Thursday, September 2, 2021

I've Got Your "Critical Role" Right Here

Back around July 26th I started writing a post called "Time Warp." My family had taken another road trip, this time to visit Fort Casey State Park: a massive concrete gun emplacement on Whidbey Island, built (and decommissioned) before the start of the Great War with the objective of protecting the Sound from invasion by sea. It's a pretty impressive monument and window in the past, but an even thicker dose of "history" was served up to us when we stopped at the Scuttlebutt Brewery (in Everett, WA) for dinner. Celebrating their 25th anniversary, the menu, food, and the staff, looked straight out of the early 90's.

Whether by design or not (insert mandatory joke about Everett's local culture), our waiter...who could not have been older than 25 himself...looked like he'd stepped straight out of Lynnwood circa 1991. Black t-shirt with the sleeves cut off (to display the tats), black shorts (didn't check to see if he was wearing Converse high-tops), incredible mullet, mustache, baseball cap, and earrings. Oh my...he was rocking it. The hostess wearing a rolled-up sleeve flannel over rock t-shirt was vintage grunge as well. The service and grub was excellent (I love a good patty melt) and the dude got a huge tip, as well as praise on his retro-style from both the wife and myself.

[it should be noted that my wife has only lived in Seattle since 1997, so this look was already out by then, but there were still remnants of this even in the late '90s...especially amongst the company I kept]

It is said that "the past is a foreign country" and that "you can't go home again," much as we try to do so...I mean that's part of what the OSR was all about right? But sometimes, sometimes you can get glimpses into it. Today, I got a great glimpse, which is why I've bothered to excavate and re-write this post:

Matrox Lusch is a Bay Area based gamer that's a bit older than myself, and has been playing D&D (in various forms) since 1978. His blog (which I'd never heard of before today) is a deep well of his personal gaming experience. In 1990 he was gifted with a VHS camera to celebrate the birth of his first child, and he immediately began using it to record his long-running (1989-2005) AD&D campaign. He has since posted clips of this to YouTube, each being edited and cut to about 5 minutes to focus on the gaming.

In addition to being genuinely amusing, this is great historical stuff. I've run into plenty of youngsters the last five or so years that have "learned" more about how to play D&D from watching Critical Role (and similar) videos, then from reading (or playing!) the game. Such players could benefit greatly from the window into the past provided by these videos of Matrox's "Blipping Campaign." Sloppy, raunchy, and uncouth affairs featuring a bunch of 20-something white dudes drinking beer and rolling dice, not a laptop to be seen (all paper notes and character sheets), a "soundtrack" of background metal music, and ZERO play-acting...this is/was Dungeons & Dragons for a Very Long Time. 

[for people just interested in viewing an apartment circa this era, I strongly recommend episode 1.8 "The Downfall of Aeriath." My hiatus from D&D was in full swing by 1990, but my buddies' apartments...and our gaming sessions...looked a LOT like this (though being Seattle beer-snobs even then, our fridges were full of bottles, not cans). And our games of Rifts or Vampire looked pretty much like this, except there were always at least a couple ladies present]

[can I just say I kind of love the guy smoking a cigarette IN THE HOUSE and the passed out "thief" on the couch. Ah...brings back memories...]

However, besides general nostalgia the thing I mostly want folks to take away from these videos is the ENJOYMENT these cats are having. Ridiculous or not, too serious or not, too 'white male' or not, these guys played this campaign for a decade and a half. That is a LONG ASS TIME. And they played it with (more or less) 1st edition AD&D. Not 2nd, not 3rd, not 4th, not 5th. A simple system, without "feats" or "at will powers" or "death saves." Perhaps including Drow PCs (I'd be surprised if they weren't using Unearthed Arcana in 1990), but probably not "Tieflings" or "Dragonborn" or whatever. 

Can people imagine? And by "people" I mean folks who only got into the hobby in the last ten or fifteen years. How could they possibly keep the game fresh and on-going for so many years? Without new options and special specials and whatnot? How could they find such a clunky old rule system from 1978 with its segments and group initiative to be "fun?" With a DM who's prep doesn't seem to have included theater and voice-acting classes? With broken pencils and beer-stained, lined paper instead of tablets and cell phones?

This, I'm sure, is a big "duh" to many of my readers who are middle-aged geezers like me (whether physically or at heart). But folks, please: spread the word. There ARE other examples of how to play D&D that don't lead to one succumbing to the so-called "Mercer Effect." Actual video evidence exists that one can run a long-term campaign, even up into high levels, without the need for character backstories or ascending armor class. Maybe that will be amazing to some folks who haven't had the chance to game this way or who, perhaps, have a hard time believing that the game can work without a long list of skills based on the roll of a D20.

I don't find it all that amazing. I'm running AD&D these days. 

'Course, I don't run my game quite so haphazard as I did in my youth (and to be clear, in the 80s the games were just as ramshackle as the 90s, except we were hopped up on sodapop and hormones, rather than beer and weed). I've grown and learned and can spend a lot more time thinking critically about design and setting and approach the game with a more mature demeanor. But the principle remains the same: the game works, the game is fun, the game can hold one's interest and attention for years.

Sometimes it feels like we've forgotten those things. Or, rather, it feels like we don't give them enough attention.

All right, that's it for now. Cheers.


  1. Oh shit these are a time machine! Thanks for boosting them.

    My playstyle is exactly the same today. Sunday night at GaryCon is like this every year.

  2. Love these videos, although they have a bittersweet feel - like watching a lost world before the internet and phones kind of ruined social life.

    1. How about just "ruined life?"

      That's deserving of a whole blog post itself, but: technology is a wonderful blessing. It is also a terrible curse. Love the internet for some things; absolutely hate/loathe it for others. Hard not to see it as a "net gain" but, unfortunately I think the jury's still out.

      RE the videos

      They're pretty amazing. Looking at them with a critical eye, it's easy to dismiss them for their ridiculousness...or even feel some shame at all the (bad) stereotypes about D&D that they many that my first thought upon viewing them was "where these staged?"

      But they ARE historical and descriptive, they ARE useful to view, and there's no good to be had glossing over or ignoring the past (or present) reality. Much better to examine it and learn from it.

      I'm so thrilled Matrox had this footage and chose to make it available.

    2. I turn 40 today, and this opportunity to join the old guy's club and nod sagely to the way things used to be is among the best present ideas I could have asked for.

    3. Right on, man. Happy birthday!
      : )

  3. What a find...a D&D stream I can relate to. Thanks for posting!

    (I can also smell that room in my mind.)