Pencil and Paper RPG

Blue Box Dungeons and Dragons
My blue box rule book is over 30 years old!

I started playing role playing games back in 1978. For anyone that doesn’t know, a role playing game, or RPG, is like storytelling with rules. Players take on the roles of fictional characters and interact with each other, often in a situation or scenario that is determined by another player, who is usually called the DM, or Dungeon Master. The use of this term comes from the most famous of all RPGs, Dungeons and Dragons.

Back in the late 70’s, my parents bought me a  copy of what is now called the blue box edition of Dungeons and Dragons. It consisted of a 48 page rule book and some dice. That was it. Everything else came from your imagination. My friends and I would spend hours creating huge underground lairs on graph paper so that we could our turn as DM. It was all very simple back then. A DM came to the table with a stack of hand-written notes and a small rulebook. Our extremely exciting games usually sounded a lot like this:

DM: The passageway ends at a solid wooden door.

Eric: I listen at the door.

DM: (Rolls a die behind a screen but doesn’t really look at the result.) You hear a faint clicking kind of sound.

Scot: I ready my axe and kick in the door. I roll a 15!

DM: The door flies open and reveals a rectangular room, 20′ by 30′. There is a large treasure chest guarded by three skeletons that move to attack you.

As time passed, we started playing the “Advanced” version of Dungeons and Dragons, and even tried out some new RPGs like Traveller, Tunnels and Trolls, The Fantasy Trip, Villians and Vigilantes, and Star Frontiers. It seemed like every time a new game, or a new version of a game, was released, there would be more in the box, or the rule book would be much thicker, more complex, and always more expensive. More and more time was required to understand the system, which didn’t necessarily reduce the amount of imagination that could be brought to the table, but it did alter the resulting mixture of rules and creativity, in my opinion.

A couple of years ago, after listening to the Dungeons & Dragons Podcast, I decided to buy the 4th edition rules and run a game for some friends. We had fun, and I had a good time creating the adventure. For the first session, I came to the table with some typed notes, that included reference material from the D&D website. Soon after I discovered a fantastic program called Masterplan, which allowed me to create elaborate adventures that included detailed maps, and also allowed me to run the game sessions from my laptop. The players seemed to love it, and the interface appealed to the nerdy I-would-have-loved-to-be-a-programmer side of me. The problem was that it took so much of my time to prepare for a game session that I simply couldn’t keep up with it. Our game sessions became more and more infrequent and eventually stopped altogether.

The complexity of my method for recording a story had finally managed to crush the basic kernel of imagination from which the story would grow. There were just too many components that had to come together for the time that I could dedicate to the project. It wasn’t the complexity of the rules, but rather the complexity of of my own methods that had created the problem.

So this week I went back to pencil and paper.

Now, when I start to think about the story that could be told, I ask myself this question, “What details actually need to be written down?” Do I really need a written description of that room or that character? No. Do I really need a map for the marketplace? No. What was complex is now simple. The story is much more likely to unfold as we play, rather than being a linear narrative that I direct from behind a laptop. We shall see what happens.

D&D Monster Card
What is this and where do get more?

On a side note, I still find it annoying to write down information about monster or character stats. I found a card that came with one of my D&D miniatures, and all of the stats were printed on this awesome little card. I’m not talking about the cards that were used in the miniatures game. This card had the same stats as the Monster Manual entry. I love that!

I took a picture of it so that you could see what I’m talking about. Why didn’t they just release a deck of monster cards instead of the monster manuals? That way, I could just pull the cards I need for my adventure and paper clip them to my notes. Super easy. Get to work, Wizards of the Coast! Is this something that is already available that I just didn’t hear about?




  1. John S

    I just want to say that you’re a great storyteller, and that you turned me from a min-maxing munchkin into a guy who looks forward to the story more than anything. I think that is your greatest achievement as a DM and I hope I can kind of do the same thing when I try my hand at it.

    (Don’t get me wrong, I still love the crunchy numbers combat. 🙂

  2. Jason

    Right on with the “basics”! I too found myself bogged down by rules, rules and more rules by the new and, i would argue, improved rule books… Not to mention all the must have supplements…
    And what about THAC0?! I love my THAC0!

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