I talk about RPGs with a lot of people, most notably, normanrafferty.
The Rat has been gaming almost as long as I have, but that "almost" is significant -- never more so than when he'll contradict me about "how things were in the early days".1 I notice similar disconnects when reading LiveJournals, blogs... even the Designer Notes inside published RPGs.
What Rafferty and most other gamers don't realize is those few short years between 1978, when Your Obedient Serpent started gaming, and 1983-84, when The Rat started gaming, are a lot like the first three minutes after the Big Bang.2
Science Fiction Fans refer to "First Fandom" as those who were actively involved in fannish activity before 1 January 1938. The role-playing equivalent, IMNSHO, would be those already playing D&D when Dallas Egbert went missing on 16 August 1979 (yep, exactly 30 years ago this Sunday).3
Five years doesn't sound like a lot of difference from this far-distant perspective (and certainly not to non-gamers, I know4), but... when I started playing, Dungeons & Dragons had only been around for four years or so. There wasn't a lot of published material. Most of us had come in from the Avalon Hill/SPI "hex and counters" style of historical simulation, or from the lead-soldier-based miniatures games not much different than those "Little Wars" about which Mr. Wells wrote.
We were making up nine-tenths of everything as we went along... and we had no idea what we were doing, because, you see, nobody had ever done this before. There was nobody to tell us we were "doing it wrong". Nobody had defined "wrong" yet!
Bizarre, off the wall races? Heck yeah! Players running multiple PCs in a single adventure? Why not? Characters hopping from campaign to campaign? Of course! Breaking up a serious, intense adventure with an encounter based on a bad pun, a Burma Shave sign, or a Monty Python routine? Well, sure; this is supposed to be fun, right?
And on the flip side: Ridiculously lethal traps? Unsolvable puzzles? Judging the quality of a DM by the "Body Count" of his convention adventures? Way too much of that.
Of course the DM drew up his own dungeon and created his own world. That's how Dave and Gary did it, right? Oh, there were fringe products like Empire of the Petal Throne and the licensed D&D material from Judges Guild5, but for the most part, the professionally-published adventure and the prepackaged world setting were barely an idea yet.
Five years later, on the other claw, the hobby as a whole had exploded: when I started, there wasn't a lot beyond D&D (fantasy) and Traveller (space opera); by 1983, there were games covering superheroes, post-apocalypse fiction (hard and soft), westerns, espionage, and any number of other milieus.
Those five years also saw the advent of the first official dungeon adventure "module", the first official campaign setting, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons -- and a small army of new players. There was, at first, something unsavory about "modules"; they were a "crutch" for the "lazy". By 1983, though, they were an accepted part of RPG culture.
And that culture had changed.
The wild, improvisational nature of the game had faded. D&D was becoming less and less a toolbox for world creation and for trying to recreate your favorite works, and more and more a Thing In Itself. Things were settling and solidifying. Role-Playing had been around long enough to develop its own tropes and cliches. People who wanted to play exotic races or more than one PC at a time were on the outs, derided as "munchkins" or "power gamers".
And so many of those accepted, established assumptions about How Things Must Work had grown out of our arbitrary, off-the-cuff improvisations. If we knew we were establishing Common-Law Precedent, we might have done things differently.
The published material pushed more and more of Tolikien's style of High Fantasy onto a system originally shaped by the assumptions of Vance and Lieber's brand of Sword & Sorcery, and Dungeon Fantasy was gestating into a genre in its own right. The emerging consensus had little room bizarre amalgam of Moorcock, Lovecraft and Jack Kirby that I'd played in my high school years -- or for someone who signed his name "Your Obedient Serpent" and had a penchant for playing the Exotic Outsider.
By the time normanrafferty was introduced to D&D, I'd already moved onto less established, more flexible systems and genres.
So what's my point?
It's not to try to claim that my gaming experiences are somehow more valid than yours.
It's just to make it clear that when I bring up "The Old Days of Gaming", they're probably not the same "Old Days" that you think about.
Old leezard is old.
1 Raff, I'm not picking on you. I just talk about this kind of thing with you far more often than anyone else out there.
2 Since the FurryMUCK character I reserve for general conversation is based on one of my oldest D&D characters, this lets me wave my cane around and wheeze, "back in my day..." as the old, retired adventurer waxes nostalgic. It's very Scrooge McDuck, really. The fact that said character is an intelligent dinosaur only enhances the effect.
3That incident made "D&D" a household word -- like "dry rot" or "cockroach". Now you know one reason why I just chuckle and shake my head when Furries gripe about their media image; this, too, shall pass.
4 If you're not a gamer, why did you follow the cut? You have only yourself to blame if you're bored.
5 In fact, when I think "Old Skool", I think JG.