Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Uphill, Both Ways

If we're honest with ourselves, we'll admit that there's always been a powerful strain of old man machismo in the old school renaissance -- the kind that boasts of walking uphill in the snow both ways to school every day. As a regular offender on that front, I'm in no position to condemn anyone over this and wouldn't even if I were.


I bring this up because I was reminded of it when I recently re-read a passage in the 1982 Gamma World module Famine in Far-Go in which new rules for playing Pure Strain Humans were first introduced. Here's the relevant section:


What's interesting here is that the anonymous TSR employee who wrote this section explicitly states that "From this point on, these specific rules are considered an official part of GAMMA WORLD™ games and campaigns, and should be used." In that single sentence, you get an invocation of official-ness, the use of the trademark symbol, and an injunction that these new rules should be used. That sentence paints a very interesting picture of the culture of TSR at the tail end of the Golden Age. It's also, in my opinion, a taste of what's to come in later years.

I won't deny that I dutifully took those words to heart, as I usually did when TSR or one of its spokespeople instructed me on the "right" or "official" way to play one of its games. I admit this was some embarrassment now, but I admit it nonetheless. If discussions on blogs and in forums are to be believed, I was one of only a few people who ever behaved in this way. From what I have gathered, no one back in the day paid any heed to what Gary Gygax wrote in Dragon or the answers in the "Sage Advice Column." No one treated printed rulebooks as holy writ either. Or so I am led to believe at any rate.

Me, I did all these things, because, back then, toeing the TSR line when it came to official-ness was a big part of the gaming culture with which I was familiar. It's a pity I can't find anyone else who remembers this, because I could have sworn there were other gamers in those days who behaved similarly to me, but I guess I must have imagined that. Funny how, as you get older, the memory plays tricks on you.

44 comments:

  1. It's a pity I can't find anyone else who remembers this, because I could have sworn there were other gamers in those days who behaved similarly to me, but I guess I must have imagined that.

    We did. Or at least so seriously it took a hell of an argument to get past the "but it's official" barrier. I can't recall what finally broke us of that, but it may have been the experience of some of those new classes in UA.

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  2. OMG, that was so totally me (discovered AD&D in 1979 at age 10, by way of providing context to my comment). Most of us took Gygax's word as gospel but I remember encountering somewhat older gamers who moved to town from another state (and thus a different gaming culture) who weren't like this and having endless arguments about it with them.

    Perhaps one's exact age in that era mattered? Slightly older kids (or adults) might have been more comfortable ignoring holy diktat?

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  3. I did as well. We even used the damage modifiers vs Armor types in AD&D (and I still do, when I can...) At least, my gaming crowd all thought we played 100% "official" rules, although a close reading would indicate we didn't, often leaving things out. Maybe that's what we remember differently.

    Although we certainly looked with suspicion on those who had "house rules"...usually because those often involved having +58 Arrows of Everything-Slaying or other such uber-stuff popular with most other 13-year olds at the time.

    Part of it might have stemmed from my interest in wargames which got me into RPGs. Wargaming always played itself as "serious" (at least with my crowd) and had "official" rules to go with it.

    Anyway, you weren't alone!

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  4. I was the same way, don't feel badly about it. I think it's absolutely the case that age has something to do with it. I came upon AD&D and D&D in 1980, and I was so eager to "get it right" that I distinctly recall being inflexible about the rules. Strictly by-the-book (as I understood the book at the time, of course).

    Which leads me to:

    "We even used the damage modifiers vs Armor types in AD&D (and I still do, when I can...)"

    Um, there are no damage modifiers vs. Armor Types in AD&D. There are to hit adjustments, though :).

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  5. We never paid much attention to what was going on in Dragon unless there was a dispute. If there was a dispute and a player brought me a Sage Advice column, I would abide by it. I think that worked well for middle and high school boys. The arguments could get out of hand otherwise.

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  6. "Me, I did all these things, because, back then, toeing the TSR line when it came to official-ness was a big part of the gaming culture with which I was familiar. It's a pity I can't find anyone else who remembers this...

    It certainly was part of my gaming culture as well, in the early 1980s. I remember taking quite seriously EGG's pronouncements on what was 'official' and what was not -- and feeling depressed that many so cool 'NPC' classes in Dragon were deemed unofficial.

    (My group's focus on 'TSR official rulings' is what makes me somewhat surprised that so many grognards insist on using '3d6-in-order' when generating ability scores, despite EGG giving 'official permission' to use other methods in the DMG.)

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  7. I updated my "official" play by what was published in adventures and Dragon all the time. I remember when our game transitioned to the Dragon magazine Monk, and then to the Oriental Adventures Monk.

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  8. I totally tried to stick to the "official" nature of the rules, even telling my first DM (and the guy who taught me how to play the game) that I wasn't going to play in his campaign because he was allowing a magic-user character to use a morning star and a crossbow. His answer was "then don't play."

    So, I changed my tune pretty quickly.

    I was also that guy who seriously that that the NPC classes in Dragon magazine were only for NPCs. So I would hear people talking about playing a Witch or a Samurai or a Ninja, and I would smile to myself and think, "Oh, what a simpleton. He thinks he's playing D&D but he's just playing a kid's game where anything goes. Poor, misguided soul."

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  9. Next to me for reference is the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide by Gary Gygax. Before those words though? "Official". Like people were running off unofficial copies of the book. I appreciate official rules but Bard Games Atlantis trilogy, Role Aids, and a ton of other stuff made it into my campaign well ahead of the OGL.

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  10. The "by the book" attitude ruined my high school D&D campaign ... blogging about that this week ... but definitely explains my "nothing sacred" attitude to the Rules-As-Written.

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  11. When I first was introduced to AD&D, anything in print was Holy Writ. We had one of the earlier PHBs with some contradictions (most aggravating: Half-orcs max Dex listed as 14! Grrr!), and we pretty much always used the MOST restrictive interpretation of anything ambiguous. Sage Advice was given too much credence. It was not for a few years that we broke free altogether of the idea that you had to play as written. We were very young then though -- elementary to middle school.

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  12. @dhowarth333

    Whoops...that's what I meant.
    That's what I get for trying to rush a comment out on my way out the door to a concert.

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  13. @Coldstream

    I know :). I was just illustrating the point by being a stickler for the rules. Actually, a damage adjustment would have made just about as much sense as the "to hit" adjustment (i.e., not a whole lot).

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  14. I lost a lot of my "just make shtuff up" abiity fretting about what was canon and what was "official", more for Traveller than D&D but the damage was done.

    Your JMSU ability is a lot like riding a bike, though - once you say "the hell with it" and stop worrying that what you're doing might not fit with THE PROPER INTERPRETATION, you find it's not as difficult as you thought it'd be.

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  15. I probably spent around 3-4 years towing the party line until I was comfortable enough to just tweak and go with the changes. The bulk of the people I played with didn't care. I can still point to house rules introduced we use today. Good stuff.

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  16. You were not alone. My friends and I were all about doing it the "official" way. But as we all know, that, in the end, turned out to be nothing more than what WE wanted to do, regardless of what Gary or TSR said was "official".. and also in the end, that is what Gary and Co. wanted.

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  17. ::Peers over his stack of newly acquired, 1979-80 Judges Guild products:: "And we LIKED it that way!"

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  18. Huh. Maybe because I started in '75, so I was the first DM and we were the only group playing in my school, "officialness" never entered into it. By High School we were heavily influenced by Arduin Grimoire, and making up our own home brews.

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  19. The first campaign I played in, used tons of Arduin stuff,and an alternate combat system somewhat borrowed from Melee and extra classes. e.g. Cleric were split into Warrior Clerics and Priestly-Mages...

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  20. I'm so glad I found your very cool blog. I'm stopping by from the A to Z challenge and I look forward to reading more from you.

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  21. We were bitterly divided on this issue. It utterly destroyed our early Space Opera campaign, which is ironic, because I'm not sure it's actually possible to play Space Opera by the rules.

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  22. I never paid any attention to that kind of stuff, because I was kit-bashing like crazy, using "unofficial" stuff from Judges Guild, Role Aids and White Dwarf.

    I was actually surprised when I began to talk to other players on the internet who scoffed at the "unofficial" stuff.

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  23. If you had asked me, back in the day, what was official and what was not, you would have gotten a quizzical look from me. You see, in my group, I didn't DM for a long time, and didn't study AD&D seriously. There were more than enough others to do that. I concentrated on the rules for Top Secret and various wargames; for AD&D, I just showed up to play and let the others fill me in on the rules.

    And I'll bet most of the time, they weren't cracking the books all that hard. I really can't remember times when someone opened a rulebook to show a DM where he was wrong. Plenty of arguing, but not much rules-lawyering.

    FWIW, the "NPC classes" were confined to NPCs in our group. I remember this, because there was a Sentinel class that I thought was pretty neat....

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  24. Yeah, I was a real wet blanket about whether or not something was official or not. I think it killed a friendship.

    I was living in Saudi Arabia. There were a bunch of kids who played but they were mostly on American compounds. I lived on a British compound and hung out sometimes with a buddy on the German compound.

    Anyway, my father would send Dragon magazine from the States and we were really excited by the new Barbarian class. Jamie was excited to build Conan. I was excited to because it was official. So he makes up a barbarian with a two-handed sword and a harpoon. I see it and commence to wet-blanket all over it on the grounds that they weren't culturally appropriate weapons. It was joy stealing moment. Sorry, Jamie. :(

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  25. My original group had a flock of rules lawyers.

    Everybody played AD&D with their own house rules, but insisted that theirs was the only by-the-book game. If it was in print, it was pretty much gospel, with few exceptions (but we didn't use the AC to Hit mods...)

    I remember some flaming arguments, but I also remember some awesome adventures!

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  26. I admit it, I did that too. It wasn't until the 2nd edition started introducing the Skills & Options books that I realized I didn't *have* to play any specific way.

    These days my games are half-composed of house rules.

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  27. @Eteokles: Perhaps one's exact age in that era mattered? Slightly older kids (or adults) might have been more comfortable ignoring holy diktat?

    I think this is quite true. After all original D&D (or the LBB to use the vernacular) was such a mashup it made sense. Each supplement was written from the point of view of a different campaign and consisted of expansions and additions, so what was to stop us writing our own expansions and additions to the rules for our own campaigns? It made sense. We used the stuff we liked and ignored the stuff we didn't, quite freely. [And actually had far less rules lawyers problems as a result.]

    The habit continued on. Nowadays I don't play anything straight after the first few games (to see how the designers expected their games to be played), unl;ess I am playtesting a game or running a tournament. After that they usually end up customized or repurposed (Pendragon being the one exception I can remember, because it is so perfectly the thing it was meant to be [but even then everyone ignored the 4th Edition mages section]).

    The idea that game rules are gospel is quite foreign to me, although, to misquote Dogma, they may contain many good ideas.

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  28. We also adhered very closely to the official rulings. We even had quite a few "Brian Moments" (Knights of the Dinner Table) when we took great pride in being able to quote a particular ruling from Sage's Advice, some rulebook or whatever to get over some rules quibble.

    I guess it is a behaviour that you are accustomed to as a pupil in a school: There are text books which provide a certain definition of how reality works and you are accustomed to listening to the masters (teachers, well, at least sometimes ;-) ).

    And the older you grow the more you start to make conscious decisions on what you like and dislike. For some people this leads to even more rigid rules interpretations, for others this causes a sudden discovery of freedom.

    The thing I wonder about most is that in those ancient days we never were confused (much) by the various rules flaws - we almost always seemed to be able to find a logical interpretation "according to the canon" that made some kind of sense. Even if just for us.

    Sidenote: James is weirding me out this morning with his sudden Gamma World flux that is so similar to what I am thinking about right now... ust yesterday Gaia Gamma had "the official ruling" for Pure Strain Humans :-) http://www.gaiagamma.com/2011/04/pure-strain-humans.html

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  29. "If discussions on blogs and in forums are to be believed, I was one of only a few people who ever behaved in this way."

    I was definitely one of those people, and very strongly so. I call this my gamer-OCD issue. (And I'm also one of the few people who picked up D&D from the Holmes book alone, with no personal "mentors", so maybe that's related.)

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  30. I came into the hobby pretty much "without a tour guide", as my initial exposure at age 10 was listening to the older kids brag about their D&D game to us younger types who weren't allowed to play in their elite club. Gaming sounded incredible, so I got a boxed set or two and tried to figure things out on my own--rolling up characters, running little adventures for my sister and mom, etc. Those were the only rules I had, and playing differently from what the book said never crossed my mind.

    That was all well and good, until I branched out into Champions. To navigate from random char-gen to the Build-Your-Own-PC model, I used the official Enemies sourcebooks and tried to work backwards...and it gave me conniptions when they'd build "official" characters completely and totally wrong (which I ultimately came to understand was equal parts sloppiness and rules tweakery).

    It wasn't until I found Dragon #98 two years later that I started to grok to the idea of rules flexibility and variations.

    I definitely think that age had/has something to do with one's perspective on "official-ness".

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  31. Now reading the comments, I think it's a very interesting observation that if you were of an age to see the Original D&D books, with their sometimes-incomplete rules, campaign-specific supplements, and alternative/suggested rules amendments, then you were less likely to bear witness to an "official" game.

    Having gotten into the game in the Holmes/AD&D era, that wasn't me. (And I've argued in the past that the books of that era labored to whitewash the existence of OD&D.) I think Gygax's solo turn to AD&D actually did a lot of damage to the game.

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  32. It took me a very long time to realise that you didn't have to do everything exactly by the rules if it made for a better game to not do so. Even today I find myself slipping back into that mode now and then when designing scenarios, but I can recognise the tendency now and I can shake it off. If only my fourteen-year-old self had the same confidence!

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  33. I was a Moldvay/AD&D kid when I started and we did open The Books occasionally to settle legal disputes, generally across separate gaming groups (back when there were multiple games going on in different classrooms at school) and house-ruling was not conducive to that sort of "player pool" setup. But by 14-15 (85 or so) I was mostly playing everything else that came out and writing my own systems from the ground up (horrible, crunchy, incoherent things) and dreaming of publishing my own stuff. Certainly neither UA nor OA looked like canon to us. I think it helped that we didn't have regular access to Dragon.

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  34. "Having gotten into the game in the Holmes/AD&D era, that wasn't me. (And I've argued in the past that the books of that era labored to whitewash the existence of OD&D.) I think Gygax's solo turn to AD&D actually did a lot of damage to the game."

    It has taken me 31 years of being a devout AD&Der to come around to this point of view, too. In my early days ('80 - '83/84) I took every single word written by EGG as gospel. I had no clue what OD&D was all about, other than the vague references to Arneson here and there in the Basic set, etc.

    Now that I do have some sense of the disservice done to the game by some of EGG's pronouncements and dictates, my mind has been freed to like the game I want to like and play it the way I want to play it.. And oddly enough, I find that Gamma World (which I never played BITD) is where I'm at. I think Geoffrey McKinney once said here (paraphrasing) that, "Gamma World is possibly the best version of D&D ever written". I couldn't agree more. Yay!!!

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  35. One of the players in my first gaming group, circa 1986, went one step further with "officialness" - he only accepted Experience Points for killing monsters that were in the rulebooks, and only took as treasure magic items that were in the rulebooks. No homebrew stuff for him!

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  36. Back when I first started gaming (D&D and AD&D) I never met anyone who changed systems... everyone I knew who played was 12-16 years old and were sticklers for what was 'official'.

    It was the attitude of "if you don't like the way the game is written then find another game" that contributed to my close friends and I moving on to systems more to our liking.

    If we played with system tinkerers we might have stuck with D&D longer than we did.

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  37. I think it's worth pointing out that the change referred to in that aside actually did make PSHs more playable (boosted their HPs and, more importantly, gave them some rad resistance so they wouldn't mutate in the first radiation field they entered and lose all their PSH bonuses).

    The 2nd edition of GW was put together by Dave and Debs Ritchie, who came to TSR from SPI, where rules "meant what they said and said what they meant; their rules were crisply incised in cement."

    Steve

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  38. A lot of the comments here seem to assume that playing by the book is a flaw. But it might have been a good strategy to deal with power gamers.

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  39. @Justin:
    What was in Dragon #98?

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  40. @anarchist

    Dragon #98 was the first issue I ever bought (at a Waldenbooks). They had about 3-4 months worth, but that one had to be mine because it had a bestiary--the "Mutant Manual"-- of new Gamma World critters. Here were new monsters not found in an "official" module, and they were created by multiple authors I'd never heard of. That got my gears turning along the lines of, Hey--I can make up stuff, too! (Yeah, I know, I know, but I was a perfectionist kid who wanted to do everything "right"!)

    The rest of the issue's D&D material really did it, though. In addition to new and supplementary rules (something about dragon age and increased damage), there was one article about new magic items. The subtitle stood out: "DMs are not limited to what's in the book."

    Kinda changed my entire perspective, and I veered towards games that seemingly had less "officialness" than D&D, where I made up most of the material myself: Champions, V&V, etc.

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  41. Though I dutifully purchased Dragon every month, I rarely paid attention to the Sage Advice section. Most of the time, the questions didn't relate to anything we did and seemed kind of petty and lawyer-ish. If we had a problem with a rule, it was the DM's job to figure it out. My players didn't even own their own copies of the books. If I liked something in Dragon, I'd use it. I was usually pretty fair, so I didn't get much argument from my players.

    Flash forward 20 years to my Rolemaster Hyborian game, and I ran into my first serious rule lawyers. Many many sessions stalled out because someone couldn't accept the DM's edict. I ended up dreading game night and shutting down the campaign because of it.

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  42. Sorry for the late reply...This is an interesting question. I started with OD&D in 1976, and we probably played more in '76 and '77 before any portion of AD&D was available than we did later, so our AD&D experience was colored by this. Practically speaking, our game had a lot of rule areas that we simply ignored, so questions of officialness tended toward using what was left rather than adding new stuff. Our tradition of cutting things out started early; our OD&D game used most of Greyhawk, but almost none of Blackmoor (bought the same day), and just a dash of Eldritch Wizardry, so there was no clamor, as best I recall, to use "all" the rules of AD&D.

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  43. I started playing in 1979 or so. I originally tended to play more-or-less by the book but not really out of any sense of dogmatic orthodoxy. The first "older" player I introduced D&D to (I'd previously only played with other older teens whereas my wargaming buddy was in his early 30s)immediately started modifying the rules to make them better fit his fantasy world.

    That was fine by me, and most the gamers in our growing group followed suit. One regular member however always argued in favour of strict adherence to the rules; you weren't really playing D&D/AD&D unless you played it exactly as written. What made this particularly surreal was that his understanding/interpretation of the rules was usually truly perverse (and certainly never admitted of common sense).

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