As a gamer that began playing during the hobby’s birth, I’ve had the opportunity to witness a massive shift in the way games are designed and played. In the early days of gaming, there was still a sense that we were essentially playing miniature-based scenarios, where backstory was only used in order to get the characters moving towards the next combat. Everyone knows the classic set-up: the characters are in an inn when they hear…
I don’t have a problem with that trope, but as a player, it wasn’t until 1980 that I first noticed a more engaging way to design adventures. I’m referring to TSR’s release of Slave Pits of the Undercity. On the surface, A1 was not much different than the published material that comes before it; in fact, it was originally designed to be used as a convention game with a backstory that was simple and matter-of-fact: slavers are taking people, go stop them! Yet, it was what David Cook did with that idea that gave me that “Aha!” moment.
He basically created a “mini-quest” for the players that could become a story in-and-of-itself. I’m sure it will sound silly to younger gamers who came to the hobby with an abundance of available resources, but in a real way we were still fighting blind in those days. Granted, there are plenty of old school, dungeon crawling elements throughout this series, but it was watching the way this adventure took shape, and the way it was designed to keep the players invested in battling for a heroic purpose that really made everything click.
I’ve literally been DMing ever since.