Friday, November 15, 2013

I Begin Studying the OSR Movement

Been a while since my last blog post, I know. However, I've been busy with both my existing 1st edition AD&D campaign, hosted on, as well as working on launching a second campaign. Additionally, I've created a few tutorial videos for prospective GMs who are new to Roll20 and that takes up valuable free time as well. Anyway, on with the blog...

Once I realized I was part of the so-called OSR Movement (after a roughly 8-year absence from gaming), I figured I should look into it more closely so as to see exactly what the phenomenon was all about. I mean, sure, I knew what I thought "old-school gaming" meant because I was playing during that time frame and I had my own experiences to draw upon. But I was curious to know how others interpreted it.

My OSR research quickly pointed towards a work entitled A Quick Primer to Old School Gaming by Matthew Finch. I found a lot of people referencing it as summarizing very well what it meant to game in the old-school manner. So I created a Lulu account and downloaded this free document. No doubt most of you are already familiar with this work, so I won't repeat it here in detail. But here are the main points in bullet format, as well as my thoughts on them:

Rulings, not Rules
This sounded very reasonable to me, from hard experience as a DM. I did appreciate 2nd edition AD&D when it was released because it filled in a lot of the grey areas left over from the 1st edition rules. However, I also fell into the 2nd edition "splat book" trap, back when those were new releases and every player insisted on using them. We ended up spending more game time looking up rules than actually playing. Furthermore, much of the older published adventure module material was rendered largely obsolete because the writers could not have anticipated all the new skills and powers which 2nd edition characters would possess. So, getting back into gaming now, I wanted to recapture a simpler time and that made 1st edition AD&D an easy choice. Besides, I still had all my 1st edition AD&D books, so why not use them?

Player Skill, not Character Abilities
This also sounded good to me. Although I had not played the more recent editions of D&D, I was aware of the mechanics somewhat. I felt that by reducing almost everything down to a difficulty check, a skill check or what have you, something had been lost from the early editions of the game. It could be argued that surviving in an old-school campaign can be more difficult for new players because a lot of it comes down to experience and intuition. But that can be overcome through experienced players being willing to mentor the newcomers. That's how I learned to play way back in the day, and the value of that approach is still relevant today.

Heroic, not Superhero
This absolutely rang true with me. For me, it's always been about your character starting out as just an average Joe (with maybe an exceptional attribute or two) and then rising above the "huddled masses" to become the stuff of song and legend. Yes, it does mean that at very low levels your character may have a difficult time surviving. But if he does survive, it makes your accomplishments all the more meaningful.

Forget Game Balance
I found myself agreeing with this concept as well. I believe the campaign setting should be a living world, with all manner of challenges and perils. If a low-level character pursues a challenge beyond his capabilities, he's probably going to die. Knowing when to run is as an important a skill as knowing how to fight. There's no shame in running away and living to come back and fight another day. The campaign world does not exist only to facilitate the player characters' advancement and if they make the wrong choice then the consequences could cost them their lives. It's hard, yes, but that's the price of experience and in the end you are a better player for it.

Well, so far, so good. This oft-referenced OSR document seemed to confirm my own attitudes towards the game. I'll admit, I was a bit put off by what I felt was a mildly condescending tone towards the "new school" gaming style. My personal philosophy is, play whatever is fun for you and I wish you all the best. But at the same time, I know what game style I like personally and I was glad to learn that others felt the same way.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

How I Learned of the OSR

In early 2012, when I first became interested in getting back into playing D&D, I of course started by browsing the Internet to see what had been going on during the years since I last played. One of the first things I did was to look up the Dragonsfoot website. I was a regular lurker there in the early 2000s but had not been back since my previously-mentioned 2004 campaign. I was pleased to see that the website not only still existed but that it appeared to be thriving. And I was amazed at all the 1st & 2nd edition AD&D products available there, created by enthusiasts of those rule sets. I was glad to see that there were still so many other gamers who, like me, preferred the older editions of the D&D game.

However, one thing puzzled me: In my Internet searching I kept coming across the acronym "OSR" but I had no idea what it meant. It took some further research but I eventually learned that I was part of a movement and didn't even know it! During my approximately 8-year absence from table-top gaming, the preference for playing older versions of Dungeons & Dragons had grown into a movement known variously as the "Old School Renaissance" or "Old School Revival". It was also at this time that I learned of all the D&D retro-clones which had been produced over the last few years. And finally, I saw that I had missed out on a period of gaming history referred to as the "Edition Wars". After reading up on that, I decided maybe it was just as well that I had not been actively gaming for the past several years.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

My History with Dungeons & Dragons

It occurs to me that before I begin blogging about Dungeons & Dragons and gaming in general, I should first establish my background in the hobby. It's always a good idea to offer your credentials before you begin pontificating on any subject.

I first became aware of a game called Dungeons & Dragons during the fall of 1979, when I was a sophomore in high school. A guy (who later became my best friend) who sat next to me in math frequently came to class carrying some odd-looking books along with the usual school text books. I eventually asked about these books because they had cool-looking covers (they were the 1st edition AD&D core books). He told me they were rulebooks for a game and provided some details of how it was played. I don't remember much of that time, only that I became intrigued enough to want to look into this game for myself. I soon found a copy of the Holmes Basic Set in a local News & Hobby Shop and have been playing Dungeons & Dragons off and on ever since.
I still have the dice and rulebook from my original Holmes Basic Set
I remember playing using the Holmes rules quite a bit in those early days, my older brother and I both getting familiar with the Dungeons & Dragons game and its concepts. This set came with a copy of the module B1 In Search of the Unknown, which was a great teaching module for us. However, we soon left off the Holmes set because everyone I knew who played was by now using the 1st edition AD&D rule books. It was expensive for a high school kid barely old enough to hold an after-school job, but I eventually acquired all three of the 1st edition AD&D core rulebooks myself. I particularly remember struggling with the decision to purchase the Dungeon Masters Guide because it was so expensive! Meanwhile, my brother was busy collecting the adventure modules which were in print at the time, the pastel-colored C1, D-series, G-series, S1, S2 & T1 modules. Many of these he had to special-order from a local bookstore. We lived in a small-ish town in SE Oklahoma and D&D titles were not something they typically carried. Something happened to my original 1st edition Players Handbook over the years, but I still have my original DMG and MM. And I know my brother still owns all those original modules he purchased back in those days.

Fast-Forward: I continued to play 1st edition AD&D all through my college years during the early-mid '80s and it was during this period that I found I enjoyed being the DM even more than playing. In 1986 I left college and did a 2-year tour with the U.S.Army, stationed in Germany. Interesting side-note, it was over there that I saw my first copy of the now-famous module T1-4 Temple of Elemental Evil. I remember I was walking through downtown Wiesbaden, West Germany and passed a hobby store which was displaying the newly-released T1-4 module in the front window. I did not purchase it at the time but I didn't forget about it either.

1988: I got home from Germany in February of this year and soon re-enrolled in college. I reconnected with old friends and, through them, made some new ones, some of whom gamed. I remember soon after the start of the Fall '88 semester I agreed to join a game of the Traveller RPG being run by one of my new friends. When the group met for the first time (I didn't know any of the other players) one guy was taking some dice out of his dice bag and also happened to set down a lead miniature of a Dwarven fighter. I grabbed it to get a closer look and said something like "Oh cool, a dwarf, do you play D&D too?" Long story short, the Traveller game was soon laid aside and I was DMing the group through my newly-purchased copy of T1-4 Temple of Elemental Evil. The Fall '88-Spring '89 school year still holds some of my fondest memories of gaming. We generally met once a week to play through that module and still didn't quite get it finished when the spring semester ended and everyone went their separate ways.

It was also during this time that the 2nd edition AD&D rules were released. We were all excited by this and fully embraced the new rules. Primarily because, while it was a new edition, it really didn't make obsolete all the materials we had already acquired. 2nd edition was more like a clarification and expansion of the 1st edition rules, which we were pleased to have. It wasn't until later, with the proliferation of "splat books" and other supplements, that we became somewhat jaded towards 2nd edition.

Early-Mid 90s: I continued to play AD&D as often as I could but now I was working full-time and generally trying to build a life for myself. It was during this time that my brother took over DMing duties for the most part, and he remains one of the best DMs I've ever seen. His prep work was excellent, he was great at telling the story and he practiced the "rule of cool" concept before anyone ever heard of it. He provided us with epic adventures back in those days and sometimes I wish he'd log out of his latest favorite MMORPG long enough to get behind the DM screen again.

Late 90s: By now I was in full career-building mode and my girlfriend and I shared a house together. But I still managed to run a campaign which lasted for a couple of years. She was of course one of my players, along with some other acquaintances, and once again I DM'd the module T1-4. This time we finished it and they continued on through several of the other classic 1st edition modules.

2000: I had been in the Army National Guard ever since I returned home from active duty in Germany, way back in 1988. But it had always just been the "one weekend a month, 2-weeks a year" routine and my full-time job was in the civilian world. However, in April of this year my life took a major turn when I started working full-time for the National Guard. On the plus side, I really enjoyed my job. On the downside, I was a lot busier now and really had no time for gaming. This was also the year that 3rd edition D&D was released. I purchased the core books and we gave it a try, but the game was too different now for our tastes. I soon re-sold my 3rd edition rule books and we all decided to just stick with 2nd edition. It ended up not really mattering though, because this year marked the end of almost 21 years of constant gaming.

2001-2012: Apart from a very brief low-level campaign during the spring of 2004, I was simply too busy to run a table-top game. And what free-time I did have for gaming, I spent online. First playing Ultima Online and then later Lord of the Rings Online. Also, late 2010-early 2012 was spent mobilized for a tour of duty in Afghanistan. While I was over there, I became aware of a group that was playing D&D at night. We were stationed at a small combat outpost in eastern Afghanistan and our mess hall was really just a wooden hut which was always open. Primarily because it housed the only TV which had a satellite receiver and thus got the Armed Forces Network. This building served as our mess hall during the day but after-hours it became a recreation hall of sorts. One end was occupied by the poker players, the other end was occupied by the role-playing gamers. I would occasionally watch while these guys game but by now 4th edition D&D was out and I really didn't know the rules any longer. A couple of times I told them I'd be willing to run an old-fashioned 1st edition AD&D game for them. They were completely willing and occasionally asked me about it but I just never got around to it. I would have had to ask my wife to dig my rulebooks out of storage and mail them to me (about a month-long process). Then I would have had to ship them all back home again when it was time to leave. I retrospect, I sometimes wish I had made the effort. I imagine it would have been a lot of fun.

Spring, 2012: I was newly-home from Afghanistan and had a lot of leave time saved up before I had to go back to work. About 2.5 months, to be exact. One of the decisions I made while over there was that I wanted to get back into playing AD&D again. As I mentioned earlier, I watched those guys gaming in the mess hall at night and saw how much fun they were having and I wanted to experience that again for myself. But how to go about it? Everyone I had gamed with in the past was scattered far and wide by now.

I was aware of Virtual Table Top (VTT) software, but had heard they were not that great at what they were supposed to do for you. However, my information was a couple of years old and I was certain that improvements had been made during the time I was away. I looked at (and experimented with) a couple of programs, but in the end I found them too cumbersome. So I just went back to playing Lord of the Rings Online to get my gaming fix. I had made a lot of friends, primarily in the PvP area of that game, and wanted to reconnect with whomever was still around.

Spring 2013: I heard about a VTT program called "Roll20" and read glowing reviews concerning it. I decided to give it a look and was quickly hooked by its simple interface, ease of use and adaptability to any game system. Long story short, in April 2013 I began DMing a 1st edition AD&D campaign set in The World of Greyhawk. My players include my wife, an old gaming buddy from my college days (see 1988!) and 2 more players whom I recruited online. We log in to play once a week and we're having a great time. So, at long last, I'm finally able to once again play a real role-playing game and not have to substitute with a MMORPG. It's not quite the same as a face-to-face game, but I'll take it over not playing anything at all.

Well, if you've read all the way to the end, thanks! Now that I've established my gaming background, I will next discuss why I'm playing the particular rules set that I am.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

First Post!

After spending a few months on Google+, reading blogs and following gaming communities, I've decided to start a blog of my own. I think it will be a great way to record and organize my own thoughts on gaming and also see what others think. Additionally, I hope to give back to the gaming community by generating my own user-created content. Thanks for reading!