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
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.