Sunday, October 9, 2011

Back in the day ...

There was one game. It was the game we all played. Not that others didn't try and break into the scene. Even the main game company was coming out with variations. But in the day I started it was with AD&D. Sure there was Basic and Expert, but they were "less of a game". At least it was in our eyes. AD&D was more expansive, filled with more possibilities--why play something that had less?

Gamma World got some table time, as did Star Frontiers. But not nearly as much. Top Secret once or twice. Space Opera, Rune Quest, GURPS, Champions, Shadowrun, Traveler, Marvel SuperHeroes, Call of Cthulhu, a tiny bit of Rolemaster, some Car Wars and we tried OGRE. They were all on the market. But what did we come back to? What was our collective world? It was AD&D. That was our game, and it was really the only one. We could tell even then which were the cheap imitations. Which ones were trying to make their own game different from but the same as AD&D. Everyone was following on the coat tails of a giant. And we could see through most of them. The ones we gave the most alternate play time, and it wasn't much, were non AD&D games. Gamma World mostly and Car Wars. But why play an inferior version of the fantasy game we all knew and loved? No, when it was fantasy it was AD&D.

So now, in this non-AD&D world, I look around and things haven't changed much. Still a bunch of copy cat games, variations on a theme and still no AD&D. Some new tricks have been introduced to the market. A few game changers, but not many. RPGs are the new board game. And like board games we are just reinventing the wheel. Over and over again. A board, some dice and a bunch of pieces. RPGs seem to be no different.

Maybe I'm stating the obvious, but aren't we all just trying to recapture the magic? Making our own variations because we can't play what we used to play. That wasn't the original purpose of the OGL. It wasn't was OSRIC was about or Swords & Wizardry either. At least not at first. They were supposed to be tools to publish materials for the original games. New adventures, new campaigns, new ideas that fit into the original model. Now? Well both Stuart Marshall and Matt Finch have both spoken to the fact that their clones have become something very different. They drive the market now. They have become an end unto themselves.

So look on the shelves now? Where is the game? What stands out above the rest? Nothing. It's like the game has disappeared and all that is left are the variations on a theme. It's like it never was. Everyone says, oh, but there are new and improved games. We've taken out the "fiddly bits" and cleaned up the contradictions, streamlined, rewritten, reorganized, re-re-re. Bullspit. They've erased it. It's gone and not a hint of it remains. Not even in OSRIC.

...   ...   ...   I have wondered if it's just the fact that it was the game I started with. I've wondered if it's just that everyone was playing that game. It's what all my gaming buddies preferred. And that I just went along with the crowd. If I could find a bunch of players right now playing say Tunnels and Trolls and they refused to play anything else that I would just jump on the wagon and play that. That would become the game, because it was what we are all into. It's the collective framework for our imaginings. But I can't really come up with any answers to that. Mainly because I don't have any gaming buddies.

I'm a convention organizer. I've got to keep over 20 different gamers happy. Offer something for everyone. Please the gaming masses. Now it's recurring at the hobby shop. Owner is more interested in me supporting the current editions and helping to organize weekly play for everyone else. Doesn't matter what I want to play. Matters what attracts everyone else. But in the end does it really matter what I want to play? I mean if a group can get together collectively and build a game the system is irrelevant isn't it? I mean in an ideal world if would be great if we all wanted to play the same game. But how often does that happen? Hasn't happened to me since the 80's.

My brother called me last night to tell me about his 4e session. Went 5 hours and very badly for the PCs. they went against all the signs in the Pyramid of Shadows, ended up with almost 3 party members dead and facing an ethical dilemma of alignment changing proportions. My brothers words? And remember my brother is a GM who has been fairly anti-4e for awhile; he was roped into the game by his players. Want to try and guess my brothers words on my answering service? "D&D is the best game ever!" He felt like it was one of the best sessions they have ever had! It was, in his more extended explanation when I returned his call, what D&D was all about. That kind of session was the kind of session he plays the game for. And he's technically playing a version he hates. Well, if you ask him now, he would say that he really doesn't hate it. He dislikes some of the combat mechanics, but he'll tell you now that he's making the game work. He's tried restricting races and classes and making other tweaks, but more and more he is playing the game as written and making it his own.

So in the end, when we all played AD&D back in the day, was it because it was the best game? Or was it because it was what we were all playing? Was it the game we played or the people we played with? What was it really? I know back in the day I didn't worry about systems, or editions or debates on which game was best. We just played. we tried new games and went back to the game we all had the most fun imagining within. It didn't matter that it was AD&D did it? It could have just as easily been GURPS or Rolemaster or whatever. Does 4e have problems? Yeah it does, so does Pathfinder and Castles and Crusades and Hackmaster. But am I going to be a stubborn ass and refuse to play what everybody else wants to play because I miss how things were back in the day? And if so, who's the real idiot here? Yeah ... me.

Not too long ago I thought about switching to 4e. About running a Wednesday night encounters game and playing 4e at the school club. I read through the books and got myself all in a sweating nausea over playing something I "didn't like". Despite the fact that I had played it less than two years prior and had some pretty good games with it. You know what switched my mind back then? Yeah, it was about a year after I started my blog. I was busily and successfully playing 4e and started my blog as a school club website to keep track of our games. Go ahead and read back to my 2008 entries. You can tell how much fun we were having. How much fun I was having. Does this sound like a guy who hated 4e? Sure there were things I didn't like, but we were having a good ole time. So what happened?

I'll tell you what happened. The OSR happened. Because for the first time I had begun reading about the old school movement, the rhetoric and the nostalgia and it hit a nerve within me. It brought up lots of good memories. It made me want the old days back. So I began thinking about maybe trying 1e again. And that seems to be when everything went to pot. I began to build myself as an OSR guy, and have been dissatisfied ever since. I feel like a gaming goth sitting around in the graveyard thinking about dead games. It's been depressing really. And I've spent the last couple of years wandering around from system to system, making my club members crazy, spouting old school rhetoric, trying to figure things out and feeling foolish thinking like I've got it when all that I've really got is my own tail.

I'll tell you one thing for sure. All this jazz about getting back to that feeling of being "back in the day" feels nothing like I felt "back in the day", when it was just me and a bunch of friends gaming the hell out of a game and telling stories to each other about our exploits. So I ask you, what was it really like "back in the day" and what are we all trying to recapture? 'Cause I for one aint found nothing yet but heartache and angst. And I'm getting a little sick of it all.


Stephen Newton said...

Great article. Captures a lot of my own feelings and experiences. I think ultimately the magic that we experienced back in the day owed something to the rules set we were playing but also quite a bit to "The Times" - the newness to the game... where you were in your life... hanging out with friends with (at least in my case) a much simpler set of responsibilities, etc. That said, the rules of AD&D were significantly simpler, and if that's the type of game you prefer, there are not alternatives out there as you mentioned.

I, too, have been playing quite a bit of 4E (in fact I publish adventures for 4E) but I am also looking at some of these newer game sets as I think they "scratch a different itch" if you will. The feel of AD&D and its simulacrum stretch similar yet different muscles.

Anyway, nice article.
-Stephen Newton-

Chris said...

Wow! Impressive site Stephen and that looks like an awesome adventure. It'll be on my to buy list. From what I can glean from the reviews your approach is very much like my brother's (who also happens to be a Stephen :). Blending an old school approach into modern games. We've talked alot about that actually. I think it's one thing older gamers can offer to the new wave.

Thanks for stopping by!

Reverend Dak J. Ultimak said...

I use the same term, "Back in the day..." I'm 40 y-o now, still playing what I call D&D. It's not the Official D&D, but I'm no longer caught up in the trap that brand loyalty can do to your heart. I learned a new term a couple years ago when I started getting obsessed with OSR, "Fantasy Heartbreaker". My understanding it's that answer to what you're missing, or missed, about D&D... so you check out this new "better than D&D" rpg, and it's not. Either not "D&D" or not better. I played 3e whole-hearted until 4e, and played that until I got sick of it. It took 2+ years for me to realize it wasn't "D&D", I too blame the OSR scene to add to the confusion. But for me OSR helped me figure out the D&D I want to play. Right now it's DCC so far with a bit of S&W and LotFP, it helps that I found a group that is totally into-it. Lost a couple long-term members because of the switch, but I've haven't had this much fun playing an RPG since AD&D in the early 80s. I hope you find that game.

Stephen Newton said...

Chris, thanks for the comments. I actually leapfrogged from AD&D (with a smidgin of 2ED) straight into 4ED. There's actually a long story behind the writing of my first adventure (short version: it was originally a much shorter AD&D adventure, that when I decided to try my hand at publishing, I expanded and re-wrote to 4ED.

Like Dak, I've also settled in on DCC RPG as one of my new favorite systems. Has the "feel" of AD&D with some sensible tweaking of rules.

Great site and I'll be coming back regularly.

Chris said...

Yeah, can't wait for my official copy to come in next February. I too like lots about DCC RPG. Thanks for the comments.

ADD Grognard said...

I know what you are looking for. I found mine just in time.

Stay with it and don't give'll find it.

DRANCE said...

Chris, I think this questioning you are experiencing is going to have a great result. You're going to figure out what you want out of gaming. I really believe that there's nothing wrong with nostalgia, unless it becomes an end in and of itself. I've written about my experiences with/thoughts on gaming nostalgia on my blog:

Questioning is healthy, and you're on the right track, I think.

Anonymous said...

Just face it, you miss bad-ass player characters like myself - Jener

yeoman said...

I have read your blog with interest for a while, and commend your open and honest appraisal of your journey. I think Stephen said it best, the magic of what was past came from several factors, many of which have nothing to do with the game but more with circumstance.
I played 1st ed. AD&D and still consider it special. I am currently running a campaign using Joe Bloch's ADD system, and that feels different from the Pathfinder campaign I have just run.

Can I have fun playing other systems? Sure. I have been a player in many, even recently, and enjoyed the roleplay experiences every time.

So why do I feel most at home with 1st ed.? Two factors I think. One, nostalgia. Yes I can easily wander mentally back to those long summer days of endless gaming with friends. It was the system we all used, and the entertainment was great. So that is wired subconsciously. The other factor for me is the style and feel of the games. Modern gaming has a vastly expanded set of references, and rules sets that give an obvious nod to elements of computer gaming and fiction, as well as films, which are alien to my formative experiences.

OSR has teasingly spread the aroma of the past around me, promising delights long past. Its not that I cannot enjoy 4e, or have any objection to it. But it is not gaming as I remember it, so if you give me a choice, and that is what the OSR / Pathfinder process has done (by effectively saying that the future of the game is not whatever you are told it will be)then yes, the current fare put on the table smells and looks less appetising.

Of course, as has already been discussed, what is actually on offer is more vision than reality, because we are not ever going to be those carefree students of yesteryear. It is not that the recipe has changed, only that expectations can be much greater, and so the disappointment.

I am enjoying my gaming with ADD. I know it will not be the same as what I knew, but for all that it is a system that feels like home. I will play any system, but some have that X factor that others don't give me.

I hope that you find your X factor too. Happy gaming!

Chris said...

Thanks everyone! And even one of my old gaming buds from long ago posted!

@Anon: Yes I do miss Jener and Nealin, and Solabaris and the whole crew. More than anything I miss those days. Wish tehre was something similar today for me.

I do really appreciate everyone's kind words and encouragment. I often fear I'll upset someone by being too honest.

I think my biggest problem right now is that I cannot get anyone to play the games I'm interested in that are more "old school". But our community is small and the tastes are narrow. I've posted about this some today, so you can read the detials there, but I really want to say thank you to everyone who is reading along with my thoughts.

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