Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Old-School Litmus Test

It is not uncommon to come across the ongoing debate as to whether playing “old-school” is dependent upon the use of certain editions of the rules or is merely a mindset that can be adhered to regardless of what rules you’re using. Visit any RPG message board long enough and you’re bound to stumble across a thread or three dedicated to this particular argument. While it is not my intention to bring this topic up for debate here (as such discussions usually end poorly, with the tearing for raiment and the gnashing of teeth), but there is some truth to both sides of the argument. If only there existed some sort of device that could analyze one’s game and determine if you were truly playing in the old-school fashion or not…

But unless Professor Frink is currently is at work on such a device, I doubt we’ll ever witness the appearance of an easy-to-use way to determine the exact levels of “old-school” (oldschoolibars?) present in our games. So one must rely on less precise forms of measurement. One could always assign values to certain old-school tropes and use that as a measurement – 3d6 in order to generate ability scores: 100 oldschoolibars; each 10’ pole owned by the party: 25 oldschoolibars, etc. – but again, this is not an exact form of measurement.

Luckily, I’ve recently discovered something that might serve as a stopgap scale, albeit highly relative, in which to use to determine exactly how “old-school” your campaign currently is. While perusing through the back of the game closet, I stumbled upon the 1980 AD&D Dungeon Masters Adventure Log. While this item could be considered a mere curiosity arising from an era without access to the document creation tools commonly found on a personal computer, there are a few tidbits of interest to those of us who study the history of this hobby of ours. One of the most useful for our efforts is found on the “Sample Adventure Log Pages”, which I’ll reproduce it here:

Adventure Log Sample Even a cursory look at this list of Unusual Events can tell us a lot about the “old-school” style. Before I continue, I’ll acknowledge the fact that a few of those names over to the left are going to look very familiar to anyone brought up on Moldvay’s Basic Set, but let’s carry on.

“Morgan Ironwolf’s Const. +1 From Magic Chair”: Forgive me if I read too much into this, but that says “magic chair”, right? Not magic throne, but chair. The idea that somewhere in this example adventure lay a simple, yet enchanted, chair that magically raises Constitution simply smacks of the “old-school” to me. A trait from a time and place where the poking and prodding of strange things in the dungeon was either rewarded with unforeseen gains or brought about the doom of the incautious adventurer. You could never be certain if a magical dinette set would grant wishes or eat you alive. The gain in Constitution is also very much part of the classic dungeon delve. When the modifications for superior abilities weren’t quite so important in the grand scheme of things, and most adventurers had scores based on the rolls of 3d6, the occasional ability raise was a welcome but not power-unbalancing event.

“Fred 9802 Talked Back To Odin – And Lived!”: Moldvay-raised gamers probably remember Fred as the dwarf companion of Morgan Ironwolf, Silverleaf, Sister Rebecca and Black Dougal in the examples of play from that set. Somewhere along the line, Fred seems to have misplaced his numerical surname. The fact that Dave Cook was running a dwarf named “Fred 9802” probably says as much about Dave as it does for the time period. One can’t help wonder what the 9802 indicated. Where there 9801 previous incarnations of Fred the Dwarf? Was it his Miners Union number? Whatever the case, the simple fact that there was a Fred 9802 (as well as a “Elron Hubbard” – listed in the party roster but not in the example above) reminds us that this is a game that we’re playing and that sometimes humor, bad puns, and play on words have their place at the table. It may not be for everyone, but if your gaming group is the type that appreciates a good groaner or belly-laugh, I’m not going to be the one to say you can’t play that way.

That Fred back-sassed the All-Father and got away with it is another touch of the old school. You can be sure that if Fred got away with such heresy, it’s because of the way that Dave Cook was playing him. His survival had to do with Dave's role-playing, as well as the way he used his knowledge and chutzpah as a player, rather than Fred 9802 having a Diplomacy skill of +35. Challenge the player and not the character indeed!

“Black Dougal Slain By Fire Giant”: Poor Black Dougal, forever doomed to go down in history as the whipping boy in play samples. I’m not certain if this destiny reflects the actual fate of Kevin Hendryx’s character or if it was just a running joke at TSR, but either way the name Black Dougal is forever going to be associated with a bad end. Which in its way is very old-school. We’re dealing with characters that have no protection by way of plot immunity or the fact that character generation is an hour-long process which tends to keep them alive for the sake of keeping the game flowing. Characters die. Sometimes by Fire Giants, sometimes by big bugs. It’s never pretty, but the taste is victory is so much sweeter after tasting the bitter harvest of no more hit points.

“Knock Grafton Pocketed Ring of Delusion Without Knowledge of Party”: We’ve all been there. As much as we like to pretend that this is a game of cooperative efforts to overcome adversity, sooner or later someone’s going to stick it to the rest of the party. Sometimes it’s accidental; the result of a charm or possession or whatever, but other times it’s intentional. While this isn’t to say that old-school players are greedy bastards looking to screw over their fellow players and their characters, the accounts of Greyhawk have their share of tales where a player would slip down into the dungeon without the knowledge of his fellow gamers in order to score some more treasure and levels. There were certain risks associated with such actions, and by looking at the example above, I can guess that Ol’ Knock Grafton is in for an object lesson about absconding with magical rings.

“Sister Rebecca Falls In Valiant Combat With A Black Dragon”: Judging from some of the comments made by the gamers of the “new school”, one might get the impression that old-school gamers are masochists. That we get our jollies by marching an endless procession of characters to their deaths at the hands of wandering monsters and covered pits. That the old-school has no place for story, preferring to rely on esoteric random tables to determine the events of adventures. This is actually antithetical to the truth. The old-school loves a good story as much as the new-school, we just don’t want to be confined to the narrative predetermined by a frustrated writer in the guise of a Dungeon Master. We don’t gain pleasure from losing characters to random events, but we know that, perhaps deriving from some strange Protestant work ethic, success isn’t anything to be celebrated unless you worked and toiled for it, taking your lumps along the way. Here we have a perfect example of this. Sister Rebecca didn’t just die or was slain by a black dragon: she fell in “valiant combat” with one. Maybe the dice didn’t go her way or she found herself cornered with no hope for escape, but in the end she went down swinging. When the players sit back and recount the events of the past, to tell their stories if you will, the demise of Sister Rebecca and her valiant efforts against that ebon wyrm are going to be remembered. As with our own lives, we don’t set out to tell a story. A story is merely the stringing together of events that have occurred once they have past. It is not determined by a script that we follow to the letter. Why should our games be any different?

This adventure log sample, meant to be no more than a demonstration of how to use this game product, actually tells us a lot about what the old-school gaming experience was, and still remains, all about. Whimsical, sometimes nonsensical, magic; humor; role-playing; challenging the player and not the character; senseless death; the occasional intraparty conflict; learning lessons the hard way; letting the players tell the story by their actions. If your game has these traits, you’re probably playing in the old-school mindset, even if your rule books aren’t as old and tattered as mine.

12 comments:

K. Forest said...

Great post!

"Elron Hubbard" is a recurring evil cleric with dreams of world domination in my games.

Chgowiz said...

I wonder if that sort of whimsy in older products and the (as I perceive) lack of whimsy in newer products is a reflection of the loss of whimsy and carefree pleasures as a whole? Yet it seems that some whimsy things, a book or game, can resurrect that.

Maybe that's something to really reinforce in our old school games - the idea that it's not all serious BLOWEMUPPEWPEWPEW combat that results in BSG/B5/Firefly style plots.

Maybe this is already well known and discussed, but it just occurred to me while reading your fantastic post.

Between you and Sham's Whimsical Wednesday, this is a carefree whimsy day!

Steamtunnel said...

"Judging from some of the comments made by the gamers of the “new school”, one might get the impression that old-school gamers are masochists. That we get our jollies by marching an endless procession of characters to their deaths at the hands of wandering monsters and covered pits."

Yeah, yeah, thats definately a part of it...

Christopher B said...

Awesome post! I can't believe I've had this log book for 27 years, used the hell out of it, bought a replacement a few years ago - and never really noticed those comments. D'oh!

Thanks for pointing out (what should be to me) the obvious. ;)

mr. scratch said...

Wouldn't the unit of measure be the "gygax"? For example a room of magical pools is a 40 on the gygaxometer.

Jeff Rients said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeff Rients said...

Great stuff! As a bit of trivia Black Dougal makes one other appearance in a TSR product: in the mini-game Revolt on Antares one of the houses vying for control of the planet is led by Black Dougal MacKenzie.

Mike Mearls said...

I think this is best definition of old school that I've yet to see. It really captures what I like about the good old days.

Amityville Mike said...

BLOWEMUPPEWPEWPEW

We have a contender in the "Name Ol' Nameless" competition! ;)

Amityville Mike said...

Wouldn't the unit of measure be the "gygax"? For example a room of magical pools is a 40 on the gygaxometer.

Well from what I understand, Dave Arneson got up to some pretty big shenanigans over in Blackmoor, so I don't want to insult either camp.

Amityville Mike said...

As a bit of trivia Black Dougal makes one other appearance in a TSR product: in the mini-game Revolt on Antares one of the houses vying for control of the planet is led by Black Dougal MacKenzie.

Not knowing anything about the game, I'm still willing to bet that whoever played that side lost. A lot!

Amityville Mike said...

I can't believe I've had this log book for 27 years, used the hell out of it, bought a replacement a few years ago - and never really noticed those comments. D'oh!

Thanks for pointing out (what should be to me) the obvious. ;)



I think this is best definition of old school that I've yet to see. It really captures what I like about the good old days.

Seek and yea shall find much wisdom in the books of the Ancients. Thus endeth the lesson. Now let us open our books to the Gospel of St. Ixitxachitl..

(Yes, I had to look up the spelling.)