My first roleplaying game was Original Dungeons & Dragons. I started playing D&D sometime in 1975, and I recall buying my first copy of the game at the Little Tin Soldier Shoppe in south Minneapolis, shortly afterwards.
At the time, D&D was the only roleplaying game around, and that created an interesting moment in this newly-formed hobby: nobody knew what was the “right” way to roleplay.
People created new stuff based on what they read in the three little booklets of the original game – and that took off like a rocket almost immediately afterwards. Not necessarily new roleplaying games – new games, like Empire of the Petal Throne, Metamorphosis: Alpha, and En Garde! came a little later.
In fact, the first three years of D&D – from 1974 to 1977 – were marked by (a) an exploding player base, (b) intense debates on what the game actually was, (c) the beginnings of other game companies supporting the new hobby and (d) a lot of truly different individual campaigns that we now know very little about. (That last point I will come back to later.)
During that early time, right after the very successful publication of D&D, the reactions of TSR and Gary Gygax as its founder were very understandable. Gygax was rightly afraid that he had a tiger by the tail, as game sales soared for a product in what had been a very niche hobby.
Worse from Gygax’s perspective were various fan publications, most notably Alarums & Excursions (A&E), which extolled personal creativity, with some contributors asserting that Dungeons & Dragons was too important to leave to Gary Gygax. (It should not be at all surprising that many game designers for later computer games and tabletop roleplaying games cut their teeth writing ‘zines for A&E.)
With the introduction of the Basic D&D set in 1977, and the appearance of the Monster Manual for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons about the same time, TSR and Gygax set about to standardize how to play D&D – a process which continues to this day. However, that process of standardization pitted rule uniformity against individual creativity and variety.
Combined with the slowly expanding size of the rules themselves, referees were and are expected to keep track of more and more “official” rules, which in turn has constrained what they were expected to do, or not do, in their games. This has culminated in the “RAW” or “rules as written” doctrine, which suggests that the rules exist as a kind of creedal or inviolate text – which is fundamentally at odds with the origin of the game.
Today’s mindset emphasizes rules uniformity, and game products as something to be consumed, rather than as aids to one’s own creativity. The operative question that a roleplayer might ask of a new referee is likely to be “how is your game like all the others?”
Rather than D&D-as-creative-toolbox, recent editions D&D have become their own brand with their own internal expectations. While there is nothing a priori wrong with that, it should not be surprising that some people wanted – and still want – something else.
The Old School Renaissance/Revival began as a reaction to this more recent way of thinking when it started more than a decade ago. Instead of ever-expanding rules sets, there was a call to go back to older rules sets, to allow for greater variation in interpretation and game development. It also included appreciation for earlier published adventures and campaigns, although that was by no means completely shared.
In the OSR, there was also a desire to revisit the earlier days of the hobby, when there was a greater emphasis on campaigns, rules, and settings as individual creations. The game was a vehicle for your own creativity, rather than being just an end in and of itself.
In those earliest days of the hobby, from 1974 to 1977, the operative question that a roleplayer might ask of a new referee would have been “how is your game different?” The emphasis was on referees creating their own settings, their own campaigns, and sometimes their own rules. That is what has motivated me to start Ancient Academy Games.
As a game publisher, I want to ensure that my products support that creative mindset of the earliest days of the hobby, putting agency back into the hands of referees and players, so that they can express their own creativity and develop their own sense of wonder.