My D&D Journey

I'm a fantasy nut, it's always been my thing.  From I can first remember as a child, I was making up make-believe stories of horrible monsters, quests and heroes (who usually never survived).  The first time I saw a video game RPG I was hooked, and I started pounding away on my keyboard in BASIC to figure out how to make one.  I wanted to make fantasy video games so bad, I earned a Computer Science degree in college largely because of it.  Since then, I've had no other hobby last as long or as intense as all-things fantasy.  I've dabbled in other genres like sci-fi, post-apocalyptic, modern, etc, but none of these hold my interest very long.  It doesn't matter if it's a book, a movie, a game, or a location - if it isn't fantasy, it isn't much good.

The ultimate playground where fantasy flourishes is in the mind's eye.  Media is just an imitation of it, and can never be quite as good as what we fill our heads with.  Granted, there are tools out there that help our imaginations facilitate fantasy worlds, but ultimately the "magic" has to happen inside of ourselves for it to be effective.  Tabletop RPGs are probably the best tool that we have so far, and Dungeons & Dragons is king of the hill.

Over the years, I have gone through many editions of the game even though I came pretty late to the game.  I grew up in the 80s, but my mother forbid me playing anything with the D&D label on it.  I remember my best friend rented Heroes of the Lance, a Dragonlance setting action-RPG for the Nintendo Entertainment System with the D&D license, one weekend.  I knew the consequences of playing an "evil" game with the D&D name so I refused my bewildered friend's offer to let me play it with him.  So I sat and patiently watched him instead.  To make a long story short, my mother did find out that I had played "Dungeons and Dragons" and I was grounded for an entire month from seeing my friends.  Yes, an entire month.

Even with the forbidden game just out of reach, I eagerly watched from the sidelines, envious of my friends who spent their weekends playing this mysterious, but amazing, game without me.  So you could say that I grew up fully understanding the "culture" of D&D even without having played it.  I survived on knock-off board games like Milton Bradley's HeroQuest and other computer RPGs like Might and Magic, Wizardry and Ultima to keep my appetite fed.

College, dating, and other activities took me away from it all for several years and the game was all but forgotten.  It wasn't until the ripe age of 26 when I finally remembered the old forbidden game of my youth that I had stored in the deep recesses of my mind.  Of course, now I could finally see what all the fuss was about and dig into something I had always wanted to investigate from years earlier.

With little understanding of the evolution of the game I, of course, jumped right into the most recent edition and ordered the core 3.5 rulebooks.  Obviously this one had to be the best, it had so many years of practice, right?  At first, things went pretty well.  The game was everything and more that I could ever imagine.  I soon had a fledgling campaign setting and used my wife as the guinea pig by throwing her into the middle of it.

The first game I ran was a little bit of a disaster.  You see, I've always been a fan of throwing everything and the kitchen sink into every game I play, be it board or video game, to make it feel more realistic.  I'm a big fan of simulation, I love making my fantasy as plausible as I possibly can, so using every little rule I could find in the DMG, I tried to use it all at once the first time.  Weather, temperature, wind currents, animal migration patterns, fatigue, distance travelled, and on and on, all had to be calculated by the book for me to feel like I was playing it right.  The game became instantly bogged down.

After several sessions like this, over the next couple years, I started to rethink the whole D&D thing.  What was I doing wrong?  Why was this game so complex?  Sure, all these fiddly rules sounded great on paper, but in actual gaming practice, it became a complete nightmare to track.  And if I was just going to dismiss them, was I really playing the game as intended anymore?  By that time Pathfinder was almost out and I decided that the revision, promising to simplify many of the rules, would be my solution.  Turns out that Pathfinder was only marginally different (Jury is still out as to whether I feel it's better) than 3.5.

It was during an online Pathfinder Skype session from an Enworld group that I finally threw my hands in the air.  The party I was DMing for had just completed a battle with a giant spider or some other large monster (can't remember exactly).  The battle had taken nearly a full hour to finish largely because of some rules issues we were having.

On top of the rules complexities, I really had a problem with Pathfinder's presentation and some of the power creep in the classes.  In their effort to remove "dead levels" (a term which I despise) where some classes were not getting enough "stuff" per level, some classes were starting to resemble heroes from Marvel comic books.  Among other things, rogues could now cast cantrip spells as an option at later levels.  Really?  This and the colorful, beefcake/chainmail bikini, art style were the straws that broke the camel's back and I "hung up" the books on the shelf for good.

I started looking around for other games at that point.  I briefly looked at 4th Edition, but quickly found out it was going in the same direction as the problems I was having with Pathfinder.  The miniatures requirement, the super-powered classes, the tactical combat focus.  No thanks, I'll play a board or video game if I want that.

After that I started looking backwards, hearing some good things about earlier editions like 2nd and 1st.  At that point in time, I wasn't quite ready to make that leap.  One thing I still loved was the D20 mechanic.  It was so easy to use, and THAC0 scared the crap out of me.  I had brief infatuations with both Microlite20 and (later) Warrior, Rogue and Mage, stripped down 3E systems that basically just left you with the D20 mechanic.  I loved this at first, but the bare-bones system started to grate on me after a while.  Simple mechanics begot simple encounter where everything started to feel cookie-cutter.

Castles & Crusades is another love affair I had for a while.  It had gotten so much praise for it's old-school style using new-school mechanics.  This, I thought, was the game I was destined for.  I ran it using the Zagyg campaign world and had a lot of fun for a while.  The "Siege Engine" was designed around the D20 which used prime attribute modifiers and combined all saving throws with regular encounter checks.  It was fast and easy...too fast and too easy.  That's where I started to see its flaw.

For a long time, the D20 universal encounter resolution mechanic was the glue that held RPGs together for me.  I couldn't imagine a world without it.  The problem I now understand with this mechanic is the fact that it cheapens the role-play experience considerably by providing a short-cut.  "Player: I search for traps.  DM: Give me a wisdom check.  Player: I jump over the pit. DM: Give me a dexterity check.".  That, to me is not an RPG, and it's just plain boring.  My RPG dogma is now: any game system that uses such centralized roll mechanics is anathema to the spirit of role-play in the game itself.

The moment I read Matt Finch's A Quick Primer For Old School Gaming, everything I understood about D&D was turned on its head.  For the most part, I decided, I had been playing it all wrong.  I'll surely elaborate in future posts, but to summarize, I learned that D&D was far more about player decision making through his character than it was about character sheets.

About a year ago I settled on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition.  I had been reading a review on the DMG and had heard so many good things about it, decided to pick it up.  After that, I thought, why not pick up the PHB and MM too?  As it stands today, 1E is the best edition to understand Gary Gygax's theory  and vision of the game.  It's the edition with the best art (the PHB cover is bar far my favorite) and the best explanation of the D&D concept.  But it's not quite THE best rule-set.

So where did I end up?  Stay tuned...

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