Friday, April 3, 2009

My Personal Gaming History

Serendipity is a real phenomenon, especially in a tight-knit community like the old school blogging one. Lately, I've gotten a number of emails and comments asking me about my personal gaming history. Brunomac over at Temple of Demogorgon even wrote a blog entry in which he expresses curiosity about it. I write so much on this blog that I sometimes assume I've covered certain topics when, in fact, I haven't. I guess my gaming history is one such lacuna and I'm starting to wonder if it's been the source of some misunderstandings about me and my perspective on this hobby.

I began gaming in late 1979, over the Christmas break. A good friend of mine had received a copy of Dungeon! We played it over and over again in several marathon sessions and playing it reminded me of "a weird game" my mother had bought for my father some months earlier. That game was the Holmes basic set and it was unopened, because although my father had been talking a lot about D&D in the months after James Dallas Egbert III had vanished, he wasn't actually interested in reading the game itself, let alone playing it. So there it sat in my hallway linen closet, next to some washcloths and bars of soap. I opened up the game and tried to make sense of it, using Dungeon! as a way to fill in the gaps in my understanding of the text. I then took it with me to my friend's house and "taught" him and the rest of my cohort how to play D&D.

Naturally, I had no idea what I was doing and those early "Dungeons & Dragons" sessions bore little resemblance to the game as written -- but we had fun and kept playing it. My friend's older brother, a surly teenager into metal, saw what we were doing and roundly mocked us. He played D&D with his friends and promptly told us everything we were doing wrong. We accepted what he told us at face value -- he was a teenager, after all -- and started playing D&D the "right" way. This led to our playing D&D every opportunity we could throughout 1980, often with my friend's older brother and father, who was a wargamer, acting as co-referees for our games. When they weren't available, which was often, I was usually the referee, as it was agreed by everyone that I "made the best adventures."

We devoured every D&D product we could get our hands on, beginning with the Monster Manual, which we freely used with Holmes. The Players Handbook and Dungeon Masters Guide soon followed. The following year, we added Moldvay/Cook/Marsh to the list, just as we added Mentzer in 1983 and beyond. Our approach to D&D was extremely "ecumenical." We didn't pay a lot of heed to the fine differences between the various editions. We mixed and matched with abandon, using those rules we liked and discarding those we didn't. Given how similar all the existing rules sets were, this was easy and no one ever once felt that we were doing it "wrong," since everyone we knew or met at local hobby shops was doing the exact same thing.

We also devoured pretty much every RPG that came out during the period between 1980 and 1984 or so, with a few exceptions. We played a lot of Traveller back then and it remains one of my favorite games of all time. But we also played Gamma World, Top Secret, Gangbusters, Call of Cthulhu, Champions, Boot Hill, and many more. We also played a number of Avalon Hill games. Our interests were quite diverse and, because we spent almost all of our free time playing these games, it wasn't unusual for us to have multiple campaigns running at the same time. Indeed, campaigns would stop and start regularly, sometimes after months-long breaks. D&D and Traveller were our two constants -- they were ongoing almost all the time -- but even they occasionally went "on hiatus," to be replaced by whatever new game caught our fancy.

I happily adopted Second Edition when it was released in 1989 and ran a brief campaign with it when I was in college. But it was very brief and my gaming in general started to decline considerably during the late 80s and early 90s. The only game I kept up with was Traveller, mostly because I loved its Third Imperium setting. In fact, I became involved with a fan organization associated with Traveller called the History of the Imperium Working Group. This led to my first professional publications, in GDW's Challenge magazine, as well as in some official Traveller products. But it's worth noting that, during this time, I wasn't actually playing RPGs much at all. I didn't have the time and I lacked a group, even at college, where roleplayers seemed oddly scarce. Instead, "gaming" had become mostly an intellectual exercise of worldbuilding and an outlet for my pent-up desire to be a writer of fiction.

When I attended grad school, it just happened that one of my contacts in the History of the Imperium Working Group lived in the same city. He had a group of regular players and I joined it. We played a lot of games together over the course of several years, including 2e, TORG, Star Trek, Star Wars, GURPS, and Call of Cthulhu. I had a lot of fun, more fun than I'd had in some time. This reignited the my love of roleplaying, leading me to check out lots more games, some of which I never managed to play with this group. Chief among these were the various White Wolf games, which I initially resisted, seeing them as too "pretentious" for my tastes. I was eventually won over by the cleverness of the central concept of Mage: The Ascension and then later by Wraith: The Oblivion, which appealed to me for more reasons than I can say.

Around the same time, my new group had fallen apart and I'd grown disenchanted with 2e, leading to several years during which I didn't play D&D at all. I played in several long-ish but irregular campaigns. What characterized most of them was that they were very "story-oriented." That is, the referee had worked out lots of details, including scenes, well in advance of our getting to them through play. Back then, this approach to gaming was a revelation to me and one I readily embraced, emulating it in my own failed attempts to start up new campaigns. (This period was characterized by lots of abortive campaigns, all ended because they didn't "catch fire" with my players immediately) I also started writing professionally in earnest at this time, working for many companies, including White Wolf.

I remained a strong advocate of a story-based approach to gaming during this time, never once fazed by the fact that I'd never actually managed to get the approach to work in practice. It wasn't until a few years later that I realized where the flaw lay in the approach. In two cases, campaigns had ended before reaching their "conclusion." So the referee later told us, in very precise detail, what would have happened in the campaign had they continued. These were, I cannot deny, great stories. We loved hearing them told to us and we all regretted that we'd never had the chance to play them. The problem is, we'd never have gotten a chance to play them, because, even had the campaigns continued, their direction was largely foreordained. Rather than being organic developments that grew through the interaction of referee and players, they were novels in spoken form. What we provided was mostly dialog and some minor plotting but the arrangement of scenes and arc of the plot were wholly outside our control. And yet we ate it up.

D&D's Third Edition drew me back to my old love and I played it enthusiastically for about five years, running one long campaign and playing in another. Both campaigns could be called "epic" and, again, were very story-focused, with many events occurring according to a plan hatched by the referee. Neither was as heavy-handed as those campaigns from the 90s, but they were still far removed from the kind of anything-goes freeform play I remember from the early 80s when I played RPGs most avidly. I continued to write a lot during this period, particularly for D20 publishers. Ironically, I think it was my deeper involvement with game professionally that had killed my interest in 3e as a pastime. I came to see it as overly complex mechanically and increasingly deracinated culturally to hold my interest.

Around 2005, I began to look into alternatives. I still wanted to game but I wanted to play games that were more in tune with my growing desire for simple rules and literary antecedents. This desire initially took me to Castles & Crusades, because I knew Gary Gygax was associated with it and figured that, if it were good enough for Gary, it was good enough for me. C&C is a good game, but it didn't scratch the particular itch I had. I despaired for a while about ever finding the game that would meet my idiosyncratic needs. I spent some time trying to make it for myelf, "rebuilding" 3e according to my understanding of D&D's origins and focus. Bit by bit, though, I realized that I was just reinventing the wheel, which is why, in 2007, I turned my back on D&D in its modern forms and embraced OD&D (and, now, Swords & Wizardry).

My gaming history continues, of course. It remains in a constant state of flux and I think it's important people understand that. The past few years have been very instructive for me, as I've been able to examine what I like and why and have made steps toward ensuring I have more of that in my gaming rather than less. I think the two most salient points are these: the best gaming I ever had was back when I just gamed and let "story" take care of itself and I like simple rules. Taken together, they explain my preference for the Old Ways.

They also explain my dislike for much of what is now called "roleplaying." It's not that I think there's anything wrong with other approaches so much as I don't enjoy those other approaches and don't see much commonality with what I want out of gaming. I've been there and done that already, professionally even, and, most of the appeal of that style is long gone. But make no mistake: I'm not, as some would say, retreating into the past. What I am doing now with my Dwimmermount campaign, for example, is not nostalgia. I'm not trying to relive, let alone recreate, my memories of 1981 or any such thing. I couldn't do such a thing, even if I tried (or wanted to). What I am doing, though, is using what I have learned to have fun with some old games and encouraging others to do the same.

That's what it's all about, isn't it?

34 comments:

  1. I want to thank you for two things, James:

    1) You've inspired me to pick up the Swords and Wizardry White Box and hammer out a dungeon centered "campaign" with little idea as to where it may lead.
    2) Through your repeated usage, you've forced me to learn the definition of the word "lacuna". I'm trying to figure out ways to drop it into casual conversation.

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  2. I remained a strong advocate of a story-based approach to gaming during this time, never once fazed by the fact that I'd never actually managed to get the approach to work in practice.

    The 1990s in RPGs, summarized in a single sentence!

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  3. Great post, James! It mirrors much of my own experience, as well (eerily so, in fact). I tinkered with 3.5 to get it to where I wanted, and then heard 4e was coming out. While I was waiting, I started looking at older editions and was amazed at how closely they matched what I had wanted. Around this time I discovered the "OSR" and that just spurred me on. When 4th edition came out, it didn't scratch the itch like the old games had. Not even close (sorry, Mike!). I've been running a Mentzer-based campaign for the last 9 months, and it's been my favorite. When it ends (a sad thought), I'm strongly considering giving S&W a whirl.

    BTW, what subject did you pursue in grad school?

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  4. James, a thought provoking post as usual. In the past 30 some years in the hobby, I have heard countless tales, stories and recreations of RP games, and I never fail to be amazed at the creativity and excitement RPGs can and still do generate. As a game designer, the true words of joy to my ears are: "We had FUN". All the best

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  5. ...and then later by Wraith: The Oblivion, which appealed to me for more reasons than I can say.

    I knew there was a reason I've always considered you a "good egg," James.

    W:tO remains in the top three of my favorite RPGs and also is indicative of why I've gone back to the roots of D&D. Both games center on regular people striving to achieve heroic goals without the benefit of superpowers to ensure their success. I can identify with that much more than than the godlike heroes which inhabit many of the more current RPGs.

    Wraith was an underappreciated game that not a lot of people got and it certainly didn't scratch the powergamers' itches, but the pathos of the game (no pun intended) and the unique setting certainly drew me in.

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  6. We didn't pay a lot of heed to the fine differences between the various editions. We mixed and matched with abandon, using those rules we liked and discarding those we didn't.

    James, I wish I saw that said more often by others. Rules orthodoxy is, to me, such a bore.

    I played AD&D for years and never even contemplated weapon speed factor (which, since nobody in my groups used polearms was probably no big deal).

    It seems that people so often forget that these are GAMES. They're supposed to be fun. I know people who play Monopoly such that landing on Free Parking wins you the "pot" where all the fines and fees go. Others find that heresy. I've played Risk with people who form alliances ... and others who complain that "that's not in the rules".

    I see no reason why people shouldn't mix and match from whatever sources they find most interesting and helpful. Nobody has a monopoly on good ideas or interesting mechanics.

    If it works, and makes you happy, do it. Leave orthodoxy for people who don't come to actually have a good time...

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  7. James, thanks for this. I had read quite a bit of your experiences already in earlier posts and in comments, but this really helps to tie everything together and get a sense of where you're coming from.

    It also got me thinking about the retro-clone movement and I had a 'eureka' moment just now while reading--though it's a bit pedestrian.

    When I first heard about Swords and Wizardry, I felt the name somehow fell short of the alliterative and seemingly more imaginative D&D descendants like Castles & Crusades, Tunnels & Trolls, etc.

    While they were in many ways copy cats, they used a simple gimic to help associate classic fantasy and fun. But after reading this post (and many before it) it dawned on me all of a sudden that those names--even Dungeons and Dragons itself--relate to locations, monsters, things that are evocative for sure, but not player-oriented.

    Swords & Wizardry is wholly in the domain of the adventurer. It belongs to those who seek adventure and the setting is really window dressing. It literally speaks to would-be adventurers about vocations and choices and not just where treasure and combat can be found. This to me says volumes because S&W is a players game, as was 0E D&D in its heyday. Even better--the rules can be applied to any setting, so a "dungeon" could be any location and a monster could be an alien or any other adversary.

    Reading your blog all this time has helped me understand that S&W was borne from wanting to get back to that ideal of pulp fantasy, where the players had as much stake in the making of adventures as the DM/GM/referee. And while I don't know much about Matt's background, I imagine that his journey led him to much the same place as you (as well as many others, for sure).

    So I've finally gotten over my need for alliteration! And I have a new found respect for how "Swords and Wizardry" fits into the role playing landscape.

    Thank you!

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  8. "What I am doing now with my Dwimmermount campaign, for example, is not nostalgia. I'm not trying to relive, let alone recreate, my memories of 1981 or any such thing."

    I think there's a common misconception out there that the "old school movement" is an attempt to recapture/recreate days and games long gone. From what I''ve seen, however, this is what it's really about: recognizing what we enjoy, and indulging in it. Maybe if more people understood this, there'd be less conflict and over-analysis of the "Old School vs. New School" sort.

    I guess I'm lucky: I learned very early on (with a failed game of Chill in the mid-80's) that, for me at least, story-based games don't work. Everything I've run since has been player-centric. I never really had to experience a cathartic moment to understand that was the style that worked for myself and my fellow gamers.

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  9. This post was a joy to read, James. I am currently in college, and feel like I am currently going through what you did post-grad school. Over the last four years I have built a very large collection of roleplaying games, probably only four or five of which I'm really willing to play. Sometimes I'm afraid that I wont have anyone around to play with, especially with everyone from my last group having jumped on the 4e bandwagon.

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  10. Wow James. I’m always surprised by how similar the stories of us guys around the same age are (I even still have my copy of Dungeon boardgame!). Except for the fact that I DM’d a lot in the 90’s, and didn’t go to grad school, our heydays are fairly similar. I think I mostly played a lot of those games in the early 80’s because I hung out at a game store as a kid, but I’m glad to have had a diverse gaming scene as a young ‘un.

    I think my games fall somewhere between sandbox and story driven. I don’t like to come up with stuff scene per scene, but I often picture in my mind what might happen in the game if players do this or that. Sitting around with a few ales or beers before a game and imagining the things that might happen, then after the game thinking about what did happen, are really fun for me as a DM. I love when character actions drive things no matter how much “pre-plotting” I do.

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  11. >played AD&D for years and never even contemplated weapon speed factor<

    One of the first things I tell a new player is "Um, you should know that I leave out a few things regarding weapons rules in AD&D"
    "What do you leave out?"
    "Everything but the damage they do"
    "Oh"

    >I learned very early on (with a failed game of Chill in the mid-80's)<

    My experiences in the mid-80's as a player in a couple of chill games was one of the reasons I pretty much just stuck to GMing.

    I was running a descendant of Van Helsing, a young rock and roll girl. I had considered her a vegetarian, but didn't feel the need to mention it as I didn't think it would matter. Our characters sat down as guests at a meal, and afterwards we learn that the meat was human flesh.
    "Say, my character is a vegetarian...she didn't eat the meat."
    "Oh yeah you did, ha ha ha ha ha"

    That was it. No werewolves, no vampires, our big horror encounter was the realization we were cannibals now. Two guys were GMing this game, and that was the best they could do. Utter shit.

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  12. I wonder how many of the people involved in the 'Old School Renaissance' got involved with older versions of D&D because of dissatisfaction with 3e?

    3e did succeed in getting a lot of people to try D&D again. In my own case, I had drifted away from D&D during the 1990s (and RPGs in general, although I did play sporadically some MERP, Rolemaster, and GURPS -- I missed the WW games entirely). When 3e came out, I was intrigued. Two campaigns later (with me as DM both times), though, I realized that it definitely was not my thing.

    It was in reaction against 3e that I became interested in C&C and, eventually, 'old school' D&D and their various retro-clones.

    Ironically, the 'Old School Renaissance' probably owes its existence to 3e!

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  13. Interesting stuff, James. We started gaming at the same time (1979, although we began with the Holmes set in May not later in the year as you did), yet our experiences couldn't be more different! It's one of the things I enjoy about this hobby of ours, all the directions that we can travel yet still end up in (roughly) the same place 30 years later!

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  14. Excellent post, James. In a few ways, your game history paralleled mine. Especially the embracing of story arc adventure paths. And that darned "this is what would have happened if you guys had finished the campaign." Arg. Nevermore.

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  15. The 1990s in RPGs, summarized in a single sentence!

    Sadly so.

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  16. BTW, what subject did you pursue in grad school?

    My M.A. is in Medieval Studies and my dissertation-less Ph.D. (I did all my coursework and examinations) would have been in Philosophy.

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  17. James, I wish I saw that said more often by others. Rules orthodoxy is, to me, such a bore.

    I largely agree, but then we're obviously products of an era when games were simpler and thus it was much, much easier to kit bash your own rules without having to worry about the delicate balance of the thing falling apart.

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  18. Ironically, the 'Old School Renaissance' probably owes its existence to 3e!

    In more ways than one. The OGL and SRD made games like OSRIC, S&W, and LL, among others, possible and that would never have existed without 3e. Much as I like to give WotC a hard time, I am forever in their debt for what they did with the OGL.

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  19. The OGL and SRD made games like OSRIC, S&W, and LL, among others, possible and that would never have existed without 3e. Much as I like to give WotC a hard time, I am forever in their debt for what they did with the OGL.

    I agree, although it clearly was not their intention to facilitate the rehabilitation of OOP D&D! Ah, the irony...

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  20. ... my dissertation-less Ph.D. (I did all my coursework and examinations) would have been in Philosophy

    As someone who did finish a PhD in Philosophy, I'm no sure which of us made the wiser decision ...

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  21. "I think the two most salient points are these: the best gaming I ever had was back when I just gamed and let "story" take care of itself and I like simple rules."

    Thank you for sharing your story, and thinking back myself, you're right. That was the most fun I've had gaming, too.

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  22. "That's what it's all about, isn't it?"

    [sarcasm]James, as a previous (current?) professional designer, you of all people should know that it is actually about selling books. Who cares if the games get played, or people have fun, as long as you sell more books? We're not questing for the Prismatic Carbuncle of Glory, we're questing for the long green.[/sarcasm]

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  23. James, I would like your permission to quote nearly 3 full paragraphs (explaining why role-playing often fails and organic "story" is better) in my own blog, naturally with a link back here and attribution. If I only wanted to quote a couple lines I'd just do it, but 3 paragraphs is a bit lengthy, so I thought I should ask.

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  24. a litle off topic-- but since you mentioned fiction writing and literary antecedents-- the ironic thing about DM-driven vs. Player-driven games, is that "just letting characters do what they want" not only makes for good D&D, but it also makes for good fiction. taken literally, that doesn't make sense-- eveeryone in a novel is an NPC. on the other hand, I think everyone has read books where it's obvious that characters exist only to serve the plot. hopefully some have also experienced the opposite, books where the characters seem real and the plot develops naturally from their actions.

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  25. James,

    Would you consider posting a bibliography of your professional gaming work? I think it would be interesting for your readers. Surely you would be forgiven the vanity in the interest of sharing with us.

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  26. Not "role-playing" and "just letting characters do what they want" have made for some of the shittiest gaming experiences of my life.

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  27. James, I would like your permission to quote nearly 3 full paragraphs (explaining why role-playing often fails and organic "story" is better) in my own blog, naturally with a link back here and attribution. If I only wanted to quote a couple lines I'd just do it, but 3 paragraphs is a bit lengthy, so I thought I should ask.

    Be my guest.

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  28. Would you consider posting a bibliography of your professional gaming work? I think it would be interesting for your readers. Surely you would be forgiven the vanity in the interest of sharing with us.

    An incomplete list is available here:

    http://www.pen-paper.net/rpgdb.php?op=showcreator&creatorid=783

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  29. Not "role-playing" and "just letting characters do what they want" have made for some of the shittiest gaming experiences of my life.

    And they've made for some of the best of my life. Where does that leave us?

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  30. You can still role-play the personalities of your characters in the situations in which they find themselves without "role-playing" a pre-defined epic storyline with railroading galore.

    Or is the problem here with players who don't even have any sort of connection with their characters and have no personality?

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  31. >And they've made for some of the best of my life. Where does that leave us?<

    I guess with some different experiences along with some similar ones.

    I do remember old days where the players ran the characters pretty much as what they are and would do in terms of class "cleric is a healer, fighter is a fighter, ranger is a ranger" without much personality other than the players own personalitis (in these cases I always imagined the characters with the players head and face - always good for a larf).

    When "do what you want" was thrown in the mix, then the games seemed more like a boardgame, like Talisman, except that you got to pick the spot you land on rather than role dice. Move your cardboard character and fight whatever is there. Hex cleared, move to next...

    It's called a role-playing game for a reason. And if "role" is just "heal, fight, check trap, cast spell" then jeez, I have been doing it wrong for 25 plus years.

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  32. It's called a role-playing game for a reason. And if "role" is just "heal, fight, check trap, cast spell" then jeez, I have been doing it wrong for 25 plus years.

    I think you're boxing with shadows here. I can't recall many RPG campaigns that last more than a couple of sessions where the characters didn't acquire personalities, backgrounds, and goals. But that's quite different than "story" in the sense of the referee laying out a grand plotline in advance, with scenes, set pieces, and a conclusion in mind before any dice are rolled. When I and most other old schoolers rail against "story," it's not about someone roleplaying their character as more than a cipher or even about a series of connected adventures that allow the characters to grow and change. It's about a story that isn't organic to play and whose course is determined by fiat rather than the curious alchemy of choice and luck that characterizes this hobby.

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  33. >bout a story that isn't organic to play and whose course is determined by fiat rather than the curious alchemy of choice and luck that characterizes this hobby<

    Yeah, again, I think I am in some middle-ground shadow realm with some of this stuff. As the 80's wore on I for sure got in a bad habit of making things story-related. The player still had a lot of choice in actions, and because of that much history was made in my world. This was also a time of "super npcs," kings, queens, and power players that the characters often ended up interacting with. There were so many great "sandbox" city adventures where the players were doing all these courtly intrigues and getting married and starting guilds and such. It got habit forming.

    As the 90's got underway, I toned-down a lot of the stuff dealing with super npc's and got back a bit to basics. Still, although players often did what they wanted, I would provide story hooks that I think were so powerful and interesting that the characters felt compelled to explore them. A sort of half-railroading I guess.

    I'd kind of like to start a new world for the type of "natural expansion" you are going for James, but man. I'm getting older, games are harder to put together, a I have this beloved world with all this continuity. But I would try something new for sure if I was gaming every week and had the sort of devoted player in large numbers like I did in the 90's.

    For now, I'll have to stick to the familiar, fleshed-out world where I am half-railroading/half-sandboxing. That weird middle-realm I am in...

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  34. When I say, "let the character do what they want," I really meant *the characters*. And this is likely to emerge over time. Ultimately, both "accumulate as many GP and XP as possible" and "gradually uncover and thwart the plan to take over the world" seem forced. I like to encourage PCs to want something and develop their environment in a way that speaks to their interests.

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