Monthly Archives: July 2009

What is “Old School” Roleplaying?

This was originally posted over on where it’s produced some interesting responses. Despite the fact roughly 10,000 times as many people will see it there as here, I want to put it here as well…

There seems to be two schools (heh) of thought on what it means to be “old school”.

Some people claim “old school” was an era of total freedom and virtually diceless roleplay, where you didn’t have none of them thar “skills” and “feats” and “powers” and if you wanted to have your fighter kick an orc in the ‘nads and then shove him into another orc and knock them both into a fireplace, you just told the GM, “I’m doing that”, and the GM said “Sure” or “No” or maybe flipped a coin, and life was good, and if you, personally, didn’t know how to disarm a trap,repair armor, or scribe a magic circle, you couldn’t tell the DM precisely HOW your character, a presumably skilled thief/fighter/magic user was doing it, and sucked to be you.

Other people (me), who were actually playing in those glory days of the mid-late 1970s, remember things… differently. I remember rules-boundedness to an extraordinary degree. I remember many different mechanics, all house ruled and few really tested or balanced, for handling things the rules didn’t cover…. and they didn’t cover quite a bit. I remember when no cleric could use a sword, no one but a thief could even try to climb a wall, and a magic user would presumably shriek like the Wicked Witch Of The West and melt if he ever climbed into a suit of armor.

Obviously, individual experiences differ. So let’s talk this out, comparing both our memories and the evidence of the rules of the time.

First, let me state it’s my opinion that there’s a lot of revisionism going on. Yes, rules in the mid-late 70s (I’m going to define the “old school” era as going from 1974, the first publication of D&D, to 1979, the publication of the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide and the completion of the “Core” of AD&D. I admit this is wholly arbitrary, and I’m willing to accept almost any sensible argument for a different span of time) were a lot simpler than they are now. This is a fact. What I consider to be revisionism, or at least rose-colored-backward-facing glasses, is the idea this was a conscious decision to keep things “simple” and encourage freeform play. It was mostly a consequence of limited book size due to the economics of the time. My evidence for this is the near-constant stream of supplements offering greater complexity and more detail, both in the form of rulebooks, and in Dragon articles. The trend practically from the first has been to slam on more and more complexity — this implies simplicity was a consequence, not a goal. “Greyhawk”, in particular, adds on to “old school” D&D a raft of what are, in essence, the bedrock of later complexity — the first hints of a skill system, in the form of thief abilities. Weapon vs. Armor attack matrix. Classes with roleplaying obligations (Paladins) and the beginning of special level-defined abilities, as well as explicit combat maneuvers like the thief’s backstab. Why does this matter? Well, it pretty much says that if you’re not a thief, you don’t get any benefit for attacking from behind — pretty much the antithesis of the presumed “old school” idea that there are no rules for special attacks, just cunning description and a willing DM. If someone then argues that Greyhawk was the end of “old school”, I have to respond then that “old school” was pretty meaningless, lasting barely two years and existing mostly because Gygax was, according to what I’ve read, pushed into going to print before he was completely happy with the state of the rules. (Greyhawk being, in essence, the rest of the core rules — and, indeed, OD&D+Greyhawk contains almost everything I’d consider the true heart and soul of Dungeons&Dragons; OD&D alone, not so much.)

Consider also the many limits imposed on characters. There were few, if any, ways to customize your character, and non-humans were pretty much boilerplate clones of each other, unable, in the earliest days, to even pick a class. Some have argued this freed characterization from mechanics and enabled roleplaying without being encumbered by baggage like skills, backgrounds, “Humanity Scores”, or what-not, but my actual memory of the time was that it was a lot like the way the Knights Of The Dinner Table play — if Knuckles the Fifth dies, he is replaced at the table by Knuckles the Sixth, more like his predecessor than two Alpha Complex clones.

As further evidence, if one looks at the innumerable clones and spin offs of D&D, only one major one — Tunnels & Trolls — consciously and deliberately simplified the rules. (And there is no arguing that in the case of T&T, simplification, abstraction, and imagination WERE explicit design goals, clearly stated, but most “retro clones” ascribe these traits to early versions of D&D.) All the others — Chivalry & Sorcery, Runequest, etc — added detail and complexity. Articles in Dragon would provide very detailed rules for subsystems, from critical hits to “reaction rolls”. The demand from the consumer base was not for freedom, but for more, better, and clearer rules, and there was little indication the designers intended to buck this trend.

My thesis: The “retro clone” movement and what I guess you can call “neo-old-school” style play is not a recreation of “The way things used to be”, but an almost-out-of-the-whole-cloth creation of a playstyle which, while it might certainly have existed back in the day, was not the common way the game was played nor how, AT THE TIME, the developers in their published writings intended the game to be played. (Old Geezer has said Gygax ran a much more free form game than he preached, and a lot of the old hands have spoken up, in later years, on the virtues of freedom, but I have to go one what was actually communicated to the player base back in those days, what we, as young and naive players, took as the Word of The Gods, and that was “If your female dwarves don’t have beards, you aren’t playing AD&D!”)

To me, old school is not about freedom or lack of rules, but attitude. To me, the ultimate old-school is the Arduin Trilogy, just pure ideas pouring one after another so fast you can’t even stop to evaluate them. I like to consider my work “old school” in that sense, I like variety and options and things which are hinted or implied but rarely explicitly said, things which inspire the DM to create on his own. Old school, in that sense, is not so much an absence of rules, but the creation of rules as needed, in whatever detail was needed, until notebooks were filled with house rules to cover absolutely everything. The lack of rules in many of the early gamebooks was not so much a statement that “Rules aren’t needed” as it was a call-out to every wannabe game designer to start filling in the gaps. (Some of these wannabes went on to become the greatest designers of the 80s and 90s… some of them ended up wasting 20+ years of their life doing database programming before ever dipping their finger back into it… so it goes…)

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008 The Bloodworm Fields

The Bloodworm Fields

Not everything in the Abyss is instantly, visibly, nasty. An aspect of chaos is deception, after all…

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007 The Salt Sargasso

The Salt Sargasso

Some scholars and religious writers claim the Abyss is "below" the mortal world, and that all things dark, evil, and wrong eventually "fall" into it. Whether this is a metaphorical or a physical truth, it does describe the Salt Sargasso, a realm of lost ships, demonic sharks, and, well, salt. Eeeeeevil salt!

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005 The Spider-Queen’s Hatchery


The Spider Queen’s Hatchery — When demons ascend to godhood, they sometimes leave their old planes abandoned… and sometimes, not so abandoned. In the body of a dead god, the most beloved of the Spider Queen’s children grow and feed….


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