Understanding Old-School

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The 4e honeymoon is over. There’s a lot to like in it, game mechanically, but I can’t help but feel like there is something about 4e D&D that disagrees with me.

I’m pretty sure that the bit which disagrees with me is either the same thing or very closely related to that which a lot of nostalgia-oriented gamers seem to find problematic with most new games. Essentially, it is an imbalance between PC abilities (broadly speaking) defined by the rules and those defined via improvisation.

A lot of people look at, say, Basic D&D (I have the Moldvay version right here, for reference) and see that it defines certain things (combat, roughly. movement rates. magic. thief skills.) about PCs and leaves pretty much everything else (all other skills and abilities. clever things one might do in combat. most social interactions and effects of social status.) undefined. To me, this is a bit restrictive. I don’t know what it is I have license to do when it isn’t covered by the rules… but to many others, the absence of a rule is license to go crazy and make stuff up. I suspect that, somewhere along the way, I had a restrictive GM who liked to say NO a bit too much, while they either didn’t… or didn’t listen to him.

For these gamers, I suspect that most new games just define too much. If there is a rule that covers when you can try to disarm someone, you’re not going to try to disarm someone otherwise… even if it would be really cool to do it. This is, more or less, how I feel about 4e. I didn’t really feel this way about 3e (most of the time), but I think that people’s ideal balancing points between rules and improvisation vary.

If you consider yourself a gaming grognard, I’d appreciate it if you’d let me know if this is anywhere close to how you feel… because I’ve been trying to understand the appeal of old-school games and – before this – I couldn’t come up with anything other than nostalgia.

As for 4e, it may well be fixable, for me… and, despite the fact that I feel like there is something missing, I have enjoyed playing it. We’ll see.



6 Responses

  1. Absolutely. In fact, I got to play some 2e with a friend recently, and I marveled over how much of the game was them trying stuff and me as the DM just reacting, lightly guided by rules. It was nice! I think that even my positive 3e experience was formed by the great early-3e experience, before the zillions of supplemental rules and minis and swift actions and all.

  2. Yeah, this is about how I feel about edition changes. I’ve always been one of those by the seat of the pants players–all my best stuff has been “Can I do this? Let me rephrase: can I explicitly not-do this? No? Good. I’m going to try.”

    Though I think if anything, the problem I have with Fourth’s ability balance is that it goes in both directions at once. While I like the greater potential to be clever in battle, my specialty has always been applying non-combat skills to combat situations, and… well, when the number of non-combat skills and effects that can be applied to a combat situation tanks, it makes doing such things a lot more difficult.

    Simultaneously, we have the issue of the decreased emphasis on ability and rules to deal with noncombat situations in a logical, internally consistent manner–and I’ve noticed that a lot of GMs don’t work too well without some sort of foundation, leading to noncombat avoidance. (My opinion of such: No THANKS.)

    You’d think the changes would average each other out, but they don’t–instead, people who don’t agree with one try to cling to the other, and if neither fits their playstyle, it’s back to Something Else.

  3. "I suspect that, somewhere along the way, I had a restrictive GM who liked to say NO a bit too much" – this rings true to me. I hope that as players turn to GMing they break this proverbial cycle of "NO" abuse and help their players better exercise their imaginations without ending up feeling like beaten dogs.

    I really don't think that more non-combat rules are the answer to this. This just ends up in more strictly-defined options and more rules to dig up in the middle of gameplay. And when the player comes up with something truely novel, the GM can get paralyzed trying to figure out which of the myriad rules applies to this situation.

    One of the wildest rollercoaster campaigns I ever played in was using the original boxed set D&D (pre-1st edition?), and there really wasn't anything other than combat rules defined. Yet any time one of us wanted to try something wacky the DM would just have us roll a d20. Years later, I asked the DM what rules he was using for this, and he admitted that he was just using a stat minus a difficulty modifier (made up on the fly), and we had to roll under it. Amazing how such a simple system ended up being so much fun.

  4. Hm… I'm going to be the odd one out here, but not really.

    A lot of people seem upset that there are few rules in 4e for things that aren't combat-related. I consider that a strength. I've never needed rules to tell me how to roleplay. 3e had many such rules, but earlier editions had fewer, at least in the core books.

    The thing I most regret about 4e so far, in fact, is that its version of the DMG wasn't out 25 years ago. It would've changed my early game for the better. It's my new favorite D&D manual, replacing the OD&D Rules Cyclopedia.

  5. Scott – I think what I’m focusing on isn’t the lack of rules for roleplay, but the proliferation of rules for stuff to do in combat. What really gets me, I think, are the rules for improvising in combat. At first, I thought they were awesome… but they’ve grown to seem more limiting. The effect of an improvised attack isn’t based on its cleverness, but rather on your level (and appropriate attribute). This sort of bugs me. I’m glad 4e is working out well for you, though. That’s awesome.

  6. I'm not sure I count as an official grognard, but I'm a big fan of the Moldvay/Cook version of D&D released in '81, which is the inspiration for Labyrinth Lord. As to your question, absolutely.

    What really started me on the path back to a more free-wheeling style of play was getting to play more with girls. In college I started a game with just my girlfriend, who up until this point had played only a few times in very hack-and-slash sort of games, by selling it as Infocom games without all that annoying “guess what I’m thinking” nonsense. That game grew until there were four girls (counting her) and three guys (including me).

    What the women brought to the game was a very different view of how the world and the game interacted. Guys know that what’s important is your stats and class, but the girls took a much more holistic attitude towards problems. “Hey, my father is a blacksmith. Maybe he could tell us about these odd knives.” “What does the 500 gp emerald necklace look like? Hey, maybe the pattern of bigger to smaller stones is a clue!” “We’ll do the job for half the money, but you’ll owe us a favor in the future.”

    These sorts of things really aren’t covered by the rules, but they add a lot of fun to the game. Never before had I played with folks who interacted with the world to such a degree, and I still count the many years of that campaign as some of my best RPG experiences ever. Today, I’m working on my own hack of Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord, and it’s a direct result of seeing the sort of fun that came out of that game.

    – Brian

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