Friday, April 10, 2009

Thoughts on the Old School movement

I’ve been getting into OD&D lately. By that I mean reading the older rule sets, as well as the new “clone” rules—OSRIC, Swords and Wizardry, etc. I’ve also been spending a lot of time reading old school- oriented forums and blogs. I think I’ve caught the flavor of what it means to run an old school style campaign.

My old school immersion begins as our 3.0 campaign comes to an end, and a new campaign is about to commence—a campaign which is going to have a swords and sorcery feel. Meaning, no heroic quests for the greater good, and no save the world crap. Just a bunch of bards in a band who want to kick ass, get rich, and get laid, not necessarily in that order. I thought to myself, finally I can get into the style of game I’ve wanted to do for 10 years. Since it was more old school in feel, and I’m DM’ing, I decided to go back to the game’s roots, pre-second-edition, and see what I could use as inspiration to help me re-create that feel, even though we are using Pathfinder rules (another story, not for this thread).

By way of brief background, I began playing D&D in 1984 at age 14 with the red Basic boxed set. We moved to AD&D soon after. The people I first played with, and learned from, had as their model the slaughter and plunder players vs. the killer DM. So of course, not knowing anything else, that’s the style I played with my group. I didn’t know any other way. We never did the OD&D game, nor had the old school feel in our games. We were rules based, and I became a stellar rules lawyer player. (Funny how now I’m a lawyer in RL.)

Most of the books I read back then were like Dragonlance or Ray Feist’s books, which are basically D&D stories novelized. I never read the older Swords and Sorcery style books which inspired Gygax until much later in life. Vance, Leiber, Moorcock, Howard were authors whose books I grew to love in my late 20’s and early 30’s. I credit D&D for getting me to read more history, and some military history, especially biographies, but I was never into military wargames.

I don’t think there is any way I could have done OD&D back in 1984, or even 1994. I doubt I could have done it in 2000, at age 30. I didn’t have the depth and breadth of knowledge, skill, and experience in life that would have made it anything other than a confused hack-and-slash mess. The players would have hated me. Much like my AD&D games were like at age 14-18.

Now, as I approach the older style of game as an adult, almost 40 years old, I know I can handle the looser rules, and be sharper on my feet. What I make up on the fly would be consistent, have a real historical background, would be interesting, and would be a game which gave the players lots of challenges and fun, without railroading them into a certain story which I wanted to tell.

I just finished reading an article which Gygax wrote in Dragon #26 which made me think about OD&D and AD&D, as well as the history of the game and my playing of it, in a whole different way. In it, Gygax talks in depth about the history of the game, where it came from, and where it was headed with AD&D. He says:

“Where D&D is a very loose, open framework
around which highly imaginative Dungeon Masters can construct what
amounts to a set of rules and game of their own choosing, AD&D is a
much tighter and more structured game system. The target audience to
which we thought D&D would appeal was principally the same as that of
historical wargames in general and military miniatures in particular.
D&D was hurriedly compiled, assuming that readers would be familiar
with medieval and ancient history, wargaming, military miniatures, etc.
It was aimed at males. Within a few months it became apparent to us that
our basic assumptions might be a bit off target. In another year it became
abundantly clear to us that we were so far off as to be laughable.”

He later says:

“Because D&D allowed such freedom, because the work itself said
so, because the initial batch of DMs were so imaginative and creative,
because the rules were incomplete, vague and often ambiguous, D&D
has turned into a non-game. That is, there is so much variation between
the way the game is played from region to region, state to state, area to
area, and even from group to group within a metropolitan district, there
is no continuity and little agreement as to just what the game is and how
best to play it. Without destroying the imagination and individual creati-
vity which go into a campaign, AD&D rectifies the shortcomings of
D&D. There are few grey areas in AD&D, and there will be no question
in the mind of participants as to what the game is and is all about. There
is form and structure to AD&D, and any variation of these integral
portions of the game will obviously make it something else. The work
addresses itself to a broad audience of hundreds of thousands of
people—wargamers, game hobbyists, science fiction and fantasy fans,
those who have never read fantasy fiction or played strategy games,
young and old, male and female.”

He then goes on to talk about the advantages of a clear and consistent ruleset, mostly stressing portability of characters, items and rules assumptions from one game to another, as well as the benefits for tournaments and organized play.

This further solidifies my opinion that I could never have played OD&D as it was meant to be played until now. Only now, at age 38, do I attempt it with any confidence of success. That confidence comes from having played D&D for the past 25 years, with all the various rulesets, and after having read widely on many subjects related to D&D, and many not related in the slightest. Most importantly, I think I have a certain amount of life’s experiences under my belt to be able to DM an old school campaign that will actually be enjoyable for adult players. Something with life, with realism, and with depth, which I could never have done at age 14.

I think OD&D for a 14 yr. old will eventually always turn into hack and slash. It has to. It’s a rare kid who has the knowledge ad experience to make it anything but. The natural outcome of that is more rules, welcomed by players to protect themselves against killer dm’s. I believe the more heavily ruled the system is, the less trust the players have in the DM. And I think that was rightly so back then, due to most DMs’ and players’ age, experience, knowledge, and level of depth they could bring to bear on their creative efforts back then. Likewise, since there weren’t many people with the background and depth of experience which those early older wargamer DM’s had, those whom Gygax was praising above, it was hard to make OD&D work for the masses, being mostly a young person’s game. Hence, AD&D’s rules and the evolution of a rules-heavy game all the way through to Pathfinder.

I don’t play 4e, don’t know much about it other than what I gleaned from these boards, and a quick reading of the books, so I feel I have no right to apply any of my comments to that game system. However, from what I’ve heard, 4e puts more power/control back into the hands of the DM. I think this appeals to veteran players because we’re all maturing. There is a certain amount of respect and trust that gamers have for each other when we’ve been playing for 25 years, that just wasn’t present when we began the hobby. It’s part of the same evolution which brought me to a point of playing a houseruled Pathfinder with as much of an OD&D feel as possible.

Plus, we're all older now, many of us have spouses and families, and bigger issues to worry about than who we can screw over or beat in a D&D game. Aftr a long week, I for one just want to kick back, drink beer, roll dice, and have a good time. I don't have the time to invest reading D&D books be a rules lawyer anymore. I'm too busy being one in real life.

Without getting all zen-like, I am really amazed that the evolution of my gaming experience has put me back at the beginning, where it all started. A place I could never have been when I began. I had a teacher who used to tell us “Never let school get in the way of your education.” Applying that to D&D, “Never let the rules get in the way of having fun playing D&D.” That to me is a key part of the essence of the old school feel. That’s what I am going to strive for in the new campaign.

EDIT: There's an old school smell in the air these days, isn't there? With Monte Cook doing his mega dungeon thing, with Erik Mona doing Planet Stories, with the growing membership in old school boards and the popularity of sites like Grognardia, it seems there's something going on. I think the edition change gave many an opportunity to look up, look around, and decide what sort of game they were really looking for. And play it.

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