Old School Gaming


No school like the old school…

Old School Gaming

I’m proud to have begun in gaming way back in the day.  Today’s gamers are more savvy, a few are more twisted – but I tend to believe that there is no school like the old school.  Here’s a few things you need to know about us “seasoned veterans.”

Most of us started got into role playing games by starting in wargaming.  It is safe to say that wargames were the gateway drug to playing RPG’s (Role Playing Games).  The early conventions (for me Michcon and Origins) you went to play wargames – and a little bit of RPG stuff.  Most of us spent hours playing battles with Microarmor or playing in Panzer Blitz tournaments.  Napoleonic miniatures were big – so were Civil War mini’s.  RPG’s were a minority of what was offered at a convention.  In those days, during the heyday of SPI and Avalon Hill, it was easier to find boardgame players than RPG players.

This means we approach RPG’s differently than your traditional newbie to the hobby.  We come at it with an understanding of tactics that was borne through analysis of the tactical situation.  Today’s “tactical” players tend to have been raised on video games.  That serves you well for quick thinking and reflexes, but tactics often win the battle and strategy will win the war.

No one taught us to be DM’s or GM’s. The truth of the matter is, we had no freaking idea what we were doing.  You sometimes learned how to be a Dungeon Master (DM) by sitting in on someone else’s game and trying to figure out what could be better.  Campaigns were rare – we had no idea of the concept at the time.  Games were one dungeon or castle exploration after another.  We made stupid mistakes and figured out how RPG’s worked before many of their designers figured out how they worked.  It was a blast.

We also figured out that not everyone could run a game – regardless of what they thought.  There was a strange blend of logistical management, storytelling and rules comprehension that made a good DM.  In the early years, everyone tried it, but we learned over time that not everyone was cut out to run a game.

We made a lot of stuff up as we went along.  In the early days of the industry, games were a set of rough guidelines.  GM’s and DM’s had to tailor the rules to fit their games.  The game design companies didn’t frown on it – in fact, it was their bread and butter.  Often times our little homemade rules and tweaks became articles in gaming magazines and became the rules themselves.

We also were stupid with treasure.  The guidelines for treasure were fuzzy at best.  Sometimes players could jump a level or two because we made a blunder in the amount of treasure.  You slip up once with the value of platinum pieces and the party you were hosting were suddenly building fortresses.

There was a period in the industry where there were a lot of homegrown rules.  You have to remember that most game companies were run in basements and garages.  Homegrown rules, things someone cobbled together on a typewriter, were commonplace.  When you went to a convention, you got a chance to try these games.  Some really sucked.  Others were pretty cool.

When you look at things like the original Dungeons and Dragons, there were only magical spells up to sixth level.  So if you wanted to create some new spell, you had to make it up and get your DM to approve it.

Game companies became more sophisticated. Sometimes lawyers got involved, claiming independent game rules ripped off their designs.  Creativity got stifled and smothered as standardization and organized game play became prevalent.

The big figures in RPG’s were approachable.  At one Origins convention Gary Gygax actually DM’d a tournament I played in.  It was that cool back in the day.  Nowadays designers are more aloof (with a few exceptions).

The industry used to allow anyone to take part.  I designed a game called “Food Fight” and at the ripe age of eighteen, sold it to TSR/Dragon magazine. You felt like you were a part of something early in the industry because you were.  It was simple to be a part of the industry since gaming was new and most operations were looking for new talent.  Game companies didn’t see us as big money back then.  We were just guys who were excited about a new industry.

We didn’t need tables for everything.  I just got the new D&D Edition and compared it to my first edition white box set.  Boy was that eye-opening.  The real difference is we treated DM’s as true referees.  I didn’t need a table to tell me how much I could lift – the DM made that call.  But as more players entered the arena there was a cry for clarification on everything.  Rules lawyers, self-professed experts on games, brought about ruin and carnage as more rules came into play.

Note:  I was somewhat pleased with the new edition of D&D in that it felt more streamlined – a little closer to its origins.

There was no internet to help out.   You couldn’t go to YouTube or Google to get clarity on rules.  The Dungeon Master was the final say.  You used to have to write the companies a real snail-mail letter to get clarity.  You have no idea how much the net has changed gaming unless you lived during the good old days.

When something new came out – it was an event.  When they released the first edition AD&D Players Handbook or the first Edition of Gamma World, there were lines at the convention to get copies.  Now something comes out but there isn’t nearly the excitement we used to have.  You would sit and wait months for new products to come out for your game system.  I remember being so jazzed the day the Mercenary supplement for Traveller arrived at my game store.  We don’t have that kind of connection with the companies in the business any longer, other than on the internet.

We had some goofy game systems out there.  Two words – Bunnies and Burrows.  I can’t make this shit up.

Good game systems often died out just because no one supported them.   Some game products were good but the companies couldn’t support the fan base.  The Morrow Project was a good example.  A solid set of rules, a neat post-apocalypse setting, even a neat presentation (the original rules set).  The problem became they generated five supplements of highly marginal quality – and that was it.  The game languished in limbo until Kickstarter started bringing old games back to life (regardless if that was a good thing to do or not.)

There were dozens of such games that you played, liked, but within two years times were in discount boxes at conventions.

Characters died – a lot.   Now a TPK (Total Party Kill) is rare.  When I first started I used to rack them up monthly – mostly because I, and my players, didn’t know better.  Back then I recommended 1-4 player characters per player the attrition was so high.  You didn’t develop a bond with a character until they lived to second or third level.  Then it was worth looking into their backstory.

I remember one party that tried to tackle an old red dragon.  Eight players and NPC’s lined up to fire arrows.  They hit, but only served to piss off the dragon.  The dragon did what dragons did – it breathed fire.  All lined up like that – they were melted into slag.  The rest of the party literally broke and ran.  The dead archers were referred to in our campaigns as “The Archers of Woe,” or “Whoh!”  One character went back and picked up the melted puddle of his buddy’s armor and made it into his shield – it was that bad and fun.

Our adventures were often better than the published ones of the period.  Some of the early adventures that were published in the early days were bizarre and often only marginally playable.  Some dungeon maps in published works required an engineering degree to decipher. The flavor text consisted of “Two large rats – 5 hp”.  I can’t tell you how many rooms were “Ten by ten rooms with an eight foot ceiling.”

Those of us running games figured out that you had to add flavor to make it fun.  Our adventures were often a hundred times better than those published.

We didn’t have fancy maps for doing battles.  We used graph paper and if we were lucky, some miniatures to show formations.  And we did some big battles that way and they were a blast.  I didn’t have to break out a supplement on large scale battles – we just figured it out.

Old School DM’s were crueler than DM’s of today.  I found the little encounters tortured my players as much as big monsters.  A fifteen foot deep pit filled with thirsty ticks – for example.  Sure each one only inflicted 1/100 a hit point, but when you are being bitten by thousands of them, under your armor, you will slowly bleed to death.  How about a deep vertical shaft that has scything blades that don’t go for the players, but their ropes?  Gravity – thou art a bitch.  Even having a trace amount of oil covering a floor and debris, so that an errant bit of a burning torch sets fire to the room and the last six that the players moved through proved to be hilarious.  “The floor’s on fire – run!”  “Run where?”  “Back the way we came.” “That’s on fire too.”  “I duck and roll, does that help?”  “Yes, it helps spread the fire and increase the damage.”  “I drench myself with my wine flask…”  You get the idea.

I once gave a party a half-ton of silver as treasure – but getting it out of the sixth level of the dungeon, and through the underwater tunnel they had to traverse, proved impossible – and in two cases, lethal.  “Are you sure you want to jump in the water (with those ingots of silver in your backpack)?  Okay…”

Our miniatures sucked but we didn’t care.   First off, there were so few miniatures manufacturers out there that you were just happy to find a package that was the race of characters you needed.  Their faces often were so deformed, it was hard to make out where the eyes ended and noses began.  We didn’t have a lot of choice, so you made do with what you found.

On top of that, there were only about 20 colors of paint out there – glossy and flat – from Testors, that we could use.  Washing – special details?  You’re kidding right?  We didn’t know how to do any of that stuff.  It didn’t matter to us, our mini’s rocked (until the late 1980’s).

We didn’t buy games because of the artwork.  Now art is big in the industry.  Nice glossy pages are what seems to sell.  Artwork in the early industry sucked – horribly.  Most companies couldn’t afford real artists, and it showed.  You look in the white boxed D&D and see the illustrations and you will actually have a seizure – no joke.

RPG2First Edition D&D –  If you have to label it as “Dwarf” it is already a failure.

We didn’t care because these were games about imagination anyway.  You kids and your glossy slick professional art don’t know what it was like in the days before we had real art.

The Old School Became the Kings.  Many of us old school gamers became part of the industry – doing design, writing and art.

We didn’t play games – we made memories.  I have been approached by people that played my games in high school that remember specific battles or encounters we shared.  Of course our memories are a little vague on some of the details, but the game experiences we had were memorable.  If you talk to a video game player they remembered what happened an hour earlier in the game – but that is it.  Amazingly our memories of RPG play are more indelible than the visual experience you can get with a first person shooter today.

5 thoughts on “Old School Gaming

  1. Rob C.

    I totally agree. Old School RPG either makes players better players or you think herd from bad and the good. Fun times. good memories.

  2. “Many of us old school gamers became part of the industry – doing design, writing and art.”

    So, whose truly at fault for the slide in “what was gaming”?

  3. mdlake

    I cut my teeth on blue book D&D: not quite old enough to be counted among the true white book grognards, but ahead of the curve when D&D became a popular phenomenon. I remember, for example, when linked modules (the G-D-Q series) was treated as a mind-boggling development, and my first dice match those in the picture. From that perspective, while what you have to say about old school gaming rings true, much of what you imply about current roleplaying in contrast is not. Unless, perhaps, by “RPGs” you mean “recent editions of D&D.”

    Old-school games were indeed more haphazard and cruel. The internet wasn’t on hand to spread good advice. Early participants had an inside track to fame and modest fortune, because the industry was so small.

    But we’re still making stuff up as we go along. We’re still using a lot of home-grown rules, even in rules-lite systems for which the very idea of tinkering may seem redundant. And while Bunnies & Burrows was a leap of imagination, it’s hardly ’nuff said when it comes to measuring it against what counts as goofy these days. An awful lot of us still don’t have fancy maps and perfect miniatures, or perhaps more accurately don’t seek to use them any more. We aren’t using tables for everything–in many cases, not using tables for anything at all. Sadly, intriguing games still die like mayflies from lack of support. And kids today, with their newfangled player empowerment and open-ended skill definition, are still “making memories” just as profoundly as grognards did back in the day; to suggest otherwise is insulting.

    Now admittedly, I don’t touch D&D much any more. I’ve read but haven’t played it since 3.5. Still, your measure of roleplaying today–the glossy pics, the less-approachable notables, maps and minis, a prevalence of tables–seem aimed at D&D alone, or maybe a few spinoffs like D20 Star Wars on the side, as if D&D were still the definition of “RPGs.” Which it isn’t. Although I suppose a conflation of the two is another common mark of an old-school gamer.

  4. I have very fond memories of MAKING FRIENDS via role-playing back in the early days – the early ‘80s. Sitting with strangers at a table a few times until we understood how we thought about the problems the DM handed us as a group. Sure the Thief character had a climbing chart but we plays all had brains – solving riddles, physically huddling together and drawing out our thoughts for the caller to distill to the GM. Those were the days of high adventure; when common sense was better than all the rulebooks.

    Not every group shares the same common sense, of course. That was how we made friends: by coming together in our thinking.

    I tried to find friends in the foreign country where I now live. My immediate thought to do so was using RPGs. (I am not a drinker, or a sports fan, or religious, or another form of nerd; I am just an average mainstream type.) I had been out of the hobby for a long time by then. This was in 2008. So I got a couple of strangers and myself together in a hotel lobby to talk about the game and suddenly I had a programmers’ convention break out: How to build the best game breaking character (not random?!); How to best use the technology tree (what is this Star Craft?!); What was the most DPS anyone ever handed an opponent. It was a total immersion about how to optimize the party centred on rules and not focused on the softer player experience engrossment in the play. This talk was all foreign to me.

    I have great fond memories of Princess Lumunda – who married one of our party sent to rescue her. I have great memories of the death of my character almost single-handedly fighting the crab inside White Plume Mountain while the others of my party escaped, then came back for me, the player, because there was no tie-in to fictional back-story to railroad their agency when the crab had me cornered. I remember infiltrating the Slavers stockyard because it was my idea.

    But that hotel meeting was a portent of the next 4 years I spent, ultimately, with strangers. I think anyone entering the hobby isn’t going to stay around long in that atmosphere. I think those conditions contribute to player fatigue with systems. It might sell more books and new iterations, but a shiny new game system doesn’t grow the hobby, IMHO. Friends do.

    While I was recruiting people for four years to make friends through the game, using online social chat boards not gamer boards, I had to defend against a lot of people calling the people who play RPGs social misfits. I did not want to attract such people. May I be honest? This is the reason I had avoided gamer boards. But I have to confess that the perception from those people outside the hobby, who never played RPGs, wasn’t wrong. It was compounded by the anecdotes of the people who left after trying to play but finding the play to be too much like a job, studying manuals and working with a group of people who had no life outside work and RPGs-work. The label RPGs attracted those people to me no matter how I tried to avoid them. These people kept me around to recruit players for them until they decided they did not need me anymore. They had their 4 – 6 at the table and I was #7. I have no other way to rationalize this experience as anything other than a waste of my time, my effort, and my money.

    It’s not a memory endearing to the hobby.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s