Mar 212011

I’ve never thought of myself as an “Old School” gamer. I’m not nearly old enough to qualify. What I have been doing is following their blogs, puzzling out for myself what it is about the new-school that seems to offend. . . and why so much of what they have to say makes an odd kind of sense.

It wasn’t until recently, however, that I was directed to Matthew Finch’s excellent primer on Old School gaming, and to the (free!) Swords and Wizardry 0e Retro Clone. While I can’t pretend that I’m ready to abandon my newer games, I do have something to say about this.

There are things we can learn from the OSR. (As soon as they agree on what OSR stands for, I’ll be sure to let you know.) Reading Matthew Finch’s primer made quite a number of things clear to me; something just clicked, and I want that bit of something in all my games.

Welcome, GMs, to GMing 101: Remedial Kickass.

Ok, so not quite like this.

Lesson 1: There Are No Rules: There Is Only The GM.

This is obviously an exaggeration, but hear me out. Older games had fewer “rules,” so more was left to the GM. Players could try anything, and it was up to the GM to make a ruling, ask for a die roll, and arbitrate the results. If a player wanted to leap down from the high ground and stab the goblin in the back on the way down, he didn’t get asked questions like “what feats do you have that make that different from a regular attack?” The GM just had him roll and told him what happened afterward. There was no need to consult the rule-book, because the GM was not meant to be a repository of rules written by other people – he was the judge, the Dungeon Master, and what the Dungeon Master says IS the rule. If he’s making it up as he goes, fine, as long as the game keeps moving.

This is definitely something that can be applied to ANY game – and indeed, most games include Rule 0 for exactly this reason – but it’s still something I need to internalize and apply. I don’t have to memorize 600,000 rules for every single thing that could happen in the game, I just need to learn the core mechanic and figure out how to think on my feet.

Put another way: Rules matter less than Rulings.

Lesson 2: Exploration is as Important as Combat…

… and as such should not be reduced to a series of die-rolls so that you can get to a fight faster. The old-school primer speaks of a time when characters didn’t have stats for things like Investigation or Spot or Listen. A time when players had to spell out what they were looking for and where they were looking for it. When Trapfinding was something that you didn’t see listed as a feat on a charactersheet, but something that everyone took responsibility for – heck, what did you THINK that 10 foot pole you’ve been carrying around was for? This can be applied to newer games as well, but it’s something that GMs have to learn to think about. And it doesn’t help that newer editions of The Worlds Oldest Role-playing Game have emphasized combat rules above almost everything else, to the point where some people get the mistaken idea that it’s about combat…

… Instead of being about exploring a fantasy world and finding out what’s around the corner – and surviving whatever it is. Players should be solving puzzles, not dice. Within reason, of course …

In the old days, (if what I’m reading makes sense) you spent as much time figuring out whether there were traps or secret passages in a dungeon as you did fighting, and because fighting was more narrative and less rule-intensive, you STILL may have had had time for more combats in a session than in some modern games. Speaking of which:

Lesson 3: Learn and Master the Art of Narrative Combat and Apply it Broadly.

Mutants and Masterminds 3e and the FATE system both put a greater emphasis on the narrative side of combat than the “tactical miniatures” side of things, and having done at least one of them, I can tell you from experience that it kicks ass. It’s nice to have mechanics to back it up, but they shouldn’t be necessary. Unless tactical miniatures is what you want, and what your players are thrilled about, learning the methods of narrative combat and the improvisation and description involved should be very important. Once you’ve learned, you’ll be glad you did – even mingling the two approaches can have positive results. As far as I’m concerned, these combat systems are “The New Old-School,” and as I set out to find the proper balance between the games I know and love and that old-school sense of wonder, they’ll be part of where I begin.

Lesson 4: If You Want Balance, Play a Video Game.

Old-school games don’t seem terribly worried about notions like game balance or powergaming. Granted, it’s hard to powergame when you roll 3d6, in order, for all your stats, and only THEN do you pick a class… but the fact seems to be that this just wasn’t a concern. Old-school gaming is about a world of fantasy, not a simulation. This can be broadly applied to newer games as well. Players have no right to expect that every encounter will be neatly balanced for their level, or that they’ll be able to beat everything they meet – or that everything they meet will be “just challenging enough to be interesting but not challenging enough to kill you.” Sometimes it’ll be easy. Sometimes they’ll have to run like a frightened rabbit. This is a world, after all, and the real world doesn’t work that way. Why should the game?

Similarly, there is no reason to assume that “everyone on one side dies” is the optimal end for every combat. Maybe some of them retreat. Maybe the players retreat instead. On the other hand, maybe a creative solution can let the players beat something they never would have beaten in raw, “slug-it-out” tactical combat.

Maybe this means worrying less about whether a class is “overpowered” or “underpowered.”

Lesson 5: Random Is Fair.

See my point about rolling your stats old-school style – before picking your class. I’d be oddly comfortable doing that with something like D&D 4th edition, which is weird; I’ve always preferred point-buy given a choice. But for some reason, in a game that HAS classes, this sounds strangely appealing… and it would nullify a lot of problems with power-gaming.

I’ve tried to play Pathfinder and been told that I needed X in a given stat in order to be “adequate,” and that I only had a 15 point array to work with. For some reason, that infuriates me, but I’d be totally cool with rolling my stats. Weird? Yeah, probably. Or maybe I’m just sick of the attitude of, “Let’s tie one hand behind our backs and THEN see how well we can powergame.”

Lesson 6: Be Flexible.

This goes back to my gripe about that particular Pathfinder DM who turned me off the game entirely – and a few 4th Edition DMs who have tried to do the same with that one. If a player says, I want to play this because it looks like fun, FOR ZOD’S SAKE, LET HIM. “Company Y didn’t update it, and there’s a reason” is a TERRIBLE attitude for a DM/GM to have; you don’t sell people on your favorite RPG company that way, and it’s an easy way to drive players away entirely. I almost gave up D&D entirely that night, not just Pathfinder. I was ready to toss my 4th Edition books out the window just so I’d never have to listen to that kind of garbage again.

Ahem. Luckily I decided to pursue the more productive reaction of, “I WILL be a better DM than this guy,” or we might not be taking part in this conversation.

On the other hand, I understand if you don’t want ninjas or samurai or warlocks or whatever and you’re going for a particular feel in your fantasy world … but reskinning a class to fit a particular setting is bloody simple, so that excuse still doesn’t work. Stop worrying about balance and let your player have fun, especially if you already know he’s not a powergamer and even MORE especially if he’s not playing that often. Don’t abandon common sense, but don’t work to destroy your player’s fun, either. Please. PLEASE.

Lesson 7: There Are no Bad Systems, Only Bad GMs.

Unless you’re playing FATAL. Then it’s probably both.

In all seriousness, though, I’m not advocating abandoning your system of choice and reverting to 0e; I consider that position untenable. But reading it over, trying it out (or one of the retro-clones of 0e or any number of other games), and learning something from it – that, I’m down with. And I highly recommend Finch’s free primer for Old School Gaming. It’s well worth a download and a read, and who can argue with the price?

Lesson 7.1: This is a Game; For Zod’s Sake, Have Fun.

See Rule 0 of practically every game system ever, and remember; if your players aren’t having fun, or you’re not having fun, or any combination of the above – somebody is doing something wrong. And as they say in poker, if you can’t tell who the sucker is, it’s probably you.

Thanks for reading. Now get out there and game! Excelsior!

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Jonathan Baldwin

Jonathan is a firm believer that the best way to make friends is to game with them, and that nearly any problem can be surmounted with a well rolled d20 and a sense of humor. Regrettably, his professors do not agree with him, which leaves him with the challenge of balancing his gaming habits with his studies. Profile Page / Article Portfolio

  9 Responses to “GMing 101, Remedial Kickass: OR, How the OSR can Make You a Better GM”

  1. Great stuff. I’m singing the praises of old school style dmíng lately, as it really keeps you on your toes. As you said, the ruling is what matter, not the rules.

    I’ve been playing the Dragon Age RPG, and a lot of this applies to that game as it is an old school flavored game.

  2. Lesson 3: Narrative Combat…

    My very first experience with Narrative Combat actually involved D&D 4e. The PCs were fighting hobgoblins in a very small and crowded dungeon room. A particular hobgoblin (who failed his last three attack rolls)…

    “The hobgoblin is pretty pissed off. You hit him three times in a row, and he missed you three times. So on his turn, he shouts a curse at you and elbows you in the face (he may have broken your nose). Then he plants his size 16 foot in your chest, slamming you into the wall behind you. You fall to one knee and then he raises his axe overhead. He rolls to hit…”

    My players stared at me, wondering what the efff??? I told the player that no actual combat conditions or modifiers had been inflicted, that it was just flair. THAT completely changed to context of the fight in this crowded, little room.

    Yep, big fan of Narrative Combat.

  3. The closest I’ve gotten to old school GMing lately has been pulling a one shot of ICONS. Really loved the random character generation and the playing of really fundamentally flawed characters. Also I loved never having to touch the dice.

    I would argue that any GM that chooses of their own free will to run FATAL is by definition a bad GM.

  4. @newbiedm: Man, I really need to check out Dragon Age one of these days. . . it sounds pretty cool.

    @Tourq: That is just awesome. You win at DMing. 😀

    @Darktouch: You have just restored my interest in running ICONS.

    . . . and as for FATAL, yes, I would agree with that statement completely. FATAL goes on the short list of “Insane DM Warning Signs,” e.g., if your DM says, “Actually, FATAL isn’t nearly as bad as they say,” it’s probably time to find another one.

  5. Where the hell have I been??? I just started looking up FATAL and couldn’t stop laughing! There is SO MUCH hate for this game that, between its content and the reviews, I simply just couldn’t stop laughing!

  6. I had a PDF copy of FATAL once. It hurt me.

  7. Oh, there’s a LOT of (well deserved) hatred for that game… The setting is wrong, the mechanics are wrong, the stated goals of the designer are wrong, his apparent attitude toward women is wrong… I’m normally opposed to book burnings, but had FATAL ever made it to print (so far as I know it did not) that would have been the sole method of ceremonial cleansing after being exposed to its pages. As it stands, I recommend against PDF burnings; the fumes are prohibitive, and your computer or ereader of choice makes this really pathetic noise if you do. Plus the black smoke is really bad for you…

    It was, however, enough to earn every other rpg on the market a second chance by virtue of NOT being FATAL.

    I had a PDF copy of FATAL; not only did it hurt me, it made me want to replace my harddrive just to ensure that no traces of it could be found amid my zeroes and ones.

  8. Was thinking about the “leap down from the high ground and stab the goblin in the back on the way down” example in this article, and I thought about how you’d handle that in FATE.

    Jump. Roll Agility against difficulty of 2 to place an Aspect on yourself. We’ll call this Aspect “Death from Above”. Since Aspects created by Maneuvers can be invoked for free the first time, this gives a free +2 or reroll on the attack roll.

    Have I mentioned lately how much I love Aspects? 😀

  9. @Mike McConnell: That IS brilliant! I really need to spend more time in and around the FATE system. I thought Aspects were genius before, but the temporary Aspects from Maneuvers just make them even better. I may have to incorporate them into my other games…

    I’ve been trying to think about how I’d handle that in Mutants and Masterminds – I’d probably just invoke the “GM’s Best Friend”, and give the player a +2/+5, depending on how big an advantage I thought he was getting, how well hidden he was before the attack, whether it makes sense in the genre, that sort of thing. I’m pretty loose about that kind of thing, I can see giving him the whole +5 just because it sounds that cool, and it took some effort to set up.

    But then again, I’m kind of new to the GMing party; I haven’t had a chance to lose my wild-eyed idealism yet. We’ll see if it lasts.

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