Thursday, March 4, 2010

My Old School Gaming Experience (Part 2)

Reading through the Labyrinth Lord Core Rules and then re-visiting my old D&D Basic and Expert Set rulebooks not only brought back memories and insights into my eventual preferences in terms of RPG system, setting, storytelling, and gameplay. Here are some of them:

System and setting disconnects
Early on, my approach to D&D gaming was in terms of system. I didn't quite understand the concept of having multiple settings, or changes to the setting that would necessitate house rules. In Sorry! and in chess, there are rules that you follow, and if you don't, you're not playing the game.

When I happened upon the following passage in Labyrinth Lord, I remembered the old D&D and AD&D rules dealing with the same issue:

"Clerics can use any form of armor and weapons except for weapons that have a sharp edge. This eliminates weapons such as swords, axes, and arrows, but not slings, maces, or other blunt items. Strict holy doctrine prevents clerics from using any cutting or impaling weapons."

I didn't bother me that much when I first encountered similar rules back in my youth, but I do remember that it ran counter to my expectations of the milieu. I couldn't remember any equivalent examples in the modest number of fantasy novels or exceedingly bad fantasy movies that I'd encountered at the time. I think I even began wondering if clerics should have been pure spellcasters and less inclined towards battle -- making it a very boring character class to play in my not-quite-teenaged mind.

Now I realize that this system rule is one that provokes thought about the setting: what is it about ALL religions in the D&D game that prevent you from using edged weapons? What is the doctrine, and is it true? And why would evil gods care?

It's possible that my eventual preoccupation with the Hero System was because I wanted to be able to tinker with classes while still retaining a concept that my juvenile mind had the barest grasp of: game balance.

Building character the old-fashioned way: earning it
Many modern games I enjoyed playing (and continue to enjoy), tend to favor a less random, more involved character creation cycle. Above and beyond any complexity in total or partial point-based character creations system, the character tends to be more fully realized from the start (immediate family, parents, childhood trauma, adult trauma, past loves, enemies, etc.) than in older games.

I would caution newer players against doing so for games like B/X D&D, AD&D and Call of Cthulhu, because low-level characters (and in the case of Call of Cthulhu, even high-level ones) have a distressing tendency to die -- somehow invalidating the effort put into the character backstory.

Interestingly enough, both B/X D&D and Call of Cthulhu have very fast character creation cycles for low-level characters, and it's relatively easy to come up with a new character and drop them into the storyline with some narrative handwaving.

The lesson of such games to me -- go with broad-stroke characterization for characters at the start. If your character survives, then you can begin working with the GM to build up backstory and stronger ties to the gaming milieu.

I'm not saying that it's superior to other types of RPG character creation systems. But I do believe that it is a valid one -- very much reminiscent of several sword & sorcery heroes whose pasts and childhoods are shrouded in mystery, but  whose great loves and great foes are all recorded in the narrative now.

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