5 min read

What Old-School Means to Me

For me, old-school gaming is best embodied by 1st and 2nd edition Dungeons and Dragons. I'm a massive fan of the old-school style of play, but I also love the mechanics of 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons and 1st edition Pathfinder.
What Old-School Means to Me

There's been a lot of thought and discussion in recent years about old-school games and gameplay.

For me, old-school gaming is best embodied by 1st and 2nd edition Dungeons and Dragons. I'm a massive fan of the old-school style of play, but I also love the mechanics of 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons and 1st edition Pathfinder.

In designing my megadungeon, Gloamhold, I aimed to marry an old-school style game to Pathfinder's newer (better) mechanics. To do that, though, I had to first decide exactly what I mean by “old-school.” After all, if you don't know what you are trying to achieve, it is spectacularly unlikely that you'll be successful.

For me, old-school isn't necessarily tied to one set of rules or another—the play experience is the thing! Mechanics are just the things you use to get there.

What I Mean by "Old-School"

Show, Don't Tell

With the advent of more mechanic-heavy games, most things can be resolved with a die roll. This, in turn, seems to inevitably reduce the depth of the descriptions players put into their character's actions. For example, "I search for traps" or "I use Bluff on the ogre".

In old-school games, the lack of a skill system forces the players to describe exactly how their characters are searching for traps, gathering information, hiring a henchman and so on. This style of gameplay is slower but more immersive. It promotes teamwork, problem-solving and imagination.

Use Your Brains, Not a Skill Roll

This relates to "Show, Don't Tell" above. When you can't merely make a skill check to solve a problem, disarm a trap or even search for the treasure, you are forced to use your brain to come up with inventive solutions to problems.

Players get rewarded for clever play, instead of merely rolling high. This is a good thing. Roleplaying games are games of the imagination. It's not tremendously imaginative to cast detect magic (from your inexhaustible supply of such magics) or say, "I search the room" in every location you enter.

Manage Resources

Resource management has fallen out of favour, recently. Apparently, it's "un-fun." I disagree for two reasons.

  1. Tracking your expenditure of spells, arrows, iron spikes or whatever is an intrinsic part of the game. Clever or inventive resource management can reward the party ten-fold and provide crucial in-game advantages.
  2. It's a great feeling to have exactly the right piece of equipment for any given situation, and coming up with inventive uses for such items is its own reward.

Large Parties

Old-school play typically features large parties of adventurers. Pathfinder's CR system is designed for a party of four or five characters with few, if any, henchmen or hirelings.

Back in the good old days, my parties generally had around 8 characters; I remember running one game for 14 players! This might sound like a nightmare (and I would not want to run a game for 14 players using Pathfinder), but with lighter rules systems, combats and the like were generally quicker.

Larger parties can also handle more significant challenges than smaller groups. This can translate into longer delves in larger, more rambling dungeons or simply dealing with more enemies in each encounter area. Today's dungeons often seem designed to perfectly match the resources of a small party: three to five encounter areas, a map that miraculously fits on a standard battle mat and so on.

Someone's Mapping, and it's Not the GM

Exploration was a key part of old-school play, and a good map could mean the difference between success and failure. In later editions of the game, the GM does the mapping. In old-school games, the GM merely describes what the characters see, and one of the players draws the map!

There Might Not Be A Battle Mat

Most of my old-school games featured battle blackboards (we played at school). Other GMs described the combat, and we had to use our imagination to visualise the scene.

Combats in later editions of D&D and Pathfinder are much more tactical; your characters have many more options in any given round and their exact position on the battlefield matters. Thus, the rise of battle mats.

Game Balance

To a certain extent, later editions of the game emphasise game balance in that most if not all encounters are fair and level appropriate for the party. (Perhaps, we are too obsessed with balance). This means, in an extreme example, if a group of 1st-level characters opens a door they aren't going to encounter an ancient red dragon on the other side.

In old-school play, the same group of characters very well might encounter that self-same red dragon if they ignore the warning signs and/or do something colossally stupid. In Gloamhold, the characters occasionally have to deal with CR +5 (or higher) encounters, but these are clearly "signposted." No one—except GMs you should not play with—like unfair, unavoidable encounters, after all.

Magic Items

In the good old days, magic items were wondrous objects coveted by all adventurers. Even the strange ones were kept because they would undoubtedly be useful at some point.

Ironically, in later editions of the game, magic items were renamed wondrous items, but became anything but wondrous. In many instances, characters are free to buy and sell wondrous items as they choose. This reduces magic items to little more than a commodity and gave rise to the much-reviled magic item shop (which I hate with the burning passion of a thousand fiery suns).

This buying and selling of magic items also inhibits imaginative play. For example, why keep the decanter of endless water and come up with surprising and memorable uses for it? Simply sell it and buy a +1 longsword (or whatever) instead.

Gritty vs. (Super) Heroic

In newer editions of the game, even at 1st-level, the characters can accomplish heroic feats well beyond the reach of normal people.

This is not the case in old-school games. In old-school games, 1st-level characters are slightly more effective than a typical man-at-arms. While this fragility can lead to unlucky deaths it also leads to enhanced teamwork along with intelligent, inventive and imaginative play.

Even at higher levels, old-school characters are not god-like figures who can bend reality or crush the most terrifying foes in moments.

Fairness, not Balance

We've become increasingly obsessed with balance in recent editions of the game. I'm becoming more and more convinced that balance isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Balance creates a more predictable—perhaps even sterile—play experience which is fine as far as it goes. However, when things become too predictable, neither the GM nor the players are rarely surprised by events. That's a little sad, for me.

One More Thing...

Old-school games are often more rules-light, and play is quicker than later editions. I like the rich depth and complexity of systems such as 3.5 and Pathfinder. I like the customizability of characters (and their enemies) and the tactical options available in combat. I don’t necessarily see this as incompatible with an old-school style of play—it’s just a challenge to marry the two! (That said, I wish we could get through more combats in a typical Pathfinder game.)

This is the Second Edition

This is a reworking of a post from my old blog. I have reworked and updated the text to remove typos and add more depth and clarity to my opinion.

The initial edition of this post garnered many comments. Some agreed with my opinion, while others did not. However, I particularly treasure one comment:

What Does "Old-School" Mean to You?

What do you think of when you think of old-school play? Did I miss something? Am I wildly off-base? Should I be locked up?

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