Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Thoughts on Why Old School Is So Good

I've mentioned in the past that I'm open to posting articles from guest authors. The following article was written by +David Przybyla , one of the regular players in my Saturday Night Swords & Wizardry game.

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.


  1. That remains one of my favorite 1E modules of all time. Good choice!

  2. I don't buy #3.

    In the module mentioned, there is a rumor table. The only difference between a game having social skills or not is that in N1, the characters hear all the rumors, as opposed to only some (depending on the skill check).

    And at the heart of old school encounters was the reaction table, which is modified up to -25 to +35 depending on the Charisma score (that's in 1e, which N1 is for) and other factors.

    And unofficially, charisma (or any ability) checks existed long before "new school" RPGs were a gleam in Mike Mearls or Robin Laws eyes. I remember having to make one in the first D&D game I played in 1977...

    1. I'll agree with Jeremy here. I play old-school style with a skill based game. PCs have the ability to make knowledge checks. That only tells them what they know coming in, it doesn't necessarily restrict their ability to find out more.

      Yes, "I roll History, do I know anything about this? No? Okay, we move on." is lame. But it's lame without the roll, too, if they ask and you say yes or no and then move on. Having the roll doesn't mean you just roll, anymore than combat rolls mean all you do in combat is drop dice and let the GM play your guy for you. What you do around the rolls matters, and sometimes you want to leave what the PCs know or don't know, if the NPCs like them or not, or how well the plan works out or doesn't work out to the dice. Conflating skill rolls and knowledge checks to less fun/worse play is a mistake, IME. It can be, but I played a lot of crappy games without skill checks, too.

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  4. Reptile god was one of my favorites when I was a kid :) I will admit that I had a 'lost decade' as far as table-top RPGs were concerned so until very recently I had no idea what a CR was. Upon finding out I think I finally understood what it was that made old people crotchety.

  5. The village of Orlane, and the whole adventure, has always been one of my favorites and it's very representative of the way we played "back in the day." Your description of the way it's unfolding with your group is awesome.
    I might have to direct people to this post the next time I'm having a bit of difficult explaining what I mean by "old school play experience" as you've really hit the nail on the head, and better than I likely could in so compact a space.

  6. You had me at N1.

    This is my goto module for new groups and cons. It has it all. Classicx!

  7. I agree with your assessment. While I've found ways to very much enjoy what I'll call "new school" RPGs and hold no real animosity towards them, they are certainly a different beast and promote/reward different types of gameplay. One poster mentions the existence of similar mechanics in early D&D as evidence of an inaccuracy (#3), however, I think that misses an important aspect of early RPGs. These mechanics were largely used as a backup, or even an afterthought (ability checks codefied in the mid 80s). They were used to balance or as a last resort and were generally managed by the DM (morale and reactions). In practice, that's very different from these types of mechanics being the foundation of the game design and under the control of the player. Instead of the DM using something when all else fails, they are used by players as the first option. At least in practice. And newer more modern RPGs, accidently encourage the "I roll X, what do I see/find/do?" type of gameplay. It's not a problem for long time players who understand what needs to happen alongside the roll. But new players have no idea what they should be doing and often just expect the roll to solve the problem. With my groups, when playing more modern RPGs, we kind of flex these rules and are able to get a more old school experience, but it has to be a conscious effort by the group who knows the difference. Great article and it reminds me I need to go back and reread N1. I've not taken a look at it in years and years.

  8. Excellent post. Thanks. I'm an old schooler myself from way back in the day... pre-modules, even. But my campaigns and methods are the same as what you've described here. Thanks.

  9. The thing is that you don't have to use old school rules or modules to play old school style. My group plays "old school" style but we mostly use Pathfinder or 3.5.

    1. That's essentially what I was saying too. However, one has to know what old school feels like to pull it off. If you just play the newer games as written, you'll likely miss that feel and trend towards how those games are designed. I personally had a great time with 4E, but I was bending the system to my tastes and it seems a lot of people had trouble doing that. I've heard and seen similar problems with 3.x or PF.


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