Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Old School DM, New-School Players?

Its a common complaint on the interwebs, usually something along the lines of "I'd love to run (insert OSR game of choice), but all anyone around here wants to play is (insert D&D 3.5, 4E, or Pathfinder)". A lot of DMs will eventually face the choice of running a contemperary edition or running nothing at all. If you don't wish to take the latter option, here are some quick and easy House Rules that can make those new systems feel a little more "old-school":

Attacks of Opportunity
Get rid of these. One of the biggest "old-school" complaints about newer editions is how combat becomes too focused on the grid-board, and less in the imagination. Eliminating attacks of opportunity can go a long way toward getting rid of the mentality of manuevering pieces on the grid for the best advantage. Make sure your players know about this houserule at character generation time, because a lot of Feats and Skills can relate to AoO's. For PCs with special abilities tied to AoO's, like the Rogue's Sneak Attack, simply have the player describe how he is manuevering, and be more liberal than restrictive in allowing him to use these class abilities.

Level Cap
The biggest differences between older and newer editions tend to reveal themselves in high-level play. Don't be afraid to set a level cap on your game. I recommend 10th level as a good benchmark; numbers don't really get too crazy until then. You can also take a look at alternate xp progression tables. Doubling the xp's required for each level is a good way to extend low-level play, or you can just run them as-is and enjoy some good old-school endgame scenarious built around establishing strongholds. Again, be sure to let players know this going into the campaign, as many "new-school" players put a lot of emphasis on character "builds", which involves long-term planning of class, skill, and feat allotment.

Critical Hit Confirmation Check
Do away with this. It just adds another roll to what may be an already "swingy" combat. I highly doubt the players will mind the increased chance of a critical hit, and this can help combats be a bit faster. This houserule doesn't impact alot of feats and skills either, so its easy to implement.

Class/Race Selection
Don't be afraid to limit the classes or races available in your campaign. If you feel strongly that Half-dragon Favored-soul/Templars will be disruptive to the old-school feel of your campaign setting, try setting some boundries, perhaps making only the traditional races and classes available at first.

Player Actions should trump Skill Checks. For an old-school DM, gathering information about a lost city, dark cult, or infamous Megadungeon can turn into a whole night of fantastic role-play, unexpected situations, and cooperative world-building. Unfortunately, in many newer edition systems, you can reduce all that into one quick Skill Check. Let players know you won't be using just that Skill Check. Make them play it out. Skill checks should only come into play if the outcome of the situation, as modified by their actions, is somehow in doubt. Or, you can use those well-laid plans to determine a modifier to that skill check roll. A well thought-out and implemented plan should never fail just because of a flubbed roll, and a nat-20 remove traps check should never trump obvious bumbling and stupidity!

Game Balance
Newer edition adventures are often very linear, and are frequently defined by a series of encounters designed to be challenging for an oppopriate level, and provide the "proper" amount of xp and treasure to keep the game "balanced". If you're using a published adventure, take a bit of time to go through and adjust a few encounters up and down in power level. Once the players have gotten out of the expectation of balance, your sessions should proceed in a decidedly more old-school fashion, as players get out of the comfort zone of knowing that every encounter is winnable and start to do a bit more scouting, exploration, and research to balance the odds themselves. This is especially easy to implement in games where a level cap has been established.

Be up front with your players about these "old-school" modifications to your campaign, and explain why you feel the modifications are necessary. Always remember that the elements of newer editions that annoy and repulse you may be the elements that your players really enjoy, so its important to compromise where possible, and focus on the elements you all enjoy in common. At the end of the day, getting together with folks and having a great time is far more important than any sort of "edition loyalty", and most rules are easy to modify to taste.

P.S. - Old School One Shots
Always keep a copy of your preferred OSR edition of choice with you. Its not unusual that real-life roadblocks can arise and players can be absent from a session, leaving you with the choice of skipping the game altogether that week, or running a one-shot for the players that are available. This is a fantastic opportunity to demo that old-school game you keep trying to sell them on!


  1. I don't think its strictly necessary to do away with AOO's.

    Long before they were codified in Players Options 2e (2.75) we used them in our old school games in a not map dependent format with some success.

    Generally if someone charged a polearm or if they stopped paying attention in combat (say went digging in a pack for a potion) or turned and ran as vs. backed away in combat the foe got a free shot on them.

  2. re: Critical Hits

    ... or be really old school and just do away with critical hits and critical fumbles altogether!

  3. Excellent advice, I consider myself lucky enough to be playing with a group that have no interest in picking up a rulebook, so that means we've been using my i.e older edition rules. These look like some excellent ways to bridge the gap though for those who aren't that fortunate.
    I know for me when I was trying 4ed I found the new races one of the aspects too new for me, along with assigned roles, and the feats; in fact it seemed that combat always consisted of the use of specific feats.

  4. Superb post, Al. An expanded version of this and Matt Finch's Old School Primer should be required reading for anyone who wants to run an Old School game in whatever edition they play.

  5. You left out a big difference between old and new school expectations: character death.

    This has come up in our old school campaign, as some of the players did a lot of 3.x gaming. Newer school players don't expect a lot of character death, or expect to be able to avoid it, because of two aspects of new school gaming. One such is the emphasis on "story", detailed character backgrounds and assumed trajectory of their character. The other reason they protest character death is the length of character generation in newer games. If it takes hours to create a character (and plan which feat chains to take to qualify for their prestige classes), you've really put the hurt on if their precious snowflake dies. As I put in my signature: "In an RPG featuring mortal danger, PC death rates should be in proportion to the ease with which the system lets players make characters." - Stormcrow, on Dragonsfoot.

    word verification: moran. No comment on that.

  6. the end justifies the means?
    ; )

  7. I think dropping all the weird stuff puts the game back toward an old-school feel immediately. For example, for 3E, just use the PHB, DMG, and MM. Don't use prestige classes at all. Suddenly you don't have twelve different types of Paladin with increasingly nonsensical names and oddball powers.

    But that "build" style of character is what a lot of people like about 3E.

    Likewise, you could run 4E but remove abilities like "when you hit an enemy flagged by a Warlord, a nearby friend can heal anyone adjacent to him for 2d6". But that kind of thing is what they want.

    Strange as it may seem to us.

  8. The things I really don't like about the d20 version of D&D is that choices made in character generation becomes so important. My preference is to just 'roll up a character to see what you will get' --- and then see what I can make of that... a gnome fighter? A human cleric? A half orc thief? It's like life --- trying to play the hands you are dealt. When I took this "non min/max" approach from D&D to D20, I suddenly discovered there were all sorts of things I couldn't do effectively because my character didn't have skill points in that. So if I wanted to talk to the guard to find out about a rumor, I had to roll a dice and if I had skill ranks in "persuasion" I could do it... but doing it didn't really consist of me trying to get all Rockford Files on the guard and just trying to strike up an innocent seeming conversation and then slipping the question in --- "Nice weather we are having and do you know where the Duke keeps his family jewels?" Similarly, I couldn't, as a player, say, "I search under the bed," or "I look through the sock drawer." Everything has a skill hooked up to it --- so rather than counting as much on player cleverness in envisioning the scene and extracting "what to do" from what the DM tells us is there, D20 seems to reward people making clever character builds that can take advantage of the situation MORE than players "just talking" and the talk itself becomes a method of task resolution.

  9. Nicely streamlined. It struck me however, that all those rules were an unspoken assumption back in my days of 3 ed. Perhaps I was leaning towards old school without even knowing it!

  10. All great advice that I've taken to heart! Thanks Al!



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...