Old School: Freedom Or Fascism?

Old School: Freedom or Fascism?


  • Total voters
    325

Lizard

Global Village Grouch
Validated User
(I've never tried submitting a thread with a poll before, hopefully this works.)

There seems to be two schools (heh) of thought on what it means to be "old school".

Some people claim "old school" was an era of total freedom and virtually diceless roleplay, where you didn't have none of them thar "skills" and "feats" and "powers" and if you wanted to have your fighter kick an orc in the 'nads and then shove him into another orc and knock them both into a fireplace, you just told the GM, "I'm doing that", and the GM said "Sure" or "No" or maybe flipped a coin, and life was good, and if you, personally, didn't know how to disarm a trap,repair armor, or scribe a magic circle, you couldn't tell the DM precisely HOW your character, a presumably skilled thief/fighter/magic user was doing it, and sucked to be you.

Other people (me), who were actually playing in those glory days of the mid-late 1970s, remember things... differently. I remember rules-boundedness to an extraordinary degree. I remember many different mechanics, all house ruled and few really tested or balanced, for handling things the rules didn't cover.... and they didn't cover quite a bit. I remember when no cleric could use a sword, no one but a thief could even try to climb a wall, and a magic user would presumably shriek like the Wicked Witch Of The West and melt if he ever climbed into a suit of armor.

Obviously, individual experiences differ. So let's talk this out, comparing both our memories and the evidence of the rules of the time.

First, let me state it's my opinion that there's a lot of revisionism going on. Yes, rules in the mid-late 70s (I'm going to define the "old school" era as going from 1974, the first publication of D&D, to 1979, the publication of the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide and the completion of the "Core" of AD&D. I admit this is wholly arbitrary, and I'm willing to accept almost any sensible argument for a different span of time) were a lot simpler than they are now. This is a fact. What I consider to be revisionism, or at least rose-colored-backward-facing glasses, is the idea this was a conscious decision to keep things "simple" and encourage freeform play. It was mostly a consequence of limited book size due to the economics of the time. My evidence for this is the near-constant stream of supplements offering greater complexity and more detail, both in the form of rulebooks, and in Dragon articles. The trend practically from the first has been to slam on more and more complexity -- this implies simplicity was a consequence, not a goal. "Greyhawk", in particular, adds on to "old school" D&D a raft of what are, in essence, the bedrock of later complexity -- the first hints of a skill system, in the form of thief abilities. Weapon vs. Armor attack matrix. Classes with roleplaying obligations (Paladins) and the beginning of special level-defined abilities, as well as explicit combat maneuvers like the thief's backstab. Why does this matter? Well, it pretty much says that if you're not a thief, you don't get any benefit for attacking from behind -- pretty much the antithesis of the presumed "old school" idea that there are no rules for special attacks, just cunning description and a willing DM. If someone then argues that Greyhawk was the end of "old school", I have to respond then that "old school" was pretty meaningless, lasting barely two years and existing mostly because Gygax was, according to what I've read, pushed into going to print before he was completely happy with the state of the rules. (Greyhawk being, in essence, the rest of the core rules -- and, indeed, OD&D+Greyhawk contains almost everything I'd consider the true heart and soul of Dungeons&Dragons; OD&D alone, not so much.)

Consider also the many limits imposed on characters. There were few, if any, ways to customize your character, and non-humans were pretty much boilerplate clones of each other, unable, in the earliest days, to even pick a class. Some have argued this freed characterization from mechanics and enabled roleplaying without being encumbered by baggage like skills, backgrounds, "Humanity Scores", or what-not, but my actual memory of the time was that it was a lot like the way the Knights Of The Dinner Table play -- if Knuckles the Fifth dies, he is replaced at the table by Knuckles the Sixth, more like his predecessor than two Alpha Complex clones.

As further evidence, if one looks at the innumerable clones and spin offs of D&D, only one major one -- Tunnels & Trolls -- consciously and deliberately simplified the rules. (And there is no arguing that in the case of T&T, simplification, abstraction, and imagination WERE explicit design goals, clearly stated, but most "retro clones" ascribe these traits to early versions of D&D.) All the others -- Chivalry & Sorcery, Runequest, etc -- added detail and complexity. Articles in Dragon would provide very detailed rules for subsystems, from critical hits to "reaction rolls". The demand from the consumer base was not for freedom, but for more, better, and clearer rules, and there was little indication the designers intended to buck this trend.

My thesis: The "retro clone" movement and what I guess you can call "neo-old-school" style play is not a recreation of "The way things used to be", but an almost-out-of-the-whole-cloth creation of a playstyle which, while it might certainly have existed back in the day, was not the common way the game was played nor how, AT THE TIME, the developers in their published writings intended the game to be played. (Old Geezer has said Gygax ran a much more free form game than he preached, and a lot of the old hands have spoken up, in later years, on the virtues of freedom, but I have to go one what was actually communicated to the player base back in those days, what we, as young and naive players, took as the Word of The Gods, and that was "If your female dwarves don't have beards, you aren't playing AD&D!")

To me, old school is not about freedom or lack of rules, but attitude. To me, the ultimate old-school is the Arduin Trilogy, just pure ideas pouring one after another so fast you can't even stop to evaluate them. I like to consider my work "old school" in that sense, I like variety and options and things which are hinted or implied but rarely explicitly said, things which inspire the DM to create on his own. Old school, in that sense, is not so much an absence of rules, but the creation of rules as needed, in whatever detail was needed, until notebooks were filled with house rules to cover absolutely everything. The lack of rules in many of the early gamebooks was not so much a statement that "Rules aren't needed" as it was a call-out to every wannabe game designer to start filling in the gaps. (Some of these wannabes went on to become the greatest designers of the 80s and 90s... some of them ended up wasting 20+ years of their life doing database programming before ever dipping their finger back into it... so it goes...)
 

Will

New member
Banned
My experience was that people ran things a lot of different ways, depending on whatever seemed a good idea at the time. I didn't have Dragon magazine and none of my friends did, so any sort of instruction or networking was utterly absent. People often had outlandish interpretations of what the rules were telling them.

I mean, most of us were pre-teens, so 'fine discernment of rules' was pretty much unheard of.
 

Cave Bear

New member
Banned
I didn't play during the old days (I'm a newb), but I did download the OD&D booklets on pdf while they were still for sale.
I remember seeing the words "Only Men can be Clerics" and mumbing "WTF? This is so sexist..."

Do you think a lot of people made that same interpretation back in the day?
 

BMonroe

Registered User
Validated User
I didn't play during the old days (I'm a newb), but I did download the OD&D booklets on pdf while they were still for sale.
I remember seeing the words "Only Men can be Clerics" and mumbing "WTF? This is so sexist..."

Do you think a lot of people made that same interpretation back in the day?
No.

The actual quote out of the book is:
OD&D Book 1 said:
Fighting Men includes the characters of elves and dwarves and even hobbits.
Magic-Users includes only men and elves. Clerics are limited to men only.
It seems pretty clear here that he's talking about the "race of Men" in the same way Tolkien used it, not that only males could be Clerics.
 

rstites

Active member
Validated User
I didn't play during the old days (I'm a newb), but I did download the OD&D booklets on pdf while they were still for sale.
I remember seeing the words "Only Men can be Clerics" and mumbing "WTF? This is so sexist..."

Do you think a lot of people made that same interpretation back in the day?
Nobody got too upset about it in the day because using "men" as a catch-all for all humans wasn't something that was considered a problem. The attempts to move "men" from a generic noun to a male-specific noun didn't really get started until the late 80s. (Note: I'm sure there were people already noting this, but it wasn't something that most people thought twice about at the time.)

If you thought it meant men could be clerics, while women couldn't, you misunderstood the passage completely. It means that humans can be clerics, while elves, dwarves, and hobbits, cannot.
 

Lizard

Global Village Grouch
Validated User
I didn't play during the old days (I'm a newb), but I did download the OD&D booklets on pdf while they were still for sale.
I remember seeing the words "Only Men can be Clerics" and mumbing "WTF? This is so sexist..."

Do you think a lot of people made that same interpretation back in the day?
Heh. That's one I missed, possibly because my first "version" of D&D consisted of the Holmes Basic Set, the Greyhawk/Blackmoor supplements, and the AD&D PHB and MM. The DMG was a year in the future. We cobbled together a weird frankenstein ruleset out of those books.
 

Akrasia

Lord of Procrastination
Validated User
...
What I consider to be revisionism, or at least rose-colored-backward-facing glasses, is the idea this was a conscious decision to keep things "simple" and encourage freeform play. It was mostly a consequence of limited book size due to the economics of the time.
The Old School Renaissance, although hardly a unified 'movement', can be understood as trying to resurrect one particular approach to gaming that existed in 'ye days of yore'. Perhaps it wasn't the dominant one, but it's the one that seems to have the most appeal today.

People involved in the OSR aren't trying to recreate exactly the gaming styles and campaigns of the mid-1970s. That would be impossible. They are trying to recreate a certain DIY approach to gaming that did exist -- as demonstrated by your own example of Arduin (see also Judges Guild, etc.).

And there's nothing wrong with that. :)

...
My evidence for this is the near-constant stream of supplements offering greater complexity and more detail, both in the form of rulebooks, and in Dragon articles. The trend practically from the first has been to slam on more and more complexity -- this implies simplicity was a consequence, not a goal.
Actually, when Basic D&D was published in 1978 -- to be followed by Basic/Expert D&D in 1981, and then BECMI during the 1980s, culminating in the RC in 1991 -- relative 'simplicity' was a conscious goal. By the 1980s, the 'D&D' line was being designed deliberately as a simpler alternative to the AD&D line, one that would be more open to tinkering, etc. So there was AD&D for people who wanted more complexity and rules, and D&D for people who did not. This was a conscious goal of the two lines, at least according to Gygax.

...
My thesis: The "retro clone" movement and what I guess you can call "neo-old-school" style play is not a recreation of "The way things used to be", but an almost-out-of-the-whole-cloth creation of a playstyle which, while it might certainly have existed back in the day, was not the common way the game was played nor how, AT THE TIME, the developers in their published writings intended the game to be played. (Old Geezer has said Gygax ran a much more free form game than he preached, and a lot of the old hands have spoken up, in later years, on the virtues of freedom, but I have to go one what was actually communicated to the player base back in those days, what we, as young and naive players, took as the Word of The Gods, and that was "If your female dwarves don't have beards, you aren't playing AD&D!")
...
Whatever. As someone involved in the OSR, I can say it is about 'making the game your own', i.e., adding house rules in order better realize a certain genre or campaign ethos, creating new settings and adventures, coming up with new monsters and treasures, etc. It's a 'grass-roots movement' of creative people sharing ideas and supporting each other, in blogs and forums, and in magazines like Knockspell and Fight On!. It just happens to focus on early versions of D&D, because that's the system that the people involved in the OSR like, and some play styles (e.g., 'sandbox campaigns') that were more common in the early days.
 

Topher

Member
RPGnet Member
Banned
Other people (me), who were actually playing in those glory days of the mid-late 1970s, remember things... differently. I remember rules-boundedness to an extraordinary degree. I remember many different mechanics, all house ruled and few really tested or balanced, for handling things the rules didn't cover.... and they didn't cover quite a bit. I remember when no cleric could use a sword, no one but a thief could even try to climb a wall, and a magic user would presumably shriek like the Wicked Witch Of The West and melt if he ever climbed into a suit of armor.
I'm Topher and I endorse this message.



Toph
(EDIT: and lest anyone misinterpret - I had a lot of fun playing that way back then. I wouldn't be posting here today if I didn't. I wouldn't have fun playing that way *now*, but, well, it's not 1978 anymore, times and people change.)
 
Last edited:

Harlekin

Registered User
Validated User
Interesting topic. I have the feeling that what is sold as Old School today is actually not representative at all of how people played back in the day, but rather a combination of reporting bias, modern gaming theory applied to outdated games and rose-colored glasses. After all, there is a good reason that gamers left AD&D in droves and only came back when the rules were modernized in 3.x.

In particular, I believe that those few players that stuck to OD&D, BD&D and AD&D are not representative of most players back then. They are the players that managed to make those systems work, otherwise they would not have stayed with it (And I am sure we can learn from them a trick or two). However, they are about as representative for players of those systems as those 90 year olds that still smoke a pack of cigarettes each day are for the dangers of smoking.
 

rstites

Active member
Validated User
On to the original question: my experience was everything was very much freeform, by the seat-of-your pants style playing. The move to heavy detailed rules and strict interpretations didn't really start until the early 80s: second generation I guess you'd call it. Early on, the rules only really covered a few things and we tended to just make up whatever made the most sense (with arguments at times, of course!). We can speculate on whether this was due to the fact that we had to due to a lack of rules or whether it was intentional or not. I do note that Gygax himself said to do this in the rule books and every other RPG of the time did too. I and my groups didn't tend to participate in any greater community at the time, and really didn't until the internet was ubiquitous (late 80s, early 90s) when we were in grad school, so if anyone said something in an interview somewhere we didn't know about it or care about it.

Also, this didn't stop a lot of dice rolling, but the choice of what/how/where/when to roll was on a case-by-case (or at least gm-by-gm) basis. It wasn't free form in the way you're using the term, but was in the fact that there were no hard-set rules and we didn't miss them. I'm sure some people experienced things differently, but this was certainly the standard everywhere I played. Yes, the idea was that if it wasn't in the rules, you could always try it and if the DM thought it wasn't automatic you'd have to roll in some way to figure out if you succeeded or not. If it seemed automatic, or simply uninteresting to deal with, it just happened and you moved on.

Also, most rules systems really weren't more complicated, but some were more complete. I switched to RQ very early on, but it's less rules intensive than anything OD&D beyond the first 3 books. The same goes for Traveler, and as you already noted T&T. Those are the three biggest RPGs after D&D for the era, by quite a margin I'd imagine, and all tended to be pretty open for interpretation, and played that way.
 
Top Bottom