Experimentation with Dungeons & Dragons behind the screen (played with Old-School Essentials) proved highly successful and has me itching to develop the world of Hiraeth as an Open Table game for my friends. Recent developments with my teaching career – in finding a new school upon which to inflict a fresh Dungeons & Dragons Club – have given me pause on exactly how I might run this new game.
Open Table Gaming
The Open Table concept was proposed by The Alexandrian back in 2016 and it has long been an aspiration for me to develop something in the same spirit. He suggests it’s the roleplaying game equivalent of playing catch with your kids so as to introduce them to baseball. I suppose the British analogy would be kicking around a football with your mates. In other words, we are offering an informal pick-up game which anyone can drop into.
Following on from my interview with Justin on RPR, I was inspired by an idea he suggested about the “viral nature” of early Dungeons & Dragons: the first mega-dungeon games with the easy-access rules of the game made it painless to simply invite a curious onlooker to sit down, roll up a character, and begin play. This resonated deeply with me and had me thinking all week about how exciting it might be to run a game in this style.
Regular readers and listeners might be wondering why I am considering Dungeons & Dragons at all. I am, after all, not the world’s biggest fan of the D&D legacy and I don’t intend to play an entirely regular kind of game. I will be moving the slider towards the “more rules behind the screen” end of the scale when it comes to methodology, emphasising Otherworld-immersion more than most D&D players are used to.
The answer is that I want this to be an Open Table and so there needs to be a recognisably regular kind of play going on. I also need to consider introducing new players from the student base who are naturally going to gravitate towards to discovering the D&D brand. I might be encouraging a kick-about game with whomever is around but it still needs to feel like that classic fantasy style of play. Homebrew rules are not the best option in this case.
Open Table Requirements
According to The Alexandrian, what an Open Table needs is:
1. Quick Character Creation
2. Easy Access Systems
3. Open Group Formation
4. Default Goal
5. Default Action
6. Regenerative / Extensible ContentThe Alexandrian, Open Table Manifesto – Part 2: What an Open Table Needs
The original game gave the community two robust and easy-to-organise scenario structures which essentially provide the Gamemaster with tools to address the last four Open Table requirements. Those scenario structures were the Dungeoncrawl and the Hexcrawl. I intend to deploy both of those, beginning with the Megadungeon while I flesh out my wider Realm of Hiraeth hexmap.
The first two requirements of the Open Table are easily provided by the rules of the game itself. My major point of decision is going to be which specific set of dungeon-based fantasy roleplaying game rules I settle on using. To this end, I have been reviewing all the Dungeons & Dragons editions, plus a couple of the retroclones. Two questions are nagging in my mind and it’s proving slightly harder than I anticipated to resolve them.
The first question relates to the needs of the Open Table: which set of D&D rules fits the requirements for Quick Character Creation and Easy-Access System while at the same time feeling like a set of rules I can enjoy running?
The second question is more of a requirement for the future but no less important to consider: which set of rules might be most appropriate to use with the students at school in September? This matters because I want to be able to truly run an Open Table where anyone – whether a hoary old veteran like me or a newbie Year 7 student – can pick up and play.
Let’s deal with the Easy-Access System first:
An open table needs a system that’s easy to access. This does not, it should be noted, necessarily mean a simple system. Rather, an easy access system is one which allows players to start playing quickly.The Alexandrian, Open Table Manifesto – Part 2: What an Open Table Needs
In my view, this is where the earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons win out: there are relatively few rules to know about and even if I did insist that every player knows the core mechanisms of play (which I won’t), then all the editions up until 4th Edition will do fine. D&D4e is NOT easy-access because (as Justin discussed in our interview) it has a higher requirement for system mastery.
D&D 3rd Edition, for example, is not a simple system. But it is an easy access system: Once you explain skill checks, combat actions, attack rolls, and damage, a new player has everything they need to know in order to start playing.The Alexandrian, Open Table Manifesto – Part 2: What an Open Table Needs
On a personal level, I know that presenting students at my previous D&D Club with the Basic/Expert (1981) edition triggered a positive vibe of curiosity about playing the classic game. In fact, the campaign was the most successful one I ran with school kids and had some 15-18 regular players over many weeks. It only stopped because I stepped aside when the students decided to set up their own D&D5e groups.
Which brings me to Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. Is this edition easy-access? I think that it probably is because I’ve played it with newbie 11-year-olds and found that all I really needed to teach were the attribute checks, combat actions, attack rolls, and damage. Spells on the natty reference cards proved helpful with teaching Level 1 Wizards and Clerics their powers. It was easy enough to run for me as a GM too, so I think we can give it a thumbs up for easy-access.
The question of whether the editions feature Quick Character Creation is more thorny. I know that Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons is super quick, as is OD&D and Holmes, and also BECMI (1983). I suspect that D&D1e and 2e are also fairly quick to create characters with, although there will be a few more choices for the players.
The questions are around the 3rd and 5th Editions. I have a deep fondness for 3.5e and I cannot ignore the popular pull of 5e. For me, this comes down to some experimentation with both the relative power level of characters and how quickly you can build those characters for play.
Before I decide, I need to consider the compatibility issues around later editions of Dungeons & Dragons with the Hexcrawl scenario structure. The Dungeoncrawl is not a problem for any edition. Hexcrawls were to some degree in play through until 2nd Edition. I believe 3rd Edition has the tools I need and, thanks to Justin Alexander, the 5th Edition’s lack of such coherent tools has been fixed by the 5e Hexcrawl articles on The Alexandrian.
In the end, the choice I make for the Hiraeth Open Table will come down to the quickness and ease of character creation alongside my own comfort and enjoyment with GMing each edition of Dungeons & Dragons. I’m going to approach this with some solo character creation, a stopwatch, and some key questions about how much detail I feel I need to have in my rules to run the game with more rules behind the screen. It’ll be a fun experiment and I hope to share my thoughts along the way.