What do I think is ‘Old School Gaming’? Woo! This one is gonna be LONG.
I’ve ready many online articles about what constitutes Old School gaming, and quite frankly most baffle me. I’ve seen in-depth discussions of game-theory / systems that would make a game-dev’s eyes glaze over, complaints about adding certain classes (usually thief from those that predate the A in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons), and even rants that if you use a campaign world that isn’t homemade (like AD&D 1e’s ‘Greyhawk’ or Classic Traveller’s ‘Third Imperium’) you and the game cannot be Old School, etc. So I decided I’d write up what *I* think makes it Old School Gaming to *ME*. Your mileage may vary
1) LICENSING: It must be pre-fall of the original company/loss of the creator that created it. The long, slow slide of AD&D started with the sellout to Wizards of the Cashgrab (a kiddie card game company with delusions of grandeur). Traveller started going south after GDW folded and Marc Miller licensed it out to multiple groups. Versions by successor companies and licensees always seem to lose focus on what made the game in their mad rush to release a new version with their own touches. (Note: Marc Miller helped to ruin Traveller with FFE and the newest version, so the original creator getting it back is not a sure bet it will retain Old School characteristics).
2) FILLER MATERIAL/COST: No filler, period. The mad dash to price books up was justified by removing tasteful illustrations and having 1/4 the book be color pictures, ala Traveller, or other extensive full-page color ‘filler’ art. I’ve even seen a few game designers claim that no one will buy their product without the color art. WHEN have you given us the chance?
My boxed edition of Traveller set me back about $20 back in the day (I do not remember the exact year, but I had it in 1982 so I will use that. According to several websites I checked for inflation, that is $50 USD as of 2016. Contrast this with FFE’s (Marc Miller’s company) current version. $75 USD! So what justifies this huge price increase? The company will say the amount of material…but by the time you take out the full-page COLOR art mixed in with the rules AND the 1/4 of the book in back that is all full color illustrations, there is really very little actual rules-material there. I went to the local game store with $100 disposable income in my pocket and willing to drop $50 to buy this book. I would have gone as high as $60 (and grumbled about it), but I will not go $75, an increase of 1/2 over the inflation-adjusted pricing of the original. I am not their personal piggy bank.
And the other companies are just as bad. Wizards of the Cashgrab also went the way of glossy color art and prices 25% or more higher than the adjusted rate of inflation of earlier books. Paizo’s Pathfinder is especially bad about this, since they follow the WoTC 3e idea of the game as a ‘book of the month’ club, that jacked up pricing for filler starts to really hurt…
Think you might buy the PDF of the book? Well, you are going to pay full or damned near the full price of the hardcover, IF they have even made this option available. This greed is exemplified by WotC who cheerfully are charging premium pricing for 1 and 2e books and modules long out of print if you want them in pdf. Books and modules they long ago recovered sunk costs and have NO manufacturing costs (considering how terrible the map scan for World of Greyhawk boxed edition was, they have NO time or effort into it). Once again Wizards lives of the the title of Wizards of the Cashgrab.
3) TONE: A more serious tone. Tone of new gaming is positively juvenile if not puerile. We have fun during our Old School gaming sessions. People laugh and make jokes, but NOT ABOUT THE MATERIAL OR THE SYSTEM! We didn’t do it back in the day, we don’t do it now. Older games seemed to be written with a more serious tone, modern ones not so much. I’ve observed games at multiple hobby shops…the few times I’ve seen folks playing an Old School game, it was much more focused on the game. The sessions of Pathfinder and D&D 4-5e seemed almost slapstick. 🙁 Oh an orc? Ha ha! I attack it with my (insert munchkin weapon that no low level should have). I killed it? Ha ha! *now the other players break into laughter for no frigging reason* AFTER 2-3 minutes of laughter, commentary about how easy the combat is, how weak orcs are, more laughter, then the GM moves on to the next ‘humorous’ encounter. This is gaming, not a screening of Jackass or any of the countless YouTube ‘Channels’ where folks act stupid and people applaud/follow.
4) POWER: Limited power. The last point segues into the difficulty of the game. Sure, Old School games had your munchkin-players and Monty Haul-DM/GM’s, but that attitude seems to be hardcoded into new games. Looking over a few modules while watching games, they pass out stuff my midrange (6-10th level) folks would NEVER see to lowbies (1-5) on a regular basis. And why adventure when every encounter drops tons of cash? I did not and do not run or participate in Monty Haul campaigns, and I did not and I do not coddle Munchkins, so why would I even consider games that have codified this into their basic tenets and rules? I won’t consider them.
5) DANGER/LETHALITY: There has to be lethal danger / a survival aspect. Modern gaming is a lot like playing a computer game with god-mode on or extensive mods installed. That is to say, no real tension, drama or fear. It is as if modern game designers are TERRIFIED they might lose one of the HaHa types if they killed them for doing something stupid. And you almost never see a random event that could kill.
Here’s an example of Old School gaming. Temple of Elemental Evil, T1-4. Players were poking around in an abandoned kitchen and decided to dig in the old open oven. Out pops a giant snake. Dwarf player gets hit, makes save…thinks he took half-damage and was kinda smug about it. Next attack it hits an NPC who fails the save and DIES. The ranger gets bit and fails, but immediately starts chewing some slow poison herbs he bought from an old woman in a nearby town (Nulb). Dwarf gets VERY serious about taking this thing out very quick so they can cure the ranger and the tension level in the party went up massively! When they killed it, cured the Ranger and no one else died, they were relieved and had a sense of ACCOMPLISHMENT. This sense of accomplishment is something I do not see in these hand-holder newer editions.
A high-leveller in an Old School game got there through skill, preparation, planning and some small amount of luck. In new gaming, it is foreordained the player character will get there, just by showing up and filling a chair while laughing like a hyena at silly things. This is unacceptable (to me).
Soooo, there is why I plan to stick with my older games (and I have tons of them to choose from, AD&D 1e, Paranoia, Space 1889, Traveller, Gamma World, Call of Cthulhu, etc…and enough others with board games to fill two bookshelves). What game companies do not realize in their mad dash to cater to the short-attention-span, everything must be easy, modern gamers is that there are a hell of a lot of us older gamers that remember the times fondly and now have all 3 the magic ingredients to come back to the hobby…that is A) Time to play, B) Desire to play, C) Money to buy…but there is no hobby to go back to, unless you like a munchkin/Monty Haul, watered-down, homogenized, all-the-systems-play-the-same game that is modern gaming. Modern gaming is not worth my money or my time, and I have no desire to play modern games.
What would I consider a dream for an Old School gamer like me? Well, Lizards of the coast bring back some of the original designers from TSR. Take AD&D 1e and go through it with an eye for misspellings, contradictions, missing rules or rules that make little to no sense the way they are worded (the grappling rules are a classic example of this, no GM I knew ever used them. Psionics are a close second) and correct this . Dump Unearthed Arcana and the overpoweredness that it brings with the new classes, but take the cantrips and spells from that and make a new APPENDIX with these as an option. Do not massively modify or add to (like 2e did with the politically correct removal of assassins and calling thieves ‘Rogues’ or the new spell domains for clerics) but revise and clarify. In a nutshell, fix what was broken and leave what worked alone.
I’d love to see he same treatment for Classic Traveller. Clarify/revise, combine into one book and dump the 1/4 color art. Heaven
A new set of books, easier to read and understand, with overpowered dross removed and priced without the premium markups. I and most all the older gamers I know would be all over that. But that will never happen. Makes sense and lord knows modern game companies show no signs of that. But a gamemaster can dream…