Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Direction of Old School Gaming

This post said a lot that I have been wanting to say for a while. I've read Alarums & Excursions from as far back as they go, and people were...using Greyhawk, modding the living crap out of the rules, and doing things that they keep on doing down to this day. People wanted different levels of crunch and detail, and they improvised as necessary. Tunnels & Trolls and Chivalry & Sorcery – that's about as yin and yang as you can get - both came out before AD&D.

At the heart of what I think is the problem is that the old school movement has, for a while, been trying to adjust expectations in a certain direction, one embodied in the slogan "rulings, not rules." It's not about the objective quality of rules, it's meant to break people out of the assumption that you really need a 3e-style single, unified mechanic and rules for every occasion (one roll to rule them all...).

And it works. The old school style is a success. Combats in OD&D go lightning fast, because there's nothing to worry about in terms of complicating factors. It's a matter of imagining it and having the rules match quickly. Dungeon delving is more fun when it's about problem-solving and trial and error instead of every trap and trick being a roll-off between the thief and the DM. Ability scores barely matter, and determine a couple of key factors.

For some people, that's enough. The core of the game holds together for them just fine, and they enjoy playing with it as is. That's great. But other people don't have the same enchantment with the bare basics. For me, what has really hampered things is the relative limits of creature design you have in by the book OD&D. There isn't much you can do for different creatures' attacks; a bonus is a pretty big thing, not dished out lightly. Two dice even moreso. I don't think it's an accident that D&D never went back to "everything is a d6" – monster diversity just works better with the minor complications that ensue. And the thing is, very few gamers really played like that. Gygax didn't. Don't know about Arneson. But the reality is, people wanting simpler combat mechanics at the time were more likely to go to Tunnels & Trolls, where the whole thing is two big die rolls. It's a great little game, which I like a lot for the solo adventure concept, but not what I'd want for my day to day. That takes nothing away from it.

This is the kind of thing that I think old-school gamers have started to hit up against. For some, the extreme varieties of "rules light" was just a step in getting to a further path. For others, it was the end of the journey. It leaves a much bigger problem: where do we go from here?

Well, by way of answering, I think there's a little more clear view of what could be published. Probably the easiest thing to do is lots of dungeon modules. These are something we know how to do fairly well, how to craft and publish and use a printed module. And that's going to be part of what our next step is. But then there's the whole rest of the story: creating material that works for people regardless of what step of their own crazy journey they're on. Stuff that works if you're doing OD&D, B/X D&D, AD&D, RC D&D, S&W, BFRPG, LL, microlite74, OSRIC or some combination up to and including "all of the above."

Personally, I think our biggest successes thus far have pointed in the right direction. Fight On! has had a ton of "drop this in your game" type of articles which are awesome, and Green Devil Face is an idea whose time is gladly here. Monsters of Myth, another collaborative effort, is another highlight of the Old School Renaissance so far. And I think there's ample room for another kind of project, which I've talked about before: the old school miscellany. Thing is, I'm not sure I want to come up with enough material to put something out on my own. It's going to wind up being filler, at least in part, and I don't want to put out something I can't be proud of. So I'm going to open this idea up for discussion: who else would be interested in contributing to such a project? I'm not talking about a fanzine, but a book of stuff that is usable to drop into your games or reference when you need a chart, or some flavor, or some variants to get things going. Would anyone be willing to commit some contribution to such an effort?


  1. I for one would and I'm sure there are others - plenty of people already publishing miscellanies on their blogs and such.

    Do you have ideas on how to approach it?
    A page count? etc?

  2. Well, I see the Judges Guild "Ready Ref Sheets" as a sort of inspiration. I'd probably want to publish such an effort through Lulu.com, and I want it to lay flat on the table during a game, so I'm probably looking at 88 pages maximum.

    As far as content: I'm interested in things that can be dropped into a game to make it more interesting - I think a smattering of creatures would be ok, but I'm looking more at lists of esoterica (things like my categorization of the effects of different gemstones) and charts that help add flavor and color to the game without complicating things too much.

  3. I agree with what you are saying here. I am new to the OSR thing but I cut my teeth on OSR back in the day and there was a lot of good there but definitely room to add on. Heck, if not, what were all those issues of Dragon about and the various books that came out for AD&D.

    I think there are areas where OSR may be a bit too bare for some people's tastes. Combat does need to be light, but the rest of the game, the stuff that crops up less can manage a bit more detail.



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