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What I play, and why I play it

December 30, 2010

Three years ago, I lived in Austin and I GMed an Ars Magica campaign.  And it was awesome.  But god was it hard.  Labor intensive.  I’m talking historical research, philosophical rules debates, wiki page management, hour long character generation, hour long spell creation, primary player characters, secondary player characters, tertiary player characters, troupe-style GMing, point-allocation home-base creation, spread sheet inventory management, and formulae for figuring out how long it takes to read a frigging book.  Like I said,  I LOVED it, but I would spend hours each week working on aspects of the campaign and STILL have anxiety attacks before games.  When I moved away and the campaign necessarily came to a close, I was sad that the story was over, but not exactly unhappy about losing that particular source of sleepless nights.  In fact, I thought that maybe, just maybe, I might be done with RPGs altogether.

But then, about two years ago, the itch came back.  If you’ve played or GMed RPGs, you probably know what I’m talking about.  An idea bubbles up to the surface of the brain, a vision of a war-torn kingdom or a doomed spaceship or a walled village on the edge of an irradiated jungle.  Something that plucks at the synapses for a while and inspires a run of daydreams, but nothing that I’d really like to write about.  And the choice for me has always been to either forget about it, simply let it slip back into the subconscious and fade away, or, in the words of Principal Skinner, make a game of it.

So there I was, newly returned to the city of my birth, Albuquerque, NM, with that old RPG itch asserting itself, when a friend of mine invited me to his D&D game.

Truth be told, I had been done with D&D for about a decade and didn’t really relish the idea of returning.  But I had really enjoyed it once upon a time, and the more I thought about the things I had liked, the more interested I was in reacquainting myself with it.  Besides, it was a new edition, the 4th, and I was curious to see what had become of my lost love in the hands of Hasbro & co. So, I said yes, and I played a few games.

Long story short:  I hated it.  Too rigid, too different than what I remembered, too many frigging numbers to enter on the character sheet, too many hours spent on the same damn fight, too little time to spend trying out crazy ideas and causing miscellaneous trouble.  BUT, the old D&D embers were still smoldering somewhere inside me, and just enough fuel had been added that I now actively wanted to find the game that I remembered.  So I did what every other unfulfilled role player does:  I took to The Forums.  At the time, they were filled with 4e backlash and counter-backlash and counter-counter backlash and you get the idea, and I got a certain thrill reading over the various bile filled invectives for and against, and somewhere buried in the muck and slander I found a link to Grognardia, and thence to Swords and Wizardry.

When my old RPG group reasserted itself through the magic of Skype, Swords & Wizardry: Whitebox became our game of choice.  Here’s what I like about it:

–  No brainer setting.  There’s nothing to explain, we all know what D&D is like.  Wizards and warriors and elves and dwarves and all that shit. Nothing to explain.  Now, as we’ve played, the setting has grown in its own quirky direction, and there are hints of a cohesive world that assert themselves in our sessions, but aside from a one paragraph setting pitch I sent my players at the beginning of the campaign, I’ve NEVER had to explain anything outside of play.

Stripped down, classic D&D mechanics.  Look, D&D has always kind of been an ugly system that doesn’t make a huge amount of sense if you think too hard about it, but in its original form it offers the Prime RPG Virtue of Staying Out of the Way.  Rules look-ups are nonexistent, monsters and bad guys take about 4 minutes to fully flesh out (or 30 seconds to whip up on the fly), characters can be generated in 10, every one knows how a fight goes down and everything else can be improvised. Which brings me to

House rules are welcome–  Now, I know that any decent group will probably house rule every single system that comes their way, but the law of unforeseen consequences can play hell with some of the more complicated rulesets out there.  There’s something comforting about tinkering with a minimalist system in that it’s easy enough to leave the parts of it that work alone and focus on the stuff that you want to change in isolation.

The tropes–  And by this, I mean the rules, not the setting.  Clerics turn undead, magic users are pasty weak fellows who later blossom into destruction engines, fighting men are the utility class, and every once in a while a poison needle pricks you and you save or die.  Yeah, these things are weird and quirky, but they’re also uniquely comforting.  D&D is the comfort food RPG, and god love it for being so.

Now, you’ll notice that I’m pretty much using Swords & Wizardry and D&D interchangeably, and that’s on purpose.  S&W isn’t really a game in its own right, it’s a (and please understand that it’s still kind of hard for me to use this term with a straight face) “retroclone”, which is to say, an imitator of the original Dungeons & Dragons edition from the late 70s with a few modifications, so why pretend otherwise?

So now, something like 18 months later, I’m running a more-or-less biweekly game with my old players, and we’re loving it.  It’s a blast, and it doesn’t require any more sleepless nights to keep it going.  Oh, way back at the beginning I did a bunch of work designing dungeon levels and so forth, but these days I only need an hour or so of prep time before a session and I love that.  At this point anyway, I don’t see myself wanting to play anything else.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 1, 2011 7:47 pm

    The freedom to do whatever the heck you please without having to balance the numbers is such a powerful draw with old editions of the game. I know I’ll run an old-style game again, but my players want a chance to run D&D, so I need to sit back and enjoy. :)

    Happy new year!!!

  2. January 1, 2011 8:26 pm

    The fact that I’ve been able to balance this game with graduate school and parenthood speaks volumes. Have a happy new year yourself, Christian.

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