Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Nostalgia is the Wrong Word

I started playing tabletop games around 1994, but even before that I was fascinated by RPGs in general. I'd played my fair share of games on the old Nintendo Entertainment System without realizing the games I enjoyed the most belonged to a particular genre, and why would I? I was like, nine or ten at best.

Somewhere else in the world, people were already enjoying roleplaying games played around a table with dice and books. It was in the era of fear about what it represented, though, and I guarantee that if I came home with a D&D book in hand, my at-the-time staunchly Catholic mother would have dragged me off to confession after a solid whipping. Yet, despite the protestations of the myriad fear-mongers, the hobby survived and grew in ways I didn't come to appreciate until years later.

I've had my hands in all manner of game systems, from the Dungeons and Dragons I prattle on about at length to various Storyteller system games put out by White Wolf. There were dips into settings represented by their own custom rules such as the Song of Ice and Fire RPG, as well as the occasional traipse into stuff like Shadowrun, but I missed out on the nascent eras of tabletop gaming. My first tabletop RPGs were run in 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, so I'd already skipped over the heady days of race-is-class and adventures in Blackmoor.

In the last couple of years, the power of the almighty Internet has opened doors into that bygone era (through handily-available PDFs for sale at reputable and, above all, legal sources), and I dove in eagerly, wanting to see for myself these ancient texts of nerdly lore - in particular, the original Dungeons and Dragons rulesets. I have to admit, I've been pleasantly surprised. In reading them, I've experienced something akin to nostalgia, but having never really played those systems and settings, I'm not entirely sure that word accurately describes it.

There's an excellent retro-clone created by Autarch by the name of Adventurer Conqueror King System built off of the rules, but even after playing a few games of it, I can't really say it prepared me for the odd sensation of reading the inspirations. At this point, I've gotten my hands on most everything up through the Rules Cyclopedia and most of the Known World gazetteers and devoured every line of text and overburdened table. It's been an interesting journey.

I won't pretend there weren't design choices that (at the time) probably seemed like good ones, but nowadays we look back on and cringe. Thirty-some-odd years of iteration will make improvements, for sure. Some of the regions of the world were contrived or were constructed around farcical stereotypes. But there was something distinctly fantastical about it; they didn't attempt to make apologies or explanations (at least, that I found) about why the world was hollow, or how a nuclear reactor from the previous epoch buried deep within the earth emits "magic", et cetera.

Okay, well, they do explain that latter one in a later book. An Immortal did it. But the setting was unapologetic about its absurdities, sometimes, and there's something really fun about that to me.

Even the text of a class description implies things about the setting that are not explicitly called out. Brandes over at Tribality commented in an article of his about the Avenger sub-class (prestige class?) of the Rules Cyclopedia fighter about how the concept of being able to stroll up to a Chaotic monster lair and demand sanctuary suggests fascinating things about the nature of monsters in the world.

I could probably never run these rules around a table of modern gamers as anything other than a night in the wayback machine; and I don't at all mean that in the pejorative sense. Gaming sensibilities have rightfully matured, and we no longer try to justify unnecessarily obtuse rules or vast chasms between the functionality of characters with "that's just how the book is, suck it up" (well, you can, but it might make you kind of a jerk if you say it that way).

Of course, nothing stops one from just strapping in with the current rules and taking that world for a wild ride. It would be like going on the adventures your uncle always talked about doing when he was young, in places no one goes anymore because they built a parking lot and a mall there fifteen years ago. There's something compelling about seeing how a party of adventurers today would handle a trip to Castle Caldwell or face down the Master of the Desert Nomads in Red Arrow, Black Shield.

Some day, maybe. When I have vastly more free time than I actually do.

1 comment:

  1. You know, I have been review the Gazetteers which were the base setting for the old D&D rules. They added some rules complexity to the system, though they are a bit piecemeal about it.