Old School Renaissance Eclipse Part II – Simplicity and the Roll of Last Resort.

Statue of Confucius on Chongming Island in Sha...

What? Who could be MORE "Old School"?!

The second rule of of “Old School” role-play is really derived from the first one.

It’s Simplicity – at least on the players side.

There are several reasons for that.

First up, and perhaps most importantly, when you stick with familiar biology and the basic rules that go with it – a human body needs blood to live, a heart to pump it, a brain to think with, eyes to see with, and so on – you wind up having to recognize that human and near-human beings are actually pretty fragile. For every one that survives a really long fall there are thousands who kill themselves by falling in the tub or down a single flight of stairs. Worse for you, that’s not going to change. Your character may get somewhat less fragile – whether it’s by gaining a few ‘hit points”, improving your parrying skill, or getting tougher armor – but you’re still going to be basically human and all too mortal.

Going out adventuring is, like mercenary work, a high-risk occupation. In fact, it’s almost the same occupation; you’re going out, and fighting when necessary, in search of lots and lots of money. Status, glory, power, and magic (really just another form of power or wealth) may all figure into it too – but it’s wealth which draws almost all serious mercenaries and adventurers into the business.

High risks, lots of combat, and fragile bodies mean that old-school characters die a lot. Often before getting very far. VERY often before there’s any chance of getting a hold of your plot device of choice for bringing them back.

That means that replacing them has to be quick and easy – both for the player and for the rest of the group.

For the player, that means that there aren’t going to be any really complicated choices involved, or much of any number-crunching (unless your game is computer-based and does it automatically – in which case there STILL isn’t going to be any on the player’s side). Things like attributes are either going to be quick-and-easy random rolls, even simpler “here are your numbers. Put them where you like” systems, or a mix of the two. To start with, we’re looking at (maybe) a few simple choices (like a favored weapon) and a few suggestive sentences for a background.

On the rest of the groups side, new characters are going to have to fit into a quick-and-simple set of slots. Complex tactics revolving around special abilities or a focus on particular weapons, or special backgrounds, and (for that matter) details of a characters personality are all things that are going to have to be mostly determined in play – if the new character should happen to live so long. The other players want to be able to say “Right! A fighter to replace poor Jacob Bloody Bones! (RIP). He can take the second-to-the-front slot…

The other players don’t want to waste their precious game time on hearing about your background, or why you’re a speciality priest of Kali (and therefor have no healing or defensive spells, which is the sort of thing that killed the second edition specialty priests and Spheres when 3.0 came out). They want to hear that you’re a (whatever) and will therefore be filling one or a half-a-dozen or so roles in the party. That way they can be ready to go in thirty seconds.

That’s also one of the major reasons for shorthand “alignment” systems. “Getting the party acquainted with a new character” means “we recite things everyone already knows about our own characters for a bit, then we listen to you monopolize the session for twenty minutes rambling on about your new character, and… hey! What happened to all our playing time? All we’ve done is boring junk!”

The old school wants a player to be able to say something along the lines of “I’m playing Chagin Zerof, a fifth level lawful good fighter with Con 17 and Dex 16* with a bow speciality. He’s got +1 Chainmail and a +1 Longsword” and be more or less done with the matter. That’s everything the rest of the party really needs to know to get started playing in thirty words. They now know that you have a fair number of hit points, a decent defense, fair melee and better ranged offense, compatible ethics, and can hit things you need a magic weapon to tackle. They know where you fit into the party – and they can get on to the actual gaming.

*Presumably the only stats high enough to get bonuses.

An old-school character who lasts long enough will soon develop a history, enemies, grudges, tales of adventure, close friendships, and goals beyond “experience and loot!” – but all of that will be developed in play because it’ a real pain to spend hours on all that stuff and then get killed in the first session.

Now this is where the conflict with most “modern” game systems – not to mention Eclipse – really begins. Modern systems tend to offer all kinds of specialized character options, branching trees of decisions to make, complicated systems to ensure “balance”, and so on. Eclipse in particular offers freeform character design and a complete lack of predesigned “classes”.

On the other hand, a fully old-school game seems like a bit of a straightjacket these days. Players do want SOME choices, and even old-school AD&D started offering kits, nonweapon proficiencies, weapon specialization, and – eventually – things like the “Skills and Powers” series.

Some of that was fairly poorly implemented by current standards of game design, although some criticism misses the point (for example, non-weapon proficiencies were usually essentially binary; you either WERE a blacksmith or you WEREN’T. Improving your score really wasn’t relevant).

To make this work in a more flexible system, you’re just going to have to make some packages – perhaps offering a few slots as a character progresses for abilities of choice. That way you can still have most of the “…and done!” benefits of the Old School while allowing some customization to make the player’s happy later on.

That also means that you no longer need a backstory to explain your starting characters specialities. Bob the Farm Kid, with his big muscles from spending his adolescence hauling heavy things and getting basic weapons-and-armor training in the village militia, can jump right on in. He doesn’t need to worry about where he learned the seven secret cuts style, or who taught him to channel his C’hi into his blade, or whatever. All of that is for later.

You’ll also want to explicitly add in the ability to make mechanical trade-offs without other special powers, but that will come up in the mechanics section.

The third rule of old-school play is another derivative. Old-school characters are fragile. A bad die roll or two could get them killed – so turning your characters fate over to dice-rolling was to be avoided if at all possible. If your goal was “treasure”, or “stop the evil plot”, or pretty much anything except “clear this area of the blasted monsters” (for which you’d want to be well paid), monsters were best avoided, outwitted, or escaped rather than fought. That’s why old-school games usually gave experience for gaining treasure (a major goal) and accomplishing other goals, with combat experience being more or less incidental. In most abstract experience games you were supposed to get just as much experience for avoiding that monster as for fighting it since, either way, you’d gotten around the barrier that was in front of what you really wanted.

So there’s our second rule; in an old school game, making a roll is a last resort. The phrase you wanted to hear from your game master was not “Roll…” it was “That will work”. If you couldn’t get “That will work” what you wanted to hear was “Roll with a plus (whatever) bonus.” – where “whatever” was as large as you could make it.

You didn’t take a stand on the bridge if you could avoid it; you got across it and you broke it. You set fire to the enemies camp and let them fight that instead of you. You lured them into traps. After all, if you got involved in enough dice-rolling contests, sooner or later you’d lose. Upping the odds in your favor put that off for awhile. Avoiding rolling could put it off forever.

This was where things like “Thief Skills” came in. They were just as much a special power as a magic spell was. For other types of characters the player could describe how their character was looking for a trap. If they got it wrong (which happened quite a lot), it was bad news time. If the thief got it wrong, then it was time to roll that “find and remove traps” skill – and it was only bad news time if your thief missed that check.

Sadly, when the odds of success on a roll approached 100% there was a distinct temptation to skip the full description in favor of a quick one that you threw in in hopes of getting enough of a bonus from the game master to get to 100%. When time was tight – and when is there ever enough time in a game session? – there was a strong temptation to skip straight to the roll.

Skipping straight to the roll soon led to people not bothering with the description at all.

That’s where the real problems with skill systems began. No game master actually expects his or her players to know much about blacksmithing, or demolitions, or negotiating treaties with dwarves – but the description of what the character is doing to try and forge that marvelous blade (perhaps a sacrifice and prayer to the smithing gods, a purification ritual, selecting the finest coal and other materials, and so on) should be a vital part of the skill roll. If the description is good enough, you can probably get by without a roll.

That high persuasion skill can HELP you talk people into things when they have doubts. It doesn’t make you Mesmero, Master of Hypnosis.

Ergo, to make a decent skill system really work properly in an old-school game, we’re going to have to explicitly note the possibility of narrative success – and that the skill rolls are just a backup for that narrative and won’t work without it. If the narrative is bad, they won’t work very well at all. Thus all the “Diplomacy” skill in the world won’t help you if you don’t have a reasonable position to advance in the first place.

That’s another item for the mechanics section of course.

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3 Responses

  1. First off, this whole post is absolute gold. I hope to see more like this.

    Second, there are too many good points here to dissect in just one comment, but this point stands out to me:

    ‘An old-school character who lasts long enough will soon develop a history, enemies, grudges, tales of adventure, close friendships, and goals beyond “experience and loot!” – but all of that will be developed in play because it’ a real pain to spend hours on all that stuff and then get killed in the first session.’

    The meta-issue here is : does an old-school fatality rate limit the emotional investment of the players in the campaign?

    Even if you have a group of five guys who get together every week, they may get “gamer ADD” and switch from D&D to Vampire to Yu-Gi-Oh every week.

    Further, you may have a campaign that starts off slow and loses player interest. Then the group that starts off with five guys can dwindle to three before they get very far.

    If the DM says, “You have to start as a low-level character, and you have to suffer a lot, or else the game won’t be any fun later,” some players might stick it out. However, a lot of players will get the impression that “tabletop role-playing” means falling into pits, getting knocked unconscious, running away from kobolds, etc. These players will say, “Why would anyone be so masochistic as to enjoy this?”

    • Well, I’m glad you liked it.

      Now, simply from observation, the high death rate in an old-school campaign usually isn’t a problem. There’s a longer discussion of why over HERE, but a lot of it comes down to those doubling experience point tables. Those made the first few levels go by quickly – at least for the survivors.

      They also meant that a first or second level character could join a tenth level party, hang in the back for a few sessions, and ride the coat-tails of the higher level characters up to level ten before those higher-level characters made level eleven. Individual characters often died or retired or took time off – but the Party would keep advancing.

      Experimental characters (as in “My characters working on a project, and I’d like to try a ranger instead of a cleric for a bit), henchmen, and passing NPC’s who got adopted as characters, enjoyed the same benefit – meaning that any individual player would often build up a pool of backup characters who weren’t too far behind the main characters. That often led to the players putting together special-purpose teams for particular missions – but that was all a part of problem-solving.

      Just as importantly, when the game mostly revolves around solving problems and making connections, raw power is a lot less important. Old-school advancement was slow; I did see a few characters reach level forty in my longest old-school game – but it took twelve years of biweekly sessions for that to happen.

  2. Yes, it can indeed limit that. if the character gets killed off quickly, then it hurts. On the other hand, that’s the only way to form a real connection for a lot of people. Playing another character which took six hours to build is nice, but if you take a basic charcter and develop him over six hundred hours, he’s yours. He’s a treasure.

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