Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Back In The Day

Whenever I read anyone describing the finer points about early RPG history, I am stuck for any personal recollection that would allow me to relate to the nostalgic euphoria that was supposed to exist at that time. Yes, D&D was new. Yes, we liked the game. Yes, it was different, and yes we were interested to explore the game’s possibilities.

We were not, however, orgasming every time we played. Which we would have to have been doing for us to have reached the degree of excitement constantly portrayed by present writers talking about the good old days.

A few things that I remember from 1979, when I began playing, at the age of 15.

The game, while complicated, was not completely out of our experience. Most of us had been playing Avalon Hill games for years (I started at 11) such as Squad Leader, Rail Baron, Arab-Israeli Wars and so on. We had played various other war games, and we had a sophisticated sense of how to adapt a game’s rules to our own uses. What I mean is, we changed rules, all the time, whenever we thought they were stupid. From day one we were throwing out or imposing new rules onto the D&D system without the slightest hesitation. No one thought that was odd. It was a game, not a religion, and it was what we had been doing with every game since learning RISK at age 8. Fuck the rules, we’re going to play it this way.

Neither I, nor any of my first group of associates, had any idea who Dave Arneson or Gary Gygax were. They were names in the book. We didn’t care to discover the background behind those names because we didn’t care. Do you know the names of the people who designed Monopoly? Or RISK? Well, I don’t. What difference would it make? Would I play the game differently? Would I be less inclined to change the “house rules”? Hell no.

Regarding the use of modules for gaming. Well, let me begin by saying that we all knew at the time, even at our age and in those far off days, that modules were simple-minded pieces of second-rate spewed crap, evident by the pathetic quality of writing and design that went into them. We did not buy them, we borrowed them from people whose parents had money and were a soft touch. We did not excitedly masturbate our way through them, we laughed at their pathetic, juvenile text and then modified them as necessary. If I or any of my teenage friends had read any of the actual descriptions out loud, there would have been cries of, “Holy shit, what ten year old wrote this crap?” and “Turn the crap off and just tell us what we see!”

Even at 15 we read actual books, you know: Ellison and Heinlein and Moorcock and LeGuin. We knew what good writing was. And what it wasn’t. Gygax may have been a hotshot game creator, but a writer he wasn’t. The same went for every “trailblazer” who had a hand in making those modules. I remember clearly the finger-down-throat gesture was often used in describing our personal opinions about the given material.

Let me describe a few of the rules that, right off, we knew were absolutely not going to work in our campaigns. Let me emphasize again that this was 1979, just as we here in Canada first discovered AD&D.

Alignment was a complete joke. I only knew one DM who played it dogmatically, and he was so anal as to be insufferable. As I understand it, he eventually became the west coast distributor for Magic cards, so I suppose he was genetically programmed that way. For the rest of us, right off we knew we weren’t going to play any stupid rules telling us what we were allowed to do or not do with our characters. That bit the big one pretty fast.

Remember when there was supposed to be a spokesperson for the party, who would tell the DM what everyone was doing? It’s in the DM’s Guide. Yeah. Some kind of educational-related programming on that one. My guess is that someone connected to the game’s creation considered being a teacher at some point. We totally ignored that dumbfuck rule.

Let’s see. Humans weren’t allowed to be multi-classed? Right out the window. Spell components? Oh please, how much bookkeeping do you need? It’s only there to make life miserable for spellcasters, it’s a pain in the ass and we just ignored it. Never noticed that it notably increased the power of mages in the game…but of course, if you’re one of those who can’t wait to describe, for the fifty-eighth time, the cleric pouring a circle of dust around himself…

Face it. We weren’t a bunch of dumb schmucks who had no idea what to do with a game like this. We dove in, played 24-hour sessions and every weekend, after school, in four and five campaigns a month, and we changed, modified, rewrote, redesigned, shaped, fashioned and fucked around with the rules constantly. AND we learned to adjust our play for each individual DM’s peculiarities regarding what rules would be followed and how.

Whenever I hear someone reporting on their orthodox obedience to the rules back in the day, I just have to wonder what weirdo I’ve stumbled onto.


Norman Harman said...

re nostalgic euphoria.

I never even played until years after getting this. When linked to that in a recent blog post I was overcome with well I wrote
It might be retrostalgic false memory but I remember staring at that cover (and the City of Brass on the DMG) and fantagasmining over how I could imagine a world and then "go" there and do stuff instead of just reading about what someone else did in a novel.

I didn't know who Gygax was until it became nerd chic to talk about him. Arneson and Bedslaw were unknown until this year. And Bedslaw is the only one I might hold up as awesome.

But this game was/is different. It has "open worlds" and provided years of enjoyment for many people. Sure there was some stuff before. But everyone knows the Model-T, few remember the earlier motor vehicles.

Who made it doesn't matter (to us). But others need to credit someone, need to create a legend so they have a hero to worship. For many you are wrong when you say it's "not a religion." They're mostly harmless, let them enjoy the game the way they like.

Strix said...

I'm glad you mentioned spell components. Do you use spell components today or is it more a matter of the player making an appropriate effort to gain the spell in the first place? ie. is stealing (or killing off) a level 20 mage's grimoire enough of an effort to gain the power of the high level spells in the grimoire? Or would you make them get the book and quest for an eyelash from a Beholder, a scale from a dragon, etc..? I've been thinking about introducing spell components for high level spells, at least for the first casting. Just tossing the idea around and looking for feedback.

Anonymous said...

Purple prose is the kindest thing that can be said about Gygax's modules. I would say the same thing abot Moorcock though. I read him when I was in HS and loved all that emo shit.

These days, well, like Gygax's modules, Moorcock doesn't stand the test of time and education. One might think that tastes in literature were subjective, given how different our reactions to all this material are. I mean where is Harrison in your list, or the one it seems everybody else worships, Tolkien? Or, Howard, or Leiber?

I'm not saying your list should have been comprehensive; that would make an awesome post in its own right. I'm just trying to make a point about the difference between objective and subjective.

Tony said...

I started playing in the mid-90's, and while my first few years weren't riddled with house rules, after that I started gaming with gamers who cut their teeth in the 80's and they were all modders who ignored certain rules and only pulled out rulebooks to dictate their letter when it was advantageous for them to do so. Most of those old games were so riddled with obscure charts and odd rule additions that the whole system seemed like an ad-hoc build.

I think the advent of the video game RPG has made most young gamers unaware that rules aren't carved in stone, though now we have RPG's with very elegant streamlined systems that have internal consistancy and wierd stuff like that so in some cases house rules aren't as required as they once were.