Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Re-discovering Old School D&D

Back in the late seventies when I was in the seventh grade, a bunch of my brother’s 6th grade friends started playing a new game which they brought into the middle school to play during lunch and study hall time.  This was the first time I was introduced to Dungeons and Dragons – it was the second printing of the basic boxed set with the blue cover showing a red dragon.  I still have a couple of copies of these books, one of which was played so much, the cover fell off and is still missing.  I thought it was the coolest game I had ever seen.  I had played board games and video games down at the arcade before but something about D&D was just too cool for a kid in the seventh grade.

The first explanation of what the game was about was given to me by the DM as I was run through the sample module in the basic rule book.  I was told it was mostly a game of exploration – you explore old ruins and the dungeons beneath in search of treasure.  In fact, back then, there wasn’t a monster in every room which gave it more of an “Indiana Jones” archaeological exploration kind of feel.  Sometimes rooms contained mundane items with evocative descriptions telling the tale of past deeds or ancient history, some contained small amounts of treasure (like the few coins that could be found exploring the rat warrens or the potion found in the pocket of the goblin cloak hanging on pegs on the wall) or were in fact empty but some contained goblins, giant rats or other creatures which had to be overcome in combat.  The whole idea of rolling up your own character to search through these old musty chambers in search of treasure and adventure was very appealing to me.

I also remember vividly the first character I rolled up to play in the sample dungeon.  It was the elf character class from basic that also had magic user spells.  I don’t remember what spell he took at first level but I do remember that I wanted the biggest sword that I could get in order to do the most damage possible so I equipped him with a two handed sword in addition to whatever other equipment he could afford.  I remember later on while playing AD&D coming to a similar realization about equipping my fighters with pole arms because they did more damage.  Thus began my first efforts at power gaming which still continue to this day but are more prevalent in later iterations of the game.

I went on to play with several other groups, the most memorable of which played through the village of Hommlet and the Temple of Elemental Evil campaign modules when they were released.  I didn’t even realize those were the modules I played in back then until recently when I played through both adventures in a C&C game I was in here in Richmond a few years ago, and had several déjà vu moments.  The first one was in the Moat House after we defeated the brigands who had taken up camp there in the corner tower.  The DM drew the map of the tower with one corner of the wall caved in and all of a sudden, I was like – “holy crap, I’ve played this module before” though I remembered only a few of the details like the collapsed corner walls of the tower.  Later when we eventually overcame Lareth and his henchmen, I remembered how tough a fight that room was when I was a kid.  Something about going up against a bunch of NPCs with spells and strong fighters like we had made it a very challenging encounter, more so than your run of the mill low level monsters.

Later, when we were playing through the Temple of Elemental Evil module, we fought several of the temples including the Fire Temple.  We cast a heat resistance spell on one of the characters who began searching through the lava pit in the temple to find the loot that we knew was probably stashed there.  When we retrieved the contents of the treasure, one of the items was a +3 Frost Brand magical long sword.  Once again, I had another déjà vu moment – I had a recollection of doing something similar when I was a kid (also using a heat resistance spell of some sort) to pull the treasure out of the lava pit and being in awe of the +3 Frost Brand sword that we found there amongst the other loot.  Our C&C game disintegrated shortly thereafter but not before having three very memorable déjà vu moments from two very memorable and well written 1st Edition D&D modules I played in long ago.

The original group that I played those modules with as a kid was the most memorable of many I played in back then.  We explored all kinds of dungeons and battled demons, devils, dragons and all manner of foes and had a very notable arsenal of magic items.  I’m pretty sure one of us had the rod of Lordly Might and another guy had the Girdle of Giant Strength and we had a collection of all different types of swords and other items in our bag of holding to pull out as the situation dictated.  I also remember vividly that we would lose characters on a regular basis, usually to the more powerful demons or devils or to the various types of dragons we battled more than likely as victims of their breath weapons.  We always used to joke that we would pour what was left of so and so into a flask to bring back to town to have resurrected later.  So losing characters was no big deal – either you got them resurrected if you had the cash or were high enough level to cast the spell or you just rolled up a new one.  We also started toying with psionics at this point as well.

After that group eventually stopped playing I got together with some other friends who were writing their own dungeons rather than buying the modules down at the local game store.  Probably the most notable of these was the twenty level or so Monty Hall dungeon we played in at a friend’s house around the corner from where I lived.  Essentially, we played once a week and just about every week, the DM would write up another dungeon level for us to explore and we kept it up until we reached level 20 where I’m pretty sure we defeated Azmodeaous or Demogorgon (or both) and took their stuff.  My character started out as a 1st level wizard on the first level of the dungeon and by the time he came out, he was a 19th level wizard who owned (2) one million gold piece gems which both had a demon trapped inside, a +6 dagger, a +6 demon slaying dagger, the Hand of Veccna and the Rod of Seven Parts.  Of course those were just the best stuff he cherry picked as we went along – you’ve gotta love Monty Hall dungeons!  You can see Elroy’s character sheet here:  Elroy the Archmage.  I found it several months back and was all goggle eyed over all of the artifacts he had in his possession.

It was around this time that I started buying dungeons and running them for my friends from time to time.  I bought the hall of the Fire Giant King and ran them through it with a high level party that pretty much breezed through the module.  Then I started writing my own dungeons.  I still have a few of these tucked away which I’ll post at some point.

So that’s my reminiscence of some of the most memorable role playing experiences I had as a kid playing D&D.  In high school, I started hanging out with some guys from the VCU Game Masters club who had regular meetings to play RPGs down at the nearby campus of the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.  These guys opened up my eyes to other role playing games which I had never considered playing before such as Pendragon, Call of Cthulu and Rune Quest in addition to D&D of various flavors (home brew mostly but one was set in Thieve’s World using Chaosium’s boxed set).  Some of these guys went on to work as game designers for Chaosium or as free lancers like Les Brooks, Sam Shirley and Daniel Greenberg.

This opened up a whole new world of role playing games and eventually I discovered Arms Law, Claw Law and Spell Law by Iron Crown Enterprises and started using it in games that I ran.  I basically just played D&D and swapped out the D&D weapon, monster, and spell stats and charts with the ones found in ICE Law.  Those combat tables had very vivid descriptions of all of the horrible results that could happen to you or your foe which were not only quite graphic but were also histerical in a morbid sort of way.  I also bought a few MERP modules like Moria and Mirkwood although I never actually played or ran anything for Middle Earth, they were just cool modules to read because I had read the Tolkien books.

Eventually, when I was in college at UVA I met my room mate's cousin who lived in town and had worked for ICE at one point who told me they needed people like me (architects and designers) to do layouts for them.  A few years after I graduated I eventually moved back to Charlottesville to start my own Architectural CAD business and started doing free lance illustrations for ICE.  This is when I really got into Rolemaster (I was doing trade dress art for it and even art for MERP modules) and pretty much stopped playing D&D altogether at that point.  I remember at the time thinking that D&D was for kids and since I was a grown up that I should play a more sophisticated system like Rolemaster despite its extreme complexity.

I had fun working for ICE and playing in RPGs with some of those guys (including Rolemaster, Pendragon and Call of Cthulu) but eventually, they lost their MERP license and the company filed for bankruptcy.  Some time before they filed for bankruptcy when I was still living in C’ville, I heard that some of those guys were playing D&D 3.0 and having fun with it so I decided to give it a shot.  It was sort of like the old D&D but seemed to be more about tweaking your character with all of the feat builds and prestige classes and stuff plus, the power scale seemed to have gotten higher (more hit points, more damage, higher AC etc.) and it became evident eventually that it was really a power gamers game (which I liked for a while).

So eventually, I moved back to Richmond and around 2004 got into another 3.0 game in town at a new friend’s house.  We eventually upgraded to 3.5 and then started playing a hybrid of 3.5 and Castles and Crusades (basically C&C with feats and some 3.5 signature spells).  Once we realized how bad the power gamer creep had gotten with 3.5, we dropped it altogether and just ran C&C.  This is about the time of the Temple of Elemental Evil campaign I mentioned above but we also played in the Lost City of Barakus and the Tomb of Abysthor before that by Necromancer Games.  Eventually, this group fell apart and I quit playing for a year or two but eventually I got the itch to play again.

I started poking around online and found a BBS post written by some guy who said he was getting back into AD&D and this eventually led me to read all about the original Castle Greyhawk game run by Gary Gygax and Rob Kuntz back in the day in Wisconsin.  This led me to discover Grodog’s Castle Greyhawk site and several OSR blogs including the Greyhawk Grognard’s among others.  I forwarded a link to Joe Bloch’s Castle of the Mad Archmage to our old DM and suggested that this was the kind of thing that made me want to play 1st Editition D&D again – it has a very old school module feel with the light blue maps and 1st Ed stats and stuff.  This was when he came up with the idea of running a Basic D&D game using the old Rules Cyclopedia.  I had recently downloaded several “free” retro clone PDFs including Swords and Wizardry, OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord and suggested that maybe we should try one of those.  Since he liked the B/X variety of basic with a little AD&D thrown in for good measure, he suggested that we try Labyrinth Lord.  The rest is history – we have been playing Labyrinth Lord with some 1st ED rules mixed in along with some house rules and have been having a blast since about July of 2010.

Its kind of funny how after having so much fun with D&D as a kid, I eventually moved on to other games, did the power gaming thing with 3.0/3.5 and eventually came to the realization that we should just play AD&D or basic again since C&C wasn’t quite the same as the old school stuff.  Anyway, that’s my entire role playing game history in a rather large nutshell.  I kind of discovered the OSR by accident after having a certain nostalgic yearning to play the game I played when I was a kid again.  It was a long journey but I’m glad I’m back to playing the game I love and I salute the Old School Renaissance for making so much cool stuff available to us old timers who want to “just say no” to Pathfinder and 4.0 D&D neither of which really capture the feel of the original game for me.


  1. Great post man, didn't realize until I was half-way through it that this is your blog. LOLz.

  2. That's pretty funny. You were probably thinking that some of this story was starting to sound familiar. Wait a minute - C&C with 3.5 feats - that's what we did! :)

  3. Good read and I must say after playing with you all last week my lust to play Old School D&D has actually diminshed my desire to play our Pathfinder campaigns. What strikes me the most is I have never been able to recapture the feel of when I played as a kid until playing the Averlorn campaign.


  4. I know what you mean. I tried all kinds of other games before I had the epiphany - why not just play 1st Ed or Basic D&D again since I had so much fun playing it as a kid? I still like the Chaosium games and a few others and am willing to try new things as well but if it ain't broke why fix it?

    1. I remember running you guys through T1, but I didn't have the rest of the T series modules back then, so you guys just used it as a way station to another adventure... Now you may have picked it up over the summer after I left town... dunno what happened then 'cuz my loop and yours diverged at that point in time. Interesting that you remember it though... I much more clearly remember running you, Peter, and Jay through the JG module of the Tower of Ulission. We finished up in your kitchen, and you just about did a table flip at the end.

  5. Yeah, I need to re-write this post a little in light of all of the info you gave me last week. Some of it is backwards (we did Jay's journey to Demogorgon's lair first and then T1) and from what you're saying we never played T1-4 (though I seem to remember bits and pieces from it for some reason so I may have owned it at one point or something). I vaguely remember the Tower of Ullison thing you mentioned but its a bit fuzzy. Since the whole thing turned out to be a dream I was probably upset that I couldn't keep the treasure or magic items or something but I don't really remember the details of that. I hope we at least got some experience points or something... LOL

  6. Oh my god I remember the ending now Dan with the whole 'it was all a dream' ending and the look on your face. we where all pretty unhappy. It literately just jumped into my mind and poof I was 14 again, god I hate 14 and 15 and 16 and 17 sucked too. Hormones, Hormones, hormones running thru you head non stop. Must stop thinking about titties, oh god where did that come from? Argh

    Flash back over!
    All better now.

    1. I do remember Jay solving the riddle:

      When the road diverges it is clear to me,
      that sinister is dexter for all to see.
      Yes, dexter is as sinister as can be.

      I was very impressed by that... and yes you all got the xps... but none of the loot.. (and none of the xps for the loot either)...

      And we made 17 great for all those around us... So go ahead and flash back.


  7. I remember the silver lining now - Peter's character wasn't really dead after all! But if it was only a dream, why did we all share the same dream? Or was it something else?

    I thought it was interesting that the name is almost an anagram for illusion:


    So was there more to it than "it was just a dream"? Were gods involved or was there powerful magic at work or something?

  8. I believe it was the precursor to the module "Sword of Hope" - in that it was supposed to test your resolve before you could be selected on the quest. I did not get my hands on that next adventure for several years... Before online shopping, availability of product was usually a problem. Now it's all online, and you can pick and choose what you want... you can probably get a pdf of whatever you want and print it out tonight or read it on your tablet or iPad.

    I only went to High Command Hobbies in Richmond, because it was the closest place that carried gaming materials. There was a camera shop in Ohio that I could walk to that had one rack of new TSR stuff, and when I moved to CA, I game shopped at the "Game Tree" on the Balboa Peninsula, just off Lido Island. There really were not a lot of places that carried gaming supplies back then.

    I was amazed by "The Complete Strategist" in NYC. There were a couple of them in Manhattan. Later in California, there was an incredible game shop in the South Coast Plaza Mall... It might still be hard to find the stuff you're looking for if not for the internet... now everything is on Amazon.com - or some such place.