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Subject: QOTD FEB 7: What makes a role playing game "old school"? rss

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Paul Unwin
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skalchemist wrote:
Moving a little forward in time, I feel pretty confident in saying that far more people played Baldur's Gate than any tabletop RPG, so I wonder if there will be a new "old-school" trend to try to replicate that experience in tabletop?

I tried playing the Android version of Baldur's Gate. As far as I could tell, it still just used 2nd Edition AD&D rules. Why would it need to be replicated? Do you mean like, a "Dungeon World" revamp of AD&D?
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PzVIE wrote:
too much hack'n'slay


You wrote those words, but they don't make any sense in that order.
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enduran wrote:
I get a strong sense that the entire concept is meant to send a signal to one's own "kind," to say "Hey, the people you don't like won't play this kind of game, so you can relax."

I think there is definitely an element of this in some quarters, particularly with respect to the more specific term "old school renaissance" aka "OSR". I think that term may have originally just referred to trying to recapture that "playing in my basement with my buds in 1980" feeling, but it came to also represent in some quarters an overt reaction to what were perceived as objectionable trends in role-playing game play and design. It became a signifier of group identity as well as a description of a style of gaming.

I find this a shame. In so far as "OSR" has referred to a style and design of game, I have found a tremendous amount of useful, fun, and interesting writing in OSR-adjacent blogs, forums, etc. I never played much old school D&D in the actual old-school days, so its been eye opening for me, particularly around running and enjoying dungeon/hex crawls, sandbox games, etc. But in so far as "OSR" has become a signifier of group identity...not so much.
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ctimmins wrote:
The damsel in distress looks much like either Farrah Fawcett or Cheryl Tiegs.


Raquel Welch.
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The base dice that a game uses.
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enduran wrote:
skalchemist wrote:
Moving a little forward in time, I feel pretty confident in saying that far more people played Baldur's Gate than any tabletop RPG, so I wonder if there will be a new "old-school" trend to try to replicate that experience in tabletop?

I tried playing the Android version of Baldur's Gate. As far as I could tell, it still just used 2nd Edition AD&D rules. Why would it need to be replicated? Do you mean like, a "Dungeon World" revamp of AD&D?
Well, its not about rules so much as style. Baldur's Gate is much more "crawl-y" than a lot of 2nd AD&D tabletop play was, but in a different way than most table-top crawls. The map is much more wide open but its till very much a "map", not moving through a realistic fictional world, if that makes sense. Combats were VERY tactical compared to what I think was actually going on in a lot of tabletop 2nd AD&D at the same time. Interactions with NPCs were very abstracted, with NPCs that were clearly "quest givers", NPCS that were clearly "stores", etc.

Mostly I was just musing in response to Caroline's post, hadn't really thought through the idea in any detail.
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lorddillon wrote:
d10-1 No expectation of balanced encounters

d10-2 You may be expected to use modern real-world knowledge to solve a puzzle or riddle

d10-3 PCs do not level up at the same rate

d10-4 Attributes are determined randomly, not selected via point-buy

d10-5 Natural healing is SLOW and magical healing is expensive and hard to obtain at low levels

d10-6 Death rate is high at low levels

d10-7 Player metagame discussions are acceptable when strategizing a way around a dangerous situation

d10-8 Lots of random table usage by the DM

d10-9 Rules are sparse, so the DM must make ruling on the fly because there is often no written rule covering a specific situation

d10-1d10-0 Resource management (e.g. torches, spikes, rations, rope) are likely to become important elements of the game


My old-school is D&D (2nd edition) and The Fantasy Trip (yes, I backed the Kickstarter)

The one thing I'd add: Fistfull of dice- all kinds/types... None of this 'one dice' or 'no dice' stuff. We're hackin' & slashin' here, not telling stories...
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I think it's interesting to look at a modern game that tries to be an old-school game and, from there, try to determine what "feel" they're going for. I'll nominate Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game. DCC has weird dice, ever-present character death (funnel!), a world that hates and despises the characters, and weird, strange, twisted magic that is powerful and terrifying.

I really think that the oldest of old-school games tap into low fantasy literature: Conan, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, etc. Hardscrabble environments with constant danger and the promise of rich rewards. That's the feel I remember from my youth, and the very core of the Gygaxian adventure module style.
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skalchemist wrote:
enduran wrote:
I get a strong sense that the entire concept is meant to send a signal to one's own "kind," to say "Hey, the people you don't like won't play this kind of game, so you can relax."

I think there is definitely an element of this in some quarters, particularly with respect to the more specific term "old school renaissance" aka "OSR". I think that term may have originally just referred to trying to recapture that "playing in my basement with my buds in 1980" feeling, but it came to also represent in some quarters an overt reaction to what were perceived as objectionable trends in role-playing game play and design. It became a signifier of group identity as well as a description of a style of gaming.

Yes.

It's interesting to see aspects of "old school" that, in my experience, weren't even universally used back before it was "old." Truly random ability scores, a high death rate, "non-balanced" encounters, and detailed resource management went out the window shortly after I started playing, simply because they were seen to get in the way of what my table happened to want out of the game.

And I bet that if you gathered a lot of OSR GMs into a room, and collected all of the things they don't have in common with each other's approach, you'd have a list of things that more modern games decided to incorporate exactly because they were popular houserules of the original games. Long before 3rd Edition D&D offered point buy ability scores and maximum HP at first level, for example, more than a few tables already did those things, in their own way.
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robbbbbb wrote:
I think it's interesting to look at a modern game that tries to be an old-school game and, from there, try to determine what "feel" they're going for. I'll nominate Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game. DCC has weird dice, ever-present character death (funnel!), a world that hates and despises the characters, and weird, strange, twisted magic that is powerful and terrifying.

I really think that the oldest of old-school games tap into low fantasy literature: Conan, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, etc. Hardscrabble environments with constant danger and the promise of rich rewards. That's the feel I remember from my youth, and the very core of the Gygaxian adventure module style.
Rob, I think DCC is a really interesting example of the difference between old-school "feel" versus old-school "design". There are SO many things about DCC that are unique innovations that as far as I know never appeared in actual old-school D&D games (although there are some imports from things like Rolemaster and Tunnels and Trolls). The funnel is a notable example, as are the long random result tables for spells. But in terms of feel, few games capture the manic intensity of die hard old-school feel more than DCC.

That brings up another element of old-school feel for some, which is a kind of DIY, whatever works works, doesn't matter that much if it is coherent, aesthetic. DCC exemplifies this feel. Rules are almost expected to be incoherent and arbitrary; this is a feature, not a bug. (I say this as a person who loves DCC.)
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skalchemist wrote:

I think there is definitely an element of this in some quarters, particularly with respect to the more specific term "old school renaissance" aka "OSR". I think that term may have originally just referred to trying to recapture that "playing in my basement with my buds in 1980" feeling, but it came to also represent in some quarters an overt reaction to what were perceived as objectionable trends in role-playing game play and design. It became a signifier of group identity as well as a description of a style of gaming.

I find this a shame. In so far as "OSR" has referred to a style and design of game, I have found a tremendous amount of useful, fun, and interesting writing in OSR-adjacent blogs, forums, etc. I never played much old school D&D in the actual old-school days, so its been eye opening for me, particularly around running and enjoying dungeon/hex crawls, sandbox games, etc. But in so far as "OSR" has become a signifier of group identity...not so much.
I agree about the identity. Some of the biggest proponents of the "OSR Movement" I've encountered are some of the most toxic folk I've encountered on the internet. And I say this running a BBS which gets around 500-1000 unique hits per month... and the OSR crowd who bother with it tend to very quickly wind up with edition warring infractions. A few don't.

Not to say all the fans of old school on the boards (mine or this one) are jerks, but the preachy OSR-as-idenity crowd.

Several of the designers, while decent enough folk, and really nice online, make choices that leave me absolutely puzzled by why they made those choices. The best example of this is Starships & Spacemen 2E - the simpler, more elegant, and better written 1st ed was migrated over to compatibility with Mutant Future... 1E was, and is, highly elegant, simple to teach and learn. I'm sorely unimpressed by the more clunky and not as well written Mutant Future, which is the system they used for S&S 2E. I see no improvements by doing so...

And then there's RPG Pundit. His writing is excellent, Forward... to Adventure! is borderline brilliant, and GnomeMurdered is an incredible gag... but he runs one of the most toxic swamps of a BBS on the internet...
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aramis wrote:
I agree about the identity. Some of the biggest proponents of the "OSR Movement" I've encountered are some of the most toxic folk I've encountered on the internet. And I say this running a BBS which gets around 500-1000 unique hits per month... and the OSR crowd who bother with it tend to very quickly wind up with edition warring infractions. A few don't.

Not to say all the fans of old school on the boards (mine or this one) are jerks, but the preachy OSR-as-idenity crowd.


I'm glad other people have perceived this and not just me; I was going to bring it up, but didn't want to be accused of stirring the pot. There's a latent... mean-spiritedness?... to a considerable portion of the OSR community, particularly online, that I've never been quite able to define. I don't want to paint with too broad a brush on this--I do enjoy DCC and am on record as being an admirer of Castles & Crusades--but there's a common vibe that's set off my Spider-sense that you and skalchemist have put more eloquently than I have.

To the actual question: As the answers here attest, any definition of "old school" is amorphous at best. If it has a short and direct line to OD&D, that's probably a good place to start.
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skalchemist wrote:
enduran wrote:
skalchemist wrote:
Moving a little forward in time, I feel pretty confident in saying that far more people played Baldur's Gate than any tabletop RPG, so I wonder if there will be a new "old-school" trend to try to replicate that experience in tabletop?

I tried playing the Android version of Baldur's Gate. As far as I could tell, it still just used 2nd Edition AD&D rules. Why would it need to be replicated? Do you mean like, a "Dungeon World" revamp of AD&D?
Well, its not about rules so much as style. Baldur's Gate is much more "crawl-y" than a lot of 2nd AD&D tabletop play was, but in a different way than most table-top crawls. The map is much more wide open but its till very much a "map", not moving through a realistic fictional world, if that makes sense. Combats were VERY tactical compared to what I think was actually going on in a lot of tabletop 2nd AD&D at the same time. Interactions with NPCs were very abstracted, with NPCs that were clearly "quest givers", NPCS that were clearly "stores", etc.

Mostly I was just musing in response to Caroline's post, hadn't really thought through the idea in any detail.

It's an interesting point because a lot of RPG board games do actually borrow not from pen-and-paper RPGs, but from video game RPGs, trying to recreate what the designers liked about those games.
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adularia25 wrote:
For me it's part nostalgia and part roguelike (yes, the video game genre).

I actually started playing video game RPGs before pen-and-paper RPGs, so for me, Old School will always be Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (2nd Edition) as portrayed by the Gold Box series of video games.


I had a very similar arc to finding RPGs as a teen in the late '80s/early '90s. I was Tolkien->other fantasy novels->the Forgotten Realms novels-> the "gold box" computer games -> actual RPGs. (A little later in my angsty teens I found Vampire: The Masquerade et al and that probably ends the "old school" in my mind). For that reason AD&D 2nd is my "personal old school," too.
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Birmy wrote:
I'm glad other people have perceived this and not just me; I was going to bring it up, but didn't want to be accused of stirring the pot. There's a latent... mean-spiritedness?... to a considerable portion of the OSR community, particularly online, that I've never been quite able to define.

I define it as a sense not merely that old school is a fun way to play, but that to play any other way is a sign of moral degeneration. Terms like "entitled," "coddled," "spoiled" get bandied about when referring to non-OSR players. Story is scoffed at and rules refinements are reviled. It's conservatism at its worst.

Of course, that attitude is not universal among OS revolutionaries (or among conservatives in general, for that matter) and probably not even that common. But message boards can make it seem like the worst elements are plentiful, even if they're not.

(And of course "new school" people unfairly mock old schoolers too. In a certain sense, OSR-based snottiness is a reaction to that kind of thing.)
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I played a lot of AD&D in the 80s. I am surprised to see things similar to this listed by several posters as a property of "old school" RPGing.
skalchemist wrote:
...
* No level/encounter security - you could easily blunder in to an area of the dungeon far more dangerous than you can handle ...

When I played AD&D it was mostly Dungeon Crawls where the Dungeons had levels. All the encounters on a given level would be handlable by a party of a certain strength.

It wasn't until later that there started to be some encounters with over powered creatures to teach players that every encounter shouldn't be handled by combat.
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ejclason wrote:
I played a lot of AD&D in the 80s. I am surprised to see things similar to this listed by several posters as a property of "old school" RPGing.
skalchemist wrote:
...
* No level/encounter security - you could easily blunder in to an area of the dungeon far more dangerous than you can handle ...

When I played AD&D it was mostly Dungeon Crawls where the Dungeons had levels. All the encounters on a given level would be handlable by a party of a certain strength.

It wasn't until later that there started to be some encounters with over powered creatures to teach players that every encounter shouldn't be handled by combat.
Eric, I'm no D&D historian, but my sense is that there were always several "schools of thought" in dungeon design, going all the way back to the '70s. They were not formalized but I think you could identify at least two of them as:

* the LEVEL = LEVEL school: the "level" of the dungeon and the "level" of the characters roughly matched. Players could roughly gauge the difficulty of what they would face by checking how deep into the dungeon they had gone.

* the Scare the Living &$*( out of them school: the level of the dungeon had little or no relation to the danger posed by different areas. Players were expected to treat every situation as potentially instantly lethal.

Obviously there is a lot of space between these two extremes. I think this same basic idea has continued through to today in discussions about Challenge and Encounter Ratings, for example, and "balanced" encounters.

In my mind, "old school" is definitely closer to "scare the living &*$# out of them school", but that is just my experience with the term.
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What about Jennifer Connelly?

I sense she’s near the cutoff.

robbbbbb wrote:
ctimmins wrote:
The damsel in distress looks much like either Farrah Fawcett or Cheryl Tiegs.


Raquel Welch.
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ejclason wrote:
I played a lot of AD&D in the 80s. I am surprised to see things similar to this listed by several posters as a property of "old school" RPGing.
skalchemist wrote:
...
* No level/encounter security - you could easily blunder in to an area of the dungeon far more dangerous than you can handle ...

When I played AD&D it was mostly Dungeon Crawls where the Dungeons had levels. All the encounters on a given level would be handlable by a party of a certain strength.

It wasn't until later that there started to be some encounters with over powered creatures to teach players that every encounter shouldn't be handled by combat.


Yes, you are correct that level of dungeon equated to level of challenge and to treasure haul... but I will point out that you could, if you were lucky (or unlucky, as it were), find the stairs descending to the next level and go down, even if you had not leveled up yet. In old school play, the DM would never adjust the difficulty of the level to make it more balanced just because the party was foolish enough to go down two flights of stairs when they were only 1st level.
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enduran wrote:
I define it as a sense not merely that old school is a fun way to play, but that to play any other way is a sign of moral degeneration. Terms like "entitled," "coddled," "spoiled" get bandied about when referring to non-OSR players. Story is scoffed at and rules refinements are reviled. It's conservatism at its worst.

Of course, that attitude is not universal among OS revolutionaries (or among conservatives in general, for that matter) and probably not even that common. But message boards can make it seem like the worst elements are plentiful, even if they're not.

(And of course "new school" people unfairly mock old schoolers too. In a certain sense, OSR-based snottiness is a reaction to that kind of thing.)


Yes, it is the part of the OSR that I dislike. A one-true-way kind of thinking that drives me nuts and really turns me away from some groups. I like both old- and new-school styles of RPGing, so I have no patience for chuckle-heads who claim that there is only one way to play if you want to be a real gamer shake
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lorddillon wrote:
Yes, you are correct that level of dungeon equated to level of challenge and to treasure haul... but I will point out that you could, if you were lucky (or unlucky, as it were), find the stairs descending to the next level and go down, even if you had not leveled up yet. In old school play, the DM would never adjust the difficulty of the level to make it more balanced just because the party was foolish enough to go down two flights of stairs when they were only 1st level.

Yes, that potential is there. It's often there even in games in which GMs generally prefer balanced encounters. I've never seen or heard anyone say (or at least admit) that they'd give players a balanced encounter no matter what. (I wouldn't personally see a point in running a hugely unbalanced encounter, to one side or the other, or in killing the PCs at all, but I'd be willing to put them in a worse position. "We go to fight the dragon." "Okay. A week later, you are his servants. He has put you to work clearing a nuisance from some parts of his lair that he has grown too large to enter personally....")

But, for all that the potential was there, would it ever have really manifested in such a game as you describe? I'm sure people have stories about how they had to "teach someone a lesson," but mostly the threat seems almost entirely theoretical, or an article of faith, never stumbled into out of "foolishness," as if they didn't know the threat was there, but out of a desire to test the GM's limits and resolve, or just goof off out of meanness or boredom.
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No opinion to offer about what should be defined as 'old school' or not.
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When I hear the term 'Old School' I take it to mean ether;

- a game played back in the 70s & 80s.

- a traditional style of RPG; GM, Players, Stats, Combat, dice.

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enduran wrote:
But, for all that the potential was there, would it ever have really manifested in such a game as you describe? I'm sure people have stories about how they had to "teach someone a lesson," but mostly the threat seems almost entirely theoretical, or an article of faith, never stumbled into out of "foolishness," as if they didn't know the threat was there, but out of a desire to test the GM's limits and resolve, or just goof off out of meanness or boredom.
I can give an example of this happening, or at least related to it.

Rappan Athuk seems to be a mega-dungeon that mostly sticks to the "level=level" school. I don't know this for sure, because I am playing it and have not read the actual books. But from my perspective it seems clear that the different areas of the dungeon have a kind of difficulty progression to them.

What I say next may include spoilers for the mega-dungeon, read at your own risk...

However, there are are also clearly high level connections between the different areas that can short circuit the progressions. For example, there is a LONG stairway in one section, from an area that is maybe lvl 3/4 difficulty. The stairway description (assuming our GM was following what was in the module) goes out of its way to describe just how deep the stairway goes, how long it is, how dangerous it looks. It has some kind of wording at the bottom that says the equivalent of "abandon hope all ye who enter here" (I don't remember the exact wording). You get the the chamber at the bottom, and there are all these mounds. A quick inspection reveals that they piles of Purple Worm refuse. Now, I'm no expert, but I'm pretty sure Purple Worms are FAR harder to fight than the lvl 3/4 hobgoblins we were just fighting. So at this point the players have a choice; try to move forward or run like hell.

The key is that the change in difficulty was telegraphed by the description. Or at least, that is the assumption in the writing of the dungeon. That is, it is "fair" by some definition, to TPK a group of adventurers who, after seeing all those signs were like "yep, lets keep going, purple worms have to have great treasure!" while they are lvl 3. I feel the clear intent of the dungeon writers is that, after experiencing that passageway, the vast majority of players will say "nope!" and go someplace else, with a new feeling of enjoyable dread and a goal for later ("someday...we will have purple worm stew!") and that those that try to fight the worms deserve what they get.

A valid question would be "what is the purpose of such a connection?" I think the purpose it serves, at least for me as a player, is building the feeling in the players (rightly or wrongly) that the mega-dungeon is a complicated and dangerous place. That every decision you make could have dangerous consequences, that every passage might have a deadly thread in it.

It is possible that the whole "purple worm" thing is some kind of con game, that really that section of the dungeon is not nearly as tough as it looks. I wouldn't/can't know yet, we haven't been brave enough to try it!
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