&D. Plain and simple.

I was unaware until recently that many believe the OSR has a doctrine, or some unifying philosophy. As far as I'm concerned we're a collection of vastly different fans of D&D. In that regard I do not think anything has changed since 1985, when Gary Gygax left TSR.

In the effort of keeping this easy to digest, I have broken the post into three parts, and will offer up a summary that was initially going to be included at the end.

So what are the salient points for those not wishing to dredge through the sordid details of a 40-something's recollections? I will attempt to highlight them below and hope that they form some sort of understanding and not just the realization that I'm a crusty old stick-in-the-mud.

1. A wargames background that helped us form a game simulation approach to D&D, as opposed to some desire for or notion of realism.

2. There is no right or wrong way to play D&D, and each DM did it his or her way.

3. 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.

4. 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. Winning was more important than role-playing for us. If you print it we conquer it because it is there.

6. 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. The scene was bloated with offerings in print from countless sources, and they were never out of place in anyone's campaign.

8. 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.

9. In order to find the right balance you need to experience as many different DM's styles and approaches as you can.

10. 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. 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.

12. What matters now is the concept which once united us, best enjoyed in its undiluted form.


1. Gamers will be Gamers: I discovered D&D on my own in 1979. No one told me about it, nor taught me how to play. The thing was, though, back then, thanks to an older brother, I had already played numerous Avalon Hill and SPI table-top wargames. My older brother didn't like D&D, but he never gave it a chance. I suppose it was because his little brother had “discovered” it. None of his die-hard Diplomacy buddies knew anything about it. I grew tired of Diplomacy; it had swept away the other wargames I enjoyed before then, like Panzerblitz and Afrika Korps. I eventually discovered other D&D players. Like me, every one of them was also a fan of wargaming. Table top wargaming to be precise, miniature wargaming was still as foreign to them as it was to me at the time. We were arriving at D&D from a wargames background that helped us form a game simulation approach to D&D, as opposed to some desire for or notion of realism.

2. Unbridled Ambition: As my circle of fellow D&D enthusiasts grew beyond the first meager gatherings, I realized that this thing was bigger than I had ever imagined. By the time I was plunged into the Wargaming Club and the D&D Club in High School, there was a palpable feeling of excitement in the air. D&D was still expanding in popularity, and would continue to do so for years afterwards. Although we didn't know it, we were riding the waves of enthusiasm that were to herald in a new era in gaming and popular culture. I arrived on this scene thinking I knew all about both wargames and D&D. I was dead wrong. It was in this atmosphere that I discovered the many different approaches and playstyles popular amongst the various groups there. The gamers were exploring many different possibilities, not simply the Tolkienesque games I had experienced prior to High School. What I learned first and something I have never forgotten since; there is no right or wrong way to play D&D, and each DM did it his way.

~Sham, Quixotic Referee

4 comments:

Christopher B said...

"We were arriving at D&D from a wargames background that helped us form a game simulation approach to D&D, as opposed to some desire for or notion of realism."

I wasn't a wargamer, nor were any of the people I gamed with prior to 1989. Yet none of us had a "desire for or notion of realism." So I don't necessarily think that's a prerequisite to that approach to the game.

BTW: "Dungeonista?" I like that! :D I'm going to have to steal this term.

Christian said...

I love the part about how it was necessary to play with different DMs in order to attain a fuller experience.

When I started playing in 1983, we always heard "wild tales" of some mysterious high school DM who gave his PCs laser guns! And then there was some kid in the library who played a game that came in a little box and the rules were comprised of small black books. It was a science fiction game. "What was that like?" we all wondered.

I love the imagination and mystery from that era. It's all been done by now, though...

Sham aka Dave said...

Chris B: Nope, probably not a prerequisite at all. Steal away, I didn't come up with that one :-)

http://richardirvine.com/2008/03/04/dungeonista/

Not sure Mr. Irvine did either, but who knows.

Christian: Yeah, it was a luxury to be able to play with so many different DM's and see the various styles in action.

Seems there were always tales of mystery surrounding the game. There was a different vibe back then, to be sure.

jonart said...

Winning was more important than role-playing for us. If you print it we conquer it because it is there.

I'd wonder whether it might not have been just you, but the age of the players. I remember when I got into AD&D I had a really game-oriented attitude - for instance, I remember just how utterly overjoyed I was the first time my fighter got a set of plate mail. That was it, I thought; Volkmar had made the big time. Stuff like that.

I've had the privilege of talking with a few 10-14 year old boys since, and they're great kids, but they don't have much life experience which would convert to roleplaying. By comparison, they've had years of playing board and card games, so the idea that this is a game, and you can win it, seems to be something they really glom onto.