Following an epiphany, I’m playing RPGs with the kids again, and enjoying it like never before.
It all started with a podcast. I have listened to several explanations for the resurgent popularity of “Original D&D” (or “OD&D”) in its various incarnations from the 1974 pamphlet to the ’83 Basic Set (the “Red Box Set” that was this author’s first experience with RPGs and which lends its name to this blog), but have never really seen the point beyond basic nostalgia. The original systems’ oft credited “simplicity,” in my view, was marred by the clunky inconsistency of rules which seemed to have “grown in the telling” (much like the game’s central source material). And don’t many, many modern indy games offer a cleaner simplicity?
Then I listened to Canon Puncture’s Game Advocates episode in which Tavis Allison advocates for OD&D (Canon Puncture episode 99). And finally, my penny dropped. Tavis explained (and I’m probably going to mangle his reasoning here) that Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s Original D&D was fundamentally different from the editions that followed in one important respect: in OD&D, the adventure is meant to be improvised. All later editions, in contrast, encouraged DMs to either use published adventure modules or to plan out the adventure ahead of play.
The charm of OD&D, then, is to embrace the random, sometimes nonsensical results of the random encounter rolls (and the equally-important reaction rolls) as keys for improvising the story in play.
I never liked the random monster encounter tables: at first, because they produced random results with no thematic or narrative connection (and later because random encounters can just slow the game down and frustrate players, but that’s another matter). But Arneson’s intention was that these random inputs serve as inspiration for generating story on the fly, both the back-story and current events.
Example: The player-characters are travelling through a forest. Random monster: Unicorn. Reaction roll: Hostile. Now, DM and players alike ask themselves: why is there a unicorn here, and why is this intelligent and noble creature feeling hostile towards us? Maybe… maybe she is searching for her kidnapped offspring, and she suspects the group of being the kidnappers! Yeah, cool! Okay so, who did steal her foal, and for what purpose? Let’s say… there’s an evil baron in a nearby castle, who ordered his huntsmen to bring him a unicorn for some black magic which he intents to perform! What is the baron’s big plan, and what is this black magic supposed to accomplish for him? Etc. There: from two rolls of the dice, the group has brainstormed the framework for an interesting adventure.
What does this have to do with me gaming with my kids? I always said I want to play RPGs with them more, but always got hung up on the pre-planning: either I didn’t have time, or didn’t think I had any good ideas. But after having this realization, I just decided to wing it.
“Want to play D&D?”
“Okay, sit down, I’ll get my things!”
We played. We improvised. It was awesome.
In fact, it is working out better than any of my pre-planned sessions. Kids love to have input to the story, and will grab ideas and run with them (in all directions!). Instead of me worrying about how to steer them towards the next planned scene, I’m saying “Yes! And…”, and running right along with them. The action is faster-paced, the players are more engaged, and I’m way less stressed. Three thumbs up!
So, in the end, you don’t need to use the OD&D rules in order to embrace random-table-driven improvisational play. I’m actually using a 3.5E hack for 6-year-olds that I’ve just developed. That’ll be the subject of my next post.