Friday, August 29, 2008

Start Digging

After I made the decision to return to my gaming roots and attempt to recapture the feeling and style of classic D&D, I needed to determine what the setting was going to be. Unlike the decision to go back to AD&D, this part was easy. It was going to be a dungeon-crawl.

This would serve multiple purposes. First, and most important, you can’t get more original flavor Dungeons & Dragons than the dungeon-crawl. My experiences with the game, just like 99.6% of every other gamer my age or older, began in the dungeon. Ten-foot poles, bundles of torches, 200’ of rope, iron spikes, large sacks, and “what’s the marching order?” baby. If I was going to try and go home again, there simply isn’t any other choice for me. I never did the hex-crawl adventure thing, at least not in a classic sense, so now would be the wrong time to start.

Secondly, it would allow me to fixate on a single locale and let my world-building grow organically. I’ll talk about my world-building plans in another post, but for now, using the dungeon as a controlled laboratory seems to be best for what I have planned. At least until my creative DM muscles get back into shape. By not having to worry overmuch about what exists outside of the dungeon besides a town to resupply and recuperate at, I’d limit myself to how much extraneous work I’d be doing. I know myself pretty well. If I didn’t establish my boundaries early, I’d be worrying about political networks, trade routes, and base economies before I even finished stocking the first level.

Which brings me to the third purpose – levels. I wanted a lot of them.

It used to be the unwritten rule that you hadn’t earned your spurs as a DM until you’d created a massive dungeon for your players to hurl themselves into weekend after weekend. The concept of the “super dungeon” or “megadungeon” goes all the way back to Gygax’s and Arneson’s early games. The megadungeon is as old-school as you can get. In the late Seventies and early Eighties, the journey from player to DM was more like a guild apprenticeship, where you’d learn the ropes from an older player before setting out on your own journey behind the screen. The megadungeon was your apprentice masterpiece; the proof you were ready to fly solo. I’d like to make my confession now. I never finished my apprenticeship.

I tried enough times, but my style of game-mastering usually entailed a lot of smaller dungeons, which the players would clear (or not) before moving along to the next adventure. I had pages and pages of graph paper and loose-leaf notebook paper filled with these early creations. Most of them are gone now, or at least packed up in some forgotten box in a dark, damp location. There were plenty of dungeons amongst those pages, but no single giant one, filled with riches and danger. So not only am I going to return to my roots, I’m going to finish my education.

I have the tools, I have the experience, but do I have the patience? And what about the “bad habits” that I picked up from running games other than D&D? There’s only one way to find out for sure. Dwarven work-crew, let’s start digging.


You’ll notice that there’s a list of “Fellow Adventurers” over there to your right. It’s small now, but will grow with time. There sites that are listed there now – and will be listed in the future – are sites that I have either found to be useful on my quest back to my roots or that I have some sort of vested interest in. As I add links, I’ll take a brief moment to explain what they are and why they were added. Short previews of what you might find there before you click and go, if you will.

Grognardia: James Maliszewski’s site is one of, if not the best blogs I’ve found so far regarding old-school D&D. Dedicated to exploring the history of the game, he’s often insightful and has a way of expressing what a lot of grognards and semi-grognards are thinking. I ,don’t always agree with what he’s writing, but there are way more hits than misses as far as I’m concerned.

UncleBear: Berin Kinsman’s been blogging about gaming for somewhere in the 10 year area now. I stumbled upon his site while searching for Gamma World fonts many years back and It has been a daily visit for me ever since. Berin’s become active with his local gaming community after too many years of working on gaming projects, but not actually playing. If you check out only one of the links here, stop by UncleBear. Tell him about your paladin.

Vanadorn D&D Campaign: I have a vested interest in this one. It’s an adventure blog detailing the adventures of the Sundered Chain, an adventuring group who threw off the yokes of slaver oppression to bring hope and justice to a world drowning in evil! Actually, they fell off a cliff, got lucky and escaped in the confusion. The blog is about the three-weekends-a-month modified 3.5 D&D game I’ve been in for just about a year now. For those of you interested, I’m playing Zoltan.

More to come, so stay tuned.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Edition Question

Once I had made the decision to get back behind the DM’s screen, the next logical step was to determine what set of rules I was going to use. As I mentioned in my post regarding my role-playing credentials, I had logged most of my time on either sides of the screen using the Basic, 1st Edition or 2nd Edition rule-sets. When 3.0 debuted, I, like a lot of gamers, bought the three core books. I even ran a couple of short weekend-long adventures for some friends from college using those books. But those few adventures were the exception to my gaming dry period.

I had a set of the 3.5 rules, which I had bought during the time I was playing D&D Online. Since the MMORPG used the 3.5 rules, I figured a hardcopy available for reference would be useful. But I lost interest with D&DO, so the 3.5 rules were gathering dust along with my other RPG books.

Now that I had made the leap to get back into the game, what should I do? Should I go with the AD&D rules that I knew so well, or should I keep up with the kids today and be hip to the new scene?

In the end, I made the wrong choice. I chose to use 3.5.

When I say I made the wrong choice, I mean that I made the wrong choice for me. This is not a value judgment on anyone’s preferred flavor of the game. In fact, I hope to keep myself clear from the “my rules are better than your rules” argument. If it works for you, fine. 3.5 was simply wrong for me.

(Bear in mind this blog is about an old gamer getting back to his roots. We’re not going to dwell too much on either 3.5 or 4th Edition around these parts.)

My mistake in choosing 3.5 soon became apparent as I began to stock the dungeon that I had planned. What used to be a rather quick and easy process became a grinding slog of constantly referencing the rule books, determining DCs, making notes of possible modifiers to skill checks, advancing monsters, determining Challenge Ratings, etc. The two-line stat blocks that I had used in my youth became paragraphs of information, detailing abilities, skills, attacks of opportunity, whatever. Shit. The game hadn’t even started and I was already overwhelmed.

I made another poor decision at this point. I decided to press onward. Instead of just throwing my hands up and returning to what I knew best, I let myself believe that this would just get easier, and the fact that it was giving me so much difficulty was because I had been away from the game so long. Determined to finish this, I kept plugging away. But there was no joy in what I was doing. What was supposed to be an attempt to reacquaint myself with a hobby that had given me so much joy in the past, became something I just didn’t want to spend time on when I got home from work.

I took a venting bitch session with my friend (and current DM) to set me straight. Go with what you know.

I did. Keeping the dungeon and the encounters the same, I went back and started to rewrite everything using the AD&D rules that I was familiar with. Suddenly, it became fun again. Within a week, I had remembered what was so enjoyable about being a DM and watching something you created come to life on the page. While the need to reference my old books was still there, I at least knew where to find things and how to make it work with what I had planned. Maybe getting back into the game wasn’t such a bad idea after all…

What’s strangest about this whole wrong turn in the decision-making process for me was that I’m simply not someone who has to be on the vanguard of new things. I’ve owned a cellphone for less than a year. I don’t own an MP3 player of any kind. Despite a three-year tour of duty as a web designer, I’m not really up-to-date on computer applications or the Web. My job is working with historical documents.

So why this misguided belief that 3.5 was the only way to go?

I think that I had let myself believe that there’d simply be no players interested in the older editions. I figured that 3.5 was the only way to go if I had any hope of generating any interest in a game. I’d also developed some sort of bizarre “support product tunnel vision.” If I was running an older version of the game, how could I use the latest gee-gaws and knickknacks from Dragon.? Somehow, I couldn’t see the twenty-plus years of notes, supplements, and back issues of Dragon that I already owned.

Another factor was that this all occurred before I made the conscious decision to reconnect with my old-school experiences playing the game and to try and infuse my own creation with that self-same spirit. If I had that mindset established before I put pencil to graph paper, it never would have been an issue.

Deciding to go back to using AD&D rather than 3.5 or 4th Edition has made a world of difference for me. Had I decided to stick with the latest flavor, my return to the game would have been very brief and I’d still be missing out on a part of my past that gave me so much pleasure.

If you’ll excuse me now, I have a few rooms to fill one Sublevel One…

Monday, August 25, 2008


If I’m going to be talking about my view of D&D and what it is that I’m trying to recapture, it’s probably be best if I revealed where I’m coming from. This gives you an idea of my experiences with the game during my formative years, as well as a point with which to compare your own. After all, D&D is a game where experience plays a very important part in defining your character.

I started with the Holmes version, thanks to a cousin of mine who conned me into running an entire party of adventurers through a dungeon he wrote. I was either 8 or 9 years old. Needless to say, it was one hell of an introduction to the game. Nonetheless, the gaming bug bit me hard.

The first set of rules I actually owned was the Moldvay Basic set. That would see me through the first couple of years before I discovered the AD&D books. The concept of elves being able to be more than, well elves, blew my preadolescent mind, and thanks to a friend’s older brother, I was soon running a series of thieves and monks through his game. Many died horribly.

By accepted standards (or as close as an accepted standard exists), this rules me out as being a true grognard. That’s fine. I’m not huge on labels. I do share similar experiences with the true “old guard” though, and identify a lot with what’s being posted and discussed by them. I was never a fanatical wargamer, but I did have my experiences with the chit-and-hex games like “Sniper!”, a few other WWII titles whose names escape me these many years later, and even a go around with “Outdoor Survival.”

Soon after my Moldvay set was given to me, I got a copy of Gamma World (1st edition) as a Christmas present. The complete gonzo nature of that game made it an early love of mine. To this day, all you have to do to sell me on a game, book, or movie is mention it’s “post-apocalyptic.” You’ve got me.

Post Moldvay, AD&D and Gamma world was the usual gamut of TSR’s other titles. I played Top Secret, Star Frontiers, Marvel Super Heroes and even their Indiana Jones RPG. But they were mere dalliances on a hot summer night, never replacing my first loves of D&D and Gamma World.

In high school, I ran a steady AD&D campaign with a group of seven players for a couple years. It was a Forgotten Realms setting game, something that I’m not quite proud of, but not nearly as ashamed of as some people would like. I’d play a little Star Wars on the side and kept active as a player in an AD&D campaign with revolving DMs who were several years older than me.

My college years introduced me to White Wolf’s various World of Darkness games, and being the punk-rocker (yes I am) that I was, I embraced Vampire (no pun intended). I would run a steady V:tM game through college, and dabbled in playing Werewolf and Mage, but neither of those titles really did it for me. When Wraith: the Oblivion was released, I was again astounded about what one could do with a role-playing game. Wraith still has a place in my heart, being what I think was perhaps the best of the original five White Wolf titles once you “got it.” Which a lot of people didn’t, dooming it to the Underworld from which it came.

I continued on with White Wolf’s experiments in role-playing, namely the Live-Action version of Vampire, which is again something that I’m not quite proud of, but not as ashamed as some would have me.

In my last years of college I kind of drifted out of the scene. I’d still talk about the games and make notes and come up with great ideas for stories, but I never played or ran a game. Other things occupied my attention, and gaming would have to take a backseat for several years.

Since that time, I’ve played in a few one-shot games and short-lived campaigns. Over the past year, my life’s taken a few turns that has brought me back to the hobby. In two weeks, the gaming group I’ve been in will celebrate a year of steady playing in the same campaign, with the same characters (well, almost the same. There was an incident with some called lightning, a few flasks of oil and a magic-user who suddenly canceled his subscription to Life magazine). In addition, I’ve discovered a local Friendly Neighborhood Hobby Shop that has an extensive collection of 1st and 2nd edition AD&D stuff. I’ve become a semi-regular there and the owner’s hinted a few times that if SOMEONE was to start up an AD&D game, he knows more than a few old gamers would be interested.

So here I am. Now you have an idea of where I’m coming from and what has formed my style and attitudes regarding the game. Let’s start walking from here and see if I can remember the path back to where it all started, shall we?

The Order of Chaos

Before I get things rolling, I’d like to establish a loose set of guidelines to what I’ll be waxing poetic about here. Think of this as a very rough mission statement, one subject to evolution or outright change as time passes.

I’ve maintained a blog of a more personal nature for a few years and, up to now, that’s been the depository of anything D&D related, as well as anything else that’s struck my fancy. As of late, that blog has begun to see more traffic, thanks to a link to a more popular gaming blog. Rather than have visitors slog through my disordered rambling there to glean any gaming related nuggets, I’ll begin to direct that traffic here. I’ll cull the more role-playing oriented entries from that older blog and repost them at this locale.

In addition to reruns, I’m going to keep the focus here on my re-entry into the role-playing hobby. I’ve never really left it, but there was a large period of time when I was not as actively involved, either as a DM or a player. Changes in my life have brought me back into the fold with a renewed interest. But I’m returning with a collection of baggage and, depending on one’s point of view, some bad habits. I’m going to explore the gamer that I’ve become and see how I can either resolve that with my old-school experiences with the game or shed myself of the more atrocious habits I’ve acquired. I’ve been delving back into D&D and have brushed off my homebrewed world to help me get reacquainted with the game.

In doing so, I’ve had the opportunity to consider both how I play and how I create things behind the screen. I’ve been attempting to recapture the feeling of how the game used to be at a time when it was closer to its origins. This has been a struggle sometimes, as I find myself wrestling with a more post-modern design mindset. Is it even possible to go back to my roots? That’s what I hope to chronicle here.

Besides my attempts to return to a version of the game I most identify with and enjoy, I’ll be exploring subjects related to that, be they sources of inspiration, product reviews, or just links to the various other blogs and website dedicated to an earlier era in the hobby. The focus will mostly be on D&D, but I may take the time to explore a few other classic titles (Gamma World being a strong possibility, simply because it’s one of the older titles I love greatly).

I hope to maintain a regular M/W/F post schedule, but since this is a labor of love, that schedule will be determined by how much loving I’m currently in the mood for.

So let’s roll some bones and see what turns up…

Thursday, August 21, 2008


Welcome to the Society of Torch, Pole and Rope.

Perhaps you know the type: grungy, ill-kempt adventurers who down ale while waiting for a mysterious stranger to appear at the local tavern, bearing tales of vast treasures and ancient magic lying deep under the ground. The kind of folks you’d rather see headed out of your local hamlet than into it. That is, unless you run the local trading post and have a shipment of rope and 10’ poles you’d like to unload.

Perhaps you yourself may count yourself amongst this type of person, even if it’s only once every two weeks and the tavern looks more like a modern kitchen, dining room or basement. I know that I certainly do.

If you’ve found this blog, chances are you’ve been wandering the web and taking a peek at similar sites. If that’s the case, you may have noticed a trend. It seems a lot of people have been looking back at not only their own gaming roots, but the roots of the hobby in general. There’s a sea-change occurring in the gaming community. In the wake of the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons, many older gamers are beginning to wonder what exactly happened to the game that they once knew. A movement is developing out there to try and preserve the origin, playing-style and general feel of what this game once was.

As with any movement, there are people on both sides of the fence, and quite a few mugwumps straddling it as well. The various role-playing forums have been both the halls of debate and the bloody battlefields of flame wars when it comes to “old school,” “retro,” “classic,” etc. gaming. Thanks to the web, folks have begun disseminating copies of home-brew or OGL clone titles that seek to recapture those Saturday afternoons of the 1970’s and 80’s. The 4th edition of D&D has it staunch supporters who champion the new edition, as well as opponents who display a form of fierce opposition unseen since the days of B.A.D.D.

As usual, I’ve come a bit late to the party. There are many fine blogs and forums out there already dedicated to chronicling this return to the older editions, many be people who who’ve kept a closer eye on the development of the hobby than I have. You’ll see some of those listed over there on the side of the page. What I hope to accomplish here is to bring my own perspective to the table. A perspective which is by no means unique, but may be shared by others out there.

I don’t have a tidy definition for that perspective. I just have my own experiences and an idea of what I like to see and do when it comes to the gaming table. Perhaps this blog will help focus that perspective a bit finer, and if anyone gets something out of it in the bargain, so much the better.

(*saha: traditional greeting between travelers on the roads of R'Nis.)