D&D & Me (Part III)

For the first Gygax Day, back in 2008, I wanted to try running a one-shot purely Old School D&D adventure in his honor. I didn’t have a copy of OD&D, so I ended up using the Mentzer Basic and a free dungeon that had a good reputation that had been put together by the folks on the Dragonsfoot forums.

It did not go well.

Basically, I had lost all my chops at running D&D, and had not yet steeped myself in the wisdom of the OSR and identifying what was good about the old school way. Despite the fact that I had in days gone by been part of that Old School, my expectations as to what the rules would cover and wouldn’t and my habits of DMing had changed so much over the intervening years that the whole thing was incredibly awkward. The players were frustrated by not having skill checks to rely on to interpret the world, that the dungeon seemed so arbitrary, that they didn’t have their usual ability to craft the characters and backstory for roleplaying opportunities. Most of the players had started playing with Vampire: The Masquerade, or even later, so they didn’t have any nostalgia or even knowledge of the older styles of play. I was frustrated that I couldn’t really keep the momentum of the game up, there were too many times when I thought I had to look something up and it turned out there wasn’t a rule for it, or there was but not where I expected, or it didn’t make sense to me. It didn’t help that I had gotten it into my head that I really wanted to try it “rules as written” instead of just winging something that was inspired by those old dungeon crawls that I remembered fondly.

After that one-shot they were pretty much done with that. I still felt there was something that I was missing; I knew that even if D&D wasn’t everything you could want in an RPG, back when we played D&D regularly it was tense and exciting. It certainly shouldn’t have been boring. It was around then that I began reading a bunch of blogs that focused on old-school play, especially Grognardia and Jeff’s Gameblog.

I began thinking a lot about Old School play, and what I could take from it, and what we had the most fun with back then. It was also around then, maybe a bit before, that my friend Mac’s kids were old enough to be interested in playing D&D (in her household, all RPGs were “D&D”… she’s the DM of the AD&D campaign I mentioned before, that had been running since she was in high school). Playing as a player with them, and later as a DM, let me see thing from a fresh perspective, with players brand new to role playing, including my then new bride, who played with us and had even less exposure to RPGs than the kids had. Seeing them play, and contrasting how confusing my wife had been finding the much more open-ended and free-form RPGs that she’d been trying with my regular group with the much more structured play and environment of Mac’s dungeon-delves, and how things suddenly “clicked” for her gave me a healthy new respect for the “outmoded” design choices of Old School Dungeons and Dragons. Limiting the new player’s choice when creating a character to what class given your randomly rolled stats was brilliant compared to “What do you want to play? we can help you design anything!” Ditto for leveling up. Constraining the decisions you need to make when interacting with the environment initially to things like “do you want to go left towards where you hear the noise of growling, or right towards where you see the cobwebs?” really helped my wife in particular understand her “role” in making decisions for her character, where analogies to improv theater or storytelling left her confused and timid about not “making a mistake” regardless of how many times the other players had reassured her that there was no wrong answer to the question “what do you do next?”

Over the next few years I continued to toy around with D&D-related OSR stuff, mostly in as a player in on-line campaigns, or running games using Michael Curtis’ Stonehell dungeon for the kids. I was fiddling a lot with different retro-clone rulesets or kitbashing my own, because there always seemed to be things that just didn’t sit right with me with how these versions of D&D worked… I could play in them or even run them and have fun, but they always seemed like compromises between what I would have preferred running and what the players I was with wanted and expected.

Eventually 5th Edition came out, and my home group tried that with the Mines of Phandelver; it was reasonably fun, but I could see it would be a lot of work to GM as characters went up in level and got more and more abilities that the GM would have to pretty thoroughly understand. Maybe not as bad as the days of the old 3e “splat-books” where selling new game-bending rules and feats for the players to bring into the game became the business model, but way more than my ideal of being able to hold more-or-less everything in my head to run without having to look up rules at the table. When the party TPK’ed in the last session in the Mines, I was actually planning to keep running 5e, but we took a quick break to run a DCC adventure and all the players liked that more so the Out of the Abyss campaign I was planning for the TPK’ed party (they had mostly fallen to 0, not been killed outright) never got off the ground.

Fast forward to the present, where thanks to the pandemic we have to play online and I’m actually running the group through The Mines of Phandelver again. Originally I planned to call it Re:Phandelver and make use of the trope where the protagonist(s) fail at the end and then somehow wake up back in the past as their younger selves, but with all their memories of how things played out in the original timeline intact. Except it turned out none of them actually remembered what had happened when we played through the first time, not even which characters they’d played… so instead we’re doing in straight. The online tools really help with running the game, and using Roll20 with the maps and dynamic lighting is different and interesting. I can still foresee a time when the complication of high-level 5e play may wear me down, but hopefully this whole social distancing thing will be over before we reach that point.