First of all, dear readers, sorry for the length of time between posts. I've never been able to get the hang of regular, clockwork posting in the first place. That gets exacerbated by my issues with depression- and boy, howdy did that raise its ugly head last week. I'm still climbing out a bit, but over the weekend I got some of my morale and creative groove back- so while it's lasts, I'm going to write a response to a conversation I had with a good friend via email this morning.
I have had the insane luck over the past few years to make the acquaintance of a good number of authors and artists from my chosen hobby- and I am even more fortunate to count some of them as honest-to-Crom friends. One of these friends- a damn good one who had a hand in helping me get over last week's urge to just hide from the world- sent me an interesting email this morning by way of "confession." That email explains that while he has been with the industry since the very early days, he never saw the need for expansions, campaign settings, modules and the like. He did most of his work with 0D&D and Chainmail, never really using Holmes, Moldvay, Menzer or even AD&D. In his estimation, the sweet spot in the game is making up all your own stuff, rather than playing in anyone else's game world.
Now, here I am with my collection being the antithesis of this philosophy- I've at least one copy and more likely four or five of every version of D&D from 1974 (reprint, sadly) to today. I have a copy of every version of Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk published, plus boxed sets like Kara-Tur, Ravenloft, Birthright, the various Dragonlance incarnations, Thunder Rift... I stopped counting books and boxed sets and started counting shelf feet. Thing is, for this massive collection of D&D stuff (not to mention all my other games) I have never, not once, run a game in the Forgotten Realms. Nor Greyhawk, unless one counts the modules that have been retconned into that world when they were originally setting agnostic. But, I have run a LOT of Ravenloft, DragonLance, and especially Mystara. In addition to those worlds, however, I've run quite a few D&D realms of my own creation.
It strikes me that there's absolutely nothing to "forgive" that my friend's style differs from mine- first of all because everyone has different preferences for gaming, but also because our experiences getting into the game were very different. When I started playing D&D, it was with the Mentzer Red Box from '83. It was 1986, and my friend Dan and his brother gathered a few of us and taught us the game. We were adventuring in The Known World (not yet called Mystara) and making use of the Karameikos setting as it appeared in Red Box and in modules like Night's Dark Terror and The Veiled Society. D&D as we knew it sort of came with a setting, much like a licensed game like Marvel Superheroes or Robotech would. It wasn't until I started to read the DragonLance novels and ease into AD&D that I realized you could do D&D in any world- including your own.
Of course, we wrote our own dungeons and adventures, but they tended to include NPCs from the Known World setting like Bargle or the Black Eagle Baron or (and I still do this) the AD&D action figures from LJN. But armed with this knowledge, I started to create my own towns and place them on the maps- my own dungeons, minor nobles, etc. Filling in the blanks. I grabbed my Traveller books and created my own subsector, and later a full sector. But in the early days in the 70s, it was assumed everyone would create their own settings and stories- to the point that TSR initially gave Judge's Guild wide leeway to create settings and modules because it was believed nobody wanted them. They wouldn't sell, why buy someone else's story when you can make up your own?
There are lots of reasons to use modules or settings. Maybe, like with Star Wars, you like the IP and want to play in that world. Maybe you're busy with family and work and don't have time to be M.A.R. Barker and create a fully realized setting. Maybe the Big Picture doesn't matter to you as much as the actions of the party, so you're content to let Ed Greenwood or Aaron Allston do the heavy lifting and plop your story into their worlds. But maybe you just want to start with a very minimum of rules and no setting at all and craft something entirely your own to present to your friends in the game.
Not only do I see this last being as valid an approach as any other- I see it as being an extremely admirable endeavor. Tabletop gaming is, after all, about creativity. What can be more creative than weaving your own world whole cloth? To be blessed enough with the brain sweat and time to create stories and campaigns from scratch is a wonderful thing indeed. Sticking to the basics of the rules with which to run those stories has its charm, as well. I used to be a fan of crunchy, rules-heavy systems. As I get older, however, I find myself reaching for things like Swords & Wizardry, The Hero's Journey, and my good old Rules Cyclopedia when I think about what I'd do with a new campaign had I the time to run one. Sure, I would enjoy any version of D&D, and lots of games that aren't D&D. Pendragon, Earthdawn and ElfQuest come to mind. But there's a reason I love the OSR (Old School Renaissance/Revival, Original Source Rules, whatever) movement. Simplicity.
I ran a one-shot espionage game the other day using White Lies, an OSR game in that genre. The book is tiny, like many OSR products. We created a bunch of spies, played a great game, and didn't quibble over rules of any sort. It was fast, easy, and I made stuff up as I went. The story played out with a thin veneer or rules and no need for constant reference of tables, charts or complex systems. Through this kind of experience, I have a lot of respect for the back-to-the-70s rules mindset. That's not to say I don't wow when I see a nifty new-school mechanic. I totally do. And my shelves are full of such things. But in a space in my life where pick-up games are the rule rather than the exception, rules light and make it up as you go have a LOT of value.
So, there's nothing to apologize for in admitting you're a bit of a collection and rules minimalist and believe in writing your own material. Nothing wrong with that approach at all. While some of the rest of us accumulate ridiculous stacks of tomes and hoards of dice, it's possible to have amazing games without any of the excess accoutrements. I doubt I'll ever leave behind Mystara or Thunder Rift permanently, or that I'll perma-shelf any edition of D&D (no, not even 4th which would work GREAT as a Final Fantasy I type tabletop game) or any other setting. I'll probably keep Horror on the Hill and B1 and B2 handy for demos and introducing folks to the hobby. But I have the utmost respect for the DM who can run for literal decades with the original boxed set, chainmail, and some graph paper. There is nothing wrong with that approach, it's actually pretty damn admirable. And saves a lot of money and shelf space.