I devote a lot of thought to how to replicate the old school ‘feel’ that so captivated me during my early experiences with D&D. I wondered if it was all just in my head, that just because the books and games had lit up my mind at certain way, it didn’t follow that I could inspire others the same way. When I came across the OSR blogosphere, I was particularly heartened to find that I wasn’t alone in feeling the way I did, that there was something particular about early D&D that could inspire people in ways that more modern incarnations could not. Even more encouraging is feedback from my own players, most of whom also play in other game groups which run later D&D editions. One of my worries as a DM is that something I’m picturing in my head as cool, atmospheric and exciting just isn’t being transmitted that way into the minds of the players. Of course, every campaign looks different in the minds eye of each participant, and this is part of the beauty of it, but it’s my job as the DM to provide the connective structure so that the players exist in the same world and have a shared experience. At the heart of it, my goal is to provide to my players the same feeling I had when I first started playing while also indulging my creativity with regards to creating the game world. When a player of mine praised the ‘dark and chaotic’ feel of my campaign, contrasted to the other games he has experienced, I knew that I was doing something right. There’s been a lot of electric ink spilled over what makes a game ‘old school’ or not and it’s difficult to define precisely. The essence of the game is like cake, or pizza. We all know it when we see it, and many ingredients and flavours can be swapped out to taste, while essentially still being the same food.
Maybe D&D doesn’t have to be dark and chaotic all the time but the assumed setting points that way. The world is strewn with ruins and horrible monsters that can kill a normal man with one claw swipe (or even by literally looking at one). First level adventurers strike out into the unknown with sticks, sacks, cheap weapons and single digit hit points for the money and power that will secure their legacy and let them make a difference in this crapsack world. Civilisation is sparse and society hangs on by a thread, with most inhabited areas held down by rival bands of men at arms led by warlords, fanatical high priests, bandit lords and sorcerers who may be your patrons while you are useful and your deadly rivals once you’ve survived long enough to be a threat. Sure, you can find elves and unicorns and nymphs and the court of the Platinum Dragon in the sky, but even these supposedly benevolent beings are fucked with at your own peril. The powers of Good are distant and vague, and my help their agents by providing some buffs and healing and keeping away the undead. The powers of Evil are many, detailed, venerated by the majority of sentient humanoid species on the planet and frequently take horrible, magic-resistant physical form to blast your mind with madness and tear your face off. A D&D world is a terrible place to live but for adventurers who survive long enough, it offers more than enough freedom to remake it in their own image.
The world described above is true enough for middle of the road vanilla D&D and is usually the base I work from to keep an old school feel. There’s nothing quite like the feel of playing old school D&D ‘blind’ and coming to grips with this environment for the first time, when you are only dimly aware of the kind of foes and situations await. It’s more of a challenge to instil this feeling of darkness and chaos inside experienced players, which is why when I have a group of veterans, I prefer to change milieu flavour to something weirder and more off-book. Conversely, with players that haven’t played early D&D I like to ground them in the base game by throwing as much of the fantasy kitchen sink of them as I can, including my favourite bits from the old TSR modules that I played through myself as a young gamer.
Another player of mine, speaking about 4e, the system which he was most familiar with, defended it as ‘player empowerment vs DM empowerment’, as opposed to the old school style, which was the reverse thereof. I’m not so hot on 4e but from second hand reading it seems to me like an engine designed around a linear series of carefully balanced combat encounters, with players having a set power or ability for every occasion. I’m sure it doesn’t necessarily have to be run that way, and this player certainly knows more than a thing or two about good games, but to me it sounds like someone tried to suck as much fun out of D&D as possible. The implication of old school D&D being the opposite of that, well, I don’t know. Throughout all the editions, characters improve with level through adventuring. Characters in my game empower themselves plenty through acquisition of power, magic, treasure, and dominion. Sure, I have plenty of power, but I use it to provide opportunities for the players to empower themselves. But it is the same as player empowerment through character builds and options? It’s a different kind of power. Maybe I limit choices in character builds but they have complete freedom in the game world, including the power to get in over their heads and use whatever they can find in the world via exploration and roleplaying rather than picking powers from a list or guessing what skills to invest in.
Turning over these two comments in my head, I’ll put forward the elements I use in my games to keep that old school feel.
Player vulnerability. This is key to keeping the game away from wish-fulfilment fantasy, and adds verisimilitude to PCs. When they start out, they’re not much hotter than Joey Man-at-Arms or Ulgor the 1hd Orc. Maybe they have a handful of spells that need to be carefully chosen and conserved and timed. But their main weapons are their wits. They get a feel, at the beginning, of what it feels like to be an actual person in this world. It helps their sense of scale. If low level PCs all have quasi magical powers and abilities from the get go it diminishes the darkness and magic of their initial foray into the dungeon. They’re already superheros before they’ve faced a single test of mettle. The restrictive specialisations of the classes means that everybody knows their area of expertise and encourages co-operative gameplay, it also means can focus on building their character through interaction with the world. Through the acquisition of distinctive items, forging alliances, winning fame through mighty deeds. I’ve played in 3.5 games and seen broken builds that make characters able to dominate in every aspect of the game, or players make the wrong move in the meta-game of character build, locking them out of things they wanted later in the game. And I’ve spent my fair share of time dozing off doing ‘homework’ for my character build when I’d rather just be developing him through game action. Not that I can’t have fun playing that way, but I have much more fun when I spend my energy in game with a more streamlined system like B/X or AD&D.
Player skill, not character skills. Related to the last point. I feel that too much quantification of character skills can become a crutch on the players, restricting their imagination on what they can and cannot do and encouraging meta gaming to bring their best numbers to bear. Once these things become a game mechanic it also restricts character development to what points can be spent at what level, and what skills might come up more often to be mechanically useful in play, rather than what works with the concept of the character. In my games, if a characters class, background or life experience can be brought to bear in a situation I never have a problem refereeing it, and it encourages clever plays to investigate and learn more about the game world in search of non-class related advantages.
Location, location, location. I mean a few things by this. One is location based play over the railroad. Give your players a land to explore, plenty of of adventure sites and things that can happen, but nothing that MUST happen for the game to progress. Let them poke their nose into local conflicts, dig up the graves of the cursed dead and shine torchlight on things Man Was Not Meant to Know. If they survive and they want to fuck around with your land and can get away with it, let ’em. They’ve pried that right from the jaws of death. The second point is that adventuring locales, especially at low levels, are exciting hazards for the players in themselves. In the dungeon, darkness, confusing architecture and unfamiliar and restrictive layout can combine to land a part in deadly peril if they’re not careful. The primeval forests disorientate a wandering party and abound with creatures which move at ease in nature and resent interlopers from ‘civilisations’. Rich pickings can lie unclaimed for centuries in frozen tundra and arid deserts, their surroundings strewn with the bones of those unlucky adventures who never even reaching the dungeon entrances in such hostile environments. Planar travel is this, but bigger and badder and pushing against your very existence as an invading virus. Finally, adventure locales should inspire a sense of wonder. In a game that emphasises exploration, give the players something worthwhile to explore. Even after players pillage an adventure locale, they should remember not just monsters fought and treasure found, but the distinctive features of the location itself. Maybe they would even seek to take over a dungeon or castle or make a location part of their domain. Our own world abounds with breaktaking and dangerous natural scenery and ruins, in D&D we can take that and turn it up to 11. A mirror sea of shiny glass traversed by skate ships, aquatic humanoids on dragon turtle villages, a city carved into a petrified giant, the fungus-lit, spider crawling, debauched dark fairyland of the Drow.
Experience points for Gold! Or at least, experience for something other than combat which doesn’t meet some arbitrary story or roleplaying demand. I still like XP for gold according to Crazy Uncle Gary. It gives the party a motivation to all work to a common goal, and a realistic one for their characters, since to make a difference in a world as fucked up as D&Dville you need a lot of money and power. The players are rewarded for adventuring anywhere where there’s treasure and sets the tone for scrappy, roguish adventure. It also encourages clever play and conservation of resources. D&D is a violent game, but in a system where the lions share of XP comes from treasure smart PCs will pick and choose their battles carefully rather than engage in combat for it’s own sake. This keeps it an adventure game rather than a series of arena battles. This makes sense from a roleplaying perspective – characters get into adventuring for fortune and glory, not for the sheer thrill of getting their head kicked in. It’s also fairer on the PCs, they know more or less what treasure is worth and can weigh risk and reward, use magic and negotiation to find out where it is. With arbitrary bonuses awarded for roleplaying or story XP, this is less clear and more subject to DM fiat.
Randomness. I love random tables and the unexpected. One main reason is because as much as I like to build the world to small detail, when it comes to events in play it’s always nice to be surprised. The players always have the thrill of not knowing what’s going to happen or what’s behind the door. Sometimes I like not knowing too. For example, on a no-man’s-land dungeon level claimed by several factions, I like to establish a range of possibilities for wandering monsters picking through the rooms at the same time the players are moving through the area, likewise with another random table for any loot, prisoners or items they have picked up so far. This makes the dungeon seem more alive and keeps the world in motion. Also, old D&D is full of items with random effects or contents (Deck of Many Things, Wand of Wonder, Bag of Beans, Iron Flask). Players have a healthy respect for magic that they cannot fully control, and get excited about using it in a way that just doesn’t really happen with the sword + 2 or Staff of Curing. This is related to player vulnerability, but also to fairness. In these cases, it takes some control out of the DM’s hands so that if they player meets a sticky end, it’s just bad luck or bad judgement, not the DM out to get you.
Black humour. There’s a lot of silliness and humour in D&D – Gygax’s penchant for Saturday morning cartoon wackiness is not for everyone can easily be adjusted to taste per campaign, but I would never do away with it entirely. Items with random effects are indicative of the rather dark spin on this sense of humour – they provide a lot of entertaining ways to die. Even at it’s most farcical, D&D humour is somewhat grim and ultraviolent. Sure, that monster looks ridiculous but who knows what kind of fucked up things it can do to you? Your wand of wonder shrunk you to 6 inches in height, put on your best squeaky voice and try not to get stepped on! The mimic is stupid but it punches you in the face. How many suggestion spells is the succubus working into her dirty jokes? How many characters die hilarous, slapstick deaths as opposed to heroic last stands. Humour provides welcome moments of fun and tension relief at the table, but fits right into that dark and chaotic feel.