It’s About Sticking with Your Choices

James Maliszewski has asked about advanced old school games. His basic contention is that old school does not equal rules light. While he is true in chronological terms, and even uses the obvious example of just about anything published by Fantasy Games Unlimited there is a problem with including these games in the modern old school cannon.

The modern old school definition seems to have settled out onto three basic pillars. They are do it yourself, rulings over rules, and player skill over character skill. You can arguably add a four pillar which is literary sources over gaming sources. Advanced games strike directly at two of these, rules over rulings and player skill over character skill. The first of these should be fairly obvious while the second may not be.

To briefly cover the case for complex rules emphasizing rules over rulings you have to ask why more complex rules exist. In general they developed for two reason, which are somewhat interlocking. The first was realism, more correctly called verisimilitude. This was a major concern across the wargaming community throughout the 1970s and when wargamers began creating roleplaying games the concern crossed. Among readily available games today that date to the period the classic example of this is Rolemaster, most specifically Arms Law. The second reason is to cover all possible cases. The full Rolemaster system is also an example of this. It has twenty armor types, tables of modifiers, and hundreds of skills to cover every possibility in action and characters.

This last point shows how this starts to attack the player skill over character skill paradyme. This is really an extension of the process that brought up the theif. Complex games, with their breakdown of character abilities into finer and finer points as well as creating more situational modifiers encourages players to optimize against the rules set as opposed to optimzing against the situation. When you have a simple game the player’s do not have a laundry list of possible advantages and have to interact with what the judge describes. When you do have that laundry list players are encouaged to listen to the description through a filter created by that list.

At this point I have to ask, why is D&D3 not old school? I don’t think it is, but the only existing pillar it seems to really violate that complex older games like Rolemaster do not is the literary influences over gaming influences. Yet, I think most people will agree third edition was not old school even if it was recognizible as part of the family.

I think the difference, the fifth pillar, is up front choices versus continuous choices. In old school games your upfront choices were much more limiting than in new school games. Rolemaster opens every skill to every character and there are no per level forced abilities. In fact, leveling in Rolemaster beats the complexity of any third edition I played (although I quit before the insane prestige class prep that seems to have characterized late play based on my reading). Yet, a Rolemaster character is much closer to a pre-third edition D&D character in terms how his class defines him. He won’t multiclass, has no prestige class to graduate to, and will pay a high penalty for going outside his core skillset in terms of overall abilities. While you might emphasize character skill more that player skill in more complex old school games that skill is still more narrowly defined. When you choose to play a fighter of some kind you are playing a fighter at level ten, not a fighter/sorcerer/cleric hybrid who is going to join the Order of Draconic Lightbringers for some weird capabilities. Sure, your fighter is a two handed weapon specialist who knows ten psychic healing spells while their fighter is a bowman who also mastered savate for when the drunken dwarf calls a bar fight, but fighting is still their defining characteristic.

What really interests me is how we can apply this insight to make D&D3 a much more old school game. Perhaps d20 is the jumping off point for the advanced old school James is looking for.

10 thoughts on “It’s About Sticking with Your Choices

  1. I have all of Randall's light games and while good they are decidedly not were I was going. Remember, this is all in the context of “advanced old school.” James was inspired to write about it due to reading Chivalry & Sorcery. We both used Fantasy Games Unlimited as a touch point. I focused on Rolemaster which as charts longer than the entirety of Microlite20 OSS.

    As good as Microlite20 OSS might be that is not where I was headed.

  2. I'm becoming increasingly convinced that Old School simply means “old”. Not in a bad way, mind you. I love the old stuff. But you are absolutely correct that there's a disconnect when you bring in Pendragon, Rolemaster, BRP, Traveller, James Bond, etc. Why not include 80's era Gurps? It all seems a bit arbitrary.

    Don't get me wrong, I do think there is an old school style of play that can be identified and I think it's rooted in “do it yourself, rules over rulings, and player skill over character skill”. I'd modify the last one to “player skill in addition to character skill” since most non-D&D games have skills of some sort. But my point is that newer games can be played in this same mode.

    Lately, I've been much more interested in the intersection of these qualities of old school play with elements of new school styles, specially player control of certain narrative and world-building elements.

  3. I'm curious (and apologize if I'm off topic), but what about Old School vs. New School particularly changes about Character Skill versus Player Skill?

    I understand the “I roll Perception” bit vs. “I search under the desk and pull out the drawers, etc.” but this is really kind of a player style/DM style issue more than an old/school.

    Heck, I played a lot of Amber DRPG along with OD&D and I play 4E today. Amber straight up tells you in the rules, “you aren't as smart as your character or as experienced. Just tell the GM that you're picking the lock/searching the room the way a pro would/seducing the maiden cause you're an immortal demigod, and get on with it.” Yet my players still always described and RPed actions.

    Is the divide really that steep in some minds?

  4. @Risus Monkey: It may very well mean old, although the trap in reducing it to that is nostalgia. One thing pointed out in the comments to James's post was that most of these very complex games haven't inspired retro-clones or maintained continuous groups for 30 years. Perhaps that is a reason to exclude them from the OSR cannon much as penny dreadfuls generally are studied as Victorian literature.

    @morrisonmp – There is a strong divide for a lot of people on that, yes. I have seen groups of 3.x players (where I was the only old fart) be very mechanistic:

    “I enter the room and search it.”
    “I got a 23 on my perception, what do I find.”


    “I check for traps and get a 21.”
    “You find a pit trap in the hallway.”
    “I try to disarm it and get a 27.”
    “Okay, it is disarmed.”

    As for it being a player/DM style issue versus a new versus old school issue, I'd say that's a “you say tomato, I say tomato”. While the OSR seems to have a strong thread of “system matters” it isn't nearly as strong as it was with the indie set. There is a strong acknowledgement that you can play old school styles with newer games.

  5. The 3e designers themselves said that one of the aims of 3e was to “take the DM out of the equation”. This strikes directly against the “rulings not rules” pillar.

    (Although, a DM can put himself back into the equation. The use of “take 10” and ad hoc situational modifiers can achieve effectively the same results as “rulings”. A DM can also simply ignore the rules and making rulings, but that’s almost a meta-discussion.)

    Another outcome of the “take the DM out of the equation” goal is that the rules are very comprehensive. This ends up attacking the “player skill rather than character skill” pillar because the mechanics often determine success instead of the player’s choices. Although, 3e is—as some would say—“incoherent” here. Diplomacy is a die roll but tactics and player mastery of the mechanics reign in combat. (Again, groups can ignore the rules to an extent here, but that’s the road to a meta-discussion.)

    (This need for rules mastery—or a rules master to help you make decisions—is something that I—for one—don’t like about 3e. Whether that is another thing to mark it as not “old school”, I don’t know.)

    The other “player skill” aspect of 3e, as you talk about, is “the character build”. “The character build”—both before play and at each level—is where the player makes a lot of meaningful choices. To me, this is clearly not “old school”. This is not what “player skill over character skill” means to address. I might be persuaded otherwise, though.

    Then there is modularity. The various subsystems of 3e are actually tied pretty closely together. The Fighter class depends on Feats. Change the Feat system and the Fighter may need to be reworked. The Rogue class depends on Skills. Change the way the Skill system works and the Rogue may need to be reworked. The Feat and Combat systems have a lot of interactions. Change how Combat works and many Feats may need to be reworked. This puts obstacles in the way of some exercises of the “do it yourself” pillar.

    (On the other hand, the OGL enables DIY in ways that the original “old school” systems didn’t. With the retro-clones, however, “old school” now has the OGL as well.)

    This is only speaking in broad strokes, however. There are some details that, IMHO, matter as well.

    Although I think a lot of “old school” style can be applied to 3e, I don’t see it as an “old school” game at all. Can it be modified to become an “old school” game? Yes. The retro-clones are proof, but it is a significant amount of work to do so.

  6. Pillar of old school … “rules over rulings”

    Don't you mean rulings over rules?

    D&D 3.x is all about character skill. Player skill mostly only applies when creating the “uber build”. There are rules/feats/skills/classes for everything. Even if someone tries to use player skill they are tripped up by not having the correct feat/prestige combo.

  7. The problem is what you consider the “pillars” of old school. If we disagree with old school being rules light obviously we disagree with those pillars, as you explained how they are anathema to complexity.

    The “four pillars” only apply to OLD SCHOOL D&D. I consider the OLD SCHOOL RPG pillars to be:
    1. Modular/customizable systems
    2. Lack of balance/lethality.

    This includes both advanced d&d and role master 2 (which IS old school whether you like it or not).

    Also small font, little art, double/triple columns. Thin modular adventures. That is old school. Nothing to do with rules or rulings.

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