There are a number of Dungeons and Dragons adventures that I played in as a kid that are particularly special and memorable to me. White Plume Mountain was one, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, Temple of Elemental Evil, the Against the Giants series, the Slavelords adventures, that thing on that island where all the orcs were green… wonderful adventures all.
But going back and looking at some of these wonderful adventures made me realize something surprising. As fantastic as they were — and are — gaming has definitely moved on. An example is probably in order. A staple of the day was the room with the orc. A single 10×10 foot room (you could fit a whole party into a 10×10 foot room back in the days before miniatures) with an orc in it. There might be a chest in the room with the orc, there might be an apple. There might be a picture of the orc’s mom. What there was not, however, was a source of food, or water, or a bathroom, or most importantly, a reason for an orc to be there. Now no one really expected there to be any of those things back then. It was enough to say that the orc was guarding the chest, or the apple, or the door behind him. If further explanation was required, then likely a wizard did it.
Today it’s harder to get away with this sort of thing, which is as it should be. Todays players are likely to pounce on a lone orc and interrogate him to find out just why the hell he’s standing there by himself in a featureless room between two hallways guarding a chest containing a +1 longsword and defending himself with a pointy stick. The very thing that provided automatic adventure so many years ago would immediately arouse suspicion today.
There are two primary reasons for this that I see. The first and most obvious is that we’ve all gotten older and smarter and expect the same from our gaming. I might or might not have noticed that the Huge Ancient Red Dragon lived in a cavern he was several times too large to ever leave, and should have starved to death hundreds of years before the party ever arrived, back when I was gaming in junior high — but I would certainly think about it today, as I imagine would you.
The second reason is competition. “Buy module 2001! Just as much fun as 1001, except even more shit makes sense!” If you have two dungeons stacked with monsters, the basic motions for the players are the same. The difference, and what people will pay for, is having a good sounding reason why. The first D&D games didn’t really have a “game world” or any motivations for PCs beyond the amassing of wealth. Those innovations came later, and when they did, they really started to open things up. Gaming worlds became more immersive, motivations became more complex, realistic, and occasionally murkier.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the evil tower. I have noticed a certain nostalgia for the old days, when a party could go take out a bugbear lair, come home with pockets full of gold, and not have to be fucked with the latest court intrigues, or the Big Bad moving behind the scenes, or even recurring villains unless they really wanted to leave someone alive. Sometimes it seems as if we’ve backed ourselves into a corner, with all kinds of bells, whistles, complications and realisms we don’t always need to enjoy ourselves. Sometimes the players don’t even know what the hell is going on anyway.
The next game I run will be a hybridized version of Gamma World. My plan is to strip down the game to it’s basest elements, and just let the characters go wherever they want and create whatever goals for themselves make them happiest. The game I’ve been running is a lot of fun, but I’m craving something different myself. Something orc-in-a-room old school. Something…