Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Clubhouse

"... and we liked it."
I've reading everything written by Dr. Holmes on the subject of roleplaying that I can find. Yesterday, I read his article from issue 52 of Dragon (August 1981), where he offers his perspective on the then-new Basic Rulebook edited by Tom Moldvay. Holmes provides a lot of interesting commentary on both his own rulebook and on Moldvay's, so it's well worth tracking down the article if you're able to do so. For the moment, though, I just want to focus on a small section at its beginning, where Holmes says:
Most of you reading this article already know how to play a D&D or AD&D game. Most of you learned how to play by watching a game or having a friend guide you through your first game. If you have seen a game played, the rules are pretty easy to understand. 
But the D&D Basic Rulebook is written for people who have never seen a game. It is intended to teach the game to someone who’s coming to it for the first time. All other considerations should be secondary to teaching how to play the game with a minimum of confusion. I like to think that the first Basic Set did just that.
Now, as much as I love the Blue Book and revere the memory of Dr. Holmes, I can't say that his basic set succeeded in his intention, at least for me. My friends and I were powerfully intrigued by D&D after reading the Blue Book; we wanted to play the game as written, but we just didn't get it. It wasn't until my friend's older brother deigned to explain everything to us that all the pieces started to fall into place. Only then could we make heads or tails of the Blue Book and use it as a reference for running our games and teaching others how to play in turn.

Back in the late 70s and early 80s, this pattern seemed well-nigh universal. Nearly everyone I met, through school, at the hobby shops, or at games days, had learned to play RPGs not because of a rulebook but because someone else, who already knew how to play, took pity on them and explained the rules to them. To us, that was simply the way of things, a way that we all perpetuated by initiating others into our "Secret Club." I can tell you for a fact that that was a big part of the appeal to the hobby back then: unlike other games, you couldn't just pick up a copy, read the rules, and play -- you had to have someone "on the inside" willing to teach you the ropes, like becoming a Mason except without the aprons and trowels.

I'm very fond of looking back and trying to pinpoint change points in history. Biased though such exercises are, I find them useful nonetheless. One of the change points I recall quite distinctly was sometime in the mid-80s, when I first started running into guys, usually younger than myself, who weren't part of the Club. They were these mysterious kids who, to my friends and I, who liked to think of ourselves as well connected within the local gaming scene, had just popped up out of the woodwork. We'd never taught them how to play and none of the older guys who'd taught us had taught them, so where'd they come from and how'd they learn to play?

Intellectually, I understand the need for a game to be intelligible in its own right. On some level, it is a flaw if a game's rules can only really be understood if taught by another human being. At the same time, that was part of the magic of gaming for us in those days. It was a hobby so arcane and esoteric that mere written words were seemingly inadequate to convey it. Only by finding a "master" willing to share his wisdom with you could you enter into the most hidden of human entertainments.

And we made a lot of friends to boot. Back then, we knew lots of other gamers all over the place and, while we didn't play with them regularly, we still felt as if we were all part of a larger community. That's why we could get together every month or so at the library to play pick-up games together and would swap stories with one another at the hobby shops we all frequented. There was a sense of connection, a common bond born out of the fact that there was almost no way any of us could ever have started gaming if it hadn't been for someone else who'd taken it upon themselves to teach us what no rulebook could adequately do.

I won't deny that I miss those days. Maybe it's just nostalgia talking, I don't know. The hobby felt a lot "tighter" back then, even without the undreamed of wonders of the Internet. There were lots of personal bonds between players in the area, with many of them having learned to play the game from the same guys as each other. It probably seems silly, but knowing that some guy you never met first entered a dungeon refereed by the same guy who did the same for you used to be enough to establish a weird kind of kinship between you and I oftentimes think there's not enough kinship in this hobby.


  1. So interesting that you say this...I was just reading an interview with Paul Jaquays last night in FO. And one of the things he mentioned about the difference between electronic games and face to face RPGs, is that the barrier to entry is so much lower.

    You don't have to rely upon a book of rules, another person, or ANYTHING for that matter, to start playing the game. I found that quite sad really. One of the reasons that I LOVE table-top RPGs is that it IS such a social game. I believe that more and more we, as a race, seem to be getting away from one of the defining things about being human: Communication.

    Our oral tradition is crumbling around us. That binding element of our pack mentality, communication, is slowly deteriorating. Now I may be laying too much at the feet of a game, but D&D is one of those things that allow us to flex those oft under-utilized muscles.

    I hope I didn't just derail your initial intent there James...

  2. Dr. Holmes' explanation is exactly what it got used for in my case, and I would also call it a success.

  3. I started with the Moldvay set, and I can attest that I was easily able to learn the rules (and teach others to play) without input from anyone else. It's a good thing, because I was pretty much "patient zero" for D&D at my middle school. After thirty years of playing the game I can't really put myself in the position of someone who doesn't understand the game concepts, so I'll have to take the word of others that the Holmes set was more difficult to learn on your own.

  4. Compared to one of the modern, OGL-derived games like 'Labyrinth Lord' or all the others, the Holmes book is a mess. But compared to the little brown books, Holmes is a huge improvement.
    One of the problems in understanding how presentation has been improved, I suspect, is the fact that you can't go back. For kids in the midwest in 1978, we really didn't have anything to compare playing D&D to. Most games had boards and little pieces you moved around the board --- a game like D&D where we drew the map as we went along seemed incredibly novel at the time. Plus you could perform actions that were not accounted for in the rules --- if there was a chair in the room, you could sit on it, take it, chop it into firewood, etc. There was furniture drawn on the board in games like CLUE, but it was just decoration (which was one of the things that drove me nuts about that game as a kid).
    Today, most kids have played a video game that was based on D&D in some way, so doing it with pencil and paper is probably less of a conceptual jump. The video games in 1978 were pretty crude things by today's standards (like Space Invaders and Tank)as I recall.
    And the people who write rule books for RPGs have already had so much of the work done for them --- not only do the readers usually have a better idea, conceptually, of what an RPG is, but the writes have 100+ examples of how to write a rule book on the game store shelves.
    I definitely agree that learning the game by playing was the most fun. These days it seems the people I game with are always finding a 'new' game that they want to play... like "Savage Worlds" or "Dragon Age" or something else... but the idea of learning a new set of rules to try to do the same thing (play a fantasy game) does not appeal to me at this point.

  5. I started with the Holmes set. Just two weeks ago I sat down and re-read it from cover to cover after many years of not looking at it, and tried to imagine using it to teach my ten-year-old boys how to play. Based on both experiences, I'm pretty sure it flatly fails to teach absolute beginners what the hell this new concept is, or how it works. The Moldvay set is a marginal improvement. Though I had a jaded attitude toward it at the time it was released, the Mentzer Basic Set is a huge leap forward in actually introducing the game to the uninitiated.

    Come to think of it, the religious language is appropriate. A person who knows no Jews or Christians or has never been to church would be utterly baffled by just trying to read a Bible.

  6. I have to admit I fell into the cracks here and despite owning the Blue Book set in 1979, I couldn't quite explain the rules to my mother and sister when I tried to run an adventure for them. My hang up, and what drove them away from the "crazy game" were the rules concerning time and rounds.

    Even though I had played the game with friends, my first experience as a 13-year old DM fell apart when I read a "a turn represents 10 minutes of real time" that we had to spend 10 minutes between my mother and sister explaining what they were doing and their next action. I read and reread the rules, and I knew I was doing something wrong, but the rules never made it clear that there was a difference between game time and real world time.

    I quickly learned the difference from my game group, but I could never convince my mother or my sister to play that "silly make believe" game again. The last point is pretty sad in that my mother's love of fantasy, including reading the Hobbit to my sister and I, as what instilled my own interest in fantasy literature.

  7. I was self taught in regards to D&D but I had a couple years of wargaming experience and became one of those guys who taught other people how to play. As I got older I discovered more and more groups of D&D players who all seemed to have learned the game from "someone else" and I always wondered who those other guys were.
    There was a difference back in those moldy days of old, you couldn't explain D&D by saying "It's like world of warcraft but we don't play on the computer." it typically took one or two sessions for someone to get the game and the games did seem a little wilder in those days.

  8. Yeah, I seriously screwed up the game for about the first year I played it. I missed one sentence in my initial read:

    "Each player starts a character by rolling three 6-sided dice for each characteristic"

    and missed part of the next sentence, so I thought you assigned stats to your character being fair and reasonable. My first generation of characters all had mediocre stats because I was so concerned with assigning them with balance and not cheating.

    We figured out my mistake not from the rules but when I started playing with other kids who learned independently from my brother and me. It's not that the rules weren't clear about this - they are - but that when you learn from another human being there are all kinds of safety nets and feedback loops to the interaction that help steer you onto common ground. Those things are missing when you rely on text alone, a problem closely related to why we have flame wars by e-mail, but not so often on the phone, and rarely in person.

    Like a lot of the Blue Book generation, I treated Monster Manual and the modules as Holmes expansions.

    When Players Handbook came out I switched to AD&D. I didn't notice the shift in tone that came with AD&D, but it did affect me. I grew very concerned with doing it all correctly. I was one of those few DMs who actually tried to play with every last rule in Players Handbook and DMG. I transcribed all of the text of the Players Handbook and part of the DMG onto 3x5 cards in abbreviated form to force myself to learn it all. Segments, material components, speed factors, race-level limits, dual classing, bards, psionics - you name it I played with it.

    It wasn't until I began breaking out of that dogmatism in the early 1980s in our games in Walla Walla that I rediscovered how much fun the game could be when treated as a hobby rather than as a fixed game. That's when I discovered all the great work from Judges Guild and other companies that preserved the earlier, less officious culture.

    Now, all these years later, my allegiance to the game is clearly back with that hobbyist, do-it-yourself approach. I don't care whether we all the play the same way, whether our progress can be compared, whether it's easy to hold tournaments. I just want us to have fun and play with our imaginations.

  9. I would say that those 'self-taught' mystery kids of the mid 80s were a product of the Mentzer Basic Set. That was my first exposure to D&D, and I had absolutely no trouble playing the game without aid or mentorship.

  10. I'd like to once again reassert my membership in the even more exclusive "learned from Holmes, with no prior exposure to RPGs or wargames, and got it pretty much right" club. For me, Dr. Holmes was batting a thousand.

  11. Read Holmes at 10 years of age . . . got some of it . . . loved the Bruno the Battler melee example . . . tried to play . . . didn't have enough like-minded kids to play with, didn't have the ability to play regularly . . . but boy the desire and the wonder of it!

  12. I'll chime in to say that I bought Holmes and introduced it to my friends (with the aid of the included B1 module). We had no advice from anyone. we just figured stuff out, and did what we wanted. When AD&D came out we moved on to that because, well, it was 'advanced' and Holmes had said we should look for it. Not for us the mentorship model that James describes. It was all seat-of-the-pants. I will confess that I have no idea whether we were 'playing it right', but we would have said we were playing it right (even if we weren't), and that was okay with us.

  13. Having just read James' previous post, and not having any idea what Holmes really says about AD&D (not having looked at HOlmes in 30 years), I will say that my friends and I assumed that AD&D was the natural extension of Holmes. None of us ever saw a copy of OD&D, and by the time it registered with me that there was such a thing, I had concluded that it was out of print and, therefore, 'lesser'. (this was me at 12 years old, mind you). I did eventually buy a copy of one of the additional books to the LBBs (Greyhawk, I think), but I was completely unimpressed with it in comparison to the glories AD&D. This is not what I would say today, of course. But it is what lots of people I knew thought. OD&D was some obscure set of poorly printed rules that were clearly superseded first by Holmes and then by AD&D. So much for teenagers!

  14. I clawed my way through the inconsistencies. Played three games with various siblings and friends. Eventually figured out what we were doing wrong. Set up a party where the entertainment was "that D&D game," and all but one of the invitees got hooked.

    But I had to claw my way through misunderstandings and weird editing to get there. Took two playings to understand the difference between "hit points" and "hit dice," for example...

  15. I got my start by going to Toys R Us and buying the Mentzer Basic Set, Expert Set, and the Forgotten Realms gray box campaign set. When my uncle found out that I had bought these three items he gave me his 1st edition Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Adventure log, and a set of uninked dice. I thought Mentzer was easy to understand, but since I didn't have the Dungeon Master's Guide I was confused on some points in the PHB.

  16. That's funny Patrick, I bought Holmes at the end of '79 played for about a year and a half then only bought the AD&D DMG (naturally I was the DM after all). I was totally mystified about what to do with characters when they leveled up.

    Basically I just made shit up for players until I finally bought the Players Handbook. it looks like fighters go up 2000 experience a 4000 for level four, 6000 for level five, and so on.

  17. I was self taught but with Dragon Warriors (the British D&D). Before that I got the basic concepts from Fighting Fantasy books. I had one other friend who was interested in these the hobby. It was only when I went to university that I smetana other people who played RPGs.

    I love the social element of the game and I think that why I never took to the computer versions. I can see there being an obvious benefit to have someone teach you the basics but for me that wasn't an options so I appreciated have access to an introductory game that was simple, relatively clear, athmospheric and very importantly cheap. It also helped that it was available in the same bookshop as the FF books as there was no game store to be found.

  18. When I was a kid, I was pretty serious and wanted to focus on the game, but most kids would cut up and talk for 30 minutes between die rolls. It was frustrating. I'd be sitting there chomping at the bit to play the game, and no one else was as driven as me. But now I play with my family, and the social element is great.

  19. I was self-taught with the Mentzer Basic set; and even with it, we had some problems, like: how do we play without a board?
    Seeing later the other D&D flavours (I then migrated to AD&D 2e,) I doubt I could have picked those game had they been my first game.

  20. It's so obvious to hear it, that it's somewhat surprising how much it saddens me to say it. Things will never be as good again. It's posts like this that really drive home the fact that the OSR is only a drop of the original ocean. Dungeons & Dragons is a game that belongs to a generation, and only that generation.

  21. Until you know what a thing is supposed to be, you can only judge it by what it actually is. IIRC (and I could easily be wrong) LBB Traveller didn't include anywhere a statement about what the point of the game was, what the core activity was, what you were doing. It just got straight into chargen and spaceships, and had a precious few nifty drawings and a couple of physics diagrams. So I received the boxed set for my 11th birthday and was intrigued and mystified, and then I put it away again until a friend got me to play Moldvay Basic, and some inspiration got me to lend him Trav (without reopening it) to see if he could make anything of it. Knowing no games without boards and counters, I didn't make the connection between D&D and Trav as being the same sort of thing.

    I remember staring at the map of the Spinward Marches and imagining that it must be enormously important - perhaps the missing board? And I'd heard of the Northern Marches so I had an idea they were borderlands, far from the centre of control. And I couldn't figure out why this map was included; if you were going to supply a board, why not supply the middle? I think I decided that what I had must have been an add-on to some other core thing.

  22. James, you have captured the essence of the "D&D/AD&D experience"during that time period in this post.

    For me, learning to play a game that very few people could learn (let alone grasp), was very appealing. Yes, it was similar to being initiated into a special club. In fact, some of did join RPG clubs, like myself.

    Those heady days of the early to mid 80s were wonderful to experience.

    There is some of that nowadays through the OSR, but because it doesn't carry the brand name "D&D", it doesn't have the wider appeal.

    Personally, I'm perfectly fine with that.

    Who wants to like what everyone else likes anyway?

    I'd rather be different, which D&D was in the first place.

    Once something becomes mainstream, it loses it appeal to me.

    Back in the day, D&D was so esoteric and weird that I couldn't help but be drawn to it.

    Today, not so much.

    The esoteric, arcane, bizarre, weird, and intellectually stimulating aspects of D&D and AD&D live on in the OSR, and I'm proud to be a part of it.

  23. It was the kid across the street that loaned me his basic D&D book. I figured out character gen easily enough. I was just getting started on wargames about the same time, but I had no problem adjusting to the no-board-or-counter concept.

    I don't think I really read the rules with an eye to following them for a few years: I didn't DM, there was always someone to interpret them for me. I did the same for the wargames (like Star Fleet Battles) or games that I owned (like Top Secret), so they read rules for me in (A)D&D. Besides, at least half of our DMs made most of it up, anyway.

    Now my oldest son is learning to play, and I am trying to balance being a mentor, and letting him learn on his own. The first by DMing for his pals; the second by pushing him to read the books and run on his own. He's doing a lot of solitaire games now, as he's not as skilled at scheduling games.

  24. I was going to say 'pshaw' to

    "On some level, it is a flaw if a game's rules can only really be understood if taught by another human being."

    and praise the glory of mystery cults, but then I thought, hm, I started with Holmes, and I ran a dungeon I made out of graph paper and the geomorphs for my mom, dad, and sister playing characters named Boromir, Galadriel, and Goldberry straight out of the box, so...

    ...I don't know, I guess I like mystery cults, but I just sort of eased in to Holmes, so I guess it did work for me, but on the other hand James is quite right that folks like me were the exception rather than the rule back then. Go figure.

    @Rick Marshall - the other kids were assigning stats - you just had the character and self-restraint not to make them all 18's. :-)

    - Calithena

  25. As a data point, I taught myself what role-playing games were using the Holmes basic set but the first role-playing game system I actually used in play (with a friend and without a GM) was Classic Traveller. Nobody taught me how to play and while I dabbled with a few games with friends who played role-playing games in high school, I didn't really play with another experienced group until college. Some things in Holmes were confusing to me (e.g., I didn't readily understand what "melee" was), it got it's point across and I understood the gist of what the hobby was all about from it and module B2: Keep on the Borderlands. I think that module also helped a great deal.

  26. My first introduction to D&D was with AD&D 1E. I was introduced to it by a guy in college who took me through a one-on-one hack and slay. Eventually, we got together a group and played every Saturday night. Before that, I had only played Star Trek RPG. We eventually added Star Wars D6 and Mech Warrior into the mix.

    But I think it can be said that I followed the path the OP was speaking of. I was initiated into the game.