In most current games, you sit down, you make a character, and you start playing.
In an old school game, you start play the moment you decide to sit down – which was why it didn’t really matter if “mages were better” or if something was “balanced”. You picked a race or class or rolled attributes which weren’t good for what you wanted to do? Those were your decisions and your dice rolls – whether you wanted to give yourself greater challenges, had made a mistake, were experimenting, or were simply unlucky – and you played with them, just as you’d play with a failed saving throw. They didn’t work? You made a quick and easy new character – and, thanks to the ever-slowing advancement scheme of old-style games, that cost you virtually nothing.
Most people played a LOT of characters over the course of a campaign. The Team was a lot more important than the individual characters – so people would often play something that wasn’t their first preference because the team needed such a character. Why not? Characters were strictly temporary anyway – they died, they achieved their goals and retired, they got old, they got boring and were set aside or handed off to other players in favor of new creations, or they were part of a rotating stable of characters – but the Team could go on forever.
That was why things like “dying during character generation” – a now much-mocked part of the original Traveler rules – made perfect sense in an old school game. You had started play when you started rolling up your character; you just didn’t need a game master for the first part of the game. Each term your character opted to spend in service carried both risks and rewards – and one of the risks was being killed. If your character was killed that way, the GM got a new NPC sheet, and you started making another character.
You can still do that; make a character, get handed a “choose your own adventure” book or other solo dungeon, and go ahead. Your character gets killed? Give your sheet to the Game Master, make another, and start over. You got through it? You gain a level. You reached one of the special reward endings? You gain two levels and some stuff. Each time you complete a book without dying you can either join the party or try to look for another adventure (with less and less chance of finding one). You failed to find another solo adventure? You join the party.
That gets the players making strategic decisions right off. “Hm. I’ve already beaten the odds three times, and if I join the party now I’ll be starting with a sixth level character. That’s already above the average. If I try another adventure before joining the group I might make seventh or even eighth level – but if my character gets killed, it’s start over and I might wind up starting with a second or third level character if I fail the roll to find a new adventure after the first one.”
Now you have the equivalent of Traveler character generation – and “dying during character generation” makes a lot more sense; you’re already playing the game during character generation, so it’s already possible for something to go wrong.
It wouldn’t be too hard to do the same these days; there are plenty of random dungeon generators out there. All you’d have to do would be to let the players team up and run them for each other.
There are a lot of other things that gamers tend to consider “old school”. Most of them are actually consequences of those earlier principles – Physics not Rules, Simulationism, Familiarity, Fragility, Simplicity, the Roll of Last Resort, and Character Creation as a Part of the Game.
Here are some of them:
- Accomplishment, not Advancement. Old school games focus on the things that the characters wish to accomplish rather than on what mechanics they wish to buy. In an old-school game most ability-sets are either inherent in your chosen archetype or are acquired randomly.
- Common Origins. The old school has no room for bizarre player-character races (they require too many rules, explanations, and cultural details to keep things simple) or complex origins; a lizardfolk samurai may be POSSIBLE, but his or her origin will require too many fanciful explanations for an old-school game. Old-school characters start off as familiar as possible – as common folk with common origins with just a little bit of extra talent – and improve slowly.
- Diminishing Returns. Just as in reality, it gets harder and harder to improve your abilities – until, at some point, you wind up working furiously just to stay in the same place. Character advancement may be fast enough to start with, but soon starts getting slower and slower – meaning that new characters aren’t nearly as far behind as they appear to be at first glance.
- Freeform Mechanics. Old-school games use loose and simple systems that fall back on the game masters and players understanding of how the world works to cover unusual cases rather than relying on masses of rules.
- High Lethality. Combat is simple and fast – and death is a constant possibility. After all, without the threat of death or failure, where’s the heroism? Similarly, resurrection is rare and difficult if it’s possible at all. For the most part, dead is dead.
- Inherent Balance. Balance is mostly a non-issue in old-school games. If a character becomes more powerful than the others, he or she simply becomes a bigger target – and it probably won’t last and won’t make much of a difference while it does; characters who try to rely on raw power instead of guile in an old-school game will soon wind up dead.
- Legendary Magic. Magic is difficult, rare, and impressive – and thus magical items are rare, wonderful, and a great deal of trouble to make.
- Limited Resources. Health, magical powers, ammunition, and other supplies are all limited resources that recover slowly (whether by repair, rest, making more, or shopping) and must be carefully managed if you want to succeed.
- Sandbox Settings. The characters are (supposedly) exploring a world that doesn’t revolve around them – not a game setting. Thus, if they go to Ryleh, they will find Cthulhu . It doesn’t matter whether they’re beginners or so godlike that they can eat Cthulhu as sushi. That’s where Cthulhu is, and if they don’t want to meet Cthulhu, than they shouldn’t go to Rleyh. That means that research, scouting, planning ahead, and thinking on your feet are all vital skills if the characters want to survive.
Well, now that we’ve sorted out the basic assumptions for an old-school game, it’s time to translate that into mechanics – which will be covered in the next article in this series.
- Avoiding Realism Like The Plague II – Learning Skills (ruscumag.wordpress.com)
- Flexible Adventure Design – Ridmarch and the Open Sandbox, Part III (ruscumag.wordpress.com)
- Old School Renaissance Eclipse Part II – Simplicity and the Roll of Last Resort. (ruscumag.wordpress.com)