Friday, September 24, 2010

Old School for Homeschool?

This is going to be a long post. By the end of it I'll be making the case for using "Old School" D&D games in the homeschool classroom. If you wish to know how I arrived at that conclusion, then read on. You have been warned.

A few months ago when the kids and I decided we wanted to play D&D, I looked through my old Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition books to re-familiarize myself with the rules, and I started poking around game stores again. A few things struck me. First, the 2nd Edition rules were kind of confusing. I'm not sure why I never noticed this before, but I have my theories and it's way too much to go into here. Second, I didn't really like the 2e rules. When I was much younger I thought 2e was an improvement on 1st Edition AD&D, but when I saw how poorly conceived the 2e rules seemed to me now, I started thinking, was the original game really that bad? Is that why I had sold my 1e books? I honestly can't recall. Finally, I learned that not only had a third edition been published and widely adopted (presumably), but a fourth edition was recently published too. I had missed a whole edition! I heard all these great things about both 3e and 4e, and for a brief moment in time I was seduced by the idea that each edition is necessarily an improvement on the last, so 4e must be the best. I was wrong.

I'm not saying 4th edition is bad; I'm just saying it's not for me, and I did not want to introduce my kids to D&D via that game. It looked like a card game, and my experiences playing in a 4e campaign with some adult friends of mine have since confirmed my suspicion.* So 3.5e seemed to be the way to go (I'm not sure what the difference is between editions 3 and 3.5, but people "in the know" seem to make a distinction, and thus so shall I). The problem with this approach was that Wizards of the Coast (WotC), publishers of D&D, had discontinued the 3rd Edition line of products. Did I want to get my kids into a game that was going away, and for which products may be hard to find? What would their friends be playing?

Enter Pathfinder RPG, from Paizo Publishing. A guy at One Eyed Jacques game store in the Carytown district turned me onto it and explained that it was a "continuation" of the 3rd edition game, just under a different name. He explained that a lot of people had chosen to go the Pathfinder route when 4e came out, and that its popularity was rising. To its credit all the rules a GM or player would ever need (not counting monsters) were in one book. I looked through that book and compared it to the 4e books several times and decided I did, in fact, prefer the Pathfinder (ergo D&D 3.5e+) approach, and I made the necessary purchases. I was actually excited by all the rules the D20 system (on which 3.5e and other games are based) had to offer to the game, and I got cracking on learning my way around them all.

I feel that I have a pretty strong grasp on the rules now. My knowledge isn't at all what I would call encyclopedic or even remotely close to that, but I can now find answers to any questions my players or I have pretty quickly, and more importantly, I understand the logic behind them. I see the reasoning behind how these rules came to be. For a brief, shiny moment, I actually approved. And if the rules seemed too unwieldy to keep the game session running smoothly, no problem! I would just do what I always did back in the day when I played 1st Edition: make a snap judgment call as the GM and, if necessary, codify the decision as a house rule.

Well, that hasn't been working out the way I planned. For whatever reason, it is far easier to make a house rule for a situation not covered in the rules than it is to create a house rule that intentionally ignores a written rule of the game. On the surface this makes no sense, but I'm betting that other GMs have had the same experience. Is it just that it's hard to let go of a rule, in the sense that there's some kind of mental block preventing us from straying from a rule when one exists? Maybe that's part of it, because at some level you need to be able to play with other people, and a common understanding of the rule set facilitates that. The default stance should be to stick to the "rules as written" (RAW), or so the reasoning might go, and only eliminate rules when absolutely necessary. But I think there's more to it than this. I suspect that it's in part because of how tightly interwoven the many pieces of the D20 system are. If you throw out this rule, what does that do to this class, or those monsters, or that spell? I'm just scratching the surface here, not going into specific examples, and I'm sure plenty of smarter, more intelligent people than me have debated this very topic ad nauseum. At the end of the day, I'm stuck with this heavy system that doesn't lend itself very well to streamlining. Or maybe I'm just too unimaginative to do it.

So I've made this big investment in materials and my kids have indicated they do not want to learn a new system. Who can blame them? They're still trying to wrap their minds around the colossal rule set we're using now. They like Pathfinder, and they're just now starting to really get it, but they have a long way to go if they want to be able to spread the love to their friends who don't game yet. They're still young, they'll get there. On the plus side, it is cool, in a way, how this amazingly complex system fits together and manages to cover so many possible situations in a logical way. I'm impressed by what the designers have accomplished, and by Pathfinder's interpretation and presentation in particular, but I'm not sure it's an actual improvement on the game of D&D itself as originally designed.

I've been reading this blog called Grognardia by this guy James Maliszewski who is a thought-provoking voice for the so-called "Old School" movement. There's no way I could do this movement justice in so small a space, but I'll make the attempt all the same. Old Schoolers are people who strive to bring back the game as it was played - or perhaps as the designers intended it to be played? - back when the game was first published. It is more than simple nostalgia, although there's more than a little bit of that: it is an attempt to understand the literary sources that inspired D&D's creators, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, as well as other early game designers, and bring those influences back into the game. It is people analyzing the original rules and supplements (collectively known as OD&D, or "Original D&D"), divining intent, and in many cases, designing and publishing their own games that evoke the "spirit" of OD&D more than later editions do. The dimensions along which D&D and other RPGs have transformed since 1974 are many and make for very interesting reading. I'm going to look at just one aspect: the "incompleteness" of OD&D, and how this puts the GM and players in the role of game designers, which I think is a good thing. Especially for homeschoolers.

One of the strengths of early versions of the game, in the minds of Old Schoolers, is that the rules were pretty bare bone. You might even call them incomplete. When situations arose that weren't covered by the rules, or where the rules were fuzzy or vague, the GM (sometimes with the help of the players) made up a rule on the fly. These "house rules" often reflected the sensibilities of the participants and how they saw the game, so that each group playing the game was really playing their own unique version of it. This allowed for great creativity, not just in the areas of role-playing, character "story" telling (a bit of a dangerous word to use in Old School circles), and adventure creation, but also in the design of the game itself. In a way, as the participants filled in the blanks in unique ways to make the game playable, they were participating in the design of their very own game. I did quite a lot of this myself back in the day, and it was, in fact fun.

Younger generations don't tend to see it that way. They see missing or "broken" rules that need to be fixed in future editions. Instead of seeing opportunities for their own design ideas to be injected into the game they play, they see ways for GMs to unfairly lord it over players, with a sturdy, comprehensive rule set as the only defense against this injustice. Like true Old Schoolers, I don't believe this was ever a credible threat, as unfair GMs should in theory become unpopular GMs who lose their players. In my own experiences I never suffered the legendary evil GM out to kill the player characters. And as a GM myself (95% of the time that was my job), I know I strove to be as fair as possible, and my players kept coming back for more. But now I'm not only digressing, but also bragging.

Am I an Old Schooler? In my heart I am, but in practice I am not, simply because I haven't made the commitment to playing an Old School style game. I'm playing a game that is far, far removed from the original game. Like others, I started in 1979 playing Dungeons & Dragons, what's sometimes called the "Holmes" boxed set. That is Old School, so I at least was Old School. Around the same time, the "Advanced" rules were being published, ostensibly to address incomplete rules, and like other kids at the time, I figured that meant that the box set I had was the "beginner" version. So I bought the AD&D books (later known as 1st Edition), and that still seems to count as Old School. But somewhere along the line I got lost, sold my 1e books, picked up 2nd Edition, and bought into the whole notion that rules needed to encompass as many different scenarios as possible. Now I see that that actually limits creativity, and worse, it greatly slows down the game. Your OD&D character died? Roll up a new one, takes 5 minutes max. Your 3.5e character died? Ooh, that's a lot of work, let's say he didn't die. Let's say he's in a coma or something. Because creating that character in the first place is 90+ minutes of our lives that we'll never get back.

I haven't even touched on the thematic differences between the old games and the new ones, but let's just say that there are some basic underlying assumptions about what the game of D&D should be about that have drastically changed over the years. For examples, look up the role of "story" in D&D over the years and the gradual reduction of the centrality of the dungeon crawl as an adventure type. I happen to find the earlier conceptions of the game more appealing.

Which brings me to the point of this post: I wish I had discovered the Old School movement back when I was deciding what edition to play with the kids. If I had, we might be playing Labyrinth Lord, Swords and Wizardry, or even Lamentations of the Flame Princess. All Old School games. And my kids and I would have had to figure out for ourselves how to adjudicate the "incomplete" rules for the myriad situations their characters would find themselves in. There would be discussions about fairness and mathematical probabilities, and creative solutions to interesting problems. How do you determine if an armored character can make a leap over a chasm? What is her likelihood for success? How do you make a fair rule to determine success? I ask you, how could this not be good for a young person's mind?

And besides, how can you not like that Labyrinth Lord cover art?

*Yet I continue to play in that 4e campaign. We have fun, so can 4e be fun? Sure. It's just not the same game, and it doesn't seem as fun to me.

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