Another Old School Primer: A Different Introduction to Old School Play

If you are interested in old school gaming, you may have read the Quick Primer for Old School Gaming by Matt Finch. It’s “a quick introduction to playing Original D&D or Swords & Wizardry (the 0e retro-clone). This booklet is designed for the modern-style gamer who’s planning on taking the old-style rules for a trial run — because open-ended rules like 0e are USED very differently than rules are used in modern systems.” While I think Matt’s guide is a good description of how old school play started when OD&D came out, I believe it gives a limited vision of old school play in general. Old School play branched out in a number of directions in the 1975-1979 era. Matt’s excellent primer really only covers the starting point. I wanted to describe the diversity of play in the 1970s when I described what Microlite75 is designed for. So I wrote “Notes on Old School Play” as an appendix for Microlite75. I’m posting the current draft here as I think it is interesting enough to stand on its own — even with the references to Microlite75 in the text. Comments are welcome and can influence the final version.

If you haven’t read Matt’s Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, you really should. You can download a free pdf copy here:

Notes on “Old School” Play

While Microlite75 is designed using tried and true “D20” systems filtered through the Microlite20 rules, it is designed for a completely different style of play than many players who started to play in the last 20 years or so may be used to. This section will give a brief overview of “old school” play.

What is “Old School” Play?

As mentioned in the Introduction, there are two major styles of roleplaying games. The first (and older) style says “Here is the situation. Pretend you are there as your character, what do you want to do?” This style has been superseded over the years with a style that says “Here is the situation. Based on your character’s stats, abilities, skills, etc. as listed on his character sheet and your knowledge of the many detailed rules of the game, what is the best course of action to solve the situation?” Old school play strongly favors the first style and frowns on too much of the second.

Here are some major points where old school play is different:

No Skills: Unlike most modern RPGs, there aren’t any skills in Microlite75, not even the streamlined four skills of Microlite20. Players are intended to have their characters act like adventurers. So don’t search your character sheet or the rules for the perfect solution in Microlite75. Instead, you just tell the GM what your character is trying to do. If you need to keep a door open or shut, you might tell the GM your character is using a spike to keep the door open or closed. A ten foot pole is your friend for checking for traps. Searching a room means looking in and under objects, not rolling a skill check. While this may seem strange at first, you will quickly learn to appreciate the freedom it gives you. No longer are you limited to the skills and feats on your character sheet, you can try anything your character should be capable of trying. You might not succeed, but the rules generally will not stop you from trying.

No Assumption of “Game Balance”: Old style game sessions aren’t about carefully balanced characters (who are all able to shine equally at all times) who only run into situations carefully designed by the GM to be beatable by the characters presently in the party and to provide treasure that fits their current level. Instead, part of player skill is learning to evaluate situations so situations well over the party’s current abilities or which will waste the party’s resources for little gain can be avoided. Don’t assume that you can beat every monster that you encounter, running away from monsters too tough to handle can mean the difference between character survival and character death. You can also get creative in how you defeat monsters. Perhaps those goblins you bypassed could be talked into (or tricked into) attacking that giant you know you can’t beat, perhaps killing it for you or at least softening it up so your party has a chance of defeating it and living to tell the tale. Also remember that treasure can be turned into XP, even if you can’t kill the monsters, perhaps you can still acquire some of their treasure. Part of the skill of playing “old school” style is coming up with creative solutions when a direct attack is likely to fail.

It’s Not All About Combat: Many modern fantasy RPGs have made combat the star of the system, combats in these systems are time-consuming and very crunchy with rules for everything. Microlite20 avoids this by having a fast-playing abstract combat system. Microlite75 takes this one step further, combat isn’t intended to be the main source of fun in the game. The game is as much about exploration and treasuring finding as it is about combat. Sure, you are going to have to fight things to explore and find treasure, but always remember that combat may not be the best or safest way to handle every situation. Think before you rush into combat. After all, it’s not the only way to earn a good pile of experience – and monsters don’t have to be killed to be defeated (and get XP for them).

Forget “Rules Mastery”: Player skill in “old school” style games isn’t about mastering the game rules so you can solve any problem by knowing the right combination of rules from 20 different rule books. Microlite20 is designed to be rules light and Microlite75 tries to stress this even more by encouraging GMs to make rulings on the spot taking into account specific circumstances instead of trying to hunt up special cases in the SRD or a stack of optional rule books. It’s faster and helps players immerse themselves in their character and the game world instead of in rule books. Both players and GMs should remember that these rules are a tool for the GM. If something herein does not work right in your campaign, change it. The object is to have fun, not be a slave to rules or to players who think being a rules-lawyer is the way to get ahead. In many roleplaying games, the Rules As Written (RAW) are often considered sacrosanct or at least somehow better than those a GM can come up with himself. This is not true of Microlite75.

Styles of “Old School” Play

If you read some “old school” blogs, forums, and web sites, you might get the impression that there is only one “old school’” style of play: a style with expendable player characters who spend all their time in dungeons designed in the style of the old “Tomb of Horrors” module where an adventuring party is only one slipup away from death. This style of play is often shown in early modules.

What most people forget is that these early modules were designed for tournament play where the party that lasted longest and make it deepest into the dungeon was the winner. While a few gaming groups did run their regular campaigns like this and enjoy it, most people did not enjoy such games and the GMs who ran them were often referred to as “Killer GMs” (who often found themselves without players). Instead most home campaigns were a mixture of the following four styles – some campaigns stressing one or two styles over the others.

Power-Gaming: Many players start out playing in this style. Many soon get bored with it and add more and more of other styles. A power-gaming campaign is all about character power. Characters are known by their class, level, special items, and amazing powers and deeds. (“I killed the Demon King with my 15th Level Fighter/Magic-User/Druid. It only took two hits from Thor’s Hammer to knock him out. Then I cut off his head with my vorpal blade.”) There is often a lot of player competition for the most powerful character in campaigns that stress power-gaming. A lot of people look down on this style, but it can be a lot of fun to play a pure power-game in a group of players who all like the style.

Wargaming: This is probably the style old school rules were originally written for. The wargaming style of play is a competition between the player group and the GM. The GM sets up tactical battles, puzzles, and the like and the players solve them for treasure and experience. Fudging die rolls and ignoring rules (either for or against the players) is frowned upon as it detracts from the challenge and fun of the adventure. Characters in pure wargaming campaigns often were expendable and had little personality or goals (beyond staying live and getting rich) as a character with such might be tempted to do things dysfunctional to survival. Published tournament dungeons like Tomb of Horrors could be considered examples of extreme forms of this style. Once the RPG hobby became known outside of the minis and board wargaming community, pure forms of the wargaming style quickly became uncommon.

Role-Playing: A pure role-playing campaign is almost the opposite of a pure wargaming campaign. Player skill, tactics, and rules aren’t really important. What is important is the player’s character and that character’s life in the game. In a pure role-playing campaign, players create the personality of their characters in great detail and players generally have a large emotional investments made in them and do not consider their characters expendable. Players tend to have their characters act within their personalities and within the beliefs they’re supposed to hold – even when doing so is not the best thing to do at the time within the game. The object is to live your character’s life in the campaign world. You “win” be having your character achieve his goals, goals which may or may not have anything to do with the game’s goals of exploring and accumulating treasure and experience points. The modern computer game The Sims is an example of this style of play.

Story-Telling: While all campaigns tell a story after-the-fact (that is, you can tell a story based on the characters actions in the game), in a story-telling campaign, the GM has worked out a story in advance and the player characters are the protagonists. The campaign world usually has a detailed background and back story behind it. Knowing this background may be more important than knowing the rules. Some pure story telling campaigns are little more that single-line railroads where the characters play their almost pre-scripted parts in the story. In other cases, things are more free-form with story flow and events created by interactions between the GM’s basic outline of story events and the actions of individual characters during the campaign. Some people consider the more pure forms of story-telling campaigns boring straight-jackets while others love the idea of being a major part of a real story.

These four major styles of play appeared early in the history of role-playing games. They were first mentioned in a general circulation publication in Glenn Blacow’s article “Aspects of Adventure Gaming” in Different Worlds #10 (the October 1980 issue).

The important thing to take from this section isn’t the four styles or their labels (as there are other systems for describing this with their own labels), but the idea that there were many different styles of “old school” play back in the “old school” days – not just the single style stressed in some “old school” blogs, forums, and web sites. Don’t let those sites make you believe that you aren’t playing old school right if your campaign isn’t strongly in the wargaming camp. Most successful campaigns back in “old school” days were a mixture of all four major styles – and a heaping helping of minor styles.

Advice for the New Old School Gamemaster

If you are comfortable running a rules-light game like standard Microlite20, you’ll probably have no trouble running Microlite75 as you have already learned to run a game without having hundreds of pages of rules detailing how to handle every situation that might possibly arise in the game. You’ve already learned to just make a ruling that you think fits the situation and keep the game moving.

The greatest change between Microlite20 and Microlite75 is the removal of all character skills. If you are used to just allowing players to just say “I’m searching the room. What do I find?” and make search skill roll or just say “I’ll try to persuade the baron to loan us a catapult.” and make a persuade skill roll, running without skill rolls is going to require as much change to your thinking as it will to your players’ thinking.

First, you need to get your players to tell you what their characters are actually doing in the campaign world, instead of talking in terms of what skill they are using. Then you need to learn to listen to what they say and decide if there description of what they are doing a) would most likely solve the problem, b) wouldn’t have a chance of solving the problem, c) might not immediately solve the problem but would provide more info that would help solve the problem, or d) would not definitely solve the problem but has a fair chance of doing so. Only d would require a die roll.

Let’s take checking a chest for traps as an example. Get the players to describe in general terms how they are going to check the chest for traps. Note general terms are enough, the idea is to see what the characters are doing, not to require them to describe every single muscle and eye movement they make. Having to “click on one exact pixel on the screen” to succeed is boring and frustrating in a computer game, the verbal equivalent of it is even more frustrating in a tabletop game. Don’t fall into the trap of doing it as it turns players off fast.

Let’s say a player says “I’ll look the chest quickly over for obvious traps, paying special to the keyhole, clasp, and anything that looks out of the ordinary. I’m not touching it yet.”

If the chest had a poison needle near the clasp or some holes for poison gas or needles to shoot out of, this should be enough for the character to notice it without a roll, even if he isn’t a Rogue or the like. However, if the chest if set to explode (or shoot daggers out of the opening when opened, such a search is not going to discover the trap – again no matter what the character’s class or background as such a trap isn’t visible from the outside. If you are feeling generous, you might have a Rogue make roll and if she makes it tell her player that while she doesn’t see a trap, something still doesn’t seem right about the chest.

If the character had said he was then poking the chest with a pole instead of rushing to open it, he might hear something strange if the chest had the above-mentioned dagger trap. Of course, unless he is a Rogue or has some strange background, chances are he would not associate the noise with a trap, but rather just that there was something loose in the chest. Again, you might give a Rogue a roll, especially an experienced Rogue.

As this example shows, it really isn’t hard – unless you choose to make it hard. It’s just different. After a few session both you and your players will find that it really isn’t as hard as it looks.

Some players, however, really want die rolls. Because of previous bad experiences with poor GMs, they just can’t trust the GM enough to handle some decisions being made without die rolls. If your players are like this, you can use “skill” rolls as a safety net. The players will still have to describe what their character does to solve the problem just as above. Once the player describes what his character is doing, the GM calls for a class/background based “skill” roll as described in the skills section of these rules. The results are determine by your opinion as GM of the action described and the skill roll. There are basically two situations:

In the first case, you feels that the player has a good plan that should likely succeed. Therefore it will succeed regardless of the result of the roll, but how well it succeeds is determined by the skill roll. A failed skill roll is a minimal success, the character succeeds, but just barely. A successful skill roll means the character’s plan succeeds without any major hitches.

In the second case, either the player obviously knows less than his character does about the situation or just comes up with a bad idea that you feel is unlikely to work. You let the skill roll decide the result. A failed roll means the plan fails, while a successful roll means the plan somehow worked after all, but probably not perfectly.

Players who refuse to even try to come up with some type of rational statement about what their character is actually doing but just want to let the skill roll decide automatically fail.

Randall Stukey

Randall is the author and publisher of a number of old school games (Microlite74, Microlite81, BX Advanced, etc) through Randall's main job, however, is being caregiver for his MS-afflicted cancer survivor wife. You can support Randall with a donation to the RetroRoleplaying Cancer Fund.

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Randall is the author and publisher of a number of old school games (Microlite74, Microlite81, BX Advanced, etc) through Randall's main job, however, is being caregiver for his MS-afflicted cancer survivor wife. You can support Randall with a donation to the RetroRoleplaying Cancer Fund. Gates & Glamours RSS Feed

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James Maliszewski

Thanks for this! It's a nice adjunct to Matt's primer and raises some points his did not.


I think it stands alone quite well. I especially like the part on styles of play, something missing from the Old School Primer.