Thursday, June 9, 2016

What I Remember: A Rant About Old School and When Old Was New

  There is a bit of a kerfuffle online right now about the 'real' Old School of TRPGs, who is telling who what, who is wrong, which people are 'the Taliban'.
  BTW, if there is a person or group who is not involved in actual oppression, rape, torture, murder, and warfare but you call them 'the Taliban' because they have the unmitigated gall to disagree with you, please assume that I ignore all of your opinions about politics, culture, morals, ethics, and etiquette.
  Why? Because thus it has always been. I remember a spirited fight at the Ball State dorms about,
  "No, man, like, the REAL way to play D&D!"
  In 1977. And these two guys had been having the argument for over a year. Then the Monster Manual hit and they really started fighting.



  Now, just to fill in anyone who doesn't know me that well I rolled my first character and played my first game of D&D in March of 1977. I started working on my own campaign setting (bold worlds for 'here is the port city, there is the good wizard's tower, there are the smugglers' caves' on loose-leaf paper) within a year. I was running my own games by August of 1978. I have played a huge number of TRPGS (see a good, but incomplete, list here) and GM'ed for almost every system I have played.

  I have played on 4 continents, at conventions, in homes, and in the open desert inside a war zone. I have taught I-can't-count-them-that's-how-many newbies who have never touched dice before and played with guys who helped build TRPGs from the ground up. The day after I was setup on a blind date I taught her to play Star Wars - we've been married almost a quarter century. My best friend in the world met his wife at a D&D game in the '70's. My children plan their month around our family AD&D 1e and 2e campaigns and some of them are grown and have their own jobs.

  Or, to be more direct - TRPGs are so integral to my life I cannot imagine my life without them.

  Now, since there are discussions about 'what it was really like back in the day', often by people who weren't there back in the day, let me tell you about what I remember.

I was born and lived most of my early life  in and around Muncie, the home setting of Knights of the Dinner Table. For whatever reason, TRPGs seemed to flourish there and most of my friends from that area are like me - we cannot recall being ostracized, excluded, or teased for playing D&D. In my case the basketball players, football players, band, and others all had their own games running and plenty of girls from band nerds to cheerleaders played, too. From 1982 to 1985 my primary group consisted of;

  1. A high school kid (freshman through junior year for him)
  2. A girl going to Ball State majoring in education, started at 19, in grad school when I left
  3. A guy going to trade school to be an electrician/an electrician, started when he was 20
  4. A married couple, in their late 20's/early 30's, that were in pest control
  5. A prison guard in his mid 20's
  6. An emergency room nurse in her 40's
  So there was a broad spread of ages and types of people! I also ran a group once or twice a month that was all high schoolers from my own grade, and that was 3 guys and 3 girls.

  The first time I messed with spells in D&D was about 1979 when I briefly made 'alternate' versions of a few that followed what I now call the Magic Missile Mechanic. The spell casters in my parties liked the changes but other DMs thought it wasn't worth the effort.

  In 1980 a friend (the nurse from my party!) bought me Rolemaster. Wow. Loved it. I mean, I was already playing and running a ton of other games, but Rolemaster really had a big impact. I had a group of volunteers where we played AD&D with the Rolemaster magic system spliced in. It is still one of my most fondly remembered games and the players loved it.

  "Hold it!"
  You say,
  "Rick, you skipped right past the transition from OD&D to AD&D! This was a major event, a cause of disruption and schism, a Really Big Deal that caused a lot of strife!"
  Not as I remember it. I learned with the Original Three books and I remember poring over Greyhawk and then buying Eldritch Wizardry myself and devouring it. Heck, I got a second-hand copy of Outdoor Survival!
  When what is now called the Holmes Rules came out I got it. It was the first set of 'complete' rules that I owned personally and I used it to create my campaign world and to have people roll up characters. I got the other books as and when I could and did a mish-mash of using the OD&D books and supplements to 'fill in the gaps' and 'go beyond' the Holmes version.
The very first game that I ran, ever, required the (Holmes) fighter to joust a black knight riding a steam-powered mechanical horse and used the OD&D jousting charts, for example.

  When the Monster Manual came out my parents got it for me as a present. I loved it. All the other GM's either had it, too, or were jealous and would borrow ours all the time. I got the PHB the day it came out (Stan at Reader's World ordered and held one for me); same with the DMG.

  For me the transition was very easy and very natural and I never really experienced a lot of push back, directly or indirectly. As Holmes characters died or retired (virtually everyone 'retired' their characters at level 7 - 9: well, those few that lived!) (Huh? Oh - we extrapolated levels and spells and stuff) they were replaced with AD&D characters. My friend Dave only ran OD&D until I left for the army in 1985 and my friend George dropped all Holmes the day he got his DMG and he never ran it again.

  You see, the experience I had in the period of time when you had OD&D+supplements just a few years old AND Basic from Holmes being basically brand-new AND AD&D 1e being released all about the same time was -

    Everyone was mixing, matching, and making it up on the fly. With sometimes contradictory rules and sometimes missing rules people plugged in this and that. The DMs that were 'popular' had two things going on: an overarching vision of the world they were running and consistency.

  In this environment a lot of players and DMs alike embraced AD&D 1e for coming up with something that helped build consistency, helped fill in the gaps, yet was tightly focused on making sure you knew two things-
  The overarching vision of your world is important.
  That vision is entirely up to you.

  My favorite illustration of how this 'make it yourself, and make it yours' was just baked into AD&D was the section on Boot Hill (which I owned). I had already used the Monster Manual to stage the Valley of Gwangi in a Boot Hill game. The idea of a gunslinger getting trapped in a mine and coming out to fight orcs was a logical next step. I already had an evil dwarven wizard villain (he was from Jotunheim, where they can be mages) that made clockwork giant spiders, steam-powered warhorses, etc. so giving him a steam-powered rifle was right there.

  For me and for the other DMs and players I was hanging around with at the time AD&D 1e was just more grist for the mill, like Traveller, Rolemaster, or Boot Hill. When we 'migrated' to AD&D as the default book to pick up first I didn't throw out Holmes basic or Blackmoor - I parked it on the shelf right next to it along with White Dwarf, the Dragon, and the rest of the stuff I cobbled together to make my game.

  Now, I mentioned consistency earlier and this is for a reason. Especially for that window before Basic the rules were so wide-open and scattered that it could be hard to sit down with a different DM, let alone with a different group. They might have never seen Outdoor Survival and Chainmail so their combat and overland was really, really different. House rules were so common that not having them was really weird so there was no such thing as an 'experienced player'. Not just because the game only a few years old but every table had its own learning curve. Players appreciated consistency because it allowed a true growth of characters and campaigns

  Relying on commercial, printed rules was also very common for another, big, often forgotten reason.
  Low tech.
  In my basement there is a stack of spiral bound, college ruled notebooks. Over 90 of them. 
  Four of them are my old House Rules from the 1980's written longhand.
  Know why?
  IT WAS THE EFFIN' NINETEEN EIGHTIES! No word processors; no printers. Making photocopies meant going to the library and paying a buck a flippin' page. A buddy of mine made a mint by having access to a middle-school mimeograph machine and printing stuff for people, mainly character sheets. Your other options were writing them by hand or buying books of character sheets at the bookstore and hobby shop. And they were expensive.
  Know why the old character sheets you bought were that funky orange color?
  So you couldn't photocopy them on the copiers readily available then; you had to buy more or pay more to make copies than buying new ones cost.

  Did you have a set of custom rules for your game? Great! So did everyone else! Want to share them?
  Get a manual typewriter, get some bond paper, and start typing. Make an error? Either live with it or type the entire page over again. Modify a rule? Retype everything associated with it - as in, everything on every page associated with it.
  Sure, some people did this. Then they typically had a copy, as in one. Make copies? Very expensive. Bind copies? More expensive. Have multiple copies printed and bound? Are you made of money?! Remember, the Print on Demand revolution is younger than RPGNow. When I was a young player in the 1970's and 1980's it was really damn expensive to get things printed, you had to get it done by a dedicated print company, and the setup was difficult and expensive.
  So sure - house rules were everywhere. But they were as local as they were personal

  Also, you used the rules you could get. The large, family-owned bookstore closest to me carried AD&D. The end. If I went to a dedicated game store, further away, they also carried Traveller. When I could get to the Wizard's Keep - hoo-boy! Actual rules! But it was often hard, if not impossible, to get the OD&D books. It was that weird combination of - overall demand was low but the few people that were looking for them snatched them the instant they hit the shelves. When my copy of Swords & Spells was destroyed by a kid sister with a soda and a frisbee I couldn't find a new copy to buy for 3 years. 
  No EBay. No Amazon. No PDFs. Just a keen eye and luck.
  So if you didn't have good access to a great game store and/or had little money you could find AD&D books and supplements but might not see OD&D for long stretches, if ever. The attrition of time made AD&D more accessible and OD&D less. 

  Combined, this meant if you wanted to share your hobby you used the tools people could get. From 1980 on this was increasingly AD&D or B/X/etc.
  But this was just the foundation! I can't count the varieties I saw built on those systems: Basic plus Traveller skills; AD&D combat with Rolemaster skills and magic; Rolemaster combat with Basic magic; Basic and AD&D with mana/spell points/roll to retain/etc.; and more. There was also a lot of cross-pollination: fantasy worlds with the Aftermath! mechanics and D&D magic; point-buy stats; replacing all magic with Psiworld mental powers a la the Deryni books; using the Boot Hill brawling instead of the pummeling rules; you name it. I fought ur-viles, tarns, Martian plant men, androids, daleks, mi-go, skrulls, and a lot more in AD&D. 

  Know who was doing it "the right way"? Everybody.
  Know who was doing it "the wrong way"? Everybody.

  Back In The Day I only ever heard a few complaints:
  "He's a killer DM" = a lot of risk, unstoppable enemies and traps, low/no rewards.
  "He's a Monty Haul DM" = a lot of treasure and magic, not much challenge.
  "He's stingy" = good threat level, good fun, little loot, magic, or rewards
  "He railroads" = you will do the plot his way or you won't play.
  "He doesn't DM, he plays" = he has one or more of what is now called a DMPC

  My friend George, whose game had no racial limits on level or stats and no alignment restrictions? I never heard someone say 'he's doing it wrong'.
 My friend Mike who used Holmes and when you hit 4th you retired?
  I never heard 'he's doing it wrong'.
  My friend Little Dave who used mana points for spells, Traveller-like skills, and only let you play humans?
  I never heard 'he's doing it wrong'.
  Know what I did hear?
  "How is that working? Do the players like it? What about x?"
  Dave, the 'always OD&D' guy, never chastised me for using AD&D as the basis for my game anymore than he would have chastised me for liking brunettes. Sure, his girl was a blonde, but I wasn't dating her, was I? Dave had a character in my game, one that was eventually a dual class fighter//cleric. He liked my game and liked to play. I had a Fighting Man in his game. I liked his game and liked playing.

   I had a lot of growth in the late '80's and early '90's. Playing with and DMing for one of the most talented game designers in history will do that. A great deal of the semi-formed ideas I had about what I wanted to do really gelled and began to develop then. I also had money and access to a great game shop, so I got a lot more resources to borrow from. Last, I had a ton of new players and GMs to grow with.

  Remember how I said I never experienced any sort of bullying or mockery about playing D&D and other TRPGs? Well, when I got to the Defense Language Institute in 1985 my sisters sent me the Temple of Elemental Evil. I let a few people know I would be willing to run the module in a standalone game on Saturdays and if anyone was interested they should meet me that Saturday.
  44 people showed up. Marines, sailors, some of them NCOs. The gaming at this military base was so intense that weekends looked like a con. I have fond memories of playing Battletech (the board game) while waiting for my AD&D group to show and after a 4 hour game playing marathon Starfleet Battles until Sunday morning - with an audience!
  The only thing ever said was 'can I play, too?'

  When you get right down to it the attitude I had then and retain now is this: I am not "running a ruleset" or "adhering to a ruleset" or "being true to the game" or "playing the right way" - I am always actively making a new game. The core of the AD&D 1e or 2e rules is just a common reference to allow others to enter into my game with greater ease.

  Do I borrow from other creators and other games? Yup. People are different and create things you wouldn't, just like I make things you wouldn't. Just like I hope some of my creativity is useful to you, some of yours might strike a chord with me, too. That's how these things work. I borrow from movies, books, TV shows, even poems and paintings. I had read a lot of Appendix N, and more besides, before I was a teen and a lot of it crept into my world.

  When the so-called OSR was just starting I was busy. I was switching careers, the Wife and I had 3 kids under the age of 5 and more on the way, and I had just gotten over almost dying. I was doing some 3e and liking it while still adding to my 1e campaign. I spent a fair amount of time online but I have never really been a forum guy. I was very head down into my own gaming and keeping a regular game going with a very busy life. Eventually I dropped 3e altogether and returned to 1e/2e.
  Why? 
  I like them better. 
  Why?
  I just do.

  As my kids got older I created a new 2e campaign just for them and that took my attention. Then, as they got still older, they essentially made me allow them into my 1e campaign. So it wasn't until, oh, 2012 that I noticed the OSR as more than 'I heard about it on the internet'.
  Now, in the meantime I had certainly "kept up" with new games; my wife calls me purchasing rules my "addiction". I had also been back-filling my older game rulesets. I just wasn't 'doing' gaming online. When I finally did I was kinda' surprised about how many people who had started gaming after 2000 were telling me how it 'used to be'.
  My house rules are long and have been tweaked by me for almost 40 years. I have been trying out this, that, and the other since before I was a teenager. To be bluntly honest I don't run AD&D, I run 'Rick's Game based on D&D' but in a way my rules are a replacement ruleset for some things, an expansion on others like the Unearthed Arcana was meant to be. 
  The most universal of these I put into Far Realms, a supplement that can be dropped into any OSR game and work. How do I know this?
  In the last almost-forty-years me and about a dozen other GMs have tried them out in everything from OD&D to 3e with side trips into other game lines. 
  But Far Realms isn't all my rules; my own rule book is almost 116 pages.
  With no illustrations.

  Not too long ago I was talking about my house rules book with someone and they told me,
  "That isn't how they did things back when D&D was new. Old school is all about lean, spare mechanics and rulings, not rules."
  The person who told me that was born in 1993, making him younger than my marriage. I simply replied,
  "That page you're reading? I wrote the first draft in 1979. Maybe you should be asking about old school, not telling."
  Sure, 'rulings not rules' is fairly accurate. After all, there weren't many rules. But here's the thing;
  To be consistent rulings become rules for your table. 
  Here's an example of what I mean;
  Back in 1978 my friend Brent wanted to play a dwarf fighter. Sure. But he wanted a big, heavy hammer as his main weapon. Not the warhammer, which was light enough to throw. Not a footman's mace. he wanted a big, heavy smith's one-handed sledge. Why not? I wrote up the numbers for something like it. A new weapon. I wrote it down in case he lost his character sheet.
  Open up my house rules and in the 'weapons' section is that weapon's stats. This way anyone else that wants something like it can have it. 
  There was an article a loooong time ago in Dragon Magazine about unusual weapons [Dragon #60, May of '82]. The yawara was mentioned with a note about how it might be a good weapon for assassins. Hmmm. In 1984 an assassin used one against a PC and the PCs noticed. Before you know it I had a thief PC asking if he could learn it, so I wrote down the special rules for a yawara I had created.
  Open up my house rules and in the 'weapons' section is that weapon's stats. This way anyone else that wants something like it can have it. 
  Those are rulings written down for consistency. Rules? Now, yes, at my table. You don't like them? OK. But if you come to me 30 years later, point at my house rules, and say,
  "Hey, man, don't you know Old School was about rulings, not rules?"
  I know you don't actually understand the words coming out of your mouth.

  As I was writing this and thinking about the thousands of TRPG sessions I have played there is one piece of attitude I remember and retain from Back When that can be hard to convey, even though I just expressed it. But let me try again.
  Please, feel free to tell me about your character. About your campaign. About your house rules. I actually am interested in finding things I can strip out, sand down, repaint, and put into my own games. I truly enjoy the creativity and joy of other people. I am also more than willing to share my own creations, creativity, and joy with you. 
  If you want to talk about the how, the why, your theory of something - I'm in! Let's light a cigar, pour a dram, and stay up until dawn discussing whether thieves should have d4s (like some OSR types), d6s (like me), or d8s (some I know), and why until someone taps out. I'm game.
  But here's the part that is hard to convey.
  If you say you like something I am doing in my game, I will graciously thank you. If you say you don't like something I am doing in my game, I will honestly appreciate your input. If you want to discuss the hows and whys of something I do in my game I will gladly do so. 
  But if you say,
  "You're playing D&D wrong" ?
  It doesn't register.
  Not 'I don't care' or 'I don't understand', I mean 'the words coming out of your mouth make no sense'.

  Here's an example. A few years ago I was in Key West to watch the Super Bowl with Gayle Sayers
  [Yes, really, and yes - it was awesome].
  I had made a bet with someone else there and won, so he took me to a cigar shop on a street near the sea to get any cigar I wanted. I got a Perdomo Silvio. The lovely cigar girl cut it for me, held a match and I happily began to enjoy my favorite premium cigar.
  Then one of the guys with me said something that didn't really register.
  "You got the wrong cigar."
  I smiled at him,
  "Pardon?"
  "You got the wrong cigar. That entire row over there is 3 to 4 times the price of the one you got, or even more. And those 4 have a higher rating from Cigar Aficionado. You should have gotten any of those."
  I took a long puff, then answered,
  "Pal, I've been smoking cigars for 20 years. I've tried all those more expensive ones, and I've tried all those with a higher rating. I like these."
  I wasn't offended, I was mildly amused. 

  Gaming is the same way. Someone that I don't know personally and wasn't even born when I started playing says,
   'The real way to play Old School is to be stripped down, rules light, as minimalist as possible!'
  I say,
  'Sure, some guys played like that. Others didn't.'
  Or some player says,
  'This version did damage one way, that version did it another, but only the first version is correct!'
  I wonder,
  'Then why do so many people play the other version, or even something else altogether?'
  Or another old-timer like me says,
  'Once X happened roleplaying stopped. Only people who do things the way they did them before X are real roleplayers!'
  I laugh and ask,
  'Yeah? What magical words printed on a page stamp out the ability to roleplay once read or enacted? Must it be in a particular font?'
  
  A fellow grognard recently wrote something that went roughly like this,
  'Back then we knew we were paying the right way.'
  That is absolutely true. But I think there are two differences between him and me;
  A) I knew everyone else thought that, too (which is why they played differently)
  B) I knew everyone was right about how they played at their table.

  See, I remember the best of all the rules, the oldest of all the rules, and the most foundational of all the rules. What is it?

THE DM IS ALWAYS RIGHT

  As soon as you tell another DM any of,
  "You are doing it wrong"
  "That isn't the right way to play the game"
  "Your way of play is ruining the hobby"
  Or the many variations what you are really saying is,
  'I don't believe the DM is always right.'
  
  You see, 'the DM is always right' (sometimes called Rule Zero these days) is about a lot more than 'shut up complaining players'. In my opinion it is the ONLY concept that can really be said to encapsulate 'Old School'. 
  If you really beleive Rule Zero that means that any DM is absolutely correct about how he runs his game at his table. 
  You think 'only people who play OD&D are real roleplayers'?
  As long as that is at your game, not mine, I agree. At my table that's wrong. And at my table I am the DM and I am always right.
  If you think 'people who pay too much attention to the books of Appendix N are bad' I frankly don't care. But I suggest to all of my players that they read the works of Appendix N because they are fun and can help play. And at my table I am DM and that means I am always right.
  You think 'AD&D 1e is badly arranged, poorly written, too complicated, too rules-heavy, and I don't think anyone should play it ever.'
  People have been saying that since before the Monster Manual came out. But at my table it is the go-to rules set. And at my table I am DM and that means I am always right.

  See how that works? See how amazingly sensical that is? That one simple idea (because it is not a rule, it is a concept) is what makes RPGs so explosively creative and diverse.
  But the very minute you go to another DM and tell him,
  "You are doing it wrong."
  What you are doing is not 'saving the game', it is breaking the very first rule.
  No, it is actually the abandonment of what TRPGs are, in a way.
  
  In short, it isn't Old School.