The first time I ever played a fantasy role-playing game was in 1992. My best friend had received a new board game for his birthday and we marvelled at its cover and pored over its contents as we carefully opened it.
It was the New Easy to Master Dungeons and Dragons and, turns out, it wasn’t really a board game at all. It was something entirely new to us and we took to it like moths to flame.
We didn’t know it at the time, of course, but we were soon engaging in what is currently known as “old school gaming”. Instead of memorizing the 60-plus pages of rules (“THAC0? What the hell is THAC0?”), we dove into Zanzer’s Dungeon headfirst. Ever since, I’ve been obsessed with broadswords and iron rations.
What’s old school about it? Well, more modern role-playing games focus more on tactics and character builds. They tend to be wargames, first and foremost, and while role-playing is still a part of them, it’s certainly less important than stats and powers.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my tactical RPGs. I’ve been running a 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons game for over a year. It’s great fun. But lately I noticed there was something missing. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
Then I stumbled onto Matthew Finch’s Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, available for free at Lulu, and I realized that it was just what I had been seeking out.
Finch writes a concise and illuminating treatise on the benefits and drawbacks to the different styles of gaming. He offers a number of humorous scripts as comparison between the old and new camps and presents his four “Zen Moments” where original RPGs differ most drastically from their modern counterparts.
Tactics and rules are fun and I love 4E’s combat rules, but I found that I missed the interactivity. Instead of rolling a die to search for traps or treasure, I missed describing dungeon chambers in detail to my players and having them describe right back how their characters were searching. I missed derring-do in combat instead of the tedium of back-and-forth number crunching.
Modern roleplaying games like 4E aren’t old school, at least by Finch’s definition, but they are malleable. Just knowing what you’re missing, what you’re looking to get out of a game, can help you relive those glory days. Back when you never dreamed of calculating encumbrance and the DM’s rule was law, before a number on a character sheet replaced a well-aimed poke with a ten foot pole. Finch’s primer can help you find what you might have lost.