Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Origins of D&D, and other Legends

So it seems that Wired was actually working on a story about Gary Gygax to go with the upcoming release of 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. The whole of it is up, and it's pretty nice, they even talk to Dave Arneson some, who has been overlooked a lot lately for his contribution to the early development of the game.
And of course, the good natured jokes about missed saving throws have given way to snarkier commentaries about how lame D&D (any version) is compared to system X.

Here's the narrative arithmetic that Gygax came up with: You come across a family of sleeping orcs, huddled around their overflowing chest of gold coins and magical weapons. Why do orcs and other monsters horde gold when they can't buy anything from the local "shoppes," or share a jug of mead in the tavern, or do anything but gnash their teeth in the darkness and wait for someone to show up and fight them? Who knows, but there they are, and you now have a choice. You can let sleeping orcs lie and get on with the task at hand—saving a damsel, recovering some ancient scepter, whatever. Or you can start slitting throats—after all, mercy doesn't have an experience point value in D&D. It's the kind of atrocity that commits itself.

Yeah, maybe to a ten-year old who's watched Conan the Barbarian, and Red Dawn too many times on cable. But a good DM would quickly disavow them of that notion, as they did me. Frankly, a houserule which is just about as widespread as free-parking in Monopoly, or "around the world" in gin rummy, of rewarding good role-playing with extra experience points, and penalizing out of character actions with experience point deductions, is almost as old as D&D itself.

It is interesting to me, that it is the geeks who are whining about Gygax's posthumous laurels. But such is ever the nature of near-asperger's afflicted geeks to miss the forest for the trees. Indeed Uber-Geek that he was, Gygax frequently focused on minutia while just glossing over the larger scene.

I myself had been toying with the idea of posting some about role-playing games in the last year. Researching Steampunk lead me to some interesting Steampunk themed role-playing games, in particular Space 1889 and Forgotten Futures. I even purchased the original hardback rule book for Space 1889, and some of the Heliograph reprints. It's a fascinating setting, and I hope to be able to play it some day. If you are at all interested in gaming in a steampunk setting, I'd recommend checking out Marcus Rowland's Forgotten Futures site. His material is shareware/freeware, and he has an amazing collection of period source material to help you flesh out the setting.

Mr. Rowland's idea-heavy, but rules light approach to rpg's brings me to the main gist of this post. I mean if you dig deep enough, he has some suggestions for role-playing with younger kids which don't really involve dice at all. They are just based on refereed cooperative storytelling. Like if your favorite uncle made up "choose your own adventures." Which is really freaking cool, if you think about it.

Back in the day, I played a LOT of different systems. I owned and studied even more. I even designed and played tested a couple of my own game systems. Role-playing geeks talk a lot, or at least they used to, about the balance between realistic game mechanics and playability. It's a complicated subject, which I just want to scratch the surface of.

Some of the funnest games I ever had were with a game called Tunnels & Trolls (I was always attracted to the alliteration & ampersand games.) T&T is about as rules lite as you can get, I think it would be seen as ridiculously so by "modern" gamers, but I frequently found that this encouraged role-playing. The less players were concerned with the trivialities of game mechanics, the more they could unloose their imaginations and embrace their characters.

And that's kind of why I'm attracted to playing some 1e AD&D (First edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, to those of you not fully acquainted with the current web-accepted abbreviations.) Because as byzantine as some of the rules might be, it's like having English as your native tongue. It's complicated to explain, but it's also just second nature. It just comes naturally to me, as it is the geek lingua franca for geeks in their mid-thirties. And luckily, there is a thriving community of first edition AD&D afficiandoes online.

I'll post some more about the 1E AD&D community which is to be found online soon, but until then, enjoy this awesome documentary on D&D, courtesy of YouTube:

01: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lPCn3KcuYYs&NR=1
02: http://youtube.com/watch?v=RD_t19PpgiA&feature=related
03: http://youtube.com/watch?v=QTF07R7MbfA&feature=related
04: http://youtube.com/watch?v=t2ZB1BPnQJ8&feature=related
05: http://youtube.com/watch?v=vI7CBGLtg4c&feature=related
06: http://youtube.com/watch?v=4Y9r1BvJGzU&feature=related
07a: http://youtube.com/watch?v=W2mwloAsfi4&feature=related
07b: http://youtube.com/watch?v=oNFmWbj4Lag&feature=related
08: http://youtube.com/watch?v=Q4bsHgoxW0M&feature=related
09: http://youtube.com/watch?v=osOejhDOs00&feature=related
10: http://youtube.com/watch?v=mKWm9wCR25E&feature=related
11: http://youtube.com/watch?v=hUXnm5EC2WE&feature=related
12: http://youtube.com/watch?v=TarhYY-LAd8&feature=related
13: http://youtube.com/watch?v=fj81WVDWwag&feature=related
14: http://youtube.com/watch?v=lX8NcyYtZ70&feature=related
15: http://youtube.com/watch?v=bTrXrOPLEIM&feature=related
16: http://youtube.com/watch?v=EbQ7jwKk3zw&feature=related
17: http://youtube.com/watch?v=ZZosb792cQA&feature=related
18: http://youtube.com/watch?v=whMEXm7TJ9U&feature=related
19: http://youtube.com/watch?v=9wZ8kQiWIJg&feature=related
20: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dnhilB5kc2Y&NR=1
21: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TLTqoPoWmPY&NR=1
22: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hxo9gFBHJsE&NR=1
23: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8RWqf4QGCa4&feature=related
24: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ra9h63CLtLY&feature=related

So if you watched the whole thing through, which you should have, especially if you didn't already know much about the history and (sub) culture of D&D, you realize that it is basically just a codification of kids playing make-believe. A way to determine whose "bang-bang", impacted first.

So if the Gygax eulogies have made you nostalgic, but you think you might be too old now to pick up a Player's Handbook or Dungeon Master's Guide, all I gotta say is:

D&D never forgets:

So you're a little bit older and a lot less
Than you used to be
So you used to roll percentiles and D20s
But now you feel your life lacks some fantasy
So now awkward thirteen turned thirty-one
You can't remember the last time you had real fun
Well all you got to do is sit down and and pick out a class
One that kicks some real ass
Come back buddy
D&D never forgets
You better get yourself a dice-bag
Go down to your basement or hobby shop
Check Craigslist or Meetup.com
Chances are you wont have to go too far
Yeah the vorpal swords will be going snicker-snack
The ranger and the paladin will lead the attack
And all you got to do is roll 3d6
If you need a fix
Come back buddy
D&D never forgets
Oh the orcs are still ugly and mean
And the mind-flayers still make your brain scream
All you got to do is crawl through a dungeon tonight
Heh tonight

Well they say youth is wasted on the young
But maybe your Bard still has some songs to be sung
Your player character's a legend waiting to be told
if you can be bold
Come back buddy
D&D never forgets
Said you can come back buddy
D&D never forgets

D&D never forgets is Creative Commons licensed for non-profit reproduction, if you use it and make a profit, I get 10%.

(with apologies to Bob Seeger)

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