Monday, April 20, 2020

How I came to DCC and the Old School of Gaming

Smaug, from the only feature-length adaptation of the Hobbit
My dad is a Tolkien nerd who grew up in the 70s.  Therefore my dad played DnD as a teenager.

I also grew up a Tolkien nerd, watching the Rankin/Bass version of the Hobbit (which is still the only movie version of the Hobbit) until I was old enough to read it.

One day, between about 8 and 11 years old, I discovered my dad's copy of Gary Gygax's original DMG for AD&D (the one with the metal-girded demon abducting a maiden), and his copy of Dr. Eric Holmes' Basic Ruleset (the blue cover with the dragon on his hoard of gold).

I was immediately sold.

Cover of Holmes' Basic Rules
I had no idea how to play this game I was reading about, or who I would play with it were I to play, but I spent whole afternoons locked in my room reading over different traps and fantastical items in a dungeon, the horrific monsters
lurking in the shadows, the powers of these beasts and what items players should use to defeat them.  I was even mesmerized by the opening discussion of bell curves vs uniform distributions with dice.

Most of all, I loved the art work and the maps.  I loved the skull mountain view.  I loved the thief left to die in a pit trap by his companions, and the lizardman rider.  I loved the rat caves and the underwater rivers.  I loved the gnome abducted by the ghouls.  Even without playing the game, the books stole me away to these magical worlds, where I became lost in it all.

Eventually I thought I had absorbed enough of the gist of the game that I tried to play with friends.  My version was extremely simplified, and had my own modifications, and my dungeons were linear and nonsensical, but it was still fun escapism at its best.

Eventually we moved, and I had trouble making friends.  I tried to get games together, but none of the people I hung out with were really interested in the game.  Most of my friends throughout middle school and high school weren't nerds, but the sort of bubblegum punk scene that was the style in the 00s.  I went through most of high school without getting my hands on the game, except maybe for the sort of second-tier experience afforded by Neverwinter Nights.

When I got into college, I finally had enough friends (and close enough friends) willing to play that I started trying to get a game together.  By this time, the game was in the 3rd edition.

3E was a radical change to the game.  Many of the changes persist, and many of the changes are objectively better.  Changes like ascending armor class instead of tables and THAC0.  No matter how much I read, I never ever understood what THAC0 was, until after I had a math degree and a masters in physics.  I'm not saying descending AC is wrong, just that it's more work to explain and keep track of and an immediate conceptual hurdle.

Many of the changes in 3E were better.  But some of the changes weren't better.

There were tons of major changes.  There were lists of skills and feats, and rules for selecting feats, and special abilities, and all these new races, and all these new classes, and so many things to consider.  I tried to get a handle on it, but it was too much to keep track of.  I felt like I needed a computer to keep track of all of these rules and conditions in the game, and this game was supposed to be the more immersive alternative to playing games on a computer.

The rulebook was also like $60 and I couldn't afford it.  I had to get my information from free d20 resources on the web.

We tried playing, and got a few sessions in, but this wasn't the same game.  It was too much like a video game, and not like structured imagination.  We stopped pretty soon.  It was too much effort, and I didn't bother putting together any new games.

I tried again later in college, after I transferred to a state university (from a community college).  The rulebooks were still ridiculously overpriced and there are like four of them, but the box set claimed to be all you need to get started, and was pretty affordable.  So I got it.  The cover art was redolent.  I planned on getting a game together.

This was the era of the much-maligned 4E.

What was wrong with 3E, was magnified in 4E.  There were too many rules, too many special powers to keep track of, so much specialization and special builds.  Moreover, there was a complete change in... tone... in feeling... in theme.  The artwork was very high quality.  Yet it lacked the heart and soul of the amateur line art I remembered.  The races and classes I remembered were straight out of the books I read growing up.  I could point to them in the pages of the stories I loved.  Now there were all kinds of things whose origin I didn't understand; they seemed contrived just for the game.

I couldn't even understand HOW to play.  Do I have to get rolls of giant grid paper and draw giant table-sized maps of extreme detail?  I need figurines for every monster I want to include?  I don't have time or money for that, and if I did I'd just play Warhammer.

I tried yet again when I was in grad school.  I had some highly nerdy friends who were very close.  It would have been perfect.  I started arranging a campaign, I realized I could just use the basic d20 SRD (and avoid 4E), and I started making my own campaign world that stayed far away from all the campiness of 4E and later 3E materials.  But it was still too much.  There were too many rules, and I spent too much time just trying to figure out how everything works and we never got to play the campaign I planned.

It was a few years ago, on a whim, that I found myself in a friendly local game store.  And I saw on the shelf an absolute tome of a book, covered in tie-dye colors with a heavy-metal wizard glaring out from the spine.

As soon as I opened the book, I knew what I was looking at.  I was back again in my childhood home, reading about the fantastic worlds of magic and might and the rules that governed them.

The rules were a vastly simplified form of d20.  It kept many of the benefits, but threw out all the chaff.  Skills became a single mechanic: your starting occupation.  Feats, necessary to give the fighter some power, became a single mechanic: roll this one die every time you attack.  The magic became, once again, magical.  It was twisted and arcane and absolutely other.  The departures from the usual vancian system all worked to make it even more unreliable and powerful and align more perfectly with the archetypes of legend.  Even the funky dice, imagining polyhedral solids beyond the standard eight, brought up the memory of the first time I saw my dad's icosahedral d10, with one side painted red to be a d20.

I was immediately sold.

Of course, DCC is just one example of games comprising the OSR, the Old School Renaissance.  It's not a true card-carrying OSR game because it isn't a mere retroclone, and instead sticks fairly close to d20.  But I see in it the same game that enchanted me as a kid reading his father's books, now perfected with the design benefits of the d20 system for simplicity of play.

The part that caused me to freeze up and never play in my past forays -- the overabundance of rules -- was explicitly absent.  I was expected and encouraged to make up my own rules, and run things however I wanted.  I didn't have to memorize lists of things like Mighty Cleave and Flurry of Blows and Hit the Guy Twice.  If I didn't know how grapple worked, I could just make it up.

That is how I ended up in DCC and the OSR, after years of trying to get back to the game I used to play as a kid.

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