What is “Old School” Play?
If you are interested in old school gaming, you may have read the Quick Primer for Old School Gaming by Matt Finch. It’s “a quick introduction to playing Original D&D or Swords & Wizardry (the 0e retro-clone). This booklet is designed for the modern-style gamer who’s planning on taking the old-style rules for a trial run — because open-ended rules like 0e are USED very differently than rules are used in modern systems.” While I think Matt’s guide is a good description of how old school play started when OD&D came out, I believe it gives a limited vision of old school play in general. Old School play branched out in a number of directions in the 1975-1979 era. Matt’s excellent primer really only covers the starting point. In this primer I want to describe the diversity of play in the 1970s.
If you haven’t read Matt’s Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, you really should. You can download a free pdf copy here: http://www.lulu.com/content/3019374 — while I think it is a bit limited in what it presents as old school play, it’s a fun and interesting that does a pretty good job of describing how D&D was generally played circa 1973 and 1974. This article assumes that you’ve read Matt’s Quick Primer.
What makes “Old School” Play Different?
Old school play is different from the way D&D is generally played now because some of the basic assumptions of how the game was played were very different then than they are now. Here are some major points where old school play is usually different. Of course, not all of these points apply to every old school game, but in general a large majority of them will apply to most old school games.
Heroic, not Superheroic: Old school play, especially at low to mid levels, is about fairly normal people put in situations where they can be heroes, not about extraordinary people doing things that would sometimes make a four-color comic book superhero proud – and at first level yet. Just like in the real world, the more a character improves his abilities, the harder it is to improve them further, while new characters may advance rapidly, the higher their level the more effort and time (and XP) it takes to advance to the next level.
Achievement, not Advancement. Many modern games are often all about what special feats, extra classes and special game mechanics the players wish to obtain for their characters as they increase in level. In old school games, a character’s abilities are generally predetermined by his character class, so old school games tend to focus on the things that the characters wish to accomplish in the game world rather than on what game mechanics they want to acquire. Level advancement is often much slower than in modern fantasy RPGs which makes in campaign achievements even more important as a measure of character success.
No Skills: Unlike in most modern RPGs, there aren’t any skills in many old school games. Instead players are intended to have their characters act like adventurers. So you don’t have to search your character sheet or the rules for the perfect solution in an old school game. Instead, you just tell the GM what your character is trying to do. Note that you are generally assumed to be competent with all common activities associated with your class and background. If you need to keep a door open or shut, you might tell the GM your character is using a spike to keep the door open or closed. A ten foot pole is your friend for checking for traps. Searching a room means looking in and under objects, not rolling a skill check. While this may seem strange at first, you will probably learn to appreciate the freedom it gives you. No longer are you limited to the skills and feats on your character sheet, you can try anything your character should be capable of trying. You might not succeed, but the rules generally will not stop you from trying.
Limited Magic Items: Modern fantasy RPGs often assume that magic items are easy to buy and/or to create. In most old school campaigns, magic items are relatively rare and hard to create. Generally, only potions and scrolls may be relatively easy to create or purchase. Other magic items are seldom found for sale (and are very high priced when they are found for sale) and are usually very expensive in money and time to try to create – often requiring rare ingredients that the characters must quest to find. Therefore characters in old school games are generally limited to the magic items they find in treasures or take from defeated enemies on adventures.
No Assumption of “Game Balance”: Old style game sessions aren’t about carefully balanced characters (who are all able to shine equally at all times) who only run into situations carefully designed by the GM to be beatable by the characters presently in the party and to provide treasure that fits their current level. Instead, part of player skill is learning to evaluate situations so situations well over the party’s current abilities or which will waste the party’s resources for little gain can be avoided. In an old school campaign, you generally cannot assume that you can beat every monster that you encounter, running away from monsters too tough to handle can mean the difference between character survival and character death. You can also get creative in how you defeat monsters. Perhaps those goblins you bypassed could be talked into (or tricked into) attacking that giant you know you can’t beat, perhaps killing it for you or at least softening it up so your party has a chance of defeating it and living to tell the tale. Also remember that treasure can be turned into XP in many old school games, even if you can’t kill the monsters, perhaps you can still acquire some of their treasure. Part of the skill of playing “old school” style is coming up with creative solutions when a direct attack is likely to fail.
It’s Not All About Combat: Many modern fantasy RPGs have made combat the star of the system, combats in these systems are time-consuming and very crunchy with rules for everything. The combat rules in many, if not most, old school games are designed to a fast-playing and are often relatively abstract. Combat isn’t intended to be the main source of fun in the game. Old school games are generally as much about exploration and treasuring finding as it is about combat. Sure, you are going to have to fight things to explore and find treasure, but always remember that combat may not be the best or safest way to handle every situation. Think before you rush into combat. After all, it’s not the only way to earn a good pile of experience – and monsters don’t have to be killed to be defeated (and get XP for them).
Reality/Common Sense Trumps Rules: Old-school games usually use loose (and often simple) rules that cover average cases and the GM and players are supposed to apply common sense and their knowledge of how reality works to cover the unusual and edge cases. “Reality/Common Sense” as interpreted by the GM always trumps the written rules if they conflict. For example, a character has a magic weapon and the rules for that weapon say it always causes its target to fall prone if hit. The character hits a gelatinous cube moving down the (typical 10 foot wide and 10 foot high) corridor toward them with the weapon. The rules say that the target should fall and be in a prone position. Reality, however, says otherwise. Gelatinous cubes don’t have a top and bottom (so prone penalties make no sense) and a 10 foot cube can’t fall when it is moving through a 10 foot corridor. In some modern games, the rules would be applied anyway and the cube would suffer the effects of falling prone no matter how little sense that makes. In an old school game, the GM ignores the rule because it makes no sense in the specific situation.
Forget “Rules Mastery”: As some of the above points have hinted, player skill in “old school” style games generally isn’t about mastering the game rules so you can solve any problem by knowing the right combination of rules from 5 or 10 different rule books. Old school games generally encourage the GM to make rulings on the spot taking into account specific circumstances instead of trying to hunt up special cases in large core rulebooks or a stack of optional rule books. This is faster and helps players immerse themselves in their character and the game world instead of in rule books. GM rulings will often be based on specific circumstances and common sense, not just on the written rules and prior rulings. Just because it requires a certain roll to jump one 10 foot pit does not mean all 10 foot wide pits will require the same roll. After all, all sorts of variables can affect the roll (terrain, weather, lighting, pressure to jump quickly, etc.). Players need to remember that rules in an old school campaign are merely a tool for the GM. They are just guidelines for the GM, not something written in stone that the GM must obey. If something in old school rules does not work right in a specific campaign (or the GM just does not like a rule), the GM is well within his right to change it. Old School games are obviously not the games of choice for rules lawyers or for those who believe that the game designer always knows what is best.
No Script Immunity: In most old school games, player characters do not have any form of script immunity. Player characters can die, lose equipment, suffer strange magical effects and other often unpleasant consequences if they are not careful or are just very unlucky. On the other hand, there are generally no rules limiting their success. If they take on an adult red dragon as first level characters and miraculously manage to win, there are no rules about level appropriate wealth or level appropriate magic items to interfere with their becoming rich and probably flush with magic items from the dragon’s hoard.
Not Mentioned does not mean Prohibited: Many people seem to read RPG rules and come away with the idea that anything not specifically mentioned in the rules as allowed is prohibited. While this really doesn’t make much sense given that no set of rules could ever cover everything that characters might attempt to do in an adventure, it seems to be a very common way to view RPG rules. In an old school game, this “not mentioned means prohibited” assumption is generally not true: the millions of possible activities not mentioned in the rules are not prohibited, they are up to the GM to allow or disallow based on his knowledge of how reality works and how his specific campaign world differs from reality. Unless the rules specifically prohibit some action, players in an old school game should ask their GM instead of simply assuming it is prohibited because the rules do not mention it. Even if the rules do clearly prohibit an action, the GM might allow it anyway in certain rare circumstances where it makes sense in the campaign world.
Styles of “Old School” Play
If you read some “old school” blogs, forums, and web sites, you might get the impression that there is only one “old school’” style of play: a style with expendable player characters who spend all their time in dungeons designed in the style of the old “Tomb of Horrors” module where an adventuring party is only one slipup away from death. This style of play is often shown in early modules.
What most people forget is that these early modules were designed for tournament play where the party that lasted longest and make it deepest into the dungeon was the winner. While a few gaming groups did run their regular campaigns like this and enjoy it, most people did not enjoy such games and the GMs who ran them were often referred to as “Killer GMs” (who often found themselves without players). Instead most home campaigns were a mixture of the following four styles – some campaigns stressing one or two styles over the others.
- Power-Gaming: Many players start out playing in this style. Most soon get bored with it and add more and more of other styles. A power-gaming campaign is all about character power. Characters are known by their class, level, special items, and amazing powers and deeds. (“I killed the Demon King with my 15th Level Fighter/Magic-User/Druid. It only took two hits from Thor’s Hammer to knock him out. Then I cut off his head with my vorpal blade.”) There is often a lot of player competition for the most powerful character in campaigns that stress power-gaming. A lot of people look down on this style, but it can be a lot of fun to play a pure power-game in a group of players who all like the style.
- Wargaming: This is probably the style old school rules were originally written for. The wargaming style of play is a competition between the player group and the GM. The GM sets up tactical battles, puzzles, and the like and the players solve them for treasure and experience. Fudging die rolls and ignoring rules (either for or against the players) is frowned upon as it detracts from the challenge and fun of the adventure.
Characters in pure wargaming campaigns often were expendable and had little personality or goals (beyond staying live and getting rich) as a character with such might be tempted to do things dysfunctional to survival. Published tournament dungeons like Tomb of Horrors could be considered examples of extreme forms of this style. Once the RPG hobby became known outside of the minis and board wargaming community, pure forms of the wargaming style quickly became uncommon. This is the style of play closest to what Matt Finch describes in his Quick Primer for Old School Gaming.
- Role-Playing: A pure role-playing campaign is almost the opposite of a pure wargaming campaign. Player skill, tactics, and rules aren’t really important. What is important is the player’s character and that character’s life in the game. In a pure role-playing campaign, players create the personality of their characters in great detail and players generally have a large emotional investments made in them and do not consider their characters expendable. Players tend to have their characters act within their personalities and within the beliefs they’re supposed to hold – even when doing so is not the best thing to do at the time within the game. The object is to live your character’s life in the campaign world. You “win” be having your character achieve his goals, goals which may or may not have anything to do with the game’s goals of exploring and accumulating treasure and experience points. The modern computer game The Sims is an example of this style of play.
- Story-Telling: While all campaigns tell a story after-the-fact (that is, you can tell a story based on the characters actions in the game), in a story-telling campaign, the GM has worked out a story in advance and the player characters are the protagonists. The campaign world usually has a detailed background and back story behind it. Knowing this background may be more important than knowing the rules. Some pure story telling campaigns are little more that single-line railroads where the characters play their almost pre-scripted parts in the story. In other cases, things are more free-form with story flow and events created by interactions between the GM’s basic outline of story events and the actions of individual characters during the campaign. Some people consider the more pure forms of story-telling campaigns boring straight-jackets while others love the idea of being a major part of a real story.
These four major styles of play appeared early in the history of role-playing games. They were first mentioned in a general circulation publication in Glenn Blacow’s article “Aspects of Adventure Gaming” in Different Worlds #10 (the October 1980 issue).
The important thing to take from this section isn’t the four styles or their labels (as there are other systems for describing this with their own labels), but the idea that there were many different styles of “old school” play back in the “old school” days – not just the single style stressed in some “old school” blogs, forums, and web sites. Don’t let those sites make you believe that you aren’t playing old school right if your campaign isn’t strongly in the wargaming camp. Most successful campaigns back in “old school” days were a mixture of all four major styles – and a heaping helping of minor styles.
[Note: This is an expanded and modified version of a post I made in July 2010: Another Old School Primer: A Different Introduction to Old School Play.This is also the 400th post on this blog.]