Tuesday, August 31, 2010

To All The Games I’ve Loved Before

Since 1986 my friends and I have played a variety of games. We had fun with each and every one of them but, for the most part, they just acted as a brief distractions between D&D campaigns of one stripe or another. Following are a few we enjoyed most…

Elfquest: Yes, we played the Elfquest Roleplaying Game. We loved the comic and thought it would be fun to play Cutter and his wolfrider clan as they fought for survival in the hostile world of Two Moons. Our main campaign was one where one of the players changed canonical history by stopping the burning of The Holt. Our struggle became one of dominance within the forest competing for resources against the savage encroaching humans. This game never stuck, really, but we tried it time and time again.

Marvel Super Heroes: We played both the basic and advanced versions of the game. We always enjoyed the change-over from equipment dependent characters (in D&D) to super powered mutants (which is generally what we played). More often than not, playing Marvel became an excuse to create knock-offs of our favorite comic book heroes and/or to fraternize with the spandex-clad super-heroine hotties. My favorite story-arch involved our characters being contacted by Professor X to rescue his X-Men from the mutant-hostile nation of Genosha. Good times.

Robotech: We were children of the 80s which meant we loved the Robotech cartoon as kids. As pre-teens, it just made sense to try out the rpg. We enjoyed the heck out of it at first, but killing Zentraedi got old rather quickly. Still, we ended up shoe-horning other play styles (especially horror) into this system. My favorite series of games was right after a friend had seen the movie Night of the Comet. He took the concept and set it in space. We ended up exploring a gigantic city-like space ship populated by flesh eating space zombies. It was a blast.

Star Wars: We played the original D6 version of the game. We had a blast and it really stretched our imaginations. My longest lasting Character was Cain, a former Crimson Guard imperialist turned smuggler. But he was more Snake Plissken than Han Solo.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: This was long before the TMNT were the pizza-munching, “Cowabunga” yelling, stereotypes they became in the 90s. The rpg was based around the comic which was much darker than most would imagine. This was another one that never stuck long terms but we had some really fun one-offs. My favorite character was a porcupine who escaped from a governmental genetic engineering research facility. In what other game can you play a bipedal porcupine dual wielding Desert Eagles?

Thieves' World: More of a setting than a system, I know. We loved the books and thought we’d love the rpg. We didn’t, really. Although, we once made characters of ourselves set in the city of Sanctuary (literally, we played our teenage selves). That was fun since the name of the game was not so much “thrive” as “survive.”

There were others but these became the “go to” games when we felt D&D burnout creeping in. Sometimes our forays into these other systems would last just a week or two, other times months or even a year. So, what games do (did) you play to take a break from D&D?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Arguing Myself into the OSR

If you’ve been reading my previous posts you know that despite the fact that I’ve been gaming for nearly a quarter of a century most of my gaming history consists of Silver Age D&D and beyond (Mentzer’s Basic D&D, 1e, 2e, 3e, 3.5e, Pathfinder, etc.). I’ve played lots of other games in lots of other systems but each one seemed to lead me further and further away from the old school roots of the hobby.

In considering the OSR there were several concerns I’ve been thinking through. Below are some of the initial objections I had and some of my own conclusions.

The Nostalgia Factor: Do I really want to return to the roots of D&D, warts and all, or is it just some misguided attempt to recapture my youth?

My Conclusion: Yes, I want to return to the roots. It isn’t, however, some ill conceived attempt to feel young again or assuage some gnawing wistfulness. I love my life now and have no real reason to want to recapture my youth (I’m only in my 30s). In fact, lots of things happened when I was younger I’d never want to recapture. But when it comes to gaming, I want to recapture the fun I had when I first started playing which means returning to the way I used to play. Thus far, I’m finding that the way I used to play (and the way I want to play again) is best supported by the earliest incarnations of D&D/AD&D (and their various clones).

The Curmudgeon Factor: Do I really prefer the older editions of D&D/AD&D or am I just opposed to change/learning new systems?

My Conclusion: I think most people are opposed to change to a degree. Still, the fact that I willingly switched from basic D&D to AD&D, then 1st edition to 2nd edition, then 2nd edition to 3rd edition, then 3rd edition to 3.5, then 3.5 to Pathfinder (with lots of other games sprinkled in) shows I’m not averse to change. In fact, switching from my most recent system of choice (Pathfinder) back to early editions of D&D or AD&D will be more of a change than anything I’ve done in a long time. Sure, it’s going back to something I once knew well, but its returning to something I haven’t been involved in for over twenty years. Truth be told, It’d be easier to stick with more modern games (since the systems are fresh in my head, the games are more readily available/supported, players are easier to find, etc.) but I’m out to find fun not a trouble-free experience.

The Completeness Factor: What about all the “holes” in older systems of D&D/AD&D? If I’m going to have to house-rule on things not included in the early editions of the game why not stick with a version which already has the rulings included?

My Conclusion: Assuming that older versions of the game have “holes” in them has been sounding more and more like circular reasoning to me of late. I’ve been unconsciously setting up more complex versions of the game (especially 3.0 and beyond) as the standard, then looking at the alleged things missing in older versions of D&D/AD&D and thinking them inferior on account.

But the more I think about it the less compelling I find that line of reasoning. If Wizards of the Coast came out with a version of D&D tomorrow that included complex rules on eating, bathing, shaving, smoking, etc., that doesn’t mean it’d be correcting “holes” in previous editions. Why? Because folks like me who’ve gone on to later editions of the game never needed such rules in the first place. In fact, I think we’d argue that they unnecessarily complicate things. Nobody needs such rules on a regular basis, and if they do come across a need for them, a quick house rule does nicely. I don’t need thousands of extra pages to sift through to handle things that will probably never come up in my games.

In short, just because something is more complex does not mean it’s necessarily more “complete.” Sure, it may have more rules, but are those rules necessary? In looking back at the thousands of pages of rpg materials I’ve accumulated over the years, I find that the books that tend to be most well-worn are my Basic D&D and 1e materials. Not because they’re older but because they saw more use when I played those systems. I have books from 3.X and Pathfinder that I looked at once, when I first bought them, but never again. They sit in pristine condition on my shelf because I never use them. I just don’t need them. The bottom line is that I’m finding that having rules for any and every situation just complicates things because: (1) I won’t use most of what’s presented. (2) When those rare situations may pop up it slows game play to find them. (3) A simple and agreed upon house ruling keeps things running smoothly and, most importantly, gets us right back to the game (and to the fun!). (4) Huge tomes filled with complex rules tend to turn people away from the hobby as opposed to bringing them in (my wife, for example, as noted in my previous post).

I have some other issues I’m still working though but most of those are just because of my own idiosyncrasies as opposed to being based on gaming philosophies. Also, I’d be remiss without expressing my thanks to James over at Grognardia for answering my email and helping me work through some of these issues!

Into the Age of Silver and Back Again?

Now I know that many people will argue that I was already immersed in Silver Age Dungeons & Dragons. I started with Mentzer’s rules, I was enamored with the art of Elmore, etc. While that is absolutely true, I’d still argue that the way we played for the first couple of years was very much reminiscent of Golden Age “old school” games (of course, that’s a judgment in retrospect, since I’m convinced that “old school” gaming has more to do with how a game is played as opposed to which game(s) are played).

After about 6 months of playing with Mentzer’s rules, we went on to play AD&D. It should be noted that we went on to AD&D because we thought that’s what we were supposed to do not necessarily because that’s what we wanted to do. Among the gamers in our area there was a predominant stereotype that real gamers played AD&D, not one of the “intro for kids” basic editions. We did enjoy AD&D immensely but I can’t say we had more fun than with the basic version we’d been playing (with the exception of no longer playing races as classes, a change we all enjoyed). Regardless, from 1987-1989, AD&D became our system of choice.

In eighth grade, things changed for us dramatically. You see, we never really ran modules. It wasn’t because we didn’t want to, we really wanted to, it’s just that we were grade school/junior high kids and after spending our allowances on the AD&D hardback books we didn’t have the money to invest in the modules (at least, not on a regular basis). So, we continued just making up our own adventures, modules, and campaigns and never felt like our games were lacking anything; that is…until junior high.

At that time, a friend in our gaming group picked up a copy of the book Dragons of Autumn Twilight by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. He read through it in a few days and was raving about how amazing it was. He loaned me the book and after devouring its contents I was equally enthused. How great was this!? Books prominently featuring Elmore’s art on the cover that read like an epic game of D&D complete with the classes, races, spells, and things we’d become accustomed to. Our imaginations were ablaze and immediately our style of gaming changed. We went from being underdogs striking out into the dangerous world around us to make some gold to being heroes (or Raistlin-like anti-heroes) of epic proportions. Not necessarily a bad change, of course, but a change nonetheless.

One thing that did change for the worse, in my opinion, was the element of detailed plots in our games. I’m a big fan of having compelling story as a backdrop to any D&D campaign but we took things to the extreme. We no longer wanted to just kill the monster plaguing the rural town or clear a dungeon in the employ of a local noble, we wanted to save the world. And so we did…time and time and time again. In pretty much every campaign, in fact.

The problem was that we wrongly took the Dragonlance novels as being a blueprint for how the game should be played. Instead of just reading and enjoying the books our games became pale imitations of the yarns spun by Weis and Hickman. This wasn’t the authors fault, or even TSR’s, it was ours.

As a group, it really did have a deleterious effect on our gaming experience. As DMs, we were no longer out to let the players do what they wanted, how they wanted, we were mostly out to tell epic stories while doing our best to incorporate the PCs in our predetermined plots. Sandboxes were out and railroads were in. The players would do what the DM wanted, the question was, how would the DM get them to do what they wanted while making them think their choices really mattered? For me, that summarized our play experience for years to come. We still enjoyed our games but something was missing.

I’d again like to emphasize that I don’t blame the authors or the publishers of the books. The same thing could have happened if we’d read Tolkien or any other popular fantasy author. The problem wasn’t necessarily with the published material it was with the gamers (in this case, US!) who took Dragonlance as being a blueprint as opposed to just fun supplements.

Ultimately, I found this style of gaming rather unsatisfying. I kept thinking there was something missing. So when 1989 rolled around and 2nd edition was introduced, I immediately jumped onto it thinking that the more complicated mechanics would fill the void. I made the same assumption with 3.0 and 3.5. Finally, I thought perhaps a change in setting was necessary so I began playing Pathfinder in their setting (Golarion). I was going through the motions but I always felt something was missing. I just had less time to think about it because I was so busy learning the ever more complicated mechanics of the systems I’d “upgraded” to.

Then, about 6 months ago, a miracle took place. My wife of eleven years finally agreed to try out role playing games. It’s always been something we’d talked about and she promised she’d try it someday. Well, that day finally rolled around. So we sat down and I pulled the Pathfinder Core Rulebook out of my bag.

Her jaw dropped as she stared at the book in unbelief. “How many pages is that thing?” she asked. “Over 500” I said sheepishly. “Forget it,” she said, “that’s way too much effort to learn a game.” “Oh, don’t worry, only the first half is important for players” I assured her. “Still,” she said, “any game that needs that much explanation to have fun won’t be fun for me.”

And there it was. Just like that I’d realized what my games had been missing since the 80s…FUN. Well, that’s not absolutely true, I did enjoy myself, but fun was no longer the raison d’etre behind playing. Intricate plots, complicated character development, and detailed campaign plots had become the driving force. In some cases, mastering pure mechanics had become the motivation.

Now I’m not knocking plot, character development, or even complex game systems. If people enjoy them (and I know they do!) more power to them. However, it took my wife’s unexpected reaction to remind me of why I should be playing the game: to have fun! Not just passing enjoyment. Not just an occasional decent game. Not just gaming to continue a hobby I’d been engaging in for over two decades, but to have fun. Many people can and do have fun playing the way I did in the systems I did, but that just wasn’t the case for me anymore.

So, here I am, a catechized Silver Ager beginning to rediscover the roots of our beloved hobby. I’m still working through the implications of leaving behind the complicated systems I’ve picked up over the years as I fight my way into the Old School Renaissance. It’s a bit of a mess, from the perspective of an outsider, but I’m looking forward to sorting it all out and having some real fun in the process!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Valuable Lessons from Mentzer

So there we were with several sets of conflicting rules: Holmes Basic, Moldvay/Cook basic/expert, AD&D, and my newly acquired Mentzer basic “red box” set. Pat was rather taken with my new set. We both were, really. Pat hadn’t inherited any dice and my newly acquired multi-colored polyhedrals seemed to beckon to us. Elmore’s artwork on the cover just sucked us in and had us both imagining what it would be like to assault ancient catacombs, rifle through long forgotten tombs, and, of course, to be locked in mortal combat with a red dragon like the one on the cover of my new boxed set. In comparing my basic set with his we saw just how different they were and Pat went out and bought a copy of the Mentzer basic set.

That day, he asked me to stay over for a sleepover so we could play our new game late into the night without worrying about having to stop prematurely. We figured we’d take turns running each other through “adventures.” So we sat down and each made seven characters: a fighter, a cleric, a thief, a magic user, an elf, a dwarf, and a halfling. We didn’t know which one we’d want to play so we just made one of each.

We decided that for our first adventure, Pat would run me through the solo adventure included in the front of Mentzer’s basic player’s guide; you know, the one where you meet Aleena the cleric and team up with her in pursuit of the evil magic user, Bargle? Well, he told me I was only allowed to use my fighter on that adventure so we dove right in with little to no introduction. The session went surprisingly well (although it was over in about 25 minutes) although we ended up making up rules as we went along just for fun.

In thinking back to my first session of D&D I can’t help but think how much that evening unconsciously set me on a specific journey...

Art: For better or for worse, for me, Larry Elmore’s art WAS Dungeons & Dragons. As soon as I saw that lone fighter locked in combat with the red dragon on the cover of the basic set, his illustrations, unbeknownst to me, were forever emblazoned in my mind as being iconic of the game. Opening up the books and reading through them only served to cement Elmore’s status in my mind. My heroic fighter was modeled on the one drawn by Elmore in the book. My first traveling companion, the beautiful cleric Aleena, was likewise drawn by Elmore. He even drew my first arch-enemy, Bargle, who killed Aleena. After that first evening, Elmore became for me what Otus, Trampier, Sutherland, Dee, and others were for the first generation of D&D players. Elmore’s art would later pull me in a completely different direction, however (more on that later).

Dungeons: Dungeon delving was our preferred modus operandi after our first game. Yes, we’d eventually own the rules that taught about wilderness and aquatic travel, and we’d engage in it frequently, but for us, nothing held as much excitement as exploring places nobody else had ever been, choosing marching order, lighting a torch, and heading underground to face unknown dangers.

Death: An important part of D&D is danger and the threat of character death. While my character survived his first “dungeon,” Aleena did not. For me, this reinforced just how dangerous adventuring could be. Yes, entering the dark and fighting monsters was fun but it was dangerous and there was a good chance we wouldn’t make it back alive. We played it as the dice fell in those days, and many times, that meant character death. Mentzer’s introductory adventure prepared me for that while instilling a desire to explore the unknown, loot exotic treasures, and most of all, to kill Bargle for what he’d done to Aleena.

The Party: Despite the fact that the first adventure was, properly speaking, a “solo” adventure, I still met Aleena who explained to me the role of fighters, clerics, thieves, etc. That reinforced the idea that adventuring was intended to be a group activity. I know TSR published some solo adventures but they just never felt right to me. Even in that first solo adventure I played, I adventured not alone, but with Aleena, my tour guide into the world of D&D.

Rules: We were only a couple of pages into the first D&D book we’d ever read when we started playing. It was evident to us, right off the bat, that the rules were there as guidelines to facilitate fun. They weren’t there to make us slaves or waste time, they were there to encourage fun.

Those early days were some of the best D&D games I’ve ever played. I say “best” not because they were masterfully constructed, not because we came up with creative maps or unique adventure hooks, but because nothing, and I mean nothing, has ever been as much fun. Later, I’ll discuss how those early days soon changed from the free form/wild & wooly style of gaming into what many refer to as the “Silver Age” of D&D, and ultimately, full circle back to the roots of the game.

Fun. I think of all the things drawing me back to D&D’s roots via the Old School Renaissance, fun is preeminent.

The Box

The year was 1986 and it was the summer between sixth and seventh grade. I’d been home bored for about a week since my best friend, Pat, had been away on a vacation with his family. But today, he was coming back, and I knew summer would get interesting again.

Soon enough I got the call. They were home, they were all unpacked, and he told me he had something “awesome to show me” (don’t blame Pat, it was the 80s in Southern California, and we all said “awesome”). I had no idea what it would be, because with Pat, you never knew. Thankfully, he lived just down the street from me so I high-tailed it over to his place to see whatever it was he was so excited about.

When I got there, he pulled out a rather large box with the name “Kenny” written in thick black marker on the side. Kenny was a friend of the family Pat spoke about often…an “older kid” we both looked up to and aspired to emulate. He dropped the box on his bedroom floor, and with a broad grin, simply pointed and said “check this out.”

I dropped to my knees and opened the box. What could it be? Old toys? Clothes? We were sort of in that transition phase for kids where we were fast losing interest in our G.I Joe’s but weren’t quite old enough yet to be interested in things that could hold a high school kid’s attention.

As I opened the flaps, I saw…books. Not quite what I was expecting. I looked up a bit puzzled and Pat said “It’s D&D, dude. Dungeons and Dragons!” I looked back down, and sure enough, it was an entire box filled with Dungeons & Dragons materials. D&D was something Pat and I had heard lots about, both positive and negative, but one thing was certain: we wanted to play it.

We sat down together and looked through the box of loot. Over the years, Kenny had collected a ton of materials but had recently stopped playing. Pat mentioned that we wanted to try it so he went up to his room, boxed up his stuff, and gave it all to Pat. The box contained what I now know to be the Holmes and Moldvay/Cook basic and expert sets, as well as numerous hardback AD&D books, and modules spanning from basic to AD&D. We sorted out the materials and Pat gave me copies of all the “doubles.” I came away with a Player’s Handbook, a Dungeon Master’s guide, an extremely ragged copy of Deities & Demigods (Pat foolishly gave me the one in worse condition, neither of us realizing at the time that the copy he kept [which had a pristine cover] lacked several of the pantheons my beat-up copy contained), and a slew of modules (some bought from the store, some xerox copied from other players, and some made by Kenny himself). That night we started reading through the stuff Pat kept. It seemed to us that that the soft cover books were easier to understand so we figured we’d start with the basic version of the game and work our way up to AD&D.

Since Pat didn’t have any “doubles” of the basic set(s) I went to a comic shop down the street the very next day and bought my first boxed set: the “red box” featuring the art of Larry Elmore (wrongly assuming it contained the Holmes or Moldvay rules with just a different box/cover). I was hooked. Thus began my quarter of a century obsession with role playing games in general and with D&D in particular (all of this comes back to the “Old School Renaissance,” I promise!).

In this post, I just wanted to introduce others to how/when I began playing the game. Later, I’ll talk more about the things that immediately influenced the way we played and the direction it ultimately led us.

Monday, August 23, 2010


My name is Steve and I've been into role playing games for quite some time; since 1986, in fact, when I purchased my first Dungeons & Dragons boxed set (more on that later). Times have changed quite a bit since then and so have role playing games; heck, so has my single game of choice (D&D). I've recently discoverd what is being touted as the "Old School Renaissance" in the gaming community. This blog will seek to explore the "OSR" through the eyes of someone who, until recently, was very much "new school" (despite having gamed for a quarter of a century).