The Red Box Blog

Ramblings about D&D.

Old School D&D

I have been playing RPGs in general, and Dungeons and Dragons in particular for more than two thirds of my life. But, I have pretty much always been chasing the high of those first few months of playing. With the possible exception of the Star Wars RPG game I ran in the early 90s, everything has paled in comparison to that first game on the fun meter.

Looking back I can point to moments when the fun level dropped further, never to return to previous highs. As these drops always coincides with changes in my life and my gaming habits I had always looked at them as a personal experience – but during the past year I have come to think this may have been a huge oversight.

I starting playing D&D in 1986 with the coloured box sets; that first summer was probably the highlight of my whole childhood.

I started playing AD&D in 1987, at about the same time I moved to a new neighbourhood. At first I only played with Warren, the only friend I retained from my first neighbourhood. In time I made new friends in my new neighbourhood and we all had a great time.

In 1989 I started high school, and this shook up my gaming experience; except for Warren I was stripped of my old gaming group. Meanwhile I formed a gaming club at school. Though there was still fun to be had gaming, during high school was the first time I began to see some aspects of gaming as work.

In the early 2000s I started playing in Jay’s group, which at first had me really interested, but over time wore on me. I had so many little complaints, that eventually I left his group, thinking I could do better on my own.

In 2003 I started DMing the same group that a play with today, though we haven’t played consistently through that time. One constant theme through all the years we have played is that I keep getting turned off of new campaigns shortly after they begin. (in the same way I lost interest in Jay’s game now that I think about it)

Our most recent game is a campaign that I had been planning on running since the late 80s. I should have been filled with joy to be finally doing this, yet I was not. It seemed a real chore more than anything. The fact that at least one player didn’t like it just makes it harder.

So it would seem that through some combination of being burnt out, unable to be an 11 year old again, and nostalgia my experience with gaming has gone steadily downhill. But is that the real reason?

Here’s some important other changes that occurred at the same time as the ones listed above.

  • 1986 – I start playing D&D
  • 1987 – I start playing AD&D
  • 1989 – 2nd Edition AD&D comes out
  • 2000 – 3rd Edition D&D comes out
  • 2008 – 4th Edition D&D comes out

Now make no mistake, I am not someone who thinks that editions have been down grades; I have felt each edition of D&D has been an improvement on the one before from a purely rules perspective.

But one thing that is true of any game, is that sometimes changing a rule can have unintended consequences; making a rule better can sometimes make the game worse. Rather than list lone examples amongst the thousands of changes that have been made over the five editions I have played, I will try to bring a narrative to some of the important trends.


The earliest incarnations of D&D didn’t really have stories, at least not as gamers perceive them today. It might be better termed that there was an explanation for what was happening.

By the time I started to play having a thin but largely irrelevant story for each session was the norm. Over the years the stories got deeper, and then expanded till the notion that entire campaigns needed to be tied together in massive over arching plots became standard.

But in an effort to make larger more coherent stories, player choice – the thing that set RPGs apart from all other games – got pushed aside. Also lost was the notion the you never really win in an RPG, except by virtue of having fun together.

(its interesting to note that video games have under gone an almost identical progression; 30 years ago there was no story and you could never “beat” a video game; but over the years they have became story rich and skill poor)


In the early days of RPGs death was a common and some times unavoidable experience. But over the years more and more protections have been put in place to keep characters alive. In my first campaign we went through characters faster than snacks; I have never seen a character die in 4E.

Like the growing amount of story, this might seem good, but the consequences of it are huge. If PCs don’t ever die then there is no fear of death – no exhilaration as they try to dodge danger. And no fear of death means that the players get less of a high from in-game success. And finally no fear of death means that the players play the game much like they would read a book, just going from one encounter to the next to see how it will end.

Rules vs. Descriptions

One thing the 4E detractors like to bring up is how the system is very heavy on combat rules (there are over 800 powers in each of the PHBs!). The feeling is that this crushes creativity. The thing that those detractors (who are usually pro-3E) miss, is that every edition has had heavier combat rules than the one before and every edition has been accused of killing creativity. Ten years ago 3E detractors screamed that feats were killing creativity. Twenty years ago it was kits that were the death of creativity. (I have it on good authority that 1E was accused of this too)

Its very easy to look at the rule books and claim that just because a rule lays out how to do something, doesn’t preclude a player from being creative. (in fact I have been making this argument in defence of every new edition for more than two decades) But the problem isn’t that these upgrades have made it impossible to be creative, the problem is that they have eliminated the need to be creative. Characters have so many options built into the rules there is never a need to look outside the rules; and necessity is the mother of invention.

DMs have gone from being the agent of creating rules on the fly for adjudicating players’ actions, to being the judges who determine how a particular rule from the rulebook will be applied. There is little need to be dealing with situations outside of the rules because the rules cover so many situations that players tend to always stay within them.

Glossing Over the Details

In the early days of D&D resource management was very important. But it was boring, so slowly it was eliminated. But resource management played several important roles in the mood at the game table. First of all dwindling resources played a massive role in creating a sense of urgency. Secondly, and even more importantly, by forcing players to carefully monitor seemingly mundane supplies it immersed players in the world. (and far more so than the common practise now days of making players write extensive backgrounds and such)

Looking at how games (I have been targeting D&D, but the trends I have mentioned have been industry wide) have changed over the decades I feel like I can better understand how RPGs went from being explosively popular to a quietly shrinking group of enthusiasts. And looking at those same changes I feel I can now understand why I have been less and less excited about games over time.

But while the game industry likely cannot be saved, I can still rediscover what I lost. Last year I tried to start up an old school game; it failed because I brought some assumptions to the game that were decidedly new school. However, having had a year to analyze what went wrong we are back playing Basic D&D again now, and everyone is having a blast.


September 7, 2010 - Posted by | Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs |

1 Comment »

  1. […] have a blog at the time, I recorded my thought for my friends privately (though I later added them to this blog). Of particular note I wrote: In the early days of RPGs death was a common and some […]

    Pingback by Can Dying Be a Good Thing? « The Red Box Blog | November 18, 2010 | Reply

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