Saturday, December 20, 2008

Another Old School Tradition

I know it's not fashionable to discuss such things, but I'd like to take a moment to talk about some of the prejudices I have retained about certain old school games and the gamers who played them. I've mentioned before that I had a double initiation into the hobby in late 1979/early 1980 through my friend Mike's metalhead older brother and the grognards who hung around the hobby shops I frequented. Besides teaching me the rules of D&D -- or at least their interpretation of those rules -- they also taught me a few "truths" about other games and the people who played them.

Some gamers mistakenly think that "edition wars" and "badwrongfun" are somehow unique to these modern times, but I'm here to tell you that's just not the case. Pretty much from the moment I entered the hobby, I learned that, even among gamers, there were "guys like us" and "weirdos." Weirdos were the ones who played games we didn't play and that no one we knew played or, if we did know them, we knew them to be somehow mentally and/or morally deficient and thus exactly the sort of sub-human who'd play "those games."

What were "those games?" As I said, they were any game we didn't play, but three in particular stick out in my mind:
  • Chivalry & Sorcery: Playing C&S probably only counted as a venial sin, because most of us back then had succumbed to the temptation to try and make D&D "more realistic" or at least "truer to medieval history," whatever that meant. C&S -- or so we were told, as none of us ever actually played the game -- was a game for real geeks, the kinds of people even my friends and I would shun. They were the pocket protector and taped-up glasses crowd, as opposed to the "normal" guys we all perceived ourselves to be. Thanks to one of my readers, Richard, I've finally got my hands on a copy of C&S and will be reading it with great enthusiasm. My first impression, based only on a cursory scan of it, is that my old prejudice, while perhaps overly judgmental, wasn't that far off. C&S does appear to be too complicated by half, but then I didn't expect anything less from the company that brought us Space Opera.
  • RuneQuest: Even my friend's metalhead brother thought RQ was too trippy. What I remember most were his rants about how it had anthropomorphic ducks -- "How can you take that seriously?" he would ask -- and that "everyone can use magic." I never actually played the game for any length of time myself until the star-crossed days when Avalon Hill published its third edition, but I remember reading about it in White Dwarf, which seemed obsessed with it. RQ gamers were generally considered "hippies" who had "done too many drugs" and so we didn't have anything to do with them. When I finally did play the game for myself, I found it hard to fathom what all the fuss was about back in those early days.
  • Tunnels & Trolls: T&T was the game for guys who "couldn't hack D&D." It was widely considered a "joke game" and even more ludicrous than ones with duck men in it. I did get a chance to play T&T at the time and I'll admit that I hated it. Even now, I still bristle at the spell names and the tongue in cheek way a lot of it is presented. I have a greater appreciation fo some of its rules and presentation, but it's definitely not a game for me. I'm not sure it's a "joke," but it's nevertheless much more "jokey" than I like my RPGs to be.
It's very interesting looking back on those early days and remembering that there were cliques and camps and sects even back then. That seems to be the nature of fandoms of all sorts, particularly large and popular ones. In those bygone days, when roleplaying was a fad, pretty much everyone I knew gamed and the bulk of us all played D&D (or Traveller), so those who didn't do so were quickly branded as oddballs.

There's a rich irony there, given that gaming, even in its heyday, was never cool or treated with the same respect as being a good athlete or good student was (it's worth noting too that not every gamer I knew was a genius; many of them were downright dim academically). But dividing our fellow gamers up and putting them into categories we could exclude just seemed to be the natural thing to do. It's something that's unfortunately stuck with me all these years and, though I try to fight against it, the old prejudices do bubble up to the surface from time to time.

Now, I'm not advocating the notion that games, being mere entertainments, automatically defy meaningful criticism or that we ought to like them all without qualification, out of misplaced solidarity -- the "we're all gamers here" syndrome. As I stated above, I still think Tunnels & Trolls is more than a little silly and thus not worth my time and could argue at some length in defense of my opinion. That's not the same thing as saying that everyone ought to feel the same way about it or any other game. What I do advocate is reasoned discussion about the relative merits of many games, because I think such is possible. It's also the reason why I don't bow to the notion that "old school" is a phrase empty of meaning. Simply because there is disagreement about its meaning doesn't prove that it has no meaning. To my mind, it only proves that we need to discuss the phrase more in order to refine its meaning, but then that's my way with most things.

In any case, reflecting on my past prejudices is a valuable exercise and highlights some of my blind spots and misapprehensions. Not every negative opinion I have of certain games is based purely on prejudice, but some of them are and I'm working on overcoming those that are. I can't make any promise that I'll succeed in my efforts, but do know that I am working hard at it, which is really all I can do.

27 comments:

  1. I got into this hobby through BECMI D&D. I have played every iteration of the D&D engine that has come out. I love DnD, but my real love is Runequest.
    I have nothing profound to say.
    Runequest rocks.

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  2. Our FRPG of choice at the time was Metagaming's "The Fantasy Trip", also sneered at and possibly considered even lower on the totem pole than T&T! Hell, I loved that game... still do.

    I must admit, though, that when I first heard the term "Fantasy Heartbreaker" years later, the first thing that came to mind was TFT, based on how it was released (as opposed to what was promised) and how quickly Metagaming went downhill from there.

    Of course, our group was no better than those who made fun of us for TFT. We bitched endlessly about the illogic of AC, squares vs hexes, and what we perceived as a complete lack of tactical rules in D&D.

    Ah, youth. How nice it was to know it all.

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  3. "History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme." -Mark Twain (or so they say)

    Not every negative opinion I have of certain games is based purely on prejudice, but some of them are and I'm working on overcoming those that are. I can't make any promise that I'll succeed in my efforts, but do know that I am working hard at it, which is really all I can do.

    It's a noble effort. I tried to see GURPS through a new perspective, recently. I tried. :)

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  4. I fill compelled to repeat word by word what tedopon said, because it applies exactly to me:

    "I got into this hobby through BECMI D&D. I have played every iteration of the D&D engine that has come out. I love DnD, but my real love is Runequest.
    I have nothing profound to say.
    Runequest rocks."

    I'd just add that Stormbringer rocks as well, and thad despite playing said two highly supect games I've never used drugs (apart an inordinate amount of caffeine).

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  5. Interestingly, though I got my start in gaming with D&D (Holmes Basic to be specific), the game I first did significant play in was Chivalry & Sorcery. I didn't start playing D&D heavily until I got the AD&D Players Handbook for Christmas in 1978.

    My best friend got C&S for Christmas in 1977. I now own that copy (he almost never used it, I killed the spine photocopying it).

    I also got into RuneQuest when it came out, though I didn't play it extensively until much later.

    I did look down on Tunnels & Trolls. The spell names really got to me. I do remember enjoying one of the solo adventures though (but I didn't actually use the rules, my friends older brother was into T&T and had bought the solo adventure at a con - I was reading it and "playing" it).

    I think it would be interesting to see a version of T&T with more serious spell names, though I also have some issues with the combat system and how characters advance.

    Frank

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  6. Came in through the Brit gamer gateway drugs of Choose Your Own Adventure, the Knightmare TV show and Heroquest. Played BECMI ( and knew I'd come home culturally), then AD&D and WFRP, Stormbringer, CoC and then did the grand tour.

    Finally came to BRP Runequest/Gorantha late (late 90s) and had the good fortune to see it for what it was: mythic roleplaying with essential goofy elements.

    The only people I think are weird are those filthy deviants who use hexes on their battlemats. Filthy deviants! Squares are the One True Way! ;-)

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  7. I don't recall T&T being any sillier than D&D in practice! Perhaps a dose of humor is sometimes a good reality check for those taking too seriously a game about elves going into magical holes in the ground to steal gold from goblins.

    I had some fun with C&S, but in the long run found it too complicated for my taste.

    RuneQuest (and each of its Chaosium heirs in turn) quickly became a favorite of mine. Call of Cthulhu is in a class of its own.

    The Fantasy Trip was very popular in my circle, in both its micro-game and "advanced" forms.

    I knew a few AD&D snobs in the late '70s and early '80s, but they were less common in my experience than folks who borrowed what they liked from several sources.

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  8. For awhile I played T&T solo, where the spell names don't matter. I don't think dismissing T&T as silly, or indeed the silly side of the game that has been present from the beginning, is particularly wise.

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  9. A friend of mine, a major in neuropsychology and developmental psychology, told me just the other day that tribalism is a natural and indeed necessary part of the healthy development of any individual - and by inference any culture or subculture. It's through such assertions that we develop and define our identities, though one hopes that we eventually learn to see beyond these labels and engage one another in productive dialogue.

    I will step to the podium here and admit that for a long time, Palladium was my main system - and I know what everyone says about us Palladium gamers. All I can say is: at the time, the games gave me something I wanted that other games weren't delivering. Of course, at the time I was still running Paranoia, a BECMI hexcrawl, the odd Cthulhu and White Wolf one-shot, and frequent homebrews, as well as playing in any WEG Star Wars game that happened by. (I am sad to say that I have never managed to play in or run a Ghostbusters International game, but I still hold out hopes for the future.) These days it's all about Savage Worlds, a hybrid of B/X & 0e, and the odd whimsical foray into Fudge (while my True20 library sits in mute reproach).

    Obviously I'm inclined to broad tastes, but I've always had my tribal hang-ups. I still have trouble believing that AD&D (1st edition especially) is for anyone but sadomasochists (and not the fun kind), and I have particularly unkind feelings toward GURPS - I've been known to comment that their sourcebooks would be perfect if they'd stop dribbling their game all over the pages. While that's mostly a distaste for the system, I have some trouble separating it from the players.

    But it does seem that all we can do is try.

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  10. I don't recall T&T being any sillier than D&D in practice! Perhaps a dose of humor is sometimes a good reality check for those taking too seriously a game about elves going into magical holes in the ground to steal gold from goblins.

    I think what bugs me about T&T is not its unwillingness to treat gaming as deadly serious -- I think that's quite admirable -- but allowing that lack of seriousness to spill over into its presentation. The spell names make it impossible for me to look on it as a game I could ever play in a straight fashion.

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  11. I don't think dismissing T&T as silly, or indeed the silly side of the game that has been present from the beginning, is particularly wise.

    Why not? I'm not saying I think T&T is a bad game or that anyone who plays it as a Philistine devoid of taste (though I did in the past). But I do find that there's a lack of seriousness to the game that I dislike, one that goes beyond a healthy acknowledgment that "this is all just a game" and that makes it hard for me to play the game with a straight face. That's a comment about my reaction to the game, not anything absolute about the game itself, which, by all accounts, is fun and enjoyable and well regarded by many people whose opinions I otherwise agree with.

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  12. I agree that a lot of people looked down on T&T because of spells like Take That You Fiend. For myself, I found the solo dungeons (the most prominent aspect of T&T, at least over here) to be very poor efforts, and that was what turned me off of it.

    Runequest was well received by us because sudden there was a single universal system for both monsters and characters. And it was a game where non-combat options became important - it wasn't nicknamed Limbquest for nothing. However it was the first real supplement, Cults of Prax, that really won people over to the game - it created a depth to society. The adventures and books that followed deserved the awards they received, and the dedicated coterie of followers that survived even the Avalon Hill years.

    C&S has always been an authenticity mavin's dream in it's game system (and the new editions are even more so). However some of the essays in the original companions are well worth reading for the old school gamer.

    As others have mentioned though, my favourite, system of the early years was The Fantasy Trip (although I'd started playing lots of it when it was just Melee and Wizard). Fast, simple, tactical and enjoyable (basically what they are trying to do with 4e D&D except without the complexity of that system). In fact we translated most of the D&D monsters into this format - I still have my hand-drawn bulette counter - and wasn't that a surprise.

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  13. To add something more substantial to my above pledge of allegiance to RuneQuest I'll say that the best ever "sandbox" campaign setting was created for this game. It is 'Griffin Mountain' a marvel to behold (not to be cofused with the stripped down version called Griffin Island'. I am using it for an irregular campaign - we play every 2-4 months- and I did session after session improvising everything as I roll random encounters...and an epic narrative unfolds.
    In sum 'Griffin Mountain' deserves to be studied (and loved) by every self respecting scholar of old school traditions, irrespectively of his attitude towards antropomorphic ducks and shamanistic-hippie practices. It was written in 1981 by Rudy Kraft and Paul Jacquays, with the (significant) participation of Greg Stafford. And it rocks. In my book Griffin Mountain ranks as second best campaign ever after WFRP's 'The Enemy Within' (which is not strictly old school but rather an interesting contemporary of the narrative turn that you stigmatized in Dragonlance - but Enemy Within is narrative done right).

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  14. Others have said most of what I was going to about T&T. I have a hard time disapproving of TTYF on one hand and approving of the rust monster or the gelatinous cube on the other.

    In my callow teenagehood I found the "authenticity"* of C&S appealing, and the complexity, although staggering (especially of chargen) seemed of a piece with 1e, to me. At the time I didn't get D&D's Hyborian roots but I did get its medievalist aspects. I think that fatally compromised my appreciation for the game.

    Nowadays I'm not tolerant of excessive complexity - Baron Munchhausen's about my speed where simplicity of rules is concerned. For "medieval" feel I'd choose Ars Magica (being picky about the supplements), although I'd probably jettison most of the rules except for the magic system. There's still something about C&S magic, though - especially the item enchantment and elemental magic systems - that appeals to my inner tinkerer as a kind of solo minigame.

    * now, of course, I'm too grown up to believe in authenticity, even outside the bizarre context of a swords and sorcery RPG.

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  15. RQ seems to have had a lot of influence on RPGs designed since, in ways I don't always find as appealing as in Chaosium's games. Griffin Mountain is simply THE best in my eyes -- a model of "sandbox setting" presentation -- but I think my prejudice skewed my appraisal of the Avalon Hill reworking (which might fairly be called lesser, but not as much as I've tended to dismiss it). With Cults of Prax, there was a benchmark development on a line Gygax and Barker had earlier pursued.

    AD&D could look pretty imposing, but C&S had bite to match its bark in the calculations and tables department. No worse than (e.g.) RoleMaster, though -- and despite my prejudice I found an excellent GM whose rules of choice were RM.

    TFT really rocked with its mini-wargame roots. Melee and Wizard were pocket-sized and could be played in a lunch break. In the Labyrinth brought similar economy (contra GURPS) to "skill" oriented, "point system" character development. At one time, I converted EPT to TFT. Metagaming could have had a hugely successful line, I think (in "what if" mode).

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  16. Metagaming could have had a hugely successful line, I think (in "what if" mode).

    It actually *was* successful, as far as it was allowed to go. At one point TFT was second only to D&D in terms of popularity.

    Now enter the Evil One, Howard Thompson, owner and president of Metagaming...

    This gent was a few frys short of a Happy Meal, unfortunately. When Steve Jackson (TFT's author/designer) left Metagaming to form his own company, HT pitched a fit, filed frivolous lawsuits, and basically conducted a completely one-sided vendetta against SJ (to include a vicious parody called "Fistful of Turkeys") (BTW - the above is a truncation of what actually happened, and is a bit inaccurate as stated, but it captures the gist of things) A side effect of this, I think, was a certain amount of neglect directed at TFT. Certainly a lot more effort can and should have been put towards MicroQuests, etc., for the game, but wasn't.

    Then, in early '83, the prophet HT decided that he had "seen the writing on the wall", concluded that the game industry was dead, and pulled the plug on Metagaming literally overnight. He then proceeded to vanish off the face of the planet, and to this day his whereabouts are not really known.

    While a few games (such as Hitler's War) were sold to Avalon Hill, most remain to this day in Limbo, and foremost among them is TFT.

    What is sad is several MicroQuests and modules were literally at the printers waiting to be published when HT decided to become the No.l asshat in the gaming world and close up shop.

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  17. Judging by the box cover you've included for C&S, I'm wondering if you have the 2nd Edition in hand for review. If so, then I would say that you were right - 2nd Ed. C&S is pretty darn complicated.

    But 1st Ed. C&S is really only complicated in one area, and that would be the magic system. Everything else has a marvelously mystic "high fantasy" feel to it (party due to some of the text being lifted from scholarly sources without attribution - *tch*tch*). We played a LOT of C&S when I was a teen mostly because the "cool kids" (i.e. the older historical gamers then getting into RPing) were doing it, and, um, they looked down on D&D.

    So you're onto something here, James. (wry grin)

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  18. I really didn't start gaming till 88 so then it was pretty much the D&D or go away level its mostly been ever since outside of us whackjobs who like multiple games and systems. (I swear we mostly reside on the Internet as opposed to the real world.)

    Runequest was the first RPG I bought (but still haven't run!), Red Box D&D was the first RPG set I somewhat understood, and D6 Star Wars was the RPG that actually shaped how I run and play and think about RPGs.

    It and Call of Cthulhu are why I have such a negative opinion of much of the D&D fanbase, modern or retro.

    I just never understood why such smooth and elegant game systems with such appealing worlds to play in were beaten by SWORDS AND ELVES with various fiddly different rules for everything.

    Its probably one of the reasons my group can't ever get a large and lasting player group.

    One of our first notes to people is that we just don't play whatever version of D&D is currently in print, and if someone just wants to play D&D they probably should look elsewhere.

    (The fact we play weekdays and actually have a laundry list of games we have played in the past probably doesn't help either. Any time I have ever gotten a response to a player's wanted ad has either been for D&D or White Wolf. NOTHING else. Ever. This upsets me. There are too many fantastic games out there to just play whatever version of D&D is in print this year!)

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  19. I have a hard time disapproving of TTYF on one hand and approving of the rust monster or the gelatinous cube on the other.

    You are far too logical and rational to be commenting here.

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  20. Judging by the box cover you've included for C&S, I'm wondering if you have the 2nd Edition in hand for review.

    It is indeed!

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  21. I just never understood why such smooth and elegant game systems with such appealing worlds to play in were beaten by SWORDS AND ELVES with various fiddly different rules for everything.

    There are many reasons why this is the case and I'll probably devote a post to it at some point. At base, though, I think it's important to remember that most gamers now, as in the past, play only a handful of games, focusing on one or two at most. For many, that game is D&D in one form or another, because it's the game they've always played and so it's become habitual. Gamers might buy lots of different games, but they rarely play them and that's why it's rare for a game that doesn't have roots in the Golden Age ever to gain much traction.

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  22. Well White Wolf doesn't have roots in the Golden Age, and its easily the second place game.

    I'd say it has more to do with brand loyalty than anything else. Or whatever first took one's RPG virginity from them. (Given D&D is the most popular more people are introduced to it.) Of course people like what is popular and for RPGs its popular. (For other hobby gaming its why Warhammer 40K and Magic pretty much ARE their respective hobby game niches in spite of equally if not superior other offerings.)

    Its not all of course. I know some people who JUST like swords and sorcery and that's it.

    This sort of thing might be one of the many reasons RPGs are so niche. Tons of folks might have played or stayed playing if there was more to play, but when your two choices are Dungeons AND Dragons and you prefer laser guns or motorcycles with Internet hookups in them you either adapt or go find something else to do with your free time.

    (There are other reasons too of course. The utter lack of marketing. The lack of accessibility, the endless rules changes, the stereotypical nerd (which is really no better or worse than any other person. I work at a casino. Every sad nerd story can be matched with a gambler story that is even WORSE!) bits, the fact most people consider reading to be a NEGATIVE trait. Don't forget the ever increasing complexity of many RPGs as they try to appeal to the loudest and most hardcore of their fanbase. (I call it the ASL effect for lack of a better term. AD&D and Starfleet Battles could be used as a term for it as well.) I would say the lethality of D&D didn't help much either, especially when a jerk of a DM was at the reigns. The amount of wide eyed kids and teens who came in with visions of great heroes only to be killed 5 minutes in or watching a group based around killing townspeople and sexual deviancy who then ran for the hills never to return is probably uncountable. The damage to the hobby's image is quite clear. Red Box and Black Box D&D sold a MASSIVE amount. They probably sold more copies in their print runs than the entire RPG industry sells in a year. Not everyone would have outgrown the game or lost time to play. I can see no other reason. Honestly with all the stuff I have seen I sometimes wonder why I bother with RPGs. )

    I saw this the worst during D&D 3.0 days. At its foundation 3.0 IS a better system than the TSR ones. (Discounting how its execution even in the 3 core books became ASLed up.) Well, I gave it a shot and at least for a while didn't mind it so much, in fact I kinda liked it till its warts showed through. You would figure it being the same system as other games would get people to play them.

    NOPE.

    My attempts at getting the first 2 D20 Star Wars games going (I was smart enough not to buy the third version in so many years at least.) met with failure.

    The reason: "Its not fantasy."

    Hmm.. D&D uses the same system. I figured people might like to play other games with the same ruleset. Very little to learn, well known game universe.

    Ok.. howabout a different fantasy game? Maybe Runequest? I've only wanted to run it since 1988 and all! Or perhaps Warhammer Fantasy?

    "Its not D&D."

    ARRRRGGGGHHHH!!!!

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  23. Well White Wolf doesn't have roots in the Golden Age, and its easily the second place game.

    I did say in my original comment that it was rare for a game not from the Golden Age to catch fire, not that it was impossible. By my count, the hobby has only ever had two break out hits: D&D and Vampire. The rest, while some of done well, have never come close to achieving the penetration and popularity of those two.

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  24. Pardon me while I put in a good word for T&T. It still maintains a small but dedicated fan base, one which I stumbled into about a decade ago, and that fan corps is a vector for the sorts of old school play aesthetics which I think would not be unfamiliar to those who post here. Certainly "challenge the player, not the character" is a fundamental part of the T&T aesthetic, as well as the use of sandbox style explorative play. T&T is certainly my go-to ruleset for the type of play style advocated here (although of late I've begun to ponder giving Forward... To Adventure! a work out in its stead). Now I'll fully cop to the fact that T&T encourages a more whimsical attitude toward play than some prefer (although the humor is often dark, and not nearly as over the top as you might imagine). There does exist a "boringified" version of the T&T spell lists, which were included in the Corgi edition of T&T published in the UK. It is widely looked down upon by the T&T faithful, must as I'm sure a "whacky" version of D&D spells would be treated by that community. We must have our points of differentiation!

    So what's my point? I think it is that D&D retro-gamers may find that they have a unknown allies in another pocket of fandom from the darkest past, the T&T players :)

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  25. The 2nd edition of C&S added complexity -- but to a game that was already notably complicated. On the other hand, it was easier reading than the former tiny type. A lot is in the eye of the beholder; Top Secret struck my gang as exceeding (for all the text's brevity) AD&D's rules burden perhaps more than warranted by objective analysis.

    Captain Rufus: It is a bit curious not only that "fantasy" is so overwhelming, but that even Star Wars doesn't make the cut.

    The "various fiddly different rules for everything" have pretty well been ditched in WotC's D&D; 4E is mostly a heap of variations on the same few themes. RuneQuest has always stood out as "not D&D," but you missed the boat on that being much of a selling point (unless you want to play White Wolf, because RQ is not that either). D&D has ruled the roost right from the start!

    That you're ready to ref is a plus. If you get to playing with more people the games they already like, you may find some willing to try something else on the basis of trusting and liking you.

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  26. So what's my point? I think it is that D&D retro-gamers may find that they have a unknown allies in another pocket of fandom from the darkest past, the T&T players :)

    I think you're right, which is why I'm trying to overcome my own prejudices and give T&T a fair shake now. Even if I still don't find it to my taste, I recognize that it's one of the oldest of the old school games and its fans probably feel just as disconnected from the modern hobby as do D&D grognards.

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  27. Another fan of T&T here!

    When I finally got around to buying T&T I actually disliked it strongly. One of the big reasons was the spell names. I had the Corgi edition of the rulebook, which has the 'non-silly' spell names (actually, while a lot of them are far less silly than in the Flying Buffalo editions, many are oddly unchanged).
    Imagine my surprise later, when I discovered that the actual spell names were far sillier.

    I also hated that there were essentially only two classes, with two more being 'in-between' choices.

    A few years ago I gave the game another chance and it rapidly became and is still my #1 game of choice.
    I simply renamed a lot of the spells, and use a Professional class to cover anything else outside of Warrior and Wizard (skills or Talents take care of the rest). Overall, my handfull of house rules for T&T in general are usually only a short sentence or two.

    If you would have told me back in 1991 that I would one day love T&T and want to play it over B/X or RC or WFRP or whatever else...I would have laughed in your face.

    -Eric

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