Rust, over on www.youmeetinatavern.com posted a link to an excellent resource for GMs who want to crack open their old school rpg books or who want to stir some ol’ school flavor into their modern RPGs. It’s called A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, It’s written by Matthew Finch, and it’s available as a free download from Lulu. Frankly, I’m not sure why this little gem is free but I’m SOglad it is. Described as “for old school gaming”, it’s really for spontaneous, exciting, wondrous, unlimited gaming and it’s got lessons at the core, like “The Tao of the Ming Vase” that enhance every RPG you’ll ever play.
Go and read it, then come back. I’ll wait. It’s only 13 pages.
See? pretty quick and totally awesome, right? Here’s my one beef with what it has to say:
Finch says on page 9: “You might be saying to yourself: “God, that sounds time-consuming.” Sure enough, this sort of detailed exploration of the adventure area occupies more time in old-style gaming than it does in modern gaming. 0e is a game of exploration, searching, and figuring things out just as much as it’s a game of combat. Game designers, over the years, decided that the game should focus on the fighting and the more cinematic moments of the game, with less time “wasted” on the exploration and investigation side of things. Over time, more and more detail was put into combat rules; and die rolls replaced the part of the game that focused on mapping, noticing details, experimentation, and deduction.”
That’s where I disagree with Mr. Finch. My general thought is that GMing is like driving. Everyone agrees there are good drivers and bad drivers but everyone also believes that they’re one of the good ones. After all, even the worst GM ever apparently thinks he’s a phenom. It’s that general attitude, not an attempt to “cut the boring exploration and get to the exciting combat” that led to codification of rules and subsystems. It’s easier to both be a good GM and defend yourself against a poor one when there are plenty of examples, lots of structure, and an objective process to follow for GMs.
That’s a small quibble but it’s a key one. After all, in my way of thinking, the quality GM issue was bad enough to re-shape the way games are designed. As such, when adding these types of elements into your game, it’s even more important than usual for your players to believe that you have their fun in mind as you adjudicate the game. So, if you’re planning to play the old-school way, here are some tips I picked up during my brief stint in “the old days”:
Open discussion of expectations is even more important than in modern gaming:
In modern games there’s a lot of stuff spelled out. You may need to nail down a genre niche, play-styles, focuses, etc… but the rules as written cover most stuff. That’s intentional. In old school games, there are a LOT more areas where GM fiat rules. If you and your GM have different ideas of how those situations should go in terms of flavor, etc… there’s a much greater chance for disagreements to arise. In a modern game, you might always be able to get +1 damage for -1 to hit. It’s a rule. In an old-school game, you might get that ability during heroic games, but during horror themed games you don’t. Why? It doesn’t fit the genre in the GMs mind. Be sure to sit down before the game and discuss what rules you’re allowing, if you’re going to expect the players to gauge and respond to challenges of greatly varying difficulty, theme, tone, and anything else you think might be important. Sure it takes extra time, but that’s time well spent if it brings your and your player’s vision of the game closer together.
Be consistent within a context:
In the example above, the GM decided to allow a certain type of bonus in one type of campaign because it suited the flavor and disallowed it in another because it did not. What’s important is that in the same context, you’re consistent. If you’re not it leads to confusion and resentment. Using a forceful imprecise attack worked last week. Why doesn’t it this week? If the situations are drastically different, you’re justified in whatever decision you make, but players WILL make assumptions from your prior body of rulings. It helps to make notes of rulings you make especially when they introduce or restrict actions or options that players may want to take advantage of in the future. When you start a new campaign or when things change for another reason (maybe characters have hit a higher level of “more heroic” play) it’s appropriate to revisit rulings you have made in the past and, with notification to the players, make changes but otherwise as long as you haven’t accidentally broken something, be consistent with your rulings.
Always err on the side of the players:
Some GMs will argue with this one, but remember the game is supposed to be fun and nothing will ruin your players’ day faster than feeling like you’re taking advantage of them. If there’s a doubt as to if something’s fair or fun or not, err on the side of the players. This doesn’t mean becoming a Monty-Haul style pushover. What it does mean is (despite Gygax’s early advice) randomly killing characters with unavoidable blue bolts of lightning from heaven that they had no chance to foresee is out, as are grudge monsters, GM PCs, or anything else that appears to take advantage of the trust the players have put in you. Remember, they’re exchanging their control of the imaginary world for the good of everyone’s entertainment. As soon as you become a petty tyrant, hording the game’s fun all for yourself, that trust is betrayed and the group starts to fall apart.
Adding some Old School approach to your game can be a bumpy road, but it’s a road worth taking.