What game were we playing?

(This was once a post to NerdNYC, but it’s a decent summary of my earliest days playing.)

I started playing RPG’s at age 9, after the Wrightstown Elementary School Barn Dance.  Hollis’s mom, who was kind of a strange hippie type, had bought him a new kind of game–Dungeons & Dragons (Mentzer, Red Box, 1983)–and he wanted us to play it with him as the “Dungeon Master.”

For pretty much the next twenty years, I’ve been a big fan of RPG’s in general, and Red Box D&D has always held a special spot in my heart.  That was our favorite game from about 1985 to 1989.  Our characters went on crazy quests, defeated Demogorgon, won strange artifacts, fought beasts from the 5th Dimension (the Dimension of Nightmares, as everyone knows).

In late 2007, as the Old School Renaissance was gearing up, I dug out my old copies of Mentzer’s BECMI–and I’m astonished that, to the best of my knowledge, we never engaged with any of the rules.

On that first night back in 1985, I played a Cleric with 4 Charisma. None of us knew what “Charisma” meant, but I was very unhappy with that low score.  Tim played a Fighter.  I don’t remember anything about the dungeon, except that it involved graph paper, and all kinds of crazy monsters from the AD&D Monster Manual (which had funky pictures in it).  My Cleric died almost immediately fighting a carrion crawler; we bribed Hollis with Halloween candy to let us live.

Most of the rest of our “campaign” over the next couple of years ended up being weird, random stuff that didn’t make much sense, handled almost entirely through declaration and fiat. For example:

  • We never bothered with encumbrance rules
  • We never bothered with morale
  • We never bothered with movement rates
  • We never bothered with spell durations & AoE
  • We never bothered with spells, actually
  • We never bothered with attack rolls, damage, etc.

Basically: you name the rule, we ignored it.

The process of playing Basic Dungeons & Dragons consisted of…

  • Drawing maps on graph paper.  All the time.  I was lucky because my dad was an engineer, and he had easy access to all the graph paper I would ever need.
  • Imagining your character’s crazy adventures to yourself, and then maybe telling your friends about them.  I think my guy found the Scarf-Sword of Sinbad–it was this scarf, that was also a sword, and Sinbad used it.  I found it in this port city in the desert!  It was hard to get to!  I had to read directions on how to get there, by using my Elf-vision to read a map written in vapor upon the ocean mists.
  • Also: imagining making friends with strange monsters. Like, the lion-pegasus friend, who was really smart and fierce and probably gave me advice, and looked cool even though I could not draw lions very well.
  • Along the same lines, having sex with were-tigers.  A few decades of sexual development have persuaded me that this would most likely be a bad idea.  I am sorry, all you fine were-tiger ladies out there.
  • Every once in a while, we’d get together, and imagine a new crazy adventure for a character.  Like the time I subdued this gold dragon, sold it, and made enough money to buy a warship.
  • At one point early on we had a party of NPC’s, including Greegan from the Mentzer Basic set (because he looked awesome) and Grax the Dwarf who was so dumb we paid him with dirt.  We got a lot of mileage out of how dumb Grax was.
  • Reading and re-reading the adventure modules, wondering what it would be like to play them. I remember CM7: The Tree of Life in particular, and thinking it was potentially cool but also involved a lot of stupid shit about colorful rainbows, puzzles, and trials.  But the villain, who was a Wizard obsessed with turning into an Elf via cloning, and who around on a wyvern, was pretty bad-ass.
  • Buying more of the boxed sets, to think of more crazy adventures.  One of them involved advancing 20 levels  by giving the DM a lot of candy at lunch time.  (This candy-based XP system appears to have been a common theme in our play at that time.)
  • The one time I remember actually playing the game more or less as intended, my guy was in a dungeon, off on his own, in a room when the Orcs start knocking on the door.  I decide that my character will hide under the bed!  To demonstrate, I then hid under the bed myself.  Tim and Hollis demonstrated the Orcs’ reaction by jumping on the bed.  I think we never finished playing out that combat, because someone had to leave.
  • I think in early middle school, Adam joined our group, and became our go-to DM.  He ran a bunch of adventures involving the Lone Wolf world.  Adam’s adventures were cool because he had character-specific subplots, and occasionally we actually used the rules.  But God, being a Thief was awful. We assumed that to backstab someone, you had to succeed at Moving Silently (10% chance) and Hiding (10%) – essentially, you had a 1% chance of being useful, and a 99% chance of getting stomped when the enemy turned around to see you inexpertly trying to lurk around beind it.  But I thought Thieves were cool anyway.  I ended up with an Intelligent Morning-Star.  Adam also used Lone-Wolf as a GMPC character, which I remember resenting, but mechanically he might have worked as a high-level Elf.

But it really does baffle me that, for all the time we spent in an activity labelled “playing D&D”, we really never played the game. It was just like “ridicuous 10 year olds imagining an incoherent fantasy world.”  A friend described it as Super Awesome Let’s Pretend Time, which seems pretty apt.

We briefly tried it again when we were 13, but AD&D 2e came out almost immediately after I drew the campaign map, and after some heated argument (“Multi-class? What’s that?! It’s the stupidest thing I ever heard! What, you can be a Dwarf/Elf???!”) we switched to the newer edition.

Over the last eighteen months or so, the New York Red Box crowd has gone back to the early editions of D&D to “do it right,” this time with rules.  (I’m a big believer in Encumbrance, which I think is a crucial but frequently overlooked mechanic.)  If you’re reading this blog, it shouldn’t surprise you that the game-as-written is a lot of fun.  But it’s not quite the same.

So here’s a question.  If we arrange Gygaxian D&D in a spectrum based on how “nailed down” the rules are (I’m envisioning OD&D as the “not nailed down at all” pole, and AD&D as the “rules for everything” pole), do you get closer to Super Awesome Let’s Pretend Time the closer you move to OD&D?  If so, doesn’t this imply that playing “freeform” is even more fun than anything D&D can muster?  If instead this is a state of mind that doesn’t depend on a particular rule set, what are the rules for?

7 Responses to “What game were we playing?”

  1. March 2, 2010 at 5:10 am

    If ‘You roll higher than me your version of reality wins, I roll higher than you my version wins’ is more OD&D, then that’s where I am and have been for nearly 30 years.

  2. March 2, 2010 at 3:06 pm

    It’s a good place to be.

    I first came across the idea of dice as a neutral arbiter of competing player priorities, rather than as things that model reality in some way, through Vincent Baker’s early blog posts on “Hardcore Role-Playing Theory” – http://www.lumpley.com/hardcore.html – but I recognize that plenty of people have been playing that way for decades.

  3. March 2, 2010 at 5:05 pm

    My players don’t seem to mind it, and if they do, I don’t hear about it and they keep coming back. lol.
    –> shrug < ;D

    –While I appreciate that link's concepts, I've not found many players in the same head-space to participate in that sort of gaming experience.
    —I'll let that simmer in my 'abandoned for lack of opportunities' pot, and see if something comes of it.
    —-Thanks for the link, though.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

October 2009

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