Saturday, December 11, 2010

Reviving Open World Play

Michael Curtis of Stonehell and Dungeon Alphabet fame had an interesting post the other day  about how back in the day there was a lot of flow between campaign worlds and gaming groups—and how we should re-experiment with this kind of open world play. (I know, I ranted against secondary commentary less than half a week ago, but all things in moderation blah blah.)

Let's go for it.

That kind of open play certainly jives with some of my better—as opposed to nostalgic--memories of D&D play as a kiddo. I emphasize “not” nostalgic; those sweet, cloying memories are reserved for the chummy living-room games with my brother and friends. The better ones--as in more interesting to the adult of today--were of a more challenging playing experience down at the local D&D club.

The year would be 1981, the place a dingy rec room in an Arlington,TX community center. Once a week in the evening anywhere from 6-10 tables would be set up and at each one of them would be a different DM running...well the one and only acceptable game of that time...AD&D. About 25-40 players would should up. And what a motley crew it was. Long-haired metal kids from high school rubbing shoulders with old wargamers and college students. Kids like us made up a small, but quickly growing minority as the year progressed.

Some of the games were closed, long-standing ones with a stable crew of players, but most were open to drop-in players. If you didn't play in one of the standing campaigns, you'd circle around the tables, mustard-yellow character sheet in hand and the DMs would tell you what levels, characters, alignments, magic items, etc. were appropriate for the adventure they were running. If you had a character with those specs you were in for the night. Sometimes you'd stick with that game or turn around the next week and repeat the process all over again.

Again the club play wasn't all fuzzy nostalgia. I remember vividly being invited into the game of a high-school aged DM. She not only killed my character in our first session by making me roll to see if I drank a flask of oil rather than that healing potion in my backpack (I did and died on the poison saving throw), she proceeded to kill each and every character I rolled up that night—and every night I sat down at that table until I took the hint. Other DMs were challenging for other reasons and the overall group dynamics were never as cozy as our living room group.

But damn it, if I didn't learn a hell of a lot about the game from that club. I had to stretch myself as a player, but best of all I got to see glimpses of all kinds of vistas of play our little group had never experienced. “Wow this guy's campaign world is alive in detail” or “wow she really knows how to narrate combat so it seems alive.” "Whoa those house rules are crazy wonderful." 

Obviously the tabletop rpg game is not at the same mass fad height it was back then--and likely will never be again. Those interested in classic play or old school or whatever you want to call it run in even smaller circles.

So what is to be done?

Opening our own campaign tables sure. Dropping in on other open tables when travel sure too. But what about putting more effort into the community building part of our hobby? Building more North Texas RPG cons, or more realistically mini-cons and game-days like the ones we put on in Austin. Playing in Skype or chat games with folks around the globe. Stretching as a GM or player and getting out of the creative box of your own campaign in general.

If you ever find yourself in San Antonio, look us up. We'll keep your seat warm.


  1. "Back in the day" so to speak (in the late 70s early 80s for me) there were no real campaigns. We'd just play. A DM would run a canned module or a little later down the timeline run his own creation. You had ongoing characters, but not so much on going worlds. So it was easier back then to hop from DMs adventure to another because of this.

    Today I have one character who is running in two campaign worlds and I decided after a few sessions it wasn't for me. I wanted to make a new character to fit into the other campaign and explore with a whole new persona.

    But if you are talking about just dropping in and playing a session like I mentioned above, for me I think it works well and can be a lot of fun.

  2. Great post. It needs thinking about and working at, but the direction is the right one as far as I'm concerned.

  3. My experiences were similar to Tim's, I think. We have continuous vague settings, and some characters, but mostly people changed characters pretty often, and a person might or might not be at a session. So, yeah, more modular play is fine with me.

  4. Now that y'all mention it I seem to remember many of the drop-in tables were stand-alone adventures and not persistent worlds (though there were a few).

  5. My experiences also echo Tim's in that I don't recall any set campaigns during my early years of gaming, we simply drifted from game to game (either at our club or at each other's houses) and played with the characters we had if they were appropriate or rolled up new ones.

    The idea of campaigns in that structure were totally alien to the way we played in those days because you rarely played with the same group of people for an extended period of time.

  6. The groups that we circulated amongst back in the Eighties were kind of split between very specific settings/campaigns, and open-ended vague non-settings. Those GM/DMs who were known to have established settings/campaigns were often almost trapped running those games, either for the regular group, or for casual drop-ins who wanted to try things out. I think that there is something in the water in Minneapolis in that there were (still are) numerous persistent worlds that have been up and running for decades...

    Opening thngs up and doing the campaign-hopping, etc. as you describe sounds like a lot of fun--we could use more micro-cons that encourage that sort of thing. It would be fun.