Thinking Inside the Box

by Rich Rittenhouse

There is a certain plot that has been used time and time again in teen comedies. It goes something like this: Geeky Boy has a crush on Unobtainable Perfect Girl. Geeky Boy has a platonic friendship with Geeky Girl. Geeky Boy strives and schemes for the affections of UPG, oblivious to the fact that Geeky Girl has a crush on *him*. This goes on until 1) Geeky Boy thinks he is about to get UPG, then gets humiliated by her and her friends and realizes she’s a cruel bitch, or 2) Geeky Boy actually does get inside UPG’s 1980’s pink spandex hot pants, but discovers that despite her Phoebe Cates level of Reagan-era foxiness she’s vapid and/or a cruel bitch (perhaps this realization comes from Geeky Boy hearing UPG dis and/or plan a mean prank on Geeky Girl), or 3) Geeky Boy actually gets in UPG’s pants, but realizes that even though she has big sexy mall hair and screws like a minx, she’s mainstream and superficial and he can’t talk to her about important things like Dungeons and Dragons, Nolan Bushnell, or the new Wall of Voodoo LP. And at long last, Geeky Boy learns what we the late-night Showtime viewing audience have known all along, that the perfect girl for him was right there with him the whole time, and he rushes into the arms of Geeky Girl. Cue credits. Add subplot(s) regarding video game tournaments, a wet T-shirt contest, and/or terminal illness to taste.

The 1981 Tom Moldvay Basic Set is my Geeky Girl.

When I first started my “Retro 80’s D&D” game, it was a sort of stop-gap thing: I really wanted to return to gamemastering, but I was sort of gun-shy from the last RPG I had ran a few years before, a perhaps overly-ambitious superhero campaign that had crashed and burned spectacularly. So I wanted a system that was as simple as possible, just to take some of the work and stress off myself. The idea was that I would start the game using the old pink-box rules, I guess as a sort of nostalgic training wheels, then switch over to 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons when it came out.

Then a funny thing happened. After a few games, I stopped thinking of it as “My Retro 80’s D&D game” and just started thinking of it as “My D&D game”. The decision to use the old rules started to feel less and less like an ironic experiment or a clever stunt and started to feel more like a sensible way to run a fun game without crap getting in the way. The players, too, had a change of heart. The first session there was some bemused grumbling about why I wasn’t running 3.5…this was totally gone by the next game. The simpler rules took a lot of the work out of the game for the players, and in particular they were all happy to see the back of Attacks of Opportunity, something that had slowed previous games to a crawl with arguments and second-guessing. After Teasop the Halfling finally drove his magic sword Ghostbreaker into Count Vorlock’s heart and ended the first “season” of the game, I asked the players if they wanted to switch over to 4th Edition and it was a unanimous “No”.

And so it goes. For my “new” D&D game I have gone back to the rules we used for my very first D&D game at age 11. The late Mr. Moldvay’s adaptation of Arneson and Gygax’s rules is so simple that even my players that have never played any version of D&D before can learn them within minutes. Of course, in gaining simplicity you loose options, but the older rules are so robust that new stuff can be added on the fly easier. Many of the story elements that the newer rules use feats and prestige classes to model we now simply role-play, often to greater effect than a simple +2 here or +4 there. And now I have the new Goblinoid Games LABYRINTH LORD hardcover that puts a streamlined “retro-clone” version of the old Basic and Expert boxed sets together into one book, so I don’t even have to put any more wear on my battered originals.

I’m probably going to pick up fourth edition, or at least the Player’s Handbook, sooner or later, but right now I’m not in any hurry.

POSTSCRIPT: I never did pick up 4.0.

Author’s Bio:
Rich Rittenhouse is a longtime tabletop RPG player from the rural Midwest. In Rebecca’s opinion, he should be the one with a website.