Tuesday, September 9, 2008

How do you play D&D?

No, really! Exactly how do you play Dungeons & Dragons? On the face of it, that statement makes me sound like a rube. The fact of the matter is that I've played D&D and other RPGs since nearly the dawn of the genre's popularity.

Down through the years, I have noticed that D&D has been used to play in a variety of modes of fantasy fiction. As has been pointed out, it was originally rooted in pulp fantasy such as Conan the Barbarian and not necessarily epic fantasy like that of The Lord of the Rings. Yet many people these days seem to gear their campaigns towards adventure paths with epic plots. This trend has come to the point where the word "campaign" has become an archaic term.

In my humble opinion, I think part of the problem is that all of the scattered groups of people around the world who bought copies of the original D&D rules (Holmes, 1e, OD&D, whatever) did not know exactly how to play the game. What do I mean by this? I mean how exactly did Gygax and Arneson conduct the game? There is a wonderful example of game play in the 1e DMG along with an example dungeon. That example is only a few pages long. But I have never seen an example of an entire old school campaign from beginning to end.

I have many questions about how an old school campaign is conducted. For example, how does the DM begin presenting the players the campaign hex map? Do people playing old school style D&D even bother with complicated back stories for characters? Is it up to the DM or the players to recap the events of previous game sessions? Does the Dungeon Master keep the players' character record sheets to help offset inter-session cheating? How are hirelings and henchmen handled? There are many habits, traditions, and house rules of the original D&D gamers that I can only wonder about.

All I've ever read are vague suggestions about what to do during game play. Much like OD&D rules assumed that the players already had a working knowledge of strategic war games, all of the D&D rule books I've ever read have assumed that the player already has a working knowledge of role-playing games.

Chess has a definable beginning, middle, and end game. Monopoly has a rigidly defined procedure of rolling the dice and moving your game piece. Risk has a clearly defined goal of world domination. I have never seen D&D game play rigidly defined in terms other than "it's up to you." But over time we've seen trends develop. And here were are discussing the virtures of old school game play.

Well, what IS old school game play? How does it begin? Do PCs commonly establish fiefdoms at high levels? Does the DM reveal the campaign map to the players? We all know how we play the game. But every time each of us joins a new group of players, we learn an entirely new method of play.

You might scoff at my idea of presenting a highly detailed description of an entire old school campaign. Such an example of carefully documented campaign play might be thousands of pages long. Well, that's exactly what I would like to see. The closest that I've ever seen to anything like this is the Knights of the Dinner Table comic book.

I can only guess that the only way DMs and players can learn exactly how to play D&D is through first hand experience with an experienced group. But that experienced group had to learn how to play it from someone else. Is there an unbroken chain of masters and apprentices leading all the way back to Gary Gygax himself? I doubt it. It is more probable that a few brave individuals here and there picked up the rules and made the best guess about how to proceed. And from these scattered groups, styles developed on their own.

What we have today is a dominant style that is commonly called the adventure path. I bought into this attitude towards game play gradually over many years. But in the last year I have been closely re-examining what playing D&D is really all about. The best that I can determine is that what I'm looking for is the method that was used to play D&D shortly after it's invention. And that's what's commonly called "old school" D&D.

Well, exactly how do you play "old school D&D"? It's more than just using the sketchy set of rules from the original boxed edition. It's more than merely focusing on the rules used in 1e AD&D. It's a state of mind and a method of play. Rules are immaterial. I'm not going back to using older sets of rules. I've examined 4e D&D and I think they are solid. I'm certain that I can use 4e for playing an old school style "sandbox" campaign.

But how exactly are old school sandbox campaigns conducted?

I hope I can use this blog to help solve this mystery.


Robert Fisher said...

I think there are aspects of the game that the books and magazines didn't communicate or didn't communicate well. Things that did get communicated at the table. I think that those who are part of a chain of apprentices that can be traced back to Lake Geneva (or who have a shorter lineage) do play differently than those of us who don't.

Personally, I began my quest to understand how Gygax (and others) played the game not because I believe Gary’s way is the only way. (I believe Gary himself said that his way wasn’t the only correct way.) Rather, I think there are things to be learned from the creator (and others) that should inform how I play the game, whether I choose to play it differently or not.

I'll be watching to read the answers to these mysteries that you find.

Chris said...

Are there any published accounts on how Gygax or other old-school DM's actually ran their games? It would be interesting to read in their own words...

Robert Fisher said...

To read about how Gygax, et al. played...

Re-reading the DMG can always be a good place to start. I know I often find things that I either didn’t remember or that I read with new understanding these days. (Mostly the latter. I think I had the entire book memorized.)

Check Gygax’s Q&A threads on Dragonsfoot and ENWorld. If the Lejendary Adventure and Rob Kuntz’s Pied Piper forums are still around, those can be good sources too. Rob’s postings are good reading too, of course. Tim Kask’s thread on DF has some good stuff.

Read anything Mike Mornard (Gronan or Old Geezer) has written online. Rob’s forum. RPGnet. The Miniatures Page (IIRC). I think some at DF too. He is probably the only person to play in Gary’s Greyhawk, Arneson’s Blackmoor, and Barker’s Petal Throne campaigns. (I might consider Mike more of the old school guru than even Gary himself.)

Rob also wrote an article about Robilar and Mordainkenen (sp?) visiting Arneson’s City of the Gods for Oerth Journal. With an afterwards by Dave from the DM’s perspective. How’s that for a story? ^_^

During the 3e years Gary and Rob wrote some recollections of the old Greyhawk campaign for Dragon magazine. Gary looked into having a compilation of them published separately, but that may be out of the question now. (These articles were instrumental in my own “back to basics” quest.)

Of course, the Dragon issues from when Gary was still at TSR have some good stuff as well.

Gary published a couple of books on role-playing generally. Role-playing Mastery is the first.

Well, that’s all that comes to mind at the moment. Hope that helps. No doubt others can chime in with more information. Sorry for not chasing down links for everything right now.