Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Old School Renaissance---love the spirit, love the energy, love the nostalgic good feelings---just not into the games themselves.

It's been about 6 months now since I started getting into the old school thing, which I guess means reading and contributing to blogs and boards related to the topic of older versions of D&D and their associated clones. I downloaded all the clones, read through them, and enjoyed the trip down memory lane as I also read through the older edition books I have. The lure of simpler rulesets and simpler times was a real draw. The idea of having more power in the DM's hands was also an attraction. Rulings, not rules baby! I used some of the ideas I learned in that time to develop the backbone and ideas of the Medieval Bard Rock Band Campaign, (click the dude with the lute in the top right to learn more). I even re-read Leiber, Howard, and other Swords and Sorcery era authors to get into the mood. We started the bard campaign, and I believe that my time swimming in the old school pool has influenced how I DM it in a positive way.

A few weeks ago, I finally convinced my group to give Swords and Wizardry a shot, as we were planning to tackle the Tomb of Horrors (we never played it, back in the day). I printed out multiple copies of the S&W books for the players, and we got together to go over the rules and plan for the game. We had a good time creating the characters. They kept saying things like "Holy crap I can turn demons!" and "My cleric has more HP than your fighting man", etc. It was really a fun trip down memory lane. I read through Tomb of Horrors, and was ready to go for the next week.

When next week came along, I kept finding myself thinking more about the bard campaign, and the other campaign we put off for the past few months as the other DM took a break. We ended up playing the bard campaign the next week, and back shelving the S&W session. I felt like I wined and dined a woman I wanted, then got her into the bedroom and realized I didn't want to have sex with her. It was weird.

For the longest time, I was a reluctant 3.x player. Until late 2006 I never played a 3.x game, and prior to that, the last time I played D&D was 2nd edition in 1999. I basically missed the whole 3.x era. Second Edition was my game of choice. It was simpler--3.x had way too many rules for me. We houseruled the hell out of the 3.0 game we play, so as to make it more like the older games. But still, we use skills, feats, detailed spell descriptions, classes and class abilities, and most other aspects of 3.0. For the bard campaign, we are even using aspects of Pathfinder Beta, and will likely incorporate some of the better elements of PF Final when it comes out.

I know that one of the best features of the older games is that they are very modifiable, easily added to. As I went through the mental checklist of what I would add to S&W to make it more like the game I would like to play, I realize that it would probably end up looking like the game we play now. Weird. But as I think about it, I realize that I have more of a grasp of the rules of 3.x now than when I began playing it. I am more comfortable with the game rules, and with the reasons behind those rules. And best of all, the players in the group don't hold me to all of them. I’m able to wing it, as long as everyone has a good time. I make up rules and rolls on the spot, and we all get a kick out of what happens. As long as no one feels I'm railroading them, or just being arbitrary and capricious at their character’s expense, it's all good.

We use the rules as guidelines, not maxims. They’re used if we need them, and don't act as a straightjacket. Certain things we eliminate completely, like ability score buff spells, DR, and magic items that give ability score bonuses, but most of the rest of the rules framework we use if needed. It's sort of like how we played AD&D. We hit the DM Guide when we needed to, but as long as the combat and treasure flowed, we were mostly fine.

Which brings me to another thought. There are really two aspects to the old school thing as far as I can tell---one is the rulesets, the other is the flavor of the campaign. A lot of people, including me, conflated Swords and Sorcery's grittiness as depicted by Leiber and Howard with the old school rules, since they were contemporaneous, and Gygax was influenced by them. I realize now that rules can be easily separated from campaign flavor. One doesn’t dictate the other. Old school rulesets aren't a necessary aspect of a Swords and Sorcery style game. The grittiness, morally neutral/selfish, darker mood from the S&S authors I like can easily fit a 3.x ruleset, as I am demonstrating to my own satisfaction (and that of my players) with the bard campaign.

The flavor of the campaign is really set by the players and the DM deciding what the character motivations are going to be, not necessarily the ruleset or what the ruleset rewards to level up. In the old days, GP for XP was king. That dictated a lot about how people played the game. Now, killing the toughest bad guys dictates how fast people level, under the 3.x rules. We are basically skipping any formal XP system altogether with the bards, and I am just leveling the characters as the campaign needs dictates. That way the players can have fun with their characters, and not be straightjacketed by having to do certain things to level.

I realize now that what I was really looking for out of the old school thing was more of an S&S campaign feel, and less of a need for old school game rulesets. I was tired of the heroic “save the world” stuff which the 2e era ushered in with Dragonlance and its progeny. I am now DM’ing a comedic S&S type game, if there’s such a thing. I guess it’s more of a Hackmaster type of game, (from what I’ve heard of it, because we never played Hackmaster either).

So while I love that the OSR is taking place, I don’t really feel myself a part of it. I love reading about what people are doing, though. Castle Zagyg Upper Works boxed set by Gygax/Troll Lord is featured prominently in the bard campaign, as will be Rob Kuntz’s original Castle Greyhawk levels when they come out. I’m also going to use a lot from WG13 as the characters hit lower levels of the dungeon. But the dungeon delving will only be a small part of it all, because at the same time I’m using a lot of modern gaming influences, rules, and elements like Green Ronin’s Pirates of Freeport as the main setting, with heavy social roleplay elements. It’s not all hack and slash anymore. Entire sessions go by without a sword being swung, and we’re all happy with that.

I don’t know what the future holds for the OSR. I don’t know what drives everyone else’s involvement with it. All I know is that my players and I are having fun playing a very odd game of D&D, and no matter what version of the game anyone else plays, I wish for them that they are all having as much fun as we are.