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.