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Not just your grandpappy’s RPG

Posted By Matthew J. Neagley On October 29, 2008 @ 3:45 am In GMing Advice | 8 Comments

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.

About  Matthew J. Neagley

First introduced to RPGs through the DnD Red Box Set in 1990, Matt fights on ongoing battle with GMing ADD, leaving his to-do list littered with the broken wrecks of half-formed campaigns, worlds, characters, settings, and home-brewed systems. Luckily, his wife is also a GM, providing him with time on both sides of the screen.




8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "Not just your grandpappy’s RPG"

#1 Comment By deadlytoque On October 29, 2008 @ 10:05 am

It’s an interesting read. One of my problems with “old-school” gaming as defined is that it’s seriously arbitrary. When I started gaming in the mid-90s, things were already pretty clearly in the “modern gaming” category, but I remember making up rules for situations not covered by the game books and being constantly decried for arbitrariness.

People like to hide behind rules because it gives them a chance to be on a level playing field. People hate nothing more than to feel that there is favoritism at the table.

I do like the “old school” idea that characters are not entitled to face things they can defeat. I love to toss my characters against challenges outside of their abilities and watch them scatter and scrounge for a way to win. But I have players who complain about that. I have one player who specifically said that one of the thing he hates about most games is that there is not specific “challenge rating” system, so he never knows exactly how hard an encounter is going to be. I always tell him that that looseness is to give him room to improvise. Encounter’s too hard? The players need to think fast and come up with something to save their bacon. Encounter’s too easy? Then it leaves the players feeling like big damn heroes.

#2 Comment By Scott Martin On October 29, 2008 @ 10:46 am

I like the points you make. I suspect the biggest problem with 0e style gaming was the cultural conflict with your first suggestion Open discussion of expectations is even more important than in modern gaming.

If you’re going to make adjustments on the fly, introduce unique elements beyond the rules, and such, it’s very important to make sure everyone understands why and how you’ll make your decisions. If talking about the game is derided as “metagaming” or viewed as against the rules, you’ve lost a key you need to stitch together a coherent game with friends. In many ways, the state of gaming discussions today may be what makes 0e play more widely possible.

#3 Comment By spotmarkedx On October 29, 2008 @ 2:32 pm

… Of course, if you follow that you are “consistant within a context”, and write down your rulings and revisit them each time you run a game, are you not then adding your own ream of rules for specific situations? What is the difference between having made a on the spot ruling (now canon within your group) that you can hit harder by taking a wilder swing, and having the option already in the ruleset?

I would have thought the appeal of this style was that you didn’t have a ream of rules you needed to consult each time someone wanted to try something new. Obviously trying to be cosistant is better than not, but going so far as to have notes on everything is little better than having codified rules in my opinion. As long as you are fair overall and your players are accepting of the occasional variation in rules, I think it far better to have no notes and run on the fly each time a situation comes up (unless it gets used every other game or so)

#4 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On October 30, 2008 @ 10:12 am

I’ve been thinking about that exact “Primer” for the last few weeks. It really opened my eyes to a few contrasts between OD&D and 3.5/4E, but I think a few of those contrasts have been over-emphasized.

When presented with two polar opposites, I tend to see if there is any middle ground. For instance, there is room for both die rolls and roleplay in the skill section. If you RP something out, the GM can take your skill modifiers into account as he determines the outcome. Or if you RP something a bit, and then roll the dice, the GM can assign modifiers based on your actions.

The other things I remember (and not too fondly) about Ye Olde Schoole Game are the endless arguments and discussions of “how things work” and how that should affect the game. Given that a fantasy world doesn’t have to follow natural laws, and gamers may have different ideas about how things work (see any given 1980s discussion on ninjas), this resulted in many a “because it’s magic” or “because I said so”.

My personal opinion is that OD&D was great at the time; it was all we had. The vague and subjective rules, and the reaction to them, pushed gaming towards the opposite pole: where the rules dictate everything, sometimes even trumping any sense of reality or verisimilitude. (Yeah, I had to go and use “the V word”.) Now, we’ve seen the madness that lies that way (four hour combats, anyone?), and the pendulum is swinging the other way. There are a lot of games available now that straddle the difference. Even 4E is less crunchy than 3.5, in many ways, and the alternatives like Fudge, Savage Worlds, etc. are much more streamlined than 3.5, but are still more detailed than OD&D.

#5 Pingback By Prefacio para los juegos de la “vieja escuela” « Padre, marido y friki On November 16, 2008 @ 6:32 am

[...] para los juegos de la “vieja escuela” Vía Gnome Stew me he enterado de la existencia de A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, un librillo de apenas 13 [...]

#6 Comment By GiacomoArt On June 2, 2009 @ 8:35 am

I bought the original, legendary Tegel Manor adventure fresh off the presses from Judge’s Guild over 30 years ago, and still can’t think of a published adventure that more embodies the style of gaming in question. Nor have I ever known an adventure for any RPG to be played, replayed, and beloved by more people than Tegel Manor. It was a sprawling, freewheeling, campy, D&D haunted house at its best, so I know the nostalgia from which this PDF came.

I do, however, find myself with more than a few bones to pick with the PDF’s contents, the largest of which is the claim that early D&D emphasized “player skill”. While there is indeed skill involved in that style of play, that skill is all about learning the DM’s personal tells, biases, and expectations; and about learning the tropes that module writers use over and over. The rules of an RPG exist to spell out at which points a GM is expected to relinquish control, either to chance or to his players, and the more tightly a GM keeps hold of his perogative to decide every outcome of every action, the less the game involves any sort of skill from the players beyond knowing how to manipulate him. “More rules” does not equal “better game”, but “more rules” does have a very strong correlation to “greater influence from player skill”.

Don’t get me wrong. I much prefer “rules light” games for most purposes, but all this “old-school D&D” nostalgia misses the point that no incarnation of D&D was ever truly a rules-light game, especially once you got past the “garage publishing” era and into the first hardback books. The older versions were just more arbitrary and disorganized, designed by committee and impossible to reconcile one facet with another. In short they were primtive, but not actually simple, and hardly in a position of virtue to claim superiority over any of their descendants. They did what they did because, at the time, they were the only game in town.

I do still play some D&D when that’s what’s being offered, but if you’re going to give me a choice, give me _real_ simplicity, please, and give me elegance as well. Give me FUDGE or FATE or West End’s “d6 system” or my home-brew “2d10 system”. And give me fast-moving and fun. I used to have a blast meticulously scouring every inch of the dungeon for traps and secret doors — back when I was ten, with all sorts of lazy Saturdays and evenings to fill up with my daydreaming. Now I’ve got a career, a wife, two young kids, a home of my own, a monster commute, and barely a moment to think most days. Free time comes at a premium, and just like the recent re-boot of Star Trek, I need my RPGs to find their inner Star Wars.

#7 Pingback By Prefacio para los juegos de la "vieja escuela" On August 10, 2010 @ 5:03 am

[...] Gnome Stew me he enterado de la existencia de A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, un librillo de apenas 13 [...]

#8 Pingback By Prefacio para los juegos de la “vieja escuela” On April 2, 2012 @ 2:52 am

[...] Gnome Stew me he enterado de la existencia de A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, un librillo de apenas 13 [...]


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