A few weeks ago, I had a bit of a strange game night. If you’re not into the RPG scene at all, you may not be aware that there’s a “movement” (which is a really pretentious word to use, but I can’t think of anything better right now) to get back to the basics. I mean, literally, to play old-school “Basic” Dungeons & Dragons (or some similar clone of it) like many of us did “back in the day”, where you roll 3d6 in order for your abilities, take rolls as they come with no fudging or narrative trickery, and often die a lot as a result.
For myself, this idea was pretty intriguing, but for a few others in my game group (particularly Kenny and Britt), it’s apparently something that calls out to them and resonates with their soul. So back on June 11, most of my game time was dedicated to playing a session of…
Dungeons & Dragons: Basic Set (1981) [RPGG]
Since character creation is mostly just rolling 3d6 a number of times, we planned on doing it right before play. I rolled lots of 10’s and 11’s, with one 13 on Constitution, so I chose to be a Dwarf. I’m terrible at names, though, so I tried to combine a bit of a Tolkien influence (from names like Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur) with my own name (Christopher) and came up with Tofur, which would be totally acceptible if not for the existence of this guy.
Britt rolled terribly for his character, and chose to be a magic user anyway, so that was going to be fun. James joined us and rolled decently, choosing to be our Cleric. We thought, based on talk in our guild ahead of time, that 5 or 6 people would be playing with us, but due to absences and on-the-spot changes of mind, it ended up being just the three of us as players and Kenny as the DM, so we also rolled up two NPC’s, another magic user and a fighter, to help us get killed a little less quickly.
As for Kenny and his prep, this again is all about old-school mayhem with little prep. So he had used a program to randomly roll up 6 or so dungeons, which we randomly chose from right before play. We all filled out our expansive equipment lists just before entering, of course, including such vital items as 50′ of rope, iron spikes to keep doors open or closed as we see fit, and most importantly, the ubiquitous 10 foot pole.
Early on in our delve, we mostly just climbed down ladders. All the rooms were really stinky and had big blood stains on the floors, but they were also mostly empty of inhabitants. We eventually came upon a room that had these big, ampitheater-like tiers leading down to a landing that contained a little pool of water. After pushing Britt’s character into it just for laughs, we discovered a door in the bottom of the pool. Of course, we were compelled to open the door and descend yet another ladder into an even stinkier room.
This time, though, we weren’t alone. Through the wonders of random monster tables (and possibly a mistake in using the application Kenny chose), we found ourselves face-to-face with a pair of gi-freaking-normous lizardy monsters whose back spines scratched the ceiling and could freeze your heiney off from 30 feet. Needless to say, our intrepid group of 1st-level adventurers made a hasty escape back up the ladder, buying time by throwing as much food as we could manage into their path.
We then followed the other path available to us, which led to a room containing a simple elevator. Since someone had to man the wench that lowered the platform, I stayed up in the room and lowered down the rest of the party as they explored the rooms below. A couple of levels down, they found a room that contained a secret door, and of course, entered it bravely. In a chamber beyond, they encountered another party of human adventurers who told them of a group of orcs further along the cavern.
Meanwhile, I was trying to get down the elevator shaft by climbing down the chain. Given that I wasn’t really all that strong, it didn’t go so well. If not for making a really important recovery roll to slow my progress, I would probably have died right there, but instead, fell onto my presumably ample behind, suffering only 1 hit point of damage.
Soon, though, I followed them into the secret passage and annonced myself to the other humans. Britt was trying to schmooze them, of course, but when I entered, the leader of the group made some comment about how the members of my clan had abandoned his great-grandfather and their village in some battle or other 50 years ago. Kenny suggested that his comment didn’t mean much to me, but in formulating my response, I decided to take things in a slightly different direction.
Let me take an aside here to talk some about Britt’s and my character. Some of you may remember that in Basic D&D, the alignment system was simplified into the Lawful-Neutral-Chaotic spectrum, ignoring the Good-Evil axis altogether. I chose Lawful, and of course, Britt chose Chaotic. So all game long, I had been trying to cultivate some tension between us. And when I saw Britt obsequiously pandering to the other group with no sense of shame or honor, I decided that within my clan, a breach in honor, even one from 50 years ago, was something you never forgot.
Therefore, my response to the human leader was more of an accusation than anything else, saying that his village were cowards and had no honor, and that’s why my clan chose not to stand with them in the battle. As you can imagine, the human leader didn’t take too kindly to that, and immediately charged at me.
Now, my intention was for us to go at it for a minute, for me to hopefully subdue him without killing him, and then to barter for peace with us being in somewhat of a dominant position. But that went all pear-shaped when I, #1) missed my attack on him completely, and #2) the rest of the human party attacked as well. Right about the time that James’ character was felled by one hit (poor Titanus… which Britt tended to pronounce as “tight anus” and I tended to say as “tit in us”), things got ugly and we were at war with this other group.
Thankfully, I had positioned myself wisely, remaining in the secret passage where no more than 2 or so humans could attack me. I was aided by the NPC fighter, who rushed to my side to face the opposition together, and soon I found my groove and began hacking them down with my battleaxe. On the other side of the room, Britt was taking a different approach, with his wormy, foul self emerging as he pleaded with the other group, offering to join them. Even when he had the chance to use his one useful spell to Web 2 or 3 of them, he continued to prattle on, being no help to us at all.
Thankfully, though, cutting down the leader and another 2 or 3 of them was enough to break their morale, and we won the battle with only 2 or 3 casualties. If I had been thinking straight, as he stood astride the lifeless body of the human leader, Tofur would have said something like, “Why are humans so sensitive? In my clan, I’d be buying him a drink by now after beating him senseless, and it’d all be forgotten.”
But by then, most of the night was done, so we called it quits for the D&D session at that point, just before I could turn my axe on Britt and punish him for his lack of honor.
Time: about 2 and a half or 3 hours, maybe?
Score: I so totally won, if by “won” you mean “stayed alive”
Ratings: We didn’t really go there…
I don’t quite know what I think about this old-school D&D thing right now.
On one hand, it’s very nostalgic of my middle-school D&D “campaign” using the slightly later “red box” basic set, except that we’re actually playing by the rules this time. And the atmosphere of knowing that almost anything could be around the next corner, and that the proper response to whatever it is may just as likely be to run away as to fight, is pretty cool and different. And after playing a metric crap-ton of 3rd/3.5 edition D&D (which I really like, but is exceedingly tactical and minis-based) a few years ago, having a system that is much more flying by the seat of your pants and having the DM make rulings on the fly is actually rather freeing.
But what it’s missing, of course, is real story. Except that, if I’ve learned anything from my foray into indie/”storygame” RPG’s, the best story comes out of the choices of the players. And even though this experience was dominated by the randomness of rolling our abilities, the random dungeon design, and the random attack rolls, it was also free from the domineering “vision” of some DM who was basically trying to manipulate all the players to play out the novel he had already written in his head. True creativity often comes from having constraints placed on you, and therefore, all of this randomness becomes more of a canvas where we as the DM and players can come together to paint whatever picture we want.
And from a boardgamer’s perspective, I’d say that the experience of old-school D&D is probably superior to pretty much all of the many dungeon-crawlish boardgames that I’ve played. Part of the reason is that all of these games desperately try to re-create the feel of old-school D&D (and prey on our nostalgia of it), but tend to do so in an adversarial (1 vs. many) format that, frankly, doesn’t usually work. I mean, how many times have you read in a review that “this game works… as long as the overlord/keeper/dungeon lord/whatever acts more like a GM rather than playing as hard as they could”. Well, if nothing else, I’d say that this session showed me that playing a low-prep, old-school RPG doesn’t necessarily involve all of the investment that most of us remember and assume is required of a typical roleplaying game.
And to me, the coolest thing is that I actually came out of this session knowing a lot more about my character than when I went into it. After character creation, I basically just knew that he was a mostly mediocre dwarf with a “lawful” alignment and a stupid name. But now, I understand that the “law” he follows is the sense of honor given to him by his clan, which makes him incapable of ignoring old breaches of honor, no matter how inconvenient doing so might be. Plus, if we wanted to, this little element of having tension between my clan and a human village could be something we come back to later… assuming that any of us live to see the daylight again, of course.
If I had taken hours to craft my character using more “modern” RPG techniques and written some convoluted dissertation of a backstory for him, none of that would have been possible. Much like the overbearing DM and the novel he already has written in his head, making all the decisions for your character before you even begin play sort of short-circuits the wonder and discovery of playing a roleplaying game with real, other people.
But anyway, my plan was to continue on and get into the other game I played at this game night, as well as maybe bringing in something else I played a little later. But I don’t think that would be a good idea now. So I’ll hold those games for later and let this whole article be dedicated to old-school D&D.
I would be interested, though, in knowing what my readers thought of this. I know that we’re all mostly boardgamers right now, but I have a feeling that a lot of you probably share a similar history with me, having some level of experience with D&D somewhere in your past. Both for you and for others who don’t have that history, what are your thoughts on this whole old-school thing? Is it intriguing… or boring? Have you done something similar to this, or is the concept new to you? Any general thoughts?