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What is “Old School” Play?

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There are two major styles of roleplaying games. The first (and older) style says “Here is the situation. Pretend you are there as your character, what do you want to do?” This style has been superseded over the years with a style that says “Here is the situation. Based on your character's stats, abilities, skills, etc. as listed on his character sheet and your knowledge of the many detailed rules of the game, what is the best course of action to solve the situation?” Old school play strongly favors the first style and frowns on too much of the second.

Here are some major points where old school play is different:

1.No Skills: Players are intended to have their characters act like adventurers. You just tell the GM what your character is trying to do. If you need to keep a door open or shut, you might tell the GM your character is using a spike to keep the door open or closed. A ten foot pole is your friend for checking for traps. Searching a room means looking in and under objects, not rolling a skill check

2.No Assumption of “Game Balance”: Old style game sessions aren’t about carefully balanced characters (who are all able to shine equally at all times) who only run into situations carefully designed by the GM to be beatable by the characters presently in the party and to provide treasure that fits their current level. Instead, part of player skill is learning to evaluate situations so situations well over the party’s current abilities or which will waste the party’s resources for little gain can be avoided. Don’t assume that you can beat every monster that you encounter, running away from monsters too tough to handle can mean the difference between character survival and character death.

3.It’s Not All About Combat: Many modern fantasy RPGs have made combat the star of the system, combats in these systems are time-consuming and very crunchy with rules for everything.

4.Forget “Rules Mastery”: Player skill in “old school” style games isn’t about mastering the game rules so you can solve any problem by knowing the right combination of rules from 20 different rule books. The object is to have fun, not be a slave to rules or to players who think being a rules-lawyer is the way to get ahead. In many roleplaying games, the Rules As Written (RAW) are often considered sacrosanct


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Tags: d&d, old school Add / Edit Tags


  1. SDJThorin's Avatar
    Nicely said!
  2. steelbreeze's Avatar
    Great entry..i have to say as an old schooler, there were some of those elements of modern gaming there, but alot was on you. When i started dnd, we had 3 books, that was it..and one set, so 8 guys had to share...I would die to find a group of old schoolers that would play a pure 1st Ed DnD...I did one in (gulp) late 90s right after skills and powers came out....we just reverted back to pure 1st ed core and it was awesome....Anyone in the Winston Salem Area hit me up!!
  3. seti's Avatar
    I also agree with you. I DM 4e DnD, and I ALWAYS allow (and reward) player creativity. I think the rules only apply for maintaining fairness in combat situations. ie: the half that is now a miniature game. I'm cool with that. Remember, it is a game...if someone says " I Wanna jump over the orc, and stab him in the back on the way down" Well, ok, that's cool....but can you do it w/o falling on your ass?'s up to the dice. How do you handle the the dice roll? well...modifiers. and the damn roll itself. If a PC looks in the right place, he/she gets the loot. not that that will help, but, Hey, I'm new here...and I'd like to say my peace. I Dig your post. I think that the DM should be the one thinking about rules, and the players shouldn't. Rules exist to keep the game from falling apart. personally, I've DMed for 18 one else wants to do it. ;}
    And I enjoy making a backdrop for people to have fun.

    PS: I LOVE the ten foot pole. I use it now, only I have it as a 4e style lvl 1 magic goes from 1 foot to 10 foot at will. can't use to attck, and it stops its elongation when it striks a surface with the same pressure as a human footfall.

    PPS: I give my PCs what they need. It's up to them to use them or not.
  4. Checkmate's Avatar
    While I agree with a lot of what is said, there are things I don't agree with. I guess I'm sort of the transition between the new and old school.

    I agree, you should describe to your GM what you want to do in illustrative terms "I wanna do a double back flip and stab the orc in the back" or "I wanna search the path for recent tracks".

    On the other hand, there are things my character would know, that I wouldn't. I've never been a Wizard in a Fantasy world with orcs and goblins (well I have, but every time I tell people that, they put this coat on me that buckles in the back. Takes me days to get it off) so I think skills and skill rolls are necessary. I mean in today's world it's common to find a lawn mower in a garage. If I were going to someone's house and looking for a lawn mower, first place I'd look is the garage. If I were looking for important papers, I'd look for files in the Master Bedroom closet or an office. I know this because I've lived in this world for years, just like my character has lived in their world for years. This is where skill rolls come in.

    Great post though, very thoughtful.
  5. Lord Captain Tobacco's Avatar
    What happened to basic communication? I always thought that the game was role-playing not roll-playing; so, why loose those golden moments as the players work to figure out the solution? It often seems that the die roll is the act of desperation when the player has exhausted all imagination and wants to finish the mission. But it really doesn’t have to be that way.
    When the player asks:
    1. 1. Where might I find the herbalist?
    2. 2. Oh, I found the trap. I disarm it.
    3. 3. So, can I wear that suit of Plate mail?

    Careful considerations of ways to use the actions as a form of discovery instead of having a die roll solve the problem. Most of them include getting the player REALLY involved. Ask questions back. You aren’t trying to ‘trick’ the players, prepping that ‘gotcha’ moment, or otherwise waiting for a mistake. (Well, I always have had players sit up when I say “the room APPEARS to be empty”, but then, I always say that too.) It’s about being imaginative and allowing the players to feel the sense of success (or even victory) when they outwit the villain, solve the puzzle; create the solution to the problem from a totally unexpected direction. (We have ALL had this last one happen before.) Using the examples above:
    1. 1. (assuming that the town has one) “Who are you going to ask?” The gate guard? Stable boy? The barkeep? Each will likely have a different answer based on when/if/why they have ever needed the herbalist’s products.
    2. 2. Where is the trap? What is trapped? How is it trapped? Is it really a trap or just in a dangerous environment? Figuring out how to get the magical whatzit that is suspended over a pool of acid just outside of the players reach is a very different situation from the tripwire linked to the crossbow. (Go watch the movie ‘Hudson Hawk’ with Bruce Willis for examples imaginative ways to overcome even the most high-tech ‘traps’. Or you can watch re-runs of MacGyver.) The same is true when debating the merits of mechanical traps vs. magical traps. (Remember, you can’t ‘detect’ a magical trap with the detect traps skill.)
    3. 3. Start out with saying that all plate is custom fitted. ‘Ah, but magic armor adjusts.’ You say. And with a sigh the GM lets you wear the plate without even remembering to ask how you’ll repair the rents you put on it while divesting it from it’s former master. If it’s old and found in a hoard, who did it belong to? Does anyone recognize the crest on the breastplate? ‘Will there be trouble if I wear it in public’ is a better question. Especially if plate is reserved for nobility. If you haven’t been granted an Award of Arms for that particular kingdom where you are standing, you may be in a lot of trouble. With a crest, badge, rune, oath (or what have you) of fealty it may even be treasonous to assume the trappings/title/office/name of the original owner. Or maybe you’ll just be inconvenienced by the descendants of said previous owner who want the gear back: maybe it is property of the kingdom itself and they want to issue it to the current office holder. In short, an adventure-not a die roll.

    Back to the mention I made earlier about exhausted imagination. Maybe that’s just how it has to be. Giving the answer does not exercise the creative process; worse, you can’t just do this occasionally. The players will know something’s up if you do this process on rare occasions. I remember in the original AD&D if a thief failed to ‘pick’ a particular lock all further attempts on that specific lock by that character were automatic fails until the thief leveled. Fortunately, now we can ‘take ten’ or twenty as we need but that still avoids the entire purpose of descriptions and open ended choices.

    This communication dictates the choices. And this is the most visible difference ‘old school’ and all of the rest.
  6. Adarkcloud's Avatar
    many true statements, from all the contributors. i think it is getting harder and harder to find anybody who would even be willing to have an 'old school' type of campaign. especially if you are trying to introduce new to RPGs players. with the way the world is now, i.e. instant information overload, how do you get a player who is not normally used to thinking outside the box to be creative enough to think for themselves at all?
    if you find a whole group of players that like to roleplay, then count your lucky stars! but i would settle for a group that has a few and the rest with the potential for that, and try to encourage the new players into a less roll-playing attitude.