Appendix B: On Old School Play
Dungeon Delving Undying Light is an “old School” game. It is designed for a completely different style of play than many players who started to play in the last 20 years or so may be used to. This appendix will give a brief overview of “old school” play.
What is “Old School” Play?
There are two major styles of roleplaying games. The first (and older) style says, “Here is the situation. Pretend you are there as your character, what do you want to do?” This style has been superseded over the years with a style that says, “Here is the situation. Based on your character's stats, abilities, skills, etc. as listed on his character sheet and your knowledge of the many detailed rules of the game, what is the best way to use your character’s skills and abilities and the rules to solve the situation?” Old school play strongly favors the first style and frowns on too much of the second.
Here are some major points where old school play is often different:
Heroic, not Superheroic: Old school play, especially at low to mid-levels, is about fairly normal people put in situations where they can be heroes, not about extraordinary people doing things that would make a four-color comic book superhero proud – and at first level yet. Just like in the real world, the more a character improves his abilities, the harder it is to improve them further, while new characters may advance rapidly, the higher their level the more effort and time (and XP) it takes to advance to the next level.
Achievement, not Advancement. Many modern games are often all about what special feats, extra classes and special game mechanics the players wish to obtain for their characters as they increase in level. In old school games, a character’s abilities are generally predetermined by his character class, so old school games focus on the things that the characters wish to accomplish in the game world rather than on what game mechanics they want to acquire. Level advancement is often much slower than in modern fantasy RPGs which makes in campaign achievements even more important as a measure of character success.
No Skills: Unlike in most modern RPGs, there aren’t any skills in Dungeon Delving Undying Light. Players are intended to have their characters act like adventurers. So don’t search your character sheet or the rules for the perfect solution to whatever situation your character is facing. Instead, you just tell the referee what your character is trying to do. Note that you are assumed to be competent with all common activities associated with your class and background. If you need to keep a door open or shut, you might tell the referee your character is using a spike to keep the door open or closed. A ten foot pole is your friend for checking for traps. Searching a room means looking in and under objects, not rolling a skill check. While this may seem strange at first, you will quickly learn to appreciate the freedom it gives you. No longer are you limited to the skills and feats on your character sheet, you can try anything your character should be capable of trying. You might not succeed, but the rules generally will not stop you from trying.
Limited Magic Items: Modern fantasy RPGs often assume that magic items are easy to buy and/or to create. In most old school campaigns, magic items are relatively rare and hard to create. Only potions and scrolls are generally relatively easy to create or purchase. Other magic items are seldom found for sale (and are very high priced when they are found for sale) and are usually very expensive in money and time to try to create – often requiring rare ingredients that the characters must quest to find. Therefore, characters are generally limited to the magic items they find in treasures or take from defeated enemies on adventures.
No Assumption of “Game Balance”: Old style game sessions aren’t about carefully balanced characters (who are all able to shine equally at all times) who only run into situations carefully designed by the referee to be beatable by the characters presently in the party and to provide treasure that fits their current level. Instead, part of player skill is learning to evaluate situations so situations well over the party’s current abilities or which will waste the party’s resources for little gain can be avoided. Don’t assume that you can beat every monster that you encounter, running away from monsters too tough to handle can mean the difference between character survival and character death. You can also get creative in how you defeat monsters. Perhaps those goblins you bypassed could be talked into (or tricked into) attacking that giant you know you can’t beat, perhaps killing it for you or at least softening it up so your party has a chance of defeating it and living to tell the tale. Also, remember that even if you cannot kill the monsters, perhaps you can still acquire some of their treasure by less direct means. Part of the skill of playing “old school” style is coming up with creative solutions when a direct attack is likely to fail.
It’s Not All About Combat: Many modern fantasy RPGs have made combat the star of the system, combats in these systems are time-consuming and very crunchy with rules for everything. Like early versions of the game, Dungeon Delving Undying Light features a simple and somewhat abstract combat system that allows combat situations to be decided quickly. Moreover, like those early versions of the game, combat isn’t intended to be the main source of fun in a game session. The game is as much about exploration and treasuring finding as it is about combat. Sure, you are going to have to fight things to explore and find treasure, but always remember that combat may not be the best or safest way to handle every situation. Think before you rush into combat.
Reality/Common Sense Trumps Rules: Old-school games use loose and simple rules that cover average cases and the referee and players are supposed to apply common sense and their knowledge of how reality works to cover the unusual and edge cases. “Reality/Common Sense” as interpreted by the referee always trumps the written rules if they conflict. For example, a character has a magic weapon and the rules for that weapon say it always causes its target to fall prone if hit. The character hits a gelatinous cube moving down the corridor toward them with the weapon. The rules say that the target should fall and be in a prone position. Reality, however, says otherwise. Gelatinous cubes don’t have a top and bottom (so prone penalties make no sense) and a 10 foot cube can’t fall when it is moving through a 10 foot corridor. In some modern games, the rules would be applied anyway and the cube would suffer the effects of falling prone no matter how little sense that makes. In an old school game, the referee ignores the rule because it makes no sense in the specific situation.
Forget “Rules Mastery”: As some of the above differences have hinted, player skill in “old school” style games isn’t about mastering the game rules so you can solve any problem by knowing the right combination of rules from 20 different rule books. Dungeon Delving Undying Light is designed to be rules light and strongly encourages referees to make rulings on the spot taking into account specific circumstances instead of trying to hunt up special cases in a stack of rule books. This is faster and helps players immerse themselves in their character and the game world instead of in rule books. Referee rulings will be based on specific circumstances and common sense, not just on the written rules and prior rulings. Just because it requires a certain roll to jump one 10 foot pit does not mean all 10 foot wide pits will require the same roll. After all, all sorts of variables can affect the roll (terrain, weather, lighting, pressure to jump quickly, etc.). Players need to remember that these rules are merely a tool for the referee. They are just guidelines for the referee, not something written in stone that the referee must obey. If something herein does not work right in your campaign (or the referee just does not like a rule), the referee is well within his right to change it. Dungeon Delving Undying Light is not a game for rules lawyers or for those who believe that the game designer always knows what is best.
No Script Immunity: In most old school games, player characters do not have any form of script immunity. Player characters can die, lose equipment, suffer strange magical effects and other often unpleasant consequences if they are not careful or are just very unlucky. On the other hand, there are no rules limiting their success. If they take on an adult red dragon as first level characters and miraculously manage to win, there are no rules about level appropriate wealth or level appropriate magic items to interfere with their becoming rich and probably flush with magic items from the dragon’s hoard.
Not Mentioned does not mean Prohibited: Many people seem to read RPG rules and come away with the idea that anything not specifically mentioned in the rules as allowed is prohibited. While this really doesn’t make much sense given that no set of rules could ever cover everything that characters might attempt to do in an adventure, it seems to be a very common way to view RPG rules. In an old school game like Dungeon Delving Undying Light, this is specifically not true: the millions of possible activities not mentioned in the rules are not prohibited, they are up to the referee to allow or disallow based on his knowledge of how reality works and how his specific campaign world differs from reality. Unless the rules specifically prohibit some action, players should ask their referee instead of simply assuming it is prohibited because the rules do not mention it.
Styles of “Old School” Play
If you read some “old school” blogs, forums, and web sites, you might get the impression that there is only one “old school’” style of play: a style with expendable player characters who spend all their time in dungeons designed in the style of the old “Tomb of Horrors” module where an adventuring party is only one slipup away from death. This style of play is often shown in early modules.
What most people forget is that these early modules were designed for tournament play where the party that lasted longest and make it deepest into the dungeon was the winner. While a few gaming groups did run their regular campaigns like this and enjoy it, most people did not enjoy such games and the referees who ran them were often referred to as “Killer Referees” (who often found themselves without players). Instead most home campaigns were a mixture of the following four styles – some campaigns stressing one or two styles over the others.
Power-Gaming: Many players start out playing in this style. Most soon get bored with it and add more and more of other styles. A power-gaming campaign is all about character power. Characters are known by their class, level, special items, and amazing powers and deeds. (“I killed the Demon King with my 15th Level Fighter/Magic-User/Druid. It only took two hits from Thor’s Hammer to knock him out. Then I cut off his head with my vorpal blade.”) There is often a lot of player competition for the most powerful character in campaigns that stress power-gaming. A lot of people look down on this style, but it can be a lot of fun to play a pure power-game in a group of players who all like the style.
War Gaming: This is probably the style old school rules were originally written for. The war gaming style of play is a competition between the player group and the referee. The referee sets up tactical battles, puzzles, and the like and the players solve them for treasure and experience. Fudging die rolls and ignoring rules (either for or against the players) is frowned upon as it detracts from the challenge and fun of the adventure.
Characters in pure war gaming campaigns often were expendable and had little personality or goals (beyond staying live and getting rich) as a character with such might be tempted to do things dysfunctional to survival. Published tournament dungeons like Tomb of Horrors could be considered examples of extreme forms of this style. Once the RPG hobby became known outside of the minis and board war gaming community, pure forms of the war gaming style quickly became uncommon.
Role-Playing: A pure role-playing campaign is almost the opposite of a pure war gaming campaign. Player skill, tactics, and rules aren’t really important. What is important is the player’s character and that character’s life in the game. In a pure role-playing campaign, players create the personality of their characters in great detail and players generally have a large emotional investments made in them and do not consider their characters expendable. Players tend to have their characters act within their personalities and within the beliefs they're supposed to hold – even when doing so is not the best thing to do at the time within the game. The object is to live your character’s life in the campaign world. You “win” be having your character achieve his goals, goals which may or may not have anything to do with the game’s goals of exploring and accumulating treasure and experience points. The modern computer game The Sims is an example of this style of play.
Story-Telling: While all campaigns tell a story after-the-fact (that is, you can tell a story based on the characters actions in the game), in a story-telling campaign, the referee has worked out a story in advance and the player characters are the protagonists. The campaign world usually has a detailed background and back story behind it. Knowing this background may be more important than knowing the rules. Some pure story telling campaigns are little more that single-line railroads where the characters play their almost pre-scripted parts in the story. In other cases, things are more free-form with story flow and events created by interactions between the referee's basic outline of story events and the actions of individual characters during the campaign. Some people consider the more pure forms of story-telling campaigns boring straight-jackets while others love the idea of being a major part of a real story.
These four major styles of play appeared early in the history of role-playing games. They were first mentioned in a general circulation publication in Glenn Blacow's article “Aspects of Adventure Gaming” in Different Worlds #10 (the October 1980 issue).
The important thing to take from this sub-section isn’t the four styles or their labels (as there are other systems for describing this with their own labels), but the idea that there were many different styles of “old school” play back in the “old school” days – not just the single style stressed in some “old school” blogs, forums, and web sites. Don’t let those sites make you believe that you aren’t playing old school right if your campaign isn’t strongly in the war gaming camp. Most successful campaigns back in “old school” days were a mixture of all four major styles – and a heaping helping of minor styles.