Thursday, April 30, 2009

From the Attic: Back in the Day...

My age group (born 1963 to 1968) was one of the last to have to deal with a world without computers in every home. Starting in middle school, I got to work on the old ways and the new way with computers. Typing homework on a typewriter and later the same day using a TRS-80 Model I to print out random tables on a dot matrix printer. Probably the main technology that was the same between now and then was the photocopier. When I went into Middle School after 1977, access to 25 cent per copy photocopiers was becoming widespread.

Some random thoughts on what it was like.

Your main source of information was the magazines, the coming soon back page of RPG Books, and the manufacturer's catalog. The only person you could pester was the owner of the game store.

Yellow legal pads were gold for your initial draft and notes. You were never far from quarter inch graph paper or 1/5 inch graph paper. A Ruler, protractor and a compass for drawing maps was just as mandatory for a DM as dice. Once you get your thoughts in order with the yellow note pad often times you tranfer it to a composition book. The stiff cardboard cover offered a good saving throw against a spilled coke ruining your notes.

Half inch graph paper made good regional maps. For me it was always a tossup between using 1/2 graph paper or hex paper.

TSR had a book of hex paper you could buy. It was a pain to use because it was staple bound but you got a lot. A couple of trick with that books. First you could remove the center pages and get a 17 by 11 sheet. You could cut that paper apart and use a photocopier to make mini-map templates. Also I carefully counted the hexes and trimmed the sheets to get an exact size. Then I drew larger hexes on that. It was designed so everything nested in each other similar to Judge's Guild Wilderness mapping system. I used that sheet on a photocopier to make more. I remember it took 10 tries and over 2 dollars in change to before I had a copy that was lined up with the paper.

Photocopies at 25 cents a copy were used only for the most critical items like character sheets, and chart from the DMG. Many DMs became a master at cutting and pasting their own chart. I even was able to do it for some maps.

For playing Star Fleet Battles using the Photocopier was nearly mandatory for copying energy allocation sheet and SSDs (System System Displays). At the local college the activity room became popular among the locals for gaming because of the big tables and the nearby coin operated photocopier. The tables had a interesting octagon shape that made setting up 8 players sessions easy. Of course if your character died, or you were wiped out of a scenario you could do downstairs to the small video arcade the college maintained.

Maps were strictly handdrawn, if you were lucky you had a set of drafting pens. Out of all the "old ways" this method continues to survive and even thrive in this day and age. While Graphic software is cheap and powerful there is still a learning curve that makes many say to "hell with the computer" and handdraw their maps.

A bit of sadness for me is that since 1995, when I began using the computer to draw with, my extensive collection of drafting equipment, coloring pencils and supplies have disappeared over the years. Lost due to various "spring cleanings" and accidents.

Milk Crates, especially the wooden ones, are perfect for storing game books in. I freaked out early my marriage when I found my Wife had taken half of my crates (two), and nailed them in as part of a shelving unit she made (I lost the argument). They are just that useful. They are also durable as proven when the door flew open once on my car and it hit pavement at 35 mph. It survived with only a slight dent on the metal bracket on the corner. Even held most of the books in it although one end was filled with papers in folders that flew everywhere.

You learned how to file everything proper. If you DM for any amount of time you found yourself with alot of notes and other papers. I remember when those hanging file folder boxes first appeared and promptly bought one for my D&D notes.

My nostalgia is really for the days of my youth not for the tool I used then. Most of it was a really big pain in the a** to use. And the lord help you if you had to fix a mistake. I embraced computer wholeheartedly from first TRS-80 Model I my older brother brought home to today. While I regret letting my drafting stuff scatter, having mastered the graphic software I am able to do a lot more for way cheaper than I could do back in the day.

One final tip, I found that I can do a lot better with my maps by hand drawing the basic terrain. Then you scan it in and put it on a layer of your graphics software. Lock the layer and make another one on top of it. Use your drawing tools to hand trace the terrain into your computer then add the remainder of your map which usually involve using fills.


Scott said...

I was born in 1971, so I had access to computers earlier in my life than you did, but I remember those days well.

My first experience with a home computer was my friend's crappy VIC-20 with tape drive that took literally about 20 minutes to load a very simple game. We nearly crapped our pants when Temple of Apshai came out.

I was pretty poor so I didn't have a home computer for quite a while, but I remember there was a TRS-80 in my Gifted class, and we'd vie for access so we could type in stuff as quickly as possible and print them out on green/white form-feed paper.

One of my best friends was a doctor's kid, and I'd spend weekends at his house just so I could play Proving Grounds on his Apple II, and screw around with various Beagle Bros. utilities.

My 8th grade Gifted teacher, Miss Metrinko, had a awesome, gonzo, Monty Haul "Singing Mountain" dungeon completely handwritten on legal paper in a manila folder. You have no idea how much I'd give for that now.

I finally got a home computer, but it was a pretty crappy Leading Edge PC clone, and all I had was a daisy wheel printer, so for much of my teens, I heard staccato typing sounds in my sleep. I used that PC for Proving Grounds (which I originally had to play with ASCII corridor rendering and no monster pics because I only had a green phosphor monitor), Bard's Tale once I got a color monitor, and printing out campaign notes divided into many individual files because of memory requirements.

There are many parts of the old process I don't really miss, but there was certainly a sense that one had to maximize creativity and intensity in working with extremely limited resources.

Scott said...

Oh, and the TRS-80 had literally no memory device -- when you turned it off, anything you'd keyed was gone FOREVER. :)

Jeff Rients said...

While Graphic software is cheap and powerful there is still a learning curve that makes many say to "hell with the computer" and handdraw their maps.I'm struggling with that right now.

Balrog62 said...

This really brought back memories. I have to agree, I miss the times and feelings more than the tools and troubles.

My original gaming group was born between 1960 & 1963. I distinctly remember all the time at the copier, making copies of charts and such. I didn't even touch a computer until 1979 when I took a Fortran programming class in college. I've still got a large file of old graph paper dungeons with yellow legal pad notes.

One thing we learned in grad school though...the energy allocation sheets and SSDs from Star Fleet battles could be copied, put between clear contact liner (for kitchen cabinets) with cardboard backing, and then you can use a grease pencil to make your marks. Easy to use and easy cleanup...and you don't have to keep making a gajillion copies of them.

Timeshadows said...

Moldvay in '82.

My friends had computers (Apple ][e, and later, Macs), so I had the envy, but I had nice electric typewriters with correction tape to write up my early RPGs and ubiquitous character sheets.

I too had some ridiculous Tandy computer at first, and played the tape-load chess game my system just qualified for with the expansion of 16 (for a total of 20) kilobytes of RAM. Even typed-up a Paladium FRPG character generation programme for each of the PC races we liked.

My first real computer was an Apple ][c, and I used that thing so much the OS finally crashed on me. I miss it.

My first PC was 1993.

I remember all the old gaming athemae, especially the graph paper...

Frank said...

In the 70s, our library had 10 cent copies. I copied all sorts of stuff (including something like 90% of my best friend's Chivalry & Sorcery book - easily spending more on copies than the cost of the book...).

In college one time there was the -15 cent copier. Copies were supposed to be 5 cents, but if you put a quarter in this one copier, 8 nickels would drop out as change. The first time it did that I thought, hmm, that sounds like too many clinks. Then we looked in the change hopper... We came away from a copying session with a couple fist fulls of nickels...

I didn't make a lot of use of computers for gaming until college, and then mostly using the mainframe, until my senior year when I took a Compaq (their first model, a luggable) to college to continue my summer job. They loaned me an Epson printer also. I had that computer all the way through grad school. During the first summer on the job, I started taking it home on the weekend, and using it for gaming at MIT for my Traveler campaign (one of the few times I've made use of a computer during a gaming session).

I tried doing maps on the computer for a while, but ended up abandoning it. I got Campaign Cartographer and then CC2. I got Corel Draw. I got Dundjini. But they always seemed more work. But then I mostly use canned settings, so my mapping needs are simpler.


Ragnald DuBrow said...

Any chance to use a copier for free was a gold mine.

I grew up with Atari and C-64s, but once I had access to MacDraw and a laser printer, I think about the third thing I did was start creating Car Wars vehicle record sheets.