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Friday, February 25, 2011

The Heirs to Old School AD&D?

Buckle up this one could get bumpy. I was thinking on the way to work the other day about succession and the natural order of things as it pertains to the editions of Dungeons and Dragons. By this I mean who are the heirs to the older version of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons? Just where does this cut off?

Before this can be answered consider the players of Basic or 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Largely these consist of players that are now in the 40’s and 50’s and the group that actually created these versions might be a bit older. In some cases some of them are no longer with us (Gary Gygax and Dave Arnseon come to mind). As time goes by there are less and less players that experienced these older versions of the game when these were the game that was actually shipping. Looking at it even in its last form 2nd edition AD&D is now 11 years old. Since then a lot has changed in the RPG industry and in just that relatively short timeframe.

Because of this the pool of people who were actually there at the dawn of the modern RPG age is ever smaller. And as each year passes, grows smaller still. Those older gamers that experienced RPGs without many/any preconceived notions are a likewise shrinking base. As I noted in my previous post about the “war” between 4th Edition AD&D and Pathfinder it’s near impossible to not be influenced either as a player or designer by modern RPGs. This is a natural thing to when you think about it as computer RPGs were in turn inspired by pen and paper RPGs. This started in the early 80s with games like Adventure on the Atari 2600 and have kept advancing. (Of course this begs the question of what is a RPG in the computer sense these days, as console gaming is where the major advancements are, but that’s something else entirely.) Some of the old school gamers were playing when the Altair was a “modern” computer!
Being 38 now, I experienced AD&D differently then the older school of gamers and had some notions of RPGs on the computer while learning about AD&D. Right from the very start of the modern PC age, computers like the Apple II had games that were RPG like. The difference between then and now is that concepts were there, but the execution compared to today was light years apart. Also being that I started late in terms of the older gamer group (I was 8 in 1981 when I got the Moldvay Basic set for Christmas) I fit into a gap: certainly not an old-schooler, but on the leading edge of those that grew up in the middle of the later wave of 1st edition AD&D products like the much maligned Unearthed Arcana, Wilderness Survival Guide, were part and parcel of our forays into 1st Edition AD&D. So with perspective I can remember playing Basic, Advanced and switching to 2nd edition all when they were new, or at least the current version of the game and in the case of 1st it alays existed in a form outside of the Core Books.  My notions will seem old school to anyone who grew up with games post 3rd edition D&D and downright radical to the purist, sort of like “middle child syndrome”.

So with this said is it possible that the 2nd Edition players like myself will be the last heirs to original origins of the game? Its entirely possible as we represent the last generation of gamers before the “Great Schism”, i.e the release of 3rd Edition D&D, which makes the 1st/2nd edition split look like a squabble over nomenclature (in reality it’s just that).  As time moves on there is going to be even less gamers like myself as if you look at it 2nd edition had about a 11 year run as the current edition of the game from 1989-2000. There are some gamers that their first introduction was through 2nd Edition and had never even played or seen anything early. It’s entirely possible that they never saw or played the Rules Cyclopedia, Mentzer’s B/E/C/M/I or Holmes or Moldvay for that matter. That’s also to say nothing about the influences that shaped the early generation of gamers (see below).

So when you take a step back and look at it the “Hybrid Players” like myself are truly the last roots to the older school movement. I know that will not sit well with some folsk and 1st editon purists will say that they are. I disagree. Like it or not that later wave was the last that grew up playing 1st edition AD&D. We were the last ones to grow up with Basic, 1st and what is diversely called 1.5. We mixed these versions and never thought anything wrong with doing so; I know I never saw a problem with it, neither did my gaming group at the time.  Sure there will be some players that will continue with 1st edition to the very end that never played anything but either Basic or 1st Edition, but those players are probably not even in the majority anymore. If I had to guess as there is no hard facts on this the bulk of “Old School” is probably these “Hybrid Players” those that were exposed to many different version of the game. I remain unconvinced that there are massive numbers of 1st or even 2nd edition players for that matter, at least those that are active today. Back in the day? Sure. Now? Not really.

So that brings me back to the basic premise and title to this post: Who are the heirs to old school? In a sense anyone who played or at least only plays something prior to 2000 could be considered old school. But even then the differention gets tricky: for instance on occasion my group plays d20 Star Wars, which is another beast entirely. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. So I’m not entirely sure that which edition of the game solely defines Old School or not. Surely age will have something to do with it, as I doubt someone could be called “Old School” if are as of today 8 years old ,and just started playing 1st Edition AD&D. Surely source materials and inspiration will have something to do with it. Some will argue that its the OSR (Old School Renaissance that has taken up the mantle).

But then again this gets even trickier: My first reads were books like the Sword of Shanara, the Hobbit rather then the Old Schoolers: Jack Vance's Dying Earth, Conan, Flash Gordon and the pulp stuff. Likewise art: I was exposed to different art along the way and again far different from what inspired the older generation.

Again this all goes back, where the point really gets made is the year 2000 with the dawn of 3rd Edition. As much as those that don’t like 2nd Edition don’t want to admit it, 2nd Edition really is the last of Old School. But much like anything even the later run added more that was like 3rd Edition the Player Options series comes to mind (not that I nor my group ever used it, then or now). So in a way 2nd Edition mirrored late 1st Edition with additions to the game that some people didn’t use.

So as I look back at this post I’m not sure I have any clearer of answer then when I started. The only thing I think we can agree on is that the real demarcation line isn’t 1989 when 2nd Edition launched it is 2000 with the start of 3rd Edition. The rest of it all tends to be a lot of static. And also looking at it the heirs to the old school movement are going to fall to us “Hybrid Players”, those like me. Those that were actually there for the early editions of the game that while not the original players, were close. Being younger also means that these players (just through the cruelties of aging) are going to likely be here longer. When us  ”Hybrid Players” have passed then the link to the older games are likewise going to be gone.

It’s an interesting position when one takes a step back and looks at it. All anyone can do is look at an event with their own biases and filters and that’s what I’ve done here. There is surely some overlap in each of the epochs I glossed over, but the fact remains that those that were on the tail end of 1st edition will be the last link to the old games and the wild and wholly 80’s of RPGs.


  1. 1987- I was 14 years old. I had a keen interest in RPGs. I had never really played any but I had the Basic Set of D&D, an Xmas present. I saw a hand written card advertising a RPG club in a Games Workshop shop in Newcastle. It ran on Sunday's. The next day I bravely made the journey from South Shields to Walker- a district of Newcastle on the Metro.

    Best journey I ever made. Before I knew it I was rolling dice and creating Sir Llewelyn, a 1st level paladin. Sir Llewelyn got to level 7 and had a sword of sharpness but ended up being a cavalier due to role playing.

    Even back then, and I haven't played since, I can remember the arguments and debates about Unearthed Arcana and how it had broken the game. We regularly had discussions about the game and invented house rules and fixes. We adapted to new classes introduced in Dragon if somebody wanted to play them.

    On another campaign I got accused of causing a halfling genocide when I managed to kill 4 halfling defenders ( a great class, but I never got the hang of it ) in a row.

  2. Sounds like you had some great games, the way you and your gaming buddies wanted it to be. and that is NEVER wrong. Good stuff.