On the evening of the second day, I had the opportunity to play in an AD&D game run by Ed Greenwood and set in his Forgotten Realms campaign. It has literally been more than a decade since I last played any sort of AD&D, but that didn't make a difference. For one thing, all forms of TSR D&D are close enough mechanically that, if you know how to play one, you know how to play them. For another, Ed plays a fairly "fast and loose" game, where game mechanics are secondary other concerns (about which I'll say more shortly). In this respect, I found myself reminded of the stories of how M.A.R. Barker runs his Tékumel campaign, an analogy that I think is quite apt, given that Greenwood, like Barker, has been imagining his fantasy world most of his life. For both of them, it's the world and its contents that are important, not the rules used to simulate them.
As I said above, the game used AD&D, ostensibly its second edition. Truth be told, it was difficult to tell that it wasn't first edition, since Ed didn't use non-weapon proficiencies, which is, for me, one of the signature differences between the two editions. I played a cleric -- I'm sorry, priest -- of the goddess Tymora named Tashram and, while some of his spells were ones I'd never encountered in 1e, I found the experience indistinguishable from playing a cleric in the old days. That said, Ed uses the rules very loosely, mostly for the adjudication of combat and spellcasting and, even then, he seemed to do so mostly as a spur to his imagination. Again, I found myself thinking of Professor Barker and the descriptions of how he referees Tékumel using only percentile dice.
The specifics of the scenario we were playing are, frankly, unimportant, since, as an adventure written for a con, it was something of a "funhouse dungeon." The PCs were tasked with finding someone who'd fled through a series of "hop-gates" that were hidden and whose locations we could identify with a magic ring that glowed bright when we were near one. Thus, our party went from one place to the next, each place presenting a new and sometimes bizarre challenge intended to slow us down or kill us, thereby preventing our finding our quarry. The challenges were fun and many were very odd indeed, reminding me very much of the dungeons I created and played through in my younger days. I'm sure the convention format had something to do with this, but I also got the sense that Ed enjoys watching the players attempt to puzzle their way through his tricks and traps, so perhaps it was all reflective of his overall refereeing style.
My fellow players were much fun, too, with some of them following Ed's lead and adopting funny voices and mannerisms. There's no question it was goofy, but it was also entertaining, so entertaining, in fact, that we soon attracted a crowd of onlookers watching us play. I remember as a kid visiting the back rooms of game stores where RPG sessions were being held and doing just the same, watching these older guys sit around a table and speak in character as they explored some fiendish underworld. It's not for everyone, I'll readily admit, but there's no question that it has a long pedigree in our hobby. We had so much fun that I think we dawdled a bit and so we reached the conclusion of the adventure rather late, resulting in a less than satisfactory conclusion to it, a fact Ed noted to me afterwards.
Looking back on the session now, one things really sticks with me. Though Ed was clearly more interested in characterization than many old school referees, he was nevertheless very keen to use player skill as the deciding factor in most instances. He didn't call for dice rolls a lot and, when he did, they were for things like saving throws or weapon damage. When we encountered a trap or a puzzle, we had to work them it for ourselves; we couldn't just "make a Spot check at DC 15" to find what we needed. The longer I am involved in old school gaming, the more convinced I am that that is the crux of the difference between older games and newer ones. For all the ways that Ed's refereeing might cause some grognards' skin to crawl, he is nevertheless, fundamentally, "one of us." He clearly gets that rolling dice should never be a substitute for individual cleverness and creative thinking. I had great fun playing in his adventure and would very happily do so again. I don't doubt that all the other players who sat around that table with me for four hours last weekend feel exactly the same.