Tuesday, March 22, 2011

OSR - A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming

I have started to delve pretty deeply into Old School Gaming over the last few months, partly in response to the January RPG Blog Carnival, but party just out of my desire to better understand where our wonderful hobby came from.  I tend to get this way about a lot of things; I consider myself as somewhat of a Renaissance Nerd, so not knowing why we are the way we are is a Philosophical Questions which wracks my dice-centric brain.

About a week or two ago I made a post talking about how much I like reading The Underdark Gazette and how much I appreciated his guide to free OSR Resources.  Trying to understand a new game is one thing, but going from D&D 3.0 or 4e to Old School D&D is no easy task; however, he does a great job of collecting tons of OSR knowledge all into one place.

One of the items in his laundry list of OSR related stuff is: A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming - by Matthew J. Finch.  Today, I wanted to do a little review of this PDF, which is free to download and about 13 pages.  If you haven't checked it out yet, i'd navigate over to the Primer using the link above, download, and then read this post as I go over what I really liked about the Primer.

OK.  Did you finish downloading it yet?  Good.  Let's begin.

First of all, I'd like to say that I think that this primer provided a great, brief overview of what Old School Gaming is all about.  It certainly seems to be well accepted by the OSR community, so, if you're trying to understand Old School Gaming, it seems like it is actually a fairly reliable source of information.  I feel kind of like a college student borrowing a friends test to study... if his answers are right, I'm going to be very well prepared, but if they're wrong, I'm going to be even worse off.  Well, I've looked around the web a bit and all of the points he makes in this Primer seem to be pretty true wherever I look.  So, what exactly are the points that he makes?

Well - he divides his primer into four different Zen Moments which indicate major differences between D&D in 3.x/4e and Old School Games like 0e and 1e.  The Four Moments are:  1) Rulings, Not Rules 2) Player Skill, Not Character Abilities 3) Heroic, Not Superhero  4) Forget Game Balance. Rather than debate whether or not these are accurate, or argue about whether or not I think OSR is better than new editions, etc.  I want to take some time to talk about how I think I can, or cannot, transition from being a New School DM into an Old School DM.

I really think that his first Zen moment is fairly easy to transition into from 3x/4e.  I find myself doing this most of the time right now anyway to be honest.  Most of the time, this is out of laziness really - I dislike having to thumb through rulebooks and break up a game session in order to understand how to do things.  I usually just make a ruling on something and then later do a little research to see how accurate my ruling was up against some established criteria or rule.  I usually ban rules discussion at the table and try to keep my players from learning the rules too heavily.  So, I think transitioning into a rules light, rulings heavy game might not be so bad.

His second Zen Moment of gaming is a bit more difficult, but on a weird situation based level.  I think that some groups my be much better at transitioning into a Player Skill mindset more easily than others.  It might be just me, but I would imagine that some players who are new to the hobby might have a hard time with this, mainly because they aren't skilled.  I don't want to say that old school gaming isn't for stupid people, but I have friends who have played genius rogues that didn't graduate from high school.  I worry that some of these type of players would just be ill suited for Old School Gaming.

I want my fantasy character to be on a Superheroic level - but that is really just my personal taste.  I think this is the point of old school gaming that I have the most problems with.  I want my characters and creatures to do just crazy-insane-insane-crazy stuff in my games.  So, I feel like I might have some issues transitioning into a much lower power level game.

I think forgetting game balance is something I could do with a bit more.  As a GM I feel like it could be pretty nice to take a nice little break from careful encounter balancing and let things go the way things go.  Bust out some Random Encounter Tables and just see what happens...

So.  Basically, that is where I am at in my OSR head-space.  I continue to be very interested in getting into this style of play and I'll be looking for some OSR games next time I head to a con.  I might even try to convince my wife to use that Red Box I picked up over Xmas and play a few games.


  1. Welcome to the OSR!

    I think the thing to remember about the Old School Primer is that the principle of "rulings, not rules" applies to the rules in the Old School Primer as well. Not every old school player wants a 100% shift towards the "old" end of those four principles; some people have been making their own skill systems, for example. It's more about a DIY spirit than adherence to a manifesto, as I'm sure Matt Finch would tell you.

    That being said, the "Player Skill, Not Character Abilities" and "Heroic, Not Superhero" get misinterpreted a lot. There's a lot of debate about high Charisma characters run by socially awkward players, for example, and occasionally people will complain that they don't want to play "feeble losers". But really, "player skill" doesn't refer to a quiz or demonstration of player knowledge, just ordinary problem solving ("oh, the blob moves back from the flame? Let's pour oil on it and set it on fire!") And characters can become superheroic in some campaigns; it's just that old school games tend to focus more on ordinary competence at the beginning.

    Still, as I said, you can shift the scale slightly towards the superheroic or rely a little more on skill checks and still be playing "old school". We don't all need to play the same!

  2. Thanks for the comments Talysman! Yea, definitely getting the DIY spirit as I go into this. I like your idea about using his first zen moment on the primer itself. Good stuff. Well, my OSR Journey continues.