Where the Shift from Old School Play Came From, As I See It

Brian from Death Trap Games put up a good post the other day about how D&D shifted away from old school play. I’m in broad agreement with his thesis and recommend that you go check out what he has to say. There was another shift that I find most relevant to my personal tastes in table top roleplaying games.

That shift was when the designers of 3rd Edition changed the emphasis of the game from the open system (conceptual) to an emphasis on the closed systems (mechanisms) of the game. An open system is a system in which the player or game master can insert something into the game which is not in the rules. A closed system game only allows for the rules as written. A game like chess is an example. The rules are clear and do not allow anything from the outside. The King can’t jump across the board because it’s not in the rules. If you are playing the king in D&D, you might very well be able to do something that you just thought up in the moment.

The genius of the early Braunstein and Blackmoor games was the combination of the open system and the closed systems. They addressed known and probable situations, physical combat in particular, with closed systems. This was combined with the “open system” of allowing the players to address novel situations with creative solutions that had to be adjudicated by the referee. That was adopted as the game master in the role playing games that followed. The emphasis in the “old school” is on the open system. Figuring out how to avoid the potential failure of a die roll or improve your chances by using creative thinking to make success more likely is the essence of old school play.

I have listened to several Skip Williams interviews and he has stated that it was the intention of the design team to create a game where the players would know with certainty what the mechanism to be used in determining the outcome of a character’s action before stating that action to the DM. All the mechanisms of the game were to be player facing. The effect this had on the game was that the open system was deemphasized and the closed system of only using mechanisms which were spelled out in the game rules were emphasized.

This shift toward an emphasis on the closed systems has significant impact on the experience of the game. Most important, for me, is that it removes incentives for players to come up with creative solutions to problems and it may actually reduce the incentives for players to have social interactions with NPC’s.

A DM comes up with a way to give a player character an adventure hook. The DM knows the player wants a two handed sword and has just finished an adventure where the character has enough coin to buy the sword they want. Knowing the player is going to go see a particular merchant, who has a particular sword the DM decides that the merchant will ask for way more money than the sword is worth. What the merchant really wants is for the character to go do a small side job for him. Selling the sword at a profit would be nice but if he can get the character to go take care of the problem he has, it is worth more than the sword is. The merchant is willing to give the character the sword if they go do this task.

The PC approaches the merchant and asks to buy the sword. The merchant informs the character the price for the sword. The player recognizes that the price is five times the price in the book. The game culture WotC created with its 3rd and 4th edition rule sets encourages the player to scan their character sheet (or laptop screen, yuck) then look up at the DM to tell them what skill or feat they are going to use to persuade the merchant to give the character a better price on the sword they are trying to buy.

They roll a D20, give the DM the result which by the rules as written, should be more than necessary to convince the merchant to lower the price. The DM says, “Wait a minute, the merchant has something else to offer you.” The merchant tells the character what he wants, and the player is not interested in the side quest. The player asserts that his persuasion check should be more than sufficient to convince the merchant to give the character a lower price on the sword. The DM has a number of choices but the path of least resistance is to sell the player the sword at a lower price and move on.

The 5E player’s handbook does devote quite a bit more text to “roleplaying” and how to approach social interactions with NPC’s by talking through it than using ability checks to get what the PC wants. However, if you have made a choice at character creation to pick some skill at “persuasion” rather than a combat skill then you are damn well going to use that skill at persuasion whenever it is available as an option.

Pay attention to your skill proficiencies when thinking of how you want to interact with an NPC, and stack the deck in your favor by using an approach that relies on your best bonuses and skills.

5th Edition Players Handbook page 186 “Social Interaction”

As Brian mentions in his post, this also has a tendency to cause the game to become more combat focused. Players are going to be less inclined to take a skill or feat as they level up that doesn’t have a clearly defined mechanical outcome. Social skills can be difficult to adjudicate. Just how much of the truth does the spy tell the PC when the player rolls a nat 20 to intimidate? How conscientious and loyal is the guard that you are trying to persuade to open the gate? If the DM handwaves social interaction or prefers more of a improvisational style, (“roleplaying” as many call it) there is less incentive to increase the character’s social skill modifiers. The result you are going to get players making the choice to focus on combat capabilities when they are making choices as they level up and their characters are more likely to choose violence over negotiation when violence is a viable option. The players may choose to just kill the goblins rather than negotiating an alliance against the orcs.

To me, the essence of the older style of play is to ask the DM questions about the diegetic or conceptual reality of of the situation and then describe what your character attempts to do. A skilled old school DM will then tell the player what the die roll necessary for that is and then the player can decide whether or not to go forward. Inverting that process, the player deciding which mechanism to deploy in order to achieve their character’s aims, takes a lot of the emotional punch out of the game and is the mark of the “new school” approach to D&D.

3 thoughts on “Where the Shift from Old School Play Came From, As I See It

  1. Great piece. I agree completely on the shift from open to closed systems. I’ve been striving to reverse this in my own games, even making combat more open. Though I wonder if combat should be closed as it creates a firm expectation of how violence (the part of the game with the most permanent consequences) will be resolved if the players choose that route. When it comes to PC death, I think most players and DMs would prefer to let the rules be the bad guy.

    Blackmoor and Braunstein were their own games with their own rules. OD&D was a collection of ideas from these games for DMs to start their own campaigns. Even today every D&D table plays by their own interpretation of the rules though with much less variance and freedom. I think making the rules player-facing was due to a few more factors than surveys about how the game was played. The well-intentioned ones may include standardizing them for tournament play, helping inexperienced DMs, and creating a common language and expectation should players move between DMs and tables. The business reasons were likely creating and protecting IP and finally selling to a much larger pool of potential consumers (though I bet most DMs spend more on the hobby than their players combined).

    Let’s also not forget most gamers aren’t game designers and the more “open” a game is, the stronger the DM must be in matters of game design. The most “open” system is make it up yourself, but that doesn’t sell very many rulebooks and Gary admitted as much.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Thanks for reading and commenting. Great points. I am very much in agreement that Blackmoor, Braunstein and OD&D were three different games. I’ve been considering how to explain that as a blog post for a while. I’m glad someone else has gone down that mental path as well. I also agree that the player facing rules had a lot to do with $. There are more players than DM’s after all and getting players to buy books was a good way to expand the number of books you could sell.


  2. Pingback: A Message to 5E DMs: You Only Have One Ass. – Grumpy Wizard

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