What Old School Means to Me

There’s been a lot of thought and discussion in recent years about the Old School style of game play. For me, this is best embodied by 1st and 2nd edition Dungeons and Dragons. I’m a huge fan of the Old School style of play, but I love the mechanics of 3rd edition and Pathfinder.

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)

 

In designing Gloamhold, my aim is to marry an Old School style game to the newer (better) mechanics of Pathfinder. To do that, though, I have to first decide exactly what I mean by “Old School.” For me, Old School isn’t necessarily tied to one set of rules or another – the play experience is the thing!

So what do I mean by Old School?

Game Play

  • Show, Don’t Tell: With the advent of more mechanic-heavy games, most things can be resolved with a die roll. This in turn seems to inevitably reduce the amount of description players put into their PC’s actions. For example, “I search for traps” or “I use Bluff on the ogre”. In Old School style games, the lack of a skills system forces the players to describe exactly how their PCs are searching for traps, gathering information, hiring a henchman and so on. This style of game play is slower, but more immersive.
  • Manage Resources: Resource management has fallen out of favour recently. Apparently, it’s “un-fun.” I disagree. Tracking your expediture of spells, arrows, iron spikes or whatever is an intrinsic part of the game. Clever or inventive resource management can reward the party ten-fold and provide crucial in-game advantages. It’s a great feeling to have exactly the right piece of equipment for any given situation and coming up with inventive uses for such items is its own reward.
  • Large Parties: Old School play normally features large parties of adventurers. Pathfinder’s CR system is designed for 4 or 5 PCs with few if any henchmen or hirelings. Back in the good old days, my parties normally had about 8 players; I remember running one game for 14 players! Obviously, larger parties can handle greater challenges than smaller groups. This can translate into longer delves in larger, more rambling dungeons or simply dealing with more enemies in each encounter area.
  • Someone’s Mapping, and it’s Not the GM: Exploration was a key part of Old School play, and a good map could mean the difference between success and failure. In later editions of the game, the GM is the one doing the mapping, but in Old School play the GM merely describes what the PCs see and one of the players has to actually draw the map!
  • Use Your Brains, Not a Skill Roll: This relates to “Show, Don’t Tell” above. When you can’t merely make a skill check to solve a problem, disarm a trap or even search for treasure you are forced to use your brain to come up with inventive solutions to problems. Players get rewarded for clever play, instead of merely rolling high.
  • There Might Not Be A Battle Mat: Most of my Old School games featured battle mats – but many other GMs I played with simply described the combat and we had to use our imagination to visualise the scene. Of course, combat in 3rd edition and Pathfinder are much more tactical and your figure’s exact position matters.

Game & World Design

  • Game Balance: To a certain extent, later editions of the game emphasise game balance, in that most if not all encounters are fair and level appropriate for the PCs. This means, if a group of 1st-level PCs opens a door they aren’t going to encounter an ancient red dragon on the other side. In Old School, play the same group of PCs very well might encounter that self-same red dragon if they ignore the warning signs and/or do something colossally stupid. (This is an extreme example). In Gloamhold, the PCs will occasionally have to deal with CR +5 (or higher) encounters, but these will be clearly “signposted.”
  • Magic Items: In the good old days, magic items were truly wondrous objects coveted by all adventurers. Ironically, in later editions of the game they were renamed wondrous items, but became anything but wondrous as PCs were free to buy and sell them pretty much as they chose. This reduced magic items to little more than a commodity and gave rise to the much reviled magic item shop (which I hate with the burning passion of a thousand fiery suns).
  • Gritty vs. (Super) Heroic: In newer editions of the game, even at 1st-level, the PCs are  well able to do accomplish heroic feats well beyond the reach of a normal person. This is not the case in Old School gaming where 1st-level characters are only margially more effective than a typical man-at-arms. Even at higher levels, Old School PCs are not god-like figures able to bend reality or crush even the most terrifiying foes.
  • Fairness, not Balance: We’ve become increasingly obsessed with balance in recent editions of the game. I’m becoming more and more convinced that balance isn’t all its cracked up to be. It creates a more predictable — perhaps even sterile — play experience which is fine as far as it goes. However, when things become too predictable, neither the GM or the players are rarely surprised by events. That’s a little sad, for me.

And Just One More Thing…

The rules in Old School games are often much lighter and play is quicker than later editions. For me, I like the rich depth and complexity of systems such as 3.5 and Pathfinder. I like the customisability of players’ characters (and their enemies) and the tactical options available for combat. I don’t necessarily see this as incompatible with an Old School style of play – it’s just a challenge to marry the two!

What Does “Old School” Mean to You?

What do you think of when you think of Old School play? Did I miss something or am I wildly off base? Should I be locked up? Let me know what you think in the comments below and help me build an awesome play experience for Gloamhold.

Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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41 thoughts on “What Old School Means to Me

  1. Two things I’ve noticed different between Old School and Pathfinder games.

    1) In Old School there is stuff that’s unexplained, and therefore no rules to describe how to recreate it. Pathfinder creates rules so there are no mysteries. For example, a Pathfinder magical item will have the “recipe” required to recreate it. This makes the DM/GM more like “just another player.” Indeed, Pathfinder removed the necessity of a player’s book by publishing all the material in one book.

    2) A player’s “role” is fluid. Old School: Deal with it, or hire the job out. If you showed up late for character creation and the group needed a wizard, you’ll be playing a wizard. Pathfinder: Don’t have a thief? Just dip a level or two. This creates a nice revenue stream for companies to publish more books as new classes/feats/options are created for players as well as GMs. (I came across a thread on the Paizo forums where a good number of users stated they wouldn’t play in a game that only allowed the Core rules.

    Both have the effect of swinging the balance of power away from the GM and towards the players. This is good if you have a bad GM, but is bad if you have bad players.

    The customization of the game can be great, and things like templates let me create monsters I might not otherwise think of (Fungal Dragon!). Having a coherent framework with which to modify the world is awesome. But the aforementioned bad players can run roughshod over a weak or ill-prepared GM.

    • I agree with the sentiment but not the specifics you listed.
      PF didn’t reward dipping. That was more of a 3.x thing. In PF a player got greater rewards for staying in one class. Anyway if the players are “dipping” then that is a GM problem for allowing it to happen without a good in-game reason. But just like you and I can change careers, there should be allowances for PCs to be able to change gears in their life and do something else, so changing classes wasn’t bad in of itself. On the opposite end, forcing players into having to play certain roles because traffic or work made them late instead letting them play the character they want is another example of bad GMing. If I hate playing clerics, I shouldn’t feel compelled to be one just because that “role” wasn’t filled in the party. Player roles suck and come from a wargaming mentality. So either instance you mention is a bad situation.
      Part of the reason rules explaining everything were created was because of many players complaining about Viking Hat DMs who were out to get the players and took joy in tearing up as many character sheets as they could. I played in some of those horrid games. The DM would change a rule mid-game to gimp the players so they would die and then say “my way or the highway.” So many ugly arguments at tables from that. So many.
      I personally liked having everything in one book instead of multiple books. It encouraged more people to try running games instead of one person who happens to own the DM guide book. Most of the people who buy the extra rules splat books are completionist collectors. I knew very few people who used many of them in actual play. That was true in most every edition from 2nd on up.
      Most all the problems you mention can be resolved with the simple concept of having respect for the DM, players, and the game itself. Respect instead of treating it like a competition with the DM against the players and there is a way to “win” the game. Again that mentality comes from wargaming which is very much tied to old and new school mentalities.

      • We’ve got at thread going on over at the Paizo boards, looking at Gary Gygax’ book, ‘Role Playing Mastery.’ He specifically talks about DMs that are ‘out to get the players’ (and vice versa, players against the GM because they think he’s against them). And Gygax condemns both sides:

        “Players and GMs alike, take heed: Despite misguided perceptions
        to the contrary, the game master is not the enemy of the
        player characters! At least, he shouldn’t be. Those unenlightened
        or unscrupulous would-be GMs who take this stance of hostility
        toward PCs (or worse yet, toward players) won’t be around long
        anyway, for their players will desert them in short order.

        Who then opposes the players’ game personas? The GM does indeed have
        the duty of effecting opposition and posing problems-but not on
        a person-versus-person or person-versus-character basis. He does
        this by playing the parts of the various beings who are adversarial
        to the PCs engaged in the challenge posed by the session-on a
        character-versus-character basis, to distinguish it from the other
        forms of interaction just named.

        In addition to being the architect of the world in which the PCs’ adventures take place, the game master is also the representative of all the opposing creatures, forces, and phenomena that strive to keep the PCs from achieving their desired ends. This opposition must be personified in such a way as to present the maximum challenge for PCs and their players while not being so overwhelmingly powerful that any PC
        who dares to resist or combat the opposition is smeared flat when
        he makes his first move.

        This approach is valid and important even in the first stages of campaign creation; for instance, a GM who designs a world where the environment itself is fraught with naturally existing perils is asking for trouble. The point is to challenge the PCs, not kill them outright. The game tells what the nature of challenges”

      • As a person who had back in the day complained bitterly about madcap GM’s how to get the players, I would say that the modern modules are the perfect example of that phenomenon.

  2. At the risk of sounding like a grumpy-old man, Old School – for me – means a simpler time where I felt comfortable adjusting encounters on the fly without worrying about whether I had created a too-easy or too-hard encounter. It means that PC abilities were roughly a known quantity, which made that on-the-fly adjustment easier to manage. If I felt, for example, that Lolth had too few HP in Q1, I could easily adjust it without worrying about whether that changed her CR (or whatever back then). I could give huge red dragons d12 for HD, instead of d8, and feel comfortable with tweaking that as necessary.

    The problem today is one of toxic option shock. There are so many possible combinations of powers, classes, feats, skills, spells, and abilities that it’s literally impossible to craft an adventure for a ‘typical’ party past a certain point. There are no more fighters or thieves or wizards or clerics. Instead, there are ranger/rogue/monk/divine oracles/monastic ravagers who specialize in getting out of grapples by creatures who’s last name ends in a vowel.

    Old School means that I, as a DM, had the tools to dynamically adjust an encounter. If I wanted to give an ogre mage a special lightning bolt that did fire damage no save, I could do it. If I wanted to have Orcus drop spells that required non-magical saves (essentially saves that ignored your magical bonuses to saving throws) – no problem. Now, I have to worry about whether giving a creature a feat changes its CR or if extra HD result in a size change that, in turn, results in extra feats or powers. And I have to have a mastery of each and every rule out there because I know that at least one player at a table will know that obscure rule front and back to their advantage (or at least be able to present an argument for their side in the most favorable light). New School has resulted in the proliferation of rules lawyers like ambulance chasers looking for the next questionable rules call to argue over.

    The sad thing is that I really like the changes for 3E/Pathfinder. I love the d20 mechanic. I love how multiclassing is handled (at least conceptually). But the open-ended nature means that these things which work well in moderation (like multi-classing or feats) because unwieldy monstrosities in excess. And moderation is not something that the current generation of gamers is known for.

  3. I’m in a funny position to “old school”. I grew up with the second edition books but never played until 3.0 in college. For me the older books just seem richer. They take the time to build a world not just a situation. As a DM I would read and convert an old module and feel completely prepared for anything the party did. The newer modules make me feel like I need to push the party to hit certain points rather than free-play. I like a blended approach as well.

  4. You have perfectly captured the spirit of “old school”. Very well done. I started with TSR in the late ’70s and I know Gary and his bunch would agree with your thoughts on this topic.
    James M. Ward

  5. Overall, pretty good coverage of old school gaming.

    I agree that there’s something of an issue with the commodification of magic items. Especially in 3.x/Pathfinder, there’s an assumption that a “balanced” character at level X will have Y gold pieces in equipment, typically with a weapon or armor of +Z enhancement.

    There’s probably at least one blog post in here about restoring the old school specialness to magic item acquisition while keeping up with Pathfinder advancement expectations. Get rid of magic shops, requiring all magic items to be acquired by treasure finding, quest rewards and whatever the PCs take the feats and time to craft.

    The main difficulty is coming up with mechanisms for PCs to trade in unwanted or “outgrown” magic items. In old school play, players usually had a cadre of henchmen and hirelings to pass such items down to. Maybe allow some sort of MMO-style “disenchanting” so that the magical materials and whatnot can be turned into something a magic user can use for further enchanting.

  6. I’ve not played any Pathfinder or any other rules system beyond 3.0. I believe that the “original” way of tabletop gaming as it was introduced to me in the early ’80s is still the best. I enjoyed some of the new thoughts when 3rd edition came along, but the constant flow of new rules doesn’t improve a game – I think it worsens the overall appeal. How could a new gamer ever hope to have a “complete set” of the rules these days? It seems to me that WoTC has run out of options; all it has to go with is a change-the-rules-again-so-we-can-make-more-books-to-sell mindset.

    Old School to me is simple: it’s about role-playing, not roll playing. Role-Playing is acting, and your character is your script. The DM is your director and the narrator of your story. The rest is all improv. Who needs a 1,000 different rules to govern what is fair or balanced? You don’t know that already? If you need a rule to consult to figure out balance, you shouldn’t be playing a rule-based mechanical system to govern your gaming experience. (My advice in that situation: play with an experienced group to see how it’s supposed to be done.)

    I think a lot of gamers today have lost sight of where their roots are. We gamed with little more than a pencil, some loose leaf paper, and of course the strangely shaped dice. We laughed at our own actions and sweated bullets when the crap storm hit. That’s the joy of gaming right there: it’s a group activity that captivates us entirely. It’s cooperative story-telling at its finest. You don’t need much else. So why all the fascination with rules? As we have increased our playing experience rule-wise, I see more players interested in what characters can do – rather than what who or what the character is.

    I like giving players options when making characters, but I think it should also be limited. If you come to my table with a character that can basically do everything, then I can show you the door. Character limitations breed cooperation among players and THAT is old school to me.

  7. Having started with Basic and Expert D&D in the 70s, your decsription of “Old School” gaming very much resonates with my fond recollections of that time.

    “. . . my aim is to marry an Old School style game to the newer (better) mechanics of Pathfinder”.

    I think this is absolutely viable. Pathfinder delivers elegant mechanics. “Old School” is not mechanics/rules, it’s a culture or approach within game of to how to adventure and in the metagame of the approach to role/function of players (that’s arguably more immersive). With Pathfinder delivering the rules and an “Old School” scripted dungeon defining paramaters of style/approach, I’d see it as wholly achieveable.

    But not easy, since it’s about a shift in group (equally with player and with GM) attidude. Good luck with that 🙂

  8. Since 5th edition is heralded by many to be a return to the ‘roots’ of D&D, wouldn’t it make more sense to go straight to that edition, rather than to try and create an oldschool feeling with 3e rules?

    To put this comment into context: I’m playing a ‘devil’s advocate’ here, because my heart goes out to a heavily homeruled version of 2nd edition and I expect to continue playing that for a long time. I also completely understand the attraction of 3e and Pathfinder, as these are essentially ‘cleaned up’ versions of the 2nd ed. rules.

    I really love the points you make regarding the oldschool ‘feeling’; they represent everything I’m aiming for in my own design. I especially agree with the need to keep an oldschool campaign gritty, low-level and low-magic. Keep monsters mysterious and terrifying. Stick with the basic character classes. Force players to use cunning, rather than the super-powers they’ve acquired through a perfect feat build. Ask them to roleplay skill checks. Use battlemats only when needed. All of this will contribute to the immersion of players and give rise to that magical, oldschool fantasy feeling…

    • Yes and no. (I guess). I’m not totally confident WoTC are going to release a decent OGL, and I’m not going to hang around to wait and see what they do. The GSL was terrible and I’d be rather keen not to get a cease and desist letter!

      Beyond that, I’m not sure I understand the comments about 5e going back to D&D’s roots. Obviously, your mileage may vary, but to me 5e is a million miles away from OD&D. While it is rules light compared to Pathfinder the actual play experience is much more “cinematic” than Old School play. That said, that’s just my opinion. I could be wildly wrong!

  9. I’m torn between the worlds of past and present.

    The term “Old School” represents the good old days of my youth, playing AD&D in the basement for countless hours after school and on weekends. I think I ran TTOEE so many times I could do it without the book. Back when the only difference between two 3rd level fighters was the equipment carried and the way he was roleplayed (or not). I loved those days but they did lack depth without roleplay.

    In “New School” D&D, that depth is so much greater. feats, skills, classes (prestige, normal, etc), traits… The list goes on and on. A world where a rogue may never back-stab a foe with anything but a silver tongue (plus a great bluff). I love all the customization possibilities! My players never know what to expect from that special NPC or Villian. Unfortunately, I often find the depth in character “min/max” and optimization becomes more important that the character itself or how he is played. I see so many articles on proper character builds it reminds me of my days playing World of Warcraft when if you didn’t do enough DPS you were kicked from the dungeon!

    I feel like some things have been lost in the shuffle during the evolution of D&D. The main difference, in my mind, is Imagination. Back in the day, everything was based on the DM’s description and maybe some scribbles on a piece of graft paper. We had to “Imagine” the scene… the combat… etc. We had to make up rules on the fly and you weren’t restricted by 27 rule books as to what happens or didn’t happen. It was more freeform.

    Take a Wish spell as an example. In 1st edition, Wish was all powerful. You could make monkeys fly out of your arse and shower the countryside with gold pieces if you so choose. In 3e and pathfinder, they give you a list of what it does. Somehow by giving me a list, one that is relatively tame compared to some of the Wishes I have seen over the years, it lost power to me. It took away all the wonder and awe behind the spell and made in mundane. Wish should never seem mundane. Its wish for god’s sake!

    I would say “Old School” D&D required more use of imagination with the lack of extensive rulebooks and battle mats, giving the game no limits. With “New School”, some of that magic is lost in the greater definition of rules and absolutes.

  10. Maybe that’s my first comment on a blog entry written in English. Therefore I hope you don’t bother about my rusted skill of writing in English.

    Mr. Broadhurst kindly granted me permission to bring his great text to the German audience.
    If you wanna take a look, take this way => http://zauber–ferne.blogspot.de/2015/02/old-times-cruelty-oder-so.html

    Overall I think Creighton provides great insight into Old School Gaming. There are some points I slightly disagree. When I play OSR-style, for example, the GM is mapping. But not exclusively. While the GM presents parts of the map, it’s up to the players to put those parts together in order to get a complete map. Otherwise they might overlook things and that may lead to some unpleasant surprises.

    Aside from that minor disagreements, there are elements missing that I deem important.
    I would headline them with: “Rulings not rules”, “Houserules” and “Do it yourself”.
    Those three “things” are, why I prefer OSR-rules for Old School Play. In newer versions of the game it’s not so easy to work with ad hoc rulings or to implement – say a variant magic system. In Pathfinder you have to take account of a fairly large body of rules, that might interfere with your rulings, house rules or variant rules ideas.

    However, I would be glad if Gloamhold somehow magages to run on the principle of “rulings not rules.”

    • Thanks so much for translating my post, Athair. I hope your readers find it interesting and useful!

      You’ve also sparked a thought. When you talk about rulings not rules we are assuming a certain level of trust between the players and the GM. The players are trusting the GM to be basically fair, while the GM is trusting the players to not abuse his rulings. We have more rules now, so does that mean we trust the other people around the table less? I don’t know the answer to that, and that worries me a little.

  11. Really appreciate your post. It both brings me back to my early days at the gaming table and puts a finger on some of what has troubled me as I’ve reentered the RPG world in the last year.

    One thing I would add is the shift from guidelines to rules. My memory of the 1E DMG was that it had a spot where EGG pretty much said “these are guidelines”, a starting point for a framework to contain your imagination. Now things are much more *rules*. Not that this is all bad.

    On the one hand, the OD&D rules were very hard to understand and frequently contradictory as they were basically a compilation of systems massaged so that they could interrelate. The 5E rules I very much like for the fact that there are very few dead ends, things are very consistent, and the various systems (combat, magic, and later proficiencies) now all pretty much run the same way. There is good and bad to all of that. While at our table many of us are experienced, three of us DM, and we’ve pretty much all got the books it will happen that a player will say to the DM “I think that’s different from the book”, everyone will stop and check, if the player is right things will usually adjust.

    But that can be confining. Because *sometimes* the DM knows full well how the rules go but has designed a situation that is exceptional. In the old days that happened all the time, and frequently the DM was the DM because he was the only fellow with the books, so you were open to whatever he said was the result.

    I’m not saying we get into rules lawyering and challenge the DM inappropriately anymore, but once the rules became rules, there came an expectation of consistency that wasn’t there in the old days. Which in many ways made the game world more mysterious, unpredictable and wondrous.

    Now, frequently, unexpected results are awkward until things sink in a bit. The first reaction isn’t “What’s going on here?” it’s “Did the DM just screw up?” The former is immersive. The later disruptive, even if well meaning.

    Case in point in a recent encounter with a monster we didn’t recognize, it became quickly apparent because we are well aware of our die rolls and stats that while we were hitting we were doing no damage. Our first reaction (encouraged by how the game is now adays) was to compare notes and figures to see what had gone wrong with the mechanics. *Then* we got back into role playing and started addressing the DM again “My character disengages and studies the monster. Does it appear to be affected by the melee at all?”

    When it was guidelines we were very focused on our environment, the DMs descriptions and the like to inform us what our world was about. That was reinforced by many factors ranging from limited access to the rules, to the habit of a lot of old DMs to do *all* the die rolling in secret. We were focused on the DM, our notes and maps, any clue that would help us engage more closely with our world because that was the path to character survival.

    Now we’re more aware of what’s behind the green curtain and we’re more concerned with the state of the wizard. I’m fully aware that I have been an active part of the transition. I really like making my own combat rolls. I like the process of building a character and the party negotiation to make sure that we’ve got the skill bases covered. I understand that to do all that requires access to a set of *rules* that we can agree upon and count on. But I do miss the mystery and the immersion of those very early days.

    I never used to design a character and map out it’s progression. There was no saying what might be down the road for my man fighter. “Progression” was pretty straightforward providing very simple improvements to my limited abilities. My environment and what it might provide had a lot more of my focus. But then you don’t make plans for your build at 4th level when getting to 3rd level is very much in jeopardy. 😉

  12. Creighton, I have been following your blog with great interest of late, as I have encountered similar experiences with the behavior of the Pathfinder rules as you have. For me, it’s not so much of a need for old school with the cleaned up mechanics of Pathfinder as it is trying to achieve a game that does not threaten the ecology of the setting because the mechanics allow for it.

    The most egregious example of this for me was the Pathfinder Magic Item Creation rules, which I am attempting to modify to shore up the potential problems. You recall the Magic Item Creation rules in D&D 3rd Edition: You had to meet the prerequisites and you had to spend XP to craft magic items. In Pathfinder, although you need to meet the prerequisites to craft magic items, you can offset those requirements by adding +5 to a skill check to craft the item. To begin with, the DC for the creation of the magic item is a token die roll with a nominal chance of failure, as spellcasters generally put all their ranks into the most common skill used (Spellcraft) and have at least a +2 modifier to their Intelligence score more often than not. At 1st level, a spellcaster is likely to have a Spellcraft check of +6 to begin with. This guarantees the success at scribing low-level scrolls, which is OK, but I found the real problem when a mid-level spellcaster used downtime to craft a handy haversack swag bag for every member of the party (helpful, yes, but the moral of the story was that if crafting magic items is so easy, why isn’t Joe the peasant crafting magic items to make his life easier?). For a pure fantasy high magic fantasy world, this is OK. But for a world based on a historical earth but with magical elements (magic exists, but it is not a common tool used in every day life), this spoils the landscape and the magical ecology of the setting.

    For my world, I have started tweaking the rules in two ways, and still need to playtest the modifications:
    1) You have to meet the prerequisite to create the magic item. If you do not, you cannot create the magic item. You can have an ally cast the requisite spells, or you can use the spell magic from another magic item, just as in the Pathfinder RPG.
    2) I kept the skill check to craft, but now it is 10 + the spell’s level to create the item.

    I still need to see how these tweaks will play out, but in the meantime, how do you keep PC magic item creation from ruining the magical ecology of a setting intended to be low magic or gritty?

  13. I run Pathfinder and attempt old school play. My game models your points with remarkable consistency. I do use a battle mat, printed maps or 3d terrain though.

    I think what I find surprising is that not all old school gamers are old. I have new players, young and old in age who enjoy this style and folks that played that way when they were younger but they don’t get into it anymore.

    Old school isn’t for everyone but it is open to anyone.

  14. Creighton you have captured exactly the ‘old school’ feel as I experienced it. I don’t think it matters what rules you use; what is important is how you use them that makes a game an ‘old school’ feel.

  15. I like your premise, but I have to disagree on a few points. Perhaps the most jarring statement you made was:

    … my aim is to marry an Old School style game to the newer (better) mechanics of Pathfinder.

    Ouch. I disagree most heartily with the contention that the mechanics of Pathfinder are “better” than the mechanics of Old School games (for purposes of discussion, I’m going to specifically limit those games to AD&D 2E and earlier). It is absolutely true that they are more *consistent* but I deny that consistent is necessarily better. Using different dice or different resolution methods for different types of activities seems to give 3.X-era Game Masters heartburn; they want a “core mechanic” that is always used regardless of the activity being attempted. I tried that, several times actually, in games I designed prior to Basic Fantasy RPG, and I ended up despising the results. I wrote about this on my blog under the title “Metarules” (found here: http://basicfantasy.org/blog/?p=58), though that post is mostly about other things.

    But that’s actually tangential to my main position here. The main feature of the Old School is DM Fiat, usually written “the DM is always right.” In the New School, the rules aren’t just consistent, they are meant to define the game world in such detail that the GM is less a person and more a CPU to execute the game’s program. The very earliest RPGs used the wargame term “referee” to refer to the GM, and that, strangely, is all the New School asks of the GM… to enforce the detailed rules of the game exactly as written.

    The effect of this change is profound. In the New School, a GM who follows the rules may not be what I’d call a “good GM” but he or she is largely prevented from being a bad one. In the Old School, a GM who does not get that he or she is supposed to make the game fun, not beat up the players is in no way limited from acting like an adversary. On the other hand, gifted (or even just “decent”) GM’s are prevented from doing their best work when a player is allowed (even expected) to call foul when that GM breaks the CR rules, or any other of the hard-and-fast, detailed rules that are the hallmarks of the New School.

    You are taking a step in what I would say is the right direction when you turn away from CR as a straitjacket. CR forces you to behave in a certain way that is ultimately artificial and stilted. I don’t apologize when an adult green dragon plops down on the road in front of a 2nd level party (that exact thing happened once, and they offered the dragon half their treasure to let them pass unharmed, which was exactly what the dragon wanted), or when a red dragon ambushes a pair of player characters who wandered away from the party (did that too, and a 3rd level gnome magic-user defeated the dragon with a wand of petrifaction… a bad saving throw roll by the GM is as good as a critical hit, after all). Players in my games learn that stuff happens, and you have to think outside the box. If your only strategy when you encounter a monster is to draw your sword (or wand, or whatever) and engage in battle, you have serious strategic limitations and you’ll probably die. Fast talking, running away, bribery, or even trickery of some kind may be the smart move.

    When player characters always meet monsters that are a “fair challenge” they never learn to play any other way.

    The last thing that bothers me about 3.X edition games is the workload. I can roll up an encounter from scratch in under 5 minutes (NPC parties take more like 10), so my workload in adventure creation is pretty low. I have not done so myself, but I am told that creating a proper encounter in the 3.X era is quite a bit more time-consuming. I have also been told that battles are resolved much more quickly and with less rulebook consultation in my Old School games than in more modern systems; to be clear, I’ve been told that personally by several of my players, some of whom have a lot of experience with modern games.

    … anyway, those are my thoughts on the matter. Not sure if anything I’ve said is relevant to your situation. Carry on…

    • Hi Chris!

      Thanks for the very thoughtful reply. (I have a copy of Basic Fantasy RPG on my bookshelf so I’m delighted you chimed in on this subject; sadly, I haven’t talked my group into trying it yet but I keep banging away).

      I think part of the problem of the shift away from Old School play to New School play is player empowerment. You are 100% right in that in the old days, the GM was always right–the rules were more guidelines than actual rules and the GM was expected to make up his own. Today, as you say, the GM runs the game but he’s not really in charge from the point of view of the rules.

      You are also absolutely right that combat is faster in Old School games generally. I crave the speed of Old School in my Pathfinder games–sometimes combats can be crushingly slow. As long as they are exciting and everyone is having fun, that doesn’t really matter but still I prefer to get through a good many encounters a session.

      I do think, however, the the new rules are “better” than the old. That’s not particularly because they cover more ground but rather because I like the unified mechanic of the d20 as pretty much whatever you are doing you roll a d20 and hope you roll high; that’s incredibly easy for new players to grasp and I think speeds up game play. A version of Pathfinder which included loads of different mechanics would be a living nightmare!

      • I think you’re missing a key element of old school gaming. That is combat was not part of the fun it was something that was needed to determine the path of the story which was what is the fun.

        • I certainly agree that combat was not as common a “solution” to encounters as it is these days. Characters were so much more fragile than they are now–that fragility spurred us on to find creative problems to solutions. (Or at least clever ways to gain advantage).

  16. Please don’t hate on the “magic item shop.” It doesn’t have to be a Selfridges Dept Store of generic stuff. It doesn’t even have to be a store.

    1. A lowly kobold adept 1 with Scribe Scroll as her feat. She survives by trapping rats, skinning them and crafting scrolls with the bones, hides and tail, only to sell them to adventurers. She was ostracized for heretical (lawful neutral) beliefs and while she won’t sell out her old tribe she will arm those who come to punish them.
    2. A water weird oracle inhabits a moss-eaten wishing well in an abandoned field. His divinations are cryptic but available for a few coins. The elemental however is rumored to have a knack for empowering the well water with the sacred power of his patron. He barters these potions for rare item of historical or religious significance.
    3. Old Mother Mygwytch, the kindly village witch bakes her meat pies with love and a fair bit of spellcraft. She carts her “sanative savories” in a covered wagon selling them to those in need of healing or rejuvenation.
    4.deep in the primeval wood is a particularly sinister bower enclosed in webs. Here the spider sorcerer Baelthrax weaves his silk into wonders for purchase. The large, sentient arachnid has haunted the darkened den for as long as tales have been told in the taproom but the Weaver’s prices are not for the timid. Baelthrax no longer hunts or traps his meals preferring to be fed by his clients. His works are by commission and only delivered once the ghastly buffet of the client’s contract has been fulfilled.
    5. The Heimdahl League is a union of dwarven crafter and merchants who occupy a magma-fueled foundry on the heights. The bearded folk are pious to a fault and will negotiate the sale of their impressive arms and armor but only to those clients passing a rigorous vetting process. Finally all sales are only finalized by the swearing of a blood oath never to aid the efretti lords who covet the foundry and will stop at nothing to possess it.

    That’s just 5 ways to make magic item purchase interesting. You could substitute monster parts or interesting tales in the asking price, make the “shop” unique or create the most exotic and eccentric proprietor you can dream up. How about a sentient ooze that makes wondrous items from the undigested remains of its victims? A giant eagle that makes feather wands? A gnomish brewery that crafts alcoholic potions or a creepy church run by the undead that makes incense potions? Expand your imagination and there’s loads of fun to be had.

  17. You’ve got some of it but to me old school (or revised and 2nd AD&D) is most distinguished, by what is now called encounters, being in exceptional sessions not average sessions. A related characteristic is that players who seek or respond first with combat are referred to as munchkin or Hack and Slash and are not behaving properly as role players. This Behavior also called power gaming is an attack on the rest of the players and the GM. Modern PVP video games have giving us a term for this General category. That term is griefing Behavior.

  18. I am a firm believer in “Story first”, which I associate with the old school style of gaming. I think if you put the story first, and let the game system merely do its job of supporting the story, it really shouldn’t matter what rule system you are using. I am continually working toward toward that ideal by asking players to describe what they see in their head and what they want their characters to do. I never let a player get away with simply saying “I make a _______ check.” and do my best to not ask for rolls where the story can provide. It’s a hard habit to break after all these years of 3rd edition, but it’s worth it when we can.

  19. Hi Creighton, interesting article thank you.
    I’ve just run a 1st edition adventure from the European open competition at Euro Gen Con ’92 for my Pathfinder group. To make it work (Pathfinder PCs are so much more powerful than 1st Ed) and still feel Old School I just used the plotline and NPCs from the adventure but dropped in either monsters from my 3.5 monster manual (I tried doubling the numbers of foes to keep it challenging), and kept monsters and magic items as ‘traditional’ (1st Ed) as possible.
    Problems
    *all encounters were too I easy for the PCs and over in 1 or 2 rounds
    *as you mentioned, Pathfinder is quite rules heavy and needs skills checks for everything​ so I had to set my own levels
    *Room description/encounter set up was about 3 lines long? so I rewrote or lifted complete room encounters from other adventures just to keep combat and tactics interesting
    *The finale didnt comply with any rules and felt lame so I completely changed the ending and boss fight too.
    I’m looking forward to being a player for a bit now