Pondering What It Means to Be Old School

Last week I had the opportunity to get into a chat with my good friend Mike. I played as part of Mike’s group for a few years in a couple of campaigns. The first one started in Fantasy Hero and shifted to D&D 3.5. The second one was D&D 3.5 with some Pathfinder elements thrown in. I probably would still be with the group (which dissolved) except for a few issues we won’t go into here.

Suffice it to say that he and I have some differences about how we set up games. He likes the slow burn with tons of backstory and deep worldbuilding. I tend towards less plot the PCs don’t drive themselves and a bit more sandbox. We both like to be engaged at the table.

For me there’s something fun about setting up a scenario and letting the players loose. My players hardly ever go where I thought they were headed and the thrill is in the chase and coming up with story and adventure on the fly.

I think that’s my “Old School Gaming” approach rising to the surface.

Old School vs. 5e

Players HandbookPlaying as a kid in 1982, I didn’t care about deep story. We were in it to kill monsters and collect loot. We definitely exhibited some munchkin behavior every now and then, focusing on the “roll-playing” vs. the “role-playing.” And we often got into situations that were over our characters’ heads as far as difficulty.

That said, we pretty much obeyed the common sense rule: if it’s too hard, beat a tactical retreat. Sometimes that worked. Sometimes it didn’t. But we always had fun.

I think the newer versions of D&D tend to focus on creating super-heroes. Not in the comic book sense, but in the sense that they quickly get up when they get knocked down and have tons of powers to use in a pinch.

Back in the day, when we played a 1st level wizard, that was hardcore. 1d4 HP simply didn’t last all that long. And it wasn’t much better if you had d6, d8, or even d10 as a hit die. If you did something stupid, the odds were you weren’t going to survive.

I feel like a 1st level wizard in 5e is almost a 3rd level wizard in terms of capabilities in 2e. I have yet to kill anybody outright in a 5e game and I’ve GMed a few over the last couple of years.

“Encounter Balancing”

Mike and I chatted about the concept of balancing encounters as a designer. He pointed out that “since 3.5, D&D and Pathfinder have had relatively straightforward guidelines for encounter balancing.”

dmguide-large-229x300My response? “Bah. Balancing is up to the GM – if it’s too hard, slim it down — too easy, add more. It’s too context dependent.”

It falls back to the “fight or flight” aspects of that Old School mentality for me. If you’re losing, it means you didn’t plan well. If you die, it means the GM let you die and didn’t adjust things on the fly.

I’ve had several characters die over the years in unexpected ways…

  • I had a character in a Battletech campaign die in the first 5 minutes of a session because I failed some die rolls while doing a HALO insertion on a planet. I spent hours painting a mini for that campaign and it was all for nought.
  • I had a character die after going insane in a Call of Cthulhu session and gunning down the rest of his party with a Tommy Gun.
  • And I had one of my favorite characters ever — a wizard in a Palladium Fantasy 1e campaign — die on a mountain top with his adventuring partner because we were attacked by a wolfen and gutted.

And I never held it against the GM or adventure writer. Why would I? Dice are fickle.

Mike argues that he wants character deaths to be either from player choices or be meaningful to the story. I would say that sometimes characters… just… die. So be it. Roll up a new one and get on with it!

My Solution

As I continue to work on rewriting a couple of older adventures we produced, I’m looking at each encounter and wondering if it’s too much for a party of 4-6 adventurers. I’m including this section on “scaling” things:

Mazes & Perils Deluxe - Front CoverThis adventure can be run for characters of 1st or 2nd level. We have included stat blocks for each creature or combatant the PCs will encounter.

To reduce the difficulty for 1st level characters, we recommend cutting the number of HP to half the amount suggested by the HD level. For instance, a HD 1 Bandit would normally have 6 HP and you could cut that to 3 to reduce combat difficulty and a HD 3 Bandit Leader would go from 18 HP to 9 HP.

However, for 2nd level characters we recommend leaving each combatant at its full HD complement of HP.

You can also adjust the number of enemies in each encounter to make it more or less difficult based on what your needs are for your group.”

That about sums it up.

The GM can control many things behind the screen. I’ve been known to alter HP totals, change the number of combatants, and even fudge the dice a time or two all in the name of keeping things moving along. I don’t think I’ve ever had a TPK, though I’ve had a party or two I’ve been tempted to try it on.

The only other thing I give the players is the concept of the “Brownie point” (which I’ve written about before). If you have a Brownie point, there’s a good chance you’re going to survive even the most heinous of events. If not, well… stuff happens.

I want my encounters to be tough but fair. There’s always the exception. But I’m not going to write it to pull punches right away — I will leave that to the fickle hands of fate to decide.

After all, a critical fail on a d20 is just as common as a critical hit — isn’t it? That’s just part of the fun of RPGs.

What’s your stance on “Old School” gaming? Are you for it? Or against it?

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6 thoughts on “Pondering What It Means to Be Old School”

  1. I usually prefer narrative death or drama, which is why I really like the “Dire Peril” rule (I think I stole it from John Wick of 7th Sea/L5R fame).

    If a player would take an action that could result in their death in a non-narrative way (ie. making a stupid choice), I tell them the action invokes “Dire Peril”. They know they can risk death doing this, so if the dice screw them, they realize the plot army was already gone.

    It’s worked really well so far.

    1. That is a great response Alan! In my own games, I use the concept of “Brownie points” so players have the opportunity to undo/redo certain actions at the table if they need to do so. They can squander them in meaningless ways or spend them when the chips are down. The GM is all powerful, but sometimes the fates have other things in mind. 🙂

  2. I definitely prefer the danger of old school, and have yet to see a 5e death. In Low Fantasy Gaming i used a “Party Retreat” rule to allow “unbalanced” encounters, which can be escaped at a cost, which is probably not dissimilar to the Brownie Point takeback

    1. @Steve G – Very similar indeed. I have yet to have a point where I’ve actually killed many characters in my campaigns. I give them plenty of “outs” – but there will definitely be a cost to such intervention. Perhaps they will gain the attention of a god, another group in the area, or simply take on some bad karma that comes back to bite them in the butt later on. Surviving to fight another day sounds great until you have to fight something worse. 🙂

  3. I’m very much in the old-school camp. The thing is, all these overwhelming dangers have to be telegraphed with clues first. That way, the player goes into a dangerous situation, they can’t say they weren’t warned first.

    1. @kit – that’s a good observation actually. I think in this case, I telegraphed enough clues to what was to come that they had some idea of what they needed to prepare for. But that’s up to them to pick up those clues in the end. 🙂

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