What do I miss from the golden age?

There has been a lot of talk about what constitutes old school gaming. Instead of trying to define what old school is I thought it might be more useful to discuss what I miss from my early period in the hobby:

A shared literary language: Much of the old school talks about how early RPGs assumed a wargaming background. To a much lesser degree they have also discussed an assumed literary background. To me the orders of priority is reversed. I suspect there is the source of the differences James Maliszewski had after some posts on GROGNARDIA.

The biggest decline in the hobby has been the trend to taking it’s cue from visual media (movies, TV, anime) and, especially in the realm of fantasy as a genre, gaming itself. It is not uncommon for modern players to have not read much if any classic fantasy or science fiction literature that informed the entire hobby at the creation. Their formative views are Star Wars, Buffy, and The Lord of the Rings movies. Of course, this reflects reading as a past time being less common. However, tabletop RPGs are a medium of words and when you try to build without having words as a significant part of your inspiration you’ll run into trouble.

Characters were built of things they were good at, not things they could do: There is a longer more specific post about all this topic in the works so I’ll be brief. In outline form this can be summarized in the difference between 3.x feats and C&C SEIGE engine. In 3.x if you don’t have it on your sheet you can’t do it. In C&C if you can think of it you have a chance to unless it’s a defined ability of another class. Now, I think the SEIGE engine supporters who respond to claims that “this makes all characters the same” with “roleplay the differences” are still missing a big part of the point, but they on the side of the angels here. Unless the ground rules specify otherwise (such as the basic class system) anyone can try anything.

Mixed aged groups: I’ve discussed this before, but that is the difference between a real community and just people doing something. People of different ages have different goals and objectives and bring different types of creativity and energy to the table. Beyond just having less ability to bring and keep new people in the hobby the lack of age integration also means a loss of creativity and energy on one hand and the follow-through to get it all together. Imagine combining the creative genius of both SenZar and Dogs in the Vineyard together to create a gaming group. I know many of you are thinking utter fail but I’m seeing the potential for brilliance.

Clubs: Too often on internet fora the gaming world is seen as driven by the industry. This is a mistake. For a niche hobby like RPGs (or even hobby gaming in general) to survive the driving force must be actual participants. In the 70s clubs did this. Clubs transmitted the gaming half of the common culture (and often much of the literary culture especially if a sci-fi club was involved) and their revival (much more than internet community) is crucial to maintaining the hobby, much less reviving old school common culture.

Magazines: This is another place where the internet is a poor substitute. While I love fora I miss The Dragon, The Space Gamer, Ares, Different Worlds, Heroes, The General, Moves, Strategy and Tactics, and so on. Blogs and forums are great, but most websites still don’t hit the editorial level magazines did. More importantly, the internet becomes a background constant. The arrival of a new issue of a magazine brings with it a huge sense of specialness. It created a mental space to really put gaming, thinking about it and being creative, to the forefront of the day.

Baby bats and new gamers…

My other major hobby besides gaming is DJing a goth and industrial music show on a local community radio station. A few people expressed surprise that someone over 40 would be into goth, seeing it as a teenage thing. The fact is goth is a scene with people ranging from their teens to their fifties. To the point that we even have names for the stages such as “baby bats” and “kindergoths” for teenagers, gerigoth for goths in their 30s, and elders for even older goths.

What’s important is that baby bats and elders are part of the same scene and see each other that way. It’s especially important that the elders see it that way to keep the scene healthy. In fact, part of my mission statement has long been, “Responsible elders don’t let angsty teenagers grow up Emo. They’re ours.”

Sadly, while RPGs were like that when I joined the hobby in the 70s it seems to have died off. People generally play within their broad peer group and usually a mixed adult/teen group happens when a player’s child joins the game.

I was in a wargaming club at 11 and while much of my early D&D play was with my peer group by 16 I was routinely playing in a group that was made up of adults more than teenagers. While total size and teenager count varied for most of the period it was a 6 person group with 2 teenagers, 3 married adults (including one couple), and a single guy in his 30s. My experience doesn’t seem uncommon. Ron Edwards notes over on the Forge that among his early groups were groups of “Mainly older people with a sprinkling of teens who tried to do adult things as much as possible. “. He also notes “Significantly, many groups, even the teen ones, included women in their late twenties who were interested in role-playing and not at all concerned about the propriety of hanging out with boys ten years younger.”

This makes sense given when Gygax and Arneson created D&D they were in their 30s and 20s respectively and meant it for their peers. Today, RPGs are a “kids” thing to many people, including many teens and college students just learning the game (before you say “college students aren’t kids” I’d point out that we tolerate adolescence well into 20s now). These people will not stay in the hobby past college for the most part. They will grow up and move onto “adult” things. My father waited well into my 30s for this to happen.

So why did people like myself stay with something from our childhood well into middle age? Because instead of being a kids thing for us, RPGs were our first adult experience. It was the first place adults treated us as peers. I don’t think I can overestimate the value of this to both myself and the hobby.

People talk about an old school renaissance in terms of systems, rules, and play styles. I’d like to see one more part to it. I’d like to see people getting teenagers in their game, be it OD&D, D&D4, or even World of Darkness. I can think of nothing more important to the long term survival of our hobby than teaching teenagers just learning it that it isn’t one of their last “kid” things but their first adult thing. For all the talk of getting new blood few people recognize we get plenty but we keep little.

Last Saturday at a comics and gaming con I met one of Houston’s goth scene promoters and we discussed how to keep the baby bats. Now I just need to find some DMs who want to keep the new gamers.

To have an unfair world you need an impartial GM

There is a thread on RPG.net about what defines “old school” as a play style.

One idea that has gotten a lot of props is “the world does not scale”.

One I haven’t seen enough of on the thread is the other side of “the world does not scale” and that is “being smart enough avoiding what you can’t handle means you get to avoid it”.

The importance of this was burned into my brain earlier this year. A large group (8) had been avoiding a threat for a couple of hours (real time…which was a couple of days game time). The party was split into a group of 2 and one of 5 (it was arranged to go 4/4 with two different GMs, one of whom was a player in the combined group). Another player, whose character had died a couple of weeks earlier, was going to come back in and the GMs decided to add him to the group of 2.

So how did he do it? By having the new character pinned by the very threat 8 characters spent two days avoiding. We tried to defeat it and the GM even admitted he couldn’t think of a better strategy than the one we used. Still the end result was my character and the one who was supposed to enter were killed.

I walked out and never went back. While admittedly it was more than just this one event that caused me to leave it was the final straw. As for the others beyond the encounter it was the first week of actual play after 3 rounds of character creation of 6+ hours each and I resented having wasted three weeks to create a character who was killed more or less by fiat. Also, the split had been arranged at a meta-game level the week before do to group size yet when the time came the GMs allowed “in character” opinions to change it to 5/2.

As I’ve taken to the “old school” movement more and more I wonder if I was right to be angry. Interestingly looking at it old school has convinced I was correct.

Too many people confuse “old school” GM with “killer” GM. This story demonstrates the key difference. We, as a party, have proven we knew to avoid this threat and done so with a mix of skill and luck. However, faced with a need to introduce another player into the game the GM choose to give two characters the following choice:

1. Actively attack a threat eight players worked to avoid because it was too deadly.
2. Leave another player’s character to be killed by the threat when he was placed there not by his own actions but by GM fiat.

This was not only unfair but it lacked impartiality.

An “old school” GM, who embraced “the world isn’t fair” but “the GM is impartial” would have chosen a different way to introduce the new character. Not because it was “fair” but because it would allow the players the ability to make choices to deal with how the world was unfair, just as he had the larger party for two hours (the GM for the smaller group was also running the unified group up to the split).

In that the “killer GM” and the “Monty Haul GM” are actually the same failing, just on different sides of the scale.

Intermediate Dungeons and Dragons

So, I finally settled on a system for Swords of the Red Sun, the classic D&D game I’m trying to get going.

I choose Basic Fantasy Roleplaying after seriously considering Rules Cyclopedia. The list of pluses and minus is interesting but BFRP had two things that made the choice.

One was players can order a new hard copy for the same price as a used copy of the Rules Cyclopedia. Actually, BFRP is $20 and RC runs $30 on eBay.

However, the other thing is BFRP is actually closer to the D&D I played than any printed version under the D&D label or the other two major simulacrum games. It is essentially BD&D without character races as discrete classes.

Which probably describes my AD&D1 games from 1979-1985 (junior high and high school) more than anything else. We used the PHB and the charts in the DMG but the actual rules were out of Holmes and B/X. No concept of segments, D6 initiative, and so on.

Looking back I’d have to say I’ve never played AD&D, just BD&D and, for lack of a better term, a hybrid I’ll call Intermediate Dungeons & Dragons.