Behind The Screen With D&D

Following from a chat with Daniel Jones last night, I was musing about a question that popped into my mind: “If I wanted to run a game seeking deep Otherworld-immersion using classic Dungeons & Dragons, what would I need to change?”

Digging around my collection, I began by asking myself which version of the classic Dungeons & Dragons game would I use? This led to a related question: Why would I choose to try and use D&D to run this type of game?

Let’s imagine an older gamer (like me) who wants to experience a much deeper and richer roleplaying experience at the table. This person wants to offer their friends the opportunity to play in a world where there is deeper connection between what the player experiences and what the character is perceiving. For the sake of argument, we are going to suggest that they already know how to play D&D. The two most popular versions of the classic game are probably Swords & Wizardry and Basic/Expert D&D – aka B/X – and they own them both.

Swords & Wizardry is an interpretation of the original Dungeons & Dragons rules as seen through the lens of the 30-odd years of play prior to its publication in 2008. It smooths out a lot of wrinkles and offers a range of options on how to deal with various rules issues, claiming to present D&D as it was in 1978. I have the Swords & Wizardry Boxed Set on hand to try out. For me, the smaller booklets are appealing and easy to handle. It’s a tempting place to begin play.

In recent years, B/X has been beautifully re-rendered as the retro adventure game, Old-School Essentials aka OSE. Simple in its design, the Basic and Expert version of the game is probably more popular than S&W and, given that I own a copy of the OSE Boxed Set too, I decided to grab this down from my shelf.

Rules Behind The Screen

If I wanted to run a game seeking deep Otherworld-immersion using classic Dungeons & Dragons, what would I need to change? How do we enter a different state of play, in a world where there is deeper connection between what the player experiences and what the character is perceiving?

We begin with the key methodological recommendations for deeper Otherworld-immersion in play:

  1. Rules, character sheets, and dice rolls come behind the Referee’s Screen so that the players can focus exclusively on being in-role as their character.
  2. The players are presented with a naturalistic description of the situations they find themselves in, being expected to respond in-role and without reference to the mechanisms of the game.
  3. The Referee works to fairly adjudicate the decisions players make within the context of the fantasy world.
  4. From the interaction of the player’s decisions in-role and the fair adjudication of the rules, a story emerges as we play.

First Steps

Old-School Essentials is available as a single book but my preferred version is made up of several small A5-sized hardback books. I grab the Core Rules, the Classic Fantasy Genre Rules, Classic Fantasy Treasures, Classic Fantasy Monsters, and the Classic Fantasy Cleric and Magic-User Spells. Phew!

If the focus of the players is to be upon their character’s interactions within the fantasy world of the game, then the next natural question is obvious: What’s this world like?

As I ask this question, the assumptions from 50 years of Dungeons & Dragons flood into mind. The grand short-hand of “D&D” summons the gargantuan baggage of the typical dungeon adventure game. I think of low-powered adventurers delving dark underground places in search of treasures forgotten to what purports to be civilisation.

I am choosing to put aside the aesthetic question of whether or not this set of assumptions is what I truly would enjoy playing: on the one hand, this is a thought-experiment and my primary goal is to explore whether or not it is possible to play D&D in this manner; on the other hand, if I wander too far from the mainstream of D&D tropes and my experiment fails, I will be accused of changing the goals of playing D&D in the name of bias.

For the record, I have no particular problem with the classic dungeon game. For me, this is nostalgic and interesting even though I do believe that a change in aesthetic will improve our play further. But baby steps: What would I need to change to play D&D with the goal of deeper Otherworld-immersion?

Finding Interested Players

Here is where the first conversation with the players needs to happen. I need to explain that the goal of our play is to run a game in which, as a player, you are more closely experiencing the world through the perception of your character. We are seeking more wonder, a deeper emotional connection to the character, and an immersion into the specific Otherworld of the play. If you’re not up for that, then this won’t be the game for you.

I suggest we create a tiny initial fantasy world which has two basic elements: a relatively safe small Dark Age village, wherein the player characters grew up to young adulthood, and a nearby place of danger and evil which is taboo for the villagers to explore. I feel I would like a third fantasy element, but for now I am going to keep the pitch simple and easy to grasp.

The situations will be simple: a small band of young adults from the village decide, as adolescents are wont to do, to explore the taboo place which is said to be full of danger and evil. Everyone believes that this is incredibly foolish and so each of the characters needs to have reason to want to enter that dark place.

Here’s my first question: Who do you want to play?

Without reference to the rules of the game, using plain English and the idea of European Dark Age villagers as your inspiration, who would you play? What does this person want with breaking taboos? Why are they willing to risk all to travel into forbidden dark places? I’m curious to know.

Game on!

Next Post: OSE Behind The Screen, Part 2


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