While reviewing the first issue of Fight On!, I was reminded of something I knew but had never articulated before. An important part of what characterizes true old school gaming is the acceptance of the oracular power of dice. This acceptance ties into several distinct elements of old school gaming, so I want to discuss each of them in turn.
Firstly, randomness is an important part of any game that can reasonably be said to be "old school." Most old school game mechanics, from character creation to combat to the creation of settings, include random elements, often quite significant ones. To some extent, I suspect this has to do with the simple love of dice. There's something powerfully primal about tossing dice and waiting to see the numbers they reveal. There's also a bit of risk involved -- or at least what passes for risk in a tabletop RPG. Unless thy dice be ill-wrought, you have an equal chance of rolling high on a D20 as you do of rolling low. Every toss is thus a kind of mini-adventure, whose outcome is beyond anyone's control.
That's the second feature of old school gaming and the real heart of this particular matter: the embrace of events beyond your control as an integral part of the gaming experience. This includes players and referees alike, it should be noted. One of the things that is often forgotten is that, back before he became a "storyteller," the referee was as much a player as anyone other. What this meant in practical terms is that, while the referee created and established the starting conditions for an adventure, he couldn't guarantee any particular outcome to it. Indeed, he doesn't generally know what the final outcome is going to be. I mean that non-trivially, since any game that uses random rolls in, say, combat has gameplay elements whose outcomes are unpredictable.
In true old school games, though, dice rolls can determine how almost anything can happen and frequently do. That's why you see things like NPC reaction tables, morale rules, and other such elements. In old school gaming, many things are literally outside the control of the referee; the dice determine whether a possible NPC employer likes the PCs enough to offer them work or whether those hobgoblins stand and fight or run away like scared little girls. Even if he wanted to do so, the refree cannot dictate how many elements of an adventure will play out, as the dice often have purposes of their own. Old school referees simply roll with these punches and adapt accordingly.
In old school games, the "story" arises from the synthesis of design, randomness, and reaction; it isn't something you can set out to create. That's why lots of people, in reflecting on old school gaming, will talk about how "unsatisfying" their experiences were. Likewise, many trends in modern RPG design are driven by a desire to ensure that every given game session is not only "fun" -- whatever that means -- but also meaningful. The simple reality is that that's an impossible goal and in fact I would argue that it's an unworthy one. Much like life, old school gaming is often "just a bunch of stuff that happens" and sometimes that stuff can be frustrating, boring, or even painful. The only "meaning" that stuff has is what the players and their referee bring to it.
Consequently, old school gaming makes demands on those who play it and relies pretty heavily on an imaginative and quick-thinking referee. Lacking in even one of those and its gameplay can feel "flat." At the same time, when it possesses both, you have an entertainment like no other because the outcome is largely unexpected. You never know where an old school game is going to take you, even if you're the referee. The dice sometimes point the way clearly and sometimes hazily, but you have to learn to trust that, even if you can't yet see it, they do point somewhere fun and exciting. And here's the great thing: you can always roll some more. The plethora of tables and charts in old school games mean that there's always a way out. Not sure how to deal with the latest weird results of your dice roll? Roll them again and see if they give you a better "answer" this time.
Like the oracles of old, dice aren't prophets; they're invitations to look at the world in a different way. I personally find this style of play refreshing and liberating. It's why OD&D excites me in a way that 4e does not and indeed cannot. Fortunately, I'm not alone.