Why play old-school D&D?

Dungeon Crawlers If you haven’t been living under a rock for quite some time, you probably noticed a growing trend in the RPG hobby: OD&D is back with a vengeance.

Ok, in most cases it’s not really the D&D from 1974 that Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson created, but the various retro-clones that are enjoyed by gamers all over the world. A lot of those gamers are people who have been playing D&D since the 1970s and who are more or less affectionately called “grognards”. But a growing number of players enjoy the charm of OD&D (or its clones) without ever having played the game back in the day.

So, why should anyone play old-school D&D today, where there are hundreds of modern games available? If you are one of the “grognards” you probably just play the game you’ve enjoyed for decades. For others its nostalgia, because they first played D&D before moving to other games and for a few of us (like me) it’s actually a new and exciting thing!

My favorite retro-clone at the moment is Swords & Wizardry White Box and as far as I was told it’s pretty close to the original game from 1974 with a few improvements. One of these improvements is probably the option to use ascending Armor Classes (like in D&D 3rd Edition a lot of modern gamer have played). But if you wish you can of course play it with the classic descending Armor Classes.

So, what is the appeal of S&W? There are several reasons why old-school gaming can be fun and exciting even today. In a way, playing S&W White Box is like learning a new skill. The game is extremely rules light and the DM (or referee) has to make rulings on the fly very often during the course of a session. You don’t have rules for every situation that may arise, so thinking on one’s feet and improvising is necessary. Especially when you are used to rely on rules, this can be a new experience for any DM.

The players have to adjust, too. In most cases combat is much more dangerous, because a character usually starts with just 1d6 hit points. A good hit with a sword and your character is history. Picking fights carefully is very important if you want to survive. Another aspect of old-school gaming is that the players are often more challenged than the characters. If there’s a riddle to solve, the players will have to solve it. There’s no skill roll to solve that for you. Some people may not like this, but we enjoyed this a lot. And I have to admit that especially when social interactions and riddles etc. were concerned I always preferred player challenge over mere dice rolling. And if in doubt you always can combine the two methods (at least in modern games).

But the part that is the most fun (for the DM or referee at least) is the fact, that you can easily change rules you don’t like or add classes, items etc. at whim without the fear of breaking the game. In most more complicated games some small changes may have big consequences that are usually not easily foreseeable. In my opinion old-school D&D is a heaven for homebrewers.

If you try to play S&W White Box or any other old-school RPG like a modern RPG, you will probably not enjoy it. It just wasn’t meant to be played that way. But if you are willing to try out something different, you are in for a ride!

By the way, if you are interested in giving S&W a try, check out fellow RPG blogger Chgowiz’ Swords & Wizardry quickstart.

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.

8 thoughts on “Why play old-school D&D?”

  1. An important point to note is the reliance of old school games (more so than modern) on having a good GM.

    Rules replaced Rulings because some GM's are just not good at either impartiality ("How come Suzie's character didn't need to make a strength check but mine does?") or memory ("Woah, last time I didn't need to make a strength check, I wouldn't have crawled all the way down into the hole If I knew it would all hinge on a strength check") or just simply different views of physics ("I need to roll a strength check? Why don't I just see if I have enough room in my encumbrance to lift it, I wouldn't have climbed down in this hole if I knew it hinged on a die roll")

    but with a good GM its golden.
    .-= Zzarchov´s last blog ..Making battles epic: THE monster versus A monster =-.

  2. playing the older versions of the game should be required training for anyone. my opinion is that most people who dislike 4e never realy played the older editions.

    playing the older editions realy frees you up as a player, forcing you to think of a way out of your situation.

    a 1st level mage is going to run and hide from everything he can.

    i highly recomend playing the older editions to everyone

  3. @Zzacharov: You have a point there. Since a lot of the gameplay relies on DM discretion a bad DM can ruin the game very easily. But I think a bad DM ruins almost every game.

    @mike: Hmm, I've played AD&D 2nd Edition, D&D 3rd Edition and D&D 3.5 and recently discovered S&W Core Rules and S&W White Box for me. And I still dislike D&D 4E. It's a matter of taste and it has nothing to do with what you've played before or not. And now let's stop discussing 4E here. I don't want another edition war. 😛

    @darjr: I think most editions of D&D are different enough that you can consider them totally different games. And every game delivers a slightly different experience.

  4. I guess I'm confused on what a "modern game" is. You don't have to think your way out of a situation? You can roll dice to solve riddles? I don't see the point of that. Why not stick to Wow or movies?

    Maybe I'm old school and don't know it. I started playing red box D&D and moved on to Advanced D&D, before leaving D&D altogether for other systems and settings. I shocked to learn that, in more recent editions, lower AC isn't better! 🙂

  5. I find that throwing together an oldschool group is easier than a 3.x or 4E group. My group ranges from 20-40 years of age.

    I am a staunch anti-edition war kind of guy, any game that you and your group enjoy is the best game for you.

    I have a daily Labyrinth Lord/OSR blog, but that Pathfinder book looks awesome.
    .-= bat´s last blog ..[New Deity] Ramalokor of the Skies =-.

  6. Sorry, found this on the Google, and I was the male hobbit in that game. Awesome, forgot we were playing a Thorkhammer (Rob Pinnell) original Holmes adventure. Good times! Must subscribe to this blog! Thanks!!

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