Rediscovering Pen and Paper RPGs

Picture of several colourful dice

By Diacritica – Wikimedia Commons

In my 20s and 30s, I loved playing pen and paper. We had a really great group of friends, and even after the kids were born, we simply kept playing at my place, putting the kids to be in between looting and adventuring. Somehow life got in the way, two members of the group had a fall out, our group kinda died in the middle of the campaign. I’m not sure if my kids remember those gaming session or simply grew up with a steady tale of them, but they’ve been bothering me for a long time, asking to play some adventures.

In the end I recruited my two other friends and last week we had our first gaming session. Oh boy, that was fun. Since none of them ever played any pen and paper, I dmed, not my favourite thing, but since they’re also completely newbies in the world of The Dark Eye (Germans don’t play DnD, we play DSA), I also created a character to go with them, thus “giving birth” to “Salida de Emergencia*”, a priestess of the goddess of wisdom and magic, to give them some background information and also to get the roleplay going. If it comes to the last, she can also always disperse a bit DM wisdom, but that’s something I’d like to avoid.

I really had forgotten how much fun it can be, especially with completely green characters being played by completely green players. For one, the group is badly balanced. Neither of them carries an actual sword or has decent fighting skills. One of them, our nimble elf, carries a smallsword, which she kept losing by rolling 20s (in that system, 20 means failure). In the end, she resorted to wrestling with the Rodents of Unusual Size in a lot of bat shit. The archer kept missing, of course, because when you’re a starter character you have a 50/50 chance. Now the rest of them is suspicious of her because they barely survived the final fight while she was unharmed. Oh, and the mage didn’t learn the spells, so magic was not used at all. Playing by the rules, we would all start the next session by making new characters because these would be dead.

However, the good thing about playing together is that you can say “fuck the rules”. The combat rules are too complicated anyway. There may be people who do keep track on whether somebody is wounded, exhausted, their exact distance from the opponent. I have enough trouble keeping track of which bandit is dead and which is alive and killing which hero. I firmly believe that the rules should serve the game, not vice versa, so I’ll apply bonus and malus with some common sense. If the players also developed some of it, we might actually make it. ;)

*That character has been waiting in the back of my mind for a long time, ever since my beloved saw a sign saying “Salida” (exit) in Spain and remarked that it would be a nice girl’s name.


  1. Oggie: Mathom says

    However, the good thing about playing together is that you can say “fuck the rules”.

    I learned to campaign and DM under the original white books for Dungeons and Dragons. Even after AD&D came out (in the 80s), I continued Dungeon Mastering, but I used my god-like powers to (a) use original rules when I thought they made more sense, (b) use ideas (especially monsters and magical items (my imagination has never been great)) from the Advanced version, and (d), make things up when I needed o. One thing campaigners are really good at, even newbies, is finding a solution to the trap/problem/riddle/monster that I never considered.

    My daughter and her husband are talking about getting together a retro antique D&D campaign, using the AD&D rules (unless too cumbersome) and doing it with paper, pencil, and figures. I hope it happens.

  2. says

    there are some ways 2e can be less complicated than newer iterations, but the layout of the books makes it hard to follow. they ironed that out really well with the last version of 2e rules, those ones with the black covers from the ’90s, around the time planescape came out, iirc.

  3. Oggie: Mathom says

    By the 90s I was married, trying to create my career as a Park Ranger, and the closest I got to an RPG was Bills & Paycheck. Which, back then, was still pen and paper. And stamps. So I missed out on everything after, say, 1988 or so. After that, marriage, army and career intervened.

  4. lanir says

    I’ve played and run the English translation of The Dark Eye. I really like some parts of the game. It’s been awhile since I played but I remember liking the amount of options available to make an interesting character. But it also let you just pick a template and run with it.

    The main struggle I had with it was running the modules. I forget the names but both low level modules I ran had one or more fight setups that seemed to require thinking outside the box just to avoid killing the whole party. Most other English language modules assume that you want to use the normal game mechanics to win most fights and thinking outside the box just makes things easier. These modules for The Dark Eye seemed to require such feats of creative thinking because a straightforward approach would get everyone killed. The example I remember off the top of my head involves a module for I think 4 people that has around a dozen foes at the end which the PCs have to stop. And in this system, every time you defend in a round your defenses degrade so even a skilled opponent is essentially defenseless by the 3rd attack in a round -- and they just set that up to happen if you don’t do some thinking outside the box. The stories they tell seem pretty good as I recall but you’ll either need very creative players or a GM who’s willing to edit the adventures to suit their group. Which seems weird because these are starter modules that you’d use as a new GM to this system (it’s why I used them).

  5. lanir says

    @3 GAS:

    I think you might actually like the D&D Rules Compendium version of the game quite a bit.

    A few years ago I ran an AD&D 2e campaign. Around the same time (within a year give or take) a friend ran a basic D&D game using the Rules Compendium. My impression was that if you used enough books, 2e gave more ways to customize the game itself. I ended up making a document to track optional rules and extras used in my game. But if what you really wanted was lots of character options then the Rules Compendium with some of the extra books (gazeteers and/or creature crucibles) feels like it provides a more coherent game experience. The Rules Compendium also gets into domains and strongholds beyond the simplistic “if you build it, they will come” approach in 2e, where these things are not mentioned outside of the class descriptions. Your DM has to basically make up domain rules on the fly.

    OSR games tend to copy the simplest early parts of the game you get from the Rules Compendium but they all seem to leave something out so YMMV. The bits that don’t make it into any given OSR might be the bits you’d have a lot of fun with. You can import from OSR games too, but if you do very much of it you’ll end up with some of the same complications of running an AD&D 2e game with lots of splat books, but with admittedly a much larger and more creative pool of ideas to pull from.

  6. says

    Yeah, If I’d run the fights according to the rules, we’d be all dead. No idea which version you ran. We’re now at edition 5, which has streamlined some thing, like serious decluttering of the talents system, but alas, the fight system is not one of them. If anything, it seems to have become even more complicated.

  7. lorn says

    LOL … Many are too young to know, they have a good excuse; or they just caught onto D&D after it was systematized (ultimately becoming AD&D) but it was originally just the barest outline of a game based on three pamphlet sized books. There was no system. There were a few hints that the Chainmail , sand-table miniatures system, might be used for combat, but while that included some magic and monsters there were huge gaps.

    D&D started with but one real innovation. There was a dungeon master, DM (who created a location, dungeon, world, map) and one or more players who created characters on paper. It was a trip into the DMs mind. With dice. There were science-fiction versions.

    At least one DM innovated and removed the dice. He used the NYSE stock listings as rolls. We played in 7th grade and his mother was an evangelical who thought dice implied gambling. His DM kit was minimalist. Pencils, paper and the NYT financial section. Everything else was committed to memory.

    Most DMs used some sort of quasi-LOTR/ medieval/ fantasy world. One long-time DM has worlds within worlds. Players started in 12th century Europe with just the slightest hint of magic, gradually migrated to ‘magical’ lands and eventually moved into SciFi with technology other planets. He had various systems that profoundly limited your ability to go back and plunder simpler regions. ie: Magic and tech simply didn’t work well in 12th century Europe.

    I kind of started to lose interest when Gygax, et al, ossified everything into AD&D and much of the free-form nature of the game was muted, if not entirely lost. I’m sure lots of money was made writing, printing, and selling the scores of manuals …. and more power to them. I never bought or used them.

    In my day My friends were beating the odds and about a third of the sessions were co-ed and about as often, multiracial. Something of an innovation in ’73’. The last years in HS RPGs stopped being a thing. I messed around a bit in college but studies, alcohol, drugs, parties (trying to get laid) and work soaked up all the time.

    But, for a time, we had lots of fun and camaraderie.

  8. says

    The Czech version of pen and paper fantasy RPG is named “Dračí Doupě” (Dragon’s Den) and I used to play it with a few friends some twenty years ago in high school. I was always Dungeon Master and we all enjoyed it immensely. Then we became adults, went different ways and I never had even a glimmer of a chance to ever play again. Sigh.

  9. lanir says

    @Giliell: Sorry, late reply. Forgot to look back here. It looks like they translated the 5th edition. I played in several other adventures run by a friend but I ran Revelations from Heaven and Emperor of Thieves. The former was described by the publisher as “especially well suited for beginning heroes and GMs.” And yet if you simply go along with the plot for either of them and take the path the adventures lay out for you, both of these scenarios will almost certainly kill off your entire party. So I would strongly disagree with their description.

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