Wednesday, September 2, 2009

How I got here so far

I was born in 1985. I've lived in California all my life, and have lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for the majority of my life, excepting a four-year stint in Orange County. The way I got into roleplaying is rather funny and possibly backwards.

My eldest brother played an old computer game named The Bard's Tale, on the Apple IIGS - thus having far superior graphics and sounds to any game system previously existing until the Amiga and the Super Nintendo finally came out. The game was very obviously inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, although I didn't know what D&D was at the time. Eventually, I learned how to read and started playing the game as well. I also managed to beat the Legend of Zelda. I was so enamored by the game's display of possible weapons and items that I started drawing these things too. I would constantly draw up many such displays and "game" with my friends by presenting them with these drawings and telling them, "Let's pretend that this is what you have."

I got heavily into computer game and console "RPGs" and thought that these were actual roleplaying games, when they were really just all about combat. Going into my teen years, I ended up involved in a project called the "Final Fantasy RPG," an involvement that did not last long due to the fact that my brain had not fully formed and the fact that the premise of roleplaying as if you were in a video game is fundamentally wrong to begin with - but I didn't realize that either of these two factors were in effect at the time. My interests turned towards increasingly "deep" and "immersive" video games, and I also dabbled in more than a few hardcore simulators such as Dangerous Waters (a submarine sim), Mobility (a city-building game in which you can provide park & ride lots, set the speed limits on individuals streets and other gory details) and SimCity 4 (one of the few city-building games I have ever seen which knows the difference between daily commutes and shopping trips).

At the same time, I was also involved in a few transient games of AD&D 2e, the system which I was most familiar with and the one in which I could most-easily find good games of. I thought about houseruling it to have more intuitive THAC0 and Armor Class values, revamping the weapon and non-weapon proficiencies, and a number of other changes. I never had a chance to try out these house rules, as I mainly played it through computer games with my friends. I later got into Neverwinter Nights in my college years and played that one a few times with my friends as well - but we spent a lot more time on a certain RTS game by the name of Rise of Nations (which is far better than Starcraft in terms of interface, features, and concepts, but never caught on). As the 2e vs. 3e debate reached its final stages of initial flamewar and settled into entrenched positions, I found myself seeing merit in both camps. I liked the idea that players should have more choice and individualization with their characters, but I also liked the idea that D&D should not try to be like GURPS. I dabbled frequently in what some would call "Narrativist" systems like The Window, in which the emphasis was on description and imagination rather than combat. I also closely followed (and am still a fan of) BattleTech.

Near the end of my university years, I decided that I wanted to get serious about pen & paper roleplaying games. I decided to start with D&D 3e, as it seemed to work well enough for us within the confines of Neverwinter Nights and a lot of the complexity was hidden. I read the D&D 3.5 Player's Handbook while looking up various free resources and ultimately decided that I would not run 3e. My least-favorite parts of the system were, in no particular order: feats, the limited number of skill points relative to what a character should be able to accomplish, attacks of opportunity, figuring out the hardness and hit points of inanimate objects, the way that critical hits worked, the way that weapon proficiencies worked, a number of other things, and last but not least, the fact that I needed PCGen to manage a level-20 character in a reasonable amount of time.

So, I turned to AD&D 2e, the game which I really cut my teeth on and which my friends knew quite well. It seemed simple enough at first, but I thought about all the house rules I wanted to do for it. I had done a small amount of work on changing the THAC0 and Armor Class mechanics to be more like D&D 3e, when I read a post on a message board advertising Castles & Crusades. I bought the C&C Condensed PDF and liked what I saw. I ran a quick session lasting between 5 to 6 hours with my room-mates and friend, although this situation rapidly deteriorated due to the way my roomies and friend were playing. One of my roommates in particular wanted to conduct himself like an evil version of Minsc from Baldur's Gate. This was not conducive to a stable campaign.

I found out about the whole Old-School Revival movement from another guy online (who not too much older than myself!), and discovered the wide world of Basic Fantasy, Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, et. al. I also got to play Basic D&D according to the Rules Cyclopedia, which taught me quite a bit about what it takes to keep a character alive in a dungeon crawling game. With a few sessions of a bit of everything under my belt, especially Castles & Crusades, I performed a critical comparative analysis of these various rules-lite D&D children, and used the Rules Cyclopedia as the reference point.

My calculations came down to this:

  1. The Rules Cyclopedia seemed to be far more convenient to use than any of the direct clones. Why use a clone when I can just use the real thing? Strictly from a rules perspective, there was no point in allowing Labyrinth Lord or its kind to be considered seriously when there was Rules Cyclopedia instead. I am a computer programmer, and therefore, did not give the non-rules aspects of the retro-clones very much weight.
  2. Basic Fantasy RPG has the perfect philosophy, and I still recommend it to people to this day simply on the basis of its philosophy and approach to legal issues, but again, the way it mirrored the Free Software movement was insufficient to substantially differentiate it from the Rules Cyclopedia.
  3. Castles & Crusades brought something new to the table - the SIEGE system. I would discover how great the SIEGE mechanic was after making my final decision, but I did rather like the idea of a universal mechanic. After reading through the text of the full Player's Handbook as well as the text of the free module The Rising Knight, I almost immediately fell in love with the game. It seemed to me that the Troll Lords truly understood what it meant to just sit around a gaming table, throw down some dice and have fun, and to let each gaming group have their own governing philosophy.

I've been firmly in the C&C camp for about a year now and have never felt that I was "missing" anything from using any other system, from the perspective of the rules themselves. After reading some message board posts and blog comments from the most vocal people of each "movement," it is becoming increasingly clear to me that it is for the best that I was not alive in the "old-school" time period.

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