A Quick Primer For Old School Gaming

I came across a link to this today and have promptly lost track of where that was, so first, props to the unknown blogger or columnist who brought this to my attention.

Anyway, it’s a free e-book on Lulu called “A Quick Primer For Old School Gaming.”  I’m not normally into the retro-gaming movement, but I think this is important because it focuses not on the specific “recapture exactly how old D&D felt in my youth” aspect of it, but instead very incisively points out four things – conceits, if you will – that distinguished gaming back in the day and that perhaps we are starting to miss more and more.

The author, Matthew Finch, calls them “Four Zen Moments.”  They are:

  • Rulings, Not Rules
  • Player Skill, not Character Abilities
  • Heroic, not Superhero
  • Forget “Game Balance”

I agree with all of them, but the first is the most important.  I really saw it when I ran some AD&D 2e recently.  Without rules for micromanaging how many fricking inches you can jump, the game flowed faster and I as the DM had a lot more flexibility to make judgement calls – and to also use those to nudge the story.  And we didn’t use a battlemat, which made combat alive again.

Some of these aren’t universal goods, like “Heroic, not Superhero.”  Superhero games are fun too – Feng Shui was liberating to me because all the PCs start as ultra powerful badasses, so you are freed from the level grind mindset that too much D&D inculcates.  But I do like some low level stuff in my D&D – heck, I remember fondly the “zero level PC” rules that came out from time to time (Greyhawk Adventures, IIRC, was my favorite).  I do think that’s a weakness in D&D now.  If you want to start as studs, then start at level 5 or whatever.  But the approach of making level 1 superheroic denies an entire play style an opportunity.

Anyway, good stuff, and worth mulling over.


11 responses to “A Quick Primer For Old School Gaming

  1. Forget “Game Balance”

    The focus on game balance is something that annoys me with later editions of D&D. Particularly in the spell lists and magic items.

    I liked that fact that some classes, spells and magic items were disproportionately powerful. And it didn’t matter because each class had their own quirks or spells that made them fun to play.

    In making the game balanced they have taken all the character out of the game. It is like, replacing independent diners and coffee shops with McDonalds or Starbucks. You might get better coffee and food (on average) and consistent pricing but you lose the charm and character.

  2. I really believe in Rulings, not Rules. Its nice to have a basic framework, but it seems like sometimes as GMs we’ve completely forgotten how to adjudicate and judgment calls.

    There’s a definite reason the Primer has been making the rounds!

  3. I’ve been pushing this thing like crazy over on RPG.Net because over the years, I think people have ‘forgotten’ the purpose behind a lot of the old rules and how to actually play RPGs. I’ve been guilty of that, and as RPGs became increasingly ‘rules over judgement’ my playstyles changed as well.

    It was when 4e came out and I got a headache trying to suss out the rules and figure out how to keep track of the bajillion fiddly modifiers from powers that made no narrative sense, that I realized that a certain ‘something ‘from my first role-play experience was missing in 4e and sent me looking around for ‘it.’

    TQPfOSG defines ‘it.’ RPGs in the late seventies, early eighties, were different and exciting because they allowed a player to do literally anything. The DMs were different because they were used to making judgements on the fly, not by flipping through flipping rulebooks. The adventures were different because the focus was on exploration, not k3wl pow3rz.

    I think a lot of this original free spirited nature has been lost on the successive generations who came up on 2e or later and took the rulebooks as holy text and not just guidelines.

    Recently, I started up a classic campaign, running my WFRP players through the B series of adventures using C&C. To prepare them, I’ve given them copies of TQPfOSG and sent them to this site to prepare them for the game:


    These guys, who are much younger and never played the old school D&D but have been a bit jaded about RPGs lately, are having a great time. After the first couple of sessions, they are getting very descriptinve about their actions, using their PCs 5 senses to ascertain info about their surroundings, making use of their environment (and spells) in creative ways, in general just thinking more instead of relying on their dice to tell them everything. It has been a liberating experience for us all…

  4. It’s vaguely possible you came across a link to this in the comments of my recent blog entry, humbly titled “How the heck do you play OD&D?”. If not, then you must have seen it elsewhere.

    That said, it’s an excellent document, and it made me want to run at least an OD&D one-shot with my group. I intend on learning the combat and whatnot, and eventually creating a few levels of megadungeon for the next time our current DM flakes out on us. I recommend it to anyone wondering what OD&D promoted or what ‘old-school’ means.

  5. Cool! Yeah, though I think that these “four moments” aren’t really OD&D specific – in fact, you can get that kind of experience in a lot of games. I’d venture to say 99% of other RPGs have fewer rules, lower heroism level, and less obsessive focus on balance.

    In fact, I realized that one of the reasons I really like modern and SF games is that the characters tend to be “heroic, not superheroic” and have more freewheeling rules. I think Unknown Armies is an excellent “shock” game to run for D&D whores to show a different side to games. (Feng Shui is another, which teaches some different lessons than these four but is nonetheless valuable). In the fantasy vein, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is also a good workout.

  6. Pingback: The Alexandrian » Blog Archive » Rules vs. Rulings?

  7. Pingback: 13th Age: Backgrounds – Thoughts about Games

  8. what? level 1 isn’t superheroic in any edition

    • When you can have “strength stronger than normal human maximum strength,” sure you can. You seem to be a new player and haven’t seen other editions. In AD&D 1e, a random starting wizard could have 1 hp and 1 spell. The first level characters than can pound out 20 damage a round and stuff are not normal humans by any stretch of the imagination.

  9. also I’m playing a 5th ed game right now and the focus is on exploration, not powers, so not sure what you’re talking about

    • Yes, that’s because fifth edition brought back a lot of this. Again, a history lesson… This was written during the late 3.5/4e days where min-maxed superpower and combat were all the game became. Hence the OSR movement. With some smart cats at the head of the new D&D, they deliberately adopted the lost modes of gameplay and a lot of things from older D&D versions. 5e is closer to 2e than any other edition. Don’t feel all threatened by the Quick Primer for Old School Gaming – if that’s what you’re doing, great! It wasn’t written “against you.” And 5e largely aligns with it.

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