For all the talk about the Old School Renaissance being thrown around the RPG blogosphere, I think there are still a lot of misconceptions among us “newbies” about what the old games were really like, in part because to hear the veterans tell it, the glory days were when you crawled dungeons for magic items, survived horrific tombs with “save or die” traps, and made crazy class combinations. And indeed, when you play it the way people seem to describe it, that is, that it’s D&D “hardmode” and “killer,” yeah, it kind of sucks and I’d rather play the newer games. But that can’t be all there is to it.
An admission from a self-professed storygamer: my most dedicated player (you could call him my dungeonmastering cheerleader) is very much the power gamer. Give him a PHB and he will ask for clarification on half the rules so he can exploit them best he can. He wants to slay the most monsters and get the best loot and be done with it. As you may have seen earlier, I’d been anticipating the 1st ed re-released this Spring and wanted to give them a try, having had a blast playing a 1st ed AD&D one-shot back in college.
Char Gen ChagrinSo, as an experiment, we rolled up some characters with the 2nd ed AD&D books that had taken up space in his closet for years. I went with the ability score method that was familiar to me: go straight down the line, re-roll ones, and optionally swap out one stat for another one time only.
Immediately, a great cry issued forth: “What do you mean, this character doesn’t even have a 14 in any stat!?” Coming from 4th edition, where ability scores of 20 or higher are pretty standard for your primary stat by paragon level, not having a real “standout” stat is a pretty big shock to the system. He ended up scrapping three characters before rolling someone acceptable to him, a decently statted fighter.
It probably didn’t help that I rolled a druid in front of him (15 Wis, 16 Cha) while he struggled with 7’s and 9’s.
For some fun, I let each of us roll on the random magic loot tables and wound up with a Morningstar +1 that we sold for extra starting funds, some +3 Plate mail, a +3 Dagger and a +5 Sword. “Okay,” I thought, “thought should give you a bit of a handicap.” What with, you know, a -1 AC at second level.
After grabbing some lunch, we came back and helped another of our friends roll up a rogue. I offered my druid to go in to back them up, what with her actual healing abilities, but they politely declined and so I took up the antagonistic GM mantle.
No matter that the very entrance was a stuck door requiring an incredible 20% or lower roll, or that there were sixteen giant rats lying in wait for them in the first room along with a hoard of 1,100 gp (with 200 pp thrown in for good measure). We managed to kill the rogue right off the bat, while the fighter was practically untouchable because of the monsters’ 20 THAC0.“Wait, wait, do-over; the random generator is skewed because it’s expecting four or more party members.”
“Okay, let’s start again with eight rats this time, then.” It still takes them a few turns to whittle them down vermin by vermin, but the rogue comes out with half his HP in tact, at least.
We decide the randomly generated treasure is completely ridiculous and ignore it, opening the left door and following the hallway to another door, this one locked with a superior lock. Our rogue, having never played an “old-school” game before, had dumped his Open Locks skill for Find/Remove Traps and Move Silently, and was unable to do anything about it. They go back around and try the other door, which is also locked. They can’t manage the one-in-five odds and give up, saying, “well, that’s the end of that.”
I try to explain that, as far as I know, back in the day you were by no means guaranteed victory. This game was hard. And–gasp–there was a reason why they tried to “improve” on it in consecutive editions.
But there was also the small matter of my not truly knowing what “old school” gaming meant.
“Where’s Perception on this sheet…?”
A moment that epitomizes the new school-meets-old school was when my players began looking for creative ways around the door they couldn’t open, but when I realized there was no perception skill on their sheets, for a moment I froze. The most comperable stat was the dwarf and elf’s chance to find secret doors, though there was none to be found. We ended up stopping there because they couldn’t proceed past the first room. Dungeonfail.
“Too Cool” for Old School
I’ll freely admit I didn’t get into tabletop gaming until 2008, right when 4th edition came out. Sure, I’d thumbed through my younger brother’s 3rd edition core book and even tried generating characters with my girlfriends during one sleep over, but it never stuck until college. Even 3.0 is “new school” by most accounts, so I never had the experience that most people get nostalgic about when they revert to the retro clones and older editions. “Back in my day,” there was World of Warcraft if you wanted to kill monsters or role play with your friends. So I think that also there was the small matter of me not knowing what these older games were like.
I wish I’d read over Matthew J. Finch’s free Quick Primer for Old School gaming beforehand. It really did an excellent job of illustrating to me exactly what I did wrong during the above dungeon disaster, and gave a good many pointers for running older editions. I think it should be mandatory reading for anyone who hasn’t played “at the ninth level” before (kudos if you catch the reference).Funnily enough, the “Zen Moments” that he talks about actually already meshed with my ideas about role-playing. I’m very much the “seeking/problem solving/socialing” gamer type, so if the DM lets me I’ll try to use every bit of his narrative description to my advantage and then seduce the serving maid for good measure. It’s funny to see how dependent we become on our character’s skills and dice rolls when those rules are laid out for us. But I also think that the “new school” games, besides from 4e, are also tending towards player skill over character skill, especially in terms of storytelling.
I think I’ll be trying AD&D out again, and soon, though this time over Google Hangout, about which there has been much buzz around the gaming community regarding its utility for gaming. When I realized that no battlegrid was necessary, that eliminated the need for a virtual tabletop and just meant I needed to find a group dice roller, such as rolz.org. Apparently there’s some sort of graffiti function that allows me to sketch our rough maps for exploration purposes.
With these tools at my disposal I’ll be able to run the one-on-one Player Challenge Series of adventures with Eric even while he’s two hours away (a much more daunting distance when work and school is taken into account). Even at first glance, I realize that by second edition AD&D adventures were already developed well beyond your simple dungeon crawl, and will require some reading ahead of time to run them well. Truthfully, I’m looking forward to it. Depending on our success one-on-one I may try reaching out and running a real party.
I think simplicity suits the medium. I can’t really imagine DM’ing online with three to four pages of power cards to juggle. And not having to worry about quite so many dice rolls will no doubt help as well.
About the author Katrina Ostrander
Katrina Ostrander is a twenty-something gamer chick, game master, and fiction editor working at Fantasy Flight Games. Her previous credits include work as a game developer on the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire and Age of Rebellion roleplaying game lines. When she's not gaming (or working, which is practically same thing), she enjoys reading, writing, singing karaoke and trying craft beers.