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.