D&D Theory: Why Old School?

Recently I have gotten myself into a 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons game as a player, as well as wrapped up a second season as a GM in my Game of Thrones RPG game while simultaneously preparing a new RPG for online play with my friends back in the states. Suffice to say, role-playing has suddenly become “it” in terms of where all my gaming time is going. In so doing I have been kind of jotting some notes down for future articles, the loot from many conversations and I realized this week I finally have enough to put one together. In today’s D&D Theory article I’m going to be musing about the concept of “Old School Gaming”, which I think is a very relevant topic these days given the rather sudden shift of Wizards of the Coast to return the game of D&D to a more classic or old school state with the release of 5e last year.

Now I say Classic/old school state with a grain of salt as the exact definition of what that is, is a bit murky. After all D&D is 40+ old, has had many editions, sub-editions, clones and spin-offs and as such what is “classic” or “old school” is probably different for everyone depending on which generation of the game you started in and how far back you go.

Whether you love old school D&D play or not, you should thank it for some of the wonderful settings it produced.

As such I think it’s relevant to first identify what “old school” gaming is, which as I found was a deep and fairly complex, albeit interesting topic that took me quite a bit to get my head around. The question really is, is it a “feeling”, is it a “mechanic” or is it some sort of “conceptual design or philosophy”? All good questions and today I’m going to try to answer them!

I started my research in perhaps the most obvious place, first edition of D&D and tried to identify what in that early version(s) of the games like Basic, Expert and Advanced rules system differs in approach, feel, design, mechanics etc. as it compares to modern systems like 3rd, 4th and 5th edition of the game.

At first, it was quite unclear to me. While certainly the mechanics were different in many respects, the fundamentals where very much the same, D&D as a concept in 1e is really not any different than any other edition that has come out since. To me it was clear that early editions of D&D weren’t as streamlined, and refined, there was certainly a lot less standardization and quite a bit more limitations on character classes and races, and players in general. Though I can’t imagine how having those limitations and lack of rules clarity really altered the experience for the better. Fewer options sure, but I didn’t find anything within the scope of the mechanics that couldn’t be accomplished in a modern RPG if you really wanted to include it or exclude it as the case may be. A DM for example could simply say “hey in my game Dwarves hate and never use magic so they can’t be any kind of Arcane caster”. Is having the limitation as a rule in the book as opposed to an option for the DM “old school”? I don’t believe so, there had to be more to it.

The realization didn’t really strike me until I read and was reminded of one very unusual rule in 1st edition AD&D called “XP-Treasure Conversion”. The basics of this rule was that if a character hauls out treasure from a dungeon of some sort and brings it back to a safe place like a town, the value of that treasure can be converted into XP. Gygax explains and reminds us in the DMG (paraphrasing here) that while the rule doesn’t make narrative sense, D&D is a game and games have rules and this is one of them. Simply put, the rule was there to remind and motivate players (not characters) that the premise of the game is that the players characters and their alter egos (PC’s) are in fact treasure hunters. Another words that the core premise of D&D is that you go into dungeons, kill monsters and take their treasure.

Now I would imagine a modern gamer would have a real problem with that explanation when defining what they do when playing D&D. After all, what that rule & premise suggests is that the cliché about D&D is a less a myth and more a fact. That D&D really is just a light hearted adventure game about going in dungeons, killing monsters and taking their treasure. I think most modern gamers would disagree with that assessment of what D&D is. The question is however, is that the source of “old school” or “classic” gaming mentality, another words is that the goal of “old school” gaming to capture that feel of this classic premise?

While I think at this point I was getting close, I don’t believe this was it in its entirety. One clear aspect of early editions of D&D was that the game itself was very unforgiving. This concept of the dungeon crawl as a core, was layered by the uncanny deadliness of the game itself in particular as it applies to the core premise of fighting monsters. Simply put, fighting monsters in early editions of D&D was extremely dangerous, something to actually be avoided hence it was at odds with the core premise on which its founded. Mind you when I say deadly, I really mean it. I recall in the 1st edition AD&D days, having one or two characters die each session was fairly common. 1st level characters were so fragile most of the time you would make 2 or 3 in advance, create them without back story’s, hell sometimes without a name and put them in the game to see which of them survived long enough to hit 2nd or 3rd level at which point you would flesh them out a bit and give them some much needed dimensions.

The most notable aspect of all of this was that none of it had anything to do with the story of the game. The premise of the game, the deadliness of the game, and this concept of detachment from characters, it all pointed to one thing. It was less a game about story and more a game about, well the game. Putting that question to old school gamers came with its own reactions as they rejected the idea that the game was not about story. In fact, they adamantly insisted that old school gaming was “real role-playing” and what they do in modern editions is “playing CRPG’s”.

The logic was that the story wasn’t about individual characters, the story was about the world and its events, the characters were parts in it. Sometimes those parts were small, insignificant and short lived and sometimes those parts were epic, elaborate and detailed. Your roles in the game might change periodically as a result of death of an adventurer, but the story lived on with new characters. A campaign was bigger and more to them than any individual character and they were adamant at saying that there was no detachment from their characters, but rather the solemn reality that adventuring life was dangerous as it should be and the results were often tragic. Interesting concept and I think Shakespeare would agree!

Still I believe I’m right at least in one thing. I believe early editions of D&D were less about a focus on characters and more of a focus on players. I believe there is a lot of evidence to support this theory and I also believe within that logic is actually the reason that “Old School” is a premise that is different from modern gaming. I don’t believe it’s purely rules or feel related,  some part of this movement is about nostalgia.  Still I think there is a concrete difference that is identifiable between modern D&D and early (1st edition) D&D as a design concept.

That premise or concept if you will is the difference between Character Centric game design and Player Centric Game design. I will define both but it’s worth noting up front that these aren’t always rules driven concepts nor are they mutually exclusive in that all RPG’s have some Character Centric elements and some Player Centric elements. It’s just that in 1st edition D&D, the Player Centric design is both more prevalent and more firmly defined as a part of the expected flow of the game and vice versus for modern game design as Character Centric systems.

Old School RPG’s are definitely about nostalgia, but Old School design is a lot more than that.

Ok so let’s define Player Centric and Character Centric Design. The principle is really quite simple.

Character Centric design means that by the logic and premise of the design and by the implementation of mechanics into the game, a player character is the focus of the rules and ultimately the mechanics of that character are what drive the resolution of challenges and conflicts. Another words, when a players character is faced with a problem, there is a mechanical property on his character sheet that is designed to address it via mechanical rules.

For example, if a player needs to search a room, in a Character Centric design, that players character will have a skill or attribute available that he or the GM can activate to resolve the search and determine if the character finds what he is looking for. So a player will say, “I search this room for the magic ring, I think it’s here somewhere” and the GM determines “Ok make a search check, let’s see if your character finds it”.

It’s worth pointing out that Character Centric design doesn’t mean the GM is obligated to character centric play, a distinction with a difference. However it is kind of presumed that when you make a skill check, as a player you roll the dice, you know what the result is and hence know if you succeeded or failed the check. Hence if you find nothing, you know it’s not here, else you find it, vice versus if you fail you know you have failed hence you know, it might still be here, but you just didn’t find it or the ring may in fact is not here in the first place (boy that’s a mouth full!). You can also further layer this by having the GM make the roll in secret, in which case you have no information about whether or not you fail the roll, hence, if your GM tells you that you find nothing you don’t know if it’s because the ring is not there or if it’s because you failed the check and simply didn’t find it.

Creating characters in AD&D was something you did often, because they died often. Fortunately in a Player Centric design, what is on your character sheet is not nearly as important to your success as what’s in your own imagination.

Regardless however as a Character Centric designed mechanic, the activity of searching is mechanized and the results are determined with the dice.

In a Player Centric design the challenge and obstacles of the game are instead directed at the player, and it’s the player who is expected to resolve these challenges through a narrative exchange with the GM as opposed to a function of mechanics associated with his character.

Taking the same example of searching for the ring, in a Player Centric design, the GM would describe the room and situation and the player would feed the GM instructions about his activities. For example he might say, I check under the bed, in the mattress, under the pillows, all the drawers in the dresser, I search for loose floor boards and check behind the paintings and so on. The GM in turn would respond to the activities of the player. It’s presumed the GM knows where the ring is hidden so if the player says, I check in the flower pot, he finds the ring, otherwise he does not.

The point here is however that there is no mechanical function of the character that assists or somehow affects the outcome of “searching the room”. The event exists purely in the narrative, a strictly player driven resolution and it’s typically (or at least it was the case in 1st edition) because no “search” mechanic actually exists. There is no search skill, you don’t make attribute checks. It’s simply a narrative exchange between the GM and the player.

1st ed. AD&D didn’t really add skills untill later supplement books, triggering the concepts that lead to more Character Centric designs.

Again just like Character Centric design, Player Centric design is not limited or somehow unable to switch and become Character Centric at the GM’s discretion. A GM might call for some sort of dice roll based on the attributes of the character anyway, perhaps asking him to roll his IQ or lower to see if he finds the ring. It is however just like Character Centric design, outside of the premise or core function of the rule-system, it is in a sense a “GM call”.

This concept of Player & Character centric design however is a core fundamental difference between “old school” D&D and “New School” D&D. Original AD&D is very much a player centric design, while modern games starting as early as the end of 1st edition AD&D with expanded books like the Survival Guides and 2nd Edition core transitioned into a more Character Centric design with each new edition. By 4th edition the adherence to Character Centric design was so firm, it even went so far as to add “skill challenges” to avoid Player centricity as much as possible..

I think in part why Old School gamers look at modern system and make classic comments like “That’s not real role-playing” is because the game they know is heavily buried in Player Centric play, which is by nature much more narrative as it lacks the ability to resolve challenges and obstacles with mechanics.

The main commonalty all D&D systems share is that they are all, since the very beginning, purely character centric in the execution of Combat. For some reason, no one argues or has issues with combat being purely character centric, but in other areas of the game there is a never ending discussion as to what degree a game should be player or character centric.

The cliches and myths about D&D being about going in dungeons, killing monsters and taking their treasure is a definitive core of the game supported by its mechanics. However combat itself is squarely Character Centric.

One thing to note however as mentioned earlier is that combat in 1st edition AD&D was very deadly and unforgiving and as such, just by the sheer volatility of characters, the meta of characters in its own right is very player centric. So while combat might not be player centric at all in any editions of D&D, most of what’s involved around it in early editions is and I think this is also a part of the definition of “Old School” gaming. As my friend pointed out, the game is about the campaign, about the story and the events in the story and while it’s focused on characters to a degree as they act as our avatars, it’s clear that all players understand that sooner or later their characters will die and they will make a new one, but the game is not over. They as players steer the avatar and it’s their decisions, their actions, their activities that bring the resolutions to conflicts, not their characters (in the meta of course) hence it doesn’t matter which character you are using all that much as their mechanics are not involved outside of combat.

Making characters and doing so considerably more frequently than in modern design is just part of the experience of old school gaming. In Character Centric games, characters getting killed is not desired and considered more of an “event”, as it’s their abilities, skills, attributes and powers that drive conflict resolution and in essence much of the narrative. They are an important component of a players success. Character Centric designs is why we have terms like “Character Build”, as the avatar is not just a representation of a character in the narrative sense for the player, but also his abilities, skills and influence over conflict within the confines of the game. In essence in Character Centric play, the player has considerably less influence over the success of his character as he is reliant on the mechanics to resolve conflict as opposed to the player’s narrative exchange.  I will point out that I think its weird that no one has issue with overcoming challenges with character centricity in combat, but for some reason its a big fight when it comes to resolution for conflicts outside of combat.  Weirder still are the exceptions like pick pocketing and climbing walls, suddenly, its ok in 1st edition AD&D, but only for the thief class, for everyone else, I guess you just die trying?  The logic of this player vs. character centric design is a strange beast.

The use of modules in many ways is also part of the decor of early D&D play, but its not like it ended there. There were more modules produced for 3rd edition D&D then all other editions combined.

It’s expected in Character Centric games that characters are relatively safe and they walk into dangerous situations that are kind of rigged in their favor mechanically. Which is why things like CR ratings, the concept of balanced encounters, death rolls and other survival mechanisms exist in modern games, it’s all in the name of saving characters from death but more specifically in the name of preserving the importance of the narrative. Characters are an intricate part of the story, not because of their narrative but because of their mechanics and removing them from it, is in general bad. It means a new character needs to be made and the story components of the previous characters are lost, in particular for the player, as well as the mechanic advantages that reigned in his success. In a way in character centric games, characters have a greater importance.

The question is then which is better? Get ready for me to drop some life affirming knowledge, the answer is modern is better and the reason is that it’s the same fucking thing!

You might argue about old school mechanics vs. new school mechanics, but to me, Old School art blows what we put out today out of the water 10 fold.

In the end, any sub-system, mechanic or function that is added in a system becomes “available” anything that is omitted is “unavailable”. Availability however does not require or assume use, its simply there and as a GM in any system be it 1st or 5th edition, the decision, the ruling if you will of what mechanics to use and when to use them is entirely up to you. Hence in a fully Character Centric game, you can with virtually no effort go fully Player Centric at any time. Its 100% fully backwards compatible, however in a Player Centric system you cannot just “switch” to a character centric system as the rules do not exist for you to use and fall back on. If search doesn’t exist, you can’t make a search check and as a GM you’re going to have to make a mechanic up on the fly to fill in for the missing rule, if the search does exist and you want to play out a search scene, simply don’t allow the check. The obvious logic is obvious!

That said, there is a problem with running a Character Centric system in a Player Centric style, which is of course player expectation.  Consider that a players character is his investment, hence in a Character Centric system, the player invests points, or other advancements into various skills and abilities.  If as a GM you choose to go Player Centric and ignore those aspects of their character, you are kind of cheating them out of their investments.  Hence, if you are a GM (like me) who has a Player Centric style (aka old school) then you should stick to Player Centric systems if for no other reason than to ensure expectations match the result and you are not ignoring parts of the mechanical character the player might deem important to his role/story or whatever.

Old School gaming is all about enforced limitation. I find it odd that because the rulebook tells you something is not allowed, or simply by omission makes it unavailable that this somehow makes a game better than one in which all options are available to use at your discretion. It’s a silly concept and I actually hate conversations like this with Old School gamers even though, on this little blue planet there is no bigger old school gamer than me.  Still, I do understand it from a player perspective that if a mechanic exists, in particular as it applies to characters, it should be used and used often.  You wouldn’t deny someone spells or combat abilities that their character can perform, hence you should not ignore other aspects that are on the character sheet either.

If you ever wonder if new school designers have any affection for old school gaming, you need look no further then the latest releases from Wizards of the Coast. Strahd is as old school as you can possibly get, his appearance in a 5e module should quell any doubt about where modern designers loyalties lay.

I adore limitations, deadly game systems, player centric gaming, Gold to XP conversions and all that great stuff, but at the same time I don’t see why having a lift on limitations in a book, or having safety nets in a system or the absence of a Gold to XP rule changes anything at all. I’m a damn GM, if I want or don’t want something in the game, I snap my fingers and it happens. I don’t care if there is a search skill, if I say “there is no check, if you want to find something tell me how you are looking for it”, we are instantly in Player Centric gameplay, the system cannot stop me, I’m basically the god of the game. It is however a problem if I want to make a skill check and the rule for it is not available, and then I’m forced to invent shit on the fly. I don’t really see how that will result in a better experience old school or otherwise!

Hence Character Centric games do not change anything for me at all, I actually largely prefer them because it really just gives you more options on how to handle stuff. Even as an old school gamer I recognize that sometimes, stuff is just irrelevant and I want to get through a scene quickly. Skill checks are great for that. Oh your searching this room, go ahead make a check, oh you failed, great, scene done. I don’t have an obsessive need to waste time on irrelevant shit in my game and I don’t believe this makes me “new school”, it just means I’m a good GM, I know how to spend session time to keep the game fun and interesting.

Of the many things that are unequivocally classic, Keep on the Border should be a picture in the dictionary by the definition of the word.

Now I will say this. I adore, I mean truly love 1st edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and I will happily run a campaign anytime. I think Gygax’s work is absolutely fantastic, I love the light hearted adventure and the player centric concepts of dungeon delving, for me D&D IS going into dungeons, killing monsters and taking their treasure. Is that simplistic? Is it really role-playing? Hell I have no idea, I just know that it’s absolutely fun and I love doing it in the confines of the many restrictions and funny concepts of 1st edition. I love 1st edition modules, I love its deadly nature, I adore the natural progression of meta characters from farmers with a rusty dagger to Lords of Castles and everything in between. I love watching beloved characters getting killed, I love creating new characters, I love everything about the system. I am, without a doubt an Old School gamer.

I do believe however, the argument that someone who plays modern games is “not really role-playing” or that it’s somehow a different experience is quite ridiculous. I hate these old Gonards that think their way is the right way, or even that somehow they do it differently than the rest of us. It really is absolute bullshit. I can turn 5e into 1e in a two page document, hell I can run a D&D game without you even knowing what system I’m using. It really is not that hard to add limitations, it is however hard to design RPG mechanics on the fly.

Rules are just that, rules, they are not the definition of role-playing nor do they quantify your style as a GM. You can be old school in the new school. It’s a different cover, different rules, but we are still the same GM’s.

So there you have it, research complete. I can say without question that I understand Old School gaming, there are far more nuances then that of Character & Player centric play, but at the end of the day, role-playing games is a dynamic, infinitely diverse activity. Quantifying it fully is not really possible and while I do think it’s more than just a “feel”, it’s definitely achievable in all its glory in pretty much in any system. Sure, many things about modern system irk me. A Dwarf Wizard? Get the fuck out of here with that nonsense! But that’s my world, I share it with Gygax and 1st edition, but using a modern system does not exclude its implementation. I don’t need to use 1st edition to get rid of Dwarf Mages. I might prefer it (sometimes), but I don’t see how using a system that allows it, or allowing it in a system that doesn’t creates a disparity of classifiable groups like Old School and New School. I do think Old School is a thing, but I adamantly reject the idea that Old School is only achievable in Old School systems, or that somehow adding a rule like a skill check, or offering some extra options to a character some how breaks “old school” gameplay.

I’m just going to put this here because its one of my favorite modules 🙂

Well this brings us to an end, I know that many of you role-players out there have had this conversation and  so I hope that perhaps you found something useful in this little theory-crafting article!