09 September 2009

My Answers to Some Questions regarding the Old School Renaissance

Over at the RPGsite, ‘Aos,’ a regular poster, asked a number of questions of the participants in the ‘Old School Renaissance’ about their views on old school gaming. In the unlikely event that anyone out there is curious, here are my answers to some of those questions. (The original thread can be found here. Beware that it gets pretty badly derailed a couple of times thanks to some complete tool who goes by moniker ‘mrk.’)

Are you hostile to new folks becoming interested in these games?

Most definitely not! My wife recently tried playing D&D for the first time. I used the Moldvay Basic rules. It worked very well (although she’s still not willing to commit to a full-time campaign …*sigh*).

In your opinion, what kind of dues does one have to pay in order to be a legitimate part of the movement, as opposed to a bandwagon-riding freeloader?

Simply play the games, even sporadically or on-line.

0e, which I've only recently become familiar with via S&W White Box (and which really lights my fire, honestly), begs for some hardcore house ruling. That said, what do you believe the limits are on this sort of change? How far is too far? When is it no longer old school? Is it required that everything one does have a precedent from the 70's/80's? Do skill systems blow the whole deal?

House ruling is very much part of the 0e D&D experience (and, to a lesser extent, the Basic and AD&D experience as well, IMO). It’s part of the fun!

I’ve written some pretty extensive house rules for Swords & Wizardry in order to give the game a stronger ‘swords & sorcery’ flavour. They’re available here. I’m sure that many 0e D&D players would object to them (among other things, my house rules remove both the cleric class and ‘Vancian’ spellcasting). I’d object to them, too, if I wanted to run a ‘classic’ D&D campaign. For that, I’d use straight-up Basic D&D (or Labyrinth Lord).

As for the ‘limits’ to house ruling, I would leave that to individual groups to decide for themselves. But I do think that if you end up changing the game so radically that you have to spend an hour explaining to a newcomer your house rules, you’ve probably gone too far. At that point, you may as well write up your own game, or play something else.

What do you think of Race as class? What do you think of James M's (Grognardia guy) idea about making a separate spell list for elves?

For my own campaign setting (Ilmahal), I’ve banned non-human races. I wanted to keep non-humans mysterious, exotic, alien, and powerful. Consequently, I’ve limited them to NPCs.

If I were to run a ‘classic’ D&D campaign again, though, I would be quite happy with the ‘race-as-class’ system (the Basic D&D trio of Elf, Dwarf, and Halfling). I would, however, probably try to include a plurality of ‘racial classes’ in the future, e.g., a ‘Dwarf Rune-master’ as a dwarf spellcasting class, instead of simply a ‘Dwarf Cleric’ or ‘Dwarf Magic-user.’

Consequently, it should be no surprise that I am somewhat fond of the idea of having a separate spell list for elves. In general, I’m in favour of house rules that make non-humans more non-human, instead of simply humans-with-pointy-ears-and-infravision.

What does everyone think about character mortality in regards to old school games?

The real possibility of death must be present in order for the game to have an appropriate level of dramatic tension. There have to be real stakes and real risks.

However, I do give starting characters a bit of a boost. I give them maximum hit points, I let players re-roll characters that have poor ability scores, and a few other things. In short, I give them a modest ‘head start’ at level one. I’m sure that some old school gamers would view me as a real softy for doing this, but I’m not much bothered, as I like my players to feel like their characters aren’t utterly hopeless.

Having said that, though, once these slightly superior level one characters step into the dungeon (or whatever), I let the ‘dice fall where they may!’ And that sometimes means character death.

How frequently do TPK's happen in your games?

It hasn’t happened yet, since I started playing ‘old school’ games again about five years ago. Usually at least one character has enough sense to run away when an encounter goes sour.

Could one run a more heroic themed campaign and still consider it Old School?


The thief: awesome innovation, horrible abomination, or something else?

The thief as presented in all forms of pre-3e D&D is a rather poor class as written, in my opinion. His abilities seem vastly inferior to those of fighters, magic-users, and clerics. He has a very poor chance of succeeding in his ‘special abilities’ until he reaches higher levels. Consequently, I find the thief to be a rather ‘un-fun’ character to play. Back when I used to play AD&D, I remember that the only time anyone would play a thief was as a multi-classed demi-human character (Elf thief-magic-users and Dwarf thief-fighters were especially common). As written, I would recommend pure thieves as NPCs only.

Nonetheless, the ‘archetype’ of the thief obviously has a strong presence in classic fantasy and swords & sorcery fiction. This prompted me to design my own version of the thief class (published in Knockspell #2, and available for free here). My version of the thief class worked out well in practice during my recent summer S&W campaign.

Finally, I just read Will Mistretta’s house rule for the thief in Fight On! # 6, entitled “The Thief Skill As Saving Throw.” Mistretta recommends treating the thief’s special ability as a ‘saving throw’ that a thief character is entitled to if he fails his initial attempt at a task. So, for instance, both a thief and a fighter can try to climb a wall (with a chance of success to be determined by the DM), but if the thief fails, he can then roll against his ‘climb wall’ ability to see if he ends up succeeding after-all (the fighter, of course, has no such ‘saving throw’ option). It’s a rather ingenious house rule, in my opinion, and I very likely will use it if I ever run a ‘classic’ D&D campaign again!


  1. I think those are EXCELLENT responses. Well done.

  2. Akrasia, I followed that thread at the rpgsite as well. I stop in there once a week or so to look over the forum, but I've never joined. There's just too much counter-productive crap flinging for me.

    It is interesting to see younger players seeking out information on the OSR and older play styles though. I've seen threads appear at Dragonsfoot, Knights&Knaves, the Swords&Wizardry forums and OD&D disscusion recently with gamers new to old style play asking questions instead of hurling insults, and it's very encouraging to see.

  3. I agree with almost every response you provided (some of my responses might have been differently nuanced, but the differences, in the final analysis, would hardly be noticable).

    It's nice to see interest being expressed, and that we in the OSR are a friendly, welcoming bunch!

  4. Thanks for this post Akrasia, I'm not interested in visiting that forum and so would've missed an great set of questions. I agree with the others, excellent responses from you. And yes, great too to see interest in the OSR from without. One day we'll put to rest the ridiculous notion that we're not interested in fresh blood.

  5. Thanks for the kind words, guys.

    As for the RPGsite, it is a strange place. There are many grating trolls there, and I've allowed myself to waste vast amounts of time in futile arguments with them. On the other hand, there are some people there who seem genuinely interested in the kinds of games that I like.


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I'm a Canadian political philosopher who lives primarily in Toronto but teaches in Milwaukee (sometimes in person, sometimes online).