Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Dungeons and Dragons, Year Zero

Via Jeff’s Gameblog comes a post from SquareMans that hit me with an almost tangible wave of nostalgia. I’m not old enough to have enjoyed D&D back in its original, stapled-pamphlet iteration, but this account of a group of veteran gamers sitting down to engage in a little “roots gaming” really gave me pause, especially when considered in the context of Gary Gygax’s recent passing.

Amid the nostalgia and grandeur of old-school D&D is a bit of keen commentary from SquareMans about what can only be described as “rules creep” - the tendency to add layers and layers of nuanced rules to each subsequent RPG release. D&D 4E is almost upon us, and it’s worth remembering that there was a time when D&D was rules-lite and nearly every adventure ended in TPD - total party death.

The rules themselves were barely there. You had to make it all up. This put so much responsibility on the GM. He had to be entertaining, imaginative, fair, rational. In many ways the steady march away from original D&D has been a sustained effort to remove the effects of a bad GM on the game. The more game elements are objectively determined, written down in books, the less you have to rely on the GM. The less you need a really good GM to run the game. And yes, the more of a science it becomes, and less of an art. Running this game was an art form and only a few people could do it really well. There’s something magical about that. Newer versions become more systematized and therefore more people can play. Mediocre GMs can run good games. But, if I’m being honest with myself, something of the magic is lost. That feeling that most of this game lived in your mind. Because of that, I think, it was more real. As more and more of the game lived in the rules and on character sheets, it became a game instead of a world in your head.

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