Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Yeah, We Played That Way, Too

Guy Fullerton posted the PrinceCon 1978 D&D variant rules up Google+ the other day and I have to say, it is completely fascinating. Really, go read it. It’s awesome!

Just a few quick observations:

  • Alternate attribute rolling systems are ubiquitous, sure… but custom experience charts? That’s pretty wild, especially for a convention game. (Wait a second. They’re doing this the way I run classic D&D at conventions– where I lay down the ground rules and then have people come and go from my table for the whole weekend and then people can possibly level up and all. Yeah, they would have had several Dungeon Masters that the people could run their characters with, but it’s the same basic attitude.)
  • Note the percentile combat system. That one’s funny because Twilight 2000 started out that way… and then in a later edition dropped back to the d20. If you haven’t designed a completely new combat system because you knew you could do it better, then you’re not old school. (I’m not old school, y’all. Douglas Cole is!)
  • Note also that he lays out an initiative system and combat sequence of play that is extremely detailed. It’s also really easy to understand. Digging this sort of thing out of AD&D was the first order of business for me when I first began looking at running Oriental Adventures a couple weeks ago. It’s funny, but this guy’s rules are perfectly clear. I have no question of how to run them like I do with most “real” D&D rules. (Also… his system does not include the now-iconic phrase, “roll for initiative!” Inconceivable!)

The business of replacing a component of the game with a new system that is named for the guy that did it is my favorite part of this. It is the same thing that is done in Tunnels & Trolls, which has had a “Peters-Mcallister Chart for Creating Manlike Characters and Monsters” from the first edition on! And I have to say… we played Car Wars like this in the last decade. If someone came into our game, we would explain– pretty well like this conbook does– that we ran Compendium Second Edition with the Earlburt-Johnson Speed/Range Chart, pocket box caracter generation, 5th Edition fire rules, and the “you have to do something to earn a skill point” house rule.

So a good chunk of this stuff that that’s referred to as “Old School” nowadays… it never stopped. It’s just how gamers do even if they come into it independently of any given scene. The overall thrust of the attitude is pretty well indistinguishable from, say, the complete run of Autoduel Quarterly. And anyone that comes back to that game decades later will crank up the exact same mentality because that it’s inseparable from it once you get into setting up a campaign of any degree of earnestness.

So the thing about the D&D scene…? The thing that’s weird about it…? This “Old School” approach is exotic in that context for some reason. People playing D&D the way we played Car Wars kicked off a decade long internet flame war. I’m not sure why that is exactly, but I wonder if it might have to do with the ownership of the overall game design and composition being (for all practical purposes) removed from the local referee and transferred to the people that sell books. I can’t imagine someone actually pulling that off with a role-playing game, but something like that must have happened.

11 responses to “Yeah, We Played That Way, Too

  1. Cirsova June 16, 2016 at 10:19 am

    People never stopped playing three-chord rock; just goes off the radio for a few years every now and then.

  2. Robert Eaglestone June 16, 2016 at 10:40 am

    I’m old school. I’ve created a task system. Heck, I’ve created an entire D&D variant, with its own character classes, level tables, and spell charts… as well as creating a non-D&D RPG where characters came from three races (Dogs, Cats, and Mockingbirds) and the setting was Phoenix within a mile radius of my home…

  3. Sky June 16, 2016 at 10:44 am

    My theory is that power gaming took over. I say that without any venom, believe me, but people started to look at the player’s handbook as a tool to craft the awesomest character ever. It became a giant arms race. In that sort of environment the DM is up against list after list of bonuses, skills, feats, all sorts of stuff designed to give the PC that “%^&# yeah! I am awesome” feeling. Its the same vibe I get when I play computer RPGs, which is fine for that context. Grind and grind until I go back to the dungeon area and this time I am the one giving the monsters a hard time and feeling really good as I deal death everywhere. D&D started chasing a different vibe and that was some combination of designers giving PC’s what they wanted vs. players pushing the market. In that sort of game DM creativity has to negotiate PC’s painstakingly constructing characters with long lists of abilities. It is more difficult to hand wave something or try something out of the book when the PC’s are expecting to set off all the fireworks they have listed on their sheet. If that’s what they want then you are less free to stray from the rule book that has put all that in their hands.

    • Cirsova June 16, 2016 at 2:25 pm

      Years ago, I wrote a rules-lite B/X hack called HALLS (High Adventure for Low Levels System) that was extremely reactionary to high-level power creep. I think I’ll clean it up a tad and offer it as a free download Saturday in response to the complaints I’ve seen that there are next to no OSR friendly offerings for Free RPG Day.

      It was sort of inspired by someone’s post about Holmes that was like “Back in the day, we only had 3 levels, and we liked it!” It’s like “What if 4th level required 30,000 – 48,000 XP and anything higher would be an unknowably powerful ancient elf or sorcerer?”

  4. Nathan June 16, 2016 at 11:19 am

    How (and why) do OSR and its rivals differ from the PC gaming mod community?

    For games like Hearts of Iron III and IV, there’s no shortage of mods to make things easier/harder as desired, including total conversion mods that drastically change setting and mechanics from alternate history, fantasy worlds, and the (ever undying) zombie mode. Depending on the game, such mods might be a simple edit to a text file or require recoding. It’s so widespread that mod supportability is now a selling point for many games, even Mario.

    • jeffro June 16, 2016 at 11:32 am

      “Old School” is basically a brand. There used to be frequent arguments about what it really means, but that has wanned with the rise of an RpgPope that can declare who is Old School and who is not.

      Again, though, something weird happened to D&D to make “modding” seem trendy and offbeat. That’s just… weird.

  5. jddyalblog June 16, 2016 at 11:46 am

    I don’t think anything happened other than that new customers with new tastes and new background started “flooding the market” and changing the population while they did so. (I think the same thing happened with the so-called Hickman Revolution; it wasn’t really a revolution so much as it was that a guy showed up who just came from the same environment as a lot of pent-up demand. Because most of the TSR writers before him were from an earlier, grognardy war-game environment, they were simply unaware of how many of their customers played the game and therefore what kind of product they really wanted.)

    Even as the rules systems changed, whatever your paradigm was was most likely what you stuck with. I remember being a little bit non-plussed back in 2000 or so when WotC trotted out the motto: “Tools, not rules.” Well, duh! Hasn’t that always been the way it was? Clearly it was for me. In the autopsy of d20, clearly it was NOT for many other gamers, who couldn’t perceive the tools as anything other than rules, which got in the way of what they wanted to play. And clearly the motto didn’t really stick with the designers, who ignored it and created tons of new rules, not tools.

    In my experience and opinion, the differences in the game presentation and system itself are much less important than the differences at the table. When people ask questions like, “does this game support sandbox style play” I always scratch my head a little bit wondering what in the world that even means. So many questions of style are not—and really cannot—be effectively dictated by the books, but are driven by the table culture of your group. And the most important variable in any game isn’t what game you’re playing, it’s who you’re playing it with.

  6. Warren Abox June 16, 2016 at 1:55 pm

    [Reposted from G+] Because the OSR was conceived, gestated, and born as a loose affiliation of independent actors each doing his own thing. There’s no central authority releasing ‘the right way’ to do things.

    Couple that with sheer weight of numbers. Most games just don’t have a large enough dedicated userbase to support more than one way of doing things. D&D is large enough to support several official editions, at least one major version of an older edition (Hello, Pathfinder), and dozens of old old old editions.

    Also? There’s just a simple beauty and elegance in Gygax’s iconic system of six attributes, AC, HP, and roll a d20 to hit that resonates with people. It is simple to understand, robust enough to support subsystems bolted on galore, and fun enough to keep people always coming back for more.

  7. Hooc Ott June 16, 2016 at 2:31 pm

    removed from the local referee and transferred to the people that sell books.

    Well the machinery of that hypothetical is first seen with the original AD&D books with the Monster Manual being sold first then the Players Handbook then the DM guide. What did players and DMs do with the Monster Manual back in 77′ without the other books? Did they just use it with the D&D box set?

    I can’t imagine what craziness happened in 78′ when people had the Players Handbook and no DM guide.

    I think the kernel of the conflict started in these years. When players had partial rules for one system so they cobbled together things from both D&D and AD&D out of necessity. Then as the books came out with the “Official” rules conflict ensued. Then later things like Fiend Folio, Unearthed Arcana, the Dungeoning Guide came out and continued and exasperated the conflict.

    Compound this with both the original D&D box set and the first 3 AD&D books outright pushing DMs to create their own settings and dungeons and the conflicting move both during and after the release of these products to sell Modules and you get even more conflict. Alternate systems being published in Dragon magazine articles probably didn’t help much either.

    Basically TSR had a schizophrenic marketing strategy that guaranteed a conflict between “do it yourself” and “follow (buy) the official rules”.

    • jeffro June 16, 2016 at 5:12 pm

      I know with Car Wars the player base cared far more about “official” than the publishers even wanted them to. The truth is, we didn’t have a referee to adjudicate our games. We needed solid rules– rules that were more solid than the designers wanted to deal with– in order to play moderately competitive games. At some point, what was “official” for the purposes of real life world championships sort of took over the game.

  8. Pingback: Raging Owlbear, Complex Games Apologist, and Runeslinger on “Just Say Yes” and RAW –

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