RPG theory and discussion is prone, like a great many other online discussions of angels dancing on the head of a pin, to people issuing little manifestos – or, indeed, for folks to find that their humble essays have been latched onto and invested with more importance than they ever intended to ascribe to them.
The Forge, in its day, was a hotbed of this sort of stuff, particularly with Ron Edwards’ essays being given extensive exegesis on the theory forum. But the OSR (Old School Revival/Renaissance) is not immune to this. A lot of people looked to James Maliszewski’s Grognardia as a hub of OSR discussion, before the sorry disaster of the Dwimmermount Kickstarter prompted people to reassess his work, and Zak of Playing D&D With Porn Stars was singled out by The Escapist for a web video series about his D&D campaign, which I suppose makes him the OSR dude whose game-related activities have gained the most attention outside of the small corner of the RPG hobby that pays attention to online discourse. Neither of them wrote a manifesto for the OSR, though James Maliszewski’s tone always had me thinking he was on the verge of doing so.
However, when it comes to statements of intent, two sources keep getting cited in OSR discussion. One of these is A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming by Matthew Finch and put out via Mythmere games, and Philotomy’s Musings, a compilation of significant posts from Jason Cone’s (now vanished) blog compiled into booklet form by Jason Vey. As a measure of how central they are to the OSR in-crowd, it’s worth noting that when Bundle of Holding did an OSR-themed bundles recently they included the PDF of these products as part of a collection of material which, whilst freely available elsewhere, they still considered useful (or even essential) for playing with some of the commercial products they’d included in that bundle. Of these resources, I find one far more useful than the other.
A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming
Available for download via Lulu, the Quick Primer was originally hashed out on various OSR forums by Matthew Finch. Finch’s main claim to fame is being the driving force behind Swords & Wizardry, which has become the accepted dominant retro-clone of “0E” Dungeons & Dragons (as in the original three brown booklets and their various supplements) just as Labyrinth Lord has become the dominant retro-clone of basic Dungeons & Dragons and OSRIC is the dominant retro-clone of 1E Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. There is, therefore, a commercial consideration being served there: as is regularly pointed out, 0E Dungeons & Dragons is a very different beast from subsequent RPGs, and by helping to point out the specific differences, Finch makes his product more approachable to people who more familiar with present-day RPGs.
However, the primer also shivers with the glowy-eyed zealousness of the evangelist, trying its damned hardest not just to explain what’s distinctive about old school gaming, but also to convince the reader that it’s super fun and compares well with “new school” stuff. In the course of doing so, it ends up comparing a caricature of modern gaming with a very specific vision of old school gaming which I would argue is particular to the OSR, and which represents only one type of play that existed during the 1974-1977 prime of 0E.
Finch takes the gratingly whimsical approach of presenting a set of “zen moments” for players, which explain how the approach to playing “old school” differs from modern assumptions and “Tao of the GM” pointers for referees which explain things which you necessarily have to do when running games in this style if you’re not going to end up presenting a frustrating mess. The downfall of the primer is that it takes a narrow definition of both “new” and “old” school – specifically, it assumes that “new school” is 3rd and 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, and old school is one particular style of running 0E.
To tackle the latter point, assuming that there was one specific “old school” style practiced during the 0E era is possible only if you maintain a careful ignorance of the facts. Playing At the World exhaustively and extensively demonstrates that early RPG groups shot off on wild, unpredictable tangents more or less as soon as they got their hands on the rules (if not before, in the cases of those who had heard of Dungeons & Dragons but had to cobble together their own rules due to the limitations of the distribution chain at that time). That being the case, it’s important to remember that the style of play often promoted by the OSR does not constitute an exact reconstruction of the 1970s scene. That isn’t to say that the OSR is useless; a lot of it seems to involve identifying features of older games which have been neglected in more recent years and finding value in them, so the playstyle promoted by the OSR can be seen as a retroactively constructed approach developed as a reaction to the neglect of these very features, and more specifically their neglect by Wizards of the Coast.
It’s notable that, whilst sites like Dragonsfoot and other places were busy during the 3rd Edition era, and the retro-clones inspired by OSRIC‘s reconstruction of the 1E rules were made possible precisely because of the 3rd Edition OGL and SRD, the OSR really took off with the release of 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. As with the success of Pathfinder, the boom in the market for retro-clones and compatible material coincided with the dominant edition of Dungeons & Dragons representing a radical departure from the model that had coalesced from the supplements during the 0E era, was codified by Gygax in 1E (0E with all the rules from the supplements ends up resembling a rough version of 1E), and which 2E had streamlined and restated and 3E had rebalanced and added a layer of skills and feats to. Don’t get me wrong, the addition of skills and feats was a sea change between TSR-era D&D and 3rd and 4th Edition – in particular, it meant the game started lending itself to a “everything not overtly permitted is forbidden” approach, in which if you didn’t have the Use Rope skill you couldn’t tie a knot, and there was less scope to go off script and say “can I get a bonus if I do (wacky stunt) this round?” because it would feel unfair to let people get the benefits of feats if they hadn’t actually bought the feat for the wacky stunt in question – and since the Quick Primer emerged in 2008, the same year that 4E came out, it’s clear that Finch was probably reacting to 3E as least as much, if not more, than 4E. (Indeed, he says that at the time of writing he’s only played 3 sessions of 4E, and had the impression that combat took less long in that than in 3E, so I conclude that either he was suffering from a grotesquely inefficient 3E group/GM or his group weren’t using the intended 4E encounter balances, because 4E played as 4E wants to be played certainly is not faster than 3E unless someone’s holding up the 3E in combat with queries or rules quibbles which 4E breezes past by letting you just pick a combat option from a menu JRPG-style each round.) But at the same time, 4E’s break from the underlying structure was not missed by gamers, who either embraced the change or rejected 4E as being “not D&D“.
This being the case, whilst the “old school” movement implicitly defines itself as being a distinct thing from the “new school”, and Finch specifically contrasts the playstyle promoted in the Primer against “modern style” gaming, he’s really using the more stiff and inflexible approaches to 3E and 4E as the exemplars of “modern style” gaming – when there’s actually a whole wealth of other modern games which have either directly taken against the approach of Wizards-era Dungeons & Dragons, or which consider developments in D&D to be scarcely relevant to what they are doing. (Call of Cthulhu, for instance, along with more or less every other BRP-based game since the first edition of Runequest, seems to care very little about any developments in Dungeons & Dragons since the 1970s).
For instance, one of the Tao of GMing bits emphasises the importance of making the very abstract combat system in TSR-era D&D come alive, but this part seems to be written on the assumption that modern RPGs eschew abstract combat. That is decidedly true of 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, to the point where it’s basically impossible to run without miniatures or a robust virtual tabletop or some other means of representing position on the grid (though I understand that the Essentials line scaled this back a bit), but it certainly isn’t true of, say, Numenera, or Unknown Armies, or FATE, or World of Darkness, or a whole swathe of other games which are clearly not “old school” but are equally clearly riding the abstract combat bus.
Similarly, the primer tends to assume that in modern games everything is resolved by the dice, GMs never come up with situational modifiers or special effects or fumbles on the spot, GMs are expected to never deviate from the rules as written and stuff like searching for clues or traps is abstracted out in favour of dice rolls. I have literally never known any game to be like that with the exception of organised play arrangements like the RPGA’s Living Greyhawk stuff, which are run in a manner so strikingly different from the way people run home games precisely because of the demands of providing a consistent experience within an organised play environment. (You actually can’t run something like Living Greyhawk and give GMs the sort of latitude they exercise in even the most unimaginative home game, because having a situation where GM A runs the December 2013 module for Living Imperial Fists and makes the combat really easy and hands out XP and powerful items and other presents with a free hand whilst GM B running the same module turns the combat into a meatgrinder and is stingy with the XP and treasure would be grossly unfair.) Maybe a particularly stiff and unimaginative group who had only ever played 4E would need to hear some of this, but if you find 4E to be limiting and restrictive you’ve probably come to these conclusions anyway, and if you don’t find it limiting and restrictive you’re not likely to be looking for alternatives anyway.
A particularly interesting case study is provided in the form of the “Ninja Jump” examples. Although Finch concedes that he’s presenting a caricature of modern GMing there in order to highlight each and every time game mechanics are used, I think there are other, less overtly declared biases worked in there. In particular, it’s constructed in the service of his “rulings not rules” point, so that the “modern style” GM is both unwilling to provide bonuses or penalties on the fly and is subject to being browbeaten by argumentative players who hassle him when he goes off-script from the rulebooks. Maybe Finch’s 3E group played that way, but that just makes me feel sorry for Finch and doesn’t convince me that 3E gamers in general were that hidebound; indeed, I believe in 3E circle the term “rule zero” is used for when the GM comes up with an on-the-spot ruling for how a situation is to be handled. So just as Finch is really just promoting one view of what the old school was like, he’s also reacting against one view (by no means unanimously followed) of how 3E should be run.
Regardless of the RPG you’re playing, someone who complains and second-guesses the GM as much as John does in either incarnation of the ninja example is just bogging down the game for everyone else, an infraction worthy of 15 minutes in the Pain Glove (or whatever disciplinary device your group uses). And double the sentence is demanded of any GM who is so overwhelmingly arrogant to say “You are going to play this game in this way, and I am going to give you a primer to read to understand how to play correctly before we play”. The Primer is an overengineered sledgehammer deployed to smash a social nut that is much better tackled through conversation. If you just talk to your damn players you might find they understand more of those “zen moments” than you expected – and through conversation you can get into a dialogue and actually address points like “this is all very well, but actually I’d rather gargle razors than incorporate this particular aspect of the style presented”. Worrying about whether or not your group’s playing style matches a limited set of “old school” criteria devised by someone with a particular, narrow vision of what was actually an incredibly heterogeneous scene is a fool’s game, only worth pursuing if you want to score points on OSR messageboards. What you should be concerned with is whether your group’s playing style is something which you and your players are happy to regularly blow evenings on, and no external party can tell you that.
That’s the basic heart of why the Quick Primer rubs me the wrong way: it’s an attempt to impose a playstyle on groups from the top down, just as Forge-style indie RPGs and storygames impose the same style through designer dictate and restrictive game mechanics. And nothing is less old school than running your campaign in the manner prescribed by some publisher or game designer. If you really want to see old school gaming, throw people in at the deep end with no guidance and no gaming subculture groupthink to tell them what to do and see what they cobble together.
That is precisely what I like about Philotomy’s Musings, available as a free PDF download with a neat cover that makes it look like an 0E supplement. That presentation is especially apt, since like early 0E supplements it’s little more than a grab-bag of rules interpretations and ideas arranged in a pick-and-mix fashion for people to dip into, along with a number of articles about 0E and what Philotomy (AKA Jason Cone) enjoys about it and his campaigns. This isn’t a supplement which holds your hand; to make use of it, you need to sit down, read it, work out what you agree with and what you don’t, and deploy accordingly – a methodology much like the process of exegesis demanded by the original Dungeons & Dragons booklets.
In other words, Philotomy’s Musings doesn’t rub me the wrong way like Quick Primer did because it isn’t presenting Philotomy’s particular take on 0E as some sort of canonical expression of the old school – rather than trying to reach a universal definition of the old school, it just says “Hey, here’s some neat stuff I’ve thought up”. It’s useful not just as an insight into old school gaming, but is also a useful utility even if you are used to the field, with interesting analyses and advice surrounding both individual rules mechanics and more general essays on design philosophy. The Dungeon as a Mythic Underworld, for instance, is a good example of an awesome idea arrived at by approaching some oddity in the 0E rules and saying “Let’s accept this on its own terms rather than assuming it’s a mistake or an oversimplification to be disposed of”, and following the logic of that through to get to an interesting conclusion.
Philotomy’s rhetorical rapier is far more finely targeted than Finch’s, too; rather than tackling strawman versions of modern gaming, he simply promotes the virtues of approaching games like 0E as though they are their own thing written by people who knew what they were doing rather than bringing in a heap of assumptions from later games to the table when you get your retro on, though the one time he does go on the attack (in Rose Colored Glasses) is a perfectly executed bodyslam against the notion that the whole OSR thing is just a matter of nostalgia – I mean, that might be true for some people, but equally Philotomy is dead on when he points out that you can’t be nostalgic for a thing you’re doing right now, and his 0E writings are based on his ongoing 0E campaign as opposed to speculation or reminiscence.
The OSR, and the particular style of gaming it promotes, isn’t everyone’s thing and is never going to be, but even if you don’t go full old school there’s still interest to be had in reading over Philotomy’s notes on his refereeing; it’s generally useful as an example of someone picking apart their style and their chosen game and seeing how it all fits together, and specifically useful if you’re interested in picking apart the roots of TSR-era Dungeons & Dragons – in particular, even though my Dungeons & Dragons campaign runs off the 2E Advanced rules, I find that a lot of stuff makes much more sense if you examine their origins in 0E.