So, before I start posting ad nauseam about "old-school" Dungeons & Dragons, I supose it would be beneficial to explain what "old-school" actually is...or at least how I view it. Some would say it constitutes games that pre-date WOTC’s release of Dungeons & Dragons 3e. Some would say it has nothing to do with the release date of a game, but, rather, how it is played. Still, others argue that “old-school” is nothing more than a group of old, grumbling men who have nothing better to do with their time.
Although all these definitions may hold particular “truths,” I take “old-school” to mean a certain style of play that was inherent in older role-playing games. Does that mean that newer RPGs such as Dungeons & Dragons 4e or Pathfinder can’t be played in the “old-school” fashion? Not necessarily. It would be harder, in my opinion, since the rules are geared towards a different style of play…but impossible? No.
So, I suppose the best way to explain what I mean by “old-school” is by providing a list of three examples:
1) Exploration not Story. Adventures should be about players exploring and interacting with the environment not following some pre-determined story.
Does that mean the adventure should be nothing more than a random dungeon with no story tied to it? Not at all. There should be a reason the dungeon, or wilderness/city encounter exists, but it should not have to sacrifice its own individuality by being part of some greater storyline.
In other words: Old-School adventures should be about players exploring a living, breathing environment that is part of a living, breathing world. Not a set piece for a mega-drama that hopes to be the next Lord of the Rings.
2) Players not characters. Most modern games are entirely too focused on skills, feats, and charting every single little thing a player’s character can do. Although this method may make it easier to determine certain things giving the game’s gargantuan amount of game mechanics, who is it really helping: the player or the character?
Yes, I do realize that the purpose of a RPG is for a player to assume the “role” of a character, but a RPG adventure should always test the player not the character.
In other words: An old-school adventure should focus on the skills of a player and not the skills of a character.
3) Imagination not products. Although maps, miniatures, and other gaming materials have been with the hobby since its genesis, they are not needed in order to enjoy the game. A few simple pieces of graph paper, miniatures to represent player characters, and perhaps some counters for monsters are all you really need.
In other words: Although gaming materials are great to have, they should not be a replacement for imagination.
So, there it is: my definition of what “old-school” gaming is. Is it the correct way to play? Well, that’s up to you, but it’s a tried and true method that has continued to see play for almost 40 years.