New appreciation for old school revival gaming

So, when +Peter V. Dell’Orto told me that some guy named +Erik Tenkar was looking for extra members for his Swords and Wizardry “B-Team” campaign, I’ll admit I more or less had no idea who Erik was when Peter told me to sign up, only that I had had most of the games I played in drop offline.

Trail of Cthulhu ended for me when there was a mismatch between what I thought the game was and what it actually was, plus some game mechanics issues I’d voiced but could have worked around. I had such terrible tech issues with +Christian Blouin‘s excellent Reclaiming Khazad-Dum campaign I had to drop out of sheer frustration (I’ve since figured out what to do about those). Plus, my weekly conference call for real life job overlapped +Nathan Joy‘s Dungeon Fantasy/Jade Regent game, which left me temporarily without any play.

So I leaped at the chance to play something, anything. D&D was my first game, as with most, and I played in a couple Pathfinder games for a bit recently. So awesome – a game! Peter’s writeup on this same issue covers this nicely: given the choice between playing ANY game with a cool group of people, and no game at all, the answer is very clear.

Still, the first game went pretty well, and the second was equally fun. One of the things that had happened between the first and second game, though, was that I conducted two interviews, one with Erik himself (as an influential/successful blogger type), and the other with +Richard LeBlanc and +David Welborn of New Big Dragon Games, all of whom are involved in the Old School Revival.

What is OSR?

Oh, no. I’m not touching that one. Still, it’s a lot like defining pornography – Swords and Wizardry is a derivation of some of the older (oldest?) D&D rules, and the entire rulebook, which includes spells, equipment, classes, bestiary, is a relatively small book.

Nonetheless, I began to really understand what it was about this “OSR” thing that appealed to me. The first of which is that the entire damn game was all about the fun. Maybe it’s because all of us mostly had the best part of two or three decades of maturity since we encourtered those rules, but in terms of party dynamics and general outlook, this is one of the smoothest-running games I’ve played.

Rules Light means less to argue over

There really aren’t that many true choices in the game, as of yet. The game is, thus far, unabashedly combat-centric. But it’s not tactical the way Pathfinder or GURPS can be. We look at the map, talk about where the combatants are and what they’re doing, and then start rolling dice.

While Peter and I choose from our weapon list, we don’t fuss over it. We haven’t been playing that we lose turns going from a bow to a spear to a sword, but then, we’ve not been playing juggle the weapon much. When the game calls for bows and slings and crossbows, we use them. When it calls for bashing and smashing, we’re equipped for it.

The absence of some of the complexity from Pathfinder – mostly in feats and what GURPS might call Combat Options, means that we were able to play through something like six to eight fights in three or four hours of gameplay.

When your turn comes up, you more or less pick a target and start alternating rolling a d20 to hit, and a d-whatever (in my case d8) for damage, with a few limited bonuses already pre-recorded on your character sheet.

Oh, sure, who was going for what foe was a bit of discussion. But not much. Pick target, roll dice. Boom. Succeed or fail.

On the receiving end, there’s your Armor Class. And that’s it. It’s a target number that subsumes anything and everything that can be done once you get through the tactical options we discuss in play.

Example? Sure. We decided we’d fight with our melee guys at the bottom of a sloping ramp that allowed only two or three undead foes to go after us at once. This protected the thief and magic user, while restricting the number of foes attacking the fighters. The non-combatant characters could rush up and do stuff, but by and large were kept safe(r) by the meat shields. Rules for it? Nope – only the GM say-so, which was fine by us. We trust Erik to follow Wheaton’s Rule, he trusts us, and when, as happened two or three times in the course of the game, a character was brought to negative HP by a mischance, we accepted that as just how the dice fell. We were lower level combatants fighting some very real opposition with powers we weren’t always equipped to deal with. Thus . . . risk.

The rewards also piled up pretty fast. We walked away with something like three magical items, maybe more, plus upgrades in other stuff. Lots of gear for the fighters, but I can also see how in later levels, the magic user and thief will have their niche, and it will be at least as useful as Peter and I bashing stuff.


The interesting thing, from my perspective, about OSR and Pathfinder is that to me, they’re basically the same. The d20 based games are, of course, significantly different from each other in the specifics and details. Pathfinder feels more complicated and tactical. Swords and Wizardry rather less so. When we ran into rules issues and questions, such as lighting webs on fire, we reached for some old AD&D rules, I think.

That’s not really different than how GURPS handles things, from the player’s perspective. The basic mechanic is constant from game to game (roll 3d6 vs skill, vs 1d20 vs a target number), and pulling in bits of crunch and narrative as required by the game and genre being played is rather exactly what GURPS GMs do on a campaign-by-campaign, if not a session-by-session, basis. Use what you need, discard the rest. Play for fun, when it stops being fun, ditch complexity until you maximize enjoyment.

Tactical Options

The key bit that I’ll write an entirely separate post on, and it’s been on my mind a lot recently, is don’t fight the rules. The GURPS rules go a certain way, and thrive with a certain feel. Trail of Cthulhu and Night’s Black Agents, both GUMSHOE games, will reward certain mindsets and play actions as well. Some of these overlap with all RPGs, some are particular to the system.

OSR games and Pathfinder are no different. When it’s my turn, as a fighter I expect to bash some guys, and if I can overwhelm their armor class, I expect to do damage and hopefully defeat some of them. After that, I get to sit tight and hope I don’t get splattered until my own turn comes again. Once you come to that paradigm, you can operate and have fun within that framework.

If that framework is anathema to you (I simply must be able to defend myself. I cannot play a game without a defense roll!), than you must find another game and group. If you are willing to do your thing within the game-space, and enjoy it, then you can get down to the serious business of eating pizza, having fun, killing orcs, taking their stuff, and maybe developing a neat character persona – with or without help from formalized rule systems.

Have Character, Will Travel

It was alluded to in Peter’s writeup, but the first few moments of the game last Friday were spent with at least me digging through my stuff to find my character. Rul Scararm was available only on paper, and that paper was a casualty of a massive desk-cleaning.

Less than ten, maybe even less than five, minutes later, thanks to a few blog posts, Rul had been completely recreated. Write down his stats, key bits of equipment, a few notes on bonuses and penalties. Check the game log from last time for XP and treasure.

Boom. Done. Let’s play.

That, to me, summarizes the style of game Erik is running. I don’t know if I could have done the same thing had Rul been a Level 10 or 15 fighter, but I suspect that yes, yes I could. Maybe harder for a magic user, with the spellbook and whatnot. But really, Rul will only ever need his armor, maybe a shield, some key magic items, weapons, and his XP and gold. There’s value there, much like it only takes about fifteen minutes, if that, to make a very powerful d6/WEG Star Wars character template. Pick template. Assign dice. Fight the Empire. Next!

Parting Shot

The key bit, of course, was that we were all in the same head space here. Play the game, have fun, get through the adventure, don’t argue with each other over stupid stuff. We played and played and I was quite sad when the adventure was over (it didn’t hurt that +Tim Shorts provided a perfect bite-sized chunk for an evening’s play – there’s a lesson there for a future post as well), because I was just having too much fun to stop.

It really amped up my desire to run my own game, as well as play in more games.

The appeal of the OSR also lies in the uniform and fairly basic genre assumptions present. The “usual” character classes killing the “usual” monsters and foes. With or without some deep reason for going into dungeons and killin’ stuff, you know why you’re there. Dungeon Fantasy, in GURPS, has the same inherent, instinctive appeal.  I’m hoping that the “Supernatural X-COM” modern fanstasy game I intend to run has the same feeling. It won’t hurt that I have so much awesome material from which to pull: Night’s Black Agents, GURPS Horror and Zombies, not to mention the rules material I can draw from.

Still, every single one of us was there to have fun as a group.

It makes a difference.

13 thoughts on “New appreciation for old school revival gaming

  1. I'm glad you're enjoying the game.

    I should post about it, too. For me, playing S&W scratches a different itch than playing GURPS. We played our nice abstracted class-and-levels game on Friday, and then I ran my much less abstract point-buy-and-skills system on Sunday . . . and enjoyed both. I loved rolling 20s for cleave on Friday and swapping weapons with ease and lightning webs on fire to burn skeletons, and I loved rolling control points for specific hit location grapples vs. guys with penalties for using shields in close combat while mashed together on a battle mapped out with minis. It's all good.

    1. Right. It's all good, and within the scope of the game, fun was had. The goals for a given combat are different with the different options. For S&W, it seems to me to be more like "how does each combat stack up." For GURPS, it's often "what really cool stuff can I do on my turn," which of course only represents one second of real time.

    2. That's what I prefer, really. But it's not like it detracts from the fun if it's not there. Like I said in my post, the good GM and good fellow players really matter. Doesn't hurt that the rules get the job done even if I'd have done them differently (and do, in my own games.)

  2. Glad you had some fun on that, seemed quite "Grosbill" as we call it in France, as a tongue in cheek reference to that "old school" mindset.
    Two things in there though that I noticed you mentioning:
    – The very simple and to the point mechanics of play.
    – The mindset of play.
    I play Next twice a week, which is also very light on rules and heavy on GM ruling power, and feel it's old school in many ways for that, but the mindset is different, very remote from the "door, monster, treasure" pacing you seem to have had there.

    Which did you like most? The simple "do it" mechanics of play that makes each turn last about a minute if that, or the "bash, loot, bash" mindset you described? Which made you feel was "old school" as you said?
    Since GURPS DF is based around that mindset (I think?), while the mechanics are completely different, I'm gonna venture a guess and say that it's mostly the mindset.

    1. Heh. I figured people would twig on that. "I know it when I see it" is the sort of vague, somewhat sloppy thinking that applies. OSR seems to have evolved to more of a philosophy so much as a "get me a copy of that DnD Red Box and go" mantra.

      Not sure. Playing two games of S&W doesn't exactly make me an OSR expert, so perhaps I will simply keep playing and withhold judgment for a bit

  3. Brilliantly put, in terms of the fact that you need to flow with the rules of whatever game you're playing. A well-written set of rules is like a river; they all flow differently. (you left out the role of house rules, but I agree that was a bit extraneous to the main point). Inspiring essay.

  4. Nice post. Yes, we'll know the old school when we see it.

    I enjoyed the fact that playing a great RPG made you want to run more RPGs. I get that feeling too after playing… when the game is good, of course.

    When was the last time you played face-to-face?

    1. Before my daughter was born four years ago . . . probably even before that my group had dissipated pretty hard. I'd guess 5-7 years. The Google Hangouts/Roll20/MapTool VTT thing has really saved my gaming bacon.

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