A Look At Old-School Essentials

Let me start by giving you some context. Even though I have enjoyed the roleplaying game hobby for almost 30 years now, I started playing at an older age than most of you. I was 16 when I first played in a TORG convention game in 1992. Shortly after that I was finally allowed to join a friend’s Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay campaign, which lasted a couple of years and ended with our party saving the Empire from utter destruction! Even though I was aware of D&D at this time, I did only play it a few times. And – oh boy – I really didn’t like the AD&D 2nd Edition rules which were popular back then. I found the rules too restricting, and just plain weird. I still played it if I got the chance because everything aside from the rules was fun and I had the chance to spend some time with cool people.

Back then I didn’t know much about the history of the game, neither was I aware of Basic D&D. D&D 3rd Edition which came out a few years later was more to my liking and we played it quite extensively. But over the years my interest in rules-heavy games plummeted. It was somewhere in the 2010s when I first read blog posts about the Old School Renaissance (or whatever you want to call it) on the RPG Bloggers Network I had joined in 2008. As far as I remember I was pretty skeptical at first, but when I eventually looked closer into these “retro clones” I found something which I didn’t know I have been looking for all this time.

Old-school D&D had all the elements I liked in the D&D editions I played so far, but it was much more rules-light. The kind of gameplay it supported was also something I found intriguing. Eventually I started my long search for the “perfect” retro-clone (I know, there’s no such thing). I played Lamentations of the Flame Princess several times and it came pretty close to what I was looking for. I enjoyed the artwork associated with this game and some of the changes to the rules compared to the edition of D&D it emulated just felt right to me. Unfortunately the guy behind the game is not someone I want to support, so I looked for alternatives.

Over the years I have read basically everything OSR-ish I could get my hands on. There are some pretty popular games inspired by old-school D&D without trying to emulate the original rules which just didn’t click with me. Especially Index Card RPG is a game I really enjoy reading but I just can’t make it work at the game table. A game that almost worked perfectly for me was Swords & Wizardry Whitebox. It was simple and very easy to hack. But you know me, I kept hunting after my personal “white whale”, the perfect retro-clone.

Eventually I heard about Old-School Essentials by Necrotic Gnome. People all over the internet talked about it as if it was the best thing since sliced bread. At first I was seriously underwhelmed when I read it was trying to emulate the B/X edition of D&D perfectly. What I didn’t realize was that the author, Gavin Norman, rewrote it from scratch, so that the rules are much, much easier to understand, made some minor fixes, and added some optional rules like THAC0 or Ascending Armor Class.
But what really sets OSE apart is its layout. To call it perfect would almost be an understatement.

Continue reading A Look At Old-School Essentials

What’s new?

Some of you might have been wondering what I’ve been up to lately. There hasn’t been that much activity at the blog and one or the other might have feared I lost interest in blogging or even *gasp* the hobby altogether. Far from it!

I was pretty busy reading several new (at least to me) roleplaying games, I am still actively playing in quite a few online games and there are a couple of blog posts brewing in the back of my head.

At the moment I am actually struggling with a review I wanted to write for quite some time. Free League Publishing was nice enough to send me a copy of MÖRK BORG – a game which looks great – but I find it pretty hard to review. In a way, it’s more art project than game, and I find it hard to do it justice. So that’s what my review takes longer than usual. I hope the final result will be worth the wait.

Aside from that I am currently hunting one of my white whales: a D&D sandbox campaign. It’s something I wanted to do for ages, and I really feel now might be the perfect opportunity to prepare such a game. I already have a few interested players and even a couple of ideas, BUT I can’t make up my mind when it comes to the rules I want to use. I’ve looked into Basic D&D, but I just can’t deal with descending armor classes and some of the quirkness which come with rulesets from the 1980s. Swords & Wizardry Complete looks very compelling, but so does White Box. Especially the latter makes it very easy to mold the rules to my liking. The Hero’s Journey 2nd Edition looks awesome as well, but might not quite fit what I had in mind. I’ll make a decision … eventually.

On the last weekend I ran Shadowrun Anarchy for the third time and it worked pretty well. I didn’t really do much prep at all, but just picked one of the contact briefs and improvised. I played it a bit fast and loose with the rules, but I felt it worked well for an online game and the players didn’t mind. There’s some interest to turn this into a campaign, but we haven’t really decided on anything yet.

This is kind of a big deal for me since I struggled hard with running any games for quite some time. If I am not mistaken I haven’t run more than a couple sessions in the last two to three years but slowly but surely I am overcoming my anxiety. I am actually pretty excited to run games for my friends again.

2020 hasn’t really turned out in the way I thought it would. Especially this pandemic we’re currently wrangling with threw a wrench into a lot of our plans, but luckily playing tabletop roleplaying games online is a thing nowadays. Running Shadowrun Anarchy over Roll20 actually worked great so I might be tempted to start another online-only game in the near future.

What have you been up to lately? How has the pandemic affected your gaming life? Is there anything you really want to talk about? Please share your comments below!

More Thoughts on Racism in RPGs

As I anticipated, yesterdays article proved to be controversial, much like the social media discussion which inspired me to write it. I also want to thank you folks for commenting and keeping things civil aside from a bit of snark, which is expected with such a topic. We’re still friends here. 😉

I have to admit that my thoughts on the issue are not as refined as some of the criticism pointed at it. It’s a complicated issue and it’s not easy to find a good solution considering you even see it as a problem. Fantasy RPGs thrive on tropes, on clichés. It’s what makes them so easy for many players to get into, but these tropes may be laden with problems. Clichés by their nature, simplify and generalize things. I also often struggle with putting my thoughts into words especially when I am using English which is not my native language. This combined with my perfectionism often makes it incredibly hard for me to reply to some of your comments directly.

Let’s get back to the topic. If you want to run a traditional roleplaying experience with – let’s say – D&D and you love simple dungeon romps where the players kill everything in their way and take their stuff, no one is keeping you from doing so. If you use various humanoid races as antagonists to kill with wild abandon, that might be unproblematic, as long as everyone at the table is OK with it. Intent plays an important role as well. As with everything else a GM should try to run a game everyone at the table is comfortable with. If there are elements a players in not OK with, the best course of action is to talk about it and make the necessary changes.

Things are a bit different if you write your own adventure, or design your own game. Then you definitely should take the time and think about how you depict certain humanoids in game. If you are aware that some fantasy tropes may have some racist baggage they carry with them, you can more easily avoid them. I also think that subverting tropes can be a lot of fun. Make things more complex. Having an orcish clan rampaging the country side because “it’s just what orcs do” is boring. Give them a legitimate reason beyond “they are just evil”. Just put a bit more thought into it. In my opinion it’s in the best interest of most game designers to make games more inclusive since it might directly translate into more sales. It’s also the right thing to do.

But wait, the longer I think about it, the more I realize we are actually tackling two issues at once here. The one is the traditionally depiction of non-human humanoid races and the idea that they might be inspired or influenced by the racism of the past, the other is the “murder hobo” style of gameplay, where every enemy is just there to be killed and looted. Personally my power fantasy more often than not includes helping people, overcoming prejudice, fighting injustice, and making peace. I guess it has a lot to do with what I experienced in the last 40+ years and how powerless I often felt. So just killing stuff for the heck of it is often not enough for me – especially when it comes to roleplaying games I want to be deeply immersed in. I don’t mind playing some mindless Diablo-style video game from time to time though. Yes, I know, I am weird.

I definitely don’t want to ruin anybody’s fun or drive them from the hobby. Far from it. I am just trying to look critically at our favorite hobby and find ways to improve it. If we get better people in the process, even better. I can understand if people want to just have fun and not think about complex topics like racism, misogyny, etc. when they are gaming. Roleplaying games are escapism and sometimes you just don’t want to be confronted with real life issues while sitting around a table with your friends trying to have fun. But in the time between games, why not spare some thoughts on the issue? If we realize at the end of the day, that the depiction of humanoid races in games like D&D isn’t problematic at all, then this is a perfectly acceptable outcome. But if we come to this conclusion we should at least have looked closely at the subject first.

By the way, I just found an article on Psychology Today titled “No, Orcs Aren’t Racist” and while I disagree with some of the points made, it definitely is a thought-provoking read.

I think one of the main points I want to make is that there’s a risk we are keeping alive highly problematic tropes which seeped into pop culture decades ago and are now traditional elements of the fantasy genre. I believe it doesn’t hurt just to be careful.

A Roleplaying Games blog

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