Thoughts on Why Old School Is So Good
By Dave Przybyla
For many years I have been part of a regular Thursday evening roleplaying game. The group’s current
incarnation has been together about 3 years and has mostly played Savage Worlds. Then last summer I convinced them to try DCC. We played almost twenty sessions of DCC over the next five months. While I enjoyed DCC, I wanted something with less volatility of results. I decided to really go Old School and suggested we try an old TSR adventure with the Swords and Wizardry rules. Most of the group had never played RPGs during the 80's heyday of TSR; some weren't even alive in the 80’s.
I chose Swords and Wizardry for a number of reasons. First, I am familiar with it. Second, it is a well done set of rules that I can distribute in PDF for free. Third, the rulebook is not long, and prospective players can quickly learn what they need to know.
I pored over my collection of old TSR modules and picked N1: Against the Cult of the Reptile God. The premise is simple. A naga is expanding her cult by charming the people of an isolated farming village and the characters arrive to defeat her.
The module describes a number of adventure areas, including the Village of Orlane, a temple, and the swamp lair of the naga. There is some information on how the villagers, cultists and innocent alike, might react to the characters, but little guidance on how the characters should proceed. That was the first thing that struck me about the module and set it apart from most adventures I have purchased over the past 20 years. Even though there was a goal, the situation was set up more like a sandbox where the characters were expected to find their own way.
The players bought into this and enjoyed meeting the villagers and trying to figure out what was going on. But then they ran into the second Old School feature: there are no Challenge Ratings! Even though the adventure is designed for Levels 2-4, that does not mean the characters can go head-to-head with everything and expect to win. This was driven home in the first session, when they picked a fight with the constable and his deputies, and then promptly had their asses kicked. A dead PC is a tonic that cures so many ills.
This led us to a third Old School feature: characters can’t fall back on skills or other rules that will hand them information via game mechanics. They had to plan, conserve their resources, and carefully seek allies. Half of the second game session was spent planning how to get one of the constable’s men alone and ambush him. And the plan worked! It was like watching a light turn on as I saw the players find an amazing new way to enjoy the game. At that moment, I knew they were sold. They saw their efforts bear spectacular fruit and were excited as Hell.
Here is a corollary of planning: the players stretched their minds and what they conceived as possible within the game. They did not look for rules to bail them out. Sometimes, defining more possibilities through more rules actually creates a noose that strangles creativity.
As of this writing, we've played 5 sessions and I expect 2 more before we're through. TSR packed a lot of adventure into those 32 pages. The players love it and expect to take these characters through other adventures. These don’t have to be old adventures. But they will be Old School.