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.

RPG Legos

A common concept of the OSR is the idea of making the game your own. Beyond keeping the rules available in print the strongest reason for the retro-clones is making the game your own. Mutant Future and Ruins & Ronin are among the best examples of this idea, neither being 100% compatible with a prior game even fairly tight clones like Labrynth Lord or Swords & Wizardry put their own spin on the past. Even more important are the numerous mini-supplements, add-ons, and fanzines like Advanced Edition Characters or Fight On!. They embody something common in the early days of RPGs explemlified by early fanzines, The Dragon (especially in the single and double digit issues) and other professional magazines, and the early fantasy games that were essentially house ruled D&D. These new products all aspire to regain the days when “playing D&D” meant you were playing a game whose genesis was in one or more of a series of books plublished by TSR, that you had a character who had a class and improved by going up in levels, and you had combat by rolling a d20. Beyond those basics you needed to learn the lay of the land, including rules and conventions as well as the setting, when setting down with a new group.

Regaining those days is a noble goal. The increased reliance in the hobby on official and “complete” rules and settings has diminished the hobby as a creative outlet. That said, some more modern games, viewed correctly, provide more of that vibe than we in the OSR acknowledge. In particular there are two systems readily available (one in print and one out of print but very, very common) that provide what I’ll call RPG legos. There is so much published material for these systems, much of it contridictory and some of it trash, that a GM can easily mix and match his way to a unique game completely distinct from the DM next door while still being able to draw on fans of those systems. They are the Palladium Megaversal system and, wait for it, D&D 3.x/D20.

Palladium, in particular, is very much old school at its core having began as a house ruled version of D&D. Several games with different genres or settings exist or have existed. Checking the Palladium website there are currently in print twelve game lines using the Palladium core system (more or less) and 116 individual items in print or back-ordered. They also have several prior lines now out of print but readily found. The design of Palladium’s books make them perfect for a mix or match campaign (as well as great OSR supplements). Each book is a mish-mash of new rules, classes, spells, monsters, and items (magical and tech) with some setting pieces. Even these bits of setting are often easily adaptable to a variety of settings. With new Gygaxian building blocks in each sourcebook you could pick one core rules set and then just pick two more books that wet your appetitate (a la Jeff Rient’s Alchemical Formula) to create an interesting campaign. As new ones tickle your fancy or you need new material you can just add a book.

Before moving on from Palladium let me add one final advantage and a caveat. The advantage is Palladium material is often found used if your FLGS has a used section. It is also quite common new or used on eBay for very reasonable prices. The caveat is the Palladium system can be a bit unweildy, especially if using the MDC rules. Combat requires a lot of judgment callsand nothing is consistant across systems. For an OSR game this problem, as well as many other complaints about Palladium’s system such as a dozen different classes for soldiers or skills having all different percentages to give, are pure gold. In addition the web abounds with houserules as does Palladium’s The Rifter or you can roll your own.

D&D 3.x/D20 (henceforth D&D3 for simplicity) is a tighter system with less room for judgment calls so beloved of the OSR but more than we grognards credit it. At this point it has at least several major variations six or seven by my count) at least two of which have their own minor variations. They cover fantasy (too numerous to list), science fiction at least twice (Star Wars and Traveller), espinage (Spycraft), superheroes (Mutants and Masterminds), and generic modern/historical/future (D20 Modern). Beyond that there exist different tweeks for other styles and conventions (i.e. BESM D20 and True20). Add in a ton of mostly compatible D20 branded supplemental material and you have more than enough to build a unique rules set. More over, much as Palladium, most of this is now in the used market due to 4th edition.

D&D3 has three advantages over Palladium in practical and artistic terms. First, finding players willing to play is easier as the system is more common and familiar to a broad base of players. Next, there is more material available, although almost to the point of being overwhelming. The final benefit is the material is OGL. You can, to a large degree, compose your own player’s handbook out of all the pieces you’ve selected and distribute it. You may have to rewrite lots of descriptions as most OGL materials are OGL only in the game related materials and names while descriptions are considered PI. However, in my opinion this is a plus not a minus. Allowing you to combine the best of OGL game material with your world specific descriptions allows you to create something new and unique to you but clearly built from the widest available game system.