Back to my Roots…

Written By: Stephen Dove - Oct• 23•13

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I got a very pleasant surprise the other day! My gaming group had been playing d20 based games almost exclusively since 2003, but we took a step back in time and ran Dragon Warriors. Now I know what you’re going to ask; ‘What the hell is that?’ Well it’s a fantasy RPG (not to be confused with the Computer Game) from the early 1980s; from my roots in fact, as it was one of the first RPGs I ever played.

The game is mechanically very simple, and I will confess that the thought of running it again for a modern group had me ‘in a sweat’ because I didn’t know how they’d react. I am not one of those who looks back on the ‘Golden Era of Gaming’ with any kind of rose tinted glasses. In fact I have long regarded ‘those old games’ like AD&D and Basic D&D as ‘games I played once but could never play again.’ I thought them just relics of a bygone era that I kept on my bookcase out of nostalgia and because they do inspire me when I read the fluff, some of which is amazing.

So what on earth was I doing running Dragon Warriors, if I felt like that, I hear you ask? Well, we had a glut of new players into the group that week. When discussing what to play the session before with the ‘old guard’, everyone was adamant it should be Pathfinder. I made the point to them that the learning curve for d20 games is very steep, but they were of the opinion ‘if it was good enough for us….’. At the time I agreed, but as the week went on, and gaming night drew nearer, I couldn’t shake the feeling that asking a newbie to start with Pathfinder as his first RPG is akin to getting him to run straight at a concrete wall. The mechanics are just so complex at first! I LOVE d20 based games, don’t get me wrong, but I wanted to ease these newbies in slowly.

So Dragon Warriors it was. As I started prepping for the session, I stopped half-way through and noticed how different the prep I was doing actually was. I was thinking about character and story, not mechanics. And somehow it felt so much easier. Dragon Warriors is slightly simpler than Basic D&D in terms of mechanical complexity but has a very distinct medieval feel. The world of ‘Legend’ is basically our world, but with all the things we imagine from folklore actually being true. I can almost hear you groan as I write this, because this sort of world is almost a cliche now, but I’ll have you know that Legend was actually the first of it’s kind. Oh I know we have Mythic Europe and all that malarky now, but back in the day, it was brilliant. And to be honest, re-reading it, it still is.

In fact I’d go so far as to suggest that as ‘crunch’ has advanced and rules have become the focus of game designers, ‘fluff’ or story and the meta-creations that underpin gaming worlds have actually regressed. Legend is a lot more coherent than Forgotten Realms or Golarion. To my mind those two worlds are just pastiches of content that are designed to please everyone. They are pretty vanilla but somehow don’t really evoke the same level of atmosphere. Legend is a world of Fey creatures howling on the roof-tops. Of cobwebbed forests and shrieking goblins. It is dripping in English folklore, and that perhaps explains why it doesn’t appeal to everyone. But it feels distinct; even distinct from Mythic Europe, which is a much more high-brow and historically accurate simulation that started with a very similar premise.

So what did I discover from my brush with this old game; well I rediscovered why I got into table top RPGs in the first place. And that was for the stories and characters. Indeed after the first session of Dragon Warriors, I remembered how alien D&D 3.5 seemed to me when I first played it; as if I’d somehow connected with an earlier version of myself. That first DW session was something of a revelation. I have loved D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder, but I hadn’t realized how much the mechanics had taken me ‘off track’. After one session of a 30 year old game, I remembered. And it was not because of nostalgia, because to be honest, our games of Dragon Warriors were never really that great back in the day. It was because, with a group that is seeking characterful roleplay, old school style games are simply brilliant. Here are the reasons why;

1) The pipework is on the inside! What do I mean by that, well d20 based games have always reminded me of the Lloyd’s building in London; the ‘pipe-work’ or mechanics are all hanging out and on show and are the first thing you see when you look at them. Indeed, the game worlds are actually built around the mechanics and not the other way around. Absolutely crazy when you think about how this has distorted the way those games are played and the people who play them. I include myself in that; I was a hard-core roleplaying, ‘ignore the mechanics’ type guy till I played 3.5 in 2003. But if you watched me very recently you’d have concluded that I was a natural born power-gaming combat monkey, albeit one who enjoyed roleplaying. I would lay that transformation, which I wasn’t even aware of by the way, at the feet of the incredibly constructed game that is D&D 3.5.

2) Combat is so much faster; indeed it’s so fast you can easily have a group of 7 players. I was really nervous before the first session, having suffered real-life and GM burnout and realizing the dangers of either, because I was about to GM 7 players for the first time in many many years. Yet it was a breeze and I was comfortable; try that with Pathfinder and it’s a much harder job; one I wouldn’t even attempt.

3) The game or lack of game rather, promotes players creating characters and back-stories, because that’s all there is for them to do. No flipping pages endlessly back and forth for hours whilst making feat, skill and a dozen other choices. Indeed character creation for 7 PCs took about an hour, with two complete table top RPG newbies attending.

4) The game that resulted was also so much more satisfying. It was a much more character driven and somehow grounded game than we’d run if we’d played Pathfinder. Indeed when I spoke to my friend Jon after the game, he was raving about how slick combat was and how immersive ‘this old skool game is!’

And that, my friends, is the keyword! Immersive! So I urge you to dust off your old skool RPGs, or pick up a copy of Dragon Warriors and get back to the roots of gaming.

You can see how we ran our game on the Jewelspider Chronicles section of this website.

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