I thought I would share a few thoughts about old school roleplaying, and why (for me and others) it is so attractive as a gaming outlet. First, a little about me – I have been a gamer since the mid 1970s, although my first gaming was military board games. I started with the lightweight military board games that became popular in the 1970s (Carrier Strike, Skirmish, Tank Battle, etc), and then moved into Avalon Hill type games. From there, it wasn’t long before I discovered miniature wargaming, round about the late 1970s. I was excited about the Battle of Waterloo figures I got from Airfix, but my brothers (who were my gaming companions) were having none of that. So we went into medieval, and due to the popularity of the animated Lord of the Rings movie, we also got interested in fantasy miniatures. And then I found Dungeons and Dragons, the original white box edition, that said on the box that it was “Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures”. Eureka! This is what we were looking for! Previously we played around with rules from Hinchliffe, and wrote some of our own, but it was all in the sense of a wargame.
I saw this Dungeons and Dragons stuff everywhere, once I became aware of it. It was in toy stores, in book stores, and of course at the hobby store. Different versions? Whoa! So I got some money from mowing yards, and bought the Dungeons and Dragons Basic set that was written by J. Eric Holmes. Why do I mention the author? Because a few years later, there was another basic set writing by Tom Moldvay. The first one, which I got, came with the module B1 “In Search of the Unknown” by Mike Carr. To this day, I still think that is one of the best modules for any game, that was designed to teach new game masters the art of building RPG adventures.
So, from there, the rest is history. Here we are in 2016, and I am still roleplaying. Now my high school aged daughter joins in, and I have friends that I have been playing with since the early 80s. It is, has been, and will continue to be a great hobby (along with the rest of tabletop gaming, that I find so intriguing – that is, board games and miniature games). In the time between 1974 when D&D was initially published (which was, at first, in response to all the players learning it from Mr. Gygax and company, and who needed their own copy of the rules), and today, there have been hundreds and hundreds of other roleplaying games, and a number of excellent editions of D&D and its successor Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. The first successor to the basic game was the AD&D game, published as three books in 1977 (with the appearance of the Monster Manual), 1979 (Player’s Handbook) and 1980 (Dungeon Master’s Guide). That game was EXTREMELY successful, and many thousands of players still play first edition AD&D (as it is known today). It gave way, however, to a second edition (AD&D2E, as it is known on countless websites). That version of the game is also extremely popular (and still played by many, many people), with the core again being three books – a Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the Monstrous Compendium. Versions of those books, and many hundreds of supporting products, came out starting in 1989, and would continue into the 1990s, until the year 2000, when 3rd Edition AD&D came out. Here, my history ends because at this point, I believe we finally moved away from what anybody would call old school roleplaying.
The term old school roleplaying (OSR – in this article, it should not be confused with the “movement” amongst old school players, called the Old School Renaissance) is used by a lot of folks, typically with regards to older RPGs published in the 1970s and 1980s. Roughly, the first (and second?) generation of roleplaying games. Amongst OSR players, although many different games are played, the singularly most popular strain is one of the early versions of D&D (or 1st or 2nd edition AD&D), or one of many games that have been written in recent years, to mimic the rules and play style of those early games. These games are called the “Retro Clones”, and they are just that – clones of retro game designs, often early versions of D&D or AD&D. To be sure, many other games also fall within the OSR area – including titles like Runequest, Gamma World, Classic Traveller, Tunnels & Trolls and many others.
So, what is OSR? The fact is that just about anyone who plays old school games will have their own feel of what it is, and what games it includes. I am focusing on the early versions of D&D and AD&D for two reasons. First, the D&D titles seem to be the most popular. Second, they are what I play. When I get together with friends (either face to face, or online using Google Hangouts), we usually play some version of early Dungeons and Dragons. When I referee, it is usually either 2nd Edition AD&D, or it is Labyrinth Lord (a retro clone based on Basic D&D from the late 1970s). Both are extremely rewarding to play. Both are extremely easy to pick up (even intuitive) for anyone who has been roleplaying for any time at all. And Labyrinth Lord is available free as a download (like many of the retro clone titles), but you can also purchase PDF or physical copies from the fine publishers at Goblinoid Games.
The various retro clones, and there are many (each with lots of distinctive good features), were written by people with a love for the old style of gaming, and began appearing when it was hard to find copies of old versions of D&D or AD&D. You could get copies of the books online, at eBay, in a used gaming store, or other places – but it was a search to find them. Luckily, the good folks at Wizards of the Coast, realizing that there was a demand for those products, made them available as PDFs purchasable online, and also have reprinted the core three books for 1st and 2nd editions of AD&D. But the retro clones (like Labyrinth Lord) each have great character, and each has contributed something new to the game – so they are worth examining and checking out, on their own. Following is a partial list of some of the retro clone games that are available (far from complete), but a much better list can be found online at the Taxidermic Owlbear blog:
- Delving Deeper
- Swords & Wizardry
- Labyrinth Lord
- Lamentations of the Flame Princess
- Castles & Crusades
So what is it that makes these games so appealing and fun to play? Why not just settle down and play Pathfinder, or D&D 5th Edition? I can’t answer that universally, but I can describe what it is for me that makes the older games much more fun to DM and to play. It comes down to four things. In order, I think these are:
- Simpler rules. There are not rules on how to do everything, usually just rules for the MAIN parts of the genre (such as combat and magic, movement and travel, equipment and experience, etc). For everything else, there is the Player’s imagination, and the Referee’s discretion. If your rules don’t detail how to swing across a room on a chandelier, one handed, while trying to flip the cork off a potion with your other hand, and kicking the bartender with your boots as you fly by – does that mean you can’t do it in your game? No! In fact, it terrorizes me to consider a rulebook that would cover such occurrences. Much better to have the Referee describe the situation, and the player to suggest a course of action. Does it get a simple yes or no? Does it get a simple dice roll? Sometimes. But the point is, that the rules are simple, and there is a lot of leeway for the Referee and Players to make up stuff as they go.
- Focus on adventure. Bad things happen in bad places, and that’s where adventure is. One of the tropes of fantasy roleplaying is that there are evil swordsmen, vile magicians, and hideous monsters out in the world – and they are usually worth slaying because they hang out where the good treasure is. So, an adventure often deals with exploring the dangerous unknown, penetrating a stronghold of evil, or slaying deserving foes for their treasure. There are many roleplaying games the focus much more on acting in character, finessed political and social situations, and a more theatrical style of play focused on interactions and social situations. Those are excellent games, and I enjoy them – but when I am in the mood for old school sword and sorcery, I want to hear the clang of sword on shield, imagine the slaying of evil high priests and their scaly, nonhuman minions, and revel in the attainment of hordes of jewels, gold, and magic. Repeat. Ad nauseum.
- Strong Stereotype. Oh sure, I am aware that there is as much variety in fantasy story telling as there is in the tellers of such stories – but old school fantasy roleplaying has a number of things that come up again and again, and they are comfortable. Non-human races behave very much like you have seen them in classic novels, such as the elves and dwarves from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Magic is powerful, but behaves according to well understood rules (like memorizing spells, and having limits to their effects and range). Monsters are almost always there to fight. Dungeons exist, and they are storehouses for monsters, evil high priests, traps, sinister and mad wizards, hordes of treasure, and other things that make the life of an adventurer worth living. These things, and thousand others just like them, come from the fantasy and sword & sorcery novels that the games were originally based on, and they feel comfortable in a game.
- Yes, this is a personal one, but I bet it is true for many gamers of a certain age. I have been roleplaying since 1979. I have participated in (either as player or referee) all sorts of expeditions, quests, campaigns, adventures, sagas and journeys. They all provide memories for me, and when I play a similar game to the ones I enjoyed in the past, some of that enjoyment comes back. When I get together with my old gaming friends, we love telling stories about our old adventures (“Remember the abandoned grey elf tower in the middle of the flooded valley?” “Yeah and the time Harry’s druid called lightning in the lagoon full of merfolk?” “How about the gremlin that lived in the bag of holding?”). But even better, is when we can pick up the dice, and start telling a new adventure, with all those memories fueling the engines of roleplaying.
Roleplaying is a great hobby. Old school roleplaying is a way to experience RPGs in a way that they existed back decades ago, when the hobby was new. That isn’t a bad thing. You should give it a try, if you haven’t.
Chuck Turnitsa has been a gamer for a long time. It is a good thing he doesn’t mind losing. He enjoys RPGs, miniatures (mostly historical, mostly), and board games of all stripes. He is a research professor, and has done (and continues to do) research in combat simulations and computer models. He occasionally enjoys a pipe, and even more occasionally enjoys throwing darts.