Wednesday, February 28, 2024

The Classic Culture of D&D Play

An essay I found via Questing Beast on Youtube, covered an article by The Retired  Adventurer, called "Six Cultures of Play". This little gem added a coherent and elucidating discussion to what Jeff Maliszewski once called gaming philosophy. In a nutshell the the article outlined six different "gaming cultures" that each have a different approach to and expectations from the game. I found the article intriguing for a number of reasons, but what I want to do here is reflect on what he termed the Classic culture of play.

Classic D&D used to be the term some in the Old School Revival called the basic line of D&D. Zero edition was "Original", basic was "Classic" and advanced was, well, "Advanced". However, this new nomenclature defines Classic as the "progressive development of challenges and PC power, with the rules existing to help keep those in rough proportion to one another and adjudicate the interactions of the two "fairly"." There's a lot to break down here, and I'll admit, as I first tackled the idea I must say I didn't agree. 

I understand the premise that the concept of "levels" roughly outlined a progressive challenge, but this misses a strong current running through Advanced D&D of adversarial play that struggled against the concept of "game balance". Not to mention that Original D&D was allowed to "go gonzo" as affirmed by the subsequent reference to "dungeons and beavers". This gonzo play was still a strong tone running through AD&D. 

However, when one sticks with the author's point, he isn't saying that such "cultures" are distinct and separate, but much more anthropological or sociological in texture. When one is "in the midst" as it were the culture is fairly clear, but it doesn't mean other influences are still evident. It's more a matter of degree and overall emphasis that "purity". And if you follow the logic into what he subsequently calls "Traditional" play. 

You see, as one can see from my blog that I'm sorta an AD&D purist, at least in theory--not so much in play. This puts me pretty squarely in the Classic camp as defined by the recreation of OSRIC and the desire to revive the style of play of the late 70's and early 80's TSR. However, I started in 1981, with the bulk of my play between then and about 1987. I played in the 90's but not nearly as much and I had a strong reaction against second edition. Nonetheless, I grokked the change he refers to in Traditional play. I read the Dragonlance series, and enjoyed it, but particularly disliked the idea of the modules, never bought them. Nor did I read or play Ravenloft, although I played during a period as Traditional play was on the rise.

What this meant for me was that Traditional play did affect my approach somewhat. I'll admit, I never really played that way pre-2000. But it did cause me to enter an endless cycle of world  building and campaign creation that never seemed quite good enough, complete enough or well designed enough. That whole concept of the DM should be in an endless state of campaign preparation, and many of my efforts were judged against the increasing production of Forgotten Realms publications--even though I preferred Greyhawk. To be honest the late 80's and 90's were the first period I was unhappy with the direction of the game. 

Things in the essay started to make sense to me. Though I do think he could have made a clearer connection between the Original edition and the Old School Renaissance culture. And the OSR is the other culture that slightly appeals to me, but primarily for it's gonzo and weird elements. That's because I was introduced to D&D by a group of Original D&D players who still had a lot of Strange otherworldliness to their games, in the veins of the S series of modules that appealed to this kind of play more than some others. 

However, the one component that we never really took advantage of was the building of keeps, wizard towers or "little wars" that might have resulted. Here the author has it right. The best kind of campaigns are long term play where characters increase in levels over years to reach this stage. However, death in these games is not a once in awhile occurrence. My experience is that death occurs quite frequently severely curtailing most character's ability to achieve such heights. But then again, I can't say we had the chance to play "campaign" style play. We played a more common episodic play of individual module or "adventures", not necessarily connected. And, of course, these modules were generally designed and balanced (albeit not carefully) for a specific level range -- again, "Classic".

In the end, I really appreciated this essay and the thinking which it developed from. It helped to quantify something I've struggled to put my finger on for some time now. I am indeed a "Classic" game player, with a bit of the Original OSR gonzo and hint of Traditionalist to my thinking. And this explains why I am not happy with the OC Modern play which is so prevalent today. Even though I knew it was linked to a style that had roots in the 90's (Traditional) but was actually something else (Neo-Traditional), often drifting into a decidedly Nordic LARP style of immersion. Sometimes we don't "know" a thing until it is labeled. Not that such categories explain everything or are the final word, but they certainly helped me feel more confident with where I am. 

Coming soon: HackMaster Culture -- A Breakdown

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