Most Old School Role-Playing Game/Renaissance/Revival players started in the hobby the way most anyone is introduced to something new: by word of mouth. In the early years of the role-playing game hobby (while Dungeons & Dragons was still categorized as a “wargame”), college kids and wargame aficionados tried out the new game created by Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax. These plucky guinea pigs took to the game with the same aplomb that they and their forebears did when the game, Chainmail, appeared not long before (in 1970). Chainmail’s fantasy appendix was the first time a game was published in which a player could be in control of troops -- even single characters -- with magical powers. It was mostly through word-of-mouth that other players were taught the game or told about it.
During the current “era” of the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons (again the world’s most popular role-playing game), there have been questions on how to make the OSR portion of the hobby grow. The “OSR portion” is that segment of the hobby that prefers to play their fantasy role-playing games akin to D&D in its 1974-1991 published forms and/or Advanced D&D in its 1977-1985 published forms. I have often wondered why this is such a difficult puzzle to solve, when the hobby has created some of the brightest and most sensible problem-solvers, creative types, and inventors the world has seen.
Like a rock band going back to “its roots” and playing music the way they did years before, perhaps the OSR needs a Rick Rubin-type of producer to tell it to look at its own origins because the human touch of the hobby is the same as ever. People like sharing hobbies with one another. People like engaging in said hobbies with other people. The Internet may have given us all a “player screen” we all like to hide or obfuscate behind, but the desire for some kind of play or collecting hobby exists in many of us. Now that sites and tools like Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds exist -- allowing people from all over the world to come together to play RPGs, many hindrances that keep players apart have been removed since one does not even need to leave the house to join in a virtual tabletop role-playing game. (I do admit, as I sometimes struggle with it, that anxiety is an issue many folks have that can keep them from engaging in the hobby.)
Rewinding my own calendar, I can report that my third-grade classmate, Kellen, came to school with handwritten notes based upon her dad’s original (1974) D&D books at home. She talked classmates into creating player characters, one classmate a day (the original “session zero,” because recess time is limited). Then she began assembling the classmates together for the first game session. For me, I would have been 7 (if it was within the first 3 weeks of September) or 8. I was not invited to play for a couple days, because Kellen was slowly creating characters for other folks so that she could have a party that contained a variety of races and classes. Eventually, we all had characters made up and my fighter, Thor, was born. Well… he was made anyway -- full-grown and with an axe. I don’t remember much of the gameplay other than it was a lot of fun cooperating with classmates as Kellen the Dungeon Master led us through her homemade castle and dungeons.
Soon, I began telling my younger brother about the game and he wanted to play, too. I did not have a way for him to do that since we were two grades apart and did not share recess time. So, we asked our parents for a copy of the game. The game was unknown to them, but our uncle played it with an older cousin of ours. Uncle Mark told my parents -- board game aficionados that they are -- to buy the Dungeon! board game first. If they had no issues with Dungeon!, he said, then they would have no issues with D&D.
Within a week, I think, Dad came home with Dungeon! from either Kiddie City or Woolworth’s. We loved playing it, but knew it wasn’t exactly what we wanted to play. About two weeks after that, Mom and Dad were to be going on a skiing trip with friends. My brother and I were to stay at our grandmother’s house for the duration. Dad took me to Woolworth’s to point out the game to him, since I was older and was to be “The Dungeon Master.” Another friend of ours had the Basic book from the 1981 box set, the edition edited by Tom Moldvay, so I knew to look for the awe-inspiring Erol Otus art. I saw the pinkish box with the great art on its cover and pointed it to dad. Holding that on the way home was a highlight, for sure. I can still remember the sense of wonder as I read the back of the box, waiting to open it at home. That sense is what I (and if I have the correct pulse of the OSR, many of my fellow OSR players) try to recapture when we play. The sense of wonder -- which Luke Gygax succinctly described in an episode of “GM Tips with Satine Phoenix” back in October of 2017 -- is enticing and can keep a mission, an entire session, and even a long-term campaign going indefinitely.
So, how were you introduced to this wonderful hobby of tabletop RPGs? Was it, like me, when a classmate brought her notes to school? How do you think new players can learn about the game? Do you think, as I do, that word-of-mouth has no comparison because advertising and seeing a box online or in a store just cannot compete with a friend, peer, or family member showing off or talking about a game?