Today I am celebrating post number 300 on the Grumpy Wizard blog. Since it is a special occasion I decided to do something different. This is an essay I sent out to my email list back in April. Some readers thought it deserved a wider distribution and so here it is.
If you enjoy the essay, sign up for my email list. You will receive a link to this and other longer form essays in PDF format. With the occasional exception, those essays will not be posted on my blog.
The creative impetus of this essay was a new setting that I’ve been developing. The game mechanics of my preferred game system, Swords and Wizardry: Complete won’t work with some of the thematic elements of the setting. The cosmology and magic are a complete mismatch. Character progressions wouldn’t fit either.
This catalyzed some thoughts about what “old school’ means to me. I’m sure others will disagree with my characterizations and I invite you to comment and critique my perspective.
Thanks for reading and I hope you stick around for the next 300 blog posts.
When speaking of old school tabletop roleplaying games, a lot of people assume that what we’re talking about is TSR era Dungeons and Dragons. TSR D&D is old school but not all old school is TSR D&D. There are other rulesets published back in the 1970’s and early 1980’s that count as “old school.” Tunnels and Trolls, Metamorphosis Alpha, Gamma World, Call of Cthulhu, Traveller, The Fantasy Trip,Villains and Vigilantes, Boot Hill and many others. Their position in temporal dimensions is not what makes them old school. There are many recent games that are “old school” in that the designer had an old school mindset and set of first principles when it came to the design of those games. Some of those game designers might eschew the term “old school” and yet have made an old school game.
I’ve come to dislike the designations of “old school” and “new school.” I’ve used “classic adventure gaming” a lot lately. That’s unwieldy and doesn’t quite get at what I’m saying. There are many games of recent vintage built on “old school” concepts and principles.
Dungeon Crawl Classics is a good example. It uses some mechanisms and ideas from the 3rd Edition of D&D (such as the saving throws) and creates some new ones of its own like the experience system. You won’t see many gamers arguing that DCC is not “old school” or perhaps “classic.”
These new games make the term a little misleading. I’m not at all sure about how to label them. Generally, the reason one might want to label such things is to make it easier for the guy at the game shop to put it on the right shelf for customers to find it. That’s a topic for another day though. I want to talk about the “old school” mindset.
I don’t think that anyone who wrote these games thought in the terms I’m laying out. These are my post hoc observations. I think a lot of the old school games were made when Gary, Dave or some other gamer had a thought about a game. They messed around and came up with a new game, a variant or different kind of game. When their friends liked it, they published it.
While the dice mechanics of these various games contribute to their “old schoolness” there are deeper and more important matters.
The percentile system of Call of Cthulu and the various mechanisms of D&D are quite different. Tunnels and Trolls is all d6 with multipliers and modifiers. Metamorphosis Alpha uses resistance tables. Dungeon Crawl Classics has the “deed die” as well as saves that come from ability scores instead of a table like AD&D. All these games using different dice mechanisms are “old school”; “new school” games like 5E use some of the same dice mechanics as their predecessors; Dice mechanisms are not what makes a game old school.
If dice mechanisms don’t make a game “old school” then what does?
An open system is one that is permeable. You can bring things into it from outside. It can be influenced by exterior ideas. A closed system does not allow anything from outside. All tabletop role playing games are a combination of open systems and closed systems. Any game that does not have some degree of openness is not a roleplaying game.
The fundamental basis of tabletop RPG’s is that the player and referee can introduce a novel thing to the game. One way I describe RPG’s is that they are games with a rule that says you can extemporaneously introduce new components or rules to the game during play of the game.
You cannot change the rules in the middle of play in a closed game such as Chess or Advanced Squad Leader. The rules of Chess and ASL do not allow you to add a new component, say invaders from outer space, in the middle of play. The players begin play in a closed game knowing that the rules and pieces being played which are fixed prior to the initiation of play.
The earliest RPG’s had a great deal of permeability. In the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide, Gary suggests you mix your fantasy peanut butter with your science fiction chocolate. He encourages you to send your players to the generation ship Warden from Metamorphosis Alpha or to bring aliens to your campaign setting. One of my favorite old school adventures from the Dungeoneer features humans who are being controlled by an alien creature whose spaceship crash landed in the nearby swamp. Arduin and Tunnels & Trolls famously encouraged whimsical creativity from players and game masters.
As far as game mechanisms, the game master was explicitly told that the rules cannot cover every situation and that they will have to improvise. Some effort was made by TSR to teach DM’s how to do this; particularly in the 2nd Edition DMGR Series with the blue cover. The very first section of the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide is about dice and probability. If you learn how dice probabilities work, combine that understanding with some common sense and general knowledge of the world, you can come up with a dice mechanism to cover an oddball situation on the fly.
Permeability allows the game master to design new mechanisms between sessions. A monster may not function by the rules as written. House rules are normal and expected by most players of “old school” games. Permeability allows the DM to borrow mechanisms from other games or other DM’s and insert them into their own campaigns at will. If the mechanism creates enjoyable game play, the play group will accept it with little or no objection.
Permeability allows the players to create novel solutions to problems. For example, players have come up with numerous ingenious ways to find invisible monsters. I have known players who would get a small bag of flour to throw into the air to check for invisible foes or objects in a room. There’s no rule in original D&D that tells you that this works but because a player brought the idea into the game, it exists. Players will deploy grease, marbles, haunches of meat and water in ingenious ways to solve dungeon puzzles and traps. None of those appear in the rules text but the permeability of the game allows those techniques work without prescribed rules.
Most contemporary games and gamers discourage permeability. They encourage game masters to only use the game components and mechanisms provided by the publisher. Anything outside of the prescribed rules or setting material is prohibited unless absolutely necessary to keep the game going. You will not find laser gun wielding priests of Tsathoggua in Faerun but you will find rules for swimming, grappling, starting fires, crafting magic items, acquiring animal friends and on and on. The unified D20 mechanism of the WotC version of the game is to be utilized in the few areas where there is no rule or procedure, thereby eliminating the need for the DM to make something up.
Players Primarily Interact With the Fictional Mental Construct of the Setting
In old school games, the fictional mental construct of the setting is what the players interact with most.
Most of the play in a role-playing game amounts to a conversation between the game master and players. The GM is communicating a description of the setting and what its inhabitants are doing. That communication is tends to be spoken words but can be anything which helps the player to build the model of the game world in their own mind. This is the “fictional mental construct” of the game. The game exists in the minds of the participants. Any physical media the referee uses is a reference for the players to construct a mental model for themselves.
Each of us are different and have had different experiences and make different assumptions. If I could somehow create a three dimensional life size simulation of your mental model of an ancient red dragon and compare your model to my model, they would be different. Our models will be similar enough that when I say, “The dragon takes a deep breath and opens its mouth wide,” you know what’s coming next. This is the “user interface” of old school games.
In old school games, players receive information from the game master. Their brains build the fictional mental construct of the situation in their head and perhaps receive aid in the form of a doodle on some graph paper. The players then either make a decision or ask the game master for more information. There is a back and forth between discussion between the game master and the players. The player may reference something on their character sheet such as a spell or piece of equipment but the majority of the dialogue is about what is happening in the shared mental construct. At some point, the outcome of the decision is resolved either by the game master making a ruling without recourse to mechanisms or dice are rolled to determine outcomes. The most successful players often avoid dice rolls all together by clever manipulation of some tool in the construct.
What is different about the “new school” approach is that the player encountering the ancient red dragon is going to pick up a D20, roll it, apply a skill or ability score modifier and ask the Dungeon Master what they notice about the dragon. The player is encouraged by the design of the game to go toward the “closed” system of the dice mechanism.
The die roll determines how much of DM’s mental model gets disclosed to the player. Instead of the player interacting with the DM and their mental model, the player is interacting with the game mechanism and the game mechanism is telling the DM how much or how little to interact with the player.
The mechanisms of the game is the interface the player uses to navigate the shared mental construct. For the new school player, the answer to their problem is on the character sheet. For the old school player, the answer is in the description the Dungeon Master has communicated or some detail they have not yet explored.
Some games like 4E D&D, require the use of physical media to be playable. Special dice, tokens, chits, custom miniatures, battlemats, terrain, counters and frequently laptop computers (to manage the multi page characters sheets) have become common features of the current era of games. While some of these things can be used in “old school” games to good advantage, they are all optional. In my opinion, the requirement of player interfaces other than a character sheet and verbal communication with the game master marks a game as “new school.”
Old school games require teamwork. There are exceptions, you can play some old school games solo or with one player and one game master but largely, teamwork is a necessity.
Teamwork in contemporary games is encouraged but not required.
Characters in old school games are specialists. Characters tend toward specialization even in games like Call of Cthulu which do not have classes. the player can choose to create a character with varied skills. You are far more likely to find a character in CoC with a high percentage in skills that are linked. It is more likely to find a character with “library use” and “other languages” than “heavy equipment use” and “library use.”
In the Wizards of the Coast iterations of Dungeons and Dragons there are a number of magic using character classes along with the ability to multi class far more easily than in earlier editions. These design decisions (along with a play culture of character optimization) create parties of characters that are mechanically very similar. There will be some variations in skills and abilities but by and large, any one of these characters will be able to cover the gamut of problems that can be solved via game mechanisms.
In old school games, archetypal character classes or templates (in a skill based game) each have their areas of expertise that are fenced off. The thief is best at sneaking, the fighter is best at fighting, the cleric has healing powers and so forth. A fighter can attempt to sneak but will never be as good at it as the thief. The magic user at higher levels has the ability to deploy magic to mimic or even outperform other classes in certain circumstances but still requires the protection of others in order to have the space to use their magic.
Encounter design in older games also tend to require groups of characters combining their individual abilities in order to overcome obstacles or problems. A vertical element to a dungeon in an old school game can provide a considerable challenge to the players.
One type of “balance” in many current games is manifested as every character has close to the same chance to solve a problem via a mechanism involving a dice roll. The wizards as effective in combat as the fighter. The big fighty character might use “intimidation” and the suave smooth talking character might use “persuasion” but both have a D20 with +1 to the roll that will convince the gate guard to let them into town. The game encourages DM’s to ignore any difference between the two approaches as it might apply to the die roll. In the player’s handbook it specifically encourages players to take the approach that gives the highest bonus to the D20 roll. Two different character classes can solve the same problem and make the same die roll which effectively makes them the same.
Whereas, in old school games, it matters very much what approach you take. The wizard might be able to do some serious damage but the number of times they can manage it is limited while the fighter can deal out death so long as they are standing. Some NPC’s might be persuaded and others intimidated. Some might have a very negative reaction to intimidation attempts. The DM might let the player roll but apply a positive modifier to the reaction roll because the character was respectful or friendly.
It is also possible to simply avoid a die roll all together. The guard will let you in if you give him an appropriate “donation to the watch’s orphan fund.” To many in the “new school” play culture, this is anathema. The player character has a skill and the DM damn well better let us roll the dice regardless of the specific circumstances of the encounter.
Old school mindset elevates the continuity and logical consistency of the milieu* above the interests of the player and the “story” of the player character.
Common thought in most circles of contemporary design and play is that the game is centered and revolves around the player characters. The adventure modules released by WotC since the beginning of the 5E product cycle have been, with one recent exception, complete campaigns intended for game groups to run from beginning to end with one set of characters. There is no sense in the way the adventures are presented that other things are going on in the world around the characters. The only thing that matters is what the players are doing right now.
NPC’s are standing around waiting for the player characters to show up and fix things for them or interrogate them or fight them. The world only moves in response to the players actions; to a point because the moves are scripted and pre-programmed. The handling of character death is also an expression of the character centric mindset of the new school. The “story” of the player characters is the most important part of a new school game. If those stories don’t come to a satisfyingly dramatic conclusion then the game is a failure. A character dying from a random encounter, a peasant with pitchfork or falling into a pit trap is abhorrent in contemporary games. Characters are the protagonists of an epic tale and deserve epic deaths, if they die at all.
The milieu centric old school game places priority on the continuity of the world. That your 1st level thief was killed by a goblin with a rusty cleaver in an ignominious fashion is hilarious in old school play. The character was not the center of the game, the events that led to a goblin raiding party showing up on the forest path was the center of the game. The story, in old school games, are the stories embedded in the setting and the stories that emerge from the events of play in that setting.
The old school mindset places a great deal of importance on the continuity of the fictitious mental construct while still allowing permeability. Dwarves, crash landed aliens, extra dimensional tentacle monsters, bags of flour for finding invisible creatures, and clay marbles for tripping them up are all allowed through the membrane. Wildly varying elements suggested by players may be allowed into a milieu.
Dave Arneson accepted a number of additions to Blackmoor such as Duane Jenkin’s vampire character. However, the integrity of the particular DM’s campaign is important. Just because something will be “cool” or produce a “satisfying narrative” doesn’t mean the DM will allow it. There are constraints. If it fits, it is allowed. If it doesn’t fit, it is not allowed and this is understood as being for the good of the game experience.
Many players in the “new school” grow quite indignant when their game master limits elements within their game world. The exclusion of a certain race or class found in a rule book gets a lot of derision in message boards and social media conversations around these games. Game masters that constrain character choices for continuity reasons within their setting are called any number of nasty names.
The Second Order Effects
You may have noticed that I did not mention a number of concepts common in the OSR such as “rulings not rules”, “the quantum ogre”, “emergent narrative,” “combat as war vs combat as sport.” That is because these are second order effects that flow from the four principles.
If you have a highly permeable system which requires the players to mostly interact with the fictional mental construct, then “rulings” are going to be the most effective way to adjudicate what happens. If players and game masters are encouraged to “imagine the hell out of it” then closed systems become highly ineffective for adjudicating events in the game.
If the milieu is central to play, the “quantum ogre” becomes an obvious non-starter. The continuity of the milieu demands that the ogre is in this wood and not that one. An “emergent narrative” results from permeability and milieu centricity.
If teamwork, character specialization and milieu centricity are built into the game system, “combat as war” is encouraged. The character dies because that’s what happens when a goblin chops you with a rusty cleaver. Dealing with a tribe of goblins requires everyone to use their skills together to get out of the scrape. If all the characters are “balanced” that every class can contribute equally to a combat encounter, and the game is character centric you tend toward “combat as sport.” The game master will present a mechanically balanced encounter of just the right number of goblins that the adventurers can defeat in a dramatic fashion.
Synergism and Final Thoughts
Here are the four elements of old school games as a list:
- High Permeability
- Players interact with the fictitious mental construct of the setting.
- Players must work as a team to achieve objectives
- The integrity of the milieu is central.
These four elements work synergistically.
If you have a setting and game with high permeability, players will want to add to it. The player will also want to engage with it to figure out how to achieve their objectives. If their objectives require teamwork, their explorations and additions to the setting will complement each player character and the setting and there will be incentives to interact with the setting directly rather than the dice mechanisms that the game master uses to mediate and adjudicate outcomes.
Having these four elements in a game creates a virtuous cycle of interactions. Each one feeds and nurtures the creativity of everyone involved in the game.
This is why, after nearly 50 years, the “old school” ways have not lost any of their potency despite losing popularity.
*milieu: mi·lieu | \ mēl-ˈyü\ campaign setting \ High Gygaxian