Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

That Rule Ain't Old-School! (Not!)

Nothing too big, folks.  Yours truly is sleeping off a weekend at KantCon, where we play tested an upcoming adventure for Diceless Dungeons.  We had a great table with a fantastic group who creatively overcame terrible challenges and made me work for it, and Robyn joined the fun as an exiled noblewoman tasked with defending these reluctant heroes (they were all criminal, you see).  The Realm was saved and fun was had by all.

But now we're back, and I'm ready to tackle that old debate about what makes an OSR game, not by arguing its definition (I've already made it clear where I stand), but by discussing something I think doesn't make a good basis for one.  Namely, specific game play mechanics!  Now, I bring this up because a few weeks ago, someone argued against a certain game (as belonging to the OSR) because it employed dice pools.  I mean, c'mon people!  Dice pools are a modern idea, right?  New-school nonsense...

Wrong!  Dice pools go back to Tunnels & Trolls from 1975, making them old-school.

The court finds Ghostbusters
"Not Guilty" of being the first dice pool system to hit the 

streets (and the shelves).  It just wasn't...

Which brings up an important fact.  OD&D may have been the first commercially available game.  But rival systems began springing up almost immediately in its wake.  Moreover, the mechanical diversity of these early games was truly immense.  Kind of like the Cambrian explosion.  So here's a list of RPGs, each one released within five years of OD&D, and the innovations they wrought (and before their so-called time, might I add)...

Bunnies & Burrows (1976) - Likely the first skill-based RPG (a break from class)
Chivalry & Sorcery (1977) - Employed phobias (flaws) that would feature in later D&D
RuneQuest (1978) - An early percentile and roll under system.  Also, classless magic use
Superhero: 2044 (1977) - Divided points between ability scores instead of rolling dice
Traveller (1977) - Introduced life paths vs. class, but also employed target numbers
Tunnels & Trolls (1975) - Resolved combat by means of the aforementioned dice pools  
Villains and Vigilantes (1977) - Had pulled punches and other complex combat feats  

The fact is, there were many creative people ready to pounce on this new idea and build upon it with smart innovations.  And thus, we have dice pools almost from the start and shouldn't appropriate them for "modern" gaming exclusively, however intuitive that thought might seem.  Oh, and it does make the methodological OSR seem appealing...

Flaws seem pretty new-school,
but Chivalry & Sorcery had them (phobias) well
ahead of modern D&D.  Just sayin'...

I mean, if every mechanical approach was there right from the beginning, the only way to designate "old-school" in any meaningful way is to focus on specific systems (D&D) and the retro-cloning of the same.  Or old-school approaches to game design.

And I do accept that a methodological core exists.  But its boundaries aren't fixed.  The core has an outer periphery that overlaps the greater hobby; an overlap made up of hallmark approaches and assumptions that may or may not be shared by later systems, but that were still there from the start.  Approaches that have been abandoned by some new schools of thought.  I've already covered this.  But I'll say again that games that deliberately take up an old-school approach deserve a place in the OSR or in some adjacent category.  

But if there's nothing new under the sun, then what ideas are new-school?  I'd say three things at least, although I'm sure I'm also wrong about some of them:

(1) Consolidated mechanics (something D&D and its early peers weren't guilty of), 

(2) A tendency to automate social interactions and/or problem solving, and... 

(3) Breaking down the traditional division of labor between players and the referee and, in general, a greater tendency to approach the rules (and not the referee) as a final authority while making everyone co-equal partners within an emerging gameplay narrative.

At any rate, what's new is old, because innovation abounded in the early gaming scene, which saw a major creative explosion within its first ten years that isn't over by a long shot! 


  1. Dice pool? Where you roll a bunch of dice and count successes? A la Storyteller system?

    I thought T&T was very old school "roll a bunch of dice and add them up", a la 1974 OD&D Fireball, Lightning Bolt etc...

    1. Except that the dice were pooled (and rolled) by both sides to determine attack success AND to determine damage by calculating the difference. The more dice a side could pool, the greater their chance of success (and probable damage) against the other side. It was quite a bit different from just rolling dice for damage, and it could be surprisingly narrative in practice...

    2. Not to mention that often pools would be roughly balanced and you have to take the risk of casting spells or applying stunts to break this balance in your favor but then being on a worse footing when it comes to the pool.

  2. Based on the title, I wondered if Shadowrun is old enough to be old school. Even first edition had things like a combat pool.

    Thanks for the reminder just how innovative those early games were.

    1. Thanks! I'm almost convinced that, eventually, what we're doing NOW will be considered old-school. We'll see in 20 years... ;-)

  3. Yet another good post! The word Renaissance brings to mind both the past and modern innovation, which is why "OSR" satisfactorily explains the shift that is happening right now.

    1. Many thanks! Yeah, I think the shift is essential (and inevitable) if the movement is gonna grow and remain relevant...

  4. I really appreciate this post. I confess that I sometimes become genuinely annoyed when I read self-appointed gatekeepers of orthodoxy holding forth on what does and doesn't pass muster in terms of grown men pretending to be elves. 😁

  5. It could be argued that with (3) we leave the idea of a role-playing game behind and enter the sphere of a story-shaping game. To me, FATE or Fiasco are entertaining games, but they break the immersion of being in a role and making decisions as that role.