Old-school renaissance

Old SchoolThere has been a renaissance of old-school games recently. Just think of all the retro-clones like OSRICLabyrinth LordBasic Fantasy Role Playing Game, which try to emulate legacy D&D. Some games like Mutant Future or Dungeonslayers don’t try to copy a certain game but are old-school games that stand on their own. Some even say that D&D 4th Edition is much more “old-school” than it’s predecessor.

So, why is old-school so popular at the moment? And what is old-school? I have to admit I can’t really answer these questions. Recently I have been enjoying running Dungeonslayers and I even developed some homebrew rules for it. For me it’s the simplicity of the system and the almost zero prep time. If there’s no proper rule for something I just make one up. I don’t have to browse through several hundreds of pages to find the rule I need. And my players enjoy their dungeon crawls and the bashing in of doors and the slaying of monsters.

But is this what old-school is? And can’t we just do the same with a new and fancy new-school game? And what is new-school? Savage Worlds? FATE? Shadowrun? I have to admit, I have no idea. What are your thoughts on that matter? And I have to admit that I am totally lost when it comes to these old D&D boxes everyone is talking about. Red box, white box, blue box… it’s all greek to me.

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

21 thoughts on “Old-school renaissance”

  1. I would add Vincent Baker's "Storming the Wizard's Tower" to the list of games with a strong Old School feeling. Actually, as of this moment, Dungeonslayers and Storming the Wizard's Tower are all I need to play, as far as Old School gaming is concerned. They are both quick games, easy to learn, easy to prepare for and original in their design.

    I want to thank you for the work you put into the translation of Dungeonslayer and I cannot wait to see how the Companion will be.

  2. I wrote a post about Retro Clones a year ago (pretty much to the date!) as well, when the games were starting to pop up all over.

    To me it's not so much about recreating the game, but about creating a current set of rules compatible with the loved old one, not to replace it, but to act as a bridge to engender new development.

    <abbr><abbr>Daniel M. Perez, The Gamer Travelers last blog post..Irish-American Road Trip at the Irish Fireside Podcast</abbr></abbr>

  3. I have questions, and I hope I don't sound trollish – why do we need clones? If you want to play "old school", why not just play the old games? What makes a game an old school clone, and not a new game?


  4. That's not a trollish question. 🙂

    There are a couple of reasons why you play a "clone":

    a) Most clones are released under the OGL or a similiar license which is always a plus

    b) Most "Old school" games are out-of-print. If you never bought the old D&D boxes back in the day it can be expensive to near impossible to get your hands on them.

    c) The retro clones are not 100% clones but some are close enough to allow a GM to run the original adventures published for the original games.

  5. @Tom- Short answer is the old games aren't in print and are encumbered by copyright restrictions such that, if they chose to, Hasbro could probably make trouble for somebody trying to release a module "Compatible with Basic Dungeons & Dragons." The clones use a combination of OGL and new material to produce something that can actually be legally distributed, but with rules that are close enough to the old games that you could play them–even playing some of the old modules–without really noticing the difference.

    New, non-clone "old school" games, like Encounter Critical, try to capture some of the feel of the old games without actually being tied to them by any particular similarity in mechanics. Two of the big aspects of the feel of the old games, as mentioned in the Old School primer that Chgowiz pointed to, are A) that the rules are really intended more as guidelines and it's expected that the GM will use his judgment in almost every situation to adjust things so as to make sense based on what the players say the characters are doing (this is sometimes called "rulings not rules"), and B) the game is aimed at challenging the players, not the characters…you'd almost never, for instance, roll to see if character can solve a riddle. Either the players figure out the riddle for themselves, or they proceed without ever having figured it out.

    <abbr><abbr>Joshuas last blog post..Tunnels & Trolls: Magic</abbr></abbr>

  6. @Joshua: Excellent explanation and much better than my own! Thanks!

    And I now even understand what old-school means even better!

    "Challenging the player not the character" is really something that makes a difference in gaming philosophies.

  7. So… however this sounds I'm being serious. Why if "the game is aimed at challenging the players, not the characters…you’d almost never, for instance, roll to see if character can solve a riddle." are you rolling for combat? I mean, you are challenging the character at that point. It seems like a double standard to belittle rolling for one and not the other. Maybe I'm playing a character that is in theory smarter than I. Or would be more grounded in the setting/lore and be able to come up with an answer where I'm just drawing a blank… why don't I need to beat up the GM to win physical confrontations?

    Also… I read that primer Chgowiz posted… I do find it interesting but, that is not what I remember my 0e (0e? Really?) experiences to be. I don't recall combats being that much more excitingly innovative than anything I've seen in 3E or 4E or any other system. It reads to me more like "This is what Old School Gaming /should/ have been like. Yeah!" than what it really was.

    Maybe it's just impossible for me to grok what "Old School" is really about.

    <abbr><abbr>justaguys last blog post..Who watches the Watchmen? Me I suppose…</abbr></abbr>

  8. @Joshua – Thanks, thats a good explanation.

    few thougts –

    a) I think all the old school DnD books are all available from rpgnow, albeit at a cost. I know PDFs are lame at the gametabe, thats what the laser printer at work is for 😉 I can, however, understand the commercial aspects if one wanted to release a module.

    b) Player vs character challenge? I'm thinking that has more to do with the people playing the game, then the rule set.

    Maybe another example would help. I know the 4e DMG talks about puzzles on p81, they aren't automatically skill challenges. They certainly can be, but thats left to DM to decide.

  9. @justaguy- because it's a game? To say it's a double-standard is to suppose that there was some standard that it was trying to adhere to, but it was the standard…there wasn't anything else. Rolling for the one thing and not the other wasn't "belittling" people or systems who did it the other way…there weren't any yet. You didn't roll against INT or WIS to see if the character figured out the trap for the same reason you didn't roll to see whether the 3rd Army, theoretically being commanded by Patton, figures out whether to relieve Bastogne when playing a WWII game. The point of the game is to see what you the player do. Even when it comes to combat, there was no reasoning along the lines "my character was a veteran and so wouldn't fall for such a simple ambush"; if you didn't see it coming as the player, you suffered the consequence. On the other hand, if you did see it coming, nobody was there telling you that your 4 INT guy has to walk into it anyway because he wouldn't have noticed.

    Eventually, people started to notice and worry about the tension between the game aspect and the roleplaying aspect, which was completely new. The more you conceived of the characters as having a mental life of their own and not just being tokens to move, the more it seems like the character really ought to be able to draw on his memories and direct experiences of the setting to solve problems, and the more it seemed like, well, that character really isn't smart enough to have spotted that ambush. But that whole mind-set, and the rules to deal with that sort of thing, were an innovation …they were an outgrowth of what came before, but they took it farther and farther from the original way of playing. To the point where today people say stuff like if you're going to make the players and not the characters think, why don't you make the players actually fight?

    It's not that one way's right and the other wrong, but they really are different mind-sets. Personally, I like them both. I think that you can get really deep and satisfying role-playing experiences when you separate what the player knows and thinks from what the character knows and thinks, even to the extent of having rules or rolling to see if the character knows some bit of information or can solve a puzzle, or when you deliberately have the character do something stupid and perhaps fatal in order to be true to the character's concept. But I also think that solving puzzles and working out tactics and being challenged to play a character successfully and not just faithfully is a fun activity in and of itself, and games where the clever ideas of the player have to be ignored or rolls made to see if they can be acted upon don't scratch that itch.

    <abbr><abbr>Joshuas last blog post..Tunnels & Trolls: Magic</abbr></abbr>


    Oh well, I see an edition war brewing. No point sticking around! *unsubscribes* 🙁

  11. Edition war? Are you frakking kidding me? I don't see anyone advocating an edition war here. We are just discussing what people understand under "old-school" and "new-school" and not what edition of D&D is better. 🙄

  12. @Leonardo: I am glad you like Dungeonslayers. But it will probably take some more weeks before the Compendium comes available and then we have to start translating it. But I will try to translate the supplements on magic weapons & armor and my firearms supplement as soon as possible.

  13. @stargazer: Sorry if that cost you a subscriber… I wasn't trying to be trollish there, I'm actually rather curious about this topic.

    @Joshua: I wish you had. I didn't intend for that to be trollish/confrontational… I'm seriously curious about the distinction. I mean, no of course I don't advocate actually having the players and GM fight out combat (What is this… LARPing? hahaha… I kid, I kid…), I just find the concept a characters mental stats are largely trumped by the PLAYER'S mental stats both interesting and odd.

    Some of the old school thoughts presented in that primer interest me. I like the concept of "less is more" when it comes to rules. I like any system that encourages players to be creative in combat (or RP in general). And I don't really even mind the concept of the player having a large impact on what the character can do… I just can't entirely get past the concept that I am playing a roll. That maybe my trained thief (mage/fighter/etc.) might have a better concept of what is going on in the world and thus a roll against HIS stats might make sense.

  14. @justaguy: Don't worry. But I really don't know where he got that "edition war is brewing" idea. He must have been reading another blog. 🙄

    @All: I think my style of running the game was a strange mixture between old- and new-school. I usually use rulings over rules (mostly because I am lazy when learning rules is concerned) and I let a lot of situation solve by roleplaying alone. But I have to admit that I sometimes let the players make perception checks etc. when they need a hint. And we try to separate player and character knowledge (which is probably more new-school).

  15. @justaguy – well, look at it this way: isn’t it kind of odd that most of the time–particularly on the big decisions having to do with morality and survival–the players thought processes are trumping the characters? I mean, rolling for riddles is all very well, but why don’t we roll for everything the character decides? After all, if the character is much smarter than you and more experienced with the world, he can probably come up with a plan that would never occur to you… I think the simple answer is that it wouldn’t be very much fun. I don’t think the answer is that it’s in some way natural to have certain mental activities decided by game mechanics and die rolls, and other mental activities solely decided by the player. In fact, various games have very different demarcations of where the player makes the decisions and does the reasoning versus where the game mechanics do.

    That’s one of the ways that systems matter. Some player preferences are harder to satisfy in some systems than in others. There are systems with so-called “coercive personality mechanics” where you do have to roll to see if, e.g. your character can resist temptation. And there are people who flat-out refuse to play in such systems because they want to be the authority as to whether their character would be tempted in that situation. Granted, you could play the system and house-rule the personality mechanic out…but at some point you’re better off with a system that draws the line closer to where you prefer to play.

    Similarly, all old-school systems (that I can think of, anyway) reason from the game-world to the rules. You’re supposed to play by thinking about what’s happening in the game-world and trim the rules or overrule them to fit the situation as envisioned. It was considered a black mark against the game–or at least a source of humor–if the mechanics intruded into the world in a way that was hard to envision or explain (c.f. the myriad complaints about what exactly happens when a mage tries to wear armor in D&D or what a hit-point really represented, and all the house rules that followed to rationalize it).

    Nowadays, game designers feel perfectly free to make it so the players have to think about the rules first, and what happens in the game world is explained as a result of the rules interacting (if it can be explained at all). For instance, in the PDQ system (used in Truth & Justice and other games), you take damage of your traits, but your traits can be things like Accounting. So Spider-Guy getting punched in the face by The Boar results in, e.g. the IRS auditing him some time later in the campaign. It works perfectly well at creating stories that are very much like the comics, but you just aren’t allowed to think about cause and effect in the game-world.

    It’s not just in odd-ball indie games, either. D&D 4e is the epitome of the rules define what the world is, and if you can’t quite picture how your encounter power is pushing and pulling figures around on the map, tough. Not to get into any kind of editions-war stuff, but that’s why I always laugh when people say that 4e can be played “old school.” I’m sure you could, if you ignored most of the rules–but the whole philosophy of “exception based design” is rules operating on rules, not rules which may or may not have exceptions based on the GM’s (and players’) interpretation of what’s the most sensible thing given the situation in the game world.

  16. I found this blog doing a search for BFRPG and found the comments very interesting. I don't see an edition war going on here either. I just see a very reasonable discussion on what is old school. Its impossible to discuss it without discussing the difference between old and new. I guess there have been so many bitter debates on this that any discussion is perceived by some as just like all the rest. Anyway, on to the reason I am commenting.

    I never played AD&D or 3X (.0 or .5). I played B/X rules for 5 years back in the 80's and recently returned to D&D. I watched a 3.5 game and sat in on a 4.e game. The difference between the two is very distinct for someone who never played the iterations in between. This is just my opinion, I don't know what was intended by TSR or WOTC. All I know is what I took from the games. Which is:

    Imagine old school as what it was like playing "Cops and Robbers" or "Cowboys and Indians" with your friends when we were young. Everything we did was our own individual actions and worked just fine up to the point where we went "bang bang, you're dead". At that point the game would fall apart. We'd start arguing about who got the drop on the other. Who had more cover, who was the better shot, bla bla bla. Old School D&D rules were what decided that argument.

    I see new D&D more like role playing a chess game. Every move has a rule. Every game is balanced (the other side is not stronger or weaker than you). The best players are those that best understand the rules and can best manipulate them to their benefit.

    I am sure my ideas are very simplistic and that each of our gaming experiences will be as varied as each of our real life experiences. I am also aware that some old schoolers were very heavy into rules and that some 3.5 and 4e players do a lot of role playing. All I am saying is that one rule set makes one style easier and one set makes teh other style easier.

  17. Old school all the way man!

    AD&D 0e and 1e and some 2e minus all the brown splat handbooks was great. You only needed a few rule books. Go buy Greyhawk stuff or forgotten realms stuff (on ebay or amazon)and enjoy the feel of old school. Characters rolled up and done in 10-15 minutes and ready to play.

    If you don't have an answer to a players action/request – then role play it out and let easy stat checks on a d20 decide instead of a dc12 or dc18 with all the modifiers.

    Really now do you need to create magic items at 1st level? Do you need 30+ books of rules to be entertained?

    Plus old school wasn't like playing a computer game like these days created from the diablo (3.0/3.5)days. Munckinism game was added with skill and powers from 2e which was a rip off of Hero/Champions RPG.

    4e? what the hell is that? magic the gathering rpg? hasbro secure investment funds?

    it isnt old school in any way….

    "old school is prior to 3.0" but mostly referred to 0e and 1e the most….

  18. I grew up during the "old school days", and I can tell you that after reading the rules for the OGL version of original D&D and how it is "supposed" to be played that I realized I got a lot of DM's who weren't doing it right. Then again, no one ever played zero edition. They played 1st edition and soon were playing 2nd edition and the rules definitely took over the game, but that's just my opinion. I am a current player of 3.5 and we do have a feeling of security with having a rules set near at hand to say "we can do this", but even if we could justify what we wanted to do (in defiance of the rules) with good debate, we are somewhat trapped as well so we could keep to the safety of the rules in the future. In other words, once a decision was made as to a particular interpretation, it's cast in stone.

    On the other hand, a game like White Box could allow you to rule one way one time, and reverse it another as long as play moved along, the story was preserved, and so long as no one got upset that rules weren't followed and quit the game. I know a lot of people I play with are nervous and excited to have a chance to play a game that can be so "loosey goosey" with the rules. I guess it would be a similar feeling to suddenly wake up and find yourself in the wild west of long ago where you had to settle your own battles rather than have a nice regimented government to do it for you like it or not.

    Long story short, I like both methods, because both can be tremendous fun to play. Both have limitations, but understanding why those limitations exist is important, and by choosing the game rules that fits closer to what you want/need, you can increase your game enjoyment a thousandfold.

    I know this is an ancient thread, but I just wanted to toss my 2 cents in.

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