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Learning from the Classics

Reading Ben Robbins’ recent post on Ars Ludi on Major Wesely the first GM [1], featured on our August 8th Link Roundup [2], I was struck with the fact that as RPG GMs, players and designers we’re the last generation that will ever be able to say that we’ve experienced firsthand the entirety of the history of our hobby.

The older the hobby gets, the harder it will be to get our hands on the RPG classics and the history behind them. We owe it to the gamers who will come after us to dig into the games and history behind them and examine them with a critical eye. What worked? What didn’t? Why was this game a classic? Why was is a bomb?

Every game, be it Dungeons and Dragons, Shadowrun, Torg, Rise of the Phoenix, Prince Valliant, Empire of the Petal Throne, Nicotine Girls, FATAL, or any of the hundreds of others that have been created since the birth of the industry have lessons to be learned, mistakes to be avoided, and a rich history.

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5 Comments To "Learning from the Classics"

#1 Comment By nblade On August 11, 2008 @ 8:24 am

Actually, I’d say there are quite a few GM, Players and designers who can’t say that now. Hell, even when I started in the early 80’s (yeah it hard to believe that I’ve been gaming for over 25yrs), I was not able to know everything that has come before. Much of the early work was influenced by a variety of wargames, that I’ve have never played and I have no way of playing.

#2 Comment By Hella Tellah On August 11, 2008 @ 8:49 am

As a GM who started playing in 2004 (yes, I’m a baby), I really appreciate learning about older games and hearing from the previous generations of gamers. So if you’ve got an article idea brewing from this, please post!

#3 Comment By Sarlax On August 11, 2008 @ 12:11 pm

I think that, in considering the old classics (many of which I never played, having only started RPing in 1993), one needs to keep the era in mind.

By “era,” I mean the time before us nerds had so many outlets for our interests. There were sci-fi and fantasy novels, comics, movies, TV… But no RPGs or video games (to speak of). I think of my own experience in the early 90s as a microcosm of geek exposure to RPGs two decades earlier – I found D&D and discovered I hadn’t known what I was missing. There was suddenly a whole new world of imagination gaming available to me that I hadn’t known, so loving it was never in question.

Fast-forward 15 years. I walk into a game stores and see game after game that features beautiful artwork, elegant rules, and strong online support. If I were looking into a new game and hadn’t played the “classic” D&D before, I wouldn’t consider it now.

The classic games often feature awkward brainfart rules, an emphasis on technicalities rather than elegance, poor art, etc.

Martin said something the other day (relating to our own group in Utah) that came to my mind in reading this article: “Playing 4e put the final nail in 3.x’s coffin for me.” I think that sums up a lot of the change in the RPG community’s evolution over the last 30 years (even if I only experienced half of it). When we had less choice, we tolerated more. Now that we have such an incredible diversity of gaming choices, our tastes are becoming more refined, and we demand much more from the games we play.

All that said, I’m not arguing that the old games have nothing to offer. I think one of the best offerings from the classics is how fully they embrace the kind of reckless, unpretentious fun that many games today miss. A monk, an assassin, and a knight murdering their way through orcs in a volcano? Giant-hamster powered ships flying through phlogiston? You’re certainly not going to find that in Monster: The Modernizing, by White “We’re the TRUE ROLE-Players, not ROLL-Players” Wolf.

Classic games didn’t spend so much time telling you that the “right” way to play is to sit down with friends on a Saturday night so you could spend six hours pretending to be angsty. If you wanted to play a half-rabbit ninja who fought aliens with a home-made try-crossbow, more power to you!

#4 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On August 11, 2008 @ 12:41 pm

I’d say we’re more or less on the same wavelength. I’m not suggesting that we should all go out and switch over to “Classic” games. some were great, some were awful, just like today’s games. But just like you point out that a lot of those games had gusto that some of today’s games lack, there are a myriad of lessons to be learned from historical games and the longer we wait to discuss those lessons, the harder it will be to do so.

#5 Comment By Sarlax On August 11, 2008 @ 1:07 pm

There are a myriad of lessons to be learned from historical games and the longer we wait to discuss those lessons, the harder it will be to do so.

I think you’re right, and that discussion is worth having. The first games clearly did something right; there’s a reason I’m at work but I’ve got the 3.5 product City of Brass sitting here, emblazoned with Necromancer Games’s motto: “Third Edition Rules, First Edition Feel.”

That’s a much better line than, “Get together, roll some dice, have some fun,” (positively mediocre marketing), but the sentiment is still there.