Monday, September 23, 2013

The roleplaying in old school RPGs

Apologies that my postings have slowed down lately. I've been doing some work on non-blog gaming projects and most of my game writing time has gone toward that lately. Unfortunately for the blog that may continue for a while.

In the games I've run in 2013, I've found that roleplaying is often a stronger suit of old school gaming than I think people give it credit for. Mostly people think of roleplaying as "something you do in town," or areas where players engage in amateur dramatics. I've had that, sometimes to good effect as players get advantages (like getting on the good side of an NPC, or indeed the bad side). But it's viewed as kind of peripheral to the main event, something you do if you have time.

But that's not how older D&D is built at all. It's a game that encourages roleplaying in crucial ways that really make an impact on the game. The structure I like best is how it's built in the OD&D rules: players make offers to the monsters and the referee makes a reaction roll to see if the offers are accepted.

It's not just "roleplay it out" - this is a set of concrete rules that is built to handle the roleplaying interaction between PCs and monsters. And it does it well, encouraging prolonged negotiations - 6, 7 and 8, the most common rolls on 2d6, are "uncertain" and call for more discussion. Higher Charisma PCs get bonuses, and good or bad offers result in adjustments to the roll.

The impact of the 6/7/8 "uncertain" rolls really encourages some creativity. PCs who are trying to pull one over on monsters or get them to join have to think on their feet as they are met with skepticism or confusion. Good rolls might be "blown" on a relatively simple offer such as "don't attack" to initiate a truce.

Other parts of the simple OD&D rules play into this. For instance, the language rules - which unfortunately gets toned way down in Moldvay - put players in the boat of strategic choices about what monsters they may face in the future. Magic-users, particularly in OD&D and Holmes where there is 1 language per point of Intelligence over 10, should be strong polyglots and useful negotiators.

In practice, this form of roleplaying is crucial in older D&D. Since combat is a failure state, it becomes critical to avoid combat whenever possible. Good roleplaying (defined as making good offers to the monsters) gets a material bonus in not having to fight and risk resources. Smart players are ones who bluff, bully and negotiate their way through a dungeon rather than rolling the dice and hacking their way through. That seems entirely fitting within the literature that inspired the earliest games.


  1. Totally agree. In fact, I still haven't seen a better social resolution system than the one presented in OD&D.

  2. Pretty astute observation about the 6-7-8 result. Never thought of it like that.

  3. GURPS has this same style of reaction roll, just on 3d6. Also another example of a game where combat is to be avoided. Clearly influenced by D&D.

  4. Resolving social encounters and "roleplaying" are two different things. The former refers to challenges overcome by speaking (but it doesn't assume the player needs to think about how "realistically" his/her character would act in that situation), while the latter refers to instances where a character's mannerisms and way of speaking are "acted out".


Comments on posts older than two days will not appear until approved.