What is Old-School?

What is Old-School? I’ve been asking myself this for some time now, and I think that I’ve an answer. I don’t think that rules are old-school, nor is it a setting, but it is us; the gamers who have been using these products, and making them our own for a long time now.  Those of us who see this as a hobby; we never rest, and we always seek to improve our craft. I don’t think that we can play any other way! You sit us down at a convention, and force us to use the new rules and we are still going to focus on odd things that newer and more hip gamers won’t notice. When we use new products and transfer the data back to our preferred systems, we strip the thing down to its bare bones and rebuild it, like some Frankenstein’s monster into something that is all us. It isn’t on purpose; I never buy anything and say to myself, “I want to spend weeks rewriting this thing!” I don’t! The premise sounds good and I believe that my players and I will enjoy it; it’s just that I can’t turn it off. I am always looking at stuff, and thinking of a better way to get it done.

That is old-school; it is rethinking stories that have been told thousands of times in a fresh and new way. We’ve told Goblin Ambush stories many many times, but I feel that each time that we do it, we do it better and better. I know when I was younger, monsters were always evil, they had no other thoughts, but that isn’t the case anymore.  Why not have our goblins just trying to survive out in the wilderness? There goals and motivations mirroring our own, however, no matter how hard they try, they just will never be civilized.

I like thinking outside of the box. I enjoy role-playing my monsters and NPCs. What would it be like to be a vampire who is immortal? Who can’t even enjoy solid foods and every day just falls further and further from humanity. He experiences no joy, no risk, no nothing. He is empty and he knows it. What is his motivation? What does he cling to every night that gives his empty life meaning? The old me would never ask these questions, because I couldn’t. Just run Dracula, until you want to do it again.

As a table, we grow together. The original players at my table grew with me; they too are old-school. You can’t go back to just racing between combat scenarios, they want more and more and new players who join us quickly catch up. Old-school pushes us further, I can’t help but look at players and want to push them into new directions.  Even they, I can see, constantly rethink things, they know enough not to fall into old traps, but I can trust them never to become complacent either.

We are advanced players of the game, and instead of getting bored with the AD&D rule set and either quitting or moving on to 3e, we instead decided to push the thing further, not by changing the rules, but by changing how we play the game.

That is Old-School!

We found that we got bored of playing our homebrewed AD&D games, the one with crit hits and spell points, and all of the other junk that people like to add, but today we don’t use all of that (well, some of our house rules are still hidden in how we play the game so we are still trying to root them out), and decided to play one game (just one!), as written, and as core as we could possibly get it. We did that about 8 years ago and we’ve been playing that way ever since. We found the restrictions, which we used to find as pointless, actually served the game better. That is old-school. The rules haven’t changed; we just became more excepting of them.

Our games are more involved now. Back in our younger days, we saw nothing wrong with getting railroaded. Whatever got you to the big fight the fastest! Today I seek to root that out of the game too. It isn’t my job to make sure that the players are completing objectives; it is just my job to react to what they are doing. It is my job to tempt them to do the wrong thing, to make bad choices.  I have stopped telling stories as those tend to over-shadow the players, and I don’t get frustrated because they keep going off script, I am a happier DM when I do this, and they are happier players. I am wiser now. I no longer write novels, I just give my NPCs direction and tell my stories though subtleties and by forcing them to find it. This didn’t come from reading books on adventure design, it came from experience. All of that “Anticipate Your PC’s” mumbo jumbo is all wrong. Let them anticipate you, and the game goes a lot better.

It amazes me how backwards I had things back then. I thought that the dumb modules that I was running were written smart, that I was being arrogant to change things, but I completely ignored the core rules and wrote them as I saw fit, ignoring the fact that those things had been play-tested a lot more than the dumb module ever was. Backwards!

I now have faith in the Core Rules: they won’t let me down and they will keep my game manageable. I have had some pretty crazy ideas in the past, and just went with them, ignoring the rules and bending them to suit my cause, but today, while I still do have crazy ideas, I find that the core rules reel me back in, and force me to rethink how I can bring my vision about in a better way, in a fair way. I modify my plans to the weave of AD&D and my players don’t get frustrated because they don’t know what is going on. I have also learned the cold hard fact that when we invent an unbalanced weapon to attack the PCs with, not only is it unfair, but it will probably end up in their hands at the end of the game. That is Old-School! That is wisdom. That is personal experience.

I also learned a deeper understanding of the medium which we use to tell our “Stories”, and how to give out information. My players don’t want everything given to them on a silver platter, they want to earn it. Describing things can be like an onion, I think about what I would notice when first entering a room, and just describe that, if they want more information, then it is up to them to get it. I also lie, because our senses lie to us all the time, especially in moments of stress, such as a door breaking down and behold, five zombies are there. I tell them that there are a bunch of them, the room is flooded with them! If they ask, I’ll tell them at least 8; and I don’t use the word zombie, I just describe what they’d see in that moment. Everything is thought out, nothing is on accident. How long will it take them to realize that there are just five men who fall apart when they are attacked but keep coming anyway? It depends on the situation. My players know instantly how to deal with zombies, but everybody loves a little mystery, why not provide this as much as possible? That is old-school!

I will keep as much information back as I can get away with, that comes with experience. Add some uncertainty to players who have played the game so many times that they know it all, they appreciate that. It makes the game that more exciting! I don’t care if a rule set tells me to identify a wand and how many charges it has; I’m not going to. We are playing with magic, not science. There shouldn’t be a science to magic, unless you cast it, magic should be unpredictable, else it will lose its . . . magic, pardon the pun.

I am a much better DM this year than I was last year, and I have no plans to stop questioning the game and exploring where the rules can take us. I will keep playing classic monsters in unique ways. I will find new ways to add mystery and newness for players who’ve thought that they’ve seen everything, and I hope to inspire you to do the same.


Anonymous said...

Real Old School is tool kitting. Taking the basic rules and then building beyond them as our imaginations directed us.

Young roleplayers today are primarily consuming homogenized corporate product that is to what we did as frozen dinners are to chef's creations.

How many of them know that AD&D was primarily written by us, the players. We sent our additions and modifications into the Strtegic Review (later The Dragon ) who printed them for others to use. Eventually, these were collected by TSR into what became Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.

I enjoy pre-packaged world content. An entire city I dont have to build myself is a great time saver. But then I take it beyond and fill it with my ideas and stories.

And that, is old school.

Gleblix said...

Nice take on the topic

RipperX said...

Greetings! I like your comment Anonymous. You've played the game longer than I have. We experimented with older rule sets, I own all of the basic and 1e AD&D, but we really prefer to play AD&D 2e, we don't want to play anything else. We are comfortable and as long as the system keeps giving, we'll keep playing!

We do add our own stuff, the rules don't cover everything, and some stuff is so brief that we want a bit more out of it, so we'll agree on a change, play test it and compare it to core, if it works better, then we stick with it! Our problem was that we didn't ever give the true system a chance.

RE: Ian Wyckoff, Thank you very much! While my ideas are always far from complete, positive feedback is always a blessing.

Brooser Bear said...

Happy New Year, Rip. Great article! Part of the joy of DM'ing for me is writing the setting and the adventure from the scratch.

I wouldn't take on defining what OSR is and what it is not. If we play the original material, then why is the OSR label self-applied to people publishing retro-clones (Labyrinth Lord, etc)? Why not play from the original game materials?

As to myself, my views on D&D design and philosophy in general are embodied in this great little obscure poem written by Sam Walter Foss (1858-1911), Two Gods:

A boy was born 'mid little things,
Between a little world and sky-
And dreamed not of the cosmic rings
'Round which the circling planets fly.

He lived in little works and thoughts,
Where little ventures grow and plod,
And paced and plowed his little plots,
And prayed unto his little God.

But as the mighty system grew,
His faith grew faint with many scars;
The Cosmos widened in his view-
But God was lost among His stars.

Another boy in lowly days,
As he, to little things was born,
But gathered lore in woodland ways,
And from the glory of the morn.

As wider skies broke on his view,
God greatened in his growing mind;
Each year he dreamed his God anew,
And left his older God behind.

He saw the boundless scheme dilate,
In star and blossom, sky and clod;
And as the universe grew great,
He dreamed it for a greater God.

MC 900' Jesus recorded this poem in 1990 on his album, Hell With The Lid Off, under the title - A Greater God.

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