Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Kids and their Mashed Potatoes

So I was checking out this post over at The Mule Abides this morning, and it really caused a bit of a stir in my sleep-addled brain. To paraphrase, the author was writing about how his 12 year old plays D&D using a conglomeration of books from various editions, ranging from 3.5 to 4E eerily paralleling the days when us Groggy-types used to mish-mash B/X and AD&D and OD&D and Dragon mags, etc.

Okay, first a point of clarification: I’m a purist. Pretty much always have been.

As a kid, I integrated AD&D books into my B/X game only because I didn't know any better. And I can very vividly recall being frustrated by the results. I knew something was “wrong with the picture,” but couldn’t figure out what it was…until I got my first Players Handbook.

Once I had the PHB, then the Dungeon Masters Guide and Monster Manuals (with their psionics and magic resistance and “druid attack matrices” and nine-fold alignment path) all FINALLY made sense. And my friends and I absolutely dropped EVERYTHING B/X in favor of the Advanced system. Nothing was ‘ported over to our AD&D campaign, with the exception of two surviving player characters (Bladehawk the fighter and Sneakshadow the thief). And much as I wanted to use the Moldvay encumbrance rule “all miscellaneous equipment weighs a flat 80 coins,” in those years 1984-1987 we tallied up every last scroll case and tinder box to figure our movement rates (even though we didn’t use miniatures or battle maps!).

It was only those first couple years (1982-83) that we did a hodge-podge of rules, and speaking for myself, it was pretty damn irritating. Especially when a visiting player brought his hammer of thunderbolts or blade barrier spell and I (as the DM) was left scratching my head saying, “huh?”

These days of course…well, I’m still a purist. I play B/X D&D instead of AD&D or D20, but I play it straight for the most part. All these “shields will be splintered” or “bind wounds” type house rules that are designed to increase PC survivability? Don’t want ‘em, don’t need ‘em, don’t use ‘em. Personally, I feel the game is survivable enough. Plenty of hirelings (i.e. “cannon fodder” or “meat shields”) to help at the low levels and if your character fails an unlucky save versus poison or petrification early in her career, well…character creation is a piece of cake.

And yes I post all sorts of goodies to my blog like “variable damage by class” or new magic items and character classes; but for the most part I don’t use these. Oh, I’m sure I would incorporate some of ‘em if I was running a long term campaign, but since all the games I’ve run in the last year have been “one off” types, I’ve left the house rules at home (except when a different DM includes ‘em, of course).

And as much as anything, playing with one set of rules cuts out most disagreement and allows the DM to run the game as a true ref (making rulings when something’s NOT covered by the rules).

So yeah, I’m a stickler. And often, I’m a gamist/competitor (and knowing a single set of rules allows me to take best advantage of ‘em). And it bugs me to no end when people don’t know what the fuck they are doing with regard to “rules as written.”

FOR EXAMPLE: One of my last D20 “games” wasn’t even an adventure but an on-line arena face-off between my character and another dude. He was actually involved in a game with my buddy, who was trying to get me into their on-line game. I had a 7th level character from a different D20 campaign that I was hoping to bring and this guy was like “your character sucks, I can whip him with my 4th level character.” So we had it out in this arena and then I found that this guy was sporting at least one or two pieces of Epic level magic gear. After barely managing to beat his character I was like “well that’s hardly fair, your character possessing a couple million gold worth of gear.” And he was like “hey, man, I found this stuff in the game.” And I was like “well, your DM doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing then.” And the guy was like “you’re an asshole.”

And he was probably right…I AM an asshole about certain things…or a purist, I guess. If I know up front we’re playing by a different set of rules, than I can make a choice of whether I want to play like that or not. Otherwise, I make the assumption that the rules are as written and I tend to be a stickler.

So now onto the original post from The Mule Abides (yes, I realize I appear to have wandered far afield of the topic):

Here’s how I look at RPGs in general: they provide a structure of rules to play out fantasy lives in an imaginary setting. We can imagine we are cowboys withOUT the structure of rules, but when it comes to a shoot-out to see who’s got the steadiest hand and faster reflexes, we need some set of rules to make that determination. Now the rules can be as “rules light” as CONSENSUS (“we agree that whoever says ‘bang’ first is quicker and the other guy is toast”) or can be as specific/crunchy as Boot Hill. But without rules you’re just daydreaming, not playing…or not playing anything more than “dress-up” (and even that might have rules to it).

OD&D provided a loose structure to explore a fantasy, ancient/medieval world. AD&D and B/X tightened up these rules to varying degrees, and subsequent editions (BECMI, D20, 4th Edition) added MORE rules. Without the D&D rules, we could STILL have a game of dungeon exploration (DM: You see a troll. Player: I fight it! DM: Roll 1D6; on a 5 or 6 you kill it, on a 1 or 2 it wounds you, maybe mortally.). The rules facilitate play in a certain way.

These days, I like my rules on the lighter side (one of the reasons I prefer B/X play) because I believe it provides more leeway for imagination. The more rules you pile onto a game, the more constrictive that imaginary space becomes. Huge tomes of rules, additional supplements/splatbooks full of new classes/spells/equipment…this is more work than I personally want to do. I understand game companies need to make money (don’t we all!), but I ENJOY using my own imagination, creating my own new stuff (as needed, if needed)…it’s kind of like exercise for the brain.

So THAT being said, and leaving aside the whole question of how a person combines 2nd edition and 3.5 and 4th edition (if there was any justification for “mish-mashing B/X and AD&D” back in the day, the systems were INCREDIBLY similar, unlike recent editions that bear little mechanical resemblance to each other)…leaving aside the weirdness, what does that say that kids are mish-mashing editions with happy abandon and having a great old time?

Well, it suggests a couple-three different things that blow holes in MY previous assumptions.

- Maybe kids are a LOT more open-minded about these things than cranky geezers like myself. After all, irritating as it was I WAS still mish-mashing editions at the age of 9 and 10 myself and the irritation wasn’t enough to make me stop playing…indeed it drove me to play more, looking for a way to rectify the discrepancies.

- Maybe kids have a LOT more imagination than adults (duh!) and NEED more rules than adults (double duh!). Kids thrive on discipline and routine; they’re still “learning the ropes” of society. Having MORE rules, not less, may help to keep conflict down (“I shot you!” “No, I shot you first!”) at a time when they are still working out issues of social contract and how to interact politely with each other.

- Maybe kids have LESS experience with fantastic, imaginary worlds than those of us that have been around for 30-40 years, and they need MORE inspiration to “jump start” their imagination. Personally, I can draw from decades of television, stage, film, comics, novels, history, and even the local news (not to mention past gaming experiences!) for the needs of my games…whether that’s character creation (as a player) or world creation (as a DM). Kids, especially younger kids, need a larger diet of inspiration and WotC editions, for all their other failings, have plenty of bold, beautiful, glossy illustrations to fire kids up…not to mention wonderful spells and magic items and monsters that are probably pretty new to ‘em.

Anyway it’s interesting to think about. I know that I’ve mentioned here (more than once) that I have an interest in “growing the hobby” but in the end, my stuff tends to be written for adults, not children. And while I don’t think a thousand page, three-volume rule set is appropriate for a kid (or anyone!) to learn a new game, I may have been underestimating the appetite for rules that kids have, as well as the adaptability of their young minds.

: )


  1. Kids (and teens) probably also have the time it takes to read those thousand pages of rules. I do not, not anymore. While I was a BIG fan of D&D 3.0 and 3.5 in high school, these days I shudder at the thought at having to actually try to play that beast of a game. Thank goodness for the OSR.

    1. I wrote this essay before either of my children were born. My oldest (my son) is now 11 and he plays AD&D (1st edition) exclusively. When he runs the game, he adheres as closely to the rules as possible.

      As one might guess, my thoughts of 2010 have changed.

      Kids left to their own devices will muddle through with whatever they have on hand. Kids without guidance are babes in the woods, lost and left to do their best at making sense of a world that's ginormous and filled with a multitude of "things they don't know they don't know."

      Those of us have been around 40+ years are in the same boat, but we DO have more knowledge and experience AND we've learned to be more selective with our focus.

      Rereading the Mule Abides article, I am struck by a scene of kids who have been left to their own devices without supervision or mentors. Do they have "more imagination?" No. They have less guidance...that's it. Do they have "more time" on their hands to read multiple books? I guess...but wouldn't that additional time be better used for PLAYING the game? Both my kids would rather just play D&D then spend time studying the rulebooks.

      No. Looking back I pity these kids. I'm sure the Mule meant well by allowing them to flounder in the amorphous mass of their own imagination...they were having "fun" after all. But there are better ways to teach kids to play (and a higher form of D&D to be played) than just throwing a bunch of random books on the table and saying 'figure it out.'