My entry into D&D and roleplaying

May 31, 2014

Been reading around, with all the D&D 5E hype going on, and also poking at the ongoing OSR stuff about.  I think it’s really interesting how many folks “suddenly” claim they’ve always played the way detailed in the Quick Primer for Old School Gaming since it’s come out… but few really wrote about that before.   I figured it might be good to drop a post about my experiences getting into D&D and what that was like.


My first actual hearing about roleplaying games was ads in comic books.  The ads for D&D, Robotech, Teenager Mutant Ninja Turtles – all of that sounded pretty awesome.  I saw 2 seconds of gaming in ET or things like Cloak and Dagger – but none of it really showed you what roleplaying actually looked like or how it worked.  The “ZOMG SATANIC WORSHIP” panic wave didn’t get to me until years later, so that wasn’t really a forbidden fruit thing for me either.   There was folks with swords, dragons, and spaceships.  I wanted in.

Blue Box Holmes: I don’t get it

One of my older cousins gave me the Blue Box Holmes game.  I never got a chance to ask him how to play it, but I tried to figure it out on my own.  Despite having a rather sizable vocabulary and getting into advanced placement classes, I couldn’t figure out how to play the game AT ALL.   So, it got put aside, though I’d try to figure it out every so often and just walk away more pissed off.

Red Box: Yes, sorta

Red Box is where I actually feel I started getting into D&D.  The rules were clear enough, the choose-your-own-adventure in the game made things a lot easier to understand.  But that doesn’t mean it was entirely clear – especially for someone who had only really played boardgames before.   I had gotten together a bunch of kids at school and tried to run it during lunch… and discovered several problems:

1) 45 minutes is not enough time to make characters when everyone has to pick equipment

2) No one (myself included) really had any idea what a reasonable amount of time to run a session should look like

3) The cover shows a guy fighting a dragon, alone.  The game has a new party getting mauled by 3 giant rats… pretty regularly.

4) The book doesn’t really detail how you need to operate to make rulings on the fly, for people who’ve only played games where your options are limited to what kind of “moves” are listed in your boardgame.

So, yes, I’d try this repeatedly, and get various aborted attempts.  I at least got as far as to seeing there could be something interesting in this, but since everyone kept dying right away, I assumed I was simply “playing it wrong” somehow.  (I managed a better entry through TMNT and Robotech, both of which are more forgiving in fights and better model the genre expectations they present.)

“You’re playing it wrong! You’re not doing the thing that no one told you about!”

Later, I’d find out that not only is avoiding most fights the way to go, doing things beyond “attack” and having a DM who would make rulings that favor that is the way to go.  Mind you, this is what the Old School Primer was for me, but it actually highlights a terrible flaw in the written rules of D&D in that regard – “If you don’t like the rules, change them” isn’t the same as “Players should actively try to find creative solutions/stunts and the GM is expected to make rulings on them as a core point of play and here’s a page or two of examples”.

This also sits on top of the fact that so much of D&D’s legacy rules actually expected players to have multiple characters, each.  The high lethality, the randomized stat rolls, the low number of spells for casters, the caster/fighter power difference at higher levels – all of that disappears as problems when everyone has several characters.

Telling me how to play the game is part of design

So, over the years, one stance I remain firm on is that you actually have to tell people HOW to play your game.

To be sure, now it’s a lot easier because anyone can go online and watch some play-throughs on Youtube or other sites, but why should people HAVE to go somewhere besides the game you’ve sold them to get the basic gist of how to play?

Missing key parts like this is broken and it’s always been a point of contention when people basically argue, “It’s not broken, it works just fine (when I add all these procedures that aren’t in the book actually)!”  I mean, I could sell you a car without an engine and tell you it’s fine when you put an engine in… but…

D&D, OSR, etc.

As it’s always been, the question I’m wondering as I look through a lot of the discussions is how many folks are talking from their own play experiences, and then, how many recognize when/where they apply fudging/drift?   Because the game you’re playing might be awesome, but if it’s really awesome because you’re doing XYZ on top of what it gave you… the text rules aren’t necessarily going to give me or anyone else the same awesome experience.

What’s going to be a particular challenge for D&D 5E is if you’re going to take these judgement based rulings as a core part of play, is what advice/procedures do you put on it?  If they’re not there, you can basically take us back 25 years to young me trying to figure out why everyone dies in the first 10 minutes fighting rats, despite being badass adventurers…   And having folks walk away.

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