On Old School Gaming

I perused the "A Quick Primer to Old School Gaming" document earlier tonight, and it got me thinking about our game. (Although the link above is currently not letting me download, it can be read here at Scribd but for goodness sakes, don't try to download it from there!)

Although the core of our game is an old school aesthetic, there are strong new school influences on our game. I talked earlier about really starting to know my players, and there are several 'new-school' things that I think many of my players would be unhappy without.

We like our numbers and our fiddly skills. I often call for rolls for things like identifying spells or various other small things, none of those things are truly important. For the most part, simply having a skill no matter the level it is at is enough to succeed. I think without those skills many players would feel a much reduced sense of accomplishment. Skill selection is the single longest part of character creation. Even though something like the SIEGE system is much faster and in game achieves the same effect, while removing a vast amount of bookkeeping; my players would be much less happy without the fiddly bits. They like the crunchy gamey stuff.

The other thing I think is difficult for my players has little to do with what they think is fun, and more to do with the type of people they are. Not that there is such a thing as 'true' old school gaming, but when faced with the classical 'search each room in the dungeon as if you were actually there' scenario given inside the document several problems would quickly start to occur. One of my players would wonder why we were 'wasting time' that could have been spent fighting something. Another would have a great idea, but get distracted and totally forget about any sequential plan of action. Another would be concerned about the abstract fairness of the meta-interaction. Another is just happy someone besides him is taking point.

The point of this post is not just commentary on 'what my players are like' but instead a step by step primer on 'how to go about role-playing successfully in an old school style'. They touched on this within the document, but I found their list lacking. This is a listing on what I would do if I were a player within my game. Perhaps this will help other players be more effective and proactive in their old school games.

  • Make a listing of all your goals and keep it in front of you on a 3"x5" note card.
  • Have a blank scratch paper for the sole purpose of writing down names, ideas, thoughts, and questions when talking with NPC's
  • Seek out various NPC's before doing anything and talk to them. A list of suggested NPC's are below.
    • Townspeople
    • Guardsmen
    • Town Officals
    • Bartenders
    • Bar Patrons/Other Adventuers
    • Various 'guilds' (Merchant as well as nefarious)
    • Religious Organizations
    • Sages and Magic-Users
  • Talking to NPC's: 
    • When you talk to the NPC's GET THEIR NAMES.  Your DM is running these people as people - when you walk up to them rudely, they respond rudely. Don't be overly obsequious either.
    • 50%-70% of all rumors and NPC information is false in all published materials. This should be a clue to how much  you believe what they say. Default into thinking that what you are being told is false - even when it looks like they know what they are talking about. (This advice is NOT relevant for sages. They charge a pretty penny, because you know what you are getting is the truth).
    • Trust your eyes and your investigation abilities. 
    • Think very hard about their perspective on the situation. When you do get information from someone, even if you are sure it is true, remember to treat it like a theory. Be prepared to revise it as soon as you receive additional or conflicting information.
    • Cover each and every goal on your list with every NPC! Use your goals sheet as a checklist. In a sandbox game there will be many threads going on at once.
  • Accomplishing goals
    • There are two ways to accomplish anything in old school play. Money, and Adventure. 
    • You can pay the gold to buy training, or answers from the sages, or spells cast for you, or certain specific magic items. Often this is a way to compensate for bad play (except in the case of sages - sometimes your only option). This (money) is the real source of power in old school gaming, and it's fast and effective - but very expensive.
    • Or you can engineer the situation to get what you want. 
      • Do not walk up to the person and go "What can I do to make you X" Where X is 'give me free training' or 'lead me to the magical whosit'. It may work at the very start of a campaign or adventure, but mostly it gets blank stares. (Think about someone coming up to you and going "What can I say to make you buy a vacuum today/believe in Jesus Christ our zombie lord/donate blood" Mostly the response is "Gah!")
      • Do observe the person. See where they go, who they talk to, what they do.
      • Talk to other people about the person indirectly. Say something that you know is just slightly wrong, and listen to the way people correct you. "Joesph isn't just in charge of the lighthouse - he also is on the city council, right?"
      • Then, once you know the score, you can assist/blackmail/bribe/coerce the person into giving you information, training, etc. 
      • Often there may simply not be anything prepared there, but that becomes less and less likely the more important the person is. Most old school DM's have exploitable relationships like this prepared. If they don't they will either develop something on the spot or use this to lead you to what is going on that's interesting.
  • Going on an Adventure
    • Be a boy scout. (Be prepared!)
    • That means mounts, pets, men-at-arms, torchbearers, equipment, food, and supplies, weapons, armor, and spare shields.
    • Treat those men you buy well! Give them extra gold, take risks for them. Talk to them and make sure they are comfortable. Over 100% loyalty is crazy nice. 
    • Scout ahead! Time and time again, I've seen the scout not be sent ahead because it was dangerous. That is their 'fsking job! It's not like they are nearly as effective as any of the other classes in combat. Their biggest advantage is not getting surprised, discovering the enemies and reporting back to the party. This helps the party avoid being surprised - the single biggest killer of PC's.
    • Avoid combat at all costs. Experience comes from treasure. Monsters give very little ep value compared to treasure and carry a high risk. If you have an encounter with an enemy that appears even mildly intelligent PARLEY. Even if their alignment is diametrically opposed to yours, your job isn't fixing the whole world (at this point), it's accomplishing your immediate goal. This is why certain inflexible classes are so difficult to adventure with (Paladin, I'm looking in your direction).
    • If in doubt, run. I've started pretending to track damage for creatures immune to weapons the party is using unless it is very obvious that they are not working. You cannot kill everything, and you will run into things you can't kill.
    • Make sure your party mapper comes prepared with actual real world tools to map (Paper) and some sort of organizational scheme for the maps.
    • Ask lots of questions about the environment. Remember any unusual words the DM mentions. There is an economy of language - rooms 'seem' empty, you 'think' you don't find any traps. If there's dust on the floor, is it ancient debris? Or pulverized bone from the ceiling crushing down every 4 minutes? Or powdered blood and flesh from a disintegrate trap? Not asking about the dust on the floor means you're going to be the dust on the floor.
    • Look up
    • Test the floor - every floor, every time.
    • Make sure your marching order is effective. Like Gygax says, short people up front, then elven bowmen, then your men with pikes. Maximize your damage potential. Focus fire on targets until they are down. Don't ever assume anything is dead. 
    • Cut open the stomach of every monster, even if you didn't kill it. (Especially if you didn't kill it).
    • Search every item in every room. Break apart rusty pipes, check pedestals, daises, idols, everything.
    • Set a watch at a chokepoint while you're searching.
    • The most important thing of all: Have a party goal and STICK TO THE PARTY GOAL. Do not be distracted.
That's a start. Think of anything I missed? Please comment!


  1. "Make sure your party mapper comes prepared with actual real world tools to map (Paper) and some sort of organizational scheme for the maps."

    I have PCs in two different forum-based games, one using OD&D rules and the other using LL rules. In the OD&D game, I designated myself as the mapper (no one else wanted the job, anyway) and pulled out grid paper and pencil to began mapping our route. (We haven't gotten to a mapping point yet in the LL game.)

    The idea was to map out individual rooms on a 1 square = 2' scale and the dungeon as a whole on a 1 square = 10' scale, then scan the maps in and update on a thread on the forum as necessary.

    Several problems quickly made themselves known. One, I had to mess with the scans with photo-editing software to get the grid lines to show up; otherwise, we tended to lose scale. Two, when we explored our way so far south that we went off the sheet of grid paper, I couldn't just tape another piece of paper to it and continue. I had to scan each image and merge them manually.

    I have an 11-week old baby. I don't have time to edit scans in photoshop and merge maps every time I update. I needed something quick that would easily expand in the direction we go if necessary.

    My GM pointed me to www.dungeonographer.com. I tried the free version for a bit and enjoyed it enough to buy the pro version ($28 vs. my time mapping and enjoying my game = worth the money).

    Now I can easily map as we go along. Updates are done in a matter of minutes, even adding details to the room, like beds or tables, and a simple export (of the whole map or a selected portion, in a simple line format or a semi-detailed battlemap format) can then be posted directly in the forum thread.

    The other players love the maps now. It anchors them, lets them know exactly where we are and where we've been.

    So with a bit of new school technology, my old school game has become that much better.

  2. I'd say try to consider a balance between completeness and timeliness. You want to search everything, but if you do, chances are you will waste your time searching things that hide nothing interesting.

    Said another way, every two turns in the dungeon is a random encounter roll. Or every month spent wandering in the woods aimlessly is one month closer to the Rain of Colorless Fire. Spend time, yes, but try not to waste time.

    How to do this? Think about whether the search is necessary.

    Let's say some Orcs rush out of a barracks and attack. You probably don't need to search for traps on the floor in the room because those Orcs would have triggered the trap and they wouldn't want to set off poison gas every time they got up in the night to pee.

    Or pick the most likely people in town to question, instead of the first people you see or even asking everyone!

    My second thing to add would be to change things up sometimes to surprise the DM. Sure a plan may work well in most situations, but especially when the DM seems excited that your scout will go on ahead you might want to be careful.

    Third, share resources and information with party members. Don't hide the fact that you can heal until someone's wounded - having that healing ability might have changed everyone's plans! It's better to tell your friends what you can do than to susprise them during the adventure.

  3. This is Terrific. I'm going to print this and make all my players read it. I find my player's characters die the most from simply not caring to ask questions about the environment, even when I go into detail about things. I think it's that "If I don't have to roll for it then it's not really important" attitude that I'm still trying to get them to brake.


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