A great deal of pixels have been spilt in the past couple weeks on the topic what things were actually like in the honest to goodness Old School days. (See The RpgPundit and Don’t Split the Party for details!) In my mind, though, the best bits to come out of the kerfuffle is author Misha Burnett‘s reminiscences. He’s not a game blogger by any stretch, so he’s decidedly neutral when it comes to the usual battlelines among the varied rpg commentators of today. So check it out:
What I remember from the early days of tabletop gaming and the limited LARPing that I have done is the feeling that we were in some very basic sense making things up as we went.
There was a wealth of information out there, in supplements, in magazines, in modules, and it was all “unofficial”. Everything was house ruled.
I can recall running into orcs mutated by the Metamorphosis Alpha charts, for example. One DM I knew made up stats for the Ur-viles from “Lord Foul’s Bane” and my half-orc cleric researched an “odorless 10″ radius” spell specifically to evade them. I had a Cyclops paladin of Anubis once, and one of my vows was to always give any dead intelligent creature that I saw a proper burial. (Which drove the rest of the party crazy, because I had to stop and dig graves after every combat.)
That was just how the game was played. Sure, there were times when a particular GM would tell a player, “You can’t do that,” but it was the GM’s call, not because some rule book said so.
Okay, custom monsters ripped off from whatever the Dungeon Master was reading– and player character spell research in order to deal with them! Just a hunch, here: that style of play is going to be a little less prevalent when there’s three Monster Books and Unearthed Arcana on the table.
Compare that to his experiences playing the iterations of the game from this century:
The last time I tried to play D&D I was told to “roll up” an eighth level character. One of the players had a laptop and we made up the character on a spreadsheet designed to keep track of level abilities and feats and who knows what all else. I certainly had no idea what half of the numbers on the sheet meant. I ended up with a monk/paladin (Okay, I stole that from Order Of The Stick). Most of the brief time that I played that character was spent doing what other players told me to do (“No, you need to hold a half action and then use this feat and attack using these bonuses…”)
The more complex a set of rules is, the more it favors rules lawyers. I was under a lot of pressure to game the system because everyone else was gaming the system and my character would be absurdly underpowered if I didn’t. Which was fine by me, but the other players needed a fighter who could keep up with them.
There you go. That’s why the Old School Renaissance happened in a nutshell. You really don’t need to read anything else to understand it.
His reaction to this article by Christopher Kubasik is especially interesting given how hard getting the hang of the definitive space rpg has been for me:
This sounds a lot like the first Traveller game I ever played in. The GM was a great worldbuilder and had spent a lot of time on his sector.
He’d taken the the rolls as they had come and then come up with reasons why a particular planet had a poisonous atmosphere, a low tech level, and a very low law level, for example (I remember that world–the atmosphere contained a mild narcotic and the inhabitants were constantly stoned. The Triumvirate that ran the planet was based on the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.)
However, keeping the plot moving fell entirely to the players, since the GM didn’t want to write stories for us to follow, he wanted to create a universe for us to explore. And that’s what we did. We had a small merchant ship that was constantly in need of repairs and every session pretty much followed the same formula: Find somebody to pay us enough to buy the fuel and parts to get to the next destination. (If you’re thinking “Firefly” at this point, yeah, that’s pretty much how it went. Many years before Firefly, of course.)
I am pretty sure that he tweaked the rolls to make sure that something would happen every time. But it worked. The game ran for years with us trying to get from point A to point B and him throwing random obstacles in the way.
Sounds like a completely different universe than the one I came up in. Hitting the scene just a few years later meant working through a few third edition Gamma World modules when we weren’t distracted by Ultima II and Bard’s Tale on the eight bit computers of the time. More supplements meant less “do it yourself”. More competition to tabletop rpgs meant shorter and less wide ranging campaigns.
I always felt like I missed out on something important. Those old games from the seventies just never got played like I thought they should, really. That’s a big part of why I came back to them again decades later.