Sunday, January 2, 2011

Systemation Breakdown

Just a note, I recommend reading the entry before this to really understand what I'm driving at here ... just a thought.

The year was 1974 ... And I was 5 ...

As much as I might have liked to have been in on the era of the little brown books I wasn't. While lusty young college nerds at the University of Chicago and Ball State were busy rolling up characters I was still playing cowboys and Indians and sleeping with my giant blue teddy bear. So I feel only a peripheral connection with the Oe guys. My gaming days were to begin a good 6 or 7 years later. However, one day recently I came across a retro clone entitled Swords and Wizardry. I had been wondering if 0e perhaps did suit me "better" than what I was raised on. Wasn't it, after old, the "original" form of the game? And then I read the _Primer on Old School Gaming_ and I fell in love.

By the way you can have your own love affair with his stuff here: http://www.lulu.com/product/file-download/quick-primer-for-old-school-gaming/3159558

Anywho, Finch managed to capture the feel of the way I loved to game. Anybody who had lived to attempt Tomb of Horrors knew the wonders of a ten foot pole. So it had to be that extreme rules light was the way I was meant to play! No matter that I cut my teeth on the deep and esoteric disciplines of first Edition. Endless nights spent poring over tomes written in Old High Gygaxian in order to decipher some obscure rule marginalia. Finch had really nailed it -- I was a "old-school-rules-light" gamer at heart ... wasn't I?

Problem was, everybody else who read Finch loved him too. No matter how crunchy their chosen ruleset, they all wanted to lay claim to such a "pure" gaming feel. Endless flame wars online led me to realize that this term "old school" was a lot more controversial than might appear at first glance.

The arguments when something like,

"What the hell you mean I'm not old school?! I've been playing since 1976!"

"But don't you play 3.5 or something?"

"Yeah, but I run it old school man!!"

"--erp"

What exactly was old school anyway? Forums were being held at Gen Con about the retro clone movement and con after con was organizing debates on what defined old school from, well -- everything else? And at the same time I was getting back into those lovable Paper Paladins the Knights of the Dinner Table:

And their unique brand of crunchy gamestering seemed just the kind of thing I was hankering for too. And think what you may of rules lawyers and Hack, neither one thrive in a rules light world. Should rules light do it for me if this was the case? One thing Swords and Sorcery, LL, BFRPG weren't was Hackmaster -- let alone it's mother-muse the massively expansive Second Edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.

So 1974 left me with six shooters and Indian headdresses.

Years roll on and we finally hit my 12th year. 1981 and I'm introduced to the best thing on earth. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. (I've been through my gaming awakening before so suffice it to say that before I know it I'm hooked.) This was in the spring of '81 and that Christmas, after months of drooling over shiny new DMGs and PHBs and MMs in the bookstores I got all three for Christmas. Now, I've always been one for completion. And still being a relative noob to this gaming thing, I thought that for completion's sake I also needed the Basic and Expert Set. So a whole gaming library was dropped in my lap that Christmas morning of '81. Bless you Santa! (Yes, mom and dad I know it was you, but there might be kids reading ; - )

Very quickly I realized that I _didn't_ need Basic or Expert. That wasn't the game I had been playing all these months. My kewl new gaming buddies all had Advanced books. And by golly no self respecting gamer I knew (which amounted to about four at this point) would be caught dead playing basic (eeeeww), when you could play advanced! But no sweat, I now had B1 Keep on the Borderlands and X1 Isle of Dread to run for my friends! And of course the implicit understanding that Advanced was simply, well, _better_ was soon shared by my new gaming recruits/friends as well.

And such it was for what seemed like an endless summer. Actually over eight or nine years. Until one of my gaming friends appeared with his gaming books, with shockingly new, upscale artwork. Second Edition had arrived. I didn't even really understand until much later that they were actually a *gasp* revision *shudder* of the Advanced game. But it was still calling itself "Advanced". So we didn't feel too bad about borrowing the nifty stuff for our current campaigns. And there was really very little angst about the whole edition shift. We simply realized their were tons of options one could use. I never got into the d10 for intitiative--though I would later try it. I hated THAC0. I just liked all the charts. But we definitely used proficiencies, new spells and the new mage specialties. The class handbooks were cool -- some of them anyway. The art got a little cartoonish and by and large I hated the new Monstrous Compendium at first, but later came to appreciate it.

So the point of all the above, was: 1st E -- 2nd E ... meh. No big deal. We simply kept playing. The point was that we played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Pure and Simple. Gary was still out there, and we loved what the game was, to us. Nothing else mattered.

Until it did. life got the best of -- doesn't it always? And I took a rather long hiatus from gaming. By the time I returned the death knell of 3.5 was being sounded. But that didn't stop me from buying tons of new books and then choking when I realized 4e was to be released the next year. By the time I was gaming again, I knew one thing for sure. The gaming I knew didn't seem to be around anymore. Everyone seemed to be playing 3.5 and bitterly arguing over the soon to be spawned 4e. 4e?! Heck I missed 3e altogether.

You see, I don't know how many are in the same boat I found myself now. But I have responded to numerous emails --prolly with waaaay too many words (sort of like this blog entry)-- in an attempt to help old timers, some younger than me, seeking to re-enter the hobby of their youth but overwhelmed by all that is on the market today, make a decision as to where to start. Where hath the simplicity of yesteryear gone, when we just had TSR, Steve Jackson, Judges Guild and we all thought Tunnels and Trolls was a joke. Gary Gygax WAS roleplaying and that was it. Nobody was arguing back then. At least that was the way it seemed.

Oh, but let's not be pollyanna about it. There was arguing. And arguing a-plenty. There were DMs screaming at players and players hollering back and vowing to blacken DM x's reputation in the gaming world forever more. Why? What was all the arguing about? Certainly not editions. There weren't any. They were arguing rules. No, not everyone. But enough that many felt the rules needed a re-write, and some voted strongly for a major re-write at that. Boy were they gonna get it in spades.

The real black rumor of the game world was that some of those pro-changers were working at the Vaunted TSR itself. And in the ensuing politics of the election Gary would be run out on a rail and the game sold down the line to the liberals of the gaming industry.

... whew ... okay, big breath ... I'm waxing a bit polemical. Back on track ...

So I offered advice. Thinking a quick run down on the industry is what those lost sheep returning to the fold really needed. Pshaw. What they really needed was a good quick smack in the head. No, that's what I needed. They just needed to be told to play the game they always loved, but don't be afraid of trying something new -- they might like it. Weren't we really just back at the dawn of a new 2e with lots of options? Well it was hard to argue that. The lanscape had changed; and the cold hard truth was that it would take a rediscovery of who we were, our gaming selves at least. And not only that, but what the gaming industry had become. So maybe my long gaming history emails (I should have created a form email) might have been at least a small help.

Fact is returning to gaming these days is like starting over for the first time. It's like discovering it all over again. Which in a way is cool, if it wasn't filled with bittersweet and prolonged nostalgic episodes. Some re-enter and find what they are looking for in a new edition and that's that. I envy them. Others just dust off their old books and keep playing. Would that I were so confident in my gaming sensibilities. But many of us wallow forever amidst new books with glossy pages, black and white downloads of retro-clones, and the fingerstained copies of old and musty smelling treasures. Blank eyed stares lost in the glories of yesteryear, seeking for the Holy Grail of gaming, long lost in the Camelot of our gaming past; waiting, praying, hoping, for the return of the once and future king of our gaming hearts.

He never comes.

But something else does. Something deeper and more meaningful. We do. Our true and new gaming selves. We become the returning king. Arthur reborn. You see, these are the people who write the works like Dark Dungeons -- the excellent retro of the B/X era. And Joseph's brilliant work on his retro of 2e Adventures Dark & Deep. All of them, and the beautiful preservation of deep and meaningful roleplay in even more modern games like 3.5, Pathfinder and 4e. We find ourselves and achieve the level of mastery that Gary Gygax hinted at in his wonderful little book called Role Playing Mastery. The deep love for and knowledge about the game that goes into the creation of these types of endeavors displays just the sort of mastery Gary talked about. And that sort of mastery does something beyond bless the gaming world with greater strength. It fulfills us in a way that little else does.

That's why I will eternally sing the praises of men like Steve Chenault, Dave Kenzer, Mark Plemmons, and Jolly Blackburn. They are keeping it real and living the dream. They are shining examples to those of us still trying to figure it out, and figure ourselves out along the way.

So my edition play by play becomes less of an analysis and more of a gestalt. Where am I at? What do I play? What I always played -- what I am. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. The very books I am writing right now. Writing in a world of options.

More on how that can be to come.

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