With all of my "real life" work I hadn't had the chance to do any gaming of note for over a year. Some readers know I was overseas for a good hunk of last year and this year, and when I got back I was too busy to prepare gaming sessions, much less find a new group.
My wife had never played table top RPGs before, but she does enjoy games like Diablo. She struck up a conversation about gaming with a colleague of ours and it turned out he is an enthusiastic player of D&D 3.5 and other games (and he only lives like two blocks away), so we set up a session for last Saturday. I ran Labyrinth Lord with some components from the not yet released Advanced Edition Companion.
The group consisted of my wife, our new friend, and his girlfriend. His girlfriend had never played RPGs either. My wife told me ahead of time that she would play out of pity for me because I hadn't been able to play for so long and we needed bodies in the chair, and that she didn't anticipate liking it very much. I think this is probably common for people with spouses or significant others who are not gamers. Gaming is, after all, a pretty weird and geeky thing. Guys sitting around pretending to be elves or whatever, rolling dice and getting all excited about things that aren't real.
When we started playing there was definitely some awkwardness. Partly because I'm a bit rusty but also partly because it is a new group, mostly people who had never played before and the one person who is experienced is experienced mostly with later editions of D&D (but did play 2e). I was too busy during the week to create something new so I used The Tomb of Sigyfel.
My wife did make some attempts to roleplay her characters (they were each using two 1st level characters, because with the new group I anticipated deaths in the party) but I could tell she was feeling self conscious. Once the group got into the tomb though, there was an interesting shift in tension.
Suddenly the game became more accessible to the new players, I think. They were exploring the tomb slowly, methodically, checking for traps at every step. My wife independently reinvented the use of the 10' pole as she had her character use it to prod every step of the place (she is a natural, apparently!). She would throw torches into dark rooms before entering to see what was there. I was watching the birth and emergence of old-school play again before my very eyes. When they encountered some skeletons they made short work of them and I think it was at that point she was hooked.
We played fairly late, and when I got up the next morning my wife announced that she wanted to go to the hobby store to pick up some paints and other supplies to paint the miniatures I've had sitting around in a box for years (I didn't have any miniatures out so we used dice the night before). So it looks like I've created a monster! Not only did she unexpectedly enjoy herself, but now she wants to get into painting minis and wants to play again ASAP. It looks like she's started down the path of becoming a gamer girl.
I bet it's been 20 years since I played with people who were new to RPGs. That being the case it has been a long time since I actually tried to teach someone completely new to RPGs how to play, and it made me realize a few things. A lot of gamers talk about how "basic" D&D is, well, basic. It is actually about the same as the original three booklets of D&D from 1974, but since it was repackaged and sold as a "kids game" in the 80s it has the unshakable perception of being simplistic. What I realized as I was explaining how to play, what the numbers mean, etc. is that this is not a "basic" game. It can only be viewed as basic to people who have a frame of reference to more complex RPGs, but to people new to these games even a simpler game like Labyrinth Lord can be complex. I've never met or heard from anyone who started playing with the basic boxed set as a kid, any version, who actually read and understood the rules and played "correctly."
I'd never played with someone who is more into 3.5, either, which was interesting. He did just fine, but he commented that my play style is very different than his. I think what he meant is that he is used to more "story driven" play, with characters that have elaborate backgrounds, etc. This kind of play is not alien to me, because I've played that way before too. I was really into Vampire in the 90s, and even some of our early D&D games were played with more "story" type elements, I suppose. This session made me realize how I have come full circle in my play style. I enjoy the roleplaying aspect of early D&D, but not at the expense of "the game" if that makes sense. In my experience, games that are focused on "the story" value the immersion into character and plot more than "the game." As an example, in a story-based game I think people are much more likely to ignore dice results if they prefer a different outcome to a situation. There is a lot invested in characters in terms of development, so character death is not something that comes easily. It is less of a "threat" in the game. I prefer for a story, for lack of a better term, to emerge through play and the result of character choices, dice results, etc. The story is what happens when playing the game, the "game" is not just a smaller component of telling the story. If that makes sense.
In the end fun was had by all, and I know my wife is hooked. I also managed (I think) to remind a player of more recent games of how the game "used to be played" and it seems to me there is still something desirable in that style of play. When I went to the hobby shop for paints and brushes last Sunday I had a long conversation with one of the guys working there. He is probably about my age and played a lot of AD&D 1e back in the day, but his current group played 3.5 and switched to Pathfinder when 4e came out. We were discussing AD&D and he said he'd like to play it again if he hadn't gotten rid of all his books years ago. This got me thinking that despite how D&D has changed in tone, mechanics, and game play in more recent editions, many people look fondly on the old editions. They were just good fun. This is a testament I think not just to the idea that game "evolution" is mostly cultural, but it is also evidence that the more recent versions are not the same game. They may be good in their own right, they just don't deliver the same experience.
That's why I think that when we introduce people to the older editions or talk to people who no longer play the older editions, the best way to approach it is simply from the angle of them being different games. We should break away from the false dichotomy of new vs. old. You don't have to play only an older edition or only a newer edition any more than someone would choose to only play one RPG and never any others. The older editions are simply different, both mechanically and aesthetically. I think if approached in that way there is room for both new and old versions alike at peoples' game table.