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.

Are You Giving Psionics A Fair Chance?

People hate psionics! I would call it a love/hate thing, but nobody really LOVES psioncis, nobody in the history of the game has ever gotten so excited about finally rolling one up . . . I think that out of all of my friends, I am the only one who has ever played a Psionc PC, and that was just because I wanted to play one, just to experience it.

Personally, I don’t put much thought into it. It is such a rarely used thing that it just doesn’t matter. I ran into Psi powers like any other DM probably does, by reading the Monstrous Manual and seeing those complex and mysterious stats and having no idea what they could possibly mean. They are overly complex, and intentionally vague. Perhaps the Magic system would be that way if it wasn’t such a popular class and it wasn’t right there in the Core Rules, but I doubt it.

I get the class! Nobody plays it much because Psi powers don’t fit into all of the worlds. I have a hobby of delving into the Occult and paranormal, and psychic powers is an interesting subject to read about, but it is rather modern. If you have ever played Dark Sun, you’ve used them, I doubt that too many people have actually played a class, but in the hostel world of Dark Sun, everybody is born with some innate psi abilities, but in that world, it is so hard that you need any advantage that you can get. Could they had just handed out magic abilities? Yeah, but the good folks at TSR freely admitted to the fact that the original point behind creating Dark Sun was originally to sell The Complete Psioncs Handbook, and the Battle System, thankfully the writers took their job more seriously then that and created one of 2es greatest Campaign Settings!

But is it appropriate for all campaign worlds? No, probably not. Psi powers bring to mind Gothic horror stories and strange highly intelligent alien life-forms, they work well for Ravenloft, but probably not highly magical worlds which are ruled by the laws of magic.

Psi power is unique to itself as one doesn’t rely upon outside forces to bring it about. They don’t use magic books or scrolls, nor do they get their powers from some God, it comes from within and can always be accessed as long as they have the Psi Points.


When I am casting spells, I never stat what spell I’m using, I only describe the effects of the spell to my players, the same goes for Psi powers, a good player may know a magical defense to a specific spell once he can identify what is happening, but those magic counters won’t work against psionics.
In Forgotten Realms, anything can happen, there are gates and psi monsters do come through, and we can give them a great bonus by having them hold up in one of the realms famous wild magic or dead magic areas. A kingdom who thinks that they are safe from such wizard tricks would be susceptible to such dominance, and it would be rather hard to detect what exactly is going on.

Psionics also work well with realms based on exotic cultures such as India where they have been showing off their mental mastery for centuries.

Psionics offer a change of pace, and a touch of mystery. They aren’t anything to love and admire, but they aren’t really worthy of so much hatred and DMs refusing to allow anything associated with them into their games either.

Successful Organizing & the Framework Principle

As a Dungeon Master, I like to work. I enjoy thinking of projects to do, love looking through maps and drawing my own. I enjoy research and writing . . . tons of reading and writing; I’m not afraid to sit down and just work for hours at a time gathering the tools to make my vision possible. I think that an inability to shut off the game is what makes a dedicated DM. How much work is too much work, though? We do have to keep focused, especially on adult games were time is limited, but there are some guidelines that I like to use, because I do want to get the most out of my prepwork.

Worldbuilding is a game all in itself, and no matter if you are using a campaign setting or you aren’t, you are going to have to do it. Published settings did do a lot of work for you already, most of them are written intentionally brief to allow you to have as much creative control as you can, and allow you to focus on what you and your group really want to do. This, I feel, allows for a greater variety of games that you can play; when the focus is only on worldbuilding, it is kind of limited.

The more help that one asks for while playing a setting, the less help one actually gets. You take a world like Forgotten Realms; it is bloated from too much information. Some of the products are incredibly helpful to a dungeon master, while many of the products will serve to only apply limits to what one feels that they can accomplish in a particular area

What we do is art! Be it our own settings or a published one, they are all our own settings. We are creating products for our players, and we want the players to enjoy our products. We are directors of epic tales; it is our personal visions of what is possible that is more important than anything that we have purchased. Our creative control is what sets us apart from all of the other DMs out there, if we run things core, what do you really accomplish? The satisfaction of running things as written by a professional is very short term, sure you can be a snob about it, but sooner or later it is going to dawn on you that this is somebody else’s vision, and you have accomplished nothing of any value except for showing your players how well you can read.


This is important to be able to tell a verity of different stories. If you don’t have a proper frame in place, you can only play a few types of scenarios, and too much information is just that; it doesn’t matter if some novelist puts it there or you do yourself, the more information put into a project the more limiting it will be in the long term. You don’t want to be left hanging during prep, but you don’t want to have to read a catalog of set rules to follow either, both of these only serve to create a static world.

Frameworks provide inspiration, they are key elements that you throw other things at to form a proper structure, without a suitable frame in place, you might find yourself without direction which can be really bad, that, and it is the stuff that you don’t want to worry about during actual prep; after all, we’ve got enough to do as it is, and too much world-building will take away time that would probably be better spent on other things.

DMs are picky people, we all like doing different things and if anybody tries to intrude upon our turf, we tend to get upset. Some yahoo comes up with a crazy list of new stuff and the Grognards rip it to shreds, because that is what we do. Think about the things that you add to a game, consider the repercussions. It is always better to have stuff floating around in our heads then it is to actually write them down as core. Our notebooks get full quickly, and we don’t really want worthless junk in them, as the more facts that we collect; the harder it will be to research.


We all have them in some form or another, and I’m sure that we’ve all learned how nasty these things can be. Back in the old days, before the computer came along, we had to be very careful about what we wrote down, and where we put it. Organization is a great motivator to keep to the framework theory, and it might still be the superior method of handling information because it forces us to limit what we keep.

What is worthy of keeping? That depends on you, but it is always nice when we only have to do the work once. If we are designing a city, we’ll want to keep that around, but some things are better served by just letting them go. I know that I have way too many monstrous compendiums, and I don’t use any of them. It is just quicker for me to write up a new monster from scratch then it is for me to look through books trying to find a monster that may or may not be there.

Though, recycling is also helpful: Unique Spells, Magic Items, NPCs that your players liked, can all be kept on note-cards, and maps can be placed in folders and stored away.

World-building, in every degree, creates a different monster, it this case, the computer really does change the game. Gone are the hundreds of notebooks and loose leaf papers to be cataloged later, it can all be filed in digital form, but that should also be reeled in because you don’t want to get too much detail in there. Even our own worlds can get bloated and bogged down.


I always find it surprising when I buy used and out of print material, how nice other DMs are to their stuff. I am not. My modules are full! I’ll cross stuff out, write crap all over the margins, and this goes for my Campaign Setting books too! While I am more careful with them, if something is a hard fact, I’ll write it in the margins.  Even my PHB has stuff like errata written inside of it, as well as cross reference pages to other material. Sometimes just paper-clipping a note inside of a book works, but sometimes it is just easier to write it on the page. The material is mine! I hate glossy pages that won’t even accept the ink from a highlighter; I think that that annoys me more than publishers imposing timeline restrictions upon me.

I say BEAT IT UP! But be careful about it. A Core Manual is not as adaptable as a module, and modifying them is the equivalent of getting a tattoo, so you best really love something to add it in, but do add it in! Remember, the best cook books are the old ones where the previous user includes their thoughts and feelings about something in the margins and their modifications to the recipes inside which works better. Those cook books are considered GOLD!  Gaming material is the same way.

Campaign Settings are never finished. Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, they all are improved by your modifications. Once you find the need to add a road, if it is important to you, then it should be permanent; draw it right on your world map! Maybe the wealth that your players bring to the little hamlet you created east of Neverwinter is enough to make it just as important to trade as Neverwinter itself; add it to your world map! Who knows, in 100 years, Neverwinter could be a ruin and your hamlet is now a city-state all in itself, screw those TSR hacks.

What you are doing should always be more important than the stuff in the campaign guides, you are going to be developing your own timelines, your NPCs are more important then theirs are because yours are functional! Don’t be afraid to bend those established NPCs to your own personal will.

We don’t want a static world, which overly developing a setting creates, be mindful of the changes that you want to apply, but DO make them.

A Quick Guide on AD&D: What you need & why

Getting into Advanced Dungeons & Dragons can be daunting to many people, especially now that the books are out of print. While Wizards of the Coast has republished them, I find the cost for these books to be unacceptable. With all of the supplemental material out there for 2nd Edition, many think that you need all of that stuff to run a game, but honestly, you only need a few books.


When 2e came out, it wasn’t meant to replace the original AD&D, simply to clarify rules, and make finding information easier. Many things were altered, but it was always assumed that you owned the 1e version of the game.  As the years passed, more supplements were added which typically over did the work accomplished by 1st Edition, the 2e Book of Artifacts for instance is unnecessary, all of the info that you need to create your own artifacts can be found in the 1e DMG, most of that 2e book is nothing but filler; choosing to publish an entire book to clarify a small blip in 1e was way too common, and you are best served by ignoring most of them.


There are only 3 books that you need from 2e.

  • The Player’s Handbook (PHB): This is the only book that a player needs to play the game, but the DM needs one too.

  • The Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG): This book contains rules specific for DMs which also agrees with the 2e PHB.

  • The Monstrous Manual (MM): This book is a huge collection of monsters and is a true work horse. It does cost the most, but it is a very valuable book to any DM.
  • The Complete Psionics Handbook: The book isn't core but it does allow you to run some monsters that use these rules, and you won't find them anywhere else that I know of.

  • The 2e Dungeon Master’s Shield is also worth the money if you can find one. It has most of the tables that you use regularly right there in front of you.

There are also 1e books that you should have:

  • The AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide: This book was written by Gary Gygax and contains a wealth of knowledge that is unique to it, if it has a flaw, then it has to do with how the book was bound, care must be exercised when you are handling it. Of all of the books reprinted, this one may actually be worth the cover-price just for the proper binding alone.

  • The Wilderness Survival Guide: Contains rules and suggestions for managing a party in the wild. It is very in-depth.

  • The Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide: Much like the Wilderness guide, but geared towards underground exploration. Both of these books were the first ones to introduce Non-Weapon Proficiencies.

  • The Manual of the Planes: This book completely replaces the Planescape setting and requires much less time to read. If you have no interest in traveling the planes full time, this is the book for you!

  • Oriental Adventures: While not necessarily core, this is a worthy book to keep.

  • Deities & Demigods: If you want to create your own settings, this book can help greatly with creating a pantheon. The 2e version of this book, called Legends and Lore is comparable if you can’t find a copy.

Seriously, I only really ever use the 2e core rule books. The 1e books are good for adventure designing, and I do use them, but only rarely; so if you can’t find them right away, I wouldn’t worry about it.

The Settings! The settings put out for AD&D were the most functional, if you have never cracked open a boxed set that is pre-3e, boy are you in for a treat! Below is a list of the most popular.

  • ·         The World of Greyhawk: Designed by Gary Gygax; it is a bare bones campaign setting for those who like to do their own world building, but lack the time to create everything.

  • ·         Dragonlance: A fully formed setting based on the Novels.

  • ·         Forgotten Realms: You hear people bitch about this one, but it is the most popular. If you let it, it can ruin your campaign, but, if you just stick to the box set, and a handful of supplements, then this place is a gem!

  • ·         Spelljammer: Fantasy in outer space.

  • ·         Ravenloft: A horror setting that is also a wonderful world if you stick to the box set.

  • ·         Planescape: One of the most popular boxes for people who DO want to run an entire campaign jumping dimensions.

  • ·         Dark Sun: AD&D with the difficulty setting all the way up.

  •      Mystara: A fully formed world with ties that date back to the early days of D&D

AD&D also allows you to easily play all of the old modules which made this game what it is. Of special interest are the 1e varieties, which are easily adapted to 2e rules with very little fuss. Many of the 2e modules were not that good, as during the era they produced stuff heavy on Railroading, but if you are the creative type, you can easily pick up an out of print boxed setting and get nothing but inspiration from them. This was back when D&D still sold ideas, which it should had stayed true to.


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