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There is No One True Way -- A Rant

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There is no one true way to play D&D. Personally, I consider this the soul of "Old School" D&D. You bought the rules (be they Original D&D, AD&D, B/X D&D, or BECMI D&D) and you as GM get to do with them whatever you want. The rules are just guidelines for creating your unique campaign. If you want to base your game on OD&D but take what you like from AD&D, the Arduin Grimoires, Gamma World, Runequest, and a bunch of stuff from Dragon, White Dwarf, and Different Worlds and mix that with a heaping helping of your own house rules and call the result "playing D&D" that's fine. This is how campaigns worked in the 1970s and early 1980s. Very few people gave a damn about official rules and exactly what version of D&D was being played.

Some players who played D&D in the 1970s seem to have forgotten this and have developed a "rules purism" that would make many a "new school" player proud. I'm not sure where the "rules-purism" I see among some grognards today comes from. It was a (very tiny) minority position in the 1970s, IMHO. They seem to have forgotten how little people cared back when "old school" was the bright and shiny new game on the block.

Most people played OD&D with thieves (and most of the other classes from Greyhawk). Really, they did. But games that didn't have them weren't considered not really D&D. People modified the combat system all the time. This is why the argument over ascending/descending AC in grognard circles today strikes me as silly. I saw OD&D (and AD&D and other TSR D&Ds) played with all sorts of modified to-hit tables: ascending, descending, percentage, attribute-based, playing card based(!!), etc. My favorite weird one was probably the one a friend used where hit points remaining were used instead of levels in the to-hit table (so the more "wounded/tired" a being was, the less accurately they hit).

Yet I've gotten lectured in email on the evils of some of the optional rules for m74 I put in Ancients Aurguries and my post on Body Points and Hit Points for S&W -- claiming that such optional rules are "too far" from OD&D. This despite the fact that I was using an earlier form of the BP/HP split as early as 1977 or so. I haven't published the "spell point" part of my BP/HP system because I'm not in the mood to deal with the fallout. Spell points are evil, you know, and make OD&D not OD&D even though adding some type of spell point system was a very early and relatively common house rule for OD&D. ::sigh::

At times, I feel like I've walked into some alternate timeline where the various editions of TSR D&D were played very strictly by the book in the 1970s and 1980s, where the various TSR editions of D&D were so different that adventures written for one edition simply could not be used in any of the others without the DM spending days rewriting them, and where house rules that changed whatever someone thought were the core of D&D resulted in the offending DM being jailed. That's just not the reality I gamed in.

If you are telling others that they can't do x or use rule y in their D&D game and still be "old school" -- especially if things like x and y were done in some "D&D" campaigns back in the 1974-1984 era -- I have to question just how old school you really are. Sure, it is possible to drift into "new school" if you aren't careful but "old school D&D" can stand many more changes than many grognards seem willing to tolerate today.

Note: Since I wrote the first draft of this rant this morning, I discovered a post Dave at Sham's Grog 'n Blog made today: It's all D&D to me. This post makes a similar point. We called what we played "D&D" back in the day no matter how many different editions of D&D we borrowed ideas and rules from.

James Maliszewski said...
April 16, 2009 at 11:38 PM  

Well said.

Must be something in the air, because I have my own version of this post in draft form.

Sham aka Dave said...
April 17, 2009 at 3:38 AM  

Good stuff, Randall. I actually put together three posts on a related theme, the next two are scheduled for Friday and Saturday. The last touches on your topic but loops back to why it might be best to simply call your games D&D. Adding labels adds expectations.

Anonymous said...
April 17, 2009 at 3:48 AM  

"At times, I feel like I've walked into some alternate timeline where the various editions of TSR D&D were played very strictly by the book..."

That's because we're so good at retconning in our games... ;)

Chgowiz said...
April 17, 2009 at 7:20 AM  

Why is there ranting in the OSR blogs lately about this? I thought this had died down? Is there an epic war regarding OTW'ism that I'm missing somewhere?

Chris said...
April 17, 2009 at 7:27 AM  

Of course there's One True Way, and that is "however we're doing it this week". It goes for your game, for mine, and for every other game out there. Anything else is just solipsistic territorial bellowing from the hilltops.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to wallow merrily in the filth of my systemic and sub-cultural inpurity. ;)

jamused said...
April 17, 2009 at 8:23 AM  

Aw, I'd like to see your spell point system, since I've just finished the HP/Stamina split for my house rules/homebrew and I'm starting on the spell point system....

Matthew James Stanham said...
April 17, 2009 at 8:29 AM  

I think it comes from people not understanding the rules in their youth, and then coming to understand them as they get older. The experience of discovering that "you have been doing it wrong" is somewhat akin to a religious conversion, in that the converts tend to be far more interested in converting others to their "on true way" than the folks who were doing it right from the start.

Personally, I enjoy figuring out the rules as an mental exercise and understanding their relation to the development of the game, but it doesn't stop me from using whatever rules I please in my own games. I may voice opposition to the methods of others, but only as a form of discourse - and not if they don't want to be challenged on the subject.

Spell points Gygax has given some discussion to, both in Role-playing Mastery and (I think) in Dragon. He did not consider such a method suitable for D&D without other major changes, and his opinion carries a lot of weight with regard to what is and is not suitable for D&D.

Jeff Rients said...
April 17, 2009 at 9:05 AM  

I think a lot of us are going through the same basic experience.

1) Reading old rulebooks for the first time. Or re-reading them closely for the first time in years.

2) Realizing that there's a lot of extremely cool stuff in those musty pages that seemed to go by the wayside in recent years.

3) Taking that cool stuff too seriously for a little while.

4) Wising up about point three, but noticing that other people are still at that stage.

Seems like a perfectly natural progression to me. The key thing to learn here is there's a difference between "I'm playing X by the book because I'm curious what will happen." or "I play X by the book because I like it." and "I'm playing X by the book because it is holy writ."

Two other points:

I'd love to see card-based to-hits. That could be fun!

That dude who emailed you was way off base.

Aaron W. Thorne said...
April 17, 2009 at 10:19 AM  

In regards to "It's all just D&D," I run a PBeM game of Basic Fantasy RPG, and one of the players constantly refers to it as "that D&D game you run." It doesn't matter what the rules set is, as long as it involves swording orcs for treasure it's D&D to him.

Gamer Dude said...
April 17, 2009 at 10:59 AM  

I'm with jamused...I'd love to get a look at your spell point system. I'm currently using one in my Labyrinth Lord game but I'm always on the look out for ideas.

I agree w/ everyone else here, I've never been a fan of "strictly by the rules" play. Tailoring the game to fit your group has always been the idea...or so I thought.

James Maliszewski said...
April 17, 2009 at 11:06 AM  

Mr Rients speaks wisdom, as ever.

Randall said...
April 17, 2009 at 11:31 AM  

James and Dave,

I'm looking forward to your posts on this subject. I guess this came to a head for several of us about the same time.

Randall said...
April 17, 2009 at 12:07 PM  

Chgowiz said: "Why is there ranting in the OSR blogs lately about this?"I don't know why others are ranting on this. I'm ranting on it because I'm fed up with the emails I've been getting. I'm tired of being told:

1) Microlite74 is not really an old school game because it uses one or more of these things: ascending AC, a D20-style hit roll, different hit points, and/or the same XP cost for all classes.

2) Any use of spell points makes the game not only "not D&D" but "not old school." (I've also been told this about using psionics.)

3) Using rules from Greyhawk (especially thieves or the additional spells) makes the campaign not OD&D.

4) Borrowing rules and ideas from other old games is okay, but borrowing anything from any game published after 1990 or so makes it not old school D&D. It doesn't matter if similar ideas were used as house rules in some campaigns back in the 1970s, the fact they they appeared in commercial games in recent years makes them automatically not old school enough.

I'm also tired of complaints I've seen recently about the minor differences between rules sets making it too hard to publish modules that can be used with any original system or retro-clone. This somehow implies that gamemasters today are too stupid to figure out how to handle a module where AC 10 is unarmored when they game says AC 9 is unarmored or what to do with a monster that uses a power not in their rules or has eight-sided hit dice when their game uses six-sided. Most gamemasters did not have much trouble with this back in the 1980s, after all. I really doubt a GM running a retro-clone today is any less capable.

Finally, I'm tired of hearing that the only real way to play "old school" is a mega-dungeon or a pure sandbox campaign. I personally like sandbox campaigns and megadungeons, but I saw a lot of different play style in the late 1970s including some so much more story oriented that they were doing some narrative control things now associated with Indie/Forge games. The "Old School" movement seems to me to be in danger of limiting the style of acceptable play just as 4e has -- just with different intentions. IMHO, this is a very bad road to travel.

I'm probably over reacting a bit, but ranting about the problems I see is good for my blood pressure.

Jeff Rients said...
April 17, 2009 at 2:05 PM  

"Finally, I'm tired of hearing that the only real way to play "old school" is a mega-dungeon or a pure sandbox campaign."

Agreed. I think we should celebrate and embrace the megadungeon and sandbox as excellent tools. All the "OMG! Megadungeons ROXXORS!!!1!!" in the world won't make it the right tool for every job.

Randall said...
April 17, 2009 at 9:48 PM  

Jeff said: "I'd love to see card-based to-hits. That could be fun!"

Unfortunately, I don't know much about it. One of my players in the late 70s was away at college most of the year where one of the campaigns he played in used it. Unfortunately, he wasn't big on rules, so he wasn't sure how it worked beyond the basics. I'll try to write up what I recall of how he said it worked as a post this weekend.

"That dude who emailed you was way off base."

Dudes. This has been going on since I started working on Microlite74 last summer. Note there haven't been a huge flood of letters and PMs. It's only a few people, but last several have arrived about a week apart and have pushed a number of my buttons. Therefore my blog gets treated to a rant.

Chris T said...
April 18, 2009 at 1:58 AM  

"My favorite weird one was probably the one a friend used where hit points remaining were used instead of levels in the to-hit table (so the more "wounded/tired" a being was, the less accurately they hit)."

I like this rule mod.. I like it a lot - with a bit of tweaking.. : )

Mr Rients at 8.05AM: OTM.

I think sandbox may be the best way to start a campaign and let it snowball from there according to your tastes.

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