Monday, July 27, 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.


  1. I believe the appeal of OSR games is kind of the same appeal there is for old-school videogames. Yes, today's videogames on the PS3 and Xbox360 and Wii are filled with complex storylines, complex control schemes, and colorful graphics and sounds. But sometimes a gamer wants something basic and simple that has just as much fun without so much flash and bother. So they break out the Colecovision or Atari or NES or Pong. Just as much fun, but a lot simpler to pick up and play. No battlemats. No skill trees. I think a similar drive is going on with OSR.

  2. I don't think that's entirely it...from where I sit a lot of the appeal of the older game is that even where they aren't simpler (there's nothing light-weight or streamlined about OSRIC and AD&D compared to modern game systems like FATE, PDQ, or Savage Worlds), they're much easier to "hack." When the design principle behind them is a sub-system for everything, and everything is a sub-system it's easy and inviting to pull out the bits you don't want and replace them with something more to your taste; when the system is built around a single unifying mechanic or appeals strongly to "this is all carefully balanced" even small alterations can appear to lead to large unintended consequences.

  3. The tinkering factor of older systems can't be ignored. Me, I love old stuff, I love new stuff. I find that a lot of the supplemental OSR material is just tremendous for inspiration (Fight On!).

  4. Yeah - the experience of sitting down at the table and playing trumps the ruleset, the edition, etc. It is the tone of play that's the important part, not an ideological imperative for older rulesets, etc. The bard gaming looks like a total blast!

  5. It is pretty fun. Maybe tonight I will sit down and type up, short story style, what happened so far. Some pretty good times. :)

  6. Hi Joe,

    What a great post. It sums up how I feel about the OSR thing, too. It's odd because before I came to the Bloggers network, I always thought of myself as an 'old school' D&Der, because I always felt that 'old school' was a style and flavour of play and setting and in my head I never tied these things to a ruleset.

    Then I show up around here and there are all these folks, some of who have been playing for less years than me, saying that you're not old school if you play anything later than 1e or a retroclone.

    Actually, I kind of understand the desire to crystallise the concept of 'old school' around rulesets. It's a characteristic of human thinking that we like to compartmentalise things into neat little boxes, and rulesets delineate the boundaries of those boxes more clearly than something nebulous like styles of play.

    On the 'tinkering' thing: 3.X can be tinkered with, too. I've been doing a fair bit of tinkering with it myself recently, mainly on the social mechanics side of things - something woefully under-addressed in the published rules. I've also injected a bit of 1st-edition flavour into magic item creation, requiring that crafters seek out hard-to-find components rather than just spending the dough and xp and mechanically churning out the desired item. With provision for 'quirks' to creep into items, too...

    I'm also planning on introducing an updated and expanded potion miscibility table similar to that used in 1e.

    Nice to see my 3.X Resurgent Logo getting an airing, btw! ;-)

  7. I agree with the pickle. I've been playing D&D since its inception and when some snotty 20 year old kid tells me I'm not "old school" because I play 4e instead of some d20 OD&D knock-off, I just have to chuckle.

    That's one side of it. The other side of it is the creative minds that are moving the OSR and producing some really great, completely mine-able work that has a great spirit and edge to it. That aspect I love and I love the presence the OSR has in the RPG blogosphere.

    I did spring an 'Original G' night on my players a while back. They showed up for the game, I had out my original Red Box dice set, those weird pale blue pointy bastards, and I told them to set down and roll 3d6 in order and we took off on a fun trip down memory lane. Much fun was had by all.

  8. I am not in it for the nostalgia (although that is a bit nice), but rather for the simplicity. Yet, bear in mind that I also like Savage Worlds and I am looking into the new Pathfinder rpg.

    With a game like Labyrinth Lord I really like the ability to be able to throw a game together in minutes, which to me is the major appeal. The system is easy to teach, run and work with. While the Pathfinder book looks beautiful, the mega-statblocks are daunting and always slow down the game.


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