Monday, 27 November 2017

Ye Olde Schoole

What is the "Old School" gaming style for me?

Since in RPGs no one plays the same way as the guy next door, everyone has a different definition and vision on what Old School gaming is supposed to be. I am no exception, hence this post.

For seasoned players of the late D&D editions (from 3.x onward, Pathfinder included, and the like) let's start by saying that the Old School gaming style is very different. If you play with me with a "new school" approach, you will probably be disappointed.

Treasure for the survivors, by David A. Trampier

When you play with me the in Old School gaming style, the characters are not noble heroes carrying out mighty deeds, like saving the world or rescuing princesses or defeating Evil. They neither are evil plotters trying to conquer the world or become invincible overlords.
I mean, they may also do all of these things, but this is not the focus of this gaming style.

Characters in Old School games are greedy figures, raiders who try their luck against ancient subterranean perils, and rogues facing dangers in the wild and unexplored lands just to take back home riches far greater than if they had mundane jobs like peasants and citizens.
And they often die trying.

Jeff Easley

Features of the Old School gaming style are:
  • Rulings, not rules. Written rules are few and easy, and what is not covered by these is decided on the fly.
  • The Game Master is a neutral referee, not a storyteller. He will cherish the characters' victories, but will not ease their path.
  • Focus on exploration, discovery, search of treasure, and problems solving. It is not our aim to create or tell a story.
  • Player's skills, not character's abilities. The solution of problems comes from using your own head. Be creative, do not look at the character's stats.
  • High character mortality. You may die. Often. Get over it, embrace this fact.
  • Quick character creation. That's a good thing, given the previous point.
  • Character background is not so important. Imagine why.
  • Combat as war, not as sport. Fights are quick, violent and deadly. Be clever. Fleeing is a solution.
  • No encounter balance. Monsters and foes may be lame and stupid, or powerful and clever, depending on your luck and the situation. You should carefully evaluate every encounter.
  • Experience is obtained by taking treasure back home. Killing things will not get you very far.
  • Resources management is important. You don't want to run out of torches or food while deep in the bowels of the earth, do you? And that sweet and precious marble statue, how many of you will carry it to the surface?

Some resources related to Old School:
  • Death is on the Table. Geared towards Lamentations of the Flame Princess, but most of the principles apply to my style. And the grammar is probably better than mine.
  • A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming. This is a must-read. There's a bit of bias against the "New School" gaming style. Ignore that, focus on the rest.
  • Principia Apocrypha - A very good document that lists the main principles of the Old School gaming style and explains them in detail. A work in progress at the moment I am writing

I may update the post from time to time, as my gaming style may change, or I decide to add some detail.

As a final note, I'll add one of my personal principles of RPG gaming in general:

If you are not ready to accept the result, do not roll the die †

Once the dice stopped rolling, their result is law. You have been warned.


  1. "Combat as war, not sport." That is the perfect encapsulation of why I dislike "New School" combat so much. It always feels so devoid of risk.

  2. That really makes it clear. And I agree with the substance of your post. I play both story games and OSR, currently Open Adventure for OSR. But I do find it interesting that you say, "We are not telling a story". As with other things you mentioned that may not be the intention but if you have ever heard a passionate player recount thier adventure, sounds like a story and often a good one. Thank you for taking the time to post this.

    1. Hi parrish!
      By "We are not here to create a story." I mean that the creation of a story is not the goal of the game, unlike most of the people who play the "New School" do, be it D&D 5e or Fate.

      Here the story is the byproduct of the game and the character interactions with the world and the NPCs, but you do not actively try to create an interesting story. You just try to make an interesting play.
      As an example, I would not try to avoid a character death because it will ruin the story.

      Of course the story that comes up could be very interesting, but that is not inherently intentional.

      Hope I've been more clear :)

  3. Yeah the story emerges naturally from play. I think he’s saying that the primary goal of old school play is adventure or winning or something and not creating a story, as opposed to lots of indie games. But I think in this respect the later editions of D&D are the same as old school, they scratch the same itch and aren’t primarily about creating stories either.

    1. The later editions of D&D and some of the D&D-like games do not have rules that encourage or help to create stories, that is true.
      But most of the people like to do it anyway.

      I read countless times how DMs fudge dice to avoid a character death because it was lame and not dramatic enough and would ruin the story.
      Or how to get player's interest back to the story they devised and so on.

      And here's the difference: not on the rules per se, but on the approach you take when you play :)

  4. This is a nice post and I agree with most of it. The only thing I disagree with is your last bullet feature, that a character mostly or only gets XP by taking treasure home. I could see the argument for D&D 1E being that way, though I feel that’s an exaggeration. But that is just the advancement mechanism that TSR happened to use.

    I feel that an old school game can use a broad range of advancement mechanisms. For example DCC RPG is 100% old school (actually a very thoughtful evaluation of old school play) and uses an “encounters survived” advancement mechanism that feels old school. Just my opinion, thank you for writing this.

    1. > an old school game can use a broad range of advancement mechanisms
      >> I agree that it can, and in fact I also give XPs for other things, but the main source in my games is the treasure they take back to civilisation.
      I may read the DCC RPG “encounters survived” mechanic, it seems interesting. Do you have something I can look at related to this without having to buy the rules?
      Thank you for taking time to comment.

  5. I would only add to your list that in an old school game, the DM is a Prime Mover/Divine Watchmaker for the campaign rather than an Interventionist Deity. Following from neutrality with respect to the PCs' success or failure, the DM also avoids illusionism, railroading (even secret railroading), fudging, and the arbitrary or whimsical addition/removal/transposition of in-game elements in order to effect desired outcomes.

    1. > the DM also avoids illusionism, railroading (even secret railroading), fudging, and the arbitrary or whimsical addition/removal/transposition of in-game elements in order to effect desired outcomes.
      >> I never do these things, but that is related more with my general playstyle than with the Old School style.
      Not the focus of my post :)

  6. I'm one of those heretics that claim to be running an old school game with 5e. Here's my warning to new school players.

    1. Your post is also great, I recognise myself in a lot of things.
      Thank you for sharing it!