Reflections on Old School Dungeons and Dragons

I've been reading a lot of Dungeons and Dragons lately. Just sort of wandered into a (nearly) forgotten hobby of mine. The seed got planted when my brother bought me the fifth edition Player's Handbook for my birthday (and the rest of the core rules for Christmas). Thanks.

But it took a while to grow, I thumbed through the new ruleset, but I didn't really get sucked in. Then I hopped into one session of a Star Wars game (using the latest ruleset, unusual, but fun). But the real catalyst was being asked to provide world building advice by a friend and, subsequently playing a short session in the resulting world and (on the same day no less), the beginning of a published adventure.

These where both Pathfinder games, but it got me thinking and I started really reading the new system in depth. Which got me thinking a lot about the "old school" of DnD, which some have said the new rules draw on more heavily than recent editions. I wouldn't know for sure, I came into the game later.

My first DnD game was under third edition rules. It was fairly new at the time and I think the rest of the players had just switched over from second edition (whether 2nd ed. counts as old school is a matter of debate). The game wasn't old school. We had the full blown Christmas tree effect, ala cart magic items to spare, a hundred little bonuses to everything, carefully tuned combat-monster character builds, and a character centric, story driven, "save the multiverse" plotline involving the gods themselves. I don't know what level things started at, but my character went from level ten to eighteen. And despite being filled to the brim with everything that's supposedly wrong with third edition (and it's derivatives), it was an absolute blast.

And for many years 3rd and related rulesets (many and varied, due to 3.5 and the d20 system) where my role playing bread and butter. However, I read a lot more RPG content than I play and I design a lot more than I run, and the sheer complexity of the rules started to wear me down. The mass of options, and details, and minutia of the system that appealed to me as a player started to get in the way when world building. I'd have ideas for monsters, NPCs, spells, items, settings, etc. that wouldn't ever get statted out. I'd read other rules systems and knew that the core rules of an RPG could be elegantly concise.

As I'd been fascinated by the out of print Spelljammer and Planescape settings, I'd had some exposure to (slightly) older rule sets, which was enough to catalyze my interest in the old school. By then the retro roleplaying movement had produced voluminous material. There are clones of any edition you'd care to try and unique house blends for nearly any style. All promising that old school magic.

I've read a lot of these rules. Mostly, they're garbage. They're filled with the same piled-on complexity, only worse. Sure, character and monster creation is simpler, as there are less numbers and other bits that make one up. But many of said numbers are really just pointers into whole page occupying tables. And there's no real semblance of a "core mechanic" anywhere.

The basic idea seems to have been that for anything that wasn't already spelled out in the rules, the DM rolled a random die (more often than not a d6, and lower was better). But then all these spur-of-the-moment rulings got written down and jammed together into a messy hodge-podge. No doubt, some will say such rule sets aren't old-school-enough, and that if you just go further back, it gets better.

No it doesn't. I've read the '74 rules and they're practically unusable. They probably worked fine as a reference for someone who already knew how to play the game, but even as someone with years of roleplaying experience (which the target audience couldn't have had), I find it hard to ferret out how the whole thing is supposed to work.

Instead, I think the real old school magic isn't in the system at all. It's an attitude and ways of playing that (to a large extent) aren't even in the books at all. It's mega dungeons, hex crawls, the many uses for hirelings and ten foot poles, sandbox campaigns, house rules (that filled holes, shaved off needless complexity, or simply stemmed from a variant interpretation of (often vague) rules), high PC mortality (and the stable of replacement characters ready to deal with it), the tavern to dungeon to tavern to ... play cycle, and a myriad of other little things. Most of this shared culture isn't explicitly passed down in any ruleset. Implicit support for it is there, but it seems to me that a player weaned in a later era wouldn't quite be able to pull all the scattered bits together (especially from a retro-clone, as they're often stripped down to just the basics).

Also, I think much old school DnD was played with rules that where a lot more lightweight and flexible that what's on the pages of many of those old books. So there's really no need for the exact rules used in those halcyon days, but rather, what one needs is some rules that don't get in the way too much, and a lot of anecdotal advice from those who where there. Luckily, the flip-side of the retro roleplaying revolution is such recollections and recommendations, spread in various places around the internet.

All this reflecting has made me want to try and capture some of that old school spirit in a game of my own. I've said before that while I'll gladly play in a d20 system game, I won't run one anymore. I may have to retract that statement, as I would argue that the d20 system heritage of fifth edition shows through quite heavily. However, the game designers have managed to pare things down to a usable level of complexity without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

That said, the fifth edition rules aren't all old school glory, and with their please-everyone attitude (especially when it comes to optional rules that clearly emulate one version or another) and bits and bobs drawn from everywhere from fourth to Pathfinder to story based indy games, there's a lot in there. But as I said, it's not the rules that matter.