A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming

There was something special about gaming and playing D&D in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, the game was in its infancy and you could try almost anything – the rules were guidelines – and you had so much freedom in what you did. As I shift back to an older, grittier, style of gaming that asks players to develop creative and imaginative responses to situations and an attempt to try almost anything (as opposed to just rolling dice all the time based on some narrowly defined ability check), I discovered a great document which provides an insightful overview of the differences between old school gaming and modern gaming.

This primer created by Swords & Wizardry is an informative comparison and analysis of old vs. new styles of gaming which I would encourage you to examine more closely if you find the quotes below interesting (here is another link directly from their website).

1. Rulings, not Rules.
“Most of the time in old-style gaming, you don’t use a rule; you make a ruling. It’s easy to understand that sentence, but it takes a flash of insight to really “get it.” The players can describe any action, without needing to look at a character sheet to see if they “can” do it. The referee, in turn, uses common sense to decide what happens or rolls a die if he thinks there’s some random element involved, and then the game moves on. This is why characters have so few numbers on the character sheet, and why they have so few specified abilities.”

Flexibility and an openness to try things was a great virtue of old D&D, as well as Old School Games like Swords & Wizardry, and Castles & Crusades (C&C). A primary reason I am shifting from D&D 5E to C&C is to embrace a more free-wheeling and open gaming experience for my players. I want my players to try things without wondering if a particular skill would stretch to cover this scenario – just give it a try!

2. Player Skill, not Character Abilities.
“Original D&D and Swords & Wizardry are games of skill in a few areas where modern games just rely on the character sheet. You don’t have a “spot” check to let you notice hidden traps and levers, you don’t have a “bluff” check to let you automatically fool a suspicious city guardsman, and you don’t have a “sense motive” check to tell you when someone’s lying to your character. You have to tell the referee where you’re looking for traps and what buttons you’re pushing. You have to tell the referee whatever tall tale you’re trying to get the city guardsman to believe. You have to decide for yourself if someone’s lying to your character or telling the truth. In a 0e game, you are always asking questions, telling the referee exactly what your character is looking at, and experimenting with things. Die rolls are much less frequent than in modern games.”

As stated above, I want my players to develop and use their imagination, not have to memorize an ability that can only be used under some narrow set of circumstances. Less class abilities can actually lead to more things you can do!


3. Heroic, not Superhero.

“Old-style games have a human-sized scale, not a super-powered scale. At first level, adventurers are barely more capable than a regular person. They live by their wits…It’s not about a guy who can, at the start of the game, take on ten club-wielding peasants at once. It’s got a real-world, gritty starting point.”

I prefer the rugged and more gritty styles of earlier games where you have to earn your place in the world. This was something that would take time and effort to accomplish. In a modern game like D&D 5E, so many things are simply handed to you, either with your ‘background’ or with the ability to endlessly spam cantrips that never run out.

4. Forget “Game Balance.”
“The old-style campaign is with fantasy world, with all its perils, contradictions, and surprises: it’s not a “game setting” which somehow always produces challenges of just the right difficulty for the party’s level of experience. The party has no “right” only to encounter monsters they can defeat, no “right” only to encounter traps they can disarm, no “right” to invoke a particular rule from the books, and no “right” to a die roll in every particular circumstance. This sort of situation isn’t a mistake in the rules. Game balance just isn’t terribly important in old-style gaming.”

I remembered growing up how the worlds my characters grew up in were big, dark, and dangerous, you could never tell when you entered the woods if you’d encounter an angry badger protecting it’s den, a pack of hungry wolves, a group of goblins, a hill giant war party with half a dozen ogre and worg companions, or an adult dragon. You might defeat one encounter with confidence, only to flee in stark terror from the very next encounter.

I still play D&D 5E as a player and enjoy it, but as a DM running my own world, I want it to be gritty, frightening, and challenging, yet also give my players the greatest of amount of freedom to try things and push their creativity to its limits, and that is why I have shifted to OSR games and the earliest editions of D&D to meet my needs.

Gaming Thoughts – The feel of gaming the traditional way

In this 19 minute video (AD&D Vlog ep14 – 1e Feel – Treasure Hunters & Equipment Selection) you get an understanding – or reminder if you’re old enough – of what gaming was like for the first few decades of D&D (and might be the direction that RPG’s are slowly moving back towards today).

1. Beginning Characters and gaming philosophy. 
You were not a hero. You may hope to become a hero one day, but you could only really begin to call yourself a hero if you managed to make it to 3rd or 4th level. Many were treasure seekers (you got XP for treasure; 1 gold piece = 1 XP). You began with little wealth or experience. You had to go out into the world to become a hero, and you may not ever get there.

2. The game was challenging.
These days you can frequently charge into a room and take on all the creatures at once, for you have little to fear in modern D&D5E/Pathfinder. You just roll a ton of dice over and over again.

In a traditional game there were no “challenge ratings” for monsters that the DM had to make use of to create “balanced encounters.” You had to seriously think before you did anything. You had to strategize. For every 6 characters that would enter a dungeon, perhaps only 4 would make it out alive by the end, and this stood true until you reached about 3rd or 4th level. This is why you would frequently have hirelings accompany you (and some of these hirelings would be backup characters for players if their main one died in the adventure).

3. Building/Creating a Character.
Nowadays the focus is on a character’s special abilities (it is a power game, you are building super heroes). You spend 30-45 minutes making that character and spend perhaps 5 minutes choosing equipment.

In old games it was the opposite – you spent 10 minutes making your character and 30 minutes purchasing equipment. This was because every single thing you owned could be of use in an adventuring situation if you were a skillful, thoughtful, observant, imaginative, and inquisitive player. You’d be surprised how your choice of belt, boots, gloves, or cloak would help determine how you made it through a situation.

In a modern game you have a list of abilities which you need to memorize and hope you remember to use them in the specific situations in which they apply. It is very mechanical and requires much less creativity or imagination.

In an old game you had a much smaller list of abilities, but the sky was the limit on what you could do with them if you thought of a creative way to use them in a challenging situation. You had to think and discuss things, and if you came up with a good idea you may not even have to roll dice, the DM might just let you do it. Equipment and your creative use of that equipment was more important than endlessly rolling ability checks. The game was a ROLE playing game, as opposed to a ROLL playing game.

As I leave D&D 5E behind as a DM and continue to work on my new campaign using the Castles & Crusades system (with generous helpings of AD&D 1st edition, BECMI, and AD&D 2nd edition), I look forward to shifting back to this old school approach to gaming.