Thursday, 4 February 2010

Social Archaeology

I was thinking earlier today about the games of D&D my friends and I used to play "back in the day" (perhaps partly inspired by Brian's post about Neo-Classical gaming and social archaeology). Now that I look back in detail on that era, trying to remember as many things as I can about it, it occurs to me that there were quite a lot of characteristics of our games that just didn't fit with a lot of what I read about in blogs and forums when people start talking about actual play. This shouldn't be surprising - just as people from one small village in a valley in the Caucasus mountains speak a different language to those in the next, purely because of geographical isolation, so insular gaming groups will undoubtedly develop their own little "dialects" of play. Here are some examples:
  • Our games tended not to revolve around one character per player. In fact, that was something of a rarity. I think this may have been because in those days we spent just as much, if not more time, playing games like Blood Bowl, Necromunda and Warhammer Quest, and so we were used to identifying with little gangs or teams of adventurers rather than individuals. We would often have three or four characters each in our campaigns, which could get hectic when you had four or five players.
  • As a consequence of the above, there was quite a high level of abstraction between player and character in our games. We never did voices or spoke in character - everything took place in the third person. ("Bill attacks the orc", "Siegfried says 'I'll kill you!'".) And we tended not to care much about character death. If anything we behaved like rather dispassionate Gods watching a Greek tragedy unfold than active controllers of personal avatars.
  • Perhaps as another consequence of the above, our characters used to kill each other quite a lot. Not as often as they cooperated, mind, but backstabbing, doing-down and even outright hostility was par for the course. We were adolescent boys, which certainly also helped fuel this.
  • We loved plotting things out on maps. In fact in my memory we sometimes devoted entire gaming sessions to working out routes from city x to mountain y, and cooperatively drawing up random encounter tables of the creatures which one might likely find on the way, weather generators for the journey, major wandering NPCs whose path one might just cross, roadside locations, and possible points at which a traveller might become lost.
  • There were certain eccentric minutiae in the DMG which we loved and incorporated wholesale, even while ignoring whole strands of what you might call 'major' rules. For example, the AD&D 2nd edition DMG has an entire set of random generators to determine the personality, quality and character of a horse. We used this obsessively with every single horse that ever appeared in our games. And yet we never bothered with something as simple and basic as encumbrance.
  • We had a rule that you weren't allowed to be an elf.
Really, our D&D was very wargame-y (
In fact, gaming sessions fairly often ended up descending into reasonably large-scale skirmish warfare, with maybe 50 individuals on each side), which makes me think that perhaps it wasn't all that far removed to how the early evolutionary games must have been.


  1. It's always interesting to compare formative gaming experiences with others. Yours are similar to mine in some ways, very different in others.

    We tended to only have one character at a time, and be fairly attached to them--though it was not uncommon for a player to get frustrated with the effectiveness of a character mid-adventure and decide to make up another.

    We usually tended to speak for ou characters in first person, but only the DM and people with very distinct character-types (a half-ogre, for instance) ever really did different voices. When we were young, "Medieval Language" meant imploying more foul language than our parents might have appreciated.

    We also tended to have a lot of inter-character betrayal, violence, and murder. Seldom did anyone get particularly angry about it. It was just part of the game.

  2. Your post brings me back to my own past experiences in gaming (not all of them pleasant)! What particularly struck me was the level of in-character, in-game murder and betrayal amongst party members. We seemed to have more of that back in the day - we were in high school then, and fights would break out between players over this. :) Of course, we'd eventually come to our senses and game on! I figure this was also one reason playing multiple characters was the rule back then, rather than the exception. Good post!

  3. we all developed our gaming in isolation back then, didn't we? I think I had the only gaming group in Port Pirie, 3.5 hours drive from Adelaide in South Australia, and no internet. Everything we did we worked out as we went. I had read a book, though! Called "What is Dungeons and Dragons", that I used to guide my introduction to the game.

    Have you read The Elfish Gene? It describes a very similar gaming style to yours (but perhaps with a lot more dysfunctional crap in it) in late 70s England (possibly near Liverpool!).

  4. I don't think I've ever run more than one character at a time in a game. But the elf rule is a good one, and one we enforced strictly.

    Particularly in Shadowrun, which tended to annoy the elf-loving GM who kept sending elven NPCs to speak to us only for us to strictly enforce the rule and send the NPC's head back to whichever crimeboss it was this week.

  5. Interesting, and insightful, I think.

    Looking back at the early years, MERP was the first 'real' game played, as the tables captivated us.

    By this stage, we all had an Amiga or C64 at home, so there was constant turnover as people took turns on the computer, wandered to the kitchen to make a sandwich, or lie in the sun and participate. Also no maps, table or figurines, just verbal descriptions.

    And if someone wandered away for a while, their character just hung about, not participating, until they came back. Which led to strange events, like the only two players present at the time sneaking onto a small boat to cross the lake, where later all eight players attacked the pirates, even though the other six didn't actually sail to the island.

    And the GM had a PC, but they tended to die more often.

  6. Really, our D&D was very wargame-y (In fact, gaming sessions fairly often ended up descending into reasonably large-scale skirmish warfare, with maybe 50 individuals on each side), which makes me think that perhaps it wasn't all that far removed to how the early evolutionary games must have been.

    I don’t know. When I read accounts of the Braunsteins, Blackmoor, and Greyhawk, I don’t get the impression that those games were much like that. A little in Blackmoor and maybe a tiny bit in Greyhawk. I’m not convinced it was all that much an evolution rather than a revolution.

    Unless you’re talking about precursors to even the Braunsteins.