Sunday, September 23, 2012

Random Memories of the Very Old Days

So I started playing in 1981 with (more-or-less) a mix of Basic Set D&D and AD&D. I say more-or-less because sometimes we'd look stuff up in a Holmes Basic Set, my uncle used the Rolemaster Arms Law critical hit tables sometimes, and we used the DMG alongside the Basic Set. If this sounds like a mess, man, you should have tried settling rules arguments.

If this stuff sounds crazy or infantile or juvenile or stupid, remember we were in 4th grade (and then 5th, and 6th) during most of this. Think South Park - foul-mouthed argumentative kids playing pretend. By the end of 7th grade most of the groups had long fragmented and only a hard core of gamers still played.

The dead stayed dead. Our games were often extremely lethal, and Raise Dead/Resurrection were totally unheard of. If you didn't have a friend with a high-level cleric, you died and stayed dead. Since almost no one had a high-level cleric, that meant all fatalities were permanent. The idea you could run to town with gold and get raised was sheer craziness. The example in the DMG of how miserably hard it was to convince someone to even un-petrify your friend meant there wasn't any swaying us. Sometimes someone would die in my game and then bring that guy, or someone with mysteriously identical stats and magic items, to another game. Yeah, that happened.

But in general, there was no network of NPCs in the world. Just the PCs and that's that.

People would level up on their own. Guys would buy a module and then run their own parties through it and come back with higher levels and more magic items. Arguing this would get ugly, and resulted in parents calling other parents to scold the complainer.

Actually, that's another point - the GM's word wasn't law. The book's word was law. Period. Any appeal of the wording was to a handy parent or teacher, and usually you'd get stuck with that interpretation forever. This is also why we played with what the rules said you could do. If the rules didn't say "a 10' pole can detect pits" then it couldn't. If it said thieves can climb and didn't say anyone else could, they couldn't.

We named all of our guys. Sometimes "you didn't even the name the guy until 2nd level" is held up as a hallmark of Old-School Play. Not for us. You had to name your guy. Not naming your guy meant you couldn't play him. You could just add "II" or "III" to the end of a prior name - I remember Dru the Druid XIV at some point, years in - but you had to name your guy.

We had actual arguments over names, about who named which guy and could use the name again, or if that name went with this class, etc.

We ran modules. You played B1 or B2 or B3 (generally B2), and then graduated to X1, and then eventually the A-series and/or G-series. Everyone tried S1, S2, S3, and/or S4 as soon as possible, usually at too low a level (I remember playing a 4th level elf in White Plume Mountain. He was level 3 after fighting some wights.) We played D1-2 and then Q1, skipping D3 because no one had it and it was expensive to get it.

We often skipped whole sections of adventures because they were complicated or uninteresting. I don't ever remember anyone getting through D2, or getting to use it. By the time they got there, everyone was eager to get to the Abyss (and we all knew it was at the other end of the tunnels).

Why did we know that Q1 was at the other end? Often, the players also owned, and read, the adventures. Getting your hands on ones they hadn't read was hard.

You didn't make up your own stuff that often, because the only way to avoid a fight was to have a module to point at. Plus the modules were cool. The guys who made the game up made them, and they were the exemplars of adventure design. Finishing them gave you some status. "I beat Peter's dungeon." Big deal. "I beat White Plume Mountain." Wow, cool!

(Which makes me amused when I hear even older gamers and/or early game designers say we were slaves to modules. Yeah, you guys wrote them and sold them to us.)

We played every day. Or close enough to it. We'd play anywhere and everywhere. I remember running the opening fight of S3 while sitting on a bench on the playground near my Elementary School at lunchtime. We didn't finish it that day, lunchtime was too short.

No character backstory. Or frontstory. Or story. Or description. At all. So much so that I can rarely conjure up any memories of specific characters, other than a few who survived so long that they did spectacular things (like Blackstar the thief surviving the Tomb of Horrors, and Hana the mage breaking his Staff of the Magi on Lloth's back at the end of Q1 after luring her out of her anti-magic zone, and then making his "shifted to another plane" roll.) Characters weren't characters, just game pieces. I only remember Blackstar, really, because years later I found the Adventure Log for his second trip to the Tomb of Horrors! I mean, we played almost daily for years, and I can't remember more than a few names and nothing about the characters attached to them.

On the other hand, my high school AD&D game had PCs with a short backstory and real personalities. I can remember almost every one of them and cool stuff they did. The short-run "my guy is just some guy" players didn't last and I don't remember much about their characters. I don't think this is coincidence.

No Dragon. Not until 6th grade, when someone got Dragon #55 (I now own that exact copy, as his collection was passed to my cousin and then to me over the years). I got Dragon #78 in 7th grade, and then I eventually subscribed. Once we did, what it said was law.

We had a lot of fun, but it was different fun than I sometimes hear about. I miss the sensawonder of my first sessions, but I don't miss much else about those days. Just some random memories of playing back in the day, with tween-age DMs and tween-age gamers.


  1. South Park it is!

    Eric Cartman: And so the party journeyed onward: the great Wizard, the skillful Ranger, and the covetous Jew.
    Kyle Broflovski: I'm a Paladin, Cartman!
    Eric Cartman: Jews can't be Paladins.

    1. He's right. Where in the PHB does it say that Jews can be Paladins?


      That's exactly the kind of argument we had, and had often.

    2. Mr Blue, I don't know if that's from an actual episode but you nailed the voices perfectly.

  2. Replies
    1. They sound better in the telling than the doing.

      But really, my biggest culture shock of hearing tales of Ye Olde Days from guys who played in Gary Gygax's game was of stuff like getting raised from the dead pretty easily. That was beyond imagination for us. How did you do that until you managed to get a cleric up to Level 8?
      That makes it a very different game, I think.

  3. I'm starting from a similar place, I think, circa 1982. Low lethality but practically no resurrection; no solo levelling; names for everyone; lots of modules; play as often as possible, but not every day; no backstory; no Dragon until I'd abandoned AD&D anyway.

    1. Our lethality was high because we had no idea how not to make the game lethal. You roll and stuff happened and that was that.

  4. We always had description, lots of backstory, often pictures of our characters. Death was rare. But then I started in the Second Edition years. I don't remember ever having rules arguments, but they must have happened.

    1. I missed the 2e years almost completely, other than picking up a supplement or two here and there. Was roleplaying especially emphasized back then?

  5. Wow, alot of these ring true to me and I miss that feel sometimes. We never rezed, and if anyone had more than one healing potion, fights could break out. Also,
    1.) we were ALL front line fighters. If all you had was Dagger, Dart or sling you better make it count!
    2.) There were only a few 'real' weapons and armor. Plate or chain, Longsword, Shortsword, Dagger, or mace. Everything else was just B.S.
    3.) 2nd level Cleric? Heals or GTFO!
    4.) Graph the dungeon, imagine the combat. We had no minis. They were for the wealthy.
    5.) I need a 15 or better to hit? Seems legit! (We had poor grasps of probability)
    6.) Our Charachters were more like action figures than anything else. They needed no backstory. My guys a fighter. Hes spent his whole life fighting and will spend the rest of it fighting. My guys a Magic-User. He uses magic and has his whole life. Outlook not likely to change.
    7.) I hope you were blessed enough to have at least one guy who could draw.
    8.) Modules back then were a lot like golf courses now. It didnt matter if you knew what was comming, it mattered how you dealt with the immediate elements (e.g. each other, the DM, and the Dice Rolls.)

  6. 5, 6, and 8 made me laugh out loud. That was us. I still look back on the to hit tables and wonder if I really understood how to use them until years later. Roll, and if it looked high you hit, if not . . .

    and yeah, "My guys a fighter. Hes spent his whole life fighting and will spend the rest of it fighting. " I laughed out loud reading that. That was us, exactly. This is how we ended up with guys like Presto the Magic-User and Dru the Druid anyway.


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