Thinking in the old school – a philosophy of role playing

Not too long ago TC’s tech visionary Scott turned me on to this wonderful document – A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming by Matthew J. Finch.

I’d highly recommend you read this, whether you gamed in the golden age of RPGs or picked up your first d20 yesterday.  It goes a very long way in explaining the thought shift between old school systems and the more mechanically based modern systems, and also has some helpful examples of making that mental shift. Even if you agree with nothing written in this post, reading that article will help you wrap your head around one of the old school gaming philosophies.

Matthew’s article prompted a conversation between Scott and I where we touched on all the cool points of playing like we’re still 15 and not getting hung up on the mechanical aspects of a game. That’s where this post comes from – a rehashing of our childhood gaming experiences and a deep conversation about Matthew’s 13 page PDF.

It’s important to note that when I say “Old School” I’m talking about a style of play, not necessarily the age of the game or system. There are plenty of just released games which are rules-light. As the folks over at G+ are pointing out – the new school games I’m talking about are those that are mechanics heavy.  Dungeons & Dragons 3+ and Pathfinder are the two systems that most come to mind, but there are others.

If you’re interested in what you read here, I’d highly encourage you to grab an old school game system (there are plenty of free games out there) and enjoy the light footed feeling of being a flexible player in a flexible system.

The old school way of thinking

One of the most important points Matthew brings up is the difference between using a rule and making a ruling.

Most of the time in old-style gaming, you don’t use a rule; you make a ruling. It’s easy to understand that sentence, but it takes a flash of insight to really “get it.” The players can describe any action without having to look at a character sheet to see if they “Can” do it. The referee, in turn, uses common sense to decide what happens or rolls a die if he thinks there’s some random element involved, and then the game moves on.

This is a pretty huge shift from some modern systems. Rather than looking up your “disarm nasty trap” skill to first detect said trap, and then attempt to disarm it, the player instead says something like:

“I look at the floor for any cracks, oddly fitting stones or signs of traps”.

If they have the forethought to say this before aimlessly wandering down a dungeon corridor, they then have a chance to find a trap. Should they find a loose stone, rather than disarming it for an arbitrary amount of experience; they can sidestep it, jam a spike into it, carefully pick it up or soak it in oil and light it up.

In this example, the old school way of thinking has the players using their characters to interact with the gaming world without having to make an arbitrary roll. A roll which, if they are successful at, means that they know without a shadow of a doubt what the corridor contains – a trap, or no trap.

This is the difference between character ability and player skill. A well-played character who is not a rogue should still be able to think critically about that weird crack in the stone floor even if their character doesn’t have a specific skill to do so.

I love this style of play – it’s how we did it when we were kids and it’s led to some of the most memorable sessions we’ve ever had, sessions that we still talk about to this day.

Take for example….

The case of the destroyed indestructible blue sword

25 years ago, I was involved in a campaign with Scott. I was the GM, he was one of the players.

He paid a lot of money to have crafted for him a magical sword that was, among other things, blue and indestructible.

Following this in the campaign, they were up against Set – yes, that Set – the Egyptian god of death.

His indestructible blue sword was… destructed.

That was in 1987 or so. The following conversation happened just yesterday. I’m the blue smudge, Scott is the red smudge.

It was an truly epic moment in a lengthy campaign. Something one of the players had put a lot of resources into was taken from them by their arch-enemy. The entire party was dismayed, outraged and… excited! Minutes after this happened, plans were already being discussed for how they could take on their arch-enemy, Set.

Going strictly by the rules, this would not have been possible, but taking the old school approach (even though it was at the time the ‘current school’ approach) it turned into an amazing RPG experience, one that we still talk about today.

There may not be rules in Pathfinder, D&D or other modern systems to cover this, which is why it’s really important to remember that it’s your game. You can do with it what you want. What this means though is that you and your players or GM all have to be on the same page.

Should it be story trumps rules or rules decide story?

There are arguments for both sides and that’s not what I’m going to delve into here today. What I am going to do is present the case for story trumps rules and give some examples of how to use this. This may not work in some modern systems, or with every group, so take from this what you can use and ponder the rest for another time.

I’m firmly in the camp of story trumps rules, even if it ‘breaks’ the system. Why? The primary reason my group gets together isn’t for a tactical combat experience, it isn’t to see who can find the most loopholes to exploit in a munchkin build, it isn’t to trump the GM with a newly purchased supplement that allows a major change into a previously agreed on system.

It’s to hang out with friends, have a fantastic time and go on adventures that we couldn’t embark on in real life. It’s much more of a dramatic (or comedic) experience for us than a number crunching and build-tweaking exercise.

We’ve rediscovered this way of playing in part through our playing Palladium 1st edition Fantasy RPG and in part through finding that rather than being broken, the system was simply very open ended. Or that’s what we tell each other anyway.

In talking about one of my characters in particular, Scott and I decided that the game would be a lot more fun if my assassin could actually assassinate rather than hack at someone with a his weapon of choice until that someone’s hit points reached 0.  Sure, there are mechanics in place for a back-stab in Palladium (doing double damage) and I have weapons bonuses and damage bonuses.

Still, if I were to sneak up behind an NPC that’s my level or slightly higher, I just can’t take them out in one shot. So we thought for a bit and then it hit us.

Immediate gratification and extra XP rewards – the carrot and the carrot.

One interesting idea we’ve been tossing around is the double reward system. This is a loose, free-wheeling way for the GMs and players to think, which can offer an enormous amount of freedom in your game, while making it a more rewarding experience and satisfying the player’s urge to scratch the old instant gratification itch.

Take the assassination example above. Rather than just making my prowl roll, then making my backstab roll and then fighting on for three rounds until one of us is victorious what if I took great pains in describing just what my character was doing?

How I would use the terrain, what I would do to conceal my movements, the weapon I would use and then when I was in place, how I would use it to its greatest effect. If I as a player am going to go through all of that just to hit a dude for 12 points out of his 27 hit points, well, what *is* the point? I might as well just charge up and hack away.

Here’s where the GM’s discretion as a storyteller and rules broker comes into play along with the players ability to be a good player. If I’m going to go through the trouble of describing all that, why shouldn’t I take out that NPC in one blow? With a dagger that does 1d4 damage.

Inject a bit of common sense into this fantastical world we’re playing with. If I push my dagger into the base of that NPC’s neck with all of my considerable strength behind it, shouldn’t I just kill the bugger? Isn’t that what assassins do?

The answer for us is a resounding yes!

What the GM can do is include a ‘hidden’ bonus for descriptive role playing. Perhaps not damage, but if I say “I swing with all my might, aiming for his sword arm” and I hit, The GM could tally up the damage, and then give the ‘bonus’ of the opponent dropping his sword, or me lopping his hand off.

In the assassination case, if the target was an NPC or enemy not terribly important to the entire game, give me the bonus of assassinating him in one blow. If I fail my prowl role, then I have to fight him in open combat with all the hacking and slashing that entails.

If the target is a key plot point, then exercise discretion as a GM. Perhaps he detects me at the last second and flinches aside, avoiding a mortal wound. Or if I’m that good an assassin – he gets taken out.

Not only does the GM reward the players for being good players with in-story gratification but at the end of the session, extra XP can be handed out on the basis of how well the players actually role played.

As balanced as a two-legged horse

I can already hear the shouts of game balance and how much time and number crunching goes into making a good RPG system. Sure, I can see that. It’s a valid point if you favor that style of gaming. What’s important to this style of old school gaming isn’t system balance. Pick up those scales and heave them out the window!

In my way of thinking, the party shouldn’t expect to always encounter things that are on par with their level or experience. Sometimes you just bump into that nasty dragon and you’ve got to use all of your wits to avoid it. Sometimes you come upon things that just break the rules – like Scott’s magical blue sword.

One could argue that it’s against the rules to break an indestructible object – yet look what happened when I did it at the right moment. We’re still talking about it (fondly no less) 25 years later!

What it accomplished at that moment was two-fold.  First, the party knew they were in over their heads and that they’d have to do a lot of serious maneuvering and outthinking to get themselves out of this situation.

There was immediate tension and the threat that their characters – who were all mid-to-high level – were in serious danger.

Second, it gave Scott and the rest of the party a reason to power forward and seek revenge. They spent days of campaign time looking for what they needed to take that bastard god Set down. Scott did eventually get his revenge, and his reward and it was truly an epic thing. One does not simply walk into the Egyptian mythos and slap Set around.

We loved the freedom we had as GMs and players then. Sure the rules were loose and didn’t always cover everything – but then we used the rules as a rough sketch of our game. What turned the game into a work of art was the interaction of the party with each other and the GM.

They did things that weren’t in the rules, or technically impossible, but made sense within the world we constructed together. In doing that, we all had an exceptionally fun time in a campaign that spanned years of real time.

And here’s what didn’t happen. The game didn’t fold into itself or become a chaotic exercise of random bursts of fantasy tropes. It survived when we bent or broke the rules.

Agree or disagree

The beauty of this is that it’s still your game. You can agree with me or disagree. Take a few choice bits or continue playing exactly as the rules dictate and still have a lot of fun.

What I hope you’ll take away from this is another viewpoint on gaming and what makes a good game.  Old school playing is emphatically not like the MMOs you’ll encounter. There is no way to code for going outside the bounds of the rules without simply making further rules.

Some of the modern systems are clearly patterned after MMO games in that players are shoehorned into various roles based on their character. That’s fine if you like that – it’s a valid way to play and I encourage you to always play the way you enjoy.

What I won’t get from that though is the warlock who relies more on her knife throwing ability and uses spells as a nasty aftershock. Or a kobold mind mage who wields a halberd (badly but sometimes to interesting effect). The wizard who’s mortally afraid of just about everything and who has not a single spell that damages an opponent. The assassin who spends more time up front in full armor rather than sneaking about.

I love the flexibility of playing these characters, who are taken directly out of my current old school game, without the rigidness that a largely mechanical system would impose. That’s my style of play and the hours we spend laughing with each other and enjoying the game reflect how well it works for us.

For an interesting read and a differing viewpoint, check out this post on Division Nihil – “Why Old School games suck”.


7 thoughts on “Thinking in the old school – a philosophy of role playing

Add yours

  1. A few points of rebuttal, from someone who does not prefer “old school” gaming.

    I always find the “rulings not rules” argument interesting. One of the more frequent refrains of DM advice with regards to rulings was always “keep it consistent.” Rules are nothing more or less than rulings that have been codified for consistency.

    If you are having to ask whether story or rules would win in a fight, you are using the wrong rules.

    For the carrot/carrot argument, that is easily accomplished in rules-heavy games, too. Spycraft, about as rules-heavy as you get, has an explicit rule to do exactly what you describe with your assassin. The primary difference here is not whether there is or is not a rule, but whether you as GM feel free to use and modify the rules as you go. Personally, I felt that freedom far more in d20 than I ever did in 2e.

    Finally, I’ll just say that good GMing is good GMing, regardless of style or system. Rigid, slavish, MMO-style play is bad GMing, not a feature of modern games. I also personally witnessed bad GMing in old school games that did, in fact, “fold into itself or become a chaotic exercise of random bursts of fantasy tropes.” The style you use only determines the flavor of your success or failure, not whether you will have it.


  2. Hey Lugh,

    Thanks for your well reasoned, thoughtful and above all polite response. I’ve awarded you an additional 500 XP!

    I have to disagree slightly with your take on story/rules winning a fight though. The more I think on it, the more I think that if you have to ask that question you’re either playing with the wrong group, or your group may want to think a bit on rules-lawyering.

    I’ve been in a bunch of games where heated arguments took place because Player X tried to do something that their character wasn’t defined as being able to do (or do well) despite it being something fairly mundane. Something like “My mage picks up the sword and swings it at the trap lever!” Followed by lots of talk about if the mage hits, how to determine this, and if a mage without the ability to use a long sword should even pick one up.

    But I think that’s a function of player or group mentality. There are groups where players would never have their mage do that if the rules explicitly state “mages do not use long swords (with any skill).” Then there are groups in which this could be commonplace and damn the rules.

    I agree the carrot/carrot thing can be applied just about anywhere, especially if there is an explicit rule in a rules heavy game to allow it. 🙂 I’m constantly surprised however at how many people have told me “but you can’t change that, it’s… written! In the rules!” Sometimes this is followed by arguments that the rules have been heavily tested and are designed that way for a reason. Mostly, I think people just haven’t thought much about stepping outside the rules.

    You say that “Rigid, slavish, MMO-style play is bad GMing”, which for you it may be. I do know of several groups who play D&D mostly for the tactical combat – essentially an MMO on their table. They enjoy the hell out of it and I wouldn’t say they have a bad GM. As long as you enjoy the experience and it’s playing the way you want to play, it isn’t bad.


  3. Woohoo! I’m almost ready to level up!

    I always find it funny that some of the people who are so good at rules-lawyering always seem to skip the bits that say things like “Rule 0”. Those are rules, too, you know…

    I will yield the point on badwrongfun. I have to wonder why such groups choose D&D instead of various board games or war games. But, it is not for me to judge.


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