Thursday, August 26, 2010
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!