Saturday, June 19, 2021

Classic Vs. The Past

A PDF of this 60 page adventure is available on DriveThruRPG.  An introductory delve into a densely interactive classic dungeon crawl designed with contemporary sensibilities.

RPGS Aren't Played As They Were In The 1970’s And Even Classic RPG Design Must Grapple With It!

All Dead Generations is a blog about “Classic Gaming”, something that Retired Adventurer’s “Six Cultures of Play” essay in April identified as “oriented around the linked progressive development of challenges and PC power, with the rules existing to help keep those in rough proportion to one another and adjudicate the interactions of the two "fairly" … The focus on challenge-based play means lots of overland adventure and sprawling labyrinths and it recycles the same notation to describe towns, which are also treated as sites of challenge.”

While the essay notes that I use the term Classic to perhaps describe something different then it’s version of Classic play, I’m not sure I fully agree. Yes, All Dead Generations frequently suggests rule variation from the primary sources of what Retired Adventurer identifies as the Classic style (AD&D and 1981’s Moldvay/Cook Basic and Expert books) and certainly my preferred aesthetics of phantasmagoric Western or opium fever Dunsanyian fantasy are somewhat far removed from the Gygaxian vernacular fantasy of gray stone corridors full of orcs that make up most classic adventures, but as far as ethics of play and play-style goals I place both All Dead Generations and my adventure design firmly in the Classic tradition. Why the distinction then? There are certainly still plenty of designers working with the Gygax aesthetic, and perfecting adventure design that reflects back to Keep on the Borderlands or even Castle Greyhawk. I’m not, and moreover the entire purpose of Jewelbox Design is somewhat antithetical to the maximal dungeons traditional for Classic play.

I’d argue that All Dead Generations and my current dungeon design seek to offer the same sort of “progressive development of challenges” and fairness that are the core of Classic design, but make them functional for contemporary play. By contemporary play I don’t mean 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons or its design principles, I mean the actual physical conditions that most RPGs seem to be played in in 2021. Two or three hour sessions, played at most once a week seems the modern standard, especially for online play. This is very different then how Gygax and other early designers appear to have run their tables and visualized play. While it’s a bit hard to pin down the exact length of Gygax’s sessions for Castle Greyhawk, Gygax notes in the April 1976 issue of the Strategic Review that:

“It is reasonable to calculate that if a fair player takes part in 50 to 75 games in the course of a year he should acquire sufficient experience points to make him about 9th to 11th level, assuming that he manages to survive all that play. The acquisition of successively higher levels will be proportionate to enhanced power and the number of experience points necessary to attain them, so another year of play will by no means mean a doubling of levels but rather the addition of perhaps two or three levels. Using this gauge, it should take four or five years tosee 20th level. As BLACKMOOR is the only campaign with a life of five years, and GREYHAWK with a life of four is the second longest running campaign, the most able adventurers should not yet have attained 20th level except in the two named campaigns. To my certain knowledge no player in either BLACKMOOR or GREYHAWK has risen above 14th level.”

The important context here is that while the number of sessions played is somewhere around one or two a week (though Gygax apparently ran Greyhawk more often with different groups), the length of the campaign is assumed to be many years. The length of session also seems to have generally been far longer. The original announcement for Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign read “There will be a medieval "Braunstein" April 17, 1971 at the home of Dave Arneson from 1300 hrs to 2400 hrs with refreshments being available on the usual basis.... It will feature mythical creatures and a Poker game under the Troll's bridge between sunup and sundown.” An eleven hour game session. One assumes that Greyhawk ran on a similar basis, at least on the weekends, and even on weeknights and for younger players at least 4 to 5 hours.

Given this disparity in time, both of the individual sessions and the length of campaigns, it’s very unlikely that the classic megadungeons of Greyhawk and Blackmoor, or even shorter published adventures like Tomb of Horror were approachable in shorter, less frequent sessions. In an interesting example, the 1975 Origins I run of the Tomb was supposed to be two hours, though famously only the a level “Evil lord” and 14 orc retainers played by Rob Kuntz finished it with a virtuoso display of calculating orc sacrifice that took 4 hours. This 1975 edition of the Tomb was lengthened for commercial release, with more complexity and puzzles added that greatly expanded play time.

Kuntz’s delve into the Tomb of Horrors varies from another aspect of early play that’s different from present conventions, Robilar the Evil Lord completed the Tomb of Horrors solo, with a large number of retainers. While there’s several stories of similar solo play or adventures for small numbers of drop in visitors, the party size that explored Gygax’s castle Greyhawk during it’s long weekend session ranged up to 10 or 20 players. As anyone who has run a group of that size can attest, organizational efforts and decision making take longer, but the party’s ability to handle threats (combat especially) are vastly improved. Contemporary, and especially online play, depends on smaller parties. Rime of the Frost Maiden, a recent WotC campaign, is designed for four to six players, compared with the six to nine players Keep on the Borderlands suggests.

While they overlap at the edges, and vary, all three of these circumstantial elements: campaign length, session length and expected party size are generally smaller in contemporary play. The limitations imposed by technology as well as different expectations of how rpg play will work have changed since the mid 1970’s. While none of these 2021 conventions are worse or better then those of 1976 they do militate for a different style of adventure design and perhaps rules modifications that account for shorter sessions.

What to Preserve
What exactly does the typical contemporary game session and campaign entail and what player expectations does it build or support? What if anything from the classic style has to be set aside and what is absolutely essential to retain? These aren’t entirely objective questions, especially the last, but from my own experience and play goals I’ve arrived at the following elements.

Maintaining a dungeon crawl experience and the problem solving focused play that it provides is my first goal. To do this certain other design principles and ethics seem essential:

  • Exploration of location layout, and puzzle solving must remain the main focus of play. 
  • Navigation of the location’s space must function as an engine for risk and tension. 
  • Navigation of the location’s space should offer multiple solutions to its obstacles and puzzles, both through path finding and play decisions about what means the characters use to approach any obstacle. 
  • Combat should remain a secondary part of play, one type of obstacle among several. 
  • Combat should retain its lethality and function as the embodiment of risk -- an inevitable fail state. 
  • Character skills and mechanics must remain secondary to player ingenuity and problem solving 
  • Supplies and equipment depletion should remain a threat and part of players’ risk v. reward calculations. 
  • To help retain an open table, expeditions should remain 1 session in length, ending at a haven or safe camps without ending or beginning sessions in media res. 
  • Progress and a sense of achievement must be possible each session, but neither guaranteed nor necessarily involving “clearing” a location or completing a narrative.

With goals in mind, the next question is: what are the conditions of contemporary play, and what does that imply for design and play-style? Again, there’s nothing absolute about the answers to this question, even in the context of the goals above, the conclusions derive from my own play experience over the last ten years and my discussions with others who are also actively playing classic style games. As mentioned above there’s three basic changes from Gygax’s assumptions or ideal of the circumstance of play back in the late 70’s that each have specific effects on play: sessions are shorter, campaigns are shorter, and groups are smaller. An additional factor that doesn’t always apply, but has for the last year is that most play is online through meeting software.

Two to Three Hour Session

I asked around, in different rpg communities I frequent and with surprising regularity among storygame, classic and contemporary traditional players session length ranged from 2 - 4 hours (usually with a fair amount of comradery, socialization and other types of non game interaction included -- and it should be RPGs are a profoundly social experience). The longest play times seemed to be among contemporary traditional (5E and Pathfinder) players, and they put the blame for longer sessions firmly on the comparably complex tactical combat of those systems. There’s no doubt that in the 1970’s two or three hour game sessions weren’t uncommon, but they weren’t the only sort of session and both Blackmoor and Greyhawk ran their long weekend session of 10 - 12 hours. From my own experience playing Dungeons & Dragons as a youth in the early 1990’s these sorts of marathon games were pretty common.

What does this difference mean for play and adventure design though? Most obviously it means that there will be less adventuring each session, and thus fewer rooms or scenes are be explored by the players each session. How many rooms exactly will of course vary with the contents, but again a surprisingly consistent answer emerges across the communities I asked: between 2 and 12 rooms or scenes per session. The outliers on the lower end were again for contemporary traditional games with complex combat, and help make more sense of the popularity of “5 Room Dungeons” in that play style.

For Classic style play this revelation about the speed of exploration offers an argument for a revaluation of many of the principles of Classic adventure design, especially in light of Classic play’s preference for open tables. In an open table game, with its revolving cast of player characters sessions traditionally begin and end in a safe location such as a town.When a session’s exploration is limited to only a few rooms this makes larger dungeons even more difficult to run then they would be with only the exploration limit of around eight rooms per sessions, because not only must sufficiently interesting play occur in those few rooms but the party cannot be expected to explore more rooms from an exit in any one session (or even less if the referee doesn’t allow ‘fast travel’ back to the surface). Even if one uses minimal keying and a large number of bare rooms as was common in early dungeon design this number doesn’t climb significantly, perhaps to ten or twelve rooms explored per session, as players tend to pay attention and investigate even the slightest fragment of dungeon dressing.

The potential advantage of spread out and minimally keyed dungeons creates another issue, a potential breakdown in the supply mechanics of exploration play. When one expects that a session will only explore a few rooms for supply to be meaningful it has to be threatened and decrease during exploration of even that small number of rooms. This means that the mechanics for supply depletion (the few that exist) Classic rule sets tend not to work very well. The torch supply and rate of depletion that makes sense for a ten hour 50 room delve won’t work for a two hour 5 room delve. To prepare for the shortened timescale of contemporary play, supply mechanics themselves need to be changed. This then comes into conflict with larger spaces to explore, where the session may remain short, but through minimalism or other conveniences such as fast travel the number of turns and amount of supply depletion is still that of a longer session. Managing this tension between the amount of interactive content and the amount of in-game time spent becomes a difficult balancing act for contemporary designers and referees.

Shorter Campaigns
It’s not fair to today’s players to call a year long campaign short, but compared to the campaigns envisioned by early Dungeons & Dragons designers - five or ten year affairs where multiple groups of adventurers ranged across a single huge game world and would rise to 15th or 20th level, those in these shorter campaigns will miss out on the higher level experience. A campaign measured in months, 10 or 20 sessions, cannot reach the heights of 5th or 6th level spells, higher HD monsters or domain management without significant changes to the mechanics of character advancement. In Classic Dungeons & Dragons there’s a sort of default progress through adventure types suggested, a rise from exploring dungeons for the first 5 or 6 levels to exploring the wilderness until level 10 or 12 and then finally managing a demesne, with the high level character supporting a stable of lower level retainers and riding out from to confront major threats to their stronghold. As written these rules simply aren’t designed for 1st level characters to undertake wilderness treks and third level ones to manage a town or tower. This limitation has less impact on individual dungeon design, but a greater impact on how well campaigns can meet player expectations. The ideal 1970’s or 1980’s campaign, and one suspects most were not ideal in this way) reached high levels and moved into domain management and/or inter-planar adventures and contests with the gods themselves. The 1983 “Immortals” Dungeon’s & Dragons set, also known as the “Gold Box”, written by Frank Mentzer for the 3rd edition of the Basic Dungeons & Dragons line (BECMI) finally ends the climb up the hierarchy of levels with divine apotheosis at level 37. It also substitute class levels for divine levels, so your 37th level Lord becomes a brand new “Initiate of Matter”, with your 3,480,000 XP converted into 348 “Power Points” to buy divine abilities in a character building mini-game .

Imagine the amount of sessions it takes to accumulate 3.5 Million Experience Points? Even assuming a certain amount of the kind of power play that Gygax attacks in his 1976 editorial we’re talking a decade of consistent and regular sessions with the same characters. The vast majority of people just don’t play that way, but just because one doesn’t have the monomaniacal energy and time of a bored teenager in 1986 one shouldn’t have to miss out on the pleasures of high-powered and bizarre alchemically themed interplanar adventure like that found in TSR’s M3 Twilight Calling. There’s many ways to overcome classic Dungeons & Dragons’ assumption of epic decade-long campaigns, even without resorting to milestone leveling, from flattening the power level of powerful characters and monsters like dragons and giants to reducing higher level XP goals. However, this condition of contemporary play is the one best addressed by changes to the game’s core mechanics or the setting at the campaign level. At the dungeon design level, shorter campaign length just places emphasis on a more vigorous leveling schedule, which in turn promotes smaller locations (or discrete nodes within larger locations) crammed with treasure.

Smaller Groups
The designers of earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons expected large groups to play. Looking through early adventure modules the recommended group size was large, 9 characters is “optimal” for G1 - Steading of the Hill Giant Chief and B2 - Keep on the Borderlands assume 6 to 9 characters. In both cases there’s an acknowledgment that parties may be smaller, and caution that in such case powerful magic items, NPCs and henchman are needed for the party to stand a chance. This caution of course suggests that even at Gygax’s table groups of 9 characters weren’t always available, but with contemporary conditions of play a 9 player group, especially over online meeting software is very rare, and certainly nearly impossible to consistently bring to the table, virtual or otherwise.

As Gygax implies with his GM notes for both G1 and B2, larger parties simply have more options, greater resilience and are far more potent in combat. More spells, more hit points, more healing, more carrying capacity for supplies … all make a larger group better suited for longer more dangerous delves. As such it makes sense to take Gygax’s cautions to heart, Keep on the Borderlands isn’t designed for a group of three or four, and will require a different approach to play, modifications to either character power (such as magic items and henchman) or modification to the adventure itself. Small groups adventuring parties especially limit the ability of the party to move deeply into a location and carry out treasure or continue exploration after setback. When there are three fighters in the front line and one is grievously injured it’s a setback, but one far less grievous than when the group’s only front line combatant is nearly dead. Likewise, such a group likely needs the same amount of healing (damage output is the same), but will have fewer resources. A small party running classic rules only has one or two combat encounters in them, and with a large dungeon and the frequent random encounter checks that are useful for making dungeon size matter, must proceed with far greater caution and guile.

On the plus side, smaller groups are both easier to run and reduce the amount of time spent on decision making, so work well with shorter sessions, and may allow for exploring a greater amount of scenes/rooms in the same amount of time … at least until they face combat. Ultimately, small groups, like shorter session lengths are a common condition of contemporary play that militates for a different approach to design, smaller locations with greater numbers of exits and entrances and more limited use of combat as an obstacle (a penalty or inevitable consequence of risk taking still, but not the most common and recurring impediment to exploration progress).

Online Play
Perhaps the contemporary condition of play most unfathomable to Gygax and crew back in the 1970’s and 1980’s was the advent of online play through both chat/meeting software and now dedicated virtual tabletop programs. As with online work, online play presents its own issues with intensity, fatigue and focus. With games however it creates additional and unique considerations. At a basic level online play demands better meeting skills from the participants, such as a willingness to avoid interruption, crosstalk and take turns speaking more generally (all made worse by the small delays and noise balancing of the medium). From a games specific viewpoint, online play makes sharing maps, character sheets and other handwritten media more difficult. An example of real consequence for classic play is that player mapping becomes a far greater chore over an online platform.

The most serious difficulty, and one additive to limitations imposed by the other contemporary conditions of play, is fatigue. “Zoom Fatigue” is a much discussed side effect of virtual chats and online meetings that has become a popular point of discussion in business management circles and the press as the pandemic moves some varieties of work online. Effectively, greater “fatigue” is the result of the close eye contact, limited visual range, greater cognitive load, and other physical and mental strains imposed by the online meeting format. This applies to online games as well. Online meeting skills and work arounds abound, but since unlike meetings and work chats, games aren’t something we’re forced to engage in for sustenance, it seems unlikely that merely lessening the unpleasant aspects of prolonged virtual interaction will encourage people to play longer sessions. My own experience with Zoom fatigue, and the anecdotes I’ve heard from other long term virtual players suggest that a 2-3 hour session is about as much as most people can take before they tune out, fall asleep, drink to excess, or begin to get restless. 

The Past is a Foreign Country and Nostalgia a Seductive Liar!

None of the conditions of play described here should be especially controversial, and while I’m sure a few people are lucky enough to have the resources for a Gygax style large group, long sessions and long campaigns, it seems obvious that it’s not the set of common conditions for contemporary play. Other's will simply deny that these conditions exist, preferring to insist that the strictures for design an the rulesets produced in the 1970's are perfect. However, for those who aren't drunk on nostalgia or who have schedules more demanding then a teenager a half century ago it's worth considering if the conditions they are likely to play in actively conflict with the design of the rules and especially the adventures produced to support the Classic play style.

It also seems to be an open question if Dungeons & Dragons was ever played in the long campaign arc, long session format that Gygax championed. The 1976 editorial referenced above is at least partially a response to and attack on the style of play described in Alarums & Excursions, Lee Gold’s magazine that at the time detailed the ways the community of Dungeons & Dragons players around CalTech understood and approached the game. The CalTech (also known as “Dungeons & Beavers” after the school’s mascot) approach would prove incredibly influential to later TSR design, and its emphasis on genre emulation, steep power curves, and player character primacy appear to be far more influential then the Lake Geneva emphasis on logistics and other war game sensibilities.

One possible reason that the sort of play Gygax seems to have decried as too easy and too heroic has come to dominate Dungeons & Dragons design may be that the assumptions GYgax makes about the conditions of play are themselves unmanageable. Players want to experience the full sweep of Dungeons & Dragons fantasy within a reasonable time frame, and most refuse to wade through ten or fifteen years of grueling weekly sessions to get to the point where the stories they are telling are of dragon riding lords battling for cosmic power.

Whatever the link between Gygax’s ideal of play, its historical actualities and the common present conditions it’s worth repeating again that the rules of classic Dungeons & Dragons as written aren’t designed for the ways most people play. As a designer or referee it’s worth considering this and looking for ways to adapt your games to the actual conditions at your table (or more likely your virtual table). It is rarely best to fortify one’s design in the tersely described grey stone goblin warrens of a classic megadungeon without considering how far into the maze your three hours of adventure will take the adventurers and how they will have to return. For megadungeons, one common complaint is that adventurers quickly leave the dungeon seeking above ground challenges, and a big part of this may be a desire to spend more of the session engaging in with actual obstacles, puzzles and encounters then in a dungeon where the first hour is likely to be spent negotiating previously explored areas, and the vast number of rooms are empty.

This route is the one that the hobby has taken more generally, to largely discard or ritualize the dungeon crawl, converting it to a genre itself, and creating ways (zone based dungeon design or the encounter focused small locations of contemporary WotC adventures come immediately to mind) but if one wishes to preserve the core of the dungeon crawl play style, and retain the design principles and play ethics described above, something more than an aesthetic nod to the genre of location based adventure seems necessary.

To discuss preserving the dungeon crawl and the spirit of classic play under the contemporary conditions of play will likely be the next project for All Dead Generations, along with publishing adventures and perhaps even rules or procedure guides that enable it. Some of these preservatives have already been mentioned on this blog, but there are many potential paths still -- too many to write about in this post. Changes can, and perhaps need, to be made in both the orthodox principles of classic adventure design and the mechanics for exploration themselves.


  1. Gosh, this is a great subject.

    I will say that for MOST of my gaming life, I have had to make do with a small number of players. FIVE was the most I ever had, prior to college, and that was once...three to four PCs was the norm with three being far more common. When I got back into D&D as an adult, I had a regular table of 8-9 but that was a new thing for me...likewise, those games were generally less than four hours in length, unlike the marathon weekend games of my youth.

    However, I find it difficult to believe that LONG GAMES of LARGE GROUPS was ever the norm. Maybe in a college dormitory...away from the nagging of spouses/parents and the responsibilities of true adulthood. But I imagine that even Gygax's own games were limited by the usual burdens of adulthood (marriage, children, job/writing). The occasional weekend bash-up or convention would be the only opportunity for the large games AND long hours.

    While late edition "innovations" (more effective characters, more accessible healing, increased survivability) COULD BE viewed as considerate of changing methods of play (or of adapting to "play as its always been"), I think they're probably just a byproduct of a different, namely "making characters cooler" and more robust. (That doesn't mean they should be discarded out of hand...especially if they aid in running the game!)

    I think...I THINK (and have had this thought before) that it would be helpful to design game parameters based on the circumstances of play. When you open a game of Monopoly, you receive instructions for both the "standard" game and the "short" or "quick" form. A con game of D&D is different from a weekly group which is different from a home game with one's family members (which is what I run these days)...all require different approaches and different (tempered) expectations.

    I think there's a lot of fascinating discussion around the subject.

    1. It's a good question. My own gaming experience has been similar to yours, and I suspect a lot of folks who started playing as kids in the 1980's. I only played those all day games as a preteen, but I certainly thought that was how the game was supposed to be played.

      So absolutely, I'm not sure if long games and big groups were ever the norm, they seem to be the ideal of play promoted by Gygax and others within his circle. More important then the hectoring articles in Strategic Review or the Dragon seems to me that the adventures of the era were written for larger groups of PCs and with large numbers of keyed locations -- however Gygax was actually playing, he was telling you and I to play marathon games, and pushing back against the fiction emulation play style that others found almost immediately in D&D.

      The AD&D emphasis on convention/tournament play, and the sort of tough guy tone it brings to D&D ("STRICT TIME RECORDS" being everyone's favorite example) may all be ways of trying to enforce this ideal, but obviously they didn't really work. 5E is of course designed as a character centered game, with its locus firmly in tactical combat, but even TSR D&D famously evolved in the direction of story arcs and away from open tables and open worlds.

      I do hope to get into how to write and run adventures that are better suited to contemporary play, at least my version of it, because I suspect there's more ways then my own jewelboxes and strict encumbrance. For now though just looking at something like B2, or even Caverns of Thracia and asking "Is this designed for how I will play it?" is worthwhile. B2 with its numerous lairs, nearby haven, and many entrances to the caves seems quite well designed for shorter sessions actually, but one wonders how intentional these elements are, and how much of a lucky accident?

  2. Great discussion.

    My groups average 4 to 6 players. Pre Covid my sessions were 8 hours marathons. This, plus bx style combat, allowed us to go with megadungeon play.

    Even with those sessions, I made my players read both the old school primer and the players suggestions section of the 1e players handbook. They knew that every delve should have a goal, finding the stairs, whats behind that red door, take out the orc king, etc. That helped them focus on getting in and out before they ran out of supplies, got too encumbered, or pushed their luck.

    If you want megadungeon play to continue with shorter play rimes you need to create discoverable shortcuts in the dungeon - secret stairs, teleporting rooms, pits, extra entrances that go straight to lower levels. This fulfills an old school goal of rewarding exploration. With competing parties this creates a race for knowledge which creates compelling gameplay.

    In running dwimmermount I added a portal at the entrance that only revealed itself when someone held a specific type of item. That brought them to another room allowing quick entry to lower levels just at the time that the various PC parties were ready to explore those levels. This was invaluable.

    Another technique is to use treasure maps that reference hidden locations within the dungeon. This helps speed up exploration by providing a clear path, reducing decision time.

    Once you get to mid levels spells and magic items change the resource game from counting torches to deciding when to use charges, potions, etc. That doesn't really address the issue at low levels, but makes resource management important at mid to high level even for short games.

    (The 5 minute adventuring day ISan issue with a shorter play time. I have NO IDEA how to solve that).

    I think that quick travel, of a sort, can be used with shorter play times. I allow 3x movement through explored areas with a map. Still make the wandering rolls every 2 turns, but they can cover a lot of ground before one pops up. That can help speed play, but also might minimize part of classic megadungeon play - the risk that staying away means that things have changed- i.e. restocking.

    I'm thinking of starting a new group with my old crew from the 80s. We will probably switch to shorter (3 to 4hr) sessions allowing for other games as well during our sessions. I'm interested to see what ideas you can come up with.

    1. These are similar to many of the ideas I've been using. I use overloaded encounter die every turn, but usually don't use exact movement rates for exploration - a turn is the time it takes to move through a keyed area of hallway of reasonable length.

      In my experience, the number of entrances and exits to a large dungeon (really anything over 10 or so keys is the biggest factor in how well it works for short session classic play. "fast Travel" is similarly useful, largely as part of a nodal design where the mega dungeon is made up of many nodes, each accessible, unlockable, or clearable in a variety of ways so that there's no need to pass through huge amounts of dungeon space to start each new segment of exploration.

  3. This is fascinating to me, because I maintain the opinion that long campaigns within a persistent milieu and large player groups with inconsistent attendance and multiple characters to choose from on a per-adventure basis are the defining qualities of an old-school campaign. The first editions of OD&D and AD&D were designed with those assumptions baked in, and it should surprise nobody that they truly do function at their best when run that way.

    1. I don't disagree that large groups (Barrier Peaks demands 10 to 15 high level PCs!), long sessions, and long campaigns were the conditions of play that Gygax and his circle idealized and sought. Of those conditions long campaigns appear the easiest to maintain -- it's really session length that makes the most significant changes, and seems the most commonly changed.

      I also agree that OD&D and AD&D were designed with these hard to achieve assumptions about play. I even know of a few tables that have managed to live up to them .. it's a few though. Most tables, even those playing classic rule sets, aren't and any claim that one must give up 10 hours a week for five years to enjoy OD&D peoperly is not an argument I find especially compelling. I think the joys of exploration and puzzle-solving based play (and the specific elements of what I call the "Dungeon Crawl" play style as listed above)can be preserved without such extremes. However it requires setting aside nostalgia and orthodoxies about design to thinks about how we might design adventures and mechanics for the way we actually play. It requires a careful look at old rulesets and acknowledgment that they can be changed to better suit one's conditions of play without somehow corrupting them.

      Nostalgia and ideals have a way of insisting that if we could just live up to them our difficulties would vanish, that a glory of the past would manifest in present. This is always a lie, a trick of memory or rhetoric and an excuse not to work to improve the present, instead blaming ourselves for the past's failures or impossible ideals. In thinking this perhaps I differ from many in the "OSR" -- but nostalgia holds little appeal to me. I want a system and adventures that work with the conditions of the present, the conditions that most people I know play in, rather then some nostalgic ideal.

      I also question if Gygax and early play often managed to live up to the ideals they set?

      In the paragraphs after Barrier Peaks notes it's large group size there's a discussion of various work arounds (higher level PCs, NPC adventurers, multiple characters, pregens)-- an acknowledgment that many of those playing will not have a table with 10 mid to high level characters available to play through a seven level, hundred room spaceship dungeon.

      It seems to me that if these are the conditions required to run older editions to their full potential, the almost immediate desire to change those editions, and the rapid evolution away from foundational principles towards the small groups, powerful characters, and set narratives one can move through in digestible chunks are very understandable, even inevitable. The question for me is how to deal with the common conditions of play while preserving the elements I find unique and enjoyable in OD&D and other early editions.

    2. Well we agree on the fundamental points, then, and we just differ in our respective approaches to dealing with the facts on the ground.

      Most gamers for the better part of the last five decades have preferred to alter the games to suit their circumstances. This includes the OSR, which began as a movement to revive the 70s D&D play-style but very quickly evolved into an extraction of abstract principles from that play-style, followed by countless many attempts to apply those principles to new games.

      My interest is in the old games for their own sake, not in animating principles. (This is the main reason I have little to do with the OSR anymore.) I prefer to recreate the circumstances that make OD&D and AD&D function as intended, rather than adapting them to different circumstances. And I'm simply trying to get the point across that this too is a valid approach, hardly difficult or impossible, and even well worth doing in my experience.

    3. I didn't mean to sound unduly harsh there and agree with your capsule history. I too have broken with the "OSR" for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being that I see it increasingly replicating some of the Trad/1980's TSR/"Hickman" style changes to its base rulesets in service of faster, easier play. I likely have fonder memories of the less nostalgic, G+ stage of the "OSR", but to me, as a scene or movement, it's as much a thing of the past as Dungeons & Beavers -- an influential historical design school.

      Obviously I can't begrudge your efforts to live up to the ideals of early Gygaxian/Lake Geneva play, but it's not this blog's project (or mine more generally) to recreate a historical play style. Rather I'd like to find a way to reintroduce the experience and virtues of early procedural dungeon crawling, while addressing at least some of the things that made it fall out of favor (seemingly pretty early).

      I think a fair number of the changes I've been mulling aren't necessarily mechanical, except the now well known conveniences around movement, supply and time but rather an argument precisely for the flatter power curves and simpler combat of OD&D and more a different way of looking at dungeon/adventure design that focuses on making the experience more accessible in 3 hour (5-12 keyed location) expeditions rather then 8 hour (20 - 60 room ones). The goal of this project is to find a way to address some of the same issues as Hickman's genre emulation playstyle, without losing what I see as the core of the procedural challenge based dungeon crawl. I'm not yet sure if that's an impossible goal, though I've had some success in my home game.

      I hope that the changes won't seem to shocking or unseemly even to folks who are trying to play the Lake Geneva way, but will also be more accessible to those of us who lack the time or will to do so.

  4. I would respond to the open question of whether such long session and long campaigns existed back in the 70's with an affirmative. Our group, which played weekly for 5-8 hours, carry on through sereval campaigns over about a decade which usually ended (at either low and high levels) after the party pushed its lucky too far and was wiped out to start anew.

    1. I remember a few sessions like that in the 1980's, but never managed to get into a regular routine of long sessions. Obviously the long session-long campaign was more common back then, and in person play does make it easier, but it's also clear from the Referee notes in older modules that TSR was making accommodations for smaller groups, and now...

      I got 30 or so responses to my queries about playtime and such at various discords. I got no one that said they could regularly play for 8 hours, let alone 12. I'm sure that table is out there, but it's lonely. I don't think that the long play, long campaign conditions are necessary to enjoyment or use of the dungeon crawl/classic style though. The question for me is how to get there in a way that's easily understood and doesn't deform the core of classic exploration and puzzle solving classic play?

  5. Good analysis. I find it hard to believe marathon sessions are large groups were ever the norm. Which, of course, is not to say they never existed, as they obviously did.

    1. I find it hard to believe as well. There's obviously some dedicated and lucky enough to be able to play that way, but in general I think smaller groups and shorter play times are more common.

      The disconnect is that the old editions are designed with long sessions, large groups and long campaigns in mind. It's especially difficult to run the sort of dungeon crawl I like under these conditions of play, but I think it's something that one can work towards. At least I hope it is.

  6. I think one of the biggest differences between today and the 70 is open table gaming.

    I ran an ongoing campaign in the 1970s. We probably averaged 20 "active" players at any given time. Perhaps 5-7 regulars who mad 75% of the sessions, the rest showing up once or twice a month. A couple of the regulars were assistant referee (with there own dungeon) who would run things when I couldn't make it (or just wanted to play a bit).

    An average session was 6-7 players - maybe 4 regulars, a couple of the occasionasl and maybe one or two drop-ins. Once a month or so we might be able to get a big group of say 10-12 together and tackle something bigger. Maybe three times a year we would go for "named event" which might draw 30 people with 3-4 referee coordinating between tables to keep timeline synched.

    I think of those who I started playing with in 1974 only a couple remained by 1979 and only 1 when we shut it down in 1981. Toward the end, the numbers got smaller than those above, but that is partly because of Traveler.

    With the advent of technology, this type of play seems like it should be easier. You no longer have to gather at a central location. I am not sure why it doesn't happen more. We used to draw a lot of players who were just curious what an RPG was. We had the advantage of novelty. Perhaps that is the difference. Also, I think the increased focus on plot development and character development tends to make groups want to be more stable. Back in the day, lots of players took there character with them when the went to "visit" other worlds. All it took was referee approval to let them in. Also everyone had henchmen, which were great for handing to someone who had never played before.

    Not much focus to my post I suppose, but perhaps something some aspect is still relevant.

    1. akwberb,

      I absolutely agree that open tables are a wonderful aspect of classic play (and one I have no doubt was core to the Lake Geneva scene). It's precisely this sort of play style that I hope to preserve and promote -- while offering ways to accommodate the contemporary conditions of play, especially online play, which while they may have their unique drawbacks are certainly pulling more people into the hobby as a whole and also offer new opportunities.

  7. My experience of this tracks most of what you say, but not all of it. I've been running two groups, one for 5 years, and the other for 2 years, both through my dreamlands setting. So length of campaign is maybe not incompatible with contemporary play culture. I mean it's hard to build a 5+ year game, but you can do it, and a lot of people do, I think.

    My recent campaigns never had more than 8 active players at once, and usually have had around 5 per group, so that's basically the smaller group you describe. But interestingly, since the pandemic started, I've been playing in a campaign that is only a year old, but has maybe 15 active players. And it works really well!

    Is it a commitment to run a game like that? Yes, it's a big commitment. Is it what most people do? Obviously not. But I see a lot of potential for that style of play, especially online, where scheduling difficulties are easier to manage. I think you need the right ruleset to foster the dynamic potential of a large group of players, and the right procedures and protocols in place. Westmarches (or Castle Greyhawk) provide paradigms, but there are other ways to do it. My system of downtime activities in a way is geared to a large player base. I think it's totally replicable under contemporary conditions, even for grownups with kids.

    Anyway, the one thing that is a definite universal element of my experience that matches your analysis since I started gaming again around 2010 is the shorter SESSION LENGTH you mention. Two and half or three hours has been the norm in every game I've played or run (maybe 200 sessions total over that span, mostly in the last 5 years). Almost all the points you make about dungeon and adventure design, and rules about resources, and so on, have to do with session length.

    In other words, my own take would be: shorter campaigns? Maybe not. Smaller player groups? Probably for most people, but does it have to be that way? Doesn't online play make it easier to run large groups? But about shorter session length: I agree, definitely. I see the allure of jewelbox dungeon design arising in large part from that last point.

    Anyway, I'm super interested in seeing where you take this. I think you're right that OD&D (and AD&D) was designed with a certain set of ideas about play culture that you describe. When things shift, it has to alter the way we play and design our games and adventures, unless we work against the grain to foster some ways of playing that are out of step with the assumed play culture of most people.

    1. I think one of the key things about these conditions of play is they aren't always for everyone, every time.

      However I think I should add and clarify a bit here.

      A) On Campaign length. Gygax suggests 5 year campaigns with at least one session a week, and he's talking those 12 hour sessions. I think this is the most common condition that today's games retain, and I too have run and played in multiyear campaigns. However, we certainly didn't get to 15th level as suggested in the Gygax editorial quoted above. I don't know what level the PCs are in Dreamlands these days, but I don't expect it's 15th or even 10th - 7th or 8th maybe? Hill Cantons ran for 7 years online I think, and its longstanding characters reached 7th and 8th level. In Pahvelorn my thief (with those lower leveling requirements) reached 7th after four years. HMS Apollyon Campaign 1 ran 3 years and we had a 7th level cleric and MU, but they were playing in other games as well I think, it being the G+ heyday. Plus, those shorter sessions matter and make for lower level campaigns, shorter by far then the BECMI rise to 37th level and divine ascension, or even Gygax's 15th level.

      Of course I suspect someone is doing it still, but not a lot of someones. I also don't so much care about leveling, I like low level play -- but I would like to see dragons in my dungeons with some regularity.

      B)Group size. 15 players overall is certainly doable, and you are right that it's easier with virtual meeting technology, but I don't see many people running fifteen players at a time on Zoom. 15 or more players coming in and out for an average group size of 4 - 6 seems plausible, perhaps common, and is the sort of play style I very much enjoy. Of course high player turnover and inconstant attendance for some means slower advancement, increases the need to return to the haven between sessions, and can result in a lack of narrative focus as varied players develop shifting goals.

      You correctly point to session length as the primary issue, and yes, it's the one I am most focused on, especially with adventure design. Group size (in each expedition, not the overall player pool) is secondary, and largely just requires remembering it when stocking monster and such.

      Mostly I've been considering location/adventure design, especially how the megadungeon can be made to work with the 3 hour expedition, but more radical change is possible - principally flattening the power curve so "high level" creatures are something that lower level characters can approach and interact with more readily. O&D already does this fairly well up to a point. Adjustments to spell availability and level caps at 10th or even 3rd level might also make useful changes, but the basic changes will likely seem pretty bland, and perhaps even practices that contemporary designers and referees have already largely embraced.

  8. God this is immensely insightful, and extremely useful analysis. I look forward to reading your solutions, even for my open table Trad purposes

    1. I have a suspicion that one of (or perhaps the) primary ways of dealing with these issues is the Trad play style, or more the Contempoary Traditional one? Still, I hope I've got a few ideas for playing Classic with the more restrictive contemporary conditions.

  9. This is one of my favorite posts of yours Gus (next to the one on Crystal Frontiers' Templars, for a silly reason). I started in this hobby in 1981, and I have only thrice been in group play with greater than ten people.
    Personally, I have enjoyed sessions of four to six people the most.
    Marathon sessions have been rare in my experience, I only recall one. Most sessions pre-Covid were three to five hours, and post-Covid two to four hours.
    I enjoyed your analysis and I look forward to more!


Old Games

Let’s talk about old tabletop roleplaying games - specifically the kind of games played in the 1980’s and recently depicted in the nostalgia...