Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Fifty Years of Fantasy Gaming and You Still Don’t Get It

Fifty years ago the first fantasy campaign was announced thusly:

“There will be a medieval ‘Braunstein’ April 17, 1971 at the home of Dave Arneson from 1300 hrs to 2400 hrs with refreshments being available on the usual basis….”

Verily, this is a VERY SPECIAL date in gaming history and Dave Arneson would in a few short years go own to co-create with Gary Gygax one of the most remarkable games ever conceived. On this anniverary of what was the dawn of the fantasy adventure gaming hobby, it is altogether fitting and proper to reflect on just how far we’ve come since then. Or rather, how far we have fallen and how little we appreciate what men like Arneson actually accomplished.

Let me explain.

In the back of the third rules booklet for the original D&D game is a page that is frequently cited by gaming critics and commentators. This is the place where the designers give their parting advice for the revolutionary game they had put together. Rather than write to them with rules questions about how things should work, they suggest instead that “the best way is to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way.” After all, they asked, “why have us do any more of your imagining for you?” Several decades later the vast majority of people within the D&D hobby act as if this were the ONLY significant rule within the entirety of those small booklets.

On that same page is something little remarked upon:

As the campaign goes into full swing it is probable that there will be various groups going every which way and all at different time periods. It is suggested that a record of each player be kept, the referee checking off each week as it is spent. Recon the passage of time thus:

Dungeon expedition– 1 week
Wilderness adventure– 1 move = 1 day
1 Week of actual time– 1 week of game time

The time for dungeon adventures considers only preparations and a typical, one day descent into the pits. The time for Wilderness expeditions would include days of rest and recuperation. Actual time would not be counted off for players “out” on a Wilderness adventure, but it would for those newed in their dens, hideholes, keeps, castles, etc., as well as for those in the throes of some expedition in the underworld.

Why this rule is there exactly is not immediately obvious. If you experimented with it at all, you would understand that this simple and strange sounding idea is one of the best ideas in gaming history BAR NONE. If you were also familiar with just what precisely Dave Arneson did with Blackmoor, you would realize that this rule was the key that allowed him to manage as massive and complex of a campaign as he in fact did.

But this story does not end there. This strange rule did not evaporate with the Blackmoor campaign and it did not remain as little more than a bizarre footnote to the amateurish looking original edition of D&D. In 1978, when Gary Gygax published his phenomenal Player Handbook for AD&D, the type of gameplay that results from this rule is presented as being synonymous with AD&D and a fundamental element of the AD&D game. Behold:

As with most other role playing games, this one is not just a single experience contest. It is an ongoing campaign, with each playing session related to the next by results and participant characters who go from episode to episode. As players build the experience level of their characters and go forth seeking ever greater challenges, they must face stronger monsters and more difficult problems of other sorts (and here the Dungeon Master must likewise increase his or her ability and inventiveness). While initial adventuring usually takes place in an underworld dungeon setting, play gradually expands to encompass other such dungeons, town and city activities, wilderness explorations, and journeys into other dimensions, planes, times, worlds, and so forth. Players will add characters to their initial adventurer as the milieu expands so that each might actually have several characters, each involved in some separate and distinct adventure form, busily engaged in the game at the same moment of “Game Time”. This allows participation by many players in games which are substantially different from game to game as dungeon, metropolitan, and outdoor settings are rotated from playing to playing. And perhaps a war between players will be going on (with battles actually fought out on the tabletop with minature figures) one night, while on the next, characters of these two contending players are helping each other to survive somewhere in a wilderness.

Again, this brief description of how AD&D works is not tucked away in some obscure appendix. It’s right up front just after the introduction in a section that is entitled as “The Game.”

On this, the fiftieth anniversary of the Blackmoor campaign, I am telling you that this is what D&D really is. Further, it is clear from everyone’s comments on this rule that you really have no idea how this sort of game works. You’re just plain clueless. The questions you ask about this are so stupid, it is obvious you haven’t the faintest notion of how to play the sort of game that Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax created.

Even worse than that are the nasty and very ugly people that bend over backwards to trumpet the most flimsy and spurious reasons for why this isn’t actually significant or relevant to understanding the D&D game. These are without a doubt some of the sorriest people I have ever had the misfortune to encounter.

But, hey. Happy “Blackmoor” day, anyway.

Maybe some of you will even play this game called “Dungeons & Dragons” some day.

I hope you do.

23 responses to “Fifty Years of Fantasy Gaming and You Still Don’t Get It

  1. James Jeffers April 18, 2021 at 8:17 am

    Can confirm that playing this way, just like using XP for treasure, random spells at start, etc all make the game completely different. I even write a bot that tracks the campaign time of 1 real day = 1 game day for our AD&D Discord server. The clock is always ticking and we can easily see which PCs are out of play because of training or being “forward” in time relative to the campaign calendar. YOU CAN DO THIS.

  2. Artur April 18, 2021 at 12:43 pm

    Is a shame this is hide from generations of player. Open table is the way from the beginning. Be social and a normal person is a necessary trait to play better.

  3. MishaBurnett April 18, 2021 at 2:05 pm

    You get out of the game what you put into it, and some of us don’t have the time and energy to commit to an immersive campaign. When I only have two hours a week to game, I want to spend the time poking bad things with pointy sticks and taking the shiny stuff, not keeping track of how much time Thangar is spending at the gym.

    • Sam Hart August 9, 2021 at 3:10 am

      Fully compatible. You show up and play, the GM just happens to be running the “real time” back-end for the overall campaign. From listening to how the example campaign worked out, player obligations don’t change, matter of fact it works better if they don’t. If your PC is out for the session the GM gives you another PC or puts you in charge of a world-shaping NPC.

      • MishaBurnett August 9, 2021 at 5:05 am

        My point is that if I have two hours to play D&D once a week I want to spend those two hours killing monsters and taking treasure. I don’t want to spend an hour and a half listening to people talk about what their characters did last week, finally get a group together to go delving, and have to leave as soon as we actually get to the dungeon.

      • James Jeffers August 9, 2021 at 5:57 am

        Our typical play session in our 1:1 time 1e AD&D RAW game we get *right* to the part of the game where the PCs are “on the road” out in danger. The “extra time” you are thinking of just isn’t a thing in our game. There is NO requirement for players spend more time managing anything. It’s as much a burden to track time as tracking hit points.

      • MishaBurnett August 9, 2021 at 6:19 am

        As long as down time can be managed in such a way as to not take up table time, then that would be okay.

      • James Jeffers August 9, 2021 at 6:25 am

        I LIKE GREEN EGGS AND HAM.

      • MishaBurnett August 9, 2021 at 5:27 am

        Playing D&D “the right way” involves more of a time investment than my gaming group is willing to put into it. So we play our way instead.

      • Sam Hart August 10, 2021 at 4:38 am

        From the extra details I got listening to Geek Gab, the game is actually run really dense at-the-table. The always-on world, to the tabletop session, acts as a dynamic backdrop that actually generates action for the play session to then poke with sticks and rob blind. It was a pretty inspiring spiel from Jeffro, because it gave a concrete actual-play example of how to create 1) a dynamic world and 2) stakes for the dungeon crawl.
        To my mind, it cleared a massive mental block I’ve had with creating worthwhile pointy-end game sessions. A whole bunch of “you’re just meant to magically already know” was explicated.

  4. Freddo April 18, 2021 at 3:35 pm

    Personally my biggest take-away from your entire campaign and also from the above text is: the campaign needs a roster of NPCs that start out as mere hirelings, but develop into henchman or replacement PCs. Having access to multiple characters – all of whom have earned their level the hard way! – makes it easier for players to get into the proper mindset of using their character as a pawn in a game, not being overly emotionally attached but perhaps from time to time switching to a different character because of perceived risk or to try something different. Strict time keeping supports that goal.

    In hindsight the biggest mistake we made when starting our first AD&D campaign many years ago was the PCs trying to be cheap on hirelings and using wardogs instead (although the DM fairly soon ruled we had depopulated the local supply).

    Of course strict time keeping is also necessary if multiple groups of PCs are running around. But describing rules and mechanics for an environment so rich in players and DMs is almost like trying to describe the taste of the mead in Valhalla.

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  6. Wharf Rat May 1, 2021 at 1:55 am

    Jeffro, what happened to your campaign after the immense Battle of Mt Glovermore?

  7. James Jeffers May 6, 2021 at 6:03 am

    Another quick question – something that has loomed larger and larger in our current AD&D game. We have a growing number of PCs who are frequently off and about during the time between games. The players want “their guy” to go here and do this and do that. In some cases, there’s potential for PCs to act directly against one another. For example, Bob’s PC A sends an assassin to take out Steve’s PC B, the timing of which lands in the time between actual play.

    I can think of a few ways to handle this but I was curious how folks handled this back in the day. Arneson and Gygax seemed to have come from a culture of play by mail wargames – they probably had a long time to work out how to adjudicate situations where the player wasn’t present to direct “their guys” directly and personally, but evens still needed to resolved. I am interested how other people are handling situations like this!

    • jeffro May 6, 2021 at 11:57 am

      If the players are playing their roles (as laid out in the training rules section) and if the rules are being applied consistently and fairly (ie, “Rules > Campaign > Players”) then the actions should be allowed.

      Some things can be hashed out between sessions in a sort of “play by chat” format. Other things of this nature could be played out in the first ten minutes of a session. (We generally opened with a sort housekeeping phase.) Other things (ie, full scale battles) will require dedicated sessions.

      At any rate, this problem is the RIGHT problem to have. As for how it was done back in the day, this “stewpot of MANY independent players/roles” interacting– often without any clear rules to guide things– can be traced back to the Braunstein. The Blackmoor campaign was originally pitched as a Braunstein, after all. The coverage of it in the Blackmoor film is very informative, particularly the fact that the “Braunsteining” worked best when it was a complete failure– and a complete failure when the referee attempted to fix it!

  8. Hector Mackilwraith June 18, 2021 at 6:16 pm

    “It is suggested that a record of each player be kept,…”

    It’s not a rule, it’s a suggestion. And what the deuce are you babbling about anyways? The central, revolutionary point of DnD is that any “rule” comes secondary to fun and imagination. That was the real revolution. You must be one of those DMs who care more about the “rules” than having fun. I’d rather play DnD with Sheldon Cooper as DM than you. You clearly don’t get this game at all.

    • James Jeffers June 18, 2021 at 8:24 pm

      ” And what the deuce are you babbling about anyways?” Dozens of blog posts, hundreds of tweets… and you are still clueless?

      • Sam Hart August 10, 2021 at 4:43 am

        Why would you ruin your creativity with rules? Arbitrary probabilities? A tired old IP from the 70s? Free yourself from all that gaming crap by simply not gaming at all – which is where most “UNLIMITED IMAGINATION” campaigns end up about halfway through the first session.

        I’ll also point out that ALL the very best fantasy epics PAINSTAKINGLY track “player time”. Failure to do so ruins storytelling completely.

  9. James Jeffers June 29, 2021 at 7:20 am

    Jeffro,

    I was trying to understand https://twitter.com/JohnsonJeffro/status/1336880496010276866?s=20. If you are using the MM to determine the number of monsters (10-100), then why are you rolling a bunch of d4s? I am missing something here – I just don’t quite understand the procedure you are using. Thanks!

    • jeffro June 29, 2021 at 4:09 pm

      Monster Manual no. appearing is NOT mega-dungeon no. appearing.

      Monster Manual gives you a wilderness lair by default.

      Dungeon no. appearing in the back of the dmg tells you the range for a monster that is matched dungeon level to monster level. If a level 2 monster appears on level three of the dungeon, they are doubled. On level 4 they are tripled. And so on. From this you can extrapolate to how far down a real monster lair would be placed… and also reckon that the smaller groups are scouts or whatever.

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