Revisiting the Past: The Old School Mindset and Roll-Playing

When I started playing D&D in 1982, we were young, naive, and enthusiastic. We took on every dungeon with glee and even fought a few major figures like Orcus and Tiamat as I recall. But it wasn’t “Old School” then — it was just playing D&D with friends every weekend we could get together.

By the time I got to college, I was a bit more wary. We were still playing D&D, but chose to play with characters that had “3,000,001” experience points. We played monsters such as umber hulks and thri-kreen. We embraced “last stand” scenarios where we cast Haste and allowed characters to die of heart attacks and old age due to rapid aging after firing off a machine gun blast of hundreds of arrows into hordes scaling the walls.

We even played fast and loose with alignment. One friend had a cleric who would animate the creatures we killed in a dungeon. We had a horde of zombies we’d send ahead of us, tromping through the halls to trigger traps and find more enemies. He even cast Continual Light on the head of a zombie so we had good light to watch the action. Eventually all that was left was the head… and we rolled it down the hallways in front of us until it too was destroyed.

Now I look back on my first decade of D&D and wonder what happened to that creative free thinker. 🙂

As I’ve become older, I’ve become less childlike in my approach it seems. More “analysis paralysis” and less “what the heck, let’s go for it!”

And, as Vince has pointed out recently, there might be some side-effects of newer editions. I know from my own perspective, I fall into the trap of rolling a die vs. role-playing.

If you roll a Perception check, it kind of short-circuits the need for asking more critical questions. If I roll a check and beat the difficulty for the roll, I will be spoon-fed some description rather than problem solving as my character would have to do.

Compare these two approaches:

GM: You peer down a long, dark hallway with 10′ ceilings. The flickering torch you hold only hints at what might be only a few feet away. What do you do?


(Newer Edition)

Player: I roll a Perception check. I get a 23 (Perception skill is 6, plus a die roll of 17).

GM: Treading carefully, you discover a small pressure plate only a few inches from where you are standing.

Player: I roll a Stealth check and use my Thieves’ Tools to disable the trap. I get an 18.

GM: With your tools and a few moments, you think you have it figured out when it seems to shift of its own accord. Somehow you triggered the trap and the floor gives way beneath you…[/one_half]


(Older Edition like Mazes & Perils)

Player: I get on my hands and knees and look at the floor. I get the feeling that this hallways is too quiet and there might be a trap.

GM: What are you going to do?

Player: I will carefully tap on stones in a broad pattern in front of me to see if any of them have a slightly different sound than the rest. Usually that indicates that there’s something going on there.

GM: Sure enough, you find a stone in the floor that doesn’t sound like the others.

Player: Ok. I’ll carefully blow around that stone to see if there’s any kind of gap I can get a dagger into.

GM: Yup. You find a small gap just wide enough to slip a blade into. Go ahead and roll your Find/Disable Traps roll.

Player: Ok, I got a 33 (on a percentile dice) and needed to roll a 25 or lower.

GM: Unfortunately with your intense concentration you created a ton of sweat, as you slide the blade into the gap between stones your grip slips and you depress the button with the hilt of the dagger.

The floor gives way beneath you…[/one_half]

Which way is more interesting and involving for the player and the GM?

I know personally I’ve fallen into this trap myself. I had a period where I played very little (for about 6 or 7 years) and have had to re-learn many things. D&D 3/3.5e, 4e and 5e are definitely more skills-happy than the version I played in 1982. Sure, it was 2e AD&D but we did more role-playing than roll-playing with the system — at least until combat came around.

So I’ve become lazy.

And that has been difficult to overcome in 4e as a player. Everything is so roll-intensive, I just kind of sleep-walk my way through playing some of my  characters. Sure, combat gets interesting with the tactical side and power-heavy system in place, but it’s far too easy just to say “I use my Investigator’s kit and Investigation skill” or work through a skill challenge with roll after roll — and then learn what we learned from the GM.

This is a place where working with Mazes & Perils definitely has made me rethink some of my current approach to roleplaying.

I’m not saying that you can’t do an Old School approach with newer editions, but I think the multitude of skills and powers in later editions definitely makes it easier to take the lazy approach.

What do you think?

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24 thoughts on “Revisiting the Past: The Old School Mindset and Roll-Playing”

  1. You’re right and the reason I went back to the earlier editions. I always assumed that Skill Rolls, Perception checks and the like were for playing characters that were supposed to be smarter than me (something i worried about in the day) when the key to that was to be more observant and ask more questions about the situation.

    1. Asking more questions is the key. But as GM I know I have to be better about encouraging that. And as a player I need to do it more often at the table again. Somehow I just got lazy… And it bugs me. 🙂

  2. My sons play in a 5.x game at college, and have commented (with eyes rolling) that everything is a perception check and nothing is “what do you do?”

    This proves I bought them up right! 😉

  3. I have a different sort of group. They do it the old school way but roll the dice at the end. This way the fun with words part does not get lost in the mix. Depending on what they say gives the dice roll a bonus or even negates it. This also happened because I encouraged it and they were more than willing to be helping create a story. Not all of my players are old either. I have at least one from every age group from 16 to 64. My two tables are 5 and 9 deep. I think that people just need to be encouraged to embrace the story more and then the rolling effect after. I tell people right away that role-playing can override roll-playing. Skills are there to compliment and suppliment what the character knows not to supplant the bardic experience. Roleplaying is a shared storytelling experience. Let’s share it!

    1. That’s the trick, isn’t it? To help the players embrace the story and become part of it more than just rolling their way through it. 🙂

  4. “He even cast Continual Light on the head of a zombie so we had good light to watch the action.”

    Amateurs! One I had in high back in the 80s, and still use when playing evil clerics at cons to freak out the younglings, was to decapitate a peasant, cast animate dead on the head (so we have a grimacing, biting face in pain!), cast continual light on it, and carry it around by it’s braids so that I effectively had….wait for it!….a HEAD LAMP!

  5. Your new edition description is actually a failure on the GM’s part. The GM should ask after the player says they are wanting to roll a perception check, “What is your character actually doing?” Based on their answer, the GM then assess whether or not they would have had a prayer to spot the trap. Even with the newer systems, a GM can still prod their players to actually demonstrate actions in the system.

    If it was my game and the player responds something along the lines of “Well, I just want to see what my character notices…” I’m likely to assume they aren’t actively searching and merely trying to stand in a spot and hear/smell/see whatever they happen to notice from that spot. As such, the trap would be impossible to find without their describing that the character is actively searching the area for hidden nooks/crannys/traps/etc.

    1. That’s a good point Mike. It shouldn’t just stop at the die roll. It should still be more active on the part of the player.

  6. As they say… “nail on the head”. You hit it.

    I’ve been a big proponent of getting characters to describe what they’re doing, no matter the system. Granted, it’s far easier when there are fewer mechanics built into the system upon which to lean. And some players naturally gravitate to this “theatre of the mind” style while others are more mechanically inclined.

    For instance, a party is trying to bribe their way past a citadel in the Underdark that is owned by a demon worshiping fire giant. Player one, is perfectly comfortable with their ability to think quickly on their feet and verbalize their intent in a lucid manner, while player two is far less loquacious and therefore leans on the fact that he’s got an 18 charisma score and a high negotiation.

    Generally I allow both approaches to the problem. Player one, maybe not the most charismatic, but quite intelligent, role plays it. While player two roll plays it. I try very hard not to allow the mechanics of the game to break the pace of play. In order to keep the tension during the negotiations high, I speak face to face w/ player one as the “Fire Giant”, while with player two I quickly say “what are you adding to the conversation?” and have him roll on his own. If he’s successful or not, I weave it into the conversation as it goes along. I’ll usually ad lib what player two says…

    I’d much rather have them ALL role play. But believe it or not, there are some that just don’t roll that way. 😉 I find that many of those who’ve cut their RPG teeth on eRPGs have a different approach. Not all of course, but many. My current table of five has a very interesting mix of individuals: From old school (grew up playing AD&D 1E) to new school (most of their fantasy background is WoW or Diablo). It’s sometimes frustrating, but these are waters nearly every modern DM has to navigate.

    Sorry for wandering a bit off topic there, all that to say, yes, I agree with you. In fact, when I raised my daughters to play role playing games, they were always old school, with far fewer rules. It just made it far easier to “explain” as they got older why I ruled the way I ruled. Not so much based on a formulaic system of rules that builds one upon the other for a framework that is capable of encompassing nearly every action, but more a loose outline that allows all at the table to craft what comes to mind… thus I find the output is much more “off the wall”. Which personally, I love. I’m a huge huge fan of collaborative story, and old school seems to lend itself to that in an easier manner. (maybe just for me, the DM?)

    Either way, well written article. Loved it.

    1. Great example of why the role play way is better. 🙂 I always play fast and loose with rules anyway, relying on table rulings and just going with the basics. But without that player interaction and buy-in it becomes very one-sided storytelling. As you point out, the collaborative way is so much better. 🙂

  7. I’m definitely guilty of the “I use [insert skill]” approach too. I think the best solution is – as GM – always turn that around and ask “OK, how do you do that?” Then the player describes some course of action, and the GM can figure out any modifiers to the roll based on that.

    Also, obviously, games without a skill system tend to avoid this issue somewhat. Although I guess “I use Athletics to break down the door”, is easily substituted with “I use Str to break down the door”…. But for some reason, I have found in systems where attributes are emphasized, you tend to see less of this issue. I think maybe the less blatant connection with the action makes players more inclined to describe it first up.

      1. In my humble opinion it has nothing to do with a specific rule set but how you handle it. Admitted the newer editions with their technical overload don’t support the “old” style of play. But who forces you to use the new rules to the letter? I try to develop a rule set that supports the narrative, since close to thirty years, as I haven’t found a rule set that truly satisfy me. And yes, I have finally reached the beta stage and are currently field testing my rules at Conventions here in Switzerland.

  8. In my humble opinion it has nothing to do with game-mechanics but how you handle them. One thing is true for sure, that the newer editions with their technical overload don’t support the so called “old-style” approach of play. But who forces you to use all this technical nick-nack?
    Well I haven’t a rule-set to this day which really fits my demands – this is why I am developing my own since close to thirty years and I have finally reached a beta-version which I am currently testing at conventions here in Switzerland. Yes, to create a rules set with one mechanic for everything isn’t that easy. And only the field tests show the weaknesses.

  9. i wouldn’t neccessarily require a full paragraph description for every tile, but i would require players to give me the gist of what their character is doing in like a line or two. not “i roll perception” but “i keep watch for concealed hazards as i scout the hallway, taking my time to ensure i’m not slain by a trap that catches me off guard.”

  10. I guess the trick really is to do a mix of both. Exclusively narrating your way around a similar situation leads me into FATE land and it’s not a nice place to be. D&D is steeped in its stats and derivatives and those should be used often, while still encouraging and rewarding good conversation and active thinking and engagement at the table.

    Obviously, just rolling the dice and resolving the situation immediately is far from optimal, and passive perception, while convenient, can be an issue with 5E. I suppose one way to work around it would be to mix rolling with active conversation as much as possible. On the other end of the spectrum, you don’t want your players to be paranoid and narrate tapping the floor and walls of every corridor they walk down on, so striking the right balance can be hard.

    One crude example would be “I look for traps!” followed by a perception roll, then on a success, telling players “there’s something odd about a small section of the wall”, and then trying to get in as much talk as possible before resorting to another roll.

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