Old School is a Perfectly Cromulent Term

“Old School” means doing things the way people used to do them.  It’s a relative term, since what’s Old School depends on what time you’re using as a reference.  Depending on when or who you’re talking about, electric typewriters could be newfangled inventions or unbearably old school, practically antique.  School also carries a slight connotation that something may be a conscious decision to identify with a like-minded group (as when one refers to “schools” of artists).  It’s perfectly objective, in the sense that for whatever you might be talking about, there really are facts about how something was done in the old days, and techniques and approaches that hadn’t been invented back then.  If somebody is doing something exactly the same way that it was done in the past, there’s no doubt or confusion in anybody’s mind when you say that they’re adhering to the old school.  That’s true whether they’re banging away on a vintage IBM Selectric, or rolling 3d6 “mud dice” in order for their stats.

Where it gets slightly more complicated is when you want to talk about something that isn’t itself strictly Old School, but is in the style of the Old School.  Stylistic decisions are not completely subjective, but do depend on picking out and highlighting certain aspects as salient.  Here you can get strong disagreement as to whether the aspects being emphasized are essential, or whether crucial aspects are being ignored, but it’s still not the case that anything goes.  You can write entire books about what the essential aspects of Impressionism are, and books disagreeing with those books, but it’s not just in the eye of the beholder. A photorealistic painting by Ralph Goings isn’t it.  Neither is the Mona LisaView From The Dunes with Beach and Piers may be, but Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red is definitely not.

When it comes to RPGs, because of their relatively short history Old School almost always refers to the period right at the beginning of the hobby.  Among a group of brand-new RPG players who’d never played anything except D&D 4e, you could refer to 3rd edition play without irony as Old School, but addressing a wider audience that includes people who were actually there at the start that’s a recipe for confusion; I’d recommend at least including a quick caveat.  Similarly, if you’re going to talk about how you’re playing 4e Old School-style, you probably should spell out what you mean and what aspects of Old School you’re picking up on and emphasizing in your play.  (For a humorous look at some of the possibly salient points identified with Old School Play, see Amityville Mike’s “Old School Question Finally Answered” chart.)

Does it matter?  Only insofar as words and communication matter. “Next phase, New Wave, dance craze, anyways, it’s still Rock’n’Roll to me” nevertheless presupposes there are things that are Rock’n’Roll and things that are not.  There is a sense in which Mozart and Metallica are much the same thing…but that sense is pretty limited.  It might help you if you’re asking where in the store you’ll find music CDs, but it’s not likely to be much use in trying to decide whether to buy the CD.  If someone told you “it’s all just music, man, stop trying to label it with your rigid definitions” you wouldn’t find that particularly helpful advice if you were trying to arrange with your friends to go to a concert.  And if they told you that you’re insistence that there was a difference and that you preferred one over the other was somehow wrongheaded or interfering with their enjoyment, and it’s all just feelings anyway, that’s just a round-about way of telling you to shut up.

Disagreements, even strong disagreements, about what are the essential aspects of a style and what aren’t are not evidence of time being wasted. They’re a learning exercise, at least as long as they don’t degenerate into a flame-war.  If you keep an open mind you can learn a lot about what’s important to you about a style when you’re discussing it with somebody who thinks you’re dead wrong–more than you ever learn from somebody who shares all your unspoken assumptions.  You might even change your mind.  If not, you might at least learn to sharpen those aspects that really do turn out to be essential to your appreciation of the style.  People who aren’t interested in what makes up a particular style, whether it’s Old School, New Wave, Impressionist, or whatever, are more than welcome not to join in that particular conversation.

4e For Grognards?

The Core Mechanics offers up 10 House Rules to Make Grognards Like 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. Unfortunately, most of the house rules are of the Racing Stripes on a Yugo variety. (Or, if you’re a 4e fan, putting Fuzzy Dice and lowrider hydraulics on a Formula 1.)  Except for Rule 7 (Don’t scale the Campaign Setting), they change the surface details like number of classes or races without getting at the essence of the play style.  For instance, Rule 4: Limit Races to 3.  White Box D&D from 1974 had the rule

There is no reason that players cannot be allowed to play as virtually anything, provided they begin relatively weak and work up to the top, i.e., a player wishing to be a Dragon would have to begin as let us say, a “young” one and progress upwards in the usual manner, steps being predetermined by the campaign referee.

So it’s not the Dragonborn that are keeping the Grognards away, ok?  (Btw, just for comparison, that single rule is the same amount of space as devoted to Halflings, and only about a sentence or two shorter than the rules for Elves or Dwarves.)

So what would you really have to do to make 4e Grognard-friendly, assuming you wanted to?  There are really three major things, and they’re comparatively simple, but profound.

First, you have to reverse the direction of causality in the system: cause and effect have to flow from the game-world to the rules, not from the rules to the game-world as it currently stands.  What does that really mean for 4e?  It means that you have to visualize what’s really going on in the world, and reason out the consequences from there.  What 4e calls “the flavor text” is the power.  You can’t just invoke “Tide of Iron” and move the mini, it actually has to make game-world sense that the character be able to push the opponent in that direction given everything you know about the combatants such as their relative mass, whether one of them is made of some substance that makes pushing/being pushed wierd or would have some other consequence–think about using your shield to shove a Gelatinous Cube around and you’ll see what I mean. And if the effect is not supposed to be magical, if you can’t explain how it would actually happen (frankly, most of the pull and slide powers) then you can’t do it.  If the flavor text of the power causes small flames, that’s different from a power that creates icicles, even if the rules are otherwise identical.  And just because two powers have rules that interact (the whole “exception-based design”) means nothing if it’s not clear how the interaction would play out/make any sense in the game-world.  I expect that a lot of 4e players would balk at this, despite it being the same as Mike Mearls’ advice on running 4e without minis, but do you want to game with Grognards or don’t you?

The second thing you have to do is eliminate any vestiges of any rule or mechanic that can’t be understood in game world terms, and talked about in-character.  That doesn’t mean that the characters have to use the exact same terms, but they have to be able to think about the concept.  A Fighting Man might not actually say “Saving Throw”, but he could fully understand and discuss with the other characters that he’s much better at dodging a death ray or beam from a magic wand than he is at resisting a spell.  He can talk about how hard it is to hurt or kill something, even if he doesn’t literally say AC or HP, and how experienced he is even if he doesn’t divide it into points of XP.  For 4e that means dropping Skill Challenges.  Sorry, but there’s no in-game way I can conceive of to explain the spooky action at a distance implied by the accumulating successes and failures (particularly the failures).  You’re just going to have to do it the old-fashioned way, by reasoning about the logical consequences of each individual failure and success and whether there’s any causal reason one would influence the next.  You also have to eliminate Action Points, possibly Healing Surges, and probably a raft of other things (“minions” for instance–a creature of the same type as another you’re fighting that can only take 1/100th or less damage can really put a dent in the old verisimilitude).  You could try to “reify” them…make them actual things that the game-world inhabitants really do understand  and talk about (perhaps with magical or divine explanations), but you risk turning your game into The Order of the Stick.

The final thing that you have to do, and this is really the culmination of the other two, is that you have to stop looking at the character sheet and the rulebooks to tell you whether you’re permitted to do something.  If the player can describe the action in such a way that it makes a lick of sense in the game-world, the character can attempt it.  The GM can assign a probability to whether it works (even if it’s so low as to be in effect impossible), or just rule directly, but everybody can attempt anything they can imagine unless it’s specifically called out as forbidden to their class (e.g. fighters learning spells, magic users wearing armor).  Skills, feats, powers…they mean you’ve got a better shot, but the lack of one should never be cause for the GM to say no.

And that’s it. You don’t have to strip out the laughable names “Moon Prism Power Divine Strike!™”  “Bloody-Riptooth All Cool And Spiky Badass MoFo Crocodile™.”   You don’t have to put save-or-die effects in, enforce completely random chargen, have level-draining undead, or make magic Vancian.   All of those things were indeed common enough back in the day…but they weren’t the essence of game-play; plenty of undeniably old-school games didn’t have those features….even if they were using a system that did (3d6 in order was one of the first things that many groups discarded; by the time of Basic D&D there were official, if optional, rules for discarding characters with no score above 9, or swapping attributes).  You could add one or more of those, but the plain truth is that the Grognards who would insist on them aren’t likely to touch even a revamped 4e with the proverbial 10′ pole, and those are the things that 4e players are most likely to strongly object to.  On the other side, I think that many of the things that are show-stoppers for the Grognards literally fall beneath the 4e fans’ notice….in prior conversations trying to explain the differences I get the distinct impression that they don’t even realize (and some don’t believe) that these actually are differences between the way the editions work, or they discuss them solely in terms of design goals (this is faster, everything you need to know is written on this card) without even considering whether it has implications for how you think about the world.

So on the one hand, I do actually think a 4e for Grognards is possible…in some sense even easy: just ignore a bunch of these rules, and interpret these ones in a different light.  On the other, I’m not entirely sure whether the result would be still be 4e.

The Random Esoteric Creature Generator

The Random Esoteric Creature Generator for Classic Fantasy Roleplaying Games and their Modern Simulacra, by James Edward Raggi IV, published by Goodman Games.  32 pages, $12.99

The RECG is a set of tables for constructing bizarre D&D-style creatures, complete with Armor Class, Hit Dice, number of attacks, damage, special abilities, movement, morale, etc.  It’s not tied to any particular version of D&D, as indicated by the somewhat unwieldy subtitle, but it won’t produce creatures ready to play for 3e without at least some tweaking, and 4e is right out.  If you’re willing to do some more work to stat up the creatures, you can probably use the most interesting aspects (generally the description and special abilities) for nearly any game system.

When I say bizarre, I mean bizarre.  This is not a system for calling a rabbit a smeerp, not even a rabbit with frickin’ laser-beam eyes.  Maybe a flat rabbit-like creature that moves by slithering, attacks with its spiked tail, has a rubbery body that halves damage, and drains Charisma with a successful attack.  Exactly what is rabbit-like about the creature is left to the GM’s imagination and descriptive abilities.  The system is really good at coughing up things that you never would have imagined on your own.  It is somewhat less good (read, makes no attempt at all, except to advise the GM to try) at making it all hang together coherently.  The author’s advice seems to regard that as a feature, spurring the user to greater heights of creativity in trying to decide what “a 20-sided die with characteristics of a skunk, made of water” might actually be.

It’s good for creatures out of nightmare, or settings where creatures out of nightmare might be common such as an old-school dungeon.  You wouldn’t use it as a starting point for anything that makes a pretense of naturalism, even Gygaxian naturalism, or tries to fit into an ecology.  To be fair, the author is perfectly up-front about his disdain for that sort of stuff; most of the advice on using the charts is along the lines of “Monsters that are not unique are not mystical creatures of wonder.”  I’m not sure what I think of that; monsters of legend are a fairly mixed bag some being unique (the Minotaur, the Sphinx), others being something that anybody might run into on a lonely road at night (Will o’ the Wisps, boggarts, Hakutaku, etc.)  It’s true that players will be more wary of creatures that are new in their experience, but wariness is not the same as fear.  I’ve never had any trouble getting players to fear level-draining creatures like Wraiths, for instance.  It’s because the players know what Wraiths can do that they’re afraid of them.  I think if you follow the author’s advice on using the tables, you run the risk of turning encounters with the monsters into a game of Russian Roulette (because of the fairly high possibility of nasty special abilities that the characters can’t in principle know about or prepare for) and you rob your campaign of the opportunity to have a certain unique flavor.  Players who learn to deal with a kind of monster unique to a game world gain a sense of mastery over the domain that I think is rewarding.  If you followed the link to the description of the Hakutaku, note how the ancient Chinese text goes into detail about how to deal with them:   Make a peach bow, jujube arrows, and attach kite feathers to them. Shoot it with them. If Wolf Demon becomes Whirling Wind (piāo fēng 飄風), remove a shoe, throw (the shoe) at it, and it cannot transform.3 If there’s a kind of creature that’s been kicking their asses and taking their lunch money whenever they run into it, and the finally figure out it’s vulnerable to sonic damage, that can be a really satisfying and memorable moment for a campaign; in a single encounter they may never figure it out, particularly if such weaknesses are determined randomly as in the RECG instead of by theme (a crystal creature is vulnerable to sonics, a fire creature to water, etc.)  They also gain a mental hook (this is the game world where people burned by fire come back as Firewights) that distinguishes the game world from all the others that might be using the same source books…even including the RECG.  If every monster is sui generis then that flat rabbit stingy thing might have occurred in anybody’s campaign.

Good Points

  • Does what it sets out to do, and provides good guidance in how the author intends the book to be used
  • Spurs creativity
  • Good looking, nice and evocative illustrations
  • Caters to Old School adventure gaming
  • Not directly tied to a particular edition of D&D

Bad Points

  • Pricey.  $12.99 is a fair chunk of change for 32 pages.  While I respect what Goodman Games is accomplishing by getting this in game shops at all, I would have been happier to have this at half the price via PDF; given its size and nature I probably wouldn’t even bother to print it out.
  • Charts are somewhat bloated.  There’s really no reason to have, say, the special ability to temporarily drain an Attribute point split into 24 entries (1 for each attribute times whether the attribute is drained 1, 2, 3, or 1d6 points); that should have been one entry with the attribute determined randomly and the amount drained being 1, 2, 3, or 1d6 depending on the roll of a die.  Similarly for various immunities (cold, fire, wood, etc) the creature might have and whether they do half or no damage, or levels of regeneration.

Overall

I’d give it 3 out of 5.  I like it, but I like Old School stuff and I like random charts as a brainstorming tool.  I think the people who will really enjoy this are the kind who know they want it just from the description of what it is.  They’re also probably the kind of people who immediately upon getting it and rolling up a few creatures say, cool, now let me do my own even more awesome charts!

Some Additonal Reviews

Supporting the Old School

My copy of Labyrinth Lord arrived today from Amazon, and it looks nice. Labyrinth Lord, you’ll recall, is one of the retro-clone projects that attempts to recreate D&D free of copyright impediments by using only new text plus what’s been released as part of the OGL, and itself is an OGL Product. I have to admit, I have the PDF, as well as the PDFs of the Basic & Expert D&D that it’s based on, so there was no real reason for me to purchase it, except to show my support of the concept and reward Daniel Proctor, whose baby it is, for jumping through all the hoops necessary to get it carried by Amazon.

Unfortunately, I don’t know when I’ll get to play it, since I’m really the only fan of this stuff in my current gaming group. We played a couple of sessions of Basic D&D shortly after Gary Gygax died (I posted recaps earlier), and nobody was particularly enamored of the rules or the tone. Having had that experience and done a lot more reading and thinking about the retro movement since then, I could probably GM something a lot more to their taste while still nominally using the rules and the old school feel, but if I’m the only one who’s really fired up by the idea… my time is probably better spent prepping stuff that they’re clamoring to play.

Still, I might manage to sneak in a game or two some day with some unsuspecting relatives or something…