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Author Topic: Gaming in the 70's: What Were the Early Days of RPG's Like?  (Read 4180 times)

Doc Sammy

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So, I know plenty of others have probably discussed this to death already but I am curious to know what the early days of tabletop role-playing games were like for those who actually played back then. I'm specifically wanting to focus on the era from 1974-1981, and while D&D is my primary interest, any other early RPG's from the time (such as Tunnels & Trolls, Traveler, or The Fantasy Trip) are also welcome for discussion.

I know the history of OD&D and its development, but I'm curious to know what it was like on the street level, what players and tabletop gaming culture were like during the first generation of RPG's, common house rules for D&D that were prevalent at the time, differences between regional gaming scenes (I'd like to think that gaming was a lot more localized and regional back in the 1970's, given the lack of internet and the presumably smaller size of RPG's fandom at the time), works of fiction that were often influential at various gaming groups (I know of the Appendix N material and the influences of Middle-Earth and the Hyborian Age), and the like.

I've always wondered what people's different experiences with early RPG's were back then, especially D&D, but again any game of that era is welcome. I was born in 1993 and I started gaming with D&D 3.5 back in 2006, so I obviously missed the boat. My dad played D&D back in the mid-to-late 1980's and early 1990's, during the heyday of AD&D 1e and 2e. He's a good source for gaming in the 80's, but I'm looking for details on the generation of RPG gamers that came before him.

I'm wanting to learn more about this for multiple reasons. One, I like learning about the history of RPG's. Two, I'm writing a fanfic in the near future about OD&D and the early days of gaming and I want to get some semblance of historical accuracy in regards to the early days of RPG's. The cast would be fictional (most likely my favorite anime characters though I may include a few OC's), of course, and there would be a story within a story. The external plot is about the OOC events with the gamers and the internal plot is about the events that happen to the player characters in-game.

I'm sure Gronan and several others can lend their two cents on this thread and I fully welcome it.
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Gaming in the 70's: What Were the Early Days of RPG's Like?
« Reply #1 on: July 24, 2017, 09:06:27 AM »
I wasn't born back then, for most of the period. But I heard from another guy who wasn't born back then that the d4 first came into existence as impromptu defence against roaming triceratopses:D!

And now I'm going to step back and leave the stage so the people who actually were there could describe what it was like;).
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Piratecat

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Gaming in the 70's: What Were the Early Days of RPG's Like?
« Reply #2 on: July 24, 2017, 09:23:27 AM »
I first saw D&D in '78, and I still kick myself that I didn't join that group. I started playing for real in '81 or '82. So many house rules, SO MANY HOUSE RULES. That's because a lot of the AD&D rules were misinterpreted, needlessly complicated subsystems (grappling, pummeling and overbearing, anyone?) or a little finicky at the table. No one I knew gave a damn; we had almost as much fun arguing rules as we did playing the game, and that's seriously saying something.

I bought every module I could afford, but I don't think we played a single one of them. We tended to make our own adventures.
 

Doc Sammy

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Gaming in the 70's: What Were the Early Days of RPG's Like?
« Reply #3 on: July 24, 2017, 09:48:45 AM »
Quote from: Piratecat;977771
I first saw D&D in '78, and I still kick myself that I didn't join that group. I started playing for real in '81 or '82. So many house rules, SO MANY HOUSE RULES. That's because a lot of the AD&D rules were misinterpreted, needlessly complicated subsystems (grappling, pummeling and overbearing, anyone?) or a little finicky at the table. No one I knew gave a damn; we had almost as much fun arguing rules as we did playing the game, and that's seriously saying something.

I bought every module I could afford, but I don't think we played a single one of them. We tended to make our own adventures.

I prefer creating my own adventures as opposed to modules as well. I figured house rules were a big part of early D&D, both OD&D and AD&D 1e, given the vague nature of OD&D and the complicated nature of AD&D.

Any particular house rules stand out?
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ffilz

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Gaming in the 70's: What Were the Early Days of RPG's Like?
« Reply #4 on: July 24, 2017, 09:49:03 AM »
I started playing in Fall of 1977 with Holmes Basic (having actually seen OD&D some time earlier, but deciding to buy Tractics instead...).

My early play was with a small circle of friends, making up dungeons, and running various modules (I remember playing in Dark Tower and running Steading of the Hill Giants). I had a huge diversion to Chivalry and Sorcery, but eventually came back to D&D when I got the Players Handbook for Christmas.

In the summer of 1979 I started gaming at MIT (having been dragged to their gaming convention by one of my players). That introduced me to the "multi-verse" playing, where people would bring characters from one game to another. That was a cool time, with lots of new stuff. My gaming became more and more dependent on modules, though I rejected those that were railroads (the Slaver series especially).

I also purchased many of the RPGs I saw on the shelf (sadly NOT Empire of the Petal Throne) and we played many of them (Boot Hill, Top Secret, Metamorphosis Alpha, Gamma World, Rune Quest, Traveller, Tunnels & Trolls, Bunnies & Burrows, and more).

Frank

Doc Sammy

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Gaming in the 70's: What Were the Early Days of RPG's Like?
« Reply #5 on: July 24, 2017, 09:57:27 AM »
Quote from: ffilz;977774
I started playing in Fall of 1977 with Holmes Basic (having actually seen OD&D some time earlier, but deciding to buy Tractics instead...).

My early play was with a small circle of friends, making up dungeons, and running various modules (I remember playing in Dark Tower and running Steading of the Hill Giants). I had a huge diversion to Chivalry and Sorcery, but eventually came back to D&D when I got the Players Handbook for Christmas.

In the summer of 1979 I started gaming at MIT (having been dragged to their gaming convention by one of my players). That introduced me to the "multi-verse" playing, where people would bring characters from one game to another. That was a cool time, with lots of new stuff. My gaming became more and more dependent on modules, though I rejected those that were railroads (the Slaver series especially).

I also purchased many of the RPGs I saw on the shelf (sadly NOT Empire of the Petal Throne) and we played many of them (Boot Hill, Top Secret, Metamorphosis Alpha, Gamma World, Rune Quest, Traveller, Tunnels & Trolls, Bunnies & Burrows, and more).

Frank

Sounds fun, and I'm wondering what the culture of RPG gamers was like at the time. Do you have any input on the matter?
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Hermes Serpent

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Gaming in the 70's: What Were the Early Days of RPG's Like?
« Reply #6 on: July 24, 2017, 10:15:04 AM »
I started playing at Christmas 1974. A friend had brought back from Cambridge a copy of the three book original set. He'd met some Americans at his first term at University who had introduced him to the game and we, all miniatures gamers made our own copies and jumped in with both feet. We played a lot of games that holiday and continued after he'd returned to Cambridge. Later on we acquired our own copy of the rules and I expanded my gaming to several associated fandoms (Tolkien, scifi/fantasy etc).

Later on we played a lot of Traveller but TFT and T&T etc did not grab us like D&D and Traveller did. Later on my brother (who had emigrated) got involved with Ed and Wilf in Alberta and sent me a copy of C&S' Red Book and we played a lot of that in the later 70's/early 80's along with Call of Cthulhu and Runequest.

Mostly it was spending weekends playing non-stop from Friday evening through to Sunday evening, taking it in turns to run parties through various underground lairs until the place was cleaned out or everyone was dead. We played with multiple characters, having parties that were often 15-20 characters and hirelings.

Doc Sammy

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Gaming in the 70's: What Were the Early Days of RPG's Like?
« Reply #7 on: July 24, 2017, 10:23:06 AM »
Quote from: Hermes Serpent;977776
I started playing at Christmas 1974. A friend had brought back from Cambridge a copy of the three book original set. He'd met some Americans at his first term at University who had introduced him to the game and we, all miniatures gamers made our own copies and jumped in with both feet. We played a lot of games that holiday and continued after he'd returned to Cambridge. Later on we acquired our own copy of the rules and I expanded my gaming to several associated fandoms (Tolkien, scifi/fantasy etc).

Later on we played a lot of Traveller but TFT and T&T etc did not grab us like D&D and Traveller did. Later on my brother (who had emigrated) got involved with Ed and Wilf in Alberta and sent me a copy of C&S' Red Book and we played a lot of that in the later 70's/early 80's along with Call of Cthulhu and Runequest.

Mostly it was spending weekends playing non-stop from Friday evening through to Sunday evening, taking it in turns to run parties through various underground lairs until the place was cleaned out or everyone was dead. We played with multiple characters, having parties that were often 15-20 characters and hirelings.

Nice. If I had a dedicated group, I'd love to play a game non-stop throughout the weekend.
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DavetheLost

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Gaming in the 70's: What Were the Early Days of RPG's Like?
« Reply #8 on: July 24, 2017, 11:22:22 AM »
We played a lot of D&D and Traveller, mostly at lunch period in high school or long saturday marathons.  We were in a rural area with no gaming shops, so we were limited to the core rules which we got at the local university bookstore.

Lots of house rules and creative rules interpretations. Druids were not allowed to use metal in our D&D games. For the most part "house rules" were just the way we played the game, not a concious change we made.

estar

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Gaming in the 70's: What Were the Early Days of RPG's Like?
« Reply #9 on: July 24, 2017, 11:27:20 AM »
In Rural Northwest PA, among Junior High and High School kids from 1977 to 1984, some random thoughts.

  • Hex and Counter Wargames were just as huge. In fact I was playing hex and counter wargames starting in 6th grade in 1977-78.
  • Campaign hopping was a thing, more than a few people carried their character sheet from campaign to campaign. By the mid 1980s the downside began to add up and most campaigns became closed to this. For my regular campaigns I didn't allow PCs from other campaign or if they were allowed only the version that adventured in my campaign was to be used.
  • Roleplaying in the evening was a thing with Boy Scouts especially during winter campouts. I still have in my Adventure Log a session recorded that was played in a cabin perched on top of 30 foot high cliff next to a ice covered Lake Erie.
  • For a while I could carry and did carry everything I owned roleplaying wise in a wooden milk crate including all my issues of Dragon Magazine. Did this several times while walking two miles to a friend through a cemetery and a forested ravine.
  • Referees had reputations, this was before geek were cool and all the D&D fans quickly learned about each other at least at the various age levels. We were kind of shaky as to which adults were interested but among the kids we have a good idea of who was doing what. I was known as a guy who liked to referee more than play, and as a referee who allowed players to trash his setting.
  • Again wargames were big as well. By the mid 80s, Battletech became a thing. For my neighborhood sandlot sports was also big. I can't stress the diversity of activities everybody was doing. The idea of parent booking up your time wasn't that prevalent so it wasn't hard to get six or so kids together to do something.
  • I lucked out in that my grandparent forced me to save my nickels, dimes, and quarters starting around age six when I stayed with them at the lake cottages they rented. By the time my grandfather passed away in 1978 and that ended, I had $120 saved. Needless to say it funded my RPG purchases for several years. In the mid 80s AT&T split and I got a check from stocks that were bought for me when I was young. It was only $100 or so but still tided me over until I got my first job.
  • I was always a referee that used miniature. Mostly because I was deaf and it cut down on the misunderstanding considerably. My initial batch of miniatures was the Grenadier boxed set.
  • Truth be told I don't know how the fuck we got along without the internet but we did. Dragon magazine was the biggest source of news, followed by adverts in products, and company flyers/brochures you could send away. With everybody talking, we had a pretty good grip on things after the first year or two. But there were gaps for example, my initial group and myself had no idea that OD&D existed and wondered about what the hell Holmes D&D was talking about at times.
  • Holmes did a good job selling us all on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.
  • The PHB had one disappointment in that it didn't have a combat chart. Since all we knew about was Holmes we were stuck until the DMG was released. I am sure if we were older and had more experience with wargame we could have done it on our own but we weren't.
  • Runequest was for the cool college kids and had ducks, bronze weapons, runes, and skills.
  • Traveller was well liked and we immediately started running Star Wars/Battlestar Galactica campaigns.
  • Later Call of Cthulu was fun but only for a handful of referees that could do the horror well. For the rest of us it was lame. But we all wanted to play it when a session was announced. I still remember the fear I got when we realized the little girl we were protecting turned out to be the monster. The referee, Brian, really did it well.
  • The difference between tabletop roleplaying and wargaming was that when we roleplayed it was as a group with a referee with wargames we were trying to beat to hell out of each other playing a game. It was pretty clear cut what was what. Sometime we played wargames that had some roleplaying stuff in it like SPI's Swords & Sorcery and sometimes we used a wargame to handle something in roleplaying.
  • There were three game store I knew of initially, one was a boutique shop that had a rack full of RPG stuff but only stuff that was a book. The other was a store that focused on models (railroads, airplanes, etc) with a game section. There was another railroad model store in Erie, PA that had a lot of miniature wargame stuff as well. Later when I could drive there was Games Unlimited in Pittsburgh.
  • I went to the Boy Scout National Jamboree in 1983 and there was a hillside covered in picnic blankets with people roleplaying.


That what I got for now

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Gaming in the 70's: What Were the Early Days of RPG's Like?
« Reply #10 on: July 24, 2017, 11:27:21 AM »
I started in 1978. I'm 99% sure it was Holmes Basic. No dice. We had the cardboard chits, though I remember seeing the advertisement to get dice - I confess, I had zero idea what these dice would look like or how they would replace the chits. This was at a friends birthday party, his cousin showed up from the mid-west (somewhere) and had the game. It was like a lightning bolt for me. I got my first set of dice about two-months later and I felt like I had the keys to the universe. I suppose in retrospect I did.

In those days your brick-and-mortar stores that sold RPG's were like hallowed shrines. In LA, there were very few stores that specialized in RPG's. Sure you could, at some point, pick up D&D at TRU, but everyone that played would go to their local gaming store (mine happened to be split between model-trains, wargames on one side, and RPG's on the other) and it was like you were part of a secret-society. At least that's kinda what it felt like when I was a teen. The whole Satanic-Panic thing that hit later, really kinda amped that up. The hobby was closer. Sure people bickered, but it was nothing like now - mostly it was over "house-rules". I remember going several times a week just to sit and talk with other GM's about their house-rules, to see what they were doing vs. what I was doing, in case I could learn something new. (gee - nothing has changed. I just do it virtually now).

I do remember looking at the Runequest and Traveller folks with some suspicion. Why weren't they playing D&D?!?!?!? Later I got pulled into Star Frontiers and Gamma-World, Talislanta (my first non-TSR game!), and Palladium fantasy. But D&D/AD&D was always the core.

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Gaming in the 70's: What Were the Early Days of RPG's Like?
« Reply #11 on: July 24, 2017, 11:29:22 AM »
I never met anyone who played anything OTHER than D&D for almost six years. My first Gen Con was a revelation to me.

I'm trying to remember our house rules. They included ignoring level limits and ability score limits for women, ignoring AC/to hit modifiers by weapon, renaming the Grand Master of Flowers to something that sounded tougher to our 13-year-old ears, ignoring grappling and pummeling, extending death at -10 hp (sometimes!), and more.

One thing of interest: it's amazing how big a role Dragon Magazine played in shaping our play and in introducing new rules. The letters column there was usually the only place you could hear from gamers not in your own group.
 

finarvyn

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Gaming in the 70's: What Were the Early Days of RPG's Like?
« Reply #12 on: July 24, 2017, 11:31:26 AM »
I started in August, '75. My friend and I had been playing wargames for a year or two before OD&D, and my friend had a sand table in his garage for miniatures battles using Chainmail rules, so the transition to OD&D seemed like a smooth one. At first it was just the two of us, where one would run and the other play and then we would switch roles. Eventually we added a third DM so that we could have games all weekend, and then more players started to add in as they heard us talking about the game at school. Back then, everyone in our group read Conan, Fafhrd & Grey Mouser, and Elric so most of our campaign ideas followed plotlines similar to the style from those sources. A couple of us were into Barsoom, so I ran a lot of do-gooder characters and my buddy's campaign often followed a "save the princess" theme for me. Back then, folks just said what kind stories they liked and we made up scenarios to do those styles, rather than buying campaigns which might or might not interest any individual player.

We spent a lot of time early on just exploring deeper and deeper dungeons, then created a town so that characters could buy stuff in between adventures, then a small region of wilderness so that characters could travel to and from the dungeon. It all grew up in a slow and piecemeal manner where we would realize we needed something (a castle, a city, a dungeon) and just design it on the spot. As we built our campaign worlds to take up more and more area, we added in more kingdoms and fought occasional battles between baronies using Chainmail rules. Often we would run more than one character at a time, perhaps one "baron" and one "adventurer" so that we could play politics and spies at the same time. What was interesting was that those characters weren't always on the same side, so your baron would be trying to accomplish something while your adventurer was trying to stop it. Most of the time, however, there was an evil king or an evil wizard trying to rule the world so all of us would band together to try to defeat the bad guys.

I was a charter subscriber to the Judges Guild subscription so I got the CSIO, Thunderhold, and other "modules" which made appearances in my campaign. The CSIO was interesting because it had cool stuff you could stumble upon without me having to plan it in advance. The CSIO was used in almost every campaign I ran in the 1970's and 1980's, only sometimes it was called Greyhawk, sometimes Lankhmar, or Aquilonia, or whatever city was needed at the time. I stole a lot of place-names from literature (still do, actually) to help my prep because I would already have a clue what might be found there. Back in those days everyone that I knew made their own campaign maps and nobody played in a store-bought campaign, with the exception of the JG materials that I used in my game.

For me, the "early days" were all about fun and flexibility. We didn't get really hung up in rules debates (not until AD&D came out, that is, when our "rules lawyers" began to take over) and we rewarded player creativity. Some of our players didn't know the rules very well, had never read the rulebook, and had no interest in reading the rulebook; they just played and enjoyed the action. I won't say that it was a "role versus roll" thing because we didn't think in those terms back then, but characters with similar stats might seem very different because of the way they were played. A fighting man who was a noble might play very different from a fighting man who was a sergeant. We sort of got "into" persona and that guided us a lot more than the game bonuses. Sometimes we would set up a "family tree" and play through a character, son of a character, grand-son of a character, and so on.

I won't say that this style of play was "better" then what I see at game stores now, but it was different.
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Zalman

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Gaming in the 70's: What Were the Early Days of RPG's Like?
« Reply #13 on: July 24, 2017, 11:39:06 AM »
In the 70's we didn't really have a "gaming culture" yet, down in South Florida. There were no "game stores" nearby that we knew of. Our OD&D booklets filtered down from an older brother in college in Gainesville (who didn't himself even play).

Campaign hopping was common, along with arguments over whether or not a particular campaign-hopping character acquired their magic items fairly. In fact, "campaigns" were something that came a few years in for us, until then it was only the megadungeon, where every session began and ended.

We wrote all our own megadungeons. They were immense, detailed descriptions pencilled onto graph paper (because normal lined paper was not narrow enough!) alongside dungeon maps whose walls were invariably one pencil-line thick, doors locked, and any sized room could contain any sized monster, locked in an airless cell forever. We each had thick volumes of such dungeon levels, and vied to produce the deepest, most extensive underground realms.

We carefully painted the numbers onto our dice with Liquid Paper, ogled the cover of Eldritch Wizardry, and played for entire weekends at a time. Games often became a contest of who could stay awake the longest. We ate sandwiches. We listened to RUSH.
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Gaming in the 70's: What Were the Early Days of RPG's Like?
« Reply #14 on: July 24, 2017, 11:58:17 AM »
I was born in '66 and was introduced to D&D around 78 or 79 I suppose.  This was in Winnipeg which back then was basically a backwater city (had to go to Minneapolis to find cool records I wanted, lol) but there actually was a fairly vibrant RPG crowd for some reason.  It was a very different world though without the net and there was really a sort of mysterious quality to the hobby and I can sort of understand why many parents viewed it with some apprehension as from the outside it must have seemed strange and maybe a little "cultish." A friend of a friend of mine had the 1E AD&D books and he DM'd a few sessions.  I loved it immediately!  As others have mentioned, hex wargaming was a real thing at the time - there were tons of them from Avalon Hill and other companies.  Generally D&D was pretty connected to that and my school had a Wargaming Club where both rpgs and hex strategy games were played.  You'd see other kids walking around with their AD&D books occasionally.  However after those initial AD&D sessions I never actually got to play rpgs much at all.  But I bought a ton of the stuff!  I spent a lot of my free time reading the books and drawing dungeons and so forth.  I really can't recall how I decided what to buy as I didn't have many friends who were into it like I was - I assume I must have read about stuff in Dragon...or just bought what looked interesting on the shelf.  I had most of the big names - AD&D, Traveller, Boot Hill, Gangbusters, Top Secret, Star Frontiers, Call of Cthulhu, Chill - and lots of modules and splat books.  I guess I saved up allowance money and what not to afford it all because I don't recall getting it as gifts.  It's impossible to overstate though how different things were pre internet.  When you were into something that was a little out of the mainstream it could be a bit lonely...I can remember feeling sort of embarrassed to walk into the shop (they were always more general hobby shops that had smallish areas for rpg stuff) and look at rpg stuff back then, but also it was sort of magical to scan the shelves and see all the books and stuff you'd never heard of anywhere.  I can remember thinking the MERP books always looked so awesome but they were very expensive and I didn't really know anything about the system so I never took the plunge.