4e CAN be Old-School!

A few weeks ago I wrote a column about my ponderings on this topic: can 4e rules be used to run an “old-school” style campaign? That column got (and continues to get) a lot of interesting feedback and many points of view. The two most prevalent opinions are (1) of course you can, because rules are rules and a campaign style is a campaign style, and they are two separate things; and (2) you could try, but why bother fitting 4e’s square peg into an old-school campaign’s round hole.

Now I was very careful to define what I meant by an old-school campaign. I stuck to the fact that a lot of the old adventures gave just a bare skeleton of what the adventure was, and it was up to the DM to create the story, doing a lot of ad-libbing with the help of the players. I talked a lot about adventure layout, where the adventure practically assumed that the DM had the Monster Manual, and that many times only the monster name and hit points were given in the text, and there definitely wasn’t a detailed map given for every encounter.

I began pondering this because I was doing design work on a project that put the question squarely in my lap, and at the same time I was thinking about starting a home campaign that highlighted some of that old-school feel.  The experiment has continued for a few weeks now, and I’m going to try to begin putting my thoughts down on the results.

Old-School Means Never Having to Say “I’m Prepared”

Like I mentioned in the column linked above, much of the experience that I have had with D&D in 3e and 4e has been gained through the filter of organized play. That means, for better or worse, the adventures are meant to be run very similarly from table to table, and that means design, development, and editing are always pushing to make everything clear and explicit. (I swear that the Ashes of Athas adventure I just finished forced me to jot down the bathroom schedule for all of the minion guards, and I had to psychoanalyze all the major NPCs from both the Jungian and the Freudian perspectives.). I compare this to the old dungeon adventures where 47 trolls all walked up and down the same trapped hallway a gazillion times a day without setting the traps off, and I ponder my own sanity.

So I went into the first session with some notes on what I wanted to do, a few stat blocks printed out from the DDI Monster Builder, and not much else. I told myself that I would start the first session with a pretty firm plot hook in place, but based on the character backgrounds I would make adjustments as needed.

What Do the Players Want?

The players in the campaign come from a wide range of gaming backgrounds and experiences, but many of them (I’m fairly certain) only gamed extensively under the new-school idea that a normal session consisted of 3 manageable combats and then an extended rest. For many players, that is a comfortable thing. The characters they brought had personalities but not so much backgrounds and motivations. I figured that would be the case, so during that first session I worked on providing a bit of background for each while hopefully letting motivations work out during play.

Now this is a group of busy professionals (if you take that term in its loosest interpretation) who have jobs, families, significant-others, and busy lives. They play this game to escape for a few hours. I’m talking quintessential beer and pretzels, hold the pretzels.  They are not going to take the time to write 10-page fictionalized backstories of their characters, and I’m OK with that. If I can get them to remember the name of the person who is paying them an obscene amount of money to perform the main task, I’ll consider that a victory.

After the first couple of sessions to establish the main adventure plot, I began to throw other plot threads in front of them, seeing which tickled their fancy more.  I started to give the PCs individual goals, motivations, and stories of their own to pursue within the main plot. Many have yet to play out, but the seeds are there.  We’ll see if after a few weeks they even remember, but at least the attempt is being made.

Rolling Random Treasure FTW (Feels Totally Weird)

One of the most exciting parts of old 1e campaigns was the treasure. For those of you who were born after the invention of the TV remote, let me explain. In the 1e Monster Manual, each monster had what they called a Treasure Type.  This was a letter, or one of a series of letters, that referred to a chart on page 105 of the Monster Manual. That chart gave percentage chances that a certain type and amount of treasure was possessed by the monster. Either when you were creating the adventure, or after the PCs had already killed the monsters if you didn’t prep ahead of time, you would roll randomly to see what the treasure was. This was a ritual and rite akin to pull the lever on a slot machine.

Now if those series of random rolls dictated that magical items should be included in the treasure, there were more charts to consult in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. These started on page 120, but page 121 was where the magic started.  The first chart there determined which type of item it was, and from there you went to other charts to figure the exact item.  The numbers 47 and 17 will be forever etched into my brain. (You 1e players take a moment and try to remember what that meant.  [Cue Jeopardy music.]) Give up?  No, it has nothing to do with Lost.  (Or maybe it does.  Hmmm.)  Those numbers would get you an artifact or relic.

Some 4e critics complain about the idea that the players can create a wish list that the DM chooses from when distributing treasure.  Let me tell you a shameful secret.  There were wish lists as far back as the start of the D&D.  Sometimes the wish list was sanctioned by the DM, and sometimes it was the players being dirty cheating bastards. It was fairly easy to tell the DM the numbers you needed to get what you wanted.  A young mind has an incredible memory for numbers. “What were those kobolds holding in that dirty sack in the corner?  The Sword of Kas? Why yes, I would like one. How DID you know?!”

I also want to point out that I have trouble remembering my phone number and the names of 80%  of the people I went to high school with. However, I remember all of the pages and numbers talked about in the previous paragraphs.  Ladies, here’s a secret. Men don’t use birthdays and anniversaries as passwords and pin numbers because it makes them easier to remember. We use them so we can remember anniversaries and birthdays.

OK, so no true old-school campaign can be called thus without random rolling for treasure.  And guess what?  The new Essentials Dungeon Masters Book/Rules Compendium has charts for rolling random treasure!  It’s true!  Look on page 248!  (God bless you, James Wyatt.  You continue to by my hero!)

So What Have I Learned So Far?

We’re about a dozen sessions into the campaign, and the campaign feels pretty old-school to me—at least from the DM’s side of the screen.  I am creating NPCs on the fly, pillaging published material (including my own) to create tailored adventures, reskinning Dark Sun monsters at the table to become members of an ice cult, and giving players random powers that are not even close to being written up anywhere in the books.

I am not house-ruling the rules to the same extent that I needed to in 1e to make the game what I want. I think 4e is a great rules set for any kind of campaign, and a mix of Essentials and non-Essentials characters are intermeshing nicely.  As long as I can keep my players from memorizing the treasure tables, I think it may be keeper.


  1. My greatest struggle remains how to write the 4E equivalent of a Spycraft adventure (and to a lesser extent Legend of the Five Rings) where you can have very little (1-2 paragraphs) launch very different, very lengthy, and highly enjoyable experiences. Whenever I set upon that path I find myself worrying as to what will happen with inexperienced DMs. And then I end right back at detailed bathroom schedules for minion guards. See… the dirty secret with campaigns like Spycraft/L5R is that the judges are small in number and ridiculously high in expertise and setting knowledge. These are the absolute cream of the crop… of course they can improvise. They are truly capable of using one paragraph to create an incredible James Bond interrogation scene or on-the-fly develop a compelling courtier duel of calligraphy and poetry. Hand that same adventure to an LFR judge and I’m not sure the results would be pretty.

    Or, would they? To be my own devil’s advocate, the first season of Encounters had a scene in Undermountain that provided a number of ideas around things the PCs find. I saw a few DMs (not most) really respond to that and create compelling scenes. Then again, a number of people on the forums hated that session.

    What should organized play be doing here? Should we be hand-holding to provide a safe and enjoyable experience, at the expense of a lot of work playtesting and “owning” the responsibility? Perhaps, also, at the expense of greater creativity and a classic feel that responds to the individual table? Should we be creating open experiences and placing the responsibility on the judges and players? Is there a way to train DMs toward open (classic) experiences? Is that good?

    I do think it is far easier in a home campaign. This is because you know the table. You also get several sessions (even an endless number) to get it right.

  2. Anything can be made to be ‘old school’. It only requires that you follow some of the old design philosophies, such as what you already seem to have found. When 4E came out, I decided that damn it, I’d bought the game, I was sure going to *run* something with it. I wrote up a single level of a sample dungeon (which was going to have a second level), and everything written inside the first floor could be interchanged from one edition to the other – all that changed were character abilities and stat blocks, really.

    The idea was fairly simple: an old wizard/alchemist had a lab, and over time it had been lost to the ages. Then the PCs come in, looking for fame or fortune.

    Sadly, they all met with death by the end of the first session – such is the way of the random encounter and not properly setting a group watch as you attempt to sleep *in the middle of the dungeon* to regain spells.

    4E would have made that a bit easier, I think.

    My second foray into that was also rather old-school – it involved a nearby castle which was slowly beginning to grow Evil Things and send them towards a village that the PCs were all from. This worked much better, in that the survivability of the characters skyrocketed. It was classic dungeon crawl, where you would go in, fight things, take whatever you could find and learn what information you could, and then come back out, go to town, and… well, go to town, in a certain manner of speaking.

    Doesn’t matter what edition you’re running, you can do anything. D&D is a collection of several types of games – the only thing that changes about that are how some of those games work, or if those games are even necessary.

  3. Any RPG can be old-school, you just have to ignore most of the rules. In 4e you’d have to first ignore skills and especially skill challenges. the only class that can use skills would be rogues (and their likes.) Ditch the cookie cutter DC-this-DC-that traps, and make the players specify how they disable or avoid traps. Have them make saving throws if they do something wrong, or stupid. You’d also have to play looser with the minis and ignore things like push, pull and slide. Opportunity Attacks? Forget them. In fact, drop minis all together and it’ll play better–I’ve done it, and it works. It works so well that everyone is will wonder why they “need” half the things listed on their character sheet. When you realize you don’t need half the things on your character sheet you’ll wonder why you’re playing _this_ game at all when there are other games that do D&D simpler, if not better.

  4. I’ve run BASIC edition modules for every incarnation of D&D, from 2nd edition through 4E. It’s a matter of ratios. Damage, Hit Points, attacks and AC are the 4 main factors a DM has to keep in mind. Once you understand how those are related, you keep them in balance between the encounter and the PC’s. In fact, you can even do this on the fly, and I have, once you know what you are doing. Old school modules are some great material, and it’s always cool to run a younger group through some modules I ran 15-20 years ago to see how this party differes from another party. One of my personal favorites is Castle Amber! Iv’e run that module for at least 5 different groups and in each edition. It’s been a big hit each time; and is still one of my daughters favorite modules. Which makes me smile, because when I was her age (12) it was one of my favorites too!

    Never be afraid to go Old School, it’s quite some of the greatest sources of ingenuity DM’s ever have!

  5. I’ve recently come to the realization, which I’m sure I stole from someone else, that the editions aren’t about the rules but about who is being challenged.
    I’m pretty sure Mike Mearls said it first, but I have really latched onto it.
    1e & 2e – DM vs the Players.
    3e – DM vs the Characters.
    4e – DM vs the Party.

    Look at Fourthcore. With all the traps and deadliness, it’s not attacking the Party, it’s challenging the Player. How do the players figure out how to get past a trap? How does the Player attack so as not to get Paralyzed?

    I think you can take that mentality into any ruleset and make it work.
    Who is the DM challenging?

  6. I think I would like to see a return to labeling the adventures with different levels of expertise. I think three levels would make sense (Essential, Core, and Campaign). Essential level adventures would be written like much of the organized play, 3 moderate encounters and then rest. Core would be written more like the D&D Encounters adventure “March of the Phantom Brigade” by Rodney Thompson. There is a lot of creativity in the writing of this adventure and the DM has the capability to improvise when they want to, but they are under no obligation to. Campaign level adventures would be written more like “The Village of Homlet” by Gary Gygax. Homlet was a complex rich setting of starter ideas, but the plot was nearly all up to the dungeon master.

    There are major marketing drawback by not making every product consumable by every customer, but it would be nice. I think that Dungeon Magazine would be the only place to explore Campaign level adventures; that way no one is expected to buy it but it lands in the hands of all DMs and works as a learning tool to tech DMs how to use their own creativity and how to leave the crutch of an Essential level adventure behind. I would think that most published adventures would be core because it appeals to the widest audience. Essential level adventures would be for D&D Encounters.

    Subject shift… I have been running an Old School feeling campaign with 4e and it works out great. Essentials really helped make it happen. 2 things really stand out, random treasure and better monster design. I have a mix of characters (Essential, PHB 3, PHB 1, and Heroes of Shadow). It all meshes well and my players completely love it. I currently have them on a time table to get to the big bad guy before the full moon, that gave them 2 days to travel to him, rest, and fight through a dungeon. They have 3.5 hours left and have just entered the dungeon. They know they don’t get another extended rest, so they are pulling out all the stops to conserve their daily powers for the end.

    So it does work… and it works well… but it took me 2.5 years to get to this point as a DM. Sure I am an old school DM, 2nd edition was my bread and butter and I have been told by many that I am a great DM. 4e threw me for a loop and it took a lot of running D&D Encounters and the release of Essentials for me to figure out how to “Campaign” level and 4e game.

    My bit of advise to DMs who want to step up their game is to run lots of organized play. See how these encounters have been built, at the end ask your players what they liked, ask your self what you liked. Learn the basics of good 4e encounter design (because it is not intuitive, or at least was not for me) so when you need to improvise you can quickly create a good 4e encounter.

  7. anarkeith says:

    I think it’s not so much a matter of 4e being old school as old-school style play using 4e rules. Giving players the information and environment that requires thinking beyond what appears on their character sheets or power cards is key. A skill challenge that is a dangerous or puzzling situation can encourage creativity. When players lean too heavily on their dice and cards, call them out gently but insistently: “Yes, but how do you use Acrobatics to get past the random blasts of fire?”

    I insist that my players describe their actions and then allow me to assign a skill or ability check if necessary. It’s like the difference between a computer game with the nuanced control of a keyboard and mouse, versus a console game with just a few buttons to mash. Many relish the “console style” of play that 4e enables, but I don’t believe it’s the only way 4e can be played.

  8. Alhazred says:

    I think we have somewhat different ideas about what constitutes old school.

    I don’t recall things being as undefined for instance as you do. There was a different style of presentation, but looking back at old modules and home made adventures I see that those maps described rooms etc in which were located monsters of a definite number, type, and usually hit points. The module might or might not describe various salient details of each room (encounter area) but usually SOMETHING was apparent. OK, now we have the ‘delve format’ with a full statblock instead of a one-line outline, and a bit more detailed descriptions of terrain etc. I honestly don’t think it is all that different, just more polished.

    Personally I don’t recall using random treasure much in the old days either. It was always an option, but leaning heavily on those tables usually sent the game spinning off quickly into Monty Haul land.

    There were definitely differences in approach between old and new, but I think they are more in terms of how the party approaches things. Old style adventures pretty much demanded you tread carefully and go in the back way if at all possible. Hirelings, henchmen, lots of oil flasks, etc were the order of the day. Nowadays it seems to be more about cool combat moves and such.

  9. Thanks for the article, Shawn. I’m with you.

  10. Hmm.
    Not my take on old school. I never used the random charts much for treasure, and would not, in any way shape or form, say that a game cannot be considered old school without it.
    We rolled for all sorts of little things, or maybe rolled for how many Silvers each orc in a band was carrying. But Random magic item placement?
    And saying there were wish lists back then is the same as saying there were Bad GMs back then. But many of us took our cues from Paul Jaquays Caverns of Thracia or Gary’s G1/G2/G3 series. The treasure and encounter placement was based on what would logically be there.

    I would say that an essential for my version of old School is balancing the character roles on exploration and the campaign. Some roles are better suited for combat, some better for trap finding, some for dealing with the mysterious or the undead, some for exploring,

    I’d also say that an Old School feel pretty much demands a high level of lethality. Sounds tough to say it, but it used to be an achievement in many games to get a character to fifth level. It was always a good thing that Chargen was easy, because I remember enough older games where the PC group would lose at least a character a session on average.

    Just my take. Everyone played the game differently, but this was my experience.

  11. Shilling says:

    I agree with Alhazred, in that you’re not really describing an old-school approach at all. Just a free-form sandbox, which people have been doing at every iteration.

    “a lot of the old adventures gave just a bare skeleton of what the adventure was, and it was up to the DM to create the story, doing a lot of ad-libbing with the help of the players.”

    …actually describes most new-school indie story-games too.

    I would suggest you re-examine the traits of “old-school” D&D. For my part I believe they are:

    -high-stakes – not necessarily “guaranteed death” but combat is dangerous and a last resort. The stats make combat mostly predictable with rare lucky breaks or unlucky disasters. Logical consequences are used more often than range-of outcomes.

    -planning – players spent a lot of time discussing how they were going to approach a situation so as to minimize the danger to themselves. again, logical consequences win – muchof play was in discussing the logical consequences.

    -observation – a lot of situations in old-school adventures were puzzles and traps (even if they weren’t labelled as such). Players payed attention in order to anticipate these (often elaborate) schema.

    (in some ways the dungeon situations resembled a Rube-Goldberg Machine, only the moving parts were replaced with NPCs, evil architecture and magic. The idea seems to be to trick the players into killing themselves)

    – story and character are emergent – they evolve during play. the PC/Player (or IC/OOC) line is blurred, at least for the first few levels. It was not uncommon for the players to come up with a plausible story to explain the (often random) events that they encountered. This was known to everyone and in fact part of the fun.

    Later on this story might become more concrete and the DM would look for ways to support it, but the early campaign would be a sort of Schrodinger’s Cat – it could be in a number of states until you actually look.

    Now everyone has their own ideas about old-school of course. Maybe you should play a one-off game of OD&D with the same group. Take notes about how it feels, how it differs from an average 4E game. THEN see if you can port some of that mood and behaviour across.

  12. Shilling, as you say, I think “old school” is something you can’t easily define. The experience and what it means to gamers is not one single thing. If I look at my AD&D adventures for every “high stakes” there are many more “monty haul cakewalks”. “Story and character are emergent” is just as easily “Story and character were lacking”, and we filled in the holes with whatever was fun.

    I also feel that Sandbox is different than the idea of adventures being a framework (or sparse, depending on your perspective). Sandbox is a rather new concept (with many early examples) where the DM isn’t driving the sequence of events. There is an initial hook and then the PCs decide where to go from there. The story then develops differently (with some pieces perhaps completely skipped). It is somewhat like a dungeon crawl, but with the idea that there is actual story and links are being created by the DM. You met the pixies and befriended them, so now they’ll join you in a later fight. That’s different than, say, A4 – In the Dungeon of the Slave Lords, where there are options for where you go but it is really just exploration until you find the way out. If I look at Temple of Elemental Evil, it isn’t just that there are a lot of rooms with little definition, but that the plot is also fairly subdued. There is a lot of room for players and DM to expand upon what is present. I recall fondly using 10′ poles to check for dangers, using Charm spells to win over a brigand, and then a cunning ruse to bring in all the brigands for “interviews” – eventually one of the brigands spotted the now-too-large-to-hide-behind-the-bed pile of bodies and the battle began. New school tends to fill in the spaces to the point where the experience is already set and defined. You start in the door to the room and roll initiative, rather than truly explore the setting and have a chance to come up with different approaches.

  13. I find the subject of random treasure tables interesting. What I most take out of it is that in adventures and home campaigns the treasure was usually interesting but not necessarily what your PC needed. A flaming sword was just plain cool. In 4E, players feel they should get the flaming sword only if they have some cheese that will be improved upon by gaining the fire keyword. They wince if they get armor that isn’t the one they want… will that prevent them from having a “slot” open for the one they really want?

    I don’t use random treasure in my home campaign, but I do use custom items tied to story that aren’t necessarily what a player desires. There are no armbands or shards. Treasure is not an optimization component. That gives it an old school feel, to an extent, in that the players stop thinking of treasure as a build aspect and start embracing it again as discovery. “What’s in the chest?” is once again welcome and fun, which should always be the point.

  14. ” …and it was up to the DM to create the story,”

    And with that sentence, you lost the actual Old Schoolers. Really. The PLAYERS create the story in old school games through their actions. The DM officiates. You can do it the other way, I suppose, but don’t expect the players to stick around very long – freedom is part and parcel of the Old School.

    Now, I realise that a term like Old School can be considered an Essentially Contested Concept, much like the term Art is – it’s fairly easy to spot it when you see it, devilishly hard to define, but with Old School DnD, there are some definite themes. Here are a bunch of them. Not every old school game has ALL of these elements, (1e DnD has fairly complex characters) but they all do have MOST of these:

    Actions have consequences, often permanent and fatal. Low level characters are especially vulnerable. That word often is important. Very important. Without it, you’re just futzing around, protecting players from their actions and the rolls of the dice.

    Death can happen at any time. Save or Die effects exist, not in abundance, but they’re there, and they’re there for a reason. Fortunately,

    Characters are simple to roll up! Robertaz the Fighting Man died? Great! Roll 3d6 in order, pick a class, pick 2-4 spells if necessary, and grab a standard adventuring gear pack on your way out the door! Which leads me to my next theme:

    Characters differentiate themselves THROUGH PLAY. Not through character creation. Nobody’s a special snowflake until you’ve done something COOL and HEROIC and you can’t put that crap in your backstory, sorry.

    Random ENCOUNTER and TERRAIN tables are a crux of play (not random TREASURE tables, you totally misunderstood on that one, sorry – I’ve avoided calling you ‘wrong’ up to this point, but here you need to understand). In adventure planning, they serve as catalysts for ideas for the DM. During the adventure, they serve as wandering monster tables that force the players to consume resources – they’re the ticking clock of the dungeon.

    The Undead are scary. Really scary: High HD, high damage, high numbers and they NEVER check morale (meaning, you can never get the opportunity to force them to run away). That’s just the zombies. The next grade up paralyzes and after that appear the level drains.

    Traps are targeted more at PLAYERS than CHARACTERS. A major portion of the delving experience is exercising your lateral thinking skills as a PLAYER.

    Resource management is THE key to everything. Supplies, ammo, encumbrance, spells, gold, slots to wear equipment, HP, your logistics train (donkeys, lackeys and laborers). These are worn down constantly by encounters with monsters. Wandering monsters especially play the role of spoiler – you spend resources on combat for little to no reward. Speaking of reward…

    XP is earned BOTH for killing monsters (a pittance, really) and for gold recovered. (I’m particularly cruel to my players, they only earn XP for gold SPENT). The VAST majority of a character’s XP total comes from treasure, not monster-slaying. Getting treasure W/O slaying monsters is WIN! If you have to fight monsters, chances are you have to spend some of your hard earned xp on repairs to your supplies, instead of on what you want.

    Continuing with rewards: Dungeons are stocked with MUCH more than is needed for 5 or 6 players to gain a level, that’s because they’re LETHAL. Every time a 2nd level character dies, he just took 2000+ x.p. out of the system. That’s 1750g.p. and 250x.p. from monsters, or thereabouts. If people think that old school dungeons are ‘Monty Haul’, it’s because of one of two reasons: 1. they’re not challenging themselves enough and are sticking around dungeon levels too long or 2. the DM’s not being fair with the dice and is protecting the players.

    Dungeons are part of the Mythic Underworld, almost an NPC unto themselves. There are rules specific to dungeons that apply nowhere else (read up on the sections regarding doors, for instance, it’s rather spooky).

    My suggestion? If you want to know what Old School REALLY is, go read GROGNARDIA. Not the 10 most recent posts or anything namby-pamby like that. The whole blog. Every post for at least the first year.

    Can you use 4e to play Old School style? Sure, once you overcome the lack of consequences (no save or die, positively life-affirming lower levels, no level drain…), the lack of non-abstracted resource management (Healing Surges, Second Winds and Encounter powers, Oh my! Where’re the ammo counts, the daily rations, or the torch bearers?), the vastly differing incentives (Zero x.p. for gold, all your x.p. comes from monsterslaying, forcing you to spend resources instead of coming up with clever ways of conserving them) and most importantly, the abstraction of CHARACTER ability away from PLAYER ability.

  15. The majority of players that I meet don’t seem to define old school D&D by save or die situations. For most of 3E you find ways to mitigate them. For earlier editions, they were most dangerous at extremely low levels (poison) or high levels (spells with no counter)… though at high levels you often had a spell to bring you back anyway. We can argue that we are really talking about constitution loss and level loss at high levels, which was more of a slow lame death than an actually exciting death.

    I saw it a number of ways. I fondly recall my beloved half-orc assassin dying to poison. It was truly crushing but memorable… a fitting end. Then I also recall Ferdinand II, a magic-user, who existed because I felt Ferdinand had died so poorly and unfairly in a save versus death situation. Ferdinand II opened a magical tome of the wrong alignment (remember those?) and died. This gave rise to the final chapter, Ferdinand III. I was younger then. Regardless of the particulars, I don’t define old school by those aspects. I define old school by the lean bare-bones adventures with extensive areas (dungeons, forest treks, etc.) , with a lot of open interpretation (why exactly are these brigands here… it isn’t clear and there isn’t much story here… so the DM adds to it), with a lot of featureless rooms (room has bed, chairs, strange symbol on the wall, 3 trolls), and with many possible encounters and the party defining their own “day”.

    4E adventure design seems to focus on the room as the main experience. You can almost imagine dungeons with 4 rooms and these short featureless hallways. Older editions were seldom that way. Some rooms (White Plume Mountain and Tomb of Horrors come to mind) shine, but in general it was around the overall exploration and development. The A series, G series, it is the overall theme rather than any room experience. It doesn’t have to be that way. 4E’s Revenge of the Giants actually resembles the G series in terms of construction.

    Encounter tables and Terrain tables… I am not a fan of them. What is better: putting together a set of encounters and rolling randomly to see which one the party gets, or creating one really cool encounter the party gets? Every time I play with random encounters I end up thinking the DM should just focus on a really good encounter. A glance at any encounter table reveals a number of lame options. Take two of the cool ones and develop them and add story, rather than just having the equivalent of a delve session.

    Old School means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.

  16. @Alphastream:

    You said “The majority of players that I meet don’t seem to define old school D&D by save or die situations.”

    I would actually agree; that is exactly why I called Old School games an Essentially Contested Concept. Nearly everyone can agree that the Sistine Chapel is a work of art almost without equal in the world, but what about the Piss Christ? That’s a bit more contentious. Actually, it’s a LOT more contentious. There are many differing themes that CAN make up an Old School game, but the identification thereof lies with the viewer. Traveller, for instance, does not have any Save or Die mechanics that I’m aware of, but neither am I aware of any arguments against it being quintessentially Old School.

    Also like other essentially contested concepts, there are a (potentially infinite) list of things that are most assuredly not Old School. Campaigns that are story-driven by the DM are one of those things. You said, “What is better: putting together a set of encounters and rolling randomly to see which one the party gets, or creating one really cool encounter the party gets?”

    I would argue that you’re missing the point of the random encounter: The purpose behind random encounters is NOT to give the PC’s interesting combats. It’s to give the PC’s interesting logistical choices: How long can we afford to stay at this dungeon level? Do we have to drop treasure to have a chance at making it out alive? Tenser’s Floating Disc suddenly becomes a very important piece of the Mage’s arsenal – but at what cost? Surely another combat or general-use spell could be better placed there, right? Maybe. But that’s an interesting choice left to the players, not the DM who wants an epic story-line and so only gives ‘meaningful’ encounters. Random encounters are most definitely meaningful, just not in the way you’re thinking of.

    Here’s another reason random encounters are useful: They’re the low-reward (Treasure comes from Lairs, not wandering monsters!), high-risk (Combat is usually lethal in Old School games) ticking clock of the dungeon – forcing players to retreat so that they don’t explore too much too quickly. It deliberately slows down play so that the DM doesn’t have to prepare too much at once. That’s a good idea to me.

  17. I know that I don’t like “Old School” as it has been defined so far by J.Random.
    I also know that I am happy with the progression of D&D and I feel that each version has improved on the one before it.
    I enjoy playing 4e, didn’t like my post-4e 3e game, and I can’t imagine playing 1e again.
    I guess my question is why try to make 4e “Old School”. Play an “Old School” game if one wants an “Old school” feel.

    But truly thank you for introducing me to the “Piss Christ”. Very thought provoking.

    Regardless of the discussion or my stance, thank you for the article, Shawn.

  18. Madfox11 says:

    Recently I was reading a 1e adventure as research for a design project. It might not have been one of the truly classics, but a few things in it are clearly old school:
    – Lack of detail in regards to descriptions, but at the same time details that had little chance of being used in the adventure (e.g. a monster lair with interesting highly detailed NPC monsters, but 4 hexes out of the way of the main dungeon and its path towards the starting location of the PCs).
    – Lots of exploration options
    – Lots of cotcha moments where characters had to do weird things to find powerful magical items, or defeat an encounter while in the very next room those same actions would lead to maiming, the loss of treasure and even death. Note that these were often hidden by a thin venneer of logic concequences, but in reality the logic was only on hindsight or from the DM’s perspective. Mind you, the design had one very big benefit: it made interacting with the environment very important, increasing the sense of exploration and putting the power more in the hands of the players when it came to interacting with the environment.

    @Alphastream: In my experience, lack of detail in Organized Play is not just causing trouble with the DM. More often than not the issue is with the players as well. For example, recently we were playtesting something for you, and one of the players complained his character had nothing to do in the encounter because his character was bad at social skills, did not want to risk failure and from a personality perspective had little reason to interact with the NPCs. He blamed the adventure and the DM, but never even considered the fact that the design of his character and his own fear of failure were just as much to blame. I am sure that you got different type of players for Spycraft and Legend of the 5 Rings 😉

    Of course, in the end the biggest reason to err on the side of caution in organized play is the time limit and the fact that people are paying to play the game. I would feel pretty cheated when a game I paid $8,- for would finish in 1 hour, and similarly you want to reach the end in 4 hours because nothing is more irritating than rushing through an adventure (or worse ending halfway).

  19. Metatsu says:

    Old school games were more about minimal design in regards to story, and giving the player enough to move forward, but allowing leeway to add content when needed. The adventures were also accepted on “face value”, which is acceptable considering most old school players refer to a time when they first played a RPG game. I also agree on the lethality of the original D&D, in reference to old school, versus any specific mechanic found in the various versions.

    Today’s adventures tend to adhere to page count to charge a certain price, and alot of the back story will never be used. But today’s players are a more diverse lot, and expect more, from what I remember in my early years.

  20. And then there is this announcement… D&D’s adventure format to change!

  21. Simon Moore says:

    First Edition,
    is I think more about the actual adventure, the gritty down to bones play, the site the treasure, the raw action & about pooling together to survive. The badly drawn, but much loved had drawn maps, the manny levelled complex dungeons, the vast array of nasty creatures, and the fact/fear at anytime your gonna die.

    Its possible to turn 4E Essentials into old school, but not with out some hardships. Taking players back in time is interesting, I have lost count how many people have gone through Keep on the Borderlands.
    But I feel, the original rules still work better, quicker, easier, and cheaper then whats currently out.


  1. […] Shawn Merwin answered his own question over at Critical Hits this week – he is in the process of pondering whether 4e can be “old school,” and his initial impressions lean towards the positive. […]

  2. […] well. Indeed, my quest for these “convention-exclusives” started when I saw this on Critical Hits: I swear that the Ashes of Athas adventure I just finished forced me to jot down the bathroom […]