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?