Sunday, 8 January 2012

Musings on my history with D&D

Over on Story Games there's a cool thread where John recounts his experience playing D&D with the "original player" Mike Mornard at a recent NYC event. This is followed by some discussion of people's "first times" as well as the "original game" and the varying experiences with D&D (it was never just one game.).

Will Hindmarch writes: "I should really look back and seriously consider what sort of procedures and guidelines I used as a DM back then and compare it to what I do now."

This inspired me to look back at my own history with D&D and experiences with it, so I know (so you know) where I stand.

My first notion of anything like D&D was while reading ET the Extraterrestrial novel in second grade (I was 9 I think), the boys play D&D at some point in the book. The description of the activity is arcane and weird but it excited my imagination immensely. I knew that if that was actually a thing, I wanted to play it.

I next encountered D&D as a concept while watching the episode of Dexter's Laboratory entitled D & Dee Dee. I still wasn't sure if it was a real game but it started to crystalize in my head as something that could be done. Then came the videogames, precisely Baldur's Gate. I now knew D&D was a thing, but I never expected to actually play it. Then came Magic the Gathering through which I met some people that are both my friends and main gamer group even today.

One of them bought the D&D Adventure Game and I was invited to play. This was in late-ish 2000, I think.

This was a very important moment. And very much worth analyzing. I was convinced, until right now, that what we played at that time was a 3rd Edition Starter Set. I was certain that we had played a RPG. But I just googled it and the D&D Adventure Game is supposedly a Boardgame. It's listed on Boardgame Geek. I know I played Tordek and looking at photos at BGG, I can see that his "character sheet" lists only Initiative, Attack, Damage, Speed, AC and HP.

Yet this was the most complete & formative experience of RPGs that I had ever had. If you read the SG thread I linked at the start of this post, you can probably see how the Original D&D's it's-really-a-wargame ethos is about the same thing. No meaningful skills or stats of any kind. We encountered a pit full of spikes. We judged it too wide to jump across, so Tordek went back to a room full of bones and carried these to the pit, filling up the bottom, so we could cross it safely. I still remember that. If that's not the purest form of old-school, I don't know what is. It also clearly isn't a boardgame.

Today, I wouldn't want to play a game lacking stats. Not because a game needs stats, but because I understand the social dynamics at the table and the need for the system to either complicate or resolve certain things in play. The stripped-down, combat-only minimalism of the D&DAG system reflects my enduring belief in rules-light, minimalist, elegant designs that rely on fictional positioning and human judgement more than crunch. I like Burning Wheel's baroque machinery not because I like baroque machinery but because I can see how each piece has a clearly defined space that fits in with the other bits - it's ultimately elegant.

3rd Edition
After our brief stint with the AG, we somehow acquired the freshly released 3E core books. I remember borrowing them on a school trip and flipping through the Monster Manual on the bus, with death metal blasting in my earphones, my mind expanding by lightyears, positively flabbergasted by all the possibility.

I volunteered (or perhaps insisted) to run our first campaign. It was horrible. I made every frigging mistake in the book. This makes me see the incredible value of having a gaming mentor. Someone who shows you the ropes. Lacking such help, the text must do its best and personally, I don't think the 3E books showed me how to run a game properly. I still hold the 3E Dungeon Master's Guide to be the worst DMG in the game's history. Perhaps this is resentment or reverse-nostalgia, I don't know. Point is, I think 3E was not the best RPG to start with in any way.

Still, we soldiered on. I'm sure it was fun, in its own ways. I don't know how long that first campaign lasted, only that it featured Gandalf as a GMPC, death from falling and no real adventuring.

I have vague to no memories of playing D&D in that period. I remember making a half-elven bard that rode an elevator to hell, but I'm not sure what period that memory is from.

Phase two
What was almost certainly my second campaign was actually quite better. I have very little knowledge of how I did it, but I'm sure I instinctively followed at least a few principles that I recognize as valuable even today. For example the fact that the GM should fill the world with stuff he thinks is cool, but accept it when it's inevitably trampled by the players. The game took place in Forgotten Realms and I'm sure they met Elminster, but he didn't steal their spotlight in any way.

A very important moment was when the players eventually built their own fortress-adventurers' guild-wizard's tower. I find this extremely meaningful because previous editions included explicit systemic support for high-level "domain" play, the rules for which are specifically absent from 3rd edition. This means we spontaneously filled a void that was left over from Advanced & Basic. Maybe we were stealing a page from Baldur's Gate II (which still used a variant of AD&D), but we definitely recognized an implied shift in gameplay that wasn't supposed to be there as written.

The game was an incoherent mixture of sandbox play and partecipationist cue-picking plots, but it definitely turned harder towards pure sandboxing towards the end. The only problem was, that while I absolutely encouraged proactive play I had no idea of how to support it from my side. So while I had the elf-bard player tell me every session that she's looking for her kidnapped apprentice, I had no idea of how to follow that up. Looking back that was highly unproductive, but it did get us through years of play (perhaps precisely because of that?).

Phase 3
Sometime in between we were introduced to Vampire the Masquerade (and later Mage) realizing there was a wider world of roleplaying out there. Being confronted with Vampire for the first time was a similarly eye-opening experience than reading D&D for the first time. Little did I know how many other games still awaited.

After my Forgotten Realms game folded I remember a big mess of shorter-lived games. I tried cobbling together a pseudo-steampunk setting before I knew what steampunk was. One of my friends ran one or two sci-fi games powered by 3E. Another friend became a full-fledged fantasy tactics DM. In my head this period is a chaotic mess, punctuated by some odd memorable characters and moments. We were pushing the limits both of the mechanics and the concepts, experimenting with the format. I found the d20 engine flexible and accommodating, but at the same time it was limiting and stubborn in many ways.

Around this time 3.5 must have been released. I think we were feeling the strain by then. Soon after the group started to fall apart a bit, because of scheduling issues, people going away to study etc. We didn't play as much because it was hard to get together. As any game who doesn't have the opportunity to play I started to think and read and talk about games more.

Somewhat concurrent with Phase 3 I began, without realizing it, to develop a strong Story Now bent. I didn't know what it meant, how to articulate it, how to play it, and how to run it. Sadly, that resulted in a bunch of frustrated play. We often met to start a game only for it to fall apart before the next session. Both because it was hard to play regularly and because (from my personal point of view) play wasn't satisfying at all. There was a lot of trying, but very little doing.

I was in a double bind - I didn't actually know what Story Now was or how to make it work, I just knew I wanted it. And I was (I believe) trying to force it to players that didn't know what I wanted, using a system that's a poor fit for it.

However there was one little freak accident sometimes during this period, too. I said to my group "we're going to play a game that's like Game of Thrones" (we were all just sharing and reading the first few books around that time). That was all I needed to say. The players made characters using the NPC classes in the 3E DMG. That game was, even if it lasted just one session, pure, unadultered, burning Story Now. Much like how we stumbled onto that primeval, untainted oldschool play when playing the D&D Adventure Game, we somehow tapped into the narrativist agenda that time around. Note that I had no idea what that meant at the time. I hadn't even heard of games like Dogs in the Vineyard or anything of the sort. I spent years trying to recreate that experience, banging my head against the wall trying to understand what had happened...until I got my hands on a playtest document by Vincent Baker and realized I had simply run a fantasy version of Apocalypse World some six years earlier.

Night and Morning
I did a lot of gamer-self-searching in the following years, amidst very little gaming. I was angry at how WotC handled the transition to 4E. We never made the switch, because we felt cheated out, especially after (re)buying the 3.5 books. Looking back, it makes me sad how that whole thing went down. Because I can now say I honestly like 4E a whole lot. It has its problems, some of them inexcusable, but so has every edition. The good bits are really good though. We did try to play it once and it went down ok, but it fizzled out, as so many games do. I took a massive interest in the history of the game. I downloaded and bought retroclones, AD&D books, Basic manuals. We gave a Basic game a shot. I tried to untangle the arcane threads, looking for something pure that has been lost after that first Adventure game. I am only now beginning to understand it.

I figured out my narrativist fix, and through it learned to appreciate gamism again. The game that frustrated me because it wasn't satisfying my gaming needs, is now a game I enjoy for different reasons. For our D&D gaming we switched to Pathfinder, because it was painless. It was basically almost the same game that we had been playing for 10 years, only with fresh make-up. We started playing a lot more again, different games, too.

If I had to put types of D&D into categories I'd put 0D&D and Basic in one box, 2E and 3E in a second and Pathfinder and 4E in a third. AD&D 1 is a bridge between the first and the second and 3.5 between the second and third. The first and third box are the most apart, but also the closest, like two ends of a zen circle. Within the last box, Pathfinder is the furthest D&D could ever be from 0D&D, while 4E is so far, it's close again.

I'm still parsing through my memories, to see what lessons I can draw from them.


  1. *and the shield guardian keeps playing and playing*

  2. I feel so old when I read about people who started gaming with 3e. :)

  3. I feel so old when I read about people who started gaming with 4e! :)

    (I suspect I/we would have started with 2nd edition or the RC, if RPGs were more culturally present in our country. We were all digging dungeon-themed boardgames, choose-your-own-adventure books and stuff like that long before I even knew there was a D&D.)