Friday, March 23, 2018

My RPG Life Story

It's weird. I don't think my 3-years-ago self would have imagined wanting to be a part of the Old School Renaissance community. 

I was quite the crunchy lad back then. Whatever the reason, I had developed a special kind of disdain for Old School gaming. It was a sentiment shared and no doubt passed through my friend groups: the idea that Old School style D&D was this kind of less-evolved relic, a progenitor that had outlived its usefulness and was to be replaced with something shinier, newer, better. New School crunch, New School design ideals, and Heroic Narrative were here, and it was superior. I suspect a lot of my friends still feel the same way.

But I don't, at least not anymore. There's been a self-initiated unlearning/learning process on my part. It took some kind of theory/creative immersion for me to question the things I had taken for granted since High School. I doubt many of my friends have the time to go pouring through the blogs that I read on the side-scroll, like I have. Back in the day, there wasn't anyone to teach me or my friends ways of wisdom - my Dad played D&D in college with his buds, and had a few D&D 2E books lying around the house (my second exposure to D&D), but he never played after that (until very recently, at my behest).

The Infinity Hotel is a great way to break the ice. (Picture source)

So everything I initially learned about tabletop was through 3.5e rules books and friends who learned from friends, books, or older siblings.Video Games likely had a tremendous impact in how we (my peer group) thought about RPGs. Early D&D influenced Video Game RPGs that influenced Later D&D. Tabletop RPGs have Rules and Rulings. Video Games have Laws. There is absolutely no wiggle room outside of the parameters created for a Video Game. The impact of those assumptions no doubt leaked back into our tabletop. I surmise that this, more than anything else, influenced my early thoughts on RPG play.

It was swirling around in this cocktail that I was introduced to D&D 3.5 - my first experience with Tabletop RPGs (this was in the 00's, for context. I'm currently 26). I played maybe 3 instances of play from 6th-12th grade, which is to say that play was virtually nonexistent for me. But I loooooooved the books. I loved reading them, I loved creating characters, imagining the possibilities. I printed off character sheets and made stacks of builds for characters I would never play. I achieved System Mastery completely divorced from the Table. Despite being very antisocial during High School, I suspect that I wasn't the only one who did this. I've discovered plenty of my current friends who, like me, have collections of D&D 3.5 books that they read but barely never used.

Every single experience of D&D play I had during those early years was basically the beginning of an aborted campaign. One session in and the DM has run out of creative juice, the Rogue is backstabbing other players, and that poor helpless farmer pulls out a minigun and rakes the party from a thatched hut roof. Y'know, dumb kid stuff. The sort of behavior that probably inspired Lord of the Flies.

This, over the course of 2 hours, with more hurt feelings.

When it wasn't this, it was some type of Rules exploitation or Rules Lawyering that brought the game down. Man, we really needed some guidance. D&D is hard for kids to figure out all on their own. Puberty-voyaging-boys in particular. Elgh.

After High School there was a pretty long hiatus. I didn't pick up tabletop outside of the errant one-shot again until post-college-graduation. In the meantime my creative outlet was online roleplay (RP), on World of Warcraft first, then play-by-post fan forums. Aside from Video Games and 3.5e rulebooks, online RP has been the biggest influence on how I approach tabletop.

The protocols of proper RP largely informed about how I thought about myself as a Player and a DM. See, for those of your unfamiliar with RP in MMOs, there's largely three forms of it: Guild/Cliche/Friend play, Event RP, and RPing with Randoms around hubs. I had a lot of experience with the first and the last, moreso than the second. In the later parts of this period, the Play-by-Post stuff went to exclusively Cliche/Friend play.

RP with randoms in MMOs is basically anarchy. There are rules that most people will subscribe to, and the only method of enforcing them is ignoring/blacklisting (collectively ignoring) violators. Functionally, this resembles a power structure closer to what the OSR calls "Storygames" than D&D proper. Sometimes it was great. Sometimes it was notoriously awful. Either way, the sort of restrictions that good roleplayers put on themselves (such as never declaring what other peoples' character do, never declaring an action upon a PC is successful unless it is agreed to be so, and never being publicly sexually explicit, and only privately with consent) seeped into my consciousness, and no doubt had an impact on what sort of limitations I would have, later, as a DM.

Pretty much rode right over the whole 4e period and the beginnings of the OSR. I imagine that if I went straight from that to tabletop it'd be towards a more "Storygame" approach. Not sure if those were around yet. Either way, didn't know about it.


Then cometh 5e. I'd graduated college and had a stable job. I decide to start up a D&D campaign with my friends. 5e was the game being played, and man is it all the rage. We decide to try that. (We were about to start the campaign on Pathfinder, until I suggested otherwise.)

The campaign started out rough. There was an excellent creative idea at its core, enough to inspire campaign ideas for years. The execution of it, however...

There isn't a single one of us who don't reminiscence about the start of Tidelock without a little bit of cringe. It was like eating a pizza without sauce. Pizza, no sauce, left beef. Nothing really stuck. Just a bunch of meat haphazardly cast onto some baked dough.

I, admittedly, giggled like a child discovering a naughty word when uploading this picture.

We were adults now, though. Gone were the social problems of High/Middle Schoolers. The design and creative problems remained. The entire first few months of play was basically an occasionally-fight-things railroad disguised as a wilderness exploration hexcrawl. Plot prepped, as it was expected to be, by everyone at the table. We ended up reinforcing a lot of our own bad design practices.

Despite the system mastery I inherited from obsessing over 3.5e books, and despite the creative expertise and power-dynamic consciousness granted from years of RP, I didn't have the design vocabulary to describe the frustrations we were all feeling at the table.

Whereto than the Internet for assistance!

The first time I was introduced to an OSR blog was when I put in a Google search for "Best RPG blogs". I think I hit a result on EN World, a Top Ten list curating a dirty dozen. (the number 1 entry was EN World, btw.) One that caught my eye was Courtney Campbell's Hack and Slash. And down the rabbit hole I went.

One thing led to another. I'd found a new obsessive passion. Between it and Justin Alexander's The Alexandrian, I encountered the vocabulary, the diagnosis tools, and the theory behind what was wrong at my table. Hell, the Alexandrian wrote The Railroading Manifesto. That pretty much clarified my main problem right there. Later, Gus L. would go an clarify some other problems I had post-campaign-start excised from my games, in this article about Challenge Rating (something I'd taken for granted, infused by 3.5e), and this one about Goblins and lame-ass encounters.


Then Fire on the Velvet Horizon by Patrick Stuart and Scrap Princess came out. I read the OSR reviews. That was the first RPG book I'd ever purchased that wasn't from Wizards or Paizo. It blew my frickin' mind. It made me think about RPGs in a way I'd never thought about them before. It was the creative gateway that defined the design possibilities for my homebrew campaign from then on. It, along with Goblin Punch by Arnold K. and Patrick's False Machine blog, instilled a sense of wonder about the possibility space of games that hadn't existed there since Video Game Expectations steamrolled it over in Middle School.

Cue the splurge. Slumbering Ursine Dunes, Stonehell , Anomalous Subsurface Environment. And so, so many more. Too many to list here.

I can barely even look at WotC products anymore (with exception to the Player's Handbook). I can probably thank Bryce over at for that - a blog that made me rethink how I presented my material, to myself and others. Pound home the idea of terse evocative descriptions long enough and it eventually sticks like glue. I use WotC products as paperweights now. Long reign the DIY attitude.


Up until around two months ago, when I started this blog, I've been a largely passive member of the OSR community. I bought stuff, quietly read blogs, worked on my two homebrew campaigns, and admired from afar. I've thought about if and how to consider publishing some of the adventures conceived and run privately over the past two years. (Basically all of the stuff is written, it's just that the actual hurdle of making it digital, finding artists, formatting, map-making, publishing, is keeping it in my campaign notebooks. The first giant step into the unknown is the hardest for an amateur.)

Goodberry Monthly is first real active measure I've taken to get myself involved. And, although, it's a bit of a late-comer to the scene, in a place already pretty saturated with blogs, it's been a modestly rewarding process. Being part of a community bigger than around twenty people is a new experience. It's easy to get lost in the sea of ideas.

But Man, what an interesting and wonderful sea the OSR is. I can hardly imagine wanting to set roots in any other community. The excited mysterious energy in it is contagious. It's inspiring. It makes me care about RPGs. It makes me want to do. Of all of my influences, I can't thank the OSR enough for how its improved my design and my play.

And I'm sure my players can thank you guys, too. They get to experience the OSR at the table, at least indirectly. I see the sense of wonder in their eyes and hear it in the excitement of their voices. I see it in the art they make and when they brag about the campaign to their friends. They're playing a game that engages them and makes them think, as am I.

Really, it's all I could've hoped for, though my 13 year old self wouldn't know how to describe it. 

Thanks, OSR. I'm glad to finally give something back.

- Martin


  1. Thanks for sharing! Sounds like you and I had a somewhat similar stumbling-into the OSR after frustration with things learned in 3 and 3.5. My dad would regale me with stories from playing D&D when it was just the LBBs, but I could never get the same kind of play with 3. Lo and behold, I read about the West Marches, started trying to figure out hexcrawls at the Welsh Piper blog, and finally ended up at Jeff's Gameblog, Hack and Slash, etc.

    I had the additional fortune of having purchased a set of the B/X rulebooks from a used bookstore as a curiosity some years ago, and using them I've been happily playing old-school for six years now, or as near old-school as I could teach myself from the blogs.

    Here's to the OSR!

    1. Right? Most people don't know what they're missing. It's like there's this massive complex of resources dedicated to teaching people D&D, but it seems to fail so many.

  2. Replies
    1. You should check out Ben's blog Mazarin's Garden if you haven't. He runs a great game as well.

    2. Will do, Gus. Thanks for the recommendation!

  3. I came into D&D with 3.5 too, and the freedom gained by unlearning those habits is a great and wonderful thing.

    1. Right? It's like, as soon as I shucked off all of the habits and expectations I'd learned from 3.5 and video games things turned for the better.

  4. I started with AD&D 2E, though my high-school experience was possibly better than yours; very small group, very outlandish ideas, but relatively long play. We had the fun of our life. I moved on to 3E, which did fit my growing "gearhead" tendencies. However, when I tried running 3E to my then-spouse, 3E was ill-suited for this. Prep for me was a horrible chore. For her, a beginner in tabletop RPGs, the rules were annoyingly clunky. So I looked for alternatives. I looked at my old 2E books, but I disliked parts of them such as THAC0; I had the same issues with Labyrinth Lord. Then I stumbled upon BFRPG, which was extremely enjoyable - much more than 3E. I eventually moved on to ACKS and Swords & Wizardry: White Box.

    In sci-fi, however, I was always old-school, having grown up on Classic Traveller. I am still involved with Classic Traveller and with the OSR Cepheus Engine (which is similar enough to Classic Traveller and is OGL, allowingeasy publishing)...

    1. Yeah man, prep for new school is the worst. I actually got so sick of making stat blocks for 5E creatures that I hacked it to resemble Old School just to save me time, so I didn't have to spend half of my adventure design on writing stats.

  5. I started old school but in the late 80s and the 90s, TSR convinced me that the way they told us to play was the only right way, and for that I needed the newest books. Wizards, same. It was clever and insidious marketing!

    Upon the 40th anniversary in 2014, I rediscovered older play while reading about how Gary and Dave did it.

    It’s not better, it’s different. But to me, it’s also better.