A number of recent blog posts and social media discussions drummed up some negative memories about my gaming experiences during a specific, early period of my 'life and times' in the hobby. At the same time, I didn't want to make a negative post; I didn't want to dwell on cynical opinions and depressing feelings but I did want to convey a story and a true one at that.
Once Upon A Time, in the Dark Days of Old School Gaming...
Between 1978 and 1982 I would run and play a lot of RPGs. A lot. I was my favorite pastime and although I preferred to GM, I was often participate in games run by both friends and acquaintances (friends of friends usually). The game of choices was almost always D&D prior to '82, with Basic eventually giving way to Advanced 1st Edition. Other games were given a go but it we rarely played them more than a couple short campaigns. After 1982 things would change dramatically with the purchasing of FGU's Villains and Vigilantes and FASA's Star Trek (as revealed in my Secret Origin).
In the years between 1980 and 82, a reoccurring theme of playing D&D under another Dungeon Master was that the games would end up thoroughly disappointing if not outright discouraging. I played a number of games with friend's friends or siblings who were my senior in age. It seemed the older gamers got the more asinine and unpleasant they became. In retrospect, that is absolutely the case as they become teenagers. What did I expect?
Nonetheless, it wasn't long before I equated Dungeons and Dragons players and DMs with being jerks. Did D&D make them into boneheads or were boneheads attracted to D&D?
Yet with this in mind, sometime in the Summer of 1982 I participated as a player in a short campaign of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 1st Edition run by an older fellow in another camp group. Instead of my usual Summer gaming gang, this was one of those games with a bunch of guys one or two years my elder. The Dungeon Master ran us through one of the TSR modules.
I can't remember the specifics of the campaign. I don't recall my character, any of the other PCs, the module, or much of anything else. I do remember it ended on a 'technical TPK', with all the PCs being killed in the last session, just not in the same battle; not all at once. It was one of the last D&D campaigns I would play in for a very long time after (though I continued to run ones myself - heavily modified).
It had been yet another fairly crappy campaign and one consistent with my aforementioned D&D experiences. The group was made up of what we today would call Munchkins, Power Gamers, Rules Lawyers, and there had been very little in the way of Role-Playing. I was teased and treated like a Newbie even though by 1982 I'd been gaming for about 5 years and had probably played and run more non-D&D games than most of the older gamers.
To me, this is Old School. This is what I think of when someone uses the term. It isn't fair, I'll grant you that and I have come to realize this is not what it means to most everyone else. I even see some of the positives and the reasons why some have great reverence for the 'era' of Old School D&D but it doesn't change the fact that to me it is synonymous with 'unfun', 'boorish', and even 'a little toxic'.
Between 1982 and the early 90s I cemented by own style and approach to gaming (though I hope I to be self aware enough to continue to improve and evolve). In those first few years it was largely motivated by not wanting to be anything like the GMs and players who'd made those games so unpleasant and uninteresting for me. Some of those ideals have become mantras I still adhere to today:
Clever Player ideas trump the numbers or at least modify them.
Character Backgrounds/Backstories are more material for the GM. Use them.
Don't be afraid to say Yes. Yes, And, Yes, But, and No, But.
Don't Railroad - Improv. Stay open-minded and flexible within the genre/setting established.
Have a Narrative/Story in mind for the adventure.
Let that Narrative change based on PC actions.
Reward engagement, immersion, and creativity.
These are just some of the tenets I go by and each has its own conditions and exceptions but generally they serve as my guide to running what I define as good games. My only acknowledgement that they work is that people from across several states have, in the pre-pandemic era, adjusted their schedules and made travel plans to be in my games. Players from games I ran 30+ years ago remember their characters and the events of the campaigns I ran.
What more could a GM ask for?