Saturday, July 11, 2015

Old School Sensibility

Sensibility: the kinds of feelings that you have when you hear, see, read, or think about something (Merriam Webster)

Old School Sensibility: the kinds of feelings that you have when you hear, see, read, or think about old school role playing

To continue the train of thought in my last post, I want a light, fast and flexible game that has the old school sensibility that I prefer. Though I may be in love with a particular ethos, theme or tone expressed in a game, that doesn't necessarily mean that it allows me to play in the story oriented, rules light way I am used to and particularly enjoy. That was sort of where I left off with my last entry. 

In the past couple of entries, as I've been through this journey of reflection, I have walked through the fact, that though I loved AD&D, I never really played it like 1e was written. The more I looked at it the more I realized I played it sort of like a modified Original/Classic Version of D&D. As a bit of an aside, the versions of D&D that are of interest to me are sort of considered as:

"Original" Dungeons & Dragons = The 3 little brown books
"Classic" Dungeons & Dragons = Holmes / Moldvay / Cook
"Advanced" Dungeons & Dragons circa '77

But there was a middle ground between Original and Classic that approached Advanced, but wasn't exactly the revised Advanced that Gary re-wrote and began publishing in 1977 or so. The Original version included the supplements Greyhawk, Blackmoor, Eldritch Wizardry, Gods Demi-Gods & Heroes, and Swords & Spells. The very supplements that would supply the bulk of the expansion that would become Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. But long before that they were played in the Original manner. 

Dr.  Holmes would write the "Basic" set as a streamlining of the original rules, so that those who wished could continue to play the Original rules--but these, though written more cohesively, were limited in scope and would not include the supplemental material in any significant sense. Later, Moldvay & Cook would expand Holmes' offerings slightly, retaining the spirit of the three little brown books, but still not much of the supplemental material.

Advanced D&D would be a notable departure from much of the Original Edition, with the addition of numerous rules that defined a version of the game similar to, but developed from the Original Rules plus the supplements. It is a game vast in scope, and deeply rooted in the worlds of Greyhawk and to a lesser extent Blackmoor. This would also be a departure from the spirit of the Original three in the sense that Gary, Dave and the other early contributors were encouraging players and DMs to do their own designing. The point was to take the outline of the rules and run with them in your own direction. Advanced D&D, of course, retained the idea--but had been heavily influenced by the home campaigns of Arneson and Gygax. Spell names, magic items and the like not only flavored the Advanced game but influenced the development of the ruleset to some degree. This was not entirely new, of course, as the Greyhawk and Blackmoor supplements had already begun to do so as a separate option to the Original rules. But Advanced D&D was not to be seen so much as a suggested beginning for play, but as the definitive set of rules to be used without significant deviation.

So, what do I recall playing? Well, that's an interesting question actually. I never really thought of it before; but to explain my theory fully I have to go back to the beginning of my introduction to gaming.

As I explain in previous posts, I was introduced to gaming in 1981 at my first Boy Scout meeting at my local church. The guys who were playing were about a year and a half older than me. They were almost 14, I had just turned twelve. The books they were using were AD&D books. Those were the books we used to develop characters. They never let me look at the Monster Manual or Dungeon Master's Guide; those were off limits and I would have to wait until I bought them for myself before I accessed that hidden knowledge. However, it didn't matter much as they were a resource at best--only referred to casually when we needed to know a modifier or some such. Our play was highly improvisational, and story driven. We mostly played at Scouts, or on camp outs, but occasionally at guys' houses. I distinctly recall being at one fellow's house and seeing his collection of gaming books. There on his shelf was a small beige box labelled Dungeons and Dragons. I recall asking about it, to which he replied, that taking the box off the shelf, that these were the the first rules of the game put out a long time ago (a long time ago relative to our ages--this was 1981 or 2). He showed me the original books and one or two supplement books (I can't recall which) and explained with reverence that this was the way it was originally played, the way he was taught to play by guys at the high school; but, he continued matter of factly putting the books back, we used the advanced version now. His tone was obviously one betraying the clear superiority of the large hard back books we used. 

That's the memory. And I never thought much about it, but as I consider the way I was taught to play the game, the way I taught others to play the game I believe it has significant relevance. It is my belief now that those early gaming mentors were playing a version of the Original Game with some advanced supplemental material. We used race as separate from class, advanced hit die, saves, alignment, weapon damage and the like but the game itself was a very simple approach to play. It was that very free form creative space between the Original Game and the Advanced Game that could for all intents and purposes be called Edition "Zero Point Five" (0.5).  Not quite Advanced D&D "by the book" as it were, but a definite extension of the Original Edition incorporating much of the supplemental material. 

The significance of this, of course, is that it answers so many questions I have been asking myself for so long. Why can't I find the game I used to play? Why are so many newer games, or retros of past games dissatisfying to me? I'm not just looking for fast and light and flexible--lots of games provide that. I'm looking for that classic sweet spot between two editions. I am tempted to say that the edition I'm looking for doesn't exist as it replicates play similar to the Original Edition with the Advanced Books as a reference. It's not quite Original and it's not quite Advanced. 

However, I think some very viable options do exist. Games which were created to sit exactly in that sweet spot. And there is also another matter entirely that needs addressed; each of which I will take in turn in subsequent posts.