The first D&D game I ever played was in my 5th grade classroom, right before summer vacation, when our teacher had basically given up and let us do what we want. Everyone – nerds, jocks, bullies – was united in their obsession with D&D. (It was the 80s.) The DM was one of the Bullies.
“You walk into a room,” he said to one of the jocks, whose fighter was on point duty. “Where do you walk, the middle of the room, or the sides of the room?”
Most of us didn’t really know the character generation rules, so we’d all given our characters 18 in every stat. The jock had brought his beloved character sheet from home. His fighter had a 13 intelligence, so we called him “Stupid.”
“I’ll walk in the middle of the room,” said Stupid.
“You fall into a pit. OK, you walk into the next room. Do you walk in the middle of the room, or the sides of the room?”
Stupid was no fool. “The sides of the room.”
“The walls fall on you.”
You know that if Stupid had walked on the sides first and the middle second, the traps would have been in the opposite order. The bully DM had set up his players to lose.
Dude was the best old-school DM I ever had.
Life is unfair in old-school D&D. Bad things happen, and there is nothing you can do about it. Incautious play is punished swiftly and brutally. (In the 1e DMG section on “Tricks”: “This enumeration might serve for those who have not yet had the experience and seasoning necessary to invent more clever devices to bring consternation to overbold and incautious characters.”) Cautious play, however, is boring, and denies the DM the opportunity to unleash his hilarious traps, and is punished too. Take this passage from the 1e DMG:
Assume that your players are continually wasting time (thus making the
so-called adventure drag out into a boring session of dice rolling and delay) if they are checking endlessly for traps and listening at every door. If this persists, despite the obvious displeasure you express, the requirement that helmets be doffed and mail coifs removed to listen at a door, and then be carefully replaced, the warnings about ear seekers [door-dwelling monsters that burrow into the brain and kill characters who listen at doors], and frequent checking for wandering monsters (q.v.), then you will have to take more direct part in things. Mocking their over-cautious behavior as near cowardice, rolling huge handfuls of dice and then telling them the results are negative, and statements to the effect that: “You detect nothing, and nothing has detected YOU so far — “, might suffice. If the problem should continue, then rooms full with silent monsters will turn the tide, but that is the stuff of later adventures.
That damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t attitude is just what made my first D&D game, run by the school bully, such a perfect introduction to D&D.
I loved D&D. I’m still playing it. I think Gary Gygax is a Great Man. He took a wargame – a game with one winner and loser – and turned it into a cooperative game, a game where everyone wins. Sort of.
In Old School D&D, everyone wins because everyone has fun. That is, the PLAYERS win. Their characters don’t necessarily win. They can be thrown into pits or crushed by walls with no warning, no recourse, and no chance to avoid it. That’s how games work. Most pawns don’t have a fair chance to level up and become queens – they die.
Newer versions of D&D are becoming less gamelike in that they are becoming more and more stacked towards the character. Encounter guidelines are set up so that the players have a vanishingly small chance of “losing” each battle they fight or each trap they encounter. If it is a competition between the DM and the character, the well-behaved DM is going to take a lot of losses.
Old school D&D was more gamelike in that characters had a very real chance of losing. They could play well, and win – get out of the dungeon alive with a bag full of treasure. Victory was sweet, considering what dangers they’d avoided. But, as in other games, characters could play well and still lose. It was a weird game, though: the DM could decide to win at any time. It was kind of like, as a good chess player, playing your 7-year-old nephew: maybe you give the little guy a few victories, but every once in a while (and maybe more than every once in a while, if you are a twerp) you unleash your best game and SLAM him back down — show him who’s boss. Makes it more fun for the nephew (possibly) (maybe) but definitely more fun for you.
I think Gygax, as a DM, was a bit of a twerp. Greatness and twerpitude are in no way mutually incompatible. Maybe the reverse.