You just can’t go back…

Sometimes I wish I could re-create the fun my young friends and I had back in 1978, starting with the ‘basic set’ (pictured at right). Maybe I’m looking at the past with rose-colored glasses, but it seems as though we were less jaded that the players I encounter (or the player I have become) today.

One of the most obvious changes seems to be in the number of options and choices available to the players in preparing a character to play. Here I guess I’ll start to sound like the old Dana Carvey curmudgeon who wheezes about walking barefoot fifteen miles to school in the snow each day, uphill both ways, “and we liked it,” but I actually find myself nostalgic for the very basic and simple ‘cookie cutter’ characters and classes in the original D&D. One started character creation by rolling dice to determine your strength, intelligence, wisdom, etc., and then, based on what you rolled, you chose a character class. One could adjust your scores in very minor ways: you could swap two points of intelligence for one point of strength if you were a fighter, etc., but one usually ended up with characters whose average ability score was 8 to 10.

My memory of those games is that as players, our pleasure in the game was much more immediate and less abstract — what we as players decided to do or not do seemed to have more bearing on events than anything written on our character sheets. There seemed to be less ‘rules lawyering’ because there were fewer rules to lawyer with. Instead of resolving all actions through balanced universal d20 mechanics with things like ‘roll a dice to notice’ or ‘roll a dice to listen’ or ‘roll a dice to use your engineering knowledge,’ we would talk about what we wanted to do. “I want to look under the bed and behind the dresser” instead of “I roll a search check.”

I’m thinking about these things because recently a friend of mine, who was running a session of a newer RPG told me that the last time they met “he had the worst session ever.” I don’t honestly think that a different set of rules would have helped or hindered (the problems were probably more a set of abrasive personalities rubbing each other the wrong way), but our conversation about what went wrong at the session made me want to think about what goes wrong or right when we sit down and play (I was not at this horrible session, BTW).


7 Comments on “You just can’t go back…”

  1. baronzemo says:

    Oh to find Mr. peabody's way-back machine. I too have been playing forever and have played all edtions. I play in a good sized d20 gaming group, but for a 1st edtion theirs only 4 of us.

    A story i've told many time's is this: I run a 3.5 camp. One of my house rules is theirs no gather information skill check. This is for the simple reason I dont want importent info the players might get from a die roll. Lets say the players need to find out where the dragon's lair is. You have to ask the bartender( who is me), the guard at the gate ( who is me as well) and so on. All of my current players are O.K. with this.

    So about a year and a half ago, one of my party members has a friend from work who plays and wanted to join. I've meet him afew times and seemed a nice guy. On game night he rolled up his new character and was cool with everything, but when i told him my house rule about “no gather info” he went into a rant. Things were said like, ” how in the hell do we find out information then!” and ” what if I need to find out where the thieves guild is?” I told him you have to ask me and we role play it out. He gathered up his things and left.

    Some people out their need all of those rule's as a safty blanket. Dont know if he was a power gamer or just shy?

  2. kelvingreen says:

    I think Carvey may have borrowed that routine from the Pythons' “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch.

  3. JDJarvis says:

    Sure you can go back. I DM'd a game of holmes D&D for the ref of the GURPS group I was playing with a few years back. He had no experience with early D&D (being introduced to AD&D2 during the players option era ) and was absolutely enchanted by the simplicity and play style.

    @baronzemo, I've met players like that during the D20 boom they were usually power gamers, d20 zealots or oddly imagination impaired.

  4. mikemonaco says:

    Having played a million RPGs (or that's how it seems), I've been struggling with going back to the old ways too. One of my players is pretty firm about needing a skills system so that he can see his character improve with each level (& another player backs him up on this whole “dead level” whine crap). But I also find myself relying on rolls to resolve tasks just out of habit. Ten years of d20 (has it really been ten years?!?) are hard to erase. But I think it can be done. The thing for me is I just can't really remember the nitty gritty of the old days — did we make any kind of roll for jumping over pits and snagging things with grappling hooks, and so on? I don't recall to that level of detail.

  5. Mr. Chappell says:

    I've been attempting, albeit only with limited success, to make a hybrid. I describe the situation, ask the characters to describe their actions, and then I apply modifiers to the die roll. It's neither fish nor foul. To put my game into context, I'm running Dragon Age RPG which is both rules lite and has a fairly elegant skills system. It also has a gritty, old school tone that I try to honor when approaching these kind of situations.

    On one hand, I'm not a professional trap maker. My imagination of how to construct or thwart a standard pit trap probably boils down to a few generic varieties and a bunch of weak assumptions coupled with flawed logic. I like how the dice arbitrate my lack of expertise. There's nothing wrong with building the narrative around the dice roll results sometimes. “You thought the trigger mechanism was X, but since you failed your roll it turned out to be Y.”

    On the other hand, I also really like what Stef called improvisational thinking. As an old schooler, that's how I learned the game. It's stimulating, it's imaginative, and it allows the players to be more fully immersed in the narrative of the world as opposed to be fully immersed in the mechanics of the rule system.

    Where I run into problems is that I can only explain so much detail and the players know this and attempt to “nickel and dime” my logic or details, whittling down the odds to favor them. This manipulation can get annoying, even if it is well intentioned.

    Still, if you have 100 different GM/DMs running the simple pit trap example, you'll likely have a 100 different ways to interpret it, which is fine. At the end of the day you have to trust your fellow players, keep it moving, and keep it fun.

  6. limpey says:

    Mr. Chappel:
    One of the advantages of being older is that we (hopefully) have a better developed sense of the value of social relationships. My thirteen year old self would have been much more likely to have railed against your 'draconian' trap rulings and I would base my drawn out argument on something I saw in that John Wayne movie, “The Green Berets” (which, as I recall, had some traps in it)… and I might have done so even though everyone else was bored and the argument about the trap would put a strain on the relationship between friends that sat down to play a game (actually, I think I was a pretty co-operative player, but I use myself as an example).
    One of the guys I played with back in the day was always quoting some article in 'Soldier of Fortune' magazine or some such source and arguing that he could kill the 10th level fighter by stabbing him in the kidney with a fork or some such bullshit. Never mind that the fighter had 68 hitpoints and the fork scored less damage than a dagger… he had it on “good authority” that it could be done so he wanted to do it.

  7. JJ says:

    I dunno. I have a great group of players now who just “get it”. But then, they aren't stereotypical roleplayers, we are all punk rockers and monster movie fanatics who just enjoy getting together once a week and exploring a different world. Sometimes they get hung up on dumb stuff (like the time our fungus fighter player cried when his +1 sword broke), but mostly they are cool. Get a new group or teach some of your cool friends what it's all about.


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