There was a large gap between 2006 and 2009 where I wasn’t playing any tabletop RPGs. It was the era of the MMO, and I was hooked. From World of Warcraft, Age of Conan, and EVE Online to settling in on Lord of the Rings Online, my gaming fix came in the form of digital entertainment.
This isn’t coming down on the MMOs are the death of civilization side of any debate. I thoroughly enjoyed my time raiding, PVPing and grinding away for rate loot. But I was feeling the pull – the gamer’s itch – to get back into physical gaming. With pen and paper and dice.
There was a moment when unlikely groups of friends and acquaintances, tabletop gamers by no stretch, started talking about playing Dungeons and Dragons. This was late 2008, and being all fans of Penny Arcade, we had started listening to the first Acquisitions Incorporated podcasts. Idle talk in chat and IMs grew until we had a plan; we were gonna try out D&D 4th Edition. Only, we had no Dungeon Master.
I offered to DM the first game, a one shot to get use to the system. Another player, if we wanted to continue, would start off a group using Scales of War, for a weekly game. And from there we took off like a rocket.
The one shot was a success. DMing a game had never been so easy! Combats (at first) were quick, monsters were so easy to control and run, and we all quickly glommed on to the power structure of 4E. We were tactical gamers by nature, and the grid combat of 4E and the regular “cool down” cycle of powers worked for us.
The Scales of War group ran until we reach level 11. I had gotten married and moved by then; the group compressed, played Living Forgotten Realms at local gaming stores, and dropped D&D right around Essentials being released. About a third of us still game.
For myself, I ran 3 more one-shots, a short Paragon mini-campaign and an online Heroic campaign via MapTools. I wanted to game more, play more, run more. I got involved in online communities and RPG blogs. And I ran smack into the first wave of the OSR.
There’s a lot of positive things that have come out of the Old School Renaissance movement. Stars Without Number, for the Tag system and design notes alone, is an instant classic. Vornheim is still the high bar of running adventures in a city. I have multiple copies of Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game on my shelf. And the discussions generated on the blogs and forums opened my eyes to playstyles I had never experienced. Sandbox? I’d love to, thanks! Megadungeon “tentpole” campaigns? Sure, why not.
But there were a lot of problems early on. Rampant gatekeeping. Us vs Them mentalities, pointed towards the mouthbreathing hordes of 4E MMO WoWbabby players (they were talking about me!). Ridiculous Back In My Day and Killer DM posturing. The super biased strawmen of the poorly conceived Old School Primer. Issues kept cropping up: Lamentations of the Flame Princess, being a tight Basic D&D inspired ruleset, presenting jaw-dropping art and well produced adventures that punished you for playing D&D. ACKS courting controversy with the designers’ marketing choices and the Dwimmermount debacle. The fall of Grognardia. Not to mention the sections of misogyny and frank lack of respect for others (still) coming from loud voices in the OSR community.
For all that, there was still a lot of good that influenced my later RPG tastes, my DMing habits, and my attitude as a player. I leaned less on the character sheet and more on description and action. I gave up rolling behind a screen and banished the thought of fudging. I dove in to the world of random encounters, and random anything tables, streamlining my prep work. Discussions of older games caused me to look into the past, finding what still works and what were strange quirks of the early hobby. The passion of the first retro-clone authors inspired me (but not too much).
It’s odd to look back on now, but it was the twin forces of 4E and the OSR – the modern, player-centric ruleset and the traditionalist, DM-focused revival – that brought me more fully into the RPG community. Who would have saw that coming, back in 2009? Or even 2012?