My most recent design project for Wizards of the Coast has left me thinking a lot about old-school D&D. I have been reminiscing about my early days of playing, when my Jr. High school friends and I could play first-edition AD&D for 72 hours straight without having to worry about jobs or families or responsibilities any more onerous than a paper route and little league baseball games.
The adventures and campaigns we played were home-brewed by necessity, because the only published adventures we had access to were very short and very light on details, but they gave us just enough to let our imaginations run wild through horrific tombs, around keeps on borderlands, and into certain lost caverns. What happened between those adventures, and often during those adventures, was always open to interpretation, alteration, and complete reconstitution by whichever one of us was DMing at the time.
But What is Old-School? And What is New-School?
Of course, “old-school” has become one of those ubiquitous terms that loses any semblance of meaning the more it gets used. So let me define a little more clearly what I mean when I use the term “old-school,” especially in relation to the way I see the game being played in more recent years. Since third-edition D&D was introduced, I have not really played in a true long-term, home-brewed campaign. Almost everything I have consumed (and most everything I have created) has been published content in one form or another. And a great deal of that content has been meant to for use in an organized-play setting.
That means DMs using the content are expected to run the games with at least some semblance of continuity, with an established plot and flow detailing where the adventure is supposed to begin and end. In other words, both the players and the DM have to agree to a contract that is unwritten but understood in organized-play campaigns: the party cannot go anywhere and do anything it wants, and the DM must keep the adventure-as-written somewhere in front of the players, even if some detours are taken along the way. Similarly, the adventure designers understand their implicit contract with these people: the writers must make an effort to be as thorough and clear as possible about how to DM the adventure.
While this type of gaming is not for everyone, it has certainly proved to be quite popular since the concept was introduced. And as much as I have given my time and energy to this sort of gaming, and gained much from it, part of me is a little sad to think that many DMs and players might never know the other type of gaming, where the word on the page is just a guide instead of a script—or where there is no page at all!
I think about an adventure like Gygax’s classic The Village of Hommlet. It starts out famously as the characters stroll into the village looking for adventure, probably finding themselves in the Inn of the Welcome Wench. Then there is the trek to the moathouse to battle the now-infamous Lareth the Beautiful and his forces. So much of the game, however, happens outside the pages. How the PCs interact with the NPCs in Hommlet has to be improvised by the DM. How much information about the temple’s past is revealed is up to the DM. How to keep the PCs from stealing that 1300 gp service set from the farmhouse is definitely the job of the DM!
For my money, the most interesting and important part of that adventure was the afterthought: an assassin comes to Hommlet to take out the PCs for messing up the plans of the Temple at the moathouse. This is the awesome stuff that makes a campaign memorable, yet when and how this assassination attempt is made is completely up to the DM. If that slight mention of a plot continuation is made in a published adventure today, how many DMs take the time to add it? There are no stat blocks, maps, or tactics supplied: how many DMs have the skill to make that happen in a cool and intriguing way.
Where There’s a Rule (or Lack Thereof), There’s a Way
I’ve loved every version of D&D I’ve ever played, and I have played ‘em all. Looking at the evolution of the rules over the years, and at the evolution of the way the game is delivered and discussed and consumed by the players, I have to say with all seriousness that the earliest version of D&D rules, game-mechanically speaking, were not good.
Yet, in a strangely paradoxical way, that was the best thing that could have happened to the game at that point in its development. Remember, there was no Internet to discuss or argue over rules. There were no instant errata updates. Unclear, wacky, or incredibly unbalanced rules were resolved in one place: at the individual tables. And even though this meant there were enough house rules to make the game look very different from one group to the next, that was fine.
In fact, it was more than fine. It gave each player and each DM the opportunity—if not the responsibility—to think about the game a little more deeply. Just like adventures had to be created and modified on the fly to make the game fun for everyone, so the rules often had to be adjudicated or created on the fly for that same reason.
As the editions of the game progressed through the years, I daresay that the rules became—game-mechanically speaking—better and better. And also more voluminous. And also more nit-picky and prone to rules-lawyering. Of course, some of that was a result of the advancements in technology and communication. But the more you try to make something as clear and resistant to alternative interpretation as possible, the more interpretation and the less clarity you will have.
With the push to create better mechanics to support the game, there was a similar push to create adventures that were easier to run for DMs who didn’t have the time to prepare their own stuff. That means adventures had to be more balanced, more clear, and more easily run—sometimes without any preparation at all. This is great in the way that microwave meals are good: they can be convenient and tasty and even just as good as some homemade dishes, but the downside is that people can rely on them so much that they forget how to cook, and how much fun cooking can be.
So, I return to my original question: can 4e rules support an old-school D&D campaign? I think the answer is a resounding yes. The rules are more entrenched, and the way the rules are consumed and the way players can communicate globally leads to a more homogeneous experience. And this might be what the market wants. DMs might want to just take the same material in the same format and run it in the same way, and that’s OK. Fun games can be played that way. But I hope there are DMs out there willing and able to create their own stuff, or to take published content and make it their own, and show their players that not every game has to look the same, even when it is the same adventure.