17 July 2014

The Differences in Adventure Design Philosophy in Old and New School D&D

It occurred to me tonight, while going over some old Judges Guild stuff (Druids of Doom in particular caused the muse to get her act together and turn a vague idea into something concrete) that I have seen the biggest difference in design approach between Old School and New School/Modern adventure design for RPGs, D&D to be specific. TSR modules had some of the same qualities, but the stuff by 3rd parties like Judges Guild, Mayfair Games and the non-TSR magazines and fanzines really showcase it. 

There's two aspects to the difference:

1. The adventure module works with the game's rules, but is not a slave to them. Old school adventures constantly introduced new, wacky and unique monsters, traps, treasures and encounter ideas in general that had not been done before and really had no precedent in the rules. Sometimes the writer explained how to adjudicate the situation, other times the DM was left to figure out a resolution on her own, but either way, the writer was not afraid to test the limits of the rules, and go beyond them when it made for a fun adventure.

2. The old school adventure writers expected you, the DM, to change their adventure! Many of the scenarios were location based, or "sand box" as the guys in the OSR crowd say today, with a bare bones assumed plot or theme to get the party started and keep them moving in the right direction. A few of the published adventures even came 'un-stocked', ostensibly to teach the fledgling DM how to create and run an adventure, but also allowing the experienced DM to make the scenario her own, tailored to the campaign and party. Many of the adventure booklets, especially the ones by Judges Guild, even have copious space throughout them that is set aside for the DM's notes! No current modern adventure product I know of, except maybe some of the OSR retroclone support products, dare do this.

So, while it doesn't answer the whole question, I now have an answer when people ask me what I consider Old School gaming to be.

Gary and Dave, and the early industry they created, were more than welcoming of house rules, variants and "DM fiat", outside of tournament play, which is one of the primary reasons we got D&D and AD&D. AD&D was the fleshed out, official tournament version, D&D was the barebones 'tweak it to your heart's content' version.

Modern designers, whether of rules or adventures, feel the need to account for every possibility and railroad play into a defined set of rules that can handle anything. A recent rant I commented on lamented the "breaking" of a game by house ruling it, or pushing it to the limits of min/max powergaming.

To an old school player, that is not a problem at all, but rather it's half the fun!


  1. You do have to distinguish between hacking the game in a way that is allowed in the fictional context (creating a death tank by armoring a mule and fitting it with spikes, etc.) and abusing the game at the rules layer (creating a combo of stacking bonuses and effects on the mule that make it a death tank).

  2. I've discussed this in the past.

    I think there are two main contributors to this trend:

    1. In the past, new players came from wargamers, with a starting bias to miniatures wargamers. "Sandboxing" scenarios, creating new equipment and units, and making spot rulings for them were standard to the point of being required skills.
    By around 1985, new players were coming from bored school kids who didn't know the proper plural of the word "die".
    By 1995, new players were coming from console gamers, who might have some modding skills but more often just had cheat code collecting skills.

    2. While the need for tournament standard rules existed from the beginning, the actual tournament scene wasn't strong enough to drive the rules. That changed once Living City showed up. I remember seeing the big announcements in Polyhedron when TSR shut down the "anything goes as long as you bring the book" standard, cutting out all the rules from setting other than FR, and even reducing the number of splat books that could be used.
    By 2000, with D20 and LG and a shift in corporate strategy, the marketing department had an organized play program that could and did drive the rules which continues to this day.

    Of course that doesn't deal with all the errors of ego, projection, power creep, and math fail in the last three versions of the game.

  3. Your conclusion gives a concise definition to why I dislike more "modern" RPGs. I don't care for the "tabletop video game" scene. It also explains why many newer gamers can't really follow how old school games work. I've heard many comment on the lack of "options". Defined "options" being the only ones they can understand/follow. The word options is in quotes simply because to me, old school, they are definitions not options for the character and I can make those for myself to simulate the style of game we are emulating.

    1. I agree completely. To an old school DM, anything not covered in the rules is left to be house ruled, giving you unlimited "options" for how to tweak the game to your needs.

      To the new school DM, the fact that something isn't covered in the rules if often seen as a flaw in the game.


Thanks for your comments!