Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Dispel Myth(s)

Just picking up where I left off...

Yesterday I asked a not-so-rhetorical question "have people forgotten how to play D&D?" The pat answer is "Of course not, people all over the world are still playing D&D and enjoying the heck out of it!" The evidence is fairly clear: tons of book sales, tons of convention goers (when pandemics aren't getting in the way), tons of presence on social media platforms, blogs, web forums, etc. The game is again being sold in toy stores and there's all sorts of attached merch and related D&D product.

Clearly the game is enjoying a popularity unseen since the 1980s. Doesn't that indicate people are playing the game? Isn't that popularity coming from the enjoyment folks feel playing the game?

Perhaps. But I'm inclined to think rather differently. 

Regardless (the marketing of D&D is probably a subject for its own post) today I'm writing about folks who are actually playing the game, and specifically to folks who gravitate in the group referred to as "the Old School" or "the OSR" (for short). The OSR is just another marketing term, another badge of identity politics. I know my published works (including blog posts) ties me to the OSR label, too, but I honestly don't identify much with it. I am a gamer...a middle-aged gamer (I'll be 48 this year). I've been playing RPGs with dice since 1981...that's coming up on 40 years. My love affair...with RPGs started with B/X but it has run the gamut over many, MANY different games though the years.

I'm just a geezer that likes escapist fantasy games. 

And D&D is the one I know best. Not only because it's the one I've played the longest, but because over the last dozen years I've spent a LOT of time and energy "deep diving" the game, researching its workings, its history, its development. Because I love it, and because I find it fascinating, and because it has had such a dramatic impact on our culture...not just "gamer culture" or "geek culture" but world culture. For me, Dungeons & Dragons has much the same way that a theologian feels about the Bible or a historian feels about classic treatise written by ancient Greek and Latin scholars. It's worth my study.

SO...the OSR. A movement, a market, and (originally) an umbrella term for folks who like to play an older version of D&D. Not an older style, mind you...simply an older version. 

[because "style" is largely a matter of taste...different styles of play have been around since the early days of the about or listen to interviews with various TSR luminaries to see what I'm talking about]

As the OSR has moved from an identifier of game preference to an industry, there has been a loss of knowledge about the fundamentals of how to play the game.

And part of the reason for this is this strange and nutty adaption of (and adherence to) a set of stylistic assumptions/guidelines used to define "old school" play. Things like "rulings over rules," "heroic not superheroic," "unbalanced combat," "emphasis on player agency," "high lethality," etc.  These ideas have been taken to heart, cherished, and championed by members of the OSR pretty much since 2008 when Matt Finch published his Quick Primer for Old School Gaming.

I combed Ye Old Blog this morning, but found no mention of the Quick Primer and nothing about Finch, except for an off-hand remark that I'm not a big Swords & Wizardry fan. That doesn't mean I'm unaware of Finch's work: I've both S&W and the Primer downloaded on the hard drive and have read them before. But, especially with regard to the Primer, I think a little context is needed for BOTH of these works.

Finch wrote S&W in 2008 because the OD&D rules were out-of-print at that time. He used Wizards of the Coast's OGL to release the rules so that folks could have and play the game (the original books have since been made available in PDF format). 

The Quick Primer was released alongside S&W in part to explain to "modern" (post-2000 players) the differences between new versions of the game and ORIGINAL (OD&D, 0e, White Box, etc.) Dungeons & edition of the game that was primordial and not yet fully formedIn this context, as an overview for modern players coming to OD&D needing a radical perspective change, it works fine as a "quick primer" (hence the name). But treating it as a treatise on the subject of "old school play," or as gospel truth, or even as being applicable to other old editions of Dungeons & Dragons (B/X, Holmes, AD&D, etc.) is a catastrophic, erroneous leap to make...let alone foundation on which to build a gaming paradigm.

Let's examine some of the accepted ideas  of "old school" D&D gaming that have sprung from this false understanding and see if we can't destroy their fallacies.

Simple or Few Rules: while older edition versions of D&D do not have nearly the "bloat" found in later editions, calling them "rules light" is hardly appropriate. Setting aside BASIC games (Holmes, B/X, BECMI) which were specifically written as beginning instruction manuals for new players you will find that both OD&D and AD&D did nothing BUT add rules to the game over time: OD&D added five supplements in addition to additional instruction presented in The Strategic Review magazine, nearly all of which were eventually incorporated, and AD&D added manual after manual all the way up to the 2nd edition, which would take the same tack. Even Mentzer's BECMI had an ever-expanding list of instructional texts (not just the Companion-Master-Immortal sets, but the new rules provided in Gazetteers, some of which...non-weapon skills...would later be incorporated into the Rules Cyclopedia). The fact that some people prefer simpler rule sets (like B/X as a standalone game) is NOT endemic of "old school play."

Rulings not Rules: perhaps the worst phrase ever coined in the Old School lexicon. Gygax's instructions to create one's own rules for situations not covered in the textual rules is probably the most misunderstood part of old texts. His admonition "why let us do more of your imagining for you?" was a proscriptive against folks writing to TSR for rules arbitration (in effect, he was saying "Figure it out yourself!"). But just because the rules can't cover EVERYTHING doesn't mean they don't cover SOMEthings...and for many things (like combat) there were existing rules...and more were being added all the time (see above). Finch's statement in this regard was regarding the incompleteness of the OD&D system.

Heroic not Superheroic: another oft-quoted "gem" about how old school PCs are aspiring to be Batman, not Superman. Rubbish. Superheroes are super because they have inherent supernatural powers, and there are PLENTY on display in the D&D game: magic-users, clerics, druids, illusionists, paladins, rangers, monks, and bards all have "super powers" not found in ordinary folks. So do characters with psionics. And if you don't think a high level fighter's ability to cut a swath through 10 or 15 or 20 mooks in a single round isn't "superheroic" (see the rules in both Chainmail and AD&D) than I guess we have very different ideas of the human possibility spectrum. Old school PCs of the mid-high level range are hopping through other dimensions, fighting dragons and demon princes, running kingdoms and commanding armies...this is not "Batman level" stuff. Old school characters are larger than life, much as their inspirations (Conan, etc.) were.

"Forget Game Balance:" and this is why we end up seeing so many published adventures that pit low level PCs against godlike super-beings. Just because encounters aren't "engineered" to allow PCs to win (see 4E, 5E, and 3E's Challenge Rating system) does NOT mean that combats or challenges are "unbalanced." If I throw a dragon in the first chamber of my dungeon meant for 1st and 2nd level characters, that's not "old school;" it's being a crap Dungeon Master! The D&D played using old edition rules is very much about risk assessment and threat management, and about players having the choice of how to approach perils to life and limb. But part of the art of DM'ing is in designing challenges that are difficult without being impossible. And rewards should certainly be commensurate with the challenges being presented, in order to tempt PCs into untenable/difficult situations.

High Lethality: this one, I suppose, is a bit in the mind of the beholder. If you're the type that sees ANY player character death as being "highly lethal" (because you're used to an edition of D&D with "death saves" and "healing surges" and whatnot), then sure...old edition D&D is "highly lethal." But if your definition of "high lethality" equates to "Total Party Kill" (or near-TPK) than, no...old edition D&D does NOT necessarily have a high degree of lethality. Death in D&D is a fail state for the players; it generally indicates 'you screwed up.' It is a possible penalty of poor (or unlucky) play. However, it is easily mitigated by the ample number of ways to bring PCs back from the dead, and by the relative ease with which new characters can be created and advanced. I have found AD&D to be especially forgiving with regard to PC death (due to higher hit points per die, more clerical healing at low levels, and the use of negative hit points as a "buffer")...but even with B/X the game need not be "highly lethal." DMs must still balance encounters based on party's experience and ability.

Emphasis on Player Agency: um...what? If you mean players aren't laboring under a DM practicing illusionism than I don't think that's something very specific to "old school" play. But regarding PCs having a "choice" in what they do in-game (again, not something specific to old editions of D&D!) there are plenty of ways that player agency is restricted and curtailed in old edition D&D: see charm spells, hold spells, paralysis, petrifaction, and (yes) death. Plenty of ways exist to take a player out of play for short (or long durations). If you're talking about an "open sandbox world" unfettered and unconstrained, I'd counter with a plethora of published old edition adventures featuring "trapped" player characters, including Castle Amber, Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, Ravenloft, Dungeon of the Slave Lords, the Desert of Desolation series, the premise for Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, etc. 

Referee Impartiality: um...again, is this indicative of "old school" play? I think not. However, while I am a strong proponent of not fudging the dice...ever (and you should be, too!) I have to say that I love my players and I want them to succeed at overcoming challenges (yes, even though I cackle with glee when their characters die). Why? Because for me (as a DM), allowing players to succeed allows their character to advance which in turn allows me to open up new content and newer more cunning challenges and situations. It's a win-win for everyone. Likewise, it's really tough to run a long-term viable campaign if you let ONLY dice dictate what monsters and treasures are encountered by your a DM you must be willing to set the ship's course; the fun is in seeing how the PCs navigate the waters. And reading Gygax's text in the 1E DMG, I think he was pretty much of a similar mind.

Aaaaand...that's about it. Any other long-standing precious beliefs about ostensibly "old school" game play that I need to stomp all over? If you think of some let me know. Otherwise, please feel free to grump about how wrong I am in bashing OSR-approval-stamped credentials of "real D&D play."

Next Post: I hope to start writing a series about actual "fundamentals" of game play (at least for older editions; sorry, can suck it). Need to fill this newly created void with some constructive stuff. Stay tuned!
: )


  1. Thank you.

    Particularly about the proliferation of rules in the early 80s to cover a great number of situations. I’d like to plug a hole here and add a CONTEMPORARY SOURCE, which none of these present-day OSR pundits ever offer to back their claims. Anyone can read every old school Dragon magazine printed in pdf form, and SEE accurately what was really discussed, what really mattered and what people really believed, in the form of articles and letters to the editor. From that, it can be plainly understood that the tenets of the old-school grift is a sham. Don’t take my word for it, or JB’s.

    Do the research!

  2. Spot on about the difference between genuine oldschool practice and the 're-interpretation' (if I am charitable) practiced by some corners of the OSR.

    I smell an OSR Counter-reformation on the air, and more power to it.

    1. Would such a counter-reformation explore the crappy way old-school D&D was actually played back in the day, instead of the idealized forms we place on a pedestal today?

  3. Hmmm...I have questions.

    Rulings Not Rules: If I had a dime for every time a D&D Blog, OSR or not, discussed and provided an alternative system for Encumbrance, Initiative, Damage, or a plethora of other rules, I could easily retire early. Whether intended by Gygax or not, he and the other early writers created a game that needed work in the minds of its customer base. More rules being added all the time includes those coming from the people playing it. One could say the system was flexible in the way or you could say it was incomplete at best, flawed at worst.

    High Lethality: To say this is a matter of perspective or opinion doesn't make sense if we are talking about a system and how said system is played. If you play two dozen sessions of by-the-book OG D&D or AD&D, isn't it true that your character is more likely to die - I'm talking percentage wise - than in the same number of sessions of Marvel Super Heroes, Champions, Star Wars D6, FASA Star Trek, Mekton, or any number of other RPGs? I would say so. That's just math. It is the way the mechanics of the game are constructed. Is it the HIGHest Lethality? No, there are surely more lethal games. Early Gamma World was ridiculously dangerous as everything from background radiation to grass could kill you.

    This is definitely mitigated at high Levels but it is a game more hazardous to a PC's continued existence than is average based against the totality of all RPGs ever.

    In my 44 years in the TRPG hobby and as someone who has played a lot less than GMed, I think I've only had characters die in D&D. I could be wrong but I don't recall as others.

    Player Agency: I am not sure who is pointing out what here. Are you saying that some people claim OG D&D had an emphasis on Player Agency? I have never heard anyone say that. Given that Player Agency became a thing as a direct counter to the Old School, low Player Agency style of play, this seems very odd indeed.

    This is intriguing so far, if only to view the outlook of another about something of which I know very little.

    1. Quick answers to your questions:

      RE: "rulings not rules"

      Rather than call it incomplete or flawed, I'd say "misunderstood" more than anything.

      RE: "high lethality"

      We're only talking about D&D, so it's in comparison to other versions of D&D, not in comparison to other RPGs.

      RE: "player agency"

      See this post:

      "Trends of old school design," point #11.

      Glad I've got you intrigued!
      : )

    2. If something is misunderstood by a very large portion of the people who read it...How do you know it's misunderstood? Was it worded or explained oddly or poorly? Something about that just doesn't connect with me for some reason.

    3. Sorry if I sound antagonistic or accusatory. I don't mean to. Just really trying to wrap my head around an element of D&D that's always confused me.

      Why is it sold as a flexible toolkit, doesn't really give you the tools in the way other games like Traveller or Champions do, and then gets played as if it's draconicanly rigid?

      How did that happen?

    4. See my new post about "drift."

      The issue is one of incoherent design. Trying to be all things to all people (possibly for economic/biz reasons) when it's really NOT.

      (I don't think you're antagonistic)
      ; )

  4. For any movement, vague and nebulous ideas must be codified. A little generalization, exaggeration, and extrapolation is necessary to fill in the gaps, to inspire, to influence!

    The Old-School Primer was rather essential to the OSR's proliferation. I found it extremely valuable back in 2012. For me personally, and I'm sure thousands of gamers, that little book was infinitely more valuable than something as opaque and niche (that's being charitable) as How To Run by Alexis.

    1. Alexis has said himself that he needs to rewrite How to Run. It still has some interesting things to say.

    2. Not for the reasons Venger wants, JB. Venger wants a text that restates things Venger already believes. This is what made How to Run "opaque" and what makes the Old School "Primer" (for it isn't one at all, it's a diatribe expressing a personalized prejudicial viewpoint) something he liked.

    3. Not only liked, but found useful. I'll concede that How To Run has interesting things to say.