Welcome to the New Old School

Dungeons and Dragons 1981, by TSR
Dungeons and Dragons 1981, by TSR

My Dungeons and Dragons experience started in the first year of my university experience (some time in 2007, if I remember correctly), with me being invited to play in a D&D 3.5 game.  I’d played Exalted for years, but I was completely uninitiated into the wider world of roleplaying games.  One of my high school friends had simply asked me along to try this roleplaying thing, and I’d been hooked.  Of course, I’d seen D&D in shops and the like, but when I did buy a starter set and took it home, it seemed completely alien.

As a person who had only ever played one roleplaying game, it seemed incredible to me that other games would have so vastly different and, seemingly, more complex rules.  So I put any interest in Dwarves, Elves, Fighters and Rogues to the back of my mind, and stuck with Exalted, until late 2007, of course.

I’d been searching for a roleplaying game group to get into to get my gaming fix, and this was the only one accepting new players, so I went along and got stuck in.  I can’t say I loved my first experience with Dungeons and Dragons, but it certainly piqued my interest, and within a few weeks I had my own PHB and was exploring all the various character options and how the mechanics worked.  Discovering a new game is always fun.

Regardless, the above is all just a rather roundabout way of explaining that, as far as Dungeons and Dragons goes, I came late to the game.  3.5 always seemed old school to me, and in truth, and I never had any interest in delving backwards into D&D history.  4th was more to my liking than 3.5 ever was, and from there I’ve found other games that do a better job of hitting my fantasy adventure button (see Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay or Dungeon World).

However, this changed once again when a friend who now lives quite some distance away invited me to play in a game with him over IRC, another thing that I hadn’t done in quite some time.  I used to use it quite a bit to discuss roleplaying games when I was at home and the only other people to discuss such things with in person were the people in my weekly game.  Talking your master plan over with your players tends to take some of the suspense out of it.  So when my friend mentioned the idea of playing a game over IRC, I was pretty interested.  I think if he’d asked me 4 years ago, before I graduated and all my spare time became devoured by the unwelcome beast that is employment, I would have turned him down.  Why play online with people I barely know, when I could simply call a few friends and arrange a game?  I think having 8+ hours of any weekday devoured by work has changed my perspective regarding this though, and I was actually quite excited at the prospect.

When he finally told me what we’d be playing, I was somewhat taken aback.  Dungeons and Dragons, the 1981 Moldvay edition, is at least how he described it to me.  This friend of mine has always had a penchant for more old school and brutal gaming, so I can’t say I was entirely surprised, but as I said earlier, this kind of gaming didn’t really appeal to me.  The idea of having multiple characters, because it’s pretty much accepted that one of them is going to die, or at the very least having henchmen/hirelings, not to back you up or provide skills you don’t have, but instead to either act as an ablative meat-shield, or to once again step up when your character inevitably takes one for the team, doesn’t exactly thrill me.  Wizards with 1 spell per day, rolled randomly.  Having to make a serious choice between food or a weapon.  It all pretty much sucked the life out of it for me.

But I’d like to think I’m not one to let a friend down, so defiantly I showed my face, or nickname at least, in the chat and set about creating a character, a necessarily brutally short process.  We rolled stats, slotted them in the order which we’d rolled them and then picked a class that made as good a use of them as we could.  As concepts grew, I found myself growing fond of my character, a burly but smart fighter from the cities, come to a small town as a hired sword to aid some adventurer’s raid a sorcerer’s castle.  The fondness worried me.  Every time someone spoke of long term plans for the adventure, it was pretty much assumed that one, if not all of us, would be dead at that point, replaced with a henchman or hireling who inherited their mission, and their share of the treasure.

It was as alien a game to now me as D&D 3.5 was to me back then in 2007.  Few of the concepts I held true about roleplaying games seemed to exist.  This wasn’t about the characters or the story, it was about the adventure as a mechanical device.  There was little in the way of great heroes or deeds.  We were more like a group of thugs seeking to raid a historical landmark.

I should have been dismayed and left disappointed.  Not so.  I actually enjoyed myself a great deal  The game’s lack of mechanical complexity in many areas was filled in by players interacting with each other and the landscape, and while I was certainly fond of my character, the knowledge that I could easily throw another one together in as long as it took to roll 3d6 six times and pick a class cheered me up considerably.  And if I didn’t like that character, I doubt he’d exactly last long either.

We paid a boatman to row us to a mysterious isle and disembarked on a beach adjoining a mighty castle, with a small hut and a chapel built on the sands.  Accosted by three cultists in robes carrying maces we had our first encounter.  And our first character died.  Our cleric, spell-less and who started with 2 hit points was blundgeoned to death by a crazed cultist in short order, which was something of a shock to me, but it only added to the game; we went onwards speaking the name of “Flock-Father Ignatius” as a deceased friend.  So we had 3 maces, procured from our dead enemies, and we found an ambiguous magic sword in their hut, which I, as the burly fighter, claimed for myself.  Then we went inside.

That was, by and large, our first session, and in the end, I was pretty excited about the whole thing.  I think there’s a certain joy in playing something completely new, that you don’t know enough about to be able to spend hours planning your character, or at least that’s simple enough that there’s really no planning to be done, and I think some of my enjoyment came from the fact that my first character was a pretty good one, I rolled well across the board for my stats and I ended up playing a Fighter, which is something I’ve been interested in doing for a while (I’m jonesing for some sword and board action).  I survived and I prospered, and there was something exciting about that.  The game felt less safe and I felt better for succeeding in spite of the danger.  How I would have felt had it been my character who had rolled poorly for his health and died in the first encounter, I don’t know.  I like to think I would smiled and carried on, but in reality, I think that I might have gritted my teeth and felt rather chagrined about the matter.

This isn’t really a review of Moldvay D&D, or even a send up (or down) of the session that I played in; although both were very much enjoyable, I don’t feel I have enough of a grasp on either to talk about their quality.  Instead I think I’m really just being a proponent of trying something new once in a while, even if the thing itself is something now quite old.  Getting stuck in a rut in anything, even the things you do in your free time that you enjoy can really be a death sentence.  If you’ve made it all this way to the end of this post, then I commend you and would ask you to do one thing that I think would make your last 10 or so minutes of reading worthwhile and go and find yourself a new game, or at least a game that is new to you.  Gather some friends, whether in reality or digitally, and delve into something you haven’t done before.  Even if you never play it again, I don’t think you’ll come away without having learned something.

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