"Old School" Endgames, Grognardia

Started by LandonSuffered, May 12, 2009, 08:28:01 AM

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I've been waxing seriously nostalgic of late, not the least of which is due to recently discovering James Maliszewski's wonderfully insightful blog, Grognardia:


I've been reading his essays the last three days and have found myself looking at Dungeons and Dragons with newfound respect for the game and how it was played "back in the day."

(yes, I realize many folks never stopped playing "old school" D&D...point is, it's been a looooong time since I have)

There are several different entries of his that I'd love to discuss at length, especially how older versions of the game provided challenges for players rather than challenges for characters (god, so true...must incorporate this into game design!).

But the astute observation that really piqued my interest is the (rightful, IMO) analysis that the latest versions of D&D have all lost a very valid "end game" that existed once upon a time...namely, that at some point characters were to grow up and out of dungeon delving, and settle down.

D&D in its current form offers no real "end" other then constant endless improvement ...sure there may be level caps (unless you are running an "epic" campaign), but this is about the same as level caps in your average MMO...like say the World of Warcraft...sure you stop "improving" but you continue doing the same monotonous thing. 

(an aside...I assume there are level caps in 4E as in 3 and 3.5, but as I have purposely avoided purchase or perusal, I can't be sure)

For me, this endgame is a no brainer...except that I'd completely forgot about it (it's been a long time, as I said).  My first experience with D&D was the Moldvay-version Basic set, which was shortly thereafter followed by the Cook-version Expert set and (a bit later) 1st edition AD&D.  As I was a self-taught player, I had no point of reference (no past "intro to play") other than the rule books...and the rules were pretty clear that once you reached 9th level or so, it was time to start putting all that gold to use building a castle.

It was specifically due to these "end game" rules that several of the players I ran with LOVED the cleric class (something I haven't observed since)...the ability to get free, zealot soldiers simply by building a fort was so much easier (and cooler) than trying to get a "land grant" from some higher lord.  The "name level" fighters in our campaign often continued as wandering knight errant-types, but the clerics always built crazy strongholds which were then used by other players as sanctuary fortresses...as well as the occasional launching point for a serious assault on some big bad.

Even once my gaming group "graduated" to explicit AD&D play, we used the Companion rules for running our dominions and fighting mass combats.  Mainly, though, characters would retire to become big-wig NPC types while younger (i.e. "new") characters would take up the fight.  Well, with one notable exception...one character continued questing for immortality (another end-game scenario explicit in the original Deities and Demigods as well as the Companion, Master, and Immortal rules).

In fact, it's because of these types of end games that I always loved high level D&D play.  When I picked up 3E in 2001 or 2002 it had been...well, 13+ years since I'd run a D&D campaign and I was doing it with different people from my childhood gaming groups.  And I wanted to play "high level" play...and it never panned out.  One friend actually said, "okay we'll all just make 15th level characters" and the game bogged down and died after one encounter due to the incredible length of stat blocks and the plethora of options (skill, feat, tactical, spell...whatever) that the DM simply gave up. In several years of playing 3E I don't think any of my characters advanced past the 6th or 7th level...it just took so damn long to do anything in that game.  But now that I look at it, I see that 3E (and 3.5) would never have facilitated the type of "high level" play I really wanted anyway...there is no true "end game" supported in the rules.

Even before I found Mr. Maliszewksi's blog, and the "old school" movement that he represents, I'd already decided that if I ever ran a D&D campaign again it would be one of the pre-AD&D2 versions (yes, I've even collected the original "brown booklets" over the years).  But having read some of JM's collected observations, I actually find myself WANTING and EXCITED to start up a new old school game of my own...I forgot just how cool the possibilities are.

Now all I need is some graph paper and some players....
: )


Eero Tuovinen

My own play of these sorts of fantasy adventure games never got to the end-game phase, but I'm fully with you - it's all cool stuff compared to the dramatic endgame modern D&D espouses. (The "dramatic end-game" is what you'll find to be the assumption of the 3rd edition GMing style - the GM has a planned campaign arc which tops out at 20 levels or whatever, at which point he has a Big Bad Evil Guy confront the characters and the game ends in his defeat; essentially like a video game.)

The implied setting-ownership of the feudal end-game is fascinating - presumably the player whose character gains the wast powers of a medieval land-owner is more and more the go-to guy when it comes to his domain - instead of asking the GM, you ask that player how his character is running the place. Even the immortality stuff, ridiculous as the rules are, speaks to me as an idea - it is a fine and transcendent choice for a character who won't be tied down to the society.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.


Right...it's basically one or the other:

-   "I will become an integral part of society (i.e. a land owner, church patriarch, college headmaster)," OR
-   "I will remove myself from society altogether (questing for immortality)."

Regardless, there comes a point where an experienced character is supposed to grow beyond simple "adventuring" and pass the torch.

In the longest running campaign of my youth, I specifically recall one player's character that opted for neither the barony, nor the immortality quest, but simply, quietly faded into the background even as the character's player took on more and more of the DM responsibilities.  The character simply became an NPC contact and plot point for the other characters of the game (though one with an established history and personality quirks)...a kind of "auntie" that would show up in all her regalia every now and then to hold forth over the young 'uns and dispense her two cents before riding off into the night once again.  I'm sure other folks had similar uses for their veteran characters...in a way, these survivors achieve a more practical "immortality" becoming legends of the campaign world, and integral parts of a particular "campaign world."



For me at any rate, at least part of what made the end-of-the-character arc was the diminishing returns. You didn't get much more once you got to a certain level. Under those circumstances it made sense to essentially 'retire' the character, and by that I mean putting them into the background. They might still play a bit, but the focus would shift to newer players and the big guns would show-up when something special was afoot. I REALLY enjoyed having multiple big-guns in the background of a campaign. And players enjoyed the prospect that their characters might come to have genuine long-term social impact. An army or a kingdom might be shaped by a player character, but that character was busy with the army now. The new characters were the ones on the front lines, at least until something quasi-apocalyptic occured, and then it was like a long-awaited sequel to get the old characters out.

Darcy Burgess


All I can say is...wow.  My experience with D&D more or less began and ended with AD&D -- and then rapidly transitioned into Cyberpunk 2013 and Call of Cthulhu.

The concept of playing through that much -- stuff -- to get to a situation where you're starting new characters who live in the shadows of the old characters...

Like I said, wow.
Black Cadillacs - Your soapbox about War.  Use it.

Callan S.

Hi Darcy,

You have to think in terms of actually playing a game in a gamist fashion and it has an ending/a finish line. It's actually fun to play it as a game, but then after its finished this sandbox sort of mode opens up and that's fun too. It may even be the start of a new, different creative agenda.

But if you start from the start with that creative agenda, just playing to high level to facilitate it - then yeah, wow, that can't be fun.

Darcy Burgess

Hey Callan,

Holy shit!  No where did I say "not fun".  When I said "wow", I meant exactly that: "Hey, that's something else."  or maybe  "That's noteworthy." That kind of wow.  Basically, my jaw dropped at the notion of having the time and commitment (keeping in mind that this is coming from the perspective of a mid-30s dude with next to zero spare time) to stick with the characters through that kind of levelling up.  That's definitely worth a wow, yeah?

There was no sarcasm in there.  Of course, you had no way of knowing that, what with not being in the room with me.

Stupid internets.
Black Cadillacs - Your soapbox about War.  Use it.

Callan S.

Well, the funny thing is I partly agree with the sarcasm you didn't have. :) Because if someone is not getting the sort of fun they want for a long period of time, I wouldn't say wow about that myself, except in sarcasm. But if someone is consistantly getting gamist fun for a long period, then that game completes but it offers a new game perhaps played for a different fun, that works out.


Hmm...I am also a "mid-30's dude," Darcy, and rarely have the time to game at all, let alone run an extensive campaign.  In point of fact, it's been many, many years since I've run (or run in) any games that lasted more than a half dozen sessions, and those were Maelstrom and Story Engine games, not D&D.  However, I HAVE tried running D&D3 (and 3.5) campaigns, and they've all fallen apart under the sheer bulk and scope of their rules.

When I say that "I always loved high level D&D play," I am harkening back in time to simpler days...not just pre-AD&D2, but pre-marriage, pre-mortgage, pre-full-time job...the younger life and lesser responsibilities, not to mention the constant contact with school-age chums, meant I had a lot more gaming time to spare.  AND the simpler game system meant that quite a lot of adventuring got accomplished; unlike DND3's "four encounters to one game session" deal, we could get through an entire module in a Saturday or two of gaming.

When you play a game with the same group of folks for a number of years, yeah, you can get something close to a Pendragon game...even with the occasional "starting over from scratch."  There're whole essays that can be written regarding the vagueries of insular gaming groups, not to mention the creation and re-creation of one's own "myth-cycles" within a given campaign (which happens when both characters and particular scenarios are recycled and played through, sometimes with different results, often with similar themes).  I've seen high level AD&D play in other folks' gaming groups (one set I knew from a separate VTM campaign, played all the way through T1-4 and the Bloodstone saga!)...but motivations for game play differ from group to group, and not everyone's interest is held so long for one particular game.

However, I don't think that D&D's "end game" is any particular kind of reward for extended play...I believe that it is an evolution of game play built into the rules of earlier game editions.  The game as originally designed doesn't try to support an ever increasing spiral of "stronger monster, bigger treasure."  It's pretty clear (to me) that you start by exploring dungeons, graduate to exploring wilderness, and move onto exploring dominion/intrigue/court life/whatever.  It's like the Conan cycle in game play...eventually you're a mover-and-shaker, either "king by your own hand," or the "power behind the throne" (or some variation).  Yeah, the latter stage is a bit nebulous, but early editions of D&D were nebulous about quite a few things. But I think it's a natural progression of game play for an extended saga.

Um...just a couple more notes:

1) The original point of this post was that in reviewing the blogs, articles and products of "the Old School Renaissance" that's around the Web, I find myself remembering a style and type of play in an old favorite game that makes me want to explore it anew.  Perhaps there's more food for thought there, perhaps not...but I'd like to try it again.  If someone wasn't aware of this potential endgame, maybe I've piqued his or her curiosity...who knows?

2) There may be other games that allow you to start the campaign as a land-owning feudal lord from the get-go, but that's not the point of my interest.  And games that start at those lofty-heights...well, I'd guess they'd have a different end game, right?  If you want a one-off game of Beowulf and the Dragon to explore pathos or heroic sacrifice or some such, cool.  For some, it's the journey to the top that's more fun and for others...well, it's not so much the journey as being able to look back at the road and see, wow, how did I get here?

3) When I'm talking endgame, please note that getting to the "dominion" stage of D&D really doesn't necessitate playing for years and having a 20th level character. In early D&D, you generally have the option to build a castle anytime once you've reached 9th level.  If you're using old school modules (or adventures of similar length and design), it doesn't take more than 4 or 5 of these to reach that lofty height.  I've found most gaming groups will average level 4-5 after completing B2 Keep on the Borderlands, and if you follow it up with X1 and X2 you'll be close to 7 or 8 depending on how well the group does.  And just to reiterate...I have found that these "old school" games play a lot faster than the current editions.


Callan S.

Ninth level was called the 'naming level' wasn't it? I remember reading that and wondering what it all involved. The text seemed to make alot of it.

Heh, also I remember there's a roleplay entry in the dangerous book for boys, where the author says something similar to "There's nothing like building an entire nation, only to eventually be exiled from it..."