Early D&D play and "problematic procedures"

Started by Gordon C. Landis, May 08, 2012, 10:29:21 AM

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Gordon C. Landis

So there's an actual play post I want to get up before Winter ends (which will be in summer, I guess), but I need to work up to it.  This is a step on the way, a post about my LONG ago play with D&D back in the early days.  It sprang from the discussion over at Vincent's anyways a while back about where the "problematic pocedures of play" in the RPG hobby came from.

So I was a junior high school student in '76-'78 when I started playing D&D.  My "gateway" was hex-based board games, which were made available to me in some sort of after-school program for kids who seemed to need more intellectual activities than school was already providing.  Upon reflection, I think both these factors (the boardgames and the "channel that overactive adolesentish thought into SOMETHING fergadsake" framework) lead to what I'd now consider some problematic habits in RPGing.

D&D itself, of course, was derived from miniatures war games, and I want to propose that there's an important difference between that history and my history.  As I discovered when I attended a few gaming conventions a bit later, there was a cliqueish rivalry between the minatures-based and chit-and-hexmap based gamers.  One key aspect was that the rules for miniatures games frequently included a role for a referee, to adjudicate the rules of ... well, potentially a lot, acording the the miniatures guys I eventually talked to about it.  How to read the ruler, when a building or hillside did or didn't break line of sight - on the unhexed miniatures tabletop, someone to make such rulings was needed.

Me, in my hexmapped world, I expected the RULES to cover all the angles (literally).  I suspect this is part of what led to my unease at the "vagueness" of many parts of D&D's rules, and why whenever a "missing" piece was filled-in ("finally, rules for Rangers! How did we play without this?"), I was literally RELIEVED to have an "official" answer.  This yearning-for-total-rules-clarity, in a game that initially (AD&D was, as I understand it, at least in part inspired by Gygax growing uncomfortable with how many play styles there were) was OK with letting a referee make key rulings, was not obviously a big problem at the time.  But thinking back, there was an URGENCY to my groups' need for rule clarification and "official" rules for things that "needed to be in the game" (like Rangers) that I expect groups that moved to D&D from miniatures didn't experience in the same way.

Add to that the background motivation for being involved in these games at all - the "keep overactive young minds spinning on something complex but relatively harmless" gateway I'd entered the activity through - and I spent a LOT of time over those years more engaged with the rules of the game than with the actual play of the game.  I can still slide into this mode with surprising ease.  Luckily, I'm much better at getting OUT of that mode nowadays.  But since for some part of me early play wasn't so much about the activity itself but rather the distraction it represented ... I suspect "problematic" for actual play procedures that were NOT problematic (and often in fact were quite effective) for keeping a unfocused adoloscent brain engaged with SOMETHING are more tolerable to me than they really ought to be.

So that's some thoughts about my early play. I guess this thread would welcome other folks to talk about their early play, and why that might have lead to problems - or start your own thread.  Seemed like an interesting topic here in the final days of the Forge.

Callan S.

I'm currently going to a gaming club every saturday and playing (or GM'ing) in an ongoing AD&D (drop in game/so not a fixed party) game every fortnight (the other saturday I'm in a 4E campaign). Anyway, quite against gaming cultural trends I've experienced, this GM uses gold=XP and apart from some special rooms, the rest of the dungeons contents (including treasure) comes off a chart. Plus all the players play alot of boardgames and I notice this changes the culture alot too. They are after the gold and...I really like the enthusiasm that's at the table to go after that objective. Plus the usuage of the charts means gold will be there.

This as opposed to my early roleplay, again in AD&D, where there was this notion your supposed to have a story (and people apparently get to judge the quality of your story) and you have to investigate and the GM maybe if it suits his 'vision' puts in some gold (ie, you can't bank on it being there'), etc. If I understand reward cycles at all, it was like there was this urge to make story engagement the reward of play. But story is such an etherial notion - what isn't story? What is? What do you do to pursue it as a player, barring just waiting with expectant expression towards the GM? Whilst a hard mechanic like gold=XP is not etherial, it's quite easy to pursue and some of the crazy shit people get up to in pursuit results in story just as much (but as a side effect of pursuit, granted). Even now you can easily read on some forum a dismissive 'oh, you walk into a room with orcs and slay them - the rogue dies *snore*' or such. But maybe that's not procedure but more a kind of toxic culture that seeped in because what to do was kind of obscure (ie, the charts the guy uses at the game club are kind of obscured and tucked away (and somewhat selectively chosen/ie some procedure simply ignored)).

Gordon C. Landis

Interesting - my suspision (well, almost an assertion) is that "etherial" and "obscure" are by no means consistent across groups/individuals.  There was nothing etherial or obscure to the miniataures gamers about how respond to a referee - it was only me and my hexmap buddies that were uncomfortable.  I'd in no way elevate this issue to the Creative Agenda level, but I guess the impact might be different in kind and degree depending on the agenda being pursued.


My own early play-groups (for AD&D, Vampire, etc.) were characterized by having the absolute minimum level of interest in RPGs-as-a-hobby while still being able to enjoy play.
Only I read the gaming magazines; only I bought new supplements, eager for the Official word on this or that new concept.

Eventually I decided the best way to handle this was by refusing to play games that were supplement-heavy, and of course I did eventually stop enjoying White Wolf's fiction-writing team, which really put the stake through the heart of my bloated gaming budget.

To me the issue is one of clearly assigning play priorities, which in turn gives players something to master, something for play to be "about". If we're all just here to enjoy someone else's plot, why use mechanics at all, beyond simply consulting the GM as to the outcome of our actions.
Mask of the Emperor rules, admittedly a work in progress - http://abbysgamerbasement.blogspot.com/

Gordon C. Landis

Abakjud - it's interesting to me that "supplement" meant such a very, VERY different thing to me early-on than it came to mean later.  In the early days, it really felt like additional "official" material was just covering stuff that somehow got "missed", or that segments of the playing community directly said they wanted.  And yeah, groups-as-a-whole generally seemed to want it, rather than some individuals didn't care and some did. 

Of course, I find the approach you reached (supplement avoidance) emminently sane. 


My route to RPGs is, perhaps, unusual. The only boardgames I'd played were things like Monopoly and other family games. I'd played toy soldiers with the lad next door as a kid, but we didn't really have any complex rules for that - we hid our soldiers around the room and called shots; any soldier spotted and shot was removed from play.

At school, we played little pen and paper games at breaks or in the back of dull classes. Squares, noughts and crosses (tic-tac-toe to Americans), battleships and a kind of pencil-flick wargame I don't have a name for: each player draws a shoreline with gun emplacements on opposite ends of a sheet of paper. To attack, you place the tip of a pencil on one of you guns and flicked it out to leave a path across the paper, hopefully hitting (and thus destroying) one of your opponent's gun emplacements. The one with guns at the end is the winner (my Dad told me of playing the same game when he was at school in the '40s).

By the spring of '81 someone in our group came up with a game we called Mazes. Someone drew a maze, and someone else had to work their way through it, either to the centre or to the other edge. Then it started to get elaborate: if I fire was drawn you could only get through if you'd prevously found a fire extinguisher. You could only get past a dalek if you'd founf a gon (and of the guns a pistol could be used once and a submachinegun 3 times).

The mazes became bigger and more elaborate still. We reused them - if you drew a maze, each friend could try it. A lad called Jason Spence drew the biggest maze, I remember that clearly. It could take an entire maths class to run through it.

After summer, Jon Midgley came to school with a proper printed rulebook for something called Dungeons & Dragons (the Holmes edition, for those who keep track of such things), which he'd played with his cousin over the holidays. What is it, we wanted to know. "It's like mazes, only better."

I think I missed the first game, but a coupld of friends were keen for me to try it. I rolled up a character with some borrowed dice, we walked into a room in a dungeon and got killed by zombies with two-handed swords, I was hooked.

We were on the cusp of the first and second wave of gaming. A lot of the things in Jon's dungeon had been handed down like folktales. One room jad a sleeping giant called Jarl, who we never dared wake up. If we found a secret passage, a LIttle Old Man appeared and yelled "secret passage".

For my birthday, a few weeks later, I wanted nothing but a copy of Dungeons & Dragons of my own. I got the Moldvay version, with the Keep on the Borderlands, then the Expert set...

By the following Easter, we'd kind spread out, Some lads got AD&D. I got Traveller and RuneQuest. We looked forward to lunchtimes, when we'd find an empty classroom and play Car Wars, Melee, T&T, and later Rolemaster, Warhammer (the first edition), Call of Cthulhu and MERP.

A couple of lads joined a wargames club which allowed roleplaying. We were very much the newcomers, but I think they were keen to get us in and expose us to 'real' games - there was always an Ace of Aces crew there, but others did medeival skirmishes and napoleonic games, mostly using rules written by one of the established mamers, which used playing cards as the randomiser.

There were hobby game shops in abundance in those days, and even Woolworths and department shops stocked AD&D and scenarios. I avidly read White Dwarf and (later) Imagine, TSR UK's magazine, which exposed me to new games.

I've always tended to collect supplements to read when I'm not actively playing or GMing. I think that tendency started with Traveller, which I mostly played solo, friends being more into fantasy gaming rather than SF. I grew up in quite an isolated area, so solo gaming by creating Trav characters and doing trade and speculation was an enjoyable way to spend an evening I even played the Prison Planet adventure as a solo game.

When I really got into a game, I'd get everything I could find or afford. I still have a ton of MERP supplements, for instance, and a load of RQ2 and 3 stuff. But I liked setting or background supplements better than rules supplements.

But aside from the occasional adventure scenario, I don't remember ever using much more than core rules in play. If it came to looking up something obscure, we tended to wing it instead.

I still like supplements, but I have cut down the number of games I try to stay current with. I play 3.5, not 4th. I javen't really upgraded my GURPS tp 4th edition. My most recent edition of RUnequest is RQ3 (the Avalon Hill version). I'm up to date with Hero System, and I've just started Burning Wheel with the Gold version *and the Monster Burner and Magic Burner are now in the mail).

So there's me: not kind of wargaming experience, but an outgrowth of traditional schoolboy pen-and-paper games.

Gordon C. Landis

Barwickian - I played MANY of the solo Tunnels and Trolls books, and remember trying to do "solo play" with other systems, but I never played with Traveller that much.  Thinking back, it would have been a good fit . . .

One of the main things I was trying to examine here for myself was how much of that clear rule/supplement "craving" I remember from the old days actually turns out to be problematic for the kind of play I'm interested in nowadays.  It took a bit of work (and definetly some support from this-here Forge thing to get clarity/polish to that work) to get my mind focused on the play styles and techniques that actually work best for me, so that I look back at the need for official word and wonder "what was I thinking?"

You remind me, though, that some good play and great experiences resulted anyway, so thanks for that!