Leaving the Dungeons

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This is the second part of my personal gaming history, covering the nineties. I went from Dungeon’s and Dragons at the start of the decade, to everything but Dungeons and Dragons at the end.

The 90s was probably when I did the most gaming. We had the long summer school holidays, followed by long holidays at University, followed by early years earning a living when nobody had any real responsibilities so being too stressed out after work wasn’t yet a thing so weekend long game sessions were possible.

During the school and university holidays we used to game maybe 12 hours a day for four or five days a week. Learning to run a sandbox (long before I’d ever heard of the term) was pretty much required to be able to keep up the pace. For most of that time I was GMing, and it was hectic but also a lot of fun.

We had just started our 2nd edition AD&D campaign, which went on for maybe a couple of years. We then did something radical – started trying games that weren’t Dungeons and Dragons.

The first of those was Star Wars by WEG, which was an awesome and eyeopening introduction to non-D&D games. I’d played a little bit (one session) of Rolemaster previously, but Rolemaster is not hugely different from D&D. Star Wars had no character classes – you just had skills, which you bought. It had no levels, you just put up individual skills. Plus it had a single consistent mechanic throughout.

We also tried plenty of other systems – Recon (US troops in Vietnam), Judge Dredd, WHFRPG, Middle Earth, Runequest, Pendragon, Paranoia etc.

But Star Wars was a great system, and a fun setting which I’d loved many years previously but had pretty much forgotten about as a teenager. So I decided to make it the basis for my own game system (though using d10s rather than d6s).

Though we’d been having fun with AD&D, it had problems. Though I liked the worlds (though I used my own, I was also into the Forgotten Realms and, Greyhawk) and the general feel of the high fantasy setting, I was beginning to run up against the quirks of AD&D.

Why couldn’t a fighter sneak? How could someone shrug off a dozen crossbow bolts? And why on Earth were monsters different to player character races? So I put together my own game system, based on AD&D but with a consistent set of mechanics and ditching the idea of classes and levels. The system was called Myths, and had a base mechanic inspired by Star Wars, and borrowing from other systems.

Myths was probably the system we played the most during the first half of the 90s, helped greatly by the desktop publishing software I had and a bubblejet printer. It was relatively high fantasy, but hit points didn’t increase so if you got hit by a spear or arrow, then without armour you were no better off than a peasant. It made it easier to transition to the type of adventures that I was preferring to run and the players were preferring to play – grittier, more story based and urban and generally much more open world. Character mortality was high because it was far easier for PCs to bite off more than they could chew in an open world were combat was deadly.

The two features I think were the most interesting about Myths where:

  • Combat was roundless. Initiative started on segment zero and counted upwards until combat ended. Actions took an amount of time, so something that took 9 segments meant you acted on segment 9, 18, 27, 36 etc. If you wanted to go quicker, you could drop a Dice from your skill. -1D for 8 segments, -2D for 7 segments etc.
  • Magic was formula based. A spell had a minimal base effect, and then could be extended. A fireball might be 15 + D5 + R1 + I2, which meant that it was difficult 15 base, but each +1 added 5m of distance, each +1 added 1m radius of effect and each +1 added 2 points of intensity (damage). It was incredibly flexible, but also maths heavy.
Early Land of Kythe map

I also spent a lot of time detailing my campaign setting, the Land of Kythe (which had begun as my first AD&D setting), and making heavy use of the University A0 plotters for drawing really large maps. As time went on, I moved to writing up pretty much everything on computer – unfortunately little was in a format that I could easily port to Linux based software by the end of the period, though a few bits and pieces from my early attempts at a website survive until this day.

By 1995 or so I was starting to think I wanted something simpler, so started putting together plans for what would become YAGS and my Habisfern setting, which was a lot more low fantasy.

As well as Star Wars, the other published game system that took up a lot of our time was Ars Magica. This was another great system from the 1980s, which was into its 3rd edition by the time I encountered it. It was fantasy, but very different from AD&D and its various clones.

Between 1991 and 1995 I was at Edinburgh University, and played some games at GEAS (though it didn’t have a website back then), including a game of Amber (the diceless roleplaying game). For an extra few points in character generation, you had to write a campaign journal. Which I did, and I guess got a taste for writing up notes from games, end end result of which is this blog.

By 1996, I’d started work and after picking up 4th Edition Ars Magica I started running a campaign for my new gaming group there. Something to mention – I came to Aldershot for my job interview in 1995 and wandered into a games shop to ask for directions (no Google Maps, not even a mobile phone) which turned out to be Esdevium Games (a major games distributor at the time, and one of the best game shops I had ever seen). I decided I wanted the job before the interview had begun. During the interview, one of the interviewers noted that I’d put “roleplaying games” on my list of hobbies, and asked me which ones. I got the job, and still game with two of the people from that company fifteen years later.

What was eye opening was the difference in play styles. I was used to dropping hints about things and having players go off on tangents following up after them. It wasn’t until one of the players from my group from school moved to the area and joined us, that the handouts I’d put together and seeded as background info were followed up on and the campaign started down a road which would take several years to complete.

The other game I tried during the 90s, and the first that I picked up and introduced other people to, was GURPS. I liked the idea of GURPS – a single generic system which could be applied to any genre or setting. It had about the right amount of crunch, and I liked that it was entirely skill based and relatively gritty. I ran several SF based games using it, and played around with some SF campaign settings but they never got the same amount of love and attentions as our fantasy games.

The problem with it was that it was so easy to min-max. Once stats were at a high enough level skills became almost irrelevant. The source books for GURPS were amazing though, and though I stopped using GURPS after a while, I continued to buy the source books.

I also had my introduction to Full Thrust during this period, and did quite a bit of wargaming at Alder Valley Games Society where I met several new gaming groups, including those who were heavily into both Runequest and Call of Cthulhu. By the end of the decade though, we had pretty much stopped meeting at the game club, and were meeting round each other’s houses. Less sociable, but more convenient especially as work was beginning to get in the way of things.

The start of the decade had been entirely Dungeons and Dragons, and by the end we hadn’t played D&D for several years having given up on the system (and its various offspring) entirely.

Samuel Penn

Samuel Penn