Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Old School ≠ Rules Light

I've often seen it lamented in various quarters that the old school renaissance is simply recapitulating the early history of the hobby. An oft-cited example of this supposed tendency is the way that a lot of old schoolers, even those enamored of OD&D, like myself, keep adding on rules, mechanics, and sub-systems that detract from the simple elegance of the earliest game systems. As an observation, I think it's spot-on. I know from personal experience that, as I've run my OD&D campaign over the last 20 or so months, I've continued to add lots of elements from the Supplements, The Strategic Review, early issues of The Dragon, and other sources to the extent that I'm playing something that resembles "Dungeons & Dragons v.0.75," a kind of proto-AD&D without either true AD&D's persnickety rules or the mindset that often accompanies them.

Why would I want to do this? Why mar the pristine simplicity of OD&D? This is a question I'm often asked in comments and in emails. I think it's a fair question, but I think it's often based on a false premise, namely that "old school" equates with "rules light." Now, I can understand why this premise is so commonly accepted. A lot of the folks who write about old school gaming these days share a common story: turned off by contemporary RPGs, they looked back on the games of old and found in them something better suited to their wishes. Now, for some of these people, it's true, the primary appeal of older games lay in their rules lightness. That's why "white box" OD&D gets a lot more love these days than it has in many a moon.

I have no problem with saying that OD&D is, at least by contemporary standards, a "rules light" game, but that's not the whole story. OD&D is only "light" because so much is unsaid and left to the referee to make up for himself. In fairly short order, there was an explosion of expansions to OD&D, some official, some not, but all arising from the fact that, as written, the LBBs were only the barest skeleton of a rules set. To be able to play the thing, referees either needed to become "co-designers" with Gygax and Arneson, filling in the copious blank spaces in its rules or wait on TSR to publish a new supplement or article that, with luck, did this for them.

Speaking for myself, I think the skeletal nature of OD&D is in fact a virtue, because it pretty much demands that anyone refereeing it has to wrestle with the game's text and come to a solid understanding of it before adding meat to its bones, even if that meat is processed in someone else's butcher shop. I don't believe that this was either Arneson or Gygax's intention in writing the rules, but that doesn't really matter anymore. In recent years, OD&D has been accepted as a "do it yourself" RPG and some gamers, both young and old, have embraced it for that very reason. If I had to pick a single thing the old school renaissance has achieved over the last few years that's likely to have a lasting impact on the hobby, it's the recasting of OD&D as a "toolbox" game rather than as the hastily written, poorly edited "rough draft" to a later, "better" version of the game.

But even if one believes, contrary to its historical development, that OD&D is a "rules light" RPG, it does not in any way follow that all old school games are rules light or that rules lightness is an essential quality of old school gaming. I think any definition of "old school" that would exclude, say, the bulk of FGU's catalog is an inadequate one. Likewise, RuneQuest, while hardly a complex game, has rules written by guys who were involved in (pseudo-)historical reenactments and considered OD&D's combat rules unrealistic. For that reason, a typical RQ2 battle, involving even a handful of combatants, takes a lot longer to adjudicate than a similar OD&D combat does. But, again, I think any definition of "old school" that would exclude RuneQuest is a problematic one.

My point amidst all this rambling -- yes, I have one -- is that, while I have no problem with people being drawn back to the old school because of the rules lightness of some of its games, it's nevertheless a mistake to suggest that all old school games must be (or are) rules light, as that's clearly not true. Indeed, that's why some people feel, also mistakenly, that "old school" is just a mindset and any game can be "old school" if you wish really hard. That's not to deny that mindset is important nor is it to deny that, in general, old school games are noticeably mechanically different from later designs. However, that difference isn't limited to being rules light and I'll admit to some frustration at the way this characteristic of white box OD&D is often taken as universal. After all, f there's anything that marks a departure from the Old Ways in game design, it's a universal mechanic. (That's a joke, albeit a bad one)

53 comments:

  1. I’ve said before that—for me—old isn’t enough to qualify for “old school”. The new schools are always established immediately after the old schools. A new school is as natural a product of an old school as a shadow is of any object + light. So, yeah, my personal usage of “old school” means “rules light”.

    But, I agree with a lot of what you said here.

    As another example, consider Rolemaster. Some people look at RM and all its companions and think that it must be an incredible rules heavy game. And it can be. But all that RM stuff is modular. You can pick and choose as much or as little as you want. In fact, you have to pick and choose because some of the options are different ways to handle the same thing. Even the most basic RM probably is heavier than base oD&D, but it need not be as heavy as it may at first appear.

    The old school wants each group to put the complexity where that group wants it. The way to do that is to keep the base light and the subsystems modular.

    That said, however, I think that while “old school” may not equal “rules light”, I think “old school” has a strong tendency towards “rules light”.

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  2. I agree, many of the old school games have a very different sub-system for each aspect - combat, magic etc.
    Incidently, the earliest (76') D&D based microgame I've come across has only two stats CON and DEX, using chess pieces and board for combat - it's the only one I found that was mostly subtractive, BUT still had extra rules to become 'rules-enough'.

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  3. Your post has a simplier explanation; That you are IMPLEMENTING OD&D for Dwimmermount. This has the virtue of not having to defend against "Well I thought was supposed to be simpilier." Because each setting has it's own demands for rules.

    If you look at initial the wave of Fantasy RPGs after OD&D nearly all of them come across as taking OD&D and implementing it for some group's campaign. After several campaigns and more tweaks/change a different game is born leading some to publish it.

    I know that the rules in my ref book at the end of my AD&D run in the late 80s made for a very different AD&D game than when I started out in 1979. Some of which you can see in my current Majestic Wilderlands Supplement.

    How many years and campaigns it will be before the rules you are refereeing are a distinct Dwimmermount RPG?

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  4. Ha I just posted YET ANOTHER variant combat/damage system for B/X this morning! Totally agree that Old School does not necessarily mean "rules light" (something I do equate with many indie RPGs). Still, Old School is generally "lighter" than more recent commercial RPGs, which might lead folks to call them such. Certainly, it's the lighter aspect of B/X that makes it worth my time to play.
    : )

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  5. "Speaking for myself, I think the skeletal nature of OD&D is in fact a virtue, because it pretty demands that anyone refereeing it "

    should "pretty demands" be "pretty much demands"


    I play in a 3.5 d&d campaign but sometimes take over "dungeon mastering" when the current dm wants to take a break, even though I am not very fond of 3.5

    In my spare time, I often sit at my computer and write up snippets of different combat, skill, magic mechanics for d&d.

    But I run into issues when I actually start to implement them into game play. The main issue is "shared consciousness". The players in our group love having the 3.5 rule books. They love when they gain a level and can scour through the rule book and read about how to get a combat bonus, or stack two effects. I do not mean to portray them as rule lawyers, there is just something "fun" about being able to thumb through the rules.

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  6. Pardon the off-topic, but this amused me...

    I picked up the PDF of the new 'Laundry' RPG. The Laundry novels are a series by Charlie Stross, about a 'computational demonologist' in a secret British agency that fights Cthulu-style threats. In the books, magic is tightly related to mathematics and computer science, with crucial discoveries having been made by Alan Turing.

    Anyway, the part that's tangentially related to the interests of this blog's readers is something called the "Arneson-Crowley scale", named after Dave Arneson and infamous British occultist Aleister Crowley:

    Classifying Demons

    The Arneson-Crowley scale is the conventional accepted scale for measuring demonic entities (except in France, where they use the metric CROC scale). This measures demonic magnitude from I to V, based on their intelligence and power. Within each level, there are numerous sub- grades and categories. Level One entities are all a lot less dangerous than Level Fours, but that does not mean all Level Ones are equally harmless.

    As a rule of thumb, if a demon gets loose:

    Level One: Mostly harmless.
    Level Two: Will eat your brain.
    Level Three: Will eat everyone’s brain.
    Level Four: Run.
    Level Five: Everyone dies, no save.

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  7. I'm less worried about "rules light" than "rules modular." I don't care how many goofy subsystems there are, as long as I can fiddle with them or ignore them.

    With earlier editions, it's easy to swap subsystems in and out without a cascade of unintended mechanical consequences across the board. If I were so inclined, I could use the OD&D chassis with no Clerics, LotFP encumbrance and Thief skills, AD&D 2e initiative and surprise rules, the Tunnels & Trolls "saving roll" mechanic for non-standard combat actions, and a homebrewed spell point system for an entirely new spell list. The lack of systemic unity is a huge plus for kitbashers.

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  8. You are right, immediately after D&D was first published RPGs began getting more complex very quickly.

    Like Rob C. was alluding to, I think a lot of this had to do with the trend of incorporating SETTINGS into the games - EPT, Runequest, etc.

    Of course these days the setting-less old school games like D&D and Tunnels & Trolls seem to get the most love. These continue to deliver simple customizable rules systems that are also infused with atmosphere. Face it, a lot of us DMs are tinkerers and want to build our own worlds. I like to read about Glorantha, but I want to run games in my own world. It's a lot easier to build my own setting around D&D than try to strip a pre-made setting away from some other game.

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  9. That said, however, I think that while “old school” may not equal “rules light”, I think “old school” has a strong tendency towards “rules light”.

    I actually think Scott, above, has the right of it when he calls old school games "rules modular." That's an important insight.

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  10. should "pretty demands" be "pretty much demands"

    Thanks for catching that.

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  11. The lack of systemic unity is a huge plus for kitbashers.

    Yes, absolutely, and in this narrow respect the "OD&D-as-toolkit" philosophy is close to the truth. I don't think the game was intentionally written as a toolkit, but it is written in such a way as to make that approach not only plausible but perhaps even necessary.

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  12. Face it, a lot of us DMs are tinkerers and want to build our own worlds. I like to read about Glorantha, but I want to run games in my own world.

    I don't think it's a coincidence that the old school renaissance has been far more interested in setting-less rules sets than in those designed for a particular setting. I don't think having more than an implied setting is an automatic black mark against any game seeking to be called "old school," but it does have an effect on how one judges its place on the old school continuum.

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  13. [RuneQuest and FGU games as exemplars of old-school but not necessarily rules-light]

    Point well made: DragonQuest also falls into this category, as well, I think. I've never played, but reportedly combat in DQ is even more leisurely paced than in RQ. What I found about combat in RQ and other melee-tuned incarnations of BRP is that it amounted to a fair amount of whiff-parry-whiff-parry-smack-ow!-combat-over. I don't necessarily think this is a bad thing.

    Some of my favourite historical RPG experiences came with games using the BRP-inspired, and Charette/Hume rules, in the hands of people who knew the rules well enough to run them in a fluid manner. I specifically have a lot of respect and fond memories for the way that the Charette/Hume game engine works.

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  14. I'm using S&W WB, but the principle is the same, and I agree completely. One thing I try to do as I add rules is to keep things simple and change as little as possible. When I can I work with an existing mechanic (e.g. using saving throws for a simple task resolution mechanic) but sometimes that's not possible. For example, I wanted guns. D&D armor and hit points don't work for me once guns are introduced, so I had to rethink the abstractions involved and change the way things work. I think that, in many cases, that this is the most important thing- thinking long and hard about the system you are changing or adding to and coming to an understanding of the logic behind it before you start messing with it.

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  15. It's a lot easier to build my own setting around D&D than try to strip a pre-made setting away from some other game.

    This is the truest thing anyone has ever said on the internet.

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  16. I like a unified mechanism and would like to see a game built around it that is otherwise old school in it's approach. Not everything new is automatically bad - take the best bits and run with them, an approach that is itself surely old school.

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  17. Not everything new is automatically bad - take the best bits and run with them, an approach that is itself surely old school.

    Oh, certainly. I'm just not convinced that a unified mechanic doesn't also bring with it certain assumptions about, for example, the relationship between player and referee that undermines other parts of the old school style.

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  18. Personally I only use "Old School" in reference to D&D. Talking about "Old School Call of Cthulu" wouldn't make much sense.

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  19. "If I had to pick a single thing the old school renaissance has achieved over the last few years that's likely to have a lasting impact on the hobby, it's the recasting of OD&D as a "toolbox" game...."

    I imagine there's more to "old-school" games, than that the rules are simply a toolbox, but I agree that its an important clue.

    "After all, if there's anything that marks a departure from the Old Ways in game design, it's a universal mechanic. (That's a joke, albeit a bad one)"

    Truth in jest? One of the early (IMHO) new-school games was The Fantasy Trip, designed by Steve Jackson. It was primarily about combat. It employed the earliest skills system. All of the mechanics were based on xd6 skill challenges. It used a single fatigue/wounds/mana pool for all classes (wizard and warrior). And it was incredibly rules-light.

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  20. Talking about "Old School Call of Cthulu" wouldn't make much sense.

    Mostly because the game hasn't significantly changed in nearly 30 years. I can use stuff written for the first edition in 1981 with the latest version available now without having to do much beyond swap APP for CHA. The same can't be said of many other RPGs.

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  21. Its only since I discovered the internet that I found out that all those years ago that I had been playing AD&D that we were actually playing it "wrong." But when we were just a bunch of kids rolling dice in the basement, we didn't know any better... nor were there online forums in which I could be treated to the sensation of having a new one torn in me because of how we did initiative or encumbrance or whether we would allow the Paladin to eat baby kobolds.
    Perhaps the appeal of 'old school' (for me, at least) is seeing the past through rose colored glasses. I'm actually OK with that --- I don't think 'nostalgia' is automatically bad (although I am suspicious of false nostalgia --- i.e.: it would be false nostalgia for me to want to return to the 1950s simply because I wasn't alive yet then).
    Back in the day, we were always negotiating stuff with the DM --- which I think was part of the fun -- there might have been a rule for it somewhere, but we seldom stopped to look that up. So if someone wanted to push a bugbear off a cliff, the DM might say, "I'll give you a 50% chance to succeed..." and the player might say, "Well, I have an 17 strength and I got a running start..." and the DM might counter, "I'll give you plus 15% for your strength, but since you are running at him, the bugbear is going to try to dodge to the side --- if you fail to hit him, you might hurl YOURSELF off the cliff..." and so on. The entire game was a series of negotiations.
    These days there always seems to be something we have to look up... I think the rules have changed, but the RPG mind set (at least in my circle) has also changed.

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  22. nor were there online forums in which I could be treated to the sensation of having a new one torn in me because of how we did initiative or encumbrance or whether we would allow the Paladin to eat baby kobolds

    I see you've been to Dragonsfoot.

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  23. Back in the day, we were always negotiating stuff with the DM --- which I think was part of the fun -- there might have been a rule for it somewhere, but we seldom stopped to look that up. So if someone wanted to push a bugbear off a cliff, the DM might say, "I'll give you a 50% chance to succeed..." and the player might say, "Well, I have an 17 strength and I got a running start..." and the DM might counter, "I'll give you plus 15% for your strength, but since you are running at him, the bugbear is going to try to dodge to the side --- if you fail to hit him, you might hurl YOURSELF off the cliff..." and so on. The entire game was a series of negotiations.
    These days there always seems to be something we have to look up... I think the rules have changed, but the RPG mind set (at least in my circle) has also changed.


    Now that's old-school.

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  24. Old school does not equate to rules-light; however, rules-light does not necessarily make something new.

    In the depths of my games collection, I have a set of TWERPS. TWERPS was published back in 1987 and had a minimalist system - one characteristic (ST) that served for everything, modified by an appropriate "class". There were a number of settings published for it, ranging from a very simple dungeon-crawling game to superheroes. All you had to do was bolt the appropriate setting onto the side.

    Was the game old school? Very debatable, but I'd say that the Fly-by-Knights setting (indeed, any setting before they went for the pun-names) was old school. Was the game rules light? Very, even with the bolt-ons.

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  25. I think that, for me at least, Old School games are the ones that don't have an established campaign supporting them. This forces everyone's game to be a little different, regardless of the completeness of the rule set. When you start defining the campaign in the actual game rules, you've entered the territory of the New School game.

    A good Old School game has a skeleton on which you can hang any number of different campaigns. A New School game generally only supports the game that the designer envisaged.

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  26. "Indeed, that's why some people feel, also mistakenly, that "old school" is just a mindset and any game can be "old school" if you wish really hard."

    That's a coincidence: I was just speculating to myself this morning that an "old school" game is mostly an attitude and an approach to playing, rather than any particular type of rules design. Have you written elsewhere why this isn't so? I'm not saying you're wrong; far from it. But I'm curious about the rebuttal argument.

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  27. I'm not saying you're wrong; far from it. But I'm curious about the rebuttal argument.

    Feel free! No one else seems to mind telling me I'm wrong (or worse) :)

    I have written various posts that touch on the question, but I've never made a definitive argument, mostly because it seems common sensical to me. If "old school" is merely an attitude or mindset, then any game can be "old school," a conclusion that, on the face of it, strikes me as absurd.

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  28. Perhaps my law school background has colored my thinking on this matter, but I don't view games as "rules light" or "rules heavy". I view them as "common law" or "statutory".

    A "common law" game is one in which only the basic principles are given, and then it is up to the GM to elaborate those principles into the law of his campaign over time. However, a good GM does not run such a game by whim; he acts like a judge, following his own past precedents. Over time, the game ceases being rules light, because it has accumulated a campaign's worth of rulings, house rules, and interpretations.

    In contrast, a "statutory game" is one in which all facets of gameplay are spelled out by the game designers. Questions that arise during gameplay are solved by re-reading the text and determining what they say, and ambiguities are resolved by trying to understand the intent of the writers.

    The benefits of common law games are that they end up being customized to the experiences of their particular set of players. But they rely on having a good Judge (in the literal sense of the world) to issue good rulings, and keep track of his "case law". A bad Judge can screw things up with bad rulings, unbalanced decisions, and so on.

    The benefit of statutory games is that you are not reliant on the rulings of a Judge. The drawback is that the games are more complex to understand up front, and may have just as many problems as a common law game, but be harder to fix.

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  29. The benefit of statutory games is that you are not reliant on the rulings of a Judge.

    If only it worked that way in the courts around here. :)

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  30. “If ‘old school’ is merely an attitude or mindset, then any game can be ‘old school,’ a conclusion that, on the face of it, strikes me as absurd.”

    Well, like any term there are subtle differences depending upon the context. Just because there is a “old school” mindset that can be applied to any game (with various levels of success), that doesn’t mean that a game can’t be designed with (or without) “old school” principles in mind.

    Here’s an attempt at an analogy: You can say a certain guitar is a “shred guitar”. It will likely be some form of “super strat” with a locking whammy bar and certain other features. That does not, however, prevent Joe Satriani from “shredding” on virtually any electric guitar you put in his hands.

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  31. Maybe there was a good reason stuff got added to OD&D in the first place?

    Sounds like you're doing what EGG did James, not bad company to be in.

    That said, I *do* believe that there was something uniquely wild and wooly about the AD&D era.

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  32. I like the idea of the 1974 D&D boxed set as merely a starting point for each referee's own game/campaign. In that light, Supplement I: GREYHAWK is Gary's spin on D&D. EPT is Barker's spin on D&D. The Arduin Grimoire is David Hargrave's spin on D&D. Supplement V: CARCOSA is a spin on D&D by myself. Etc.

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  33. I just feel that "Old School" and "Rules Light" are two sets that partially overlap. I enjoy the advantages of a "lighter" game mostly insofar as it cuts down on the logistics I have to include in preparation as GM, how long I have to spend on any one combat, and how many counterintuitive particulars I have to keep track of.

    So if I'm the referee, RQ is probably too much of a pain in my ass if I have to dot my i's and cross my t's on how NPCs are built. But I wouldn't mind PLAYING RQ at all.

    I'm just plain not going to run AD&D as written. But if I'm a player, it won't make much difference to me. To a large degree, I my players could be PLAYING AD&D while I was RUNNING OD&D or Moldvay or Mentzer and it would scarcely even come up.

    I'm not a lazy person, but I would rather put my preparation effort into more numerous or more detailed locations than into the stats of what's there. I'm not going to fudge statistics, just keep them to the likes of

    "Undead Salt Miner : AC6, 3HD, 12 HP, Damage 2d4+Pain (-2 to rolls). Vulnerable to water."

    Or "Goblin. AC6, HD 1-1, 4HP, ML7."

    I don't need to note movement, since putting them in the adventure to begin with, I know they're both at 60. I don't need to note that the Undead doesn't check morale. I'm going to use common sense on what vulnerability to water entails. (I figure a flask of plain water is as good as holy water, holy water does double, if it falls in a river it probably dies. But I don't think I'm "cheating" not to have evidence of that on the books.

    I think "Rules Light" and "Old School" overlap pretty well when the "Lightness" is a feature of
    convenience and avoiding unneccessary rules. When "rules light" is its own agenda, it's less likely to be old school, and may well be "too damn light." :)

    T&T is a great game in part because it's about as light as you can get while still having the game firmly "objective." If I'm a DM, I want to be honest, fair, and work within what the rules lead players to expect in unforseen situations. I just don't want to do extensive bookkeeping to "prove" I'm doing so.

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  34. James:
    "Mostly because the game hasn't significantly changed in nearly 30 years. I can use stuff written for the first edition in 1981 with the latest version available now without having to do much beyond swap APP for CHA."

    Well yeah, that was my point... >:)

    I guess one could argue that say "Savage Worlds" is "New School" and "Daredevils" (which I bought new last year) is "Old School", but I don't see much point. The OSR is all about D&D. It's producing some fine non-D&D-genre games, but D&D is very much the wellspring.

    And more importantly, understanding the differences between the editions of D&D is important to understanding what you want out of D&D. I can't think of any other game where edition differences are anything like as significant.

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  35. One core concept of Old School is that the rules are baseline generalized assumptions which the DM modifies to fit specific circumstances in his/her campaign as they arise.

    As such, I think that it IS a mindset and any roleplaying game can indeed be played in the Old School style. Whether the game designer intended that or not is a different (and largely unimportant) question.

    The number of rules and/or subsystems is irrelevant to the style of play.

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  36. part of my problem with "rules heavy" is that it seems like a cynical marketing trick. whenever the biz "introduces" (sells) a new book of rules, those rules' chance of being adopted depends on whether players see some way to work something to their advantage. rules creep and power creep go hand-in-hand.

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  37. btw, my comment is not intended as a slight against any of the supplements that James is incorporating in his game. my sense is that people producing "old school" supplements today or doing so with a sincere interest in making better and better games.

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  38. I wasn't born until 1982, so I really didn't get to play the "old-school" games as they came out; actually, I didn't start playing DnD until 1993...with the "Classic" Dungeons and Dragons game then with 2e. "Old-School" to me means two things: anything pre-3e and games that are more "open" than their newer incarnations. By "open," I mean the rules-lite system that many people talk about...a system that supplies the basic skeletal structure and allows me to add the muscles and flesh as I see fit.

    So, honestly, I think "old-school" is both a historical divider and a "rules mindset."

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  39. I think that, for me at least, Old School games are the ones that don't have an established campaign supporting them.

    There's often a connection, yes, but it's not an absolute one. I think EPT and RQ are both unambiguously old school games, as is Stormbringer, which is even a licensed property.

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  40. Perhaps my law school background has colored my thinking on this matter, but I don't view games as "rules light" or "rules heavy". I view them as "common law" or "statutory".

    Heh, I like this! There's definitely something to this distinction.

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  41. Sounds like you're doing what EGG did James, not bad company to be in.

    Early Gygax perhaps, but I don't think I have the right perspective to ever contemplate producing something like Unearthed Arcana.

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  42. I like the idea of the 1974 D&D boxed set as merely a starting point for each referee's own game/campaign. In that light, Supplement I: GREYHAWK is Gary's spin on D&D. EPT is Barker's spin on D&D. The Arduin Grimoire is David Hargrave's spin on D&D. Supplement V: CARCOSA is a spin on D&D by myself. Etc.

    I like this approach too, though it's hard to say if this really was the logic behind these Supplements/Games.

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  43. Cole,

    Lots of good points there. I am largely in agreement.

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  44. As such, I think that it IS a mindset and any roleplaying game can indeed be played in the Old School style.

    I suppose it's possible, but don't the rules of certain games make it hard to run them in an old school fashion? I mean, could you run a collaboration-heavy, narrative game old school style? I'm inclined to say no, but maybe I'm missing something.

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  45. btw, my comment is not intended as a slight against any of the supplements that James is incorporating in his game.

    No need to worry. :)

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  46. I like the comparison to Call of Cthulu. The system is one of the few that progressed through the years virtually unchanged in two important ways. The rules are almost identical to the early versions. And also player expectations have not changed at all in that time period. A player who creates a CoC character understands what they are getting into and realize that part of the fun is how far they can get before death or madness take their toll.

    Oddly this game also shows that a core mechanic doesn't exactly mean you are not old school. I have always seen CoC as being very easy to learn and use since it uses a very basic system of central mechanics.

    Since it's mechanics are simple it is easy to adjust them to your own whim or flavor. You can easily see the cause and effect on other aspects of the game to maintain balance or unity. I vividly mixing the original Elric and CoC together to create some nasty dark fantasy back in the day.

    I also like the points about Common/Statutory law made above. As I have mentioned I run a 4e game since my players would cross the street to avoid a save vs death roll. And often exposed to the not so subtle world of "this is how the rules say this will happen". And scratch my head I had to home rule old school antics like flaming flasks of oil. Cruising forums of late for the new Essentials much needed change to acquiring magic items. I found many folks on those forums aghast at the changes. Calling it a return of "Gygax DM vs the players" school of thought. This made me giggle and also thankful my players have been fine with my tweaks to the system that removed a lot of that entitlement or the 4e mechanics of "I just roll my way out of a situation". This isn't anything new. Oddly I find the above statement a bit difficult to take serious. Since basically it implies that the DM is not working with the players to create the game. Their enjoyment instead seems to stem from controlling the world on their own terms. And any randomness or flavor that prevents that from happening is unfair to them. Even putting a challenge in front of them that will acquire the object they desire seems to frustrate them. Nor, do they consider the fact that putting some items in the game may take the fun out playing some of the other characters and even lowers the DM's satisfaction. I am not sure how to put in words what that expectation is, though I have a good grasp on what it is I dislike about it.

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  47. A Paladin in Citadel quoted, and commented:

    "'Back in the day, we were always negotiating stuff with the DM --- which I think was part of the fun -- there might have been a rule for it somewhere, but we seldom stopped to look that up. So if someone wanted to push a bugbear off a cliff, the DM might say, "I'll give you a 50% chance to succeed..." and the player might say, "Well, I have an 17 strength and I got a running start..." and the DM might counter, "I'll give you plus 15% for your strength, but since you are running at him, the bugbear is going to try to dodge to the side --- if you fail to hit him, you might hurl YOURSELF off the cliff..." and so on. The entire game was a series of negotiations.
    These days there always seems to be something we have to look up... I think the rules have changed, but the RPG mind set (at least in my circle) has also changed.'

    Now that's old-school."

    The 3E game I'm currently running works in a pretty similar fashion--it's always been the best way for me to run games, and even though 3E has its Serious Skills System, how situations play out is pretty heavily modified by roleplaying, negotiation and interpretation of things between me (as judge) and the players.

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  48. On the note of creating rules for your own campaigns. I know it is easy to create agreement in cases where you are trying to resolve a situation that has come up through play.

    But, how do you handle flavor changes to your campaign? I recently had to abandon a simple set of rules for spell checks that was supposed to add a more magic is rare and painful aspect to the campaign. I had one person take a caster and I eventually just dropped it after about 12 sessions due the look of defeat on his face constantly. We are talking about a very small chance of failure in most instances (but increased by being in areas with more Chaos for Divine or Law if you were Arcane caster) that could be still cast by using hit points or delaying the spell. When it comes to custom rules that challenge what a player wants to be, in this case a caster, against what you want to world to feel like. The rules had other modifications like taking mutations to increase your chance of casting arcane spells, acquiring certain objects, or using multi-classing to balance out your usefulness in certain situations. I imagined a world where no one dabbled to far into magic. I even added some perks if he rolled real good to give him a more sense of risk vs reward. But, he just couldn't get past the fact he had to roll to cast a spell.

    These rules were put forth before session one of the campaign and I happily adjusted them with game play as they were play tested. But, there was an obvious disconnect in our expectations of what made the game interesting. And I wonder how much of it was a difference in what we were referencing in our heads was fantasy. I grew up on Howard and Leiber. He grew up with TSR books from the 80's and 90's.

    When pushed this brand of gamer can be forced to see past their frustration to the fun of the challenge. Or eventually start to see the why the world works the way it does if you dress everything carefully. But it can be a hard sell.

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  49. I too like Alexander’s comparison to law, but I think there still needs to be a distinction between starting rules light and adding rules as you go versus staying rules light. In true rules light play, the GM considers each situation freshly. Precedence doesn’t have a lot of sway. The GM strives to make the best judgement in the present regardless of what might have happened in the past.

    Whether that is “old school” or not is left up to the reader to judge.

    fauxcrye: “But, how do you handle flavor changes to your campaign?”

    shrug This is a group activity. Not everyone in the group can get exactly their way all the time. Compromises have to be made and lessons learned. Nobody can make the call for your group over whether the GM’s or player’s vision should reign here except your own group. And it may be a different call each time it comes up.

    In my group, it would be up to the current GM. Either he is willing to make his game flexible to fit in the player’s preference, or he isn’t and the player realizes he should play something other than a caster in that particular campaign.

    Or perhaps you can come up with a way to get the flavor you want by a means other than casting checks.

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  50. The biggest problem is that "old-school" is a word that doesn't have a clearly defined meaning. At its heart it is really a community of gamers trading ideas on the internet. Not all of those gamers agree on all points.

    I know the kids at my local university gaming club call my Planescape-based Pathfinder game "old-school" because I base it a lot on older 2nd ed material. I think it comes down to "generations". BX Blackrazor talked about gamers being influenced by what game they started playing with. For most gamers "old-school" is whatever they first began gaming with. I started with AD&D, but quickly moved to Palladium Fantasy because I liked having a skill system. When each gamer looks back at "old-school", they see something different.

    I think the OSR is best when people are talking about interesting things to do/change/add/modify their game and not arguing about what if something is "old-school" or not. Not that I'm saying you are arguing, you do an excellent job of stating what is important to you in an "old-school" game.

    I certainly like modular games, and my true "old-school" love is classic Traveller.

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  51. I agree that old school isn't equatable to a paucity of rules. In the case of the LBB, I think all those involved had so much personal background with taking a set of rules (in their case, mostly Napoleonic wargaming) and applying layer upon layer of alteration and customisation, that they would innately expect this to happen with OD&D.

    The original February '74 product had a lot in common with the wargames they were familiar with, including its intentional(I feel) semi-skeletal, modular quality. There are several quotes within the books that encourage the reader to adapt and add, for example the passage dealing with whether or not to mail questions to TSR.

    This very quality engendered what I view as the real magic and mystique of D&D. In the 70s, talk of D&D was similar to talk about foreign films or suburban key parties. An arcane world, known only by a select few, only a small corner of which you were allowed to glimpse. Not only did it spark imagination, but burning curiosity! If all D&D games had been alike, this wouldn't have been the case. But they weren't, they varied widely, and its true nature was hard to nail down. The unknowable is infinitely mysterious.

    The problem then, for an author who was a perfectionist, came when some of the modifications went too far. One quote I remember from a Dragon of that time talked about a letter from a level 70-something Balrog who complained of boredom with the game. Such things weren't just adaptation or innovation, they were perversion of the essential intent. I think this, even more than tournament standardisation, is what led to explicit inclusion of extensive rules, rather than their assumed existence.

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  52. There's often a connection, yes, but it's not an absolute one. I think EPT and RQ are both unambiguously old school games, as is Stormbringer, which is even a licensed property.

    The thing with Runequest is that most people's early campaigns, even if they were set in Glorantha (or more probably at the time, Prax), were all subtly different. And as Questworld shows, there was no absolute requirement to set the game in Glorantha. In fact the ability to take the basic skeleton of Runequest (ie what later became known as Basic Role-Playing) and reskin it effectively for different campaigns, such as the aforementioned Stormbringer, Elfquest, Ringworld, and even Call of Cthulhu, shows that it did not rely on an actual campaign for it to work.

    [In point of fact the nature of the "official" campaign changed over time as well. I mean, for example, take a look at the evolution of non-humans as a prime example. Early Runequest elves and trolls were quite different (given the Luise Perrin illustrations included in the rule book) from later 2nd Edition texts.]

    I hold that Empire of the Petal Throne was initially a re-skinning of D&D. Or at least, that was how we all treated it. Which is why there were many different official rule sets for Tekumel-based games, simply because EPT didn't truly support the nature of Professor Barker's official campaign, and so there were repeated attempts to construct a New School game system to support play in Tekumel as envisaged by the designer.

    In counter-point, take Vampire: The Whatever as an example of a New School game. While it may have a game system (ie the Storyteller system) that is common to various other games, that system is designed to encourage play in a certain manner (although the actual manner has changed between the various editions), making each and every game of Vampire rather similar in nature.

    Later editions of D&D followed this idea as well, as it slowly integrated campaign considerations into the rules system and presentation. By the time it reached the 4th edition it had achieved a complete cosmology that was the basis of how powers, abilities and monsters were defined as occurring. You were no longer using the rules to run your campaign, but setting your game in their campaign world.

    And this is what the Old School Rennaisance is rediscovering. The ability to create your own campaign worlds using your favourite system, that does not hew to an established official campaign world. And that means that each implementation of a rule set (even if it goes by the same name), is going to be slightly different. Which is a good thing. Monocultures are boring and inherently at risk of dying out.

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