Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Art of the Old School

I'd read this quote a while ago and agreed with it then, but, in light of the terrific conversations going on my comments lately, I'm going to bring it to everyone's attention, because it succinctly says a few things I've been trying to get across about old school games. I've bolded a section I think is particularly pertinent and that speaks quite clearly on why I see devolution rather than evolution over the course of D&D's history.
The rules themselves were barely there. You had to make it all up. This put so much responsibility on the GM. He had to be entertaining, imaginative, fair, rational. In many ways the steady march away from original D&D has been a sustained effort to remove the effects of a bad GM on the game. The more game elements are objectively determined, written down in books, the less you have to rely on the GM. The less you need a really good GM to run the game. And yes, the more of a science it becomes, and less of an art. Running this game was an art form and only a few people could do it really well. There’s something magical about that. Newer versions become more systematized and therefore more people can play. Mediocre GMs can run good games. But, if I’m being honest with myself, something of the magic is lost. That feeling that most of this game lived in your mind. Because of that, I think, it was more real. As more and more of the game lived in the rules and on character sheets, it became a game instead of a world in your head.
Read the rest of the post too. I have a fair number of quibbles about it, but, overall, there's a lot I agree with and would recommend to anyone who still doesn't quite get the old school philosophy.


  1. Posting here as well as LJ, for your readers who may only read one or the other medium:

    D&D, in particular, has gone overboard with the systematisation. The Challenge Rating system has never sat well with me, because it seems dependent entirely on the assumption that your players will only ever do the stuff that their character sheet says they can do -- just like in (sorry to be dragging up the cliche again) an MMORPG or other computer game.

    When I run or play an old school game, I have certain assumptions about encounters:

    1) Some encounters will be way too tough, and the players will realise that and avoid them or find other ways than combat to deal with the situation. They should know their own limits. Part of knowing one's own limits means accepting that there's stuff out there that's too hard for you to kill right now, with the experience & resources at your disposal. That knowledge makes the world seem way more real than knowing that you'll always 'magically' encounter stuff that's just tough enough to provide an interesting challenge. The latter approach always reminds you that this is a game, rather than the fantastic experience of another reality. This, despite some indications in the post you've quoted that in many respects OD&D was far more self-consciously a wargame than later editions.

    2) A great many encounters, whether with too-tough creatures or not, will be dealt with by the PCs coming up with a cunning scheme -- diverting that underground river to flood the fire-oriented creature's lair, or luring the mummy onto the magical flame projector that's in the middle of Room 17, or re-setting and triggering the kobolds' rockfall trap to kill the pursuing goblins, or using some wacky non-combat spells to make the orcs think they're really gods, or something. I suspect that there are a number of 3.0-, 3.5-, and 4-edition-enabled mediocre GMs who would struggle to come up with ways of resolving those situations, because IT'S NOT IN THE RULEBOOK.

    Professional combatants in the real world & in most decent fantasy literature don't fight fair. They aim to set things up so that they can bring overwhelming force to bear against their enemies, preferably to force them to surrender without bloodshed. An actual fight should be avoided, if there are other ways to win; a FAIR fight should certainly be a last resort.

    3) I expect that the GM will deliberately be a little flexible. As a player, I'll never rely on such flexibility to ensure my character will survive if he does something stupid; but as a GM, I WILL bend the rules a little in the interest of 'the spirit of the game'. That might mean letting characters who've made an heroic effort, roleplayed to the hilt, & come up with some great ideas, a chance at survival even though the rules say they should be dead. Alternatively, it might mean allowing them the glorious death they clearly crave; to some extent this is at the GM's whim, because the players know s/he is a good GM & trust the GM to get things right. There is no rules-lawyering; how could there be, when (a) only the GM really knows all the rules anyway, since a fair portion of them are house-ruled and (b) our hypothetical ideal players know there is no point attempting rules-lawyering anyway, as the GM can overrule the rulebook at any time.

    * * *

    All that said -- there are games that, despite not being "old school" in almost any other sense, still offer most of that stuff. Most games that aren't D&D do, in fact, but in particular I'd say Amber and Dragon Warriors do (just to pick 2 examples I've played a lot & that are broadly in the fantasy genre).

  2. I pretty much agree. As social games, RPGs can work okay when there's a lot of rules that tame the uncertainties.

    However, RPGs are only great when there are only enough rules, and a lot of trust and imagination at the table.

  3. I agree with this statement. Thank goodness I was blessed with resonably good DMs when I started playing, who wouldn't say "you can't do that", but would work out what I could do. Then, later on, I was blessed with bad DMs, and I learned what NOT to do. But, this is also a big reason why I dislike 3.0/3.5/4 Ed... there's just too damn many rules. Evern second edition, with the Player Options, is a little too much. I'd much rather lose rules, and make it up in flavour.

  4. I have a couple of quibbles.

    A great DM can make a game magical, but I believe most people can become a good DM. There’s not some rare talent that’s required. You just have to learn to make the most of the talents you do have.

    Adding rules is intended to remove the effects of a bad DM, but I’ve never seen it happen. (It just means more for a bad or mediocre DM to get “wrong” in the eyes of the rules-philistines.)

    There are only two things that make people better DMs: Practice and maturity.

  5. Adding rules is intended to remove the effects of a bad DM, but I’ve never seen it happen. (It just means more for a bad or mediocre DM to get “wrong” in the eyes of the rules-philistines.)


    Some of the worst rules lawyers I've ever seen were sitting behind DM screens.

    And some of the best DM's I've ever seen knew which rules to ignore, which to relax, and which to enforce (a bare minimum).

  6. Einstein said an explanation should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. I agree with posters here that a rule set should be as short as possible. I always preferred James Bond or Star Wars as a ruleset to AD&D: the books were very much shorter, and only covered set piece moments in the game (especially Bond, which had combat, chases and seductions, and almost nothing else) where you might appreciate a mini-game over which to strategise. Maybe I'd love OD&D if I'd played it; it sounds about the right length.

  7. Maybe I'd love OD&D if I'd played it; it sounds about the right length.

    It’s not too late!

  8. I'd much rather lose rules, and make it up in flavour.

    Depending on what you mean by "flavor," I'd probably agree with you.

  9. Adding rules is intended to remove the effects of a bad DM, but I’ve never seen it happen. (It just means more for a bad or mediocre DM to get “wrong” in the eyes of the rules-philistines.)

    Oh, I agree, but that doesn't change the fact that the development of D&D has taken "protection" from the "bad" DM as its pole star since late 2e at least, if not sooner. It's self-avowedly one of the core design principles of 4e. You're right that such things never work out in practice, but that won't stop WotC from trying.

  10. @Richard

    Your comment actually brings to mind something that's been tickling the back of my mind for ages.

    There are undoubtedly many reasons why the game changed from "old" to "new", and James has pointed out many of them. But, and I truly believe this, something that I remember being quite interesting as a young man (I was indoctrinated into the ranks of D&D by an old school Napoleonics war gamer in '77 at the age of 13), is when people started judging games upon "heft value".

    What I mean by this is that there were many gamers that seemed to lug around the AD&D PHB and DMG, show them to people and say "These are the RULES." The common reaction from most (who'd only ever played things like Monopoly or Parcheesi) was "You've got to be kidding!" These certain intellectuals took particular pride in the fact that the "rules" were so extensive and that they were smart enough to play such a "complicated" game.

    I'm not exactly sure what this did, if anything, to the hobby in general, but I have the sneaking suspicion that it became some kind of rite of passage into an intellectual upper echelon that either discouraged others, or caused them to label any who explored that avenue as "geeks". All of the sudden there were outsiders.

    I distinctly remember when I first started this hobby that everyone approached it with an open mind. The rules were simple and the idea was that you were "playing" a novel. Fun. As the rules became more complex it seemed (to me) that a polarization occurred. Is there a corollary? Maybe so, maybe not. I'm not sure I'm smart enough to see it. ;-)