Lizardmen live in the marshes

“This is a game that is fun. It helps you imagine.”

-Preface to the D&D Basic Rules Set, 1983

I’m following the “blog less while you’re writing stories” rule, so I can stay on target and get this novella finished before Duke Nukem Forever ships.

So, very briefly:

Playing a tiny bit of D&D 4e at PAX made me massively nostalgic for tabletop RPGs, and I’ve spent more time than I probably should since I got home reading through my library of sourcebooks and handbooks. Thanks to Twitter, I found out that you can buy ancient D&D modules as PDFs for next to nothing from Paizo, so I picked up the D&D Basic Rules Set and module B2, The Keep on the Borderlands, and returned to the place my geek journey truly began. It made me so happy to see the Lizardmen again, I tried to convince Nolan that he should get a couple of friends together and let me run B2 for them using the original rules. Sadly, I rolled a one every time.

Reading those original rules reminded me how much simpler RPGs used to be, and I got it in my head that I wanted to find and play something that didn’t require minis for combat, that would put the focus on role playing, puzzle solving, character development, and other non-dungeon crawly stuff. I didn’t recall ever using minis during our GURPS campaigns back in the 80s, so I grabbed my GURPS 4th Edition manuals and went straight to the Combat Lite chapter, where I found exactly what I was looking for. (Tangent: my friend and editor Andrew is the same Andrew who edited GURPS. Goddamn do I love GURPS.)

Without realizing it, I spent several hours reading the rules and thumbing through my various sourcebooks. On the surface, I was just refamiliarizing myself with the system, but it was actually more about a nostalgic trip back to 9th grade, with a side trip to 2038 when I found a stack of AADA Road Atlases and Uncle Albert’s catalogs.

After GURPS, I dug into Mutants & Masterminds, which has the greatest damage system ever, and that’s where I currently sit. Once I’m done with it, I’m going to go through True20, including some quality time in Freeport and Damnation Decade, and when that’s all over, I’ll finally have a chance – one year after I bought it – to wander through Monte Cook’s World of Darkness.

I’m not sure what if anything I’ll end up playing. My free time is very limited, and it’s a DC 25 – at least – to get my friends together for anything. But there’s a great essay at ComicMix called Why Game? that explains why it’s worth trying:

Why do we game? It’s a fair question, actually, and especially now with our preponderance of entertainment options. Why game when I could read a book, watch a movie, play a computer game or video game, surf the Web, play cards, play a board game, etc.? What’s so cool about gaming?

There’s the escapism aspect, of course. Had a rotten day at work? Slaughter some orcs or raid an alien enclave. Feel like you’re not getting enough respect in your life? Play the conquering general or the rescuing hero. But most of our other entertainment provides that as well, at least vicariously—you can sit back and imagine you’re John McLane or King Leonidas or Bruce Wayne, or lose yourself in the adventures of Harry Potter or Sebastian or countless others. And many of those other forms provide more immediate escapism, with far less effort. So there must be something more, something else a roleplaying game offers.

The answer, for me, lies in the definition above. Collaborative interactive storytelling.

I could have written it myself.

Clarifying afterthoughts: I’m not knocking D&D 4e or its combat system. If you like to use minis for gaming, it’s really awesome and very easy to use. In fact, their D&D Minis game is a lot of fun for what it is, and you get the added bonus of learning 4e’s combat system while you play. I’m just saying that, after years of playing mini-o-centric combat in RPGs, I’d forgotten how much I liked to roll it old school, where we’d just sit in a bunch of chairs or on couches and work together to tell a story.

I didn’t realize how much Keep on the Shadowfell is like Keep on the Borderlands until I re-read Keep on the Borderlands this weekend. It’s not even that subtle, but it’s incredibly awesome and makes me like Shadowfell even more than I already did.

69 thoughts on “Lizardmen live in the marshes”

  1. “…I’d forgotten how much I liked to roll it old school, where we’d just sit in a bunch of chairs or on couches and work together to tell a story.”
    That, precisely, is why my D&D group of 15 years still plays 2nd Edition… not to mention the same characters. We gather around the big table with a vast selection of chips, and an endless supply of cola, and we write our story. It is magic.

  2. I still have the Basic and Expert boxed set rules, and the modules that came with them, Keep on the Borderlands and Isle of Dread. I got introduced to the game in 5th grade. I’ve played so many different RPGs over the years, but I always come back to this one.

  3. Must recommend Castles & Crusades. Retro simplicity, but with an integrated skill system that’s very elegant in its modernity.
    Two rulebooks, one semi-optional. No skill lists. No feats. Tell stories. Have fun.
    Cheapish PDF versions of both rulebooks are available for download at under publisher Troll Lord Games and “Castles & Crusades”.
    Can also be found at the Paizo site.
    Otherwise, you can find the physical books at Amazon.

  4. Wow, this brings back memories. My mom bought me both the Basic and Expert D&D sets (Isle of Dread, anyone?) when I was a kid. The most fun I had on Paizo was checking out all the circa 1983 Dragon Magazines. I can still remember which issues i owned just from the cover art.
    I haven’t played a board RPG since college. I still remember chasing after my friend’s Cavalier as he dashed off to save anyone who needed saving, odds be damned!

  5. Most of my roleplaying in recent years has been GURPS, M&M or the standard ancient-roleplayer-common-tongue (i.e. a mix of the best parts of AD&D 1e+2e with a few house rules where they don’t make sense).
    The few years before that it was mostly GURPS, BRP (Elric/Stormbringer, specifically) and d6 Star Wars. And … a tiny bit of D&D 3e.
    Before that it was mostly Ars Magica and the standard-ancient-roleplayer-common-tongue (SARCT) again.
    But before that I used to play all sorts of different RPGs. Dozens of different ones.
    I think M&M and GURPS are where I tend to have the most fun these days, but that may be more of a function of the GMs.

  6. “But there’s a great essay at ComicMix called Why Game? that explains why it’s worth trying”
    Thanks! I’m glad you liked it.
    “I could have written it myself.”
    High praise indeed.
    – Aaron R.

  7. if you get the urge to peck around in other systems, I’ll second the recommendation to check out Amber Diceless. Wujcik captured Zelazny’s world amazingly well, but most importantly, it’s very much story focused. While the game is diceless, it does have a system and direction, and Throne Wars are some of the most fun I’ve had as a gamer.

  8. Complex combat rules and minis seems like an effort by WotC to appeal to the WoW market.Instead of trying to make the game more like Warcraft they should do the opposite and highlight the stuff that tabletop D&D can do but WoW can’t.

  9. My favorite gaming experience involves an old school module (really three – The Desert of Desolation series, but the conclusion was my favorite) written by Tracy and Laura Hickman of Dragonlance fame.
    Nothing has come close to The Lost Tomb of Martek despite 15+ years of gaming since.

  10. 1. Roleplaying with people you like also develops into a kind of social currency – the tropes and in-jokes and understanding of the way things work in so-and-so’s world reward a part of the gaming geek’s brain that is similar to seeing a great movie for the first time and then talking about it afterwards.
    2. I think we might be within 5 years of technology allowing us to play RPGs via the internet transparently – i.e. the experience is close enough to playing in person not to matter. (4th Edition D&D was supposed to help with that, but it wasn’t, and still isn’t, ready.)
    3. An oblique approach to “old school” gaming, in that it doesn’t use miniatures, is D. Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard. I find it remarkable because in the game I started using these rules, but the Firefly universe as a backdrop, it comes so close to the timing of good television (like Firefly) it’s uncanny.

  11. Ah, D&D. Many, many, many hours frittered away making graph-paper dungeons and saving lawnmowing money to buy the latest hardbound version of the D&D manuals.(Monster Manual II: Electric Boogaloo)
    It’s a shame that a lot of us were too young to really appreciate the “play” aspects of the game. I remember our middle school D&D club met and dissolved pretty quickly since it was packed full of nit-picking nerds who all somehow managed to be equipped with +5 Maces of Whatever. All that minutiae was lost on 12- and 13-year olds.
    Played again a little bit post-college, and I still have those old reference books and sets and dice stowed away in the closet. I finally passed along the Monster Manual to corrupt my ten-year old son and give me an excuse to someday dust off the graph paper once again.

  12. Wil,
    Have you tried Savage Worlds? The base rules use miniatures, but the actual miniature rules are so fast and loose that I’ve managed to run it really easily using nothing but a sheet of paper and some glass beads to keep track of position. It’s the new system for Deadlands, and I find it. . . to use the company line. . . fast, furious, and fun.

  13. Ahhhh the good old days of D&D. I remember playing at elementary school during recess after my thumb got stepped on during a game of dodgeball.
    Our 6th grade teacher ‘caught’ us playing, and being in fear of a eventual demonic sacrifice taking place on the school lawn immediately notified our parents and the principal.
    My parents were cool and didn’t care. My older brother and I were given RPG books like D&D, Star Wars and GURPs, and one of the better RPG games I’ve ever played called Paranoia (
    The principal wasn’t so understanding and we got detention…. For using our imaginations. Guess that tells you a bit about the education system in California at the time.
    This incident and others haven’t curtailed me from playing RPG games. My friends an I who are spread across 3 states play every Thursday night using Skype, and a battlegrounds program.
    Long live the geek!

  14. If you’re into Mutants & Masterminds, you need to check out New Vindicators. The Atomic Think Tank has a section of the forums set aside for stories and New Vindicators is by far the best. It’s a very well-told story and everyone will laugh at you if you don’t go read it.
    Best part is that the guy who writes it is a fan of yours and occassionally slips in references to you and your work. My favorite so far is a band called ‘Gordy Lachance is shooting up Castle Rock’.

  15. Well, there’s always Spaceship Zero, also published by Green Ronin (makers of Freeport and Mutants & Masterminds)! PLUG PLUG.
    Toren, currently running a Freeport campaign.

  16. Hey man,
    We have the same games in our libraries :)
    At Gen Con, I managed to play a Press D&D 4e game with the author of the DMG and I can tell you that I jumped off the fence after 10 minutes.
    I also played a 4 hour game with no minis and it was among the best games I played in a long time.
    Yes, as written the game feels like a Collectible Miniature Game, but after 25 years of playing (like you and I) playing without minis is a slight matter of trusting the DMs for powers that involve moving on the board and a lot of imagination.
    Peace out.

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