My 1986 Old School Renaissance

I think it started in 1986 when I read part of The Dungeon Master by William Dear in high school. His account of rolling up a D&D character and playing his first session during his 1979 investigation into the disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III from Michigan State University showed me a simpler, more open way to play the game than I had been for the past four years.

At the time, we were deep into a Dragonlance campaign and were incorporating Unearthed Arcana and Oriental Adventures into our game. We were playing a lot, but I was feeling burned out. Like too little peanut butter over too much chocolate.

I had started on AD&D and pretty much looked down my nose at Basic or the original edition. One time about a year or so earlier, we had been stuck for a weekend without our huge pile of AD&D hardcovers at a cousin’s house and he had suggested we play using his D&D game. My excitement faded quickly once I realized that his was merely a Basic boxed set (which I now know to have been a 1981 Moldvay edition) and, after paging through it for a while, I declared it to be pretty much unplayable.

In the fall of 1986, though, I thought back to that game and decided that maybe those “unplayable” rules would be worth looking at again. Maybe they would allow us a chance to unhitch from the glorious trainwreck of AD&D while still being able to play the game we loved. So I decided to spend a few of my hard-earned bucks on, gasp, a Basic boxed set.

Not being at all familiar with the history of game, I thought that maybe I would find some of those white boxes I had seen a year earlier (marked down as CLEARANCE, no less) and would play the original game, thinking it was just an older printing of Basic. Not finding it, I bought the Basic on the shelf at a KayBee Toys in the mall even though the red box was different than what I remembered.

Of course, it was the 1983 Mentzer version of Basic, which I believe is the best-selling edition of D&D ever. Getting home, I opened things up and prepared to get back to basics. I was excited to be starting fresh and prepared to accept a few things that I knew were going to bother me, such as race-is-class and limited options for weapons and spells. I kept telling myself that that sort of simplification was the entire reason for doing what I was doing, and that I was going to play 100% By The Book, at least to start with. After all, it had been byzantine official rules and piles of alterations by later books topped with a slew of house rules that had been burning me out to begin with.

So I dove in. Clear rules, easy play, and loads of fun like the old days were on the horizon.

Alas, it was not to be.

Two things doomed my effort. First, I must admit that the tone and style of the Mentzer books was completely off-putting. I realize that they were intended for those who had never played before and had no idea what an RPG was. But, despite my determination to take it all in stride, it felt like the book was written for a little kid. I picked up the Expert set and found it to be much the same. Back to basics? Yes. But not back to kindergarten.

Second, my brother was having None Of It. He utterly rejected class-is-race. Completely and totally. He also refused the idea that thieves had four-sided hit dice, a refusal which I shared 100% but was working to overcome. There were a number of players that I gamed with, but my brother was always involved in any game. If he didn’t Go Basic, it wouldn’t work. Not in the long run. Even if I played basic with other friends, I was not about to give up the campaigns my brother was in. And if I had to play AD&D for that, what was the point of doing something else to begin with?

So the Basic books went into a box. I still have them. They’ve never been played.

And we went back to AD&D. We finished Dragonlance. We tried to incorporate UA and the Survival Guides. We played a lot more and, despite it all, we had some great adventures. Somewhere, in the middle of an expedition into the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, we quit for the evening and never picked it up again. I haven’t played D&D with my brother since that night, which was probably in 1989.

I did buy 2nd Edition and even played it a bit. I appreciated the fact that it cleaned up and organized things and did away with some of the wonkiness of 1e. I have no beef with 2e like a lot of old-school-types do, at least not with the early years of it. But it just didn’t do it for me. It would take almost two decades before I tried the Basic route again, this time via Labyrinth Lord.

I often wonder if I would have stuck it out had the Basic on the shelf in that toy store been the 1981 B/X set. I know that the writing style would not have bothered me nearly so much. Or if it had been a little later and it had been a Rules Cyclopedia instead. Who knows?

As an addendum, I went through a similar process with Traveller a year or so later. I was pretty much fed up with the Imperium and advanced character creation rules and went back to Books 1, 2, and 3 only with a random subsector for a setting. Unfortunately, I never did have a lot of luck getting players for Traveller and it just sort of petered out. I haven’t played much since, though I’d sure like to.

That’s part of why I’ve been so excited about this “old school renaissance” or whatever it is. It’s making the types of games I think I wanted all along available again and modern tech is allowing me to make the changes I want to and still have nice-looking rules booklets. Wish I had had that in the mid-80s.

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10 Responses to My 1986 Old School Renaissance

  1. “unhitch from the glorious trainwreck of AD&D”

    That pretty much sums it up right there. I was reading my AD&D DMG on the train yesterday, and someone saw it and commented “I haven’t seen one of those (DMGs) in years! You know that game was completely unplayable don’t you?”

    I just smiled, gave him a knowing nod, and turned back to the DMG. It may have been unplayable, but we damn-well played it anyway.

  2. Bill says:

    So it was Cook/Marsh that hooked us – eventually we pulled in the class race separations and a bunch of other stuff from AD&D – and we played any module we could get our hands on – so the “differences” weren’t that big a deal to us. I was just looking over the 81 (Cook/Marsh) Expert Set – yeah, I think you might have had a better shot at sticking with that set…

  3. Stuart says:

    I wonder what the Class/Race combo was that got so many people bent out of shape over Race-as-Class in the B/X and BECMI games. Elven Thieves? Halfling Wizards?

    • Kilgore says:

      Personally, I don’t even think it was any specific combo or such. I think I just thought that That’s Not How It Works.

      I also think the fact that dwarves were just fighters, halflings were just fighters, and elves were fighter AND magic-user rubbed me the wrong way. If dwarves would have been fighter-types, halflings thief-types, and elves magic-user-types (maybe with different spell list) I might have bought it.

    • Kilgore says:

      And it wasn’t JUST race-is-class, d4 thieves, and my brother’s refusal that doomed an attempt to Go Basic. There were a lot of little things. It’s hard to let go of all that “glorious trainwreck” once you’re caught up in it.

      Part of why I think the current crop of old schoolism is sticking with me is the ability to change away. Sure, I had that back in 86. But I didn’t realize it at the time.

  4. Badmike says:

    Very interesting as we came at the game from entirely different directions. We never played basic and were never really interested in playing it, thinking (as a lot of gamers did at the time) that it was too “simplistic” and “elementary” compared to ADVANCED Dungeons & Dragons, heh. Never stopped playing since we picked up the dice in 1978 or so either…

    “I haven’t played D&D with my brother since that night, which was probably in 1989.”

    Wow, that really hit me, my middle brother has been gaming with me for 30 years and can’t imagine gaming without him in the mix. When I start a D&D gaming story he can finish it, and vice versa. My younger brother has been gaming with us off and on for the last 20 years or so but I just realized it’s been a few years since he sat down with us so I’m going to make him man up and play with us soon. Twenty years is too damn long not to game with someone you are related to! If it’s not to personal was the decision to not game with your brother just circumstance, or a decision you made for some reason?

    • Kilgore says:

      Just circumstance. We broke the the evening, he went home, and for some reason we didn’t get back to it right away. Then he was off to college and I moved out of state.

      We’re planning to visit his family this summer. I’m hoping to get some gaming in with him and my kids. That will be momentous.

  5. Chris says:

    So the Basic books went into a box. I still have them. They’ve never been played.

    Nothing evoke a sense of what might have been like a toy never played with. Is there even a word for ‘nostalgia for what never was’?

    • Kilgore says:

      The “potential fun factor” in those two red books is off the scale. And those copies have never even had their potential tapped once other than me rolling up a few characters.

      The only bright spot for that set is the fact that the very first Basic character I ever rolled up using the books was used (on the sheet I had written up in 1986) in some Labyrinth Lord games. He’s actually mentioned in the flavor text for the my first write-up of the giant scorpadillo (he’s the halfling Ronadare) so I guess that boxed set made a bit of a mark in the world.

  6. Kilgore says:

    Oh, and those white boxed sets on CLEARANCE I mentioned?

    Absolutely true story. There were about a half-dozen of them on the shelf at Don’s Hobby in Mankato, MN. This was probably 1985 or maybe early 1986. I’m not sure how long the OD&D boxed “collector’s edition” or whatever was available, but the Aeceum says they stopped printing in 79. These had probably been found in a back room and they were practically giving them away to be rid of them.

    I had looked at them several times out of curiosity. They had a series of clearance price tags on them going something like $15-$12-$10. I’m not sure, but I think they may have gone even lower in the end.

    I actually had one in my hands to buy but I put it back and bought a magazine or something instead. A magazine.

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