D&D General My Old School

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So what is the old school game style? How is it so diffident then the modern game? For refrence I consider anything before 2000 Old School. Modern games are anything after 2000. I’ve seen plenty of post about making 5E feel like an old school game, but they all focus on just changing a couple rules. Often like ‘don’t use feats’ or ‘have less hit points’. Though I don’t see it as just being about the rules. Old school and modern are two mind sets and play styles, and both go beyond the rules as to HOW the game is played. And how the game is played has a huge impact on the type of game it is. I have another post half done for how to alter the mind set and play style of a 5E game, without changing the rules.

The easy way of saying this is: If you want to run a game with an old school mind set and style is: Run the game Unbalanced, Unfairly and without any kind of “Gentleman's Agreement”. If modern players refuse to play, or leave your game in a huff: then you have done it right.

Disclaimer- I’m a Die Hard Old School Gamer, so I have most defiantly picked a side. I do think Old School is the best way to game. But that is just my option. If you’re a modern gamer that loves the modern mind set and game style that is perfectly fine: be happy and game on! If you’re an old school gamer that disagrees with me about what old school is…well, I don’t really care….but if you want to post about it then type something up and hit send. If anyone has a reply: go ahead an send it.

The List:

The “rules” are little more then Suggestions- This is a big one. So page 33 has some text on it? Well, no one least of all the DM cares. The DM just says what happens no matter what the text says. The “rules” don’t matter.

No Balance- This world does not apply to an old school game, even more so in the whine of a modern players usage.

It’s Unfair- This world does not apply to an old school game, even more so in the whine of a modern players usage.

The Big Pot of Home Brew Stew- Not only does a typical old school game have very little official content, but what little content that exists might be hard to find. Most DMs had only one option: home brew their own stuff. While many modern players will whine and demand that they only want to play the game with official things, in an old school game you might find whatever your DM might have thought up.

Endless Mini Games- Quite often the text in the books only covers a tiny bit of things. So basically a DM must make up lots and lots of content for game play. Often each monster, thing or encounter has it’s own mini game.

Randomness- This is a big one. By default, a minimum of half of all the DM’s decisions will be made by a random roll for a random outcome. Of course, the DM can choose any outcome at any time. They simply choose to sit back and enjoy the randomness A couple books had random tables to roll on, though most DMs made their own. While odd and even work for a yes or no question, a typical table would have 12 to 20 outcomes. A couple of obvious ones, a couple of easy ones, a couple of rare ones and a couple of unlikely ones. And often a “DMs choice” and maybe a “players choice”. The best tables, of course, had the 1-100 outcomes. And the outcome of roll on another table. What is in a treasure chest? What is behind a close door? What does the guard think of your story? All would be rolled at random. This had the nice touch of allowing nearly “anything” to happen to be an outcome.

Let the Dice Roll Where They May- Whatever is rolled on the dice, that is IT.

No Take backs, Callbacks or Do Overs- Once something is rolled or a player says they have a character take an action. IT HAPPENS. No matter what.

Player Focus- An old school game has the focus on the player. The DM is making the game for the player, not the character. Many modern games ignore the player and have all the focus on the player character. The classic example is that after a DM describes an encounter: In an old school game the player will use their real life wits, skills, intelligence and abilities to move their player character through the encounter. In the modern game the player will simply look on their players character sheet for the appropriate skill or ability to use.

Lethally- To a modern gamer this would be “high” lethally, but it is really only following the rules. The rules are simple enough: “if a creatures hit points reach zero, they die”. It’s in every edition. Many modern games jump through endless hoops to make it so no characters die. In an old school game, death is an member of the Player Characters Group.

Long Lasting Debilitating Effects- In an old school game a character will be effected by many thing with will debilitate their abilities. And they will likely have to live with such things for a long time; many weeks of game time, and maybe many months of real time. Things could not just be fixed or cured with a simple spell or potion. Many modern games allow such things to be erased the very next round like they never happened.

Dangerous Costly Magic- The old school rules were full of this for spells and magic items. Powerful magic is dangerous and comes with a cost. Modern games make everything easy and safe.

Beyond the Farthest Star- A typical adventure took place far, far, far, far away from civilization. A group would need to travel quite a distance to go on an adventure. This meant there was no easy, safe spot to retreat too. When the nearest town to the Dark Dungeon is two weeks walking distance away, a character can’t just “run back to town to hide, heal and be safe.”

Into the Unknown- Much, nearly, all, of the world beyond the wall of a settlement is unknown. What is out there is a true mystery. You must discover things the hard way.

What is Known- Is not much. Facts are very few and far between. Much of what is know is little better then a rumor or a guess. Very unlike a modern game where the players will demand absolutely true facts.

A Dark, Cold, Cruel World- With a few rare exceptions, the whole world was a dark place. Danger was to be found everywhere from all sides. Evil forces might corrupt you; good forces might use you, natural forces might abuse you; and other forces might to other things to you. Anyhtning like a safe space was few and far between.

Hard Luck Life- The life of an adventurer is hard, and they are often down on their luck with only a couple coins to their name.

More things on Heaven and Earth then are dreamed of in your philosophy: A typical modern game has mundane and magic and leaves it at that. An old scholl game has much more. At least five large vague categorizes. Natural effects like lava or cold; Magic mostly being man made effects, Supernatural: effects that are like magic, but beyond mortal means and not effected much by man made magic; Super Science: this is things beyond typical science, into science fiction like gravity waves or photon decay. And last but not least is the unknown, beyond the known.

Weird, Bizarre, Strange, the Unknown and the Unknowable- The game is much more then just rocks and dirt and trees. Players should find things different to say the least. And much should not be understood, and some even not understandable. And some things will never be known.

Traps- Traps are a normal, logical part of the world. All most anything of any value will likely have at least one trap. Many modern games just dump traps completely. In an old school game they are everywhere. They often fall under the “not fair” complaint.

Tricks- Tricks are a normal, logical part of the world. A trick is just as common as traps. Many modern games just dump traps completely. In an old school game they are everywhere. They often fall under the “not fair” complaint.

Hazards, Obstacles, Challenges, Puzzles and Problems- Really anything that does not fall under trap or trick. Many modern games just dump them all completely. In an old school game they are everywhere. They often fall under the “not fair” complaint.

Aggressive Foes- Most old school foes are out to kill characters. So they go all out in combat doing whatever they need to do to kill characters. Many modern games treat combat as a fun romp where the player characters have already won and the characters can never die. Many modern DMs rewrite the game reality so foes are not aggressive. So that, for example, when the player characters huddle together the spell caster will just just zap the tank character with a weak spell to loose a couple hit points. The old school spell caster goes right for an explosive area attack spell, likely killing a character or two.

Everyone is a Target- An old school game has no plot armor for characters or any special safe places for them. All characters are targets. Many modern DMs will only target tank characters and avoid targeting vulnerable characters. An old school DM will likely use random targeting, or what would be most logical to the foe.

Resource Tracking- This is in all D&D games, but old school games put a lot more focus on it. For example, a lot of modern games “just say” a character has whatever mundane equipment they want. Old school games have you keep track of everything.

Encumbrance- Another one in all D&D games, and another one often tossed aside. Old school games have you keep track of the weight each character carries. Not just for equipment, but also for found treasure.

Item Loss- Either by being out right destroyed or just being lost, any item any character has a change of being gone. ANY item. No matter how needed, important or special the item is to that character. And yes this includes the item the one trick pony character uses to be so great: should the character loose the item and become useless to play, then So Be It.

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Jack Daniel

A solid, thorough list. I don't agree with every single point, but it does a good job big-picture of summing up how most grognards and retro-gamers describe the old-school and OSR play-styles.

I'd personally draw the "old-school vs. modern" cutoff line much earlier than 2000 — the trad play-style had all but totally eclipsed the old-school by 1985 at least.

If I had to sum up how I play old-school, I'd boil it down to just two points — one of them properly old, and the other more revisionist (since it comes out of the OSR and its tradition of theorizing blog-posts).

1. The Massively Multiplayer Tabletop RPG. As well-articulated by Ben Milton in this Questing Beast video, the campaign structure assumed or implied (but rarely outright stated) by the OD&D and AD&D rules is a single, persistent game world or milieu where lots of players are running lots of characters, rotating in and out of various adventuring parties, doing different things in different places at different times and even at different experience levels. This concept ties together other elements, such as the open table, the sandbox, the stable or troupe of PCs, and Gygax's infamous "STRICT TIME RECORDS" (including the presumption that game time passes 1:1 with real time between game sessions).

2. Blorb. This is the name given by Sandra Snan, author of the Idiomdrotting blog, to a set of DMing principles focused on treating the campaign milieu as a "hard landscape" composed of elements that exist whether the player characters interact with them or not. In effect, it is the opposite of the "quantum ogre" or any game where the world is made up on-the-fly just ahead of the PCs laying eyes on it — all for the sake of making world-exploration and decisions related to it meaningful.
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Jack Daniel

That’s amazing. Love it.

Any more tasty blog posts or theorizing to link to?

Fifteen years of OSR blogs… honestly, I haven't bothered keeping track of most of it.

This article on freeform fighting maneuvers is a particular favorite though. Excellent house rule for any old-school game.
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Mod Squad
Staff member
... in the whine of a modern players usage.
... in the whine of a modern players usage.
... While many modern players will whine ...
... Modern games make everything easy and safe.
... “run back to town to hide, heal and be safe.”
...Very unlike a modern game where the players will demand
... Many modern games treat combat as a fun romp

Mod Note:

This post seems pretty solidly founded on insulting people, which is getting it closed.

In the future, try talking about the differences between games without taking potshots at the players or designers as people.

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