Monday, June 1, 2009

As She Was Played

In my delirium last week, I often found myself thinking back to my own early experiences playing D&D. What I remembered again and again was that, at the time, we simply called ourselves "D&D players" without any qualifications. We didn't say, for example, that we were AD&D players, even though we all generated our characters according to the specifications in the AD&D Players Handbook. Neither did we call ourselves "B/X D&D players," even though we generally referred to those two thin volumes when we had a question about some basic mechanic of the game, like setting spears against a charge or handling NPC morale. The same could be said of Holmes, which I continued to carry around with me for years, using bits and pieces of its rules in my games without once thinking they were the "wrong" rules.

It's a funny thing when I think about it, because I know that the splitting of OD&D into two "flavors" -- D&D and AD&D -- was intended to present the game to two very different audiences, one more "casual" and one more serious. In practice, though, I found nearly everyone with whom I played D&D to be playing some Frankenstein's monster-like mish-mash of multiple rules sets. And because the rules were, with very few exceptions, completely compatible with one another, it was easy to grab a Moldvay Basic Rules, a Monster Manual, and some dice and have at it without any difficulty whatsoever. The "vastness" of the differences between the flavors of the game is often exaggerated in retrospect and was in fact more artificial than real. To us, it was all just "D&D" without distinction.

That's probably why I grab all the retro-clones I can. In my Dwimmermount campaign, the baseline is Swords & Wizardry, but I use a couple of rules from Labyrinth Lord and am considering adoptiong some from Spellcraft & Swordplay and OSRIC as well. To me, that's how I've always played D&D. I never played it completely by the book and I never met anyone who did. But then that's because these games are generally so mechanically simple that such mixing and matching is not only easy but intuitive. They share so many characteristics that I don't really consider them different games at all so much as different presentations of the same game.

Which is absolutely awesome.


  1. >simply called ourselves "D&D players" without any qualifications. We didn't say, for example, that we were AD&D players<

    I think in the earliest days my fellow D&D pals and I referred to ourselves as "players" or "DM's" without necessarily using the term "D&D" in the mix. And that was amongst ourselves. We didn't refer anything about ourselves to others - because we didn't want non-gamers to know we did it. Very in the closet a lot of the time, especially with jr. high and high school sports entering our lives.

    It was one thing to like Star Wars or Indy Jones, but D&D was an entire other level of dorkdom that could really lay some stigma on you. Even with a beautiful high school sweetheart for a couple of years who actually played D&D with us, I kept it on the down low.

    Childish in retrospect, but I'm still pretty in the closet these days. I could not imagine talking to people at work about being a D&D geek. And none of my non-gamer friends (which is 99.9% of my friends) even know I still play or blog about gaming.

  2. I also consider myself a "non-denominational" D&D gamer.

  3. James said . . .

    In practice, though, I found nearly everyone with whom I played D&D to be playing some Frankenstein's monster-like mish-mash of multiple rules sets.That was always my experience, except B/X was our base. Our group had various AD&D core books that were passed around, we also took anything from White Dwarf that was for D&D no matter which edition. Same with modules; we just bought the ones we liked the look of.Non of us had any OD&D stuff. Not sure how much of that got to the UK. There certainly didn't seem to be much of it around when I was a D&D Player from 79-85. In fact until Gygax died I wasn't even awre of OD&D. I thought AD&D was first.

  4. I have to agree with Brunomac, HighSchool, and junior High were definitely times for keeping D&D play hush hush. Although now that i think about it, I seem to remember playing at lunch in what we called study hall....sigh no wonder i didn't have a girlfriend till grade twelve.
    Oh well, going back to the original post, I too always used an amalgamation of the rules..AD&D was too complex, but it had all the cool extra Character classes, plus just having ELF as your occupation really bugged us as players, NOW an ELF Thief/Mage, that was something else entirely.

  5. I did, and do, exactly the same thing. I use whichever rule, from whichever edition, that does the best job, in that particular instance. In my monster posts on my own blog, I use a stat column that incorporates all the individual statistics used by TSR D&D from Original to 2E, and the retro-clones, plus Hackmaster 4E. No matter what version you play, just ignore what dose'nt apply. That's how I've always treated the various editions. I'm a game looter.

  6. My early D&D experiences were chaotic farragoes, too, borrowing freely from Holmes, AD&D, and B/X, for the most part.

    Later, I ran D&D much closer to by-the-book. For example, when I ran AD&D in the mid-to-late 80s, that was about as by-the-book as you could get. I also ran a by-the-book BECM game.

    These days, I've returned to the salad bar approach, taking what I want and leaving the rest: making the game my own. But I think I'm doing it from a much more informed position, now.

  7. I played AD&D right from the books. This'd be, let's see, mid to late 80s. I (and my group) considered it clear that the various D&D sets were a different game -- similar in many aspects but not the same.

    I imagine it's probable that the vast majority of the retro movement is people who played in the manner you describe; it's well-suited to that play style. The ad hoc marketing of retro roleplay -- this blog, various publishers, various message boards -- contains the message that mix and match is the right way to play old school games. Thus, people who choose to be part of that community are likely to agree.

    But I would caution against assuming that the self-selected retro roleplayers represent the majority of roleplayers at that time. (And, of course, one shouldn't assume the opposite either.)

    Out of curiousity, are you familiar with Brad Solberg's Team From Hommlet retro roleplay writeups from the late 1990s? His work predates the publication of Hackmaster, but was in part inspired by the KotDT comics. He used strict AD&D rules from the core three first edition rulebooks with a smattering of UA and a few other AD&D books for rulings.

  8. Hm, blogger doesn't pick up all the info from my OpenID auth... well, that's me (Bryant) above.

  9. I don't talk too much with my non-gaming friends about gaming. Then again, when they ask me what my facebook status updates mean (Christian is rocking the d20, for example) I'm not afraid to lay it out there.

  10. It is a lot easier to run stuff by the book if you have a family life, job and stuff that take a way from tinkering, though.

    I love house ruling and mixing stuff, but I find it takes time.

  11. Back in the day we freely mixed our D&D and AD&D and played a game called, oddly enough "D&D".

    Today, part of my Old School fun is to mix OSRIC with LL and BFRPG. Now it is even easier than it was then, and the choices! I love Old School, I love the new stuff, and any chance to play is great.

  12. Good point to get the retro-clones, to see new ideas for D&D rules.

    I started out with Moldvay Basic, moved on to AD&D, Moved away from the D&D altogether, moved back to AD&D.

  13. Same here, James.
    Poor Moldvay Basic players fighting creatures out of the Fiend Folio my first week GMing. Heh.

    The only time I would play anything By the Book was to prove to someone else that I could/it was possible, and then my literal interpretations generally drove the players back to our chaotic homebrew.
    Word Verification-
    * Grail !

  14. "In practice, though, I found nearly everyone with whom I played D&D to be playing some Frankenstein's monster-like mish-mash of multiple rules sets. ... To us, it was all just "D&D" without distinction."

    Yes, absolutely. That's the main point I was trying to make in my sometimes misunderstood remarks about "cargo cult" D&D.

  15. Huh. In the groups I encountered, B/X was pretty much ignored. Everyone played AD&D only (usually house-ruled all over the place, of course). For the record this was '82-'85.

    I know this because I actually started with the Red Box and quickly got a PHB when I realized that everyone used that.

  16. We started in 1977 (I think) with Holmes, then the 4 OD&D and AD&D MM. We then bought PHB and DMG as soon as they were released. For some reason, no one in our gaming circle purchased modules. We all DMed, however, which meant creativity was at a premium as we all had MM, FF, MM2, and DMG (my ace in the hole was my battered copy of the "Ready Ref Sheets"--pure gold). We each had a notebook of homemade monsters and treasure just to keep each other off guard. Oddly, after we had all these, we bought Chainmail and the original 3 booklets but never used them. We lived in a rural area of Michigan and it was quite an adventure just to find the books (we were all 15 and younger when we started so we reliant on unusual acts of parental kindness).

    Editions? House rules? Those concepts never entered our minds. We were just playing D&D. The only issue we had initially was the number of 3rd level characters on sabbatical while we were using Holmes as our only guide. We had quite a collection of characters, all living in the same small town, doing odd jobs, and hanging out in a local tavern; waiting patiently for someone to lead them to the promised land of 4th level.

    You are absolutely correct...awesome. And, as I get back into it, I am finding it is more awesome than ever. Thanks!

  17. Imust admit that I was always very cognizant of the different editions of D&D, and did not mix & match them. I was also the DM Primus (first person to get any D&D books, always DM) in my community, so that sort of carried forth to everyone else.

    Once in a while there are some debates over my experience, because I was in a position where I had to take the written books pretty literally. I considered Holmes to be part of AD&D (because it says so) and other Basic flavors to be accidental spinoffs (although I played them) -- others will disagree.

    There may in fact be a big cultural difference from those who learned from "old-timers" (James) versus those who learned tabula rasa from the books (me).

  18. I was always the first person to purchase the various books. To the best of our knowledge, we were the only people in our area playing D&D. We taught ourselves after I stumbled across the Holmes boxed set while my cousin was buying comics (his reward for a two hour tune-up on his braces). Up until that time, we were into Avalon Hill games (which demanded fidelity to the rules).

    We were certainly aware of differences between groups of books (Holmes, OD&D, supplements I-IV, and then AD&D books as they were released). We understood that the game itself was under construction and in flux. We had Holmes first and then supplements I-IV--which meant that we had to guess and, in many cases, guess a lot as to how to handle characters moving beyond 3rd level and many of the mechanics.

    It was obvious to us that there were differences between Holmes, OD&D, and then AD&D (the order we read them) but we never doubted their place in the same Canon of game resources. We played at least once a week during our first year of D&D with a patched together set of rules comprising Holmes, then I-IV; and (slightly later) MM. None of which, by themselves, gave us a whole game. As James said, the game was (and is) remarkably intuitive, so we made up parts, and then corrected some things as we bought new books without much fuss. As I said, we recognized the differences between the books and we knew we were mixing slightly different rules, but, in the end, it was all D&D. It worked remarkably well and our only serious game debates were about the true meaning of "chaotic" in "chaotic good."

    It could have looked differently had we been able to access more books earlier or been taught by an experienced player, but it was what it was. Even the Holy Fathers and Mothers of Lake Geneva were using a mishmash of rules and resources at the time that changed rapidly. Despite learning from the books, as opposed to other players, my experience was remarkably similar to James (not to say that it was normative, just to be clear, just similar).

  19. Delta said:

    There may in fact be a big cultural difference from those who learned from "old-timers" (James) versus those who learned tabula rasa from the books (me).
    I think that's quite an astute observation, actually - one which applies to a lot of pursuits, but certainly to D&D.

    Certainly, I came to D&D through various beginner boxes without anyone to guide me, and while I only properly got into RPGs when I went to university and joined the gaming society there I still think how I view gaming would be quite different if, back when I first got D&D, there'd been a teenager telling me about which campaign settings were cool and what the "real" rules for disarming were or whatever.

  20. This comment has been removed by the author.

  21. When I was a kid I didn't know there was any real difference between basic and advanced D&D. I thought one was an outgrowth of the other.

  22. "It's a funny thing when I think about it, because I know that the splitting of OD&D into two 'flavors' -- D&D and AD&D -- was intended to present the game to two very different audiences, one more 'casual' and one more serious."

    Actually, this split occurred because Gary G. wanted to cut Dave A. out of royalties, which Dave received on all D&D products. For this purpose, the versions had to be different enough for AD&D to not just be considered a derivative of D&D. ;)

  23. I went the more-or-less tabula rasa route, starting in 1985 with BECMI, Cook/March Expert & a couple of solo modules (Ghost of Lion Castle, Lathan’s Gold), plus some issues of Dragon (and Best of Dragon) whenever I could get them. It was just me, my younger brother, some equally clueless neighbor kids trying to figure it out. I next picked up Unearthed Arcana and Oriental Adventures in 1987 and was all sorts of confused. I quickly collected the other 1E AD&D stuff, followed shortly thereafter by 2E, but never had a regular group of experienced people to play with until the early 90s. Before that it was mostly me, my brother, and some neighbor kids. I can tell you that while Frank’s Basic set was a fantastic intro, the books in general left us fumbling a lot for the first several years.