What "Old-School" Means to Me

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There’s been a lot of thought and discussion in recent years about the old-school style of gameplay. For me, this is best embodied by 1st and 2nd edition Dungeons and Dragons. I’m a huge fan of the old-school style of play, but I love the mechanics of 3rd edition and Pathfinder.

In designing my megadungeon, Gloamhold, my aim is to marry an old-school style game to the newer (better) mechanics of Pathfinder. To do that, though, I have to first decide exactly what I mean by “old-school.” For me, old-school isn’t necessarily tied to one set of rules or another–the play experience is the thing!

So what do I mean by Old-School?

Game Play

  • Show, Don’t Tell: With the advent of more mechanic-heavy games, most things can be resolved with a die roll. This, in turn, seems to inevitably reduce the amount of description players put into their PC’s actions. For example, “I search for traps” or “I use Bluff on the ogre”. In old-school games, the lack of a skills system forces the players to describe exactly how their PCs are searching for traps, gathering information, hiring a henchman and so on. This style of game play is slower, but more immersive.

  • Manage Resources: Resource management has fallen out of favour recently. Apparently, it’s “un-fun.” I disagree for two reasons. Tracking your expediture of spells, arrows, iron spikes or whatever is an intrinsic part of the game. Clever or inventive resource management can reward the party ten-fold and provide crucial in-game advantages. It’s a great feeling to have exactly the right piece of equipment for any given situation and coming up with inventive uses for such items is its own reward.

  • Large Parties: old-school play normally features large parties of adventurers. Pathfinder’s CR system is designed for 4 or 5 PCs with few if any henchmen or hirelings. Back in the good old days, my parties normally had about 8 players; I remember running one game for 14 players! Obviously, larger parties can handle greater challenges than smaller groups. This can translate into longer delves in larger, more rambling dungeons or simply dealing with more enemies in each encounter area.

  • Someone’s Mapping, and it’s Not the GM: Exploration was a key part of old-school play, and a good map could mean the difference between success and failure. In later editions of the game, the GM is the one doing the mapping, but in old-school play the GM merely describes what the PCs see and one of the players has to actually draw the map!

  • Use Your Brains, Not a Skill Roll: This relates to “Show, Don’t Tell” above. When you can’t merely make a skill check to solve a problem, disarm a trap or even search for the treasure you are forced to use your brain to come up with inventive solutions to problems. Players get rewarded for clever play, instead of merely rolling high.

  • There Might Not Be A Battle Mat: Most of my old-school games featured battle mats, but many other GMs I played with simply described the combat and we had to use our imagination to visualise the scene. Of course, combats in 3rd edition and Pathfinder are much more tactical and your figure’s exact position matters.

Game & World Design

  • Game Balance: To a certain extent, later editions of the game emphasise game balance, in that most if not all encounters are fair and level appropriate for the PCs. (Perhaps, we are too obsessed with balance). This means, if a group of 1st-level PCs opens a door they aren’t going to encounter an ancient red dragon on the other side. In old-school play, the same group of PCs very well might encounter that self-same red dragon if they ignore the warning signs and/or do something colossally stupid. (This is an extreme example). In Gloamhold, the PCs will occasionally have to deal with CR +5 (or higher) encounters, but these will be clearly “signposted.”

  • Magic Items: In the good old days, magic items were truly wondrous objects coveted by all adventurers. Ironically, in later editions of the game, they were renamed wondrous items, but became anything but wondrous as PCs were free to buy and sell them pretty much as they chose. This reduced magic items to little more than a commodity and gave rise to the much reviled magic item shop (which I hate with the burning passion of a thousand fiery suns).

  • Gritty vs. (Super) Heroic: In newer editions of the game, even at 1st-level, the PCs are well able to accomplish heroic feats well beyond the reach of a normal person. This is not the case in old-school gaming where 1st-level characters are only marginally more effective than a typical man-at-arms. Even at higher levels, old-school PCs are not god-like figures able to bend reality or crush even the most terrifying foes.

  • Fairness, not Balance: We’ve become increasingly obsessed with balance in recent editions of the game. I’m becoming more and more convinced that balance isn’t all its cracked up to be. It creates a more predictable–perhaps even sterile–play experience which is fine as far as it goes. However, when things become too predictable, neither the GM or the players are rarely surprised by events. That’s a little sad, for me.

And Just One More Thing…

The rules in old-school games are often much lighter and play is quicker than later editions. For me, I like the rich depth and complexity of systems such as 3.5 and Pathfinder. I like the customisability of players’ characters (and their enemies) and the tactical options available for combat. I don’t necessarily see this as incompatible with an old-school style of play–it’s just a challenge to marry the two! (That said, I wish we could get through more combats in a typical Pathfinder game.)

What Does “Old-School” Mean to You?

What do you think of when you think of old-school play? Did I miss something or am I wildly off base? Should I be locked up? Let me know what you think in the comments below and help me build an awesome play experience for Gloamhold.

A Final Note

I originally posted this article on my personal blog back in 2015. If you’d like to read the ensuing discussion and comments, click here.