Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Dumb Luck and Ten-Foot Poles...

Last week's foray into politics (which I'm not repeating any time soon) generated some interesting and thoughtful discussions, with a few suggesting that true conservatives might not like games with excessive dice rolling because it would demonstrate the role of luck, shattering their worldviews.  I respectfully disagree.  This is a misreading of how people see luck vs. personal action, and it goes to the very heart of old-school.  

We oldsters, conservative or otherwise, rolled lots and lots of dice.  And we absolutely understood the role of dumb luck.  It would be damn near impossible not to.  Good decisions and prior planning don't make it impossible to roll a "1".  Don't worry, we figured this out almost immediately.  But these things do ensure that luck isn't the only thing influencing the outcome.  Do nothing and it comes down to luck; act, and players have a say.

Giant spiders are dangerous.  And poisonous.  Once engaged, dumb luck could get a character bitten; and the same blind chance could easily cause the victim to roll "1" on their saving throw and die a terrible (and instant) death.  But due diligence might ensure those oversized arachnids never get within melee distance, so fire missiles; throw oil; do whatever it takes to avoid getting too close for comfort lest dumb luck rule the day.

In other words, strategy reduces the need for saving throws and therefore, the chance of rolling low.  Make no mistake; there'll still be plenty of dumb luck in a universe where adversaries lurk in every dark corner.  But old-fashioned planning goes a long way towards stacking the deck and allowing the players to manage risk.  Thrusting your arm into that jumble of garbage invites an attack from the centipedes hiding within, which in turn invites a save vs. poison.  Both are reducible to luck, so use your ten-foot pole instead...

Of course, those centipedes might come scrambling out of the trash heap to attack the nearest exposed foot.  There's always that risk.  But with a little distance and the whole party waiting to stomp 'em flat, it doesn't look good for the bugs.  At this point we're reduced to maybe a single roll and perhaps not even that much.  A clever party might encircle the heap with oil and drop a lit torch at the first sign of trouble coming out to play.

And this is the challenge of old-school.  This is what you come for when you want the authentic old-school experience.  It's not better or worse, just different - and it's something worth preserving, especially if you want to be properly challenged.  And here the hobby imitates life because; really, aren't we all doing this?  We lock our doors at night, buckle up on the highway, and avoid smoking crystal meth because these choices mitigate risk.

Old-school gaming was never unfair.  Character classes are carefully balanced and the dungeons survivable with effort - and a little luck.  It just so happens that many of its challenges require active engagement, which shouldn't be too much to ask of its intelligent participants.  Rules don't make a game fair - people do.  No amount of rules can ever defend against an asshole, and it takes little effort for friends to treat each other decently and recognize good ideas when they come.  Nothing is more old-school than that.

I firmly believe that anyone, regardless of age and/or politics, can appreciate old-school gaming as a unique experience with their respective worldviews intact.  In my five decades on planet Earth I've observed that everyone is a person with a fundamental drive to act, improving their lives one decision at a time.  It just so happens that old-school gaming, with its emphasis on personal choice, taps into that human urge to shape our destinies... 


  1. "Rules don't make a game fair - people do." Well said.

  2. Just last weekend I ran an OSR game for my niece and a friend of hers. The friend died due to a giant spider bite. The friend got in the line of fire because my niece was too scared to fight the beast; she was the warrior, he was a cleric. She ran and hid behind him. And yes, he rolled miserably on his save.

    I expressed once again to them that this version of the game is not superheroes fighting against the forces of evil. Instead, it is a game of the players' brains. How do the players mitigate risk, get the treasure, survive to face greater challenges?

    I often say we learn more from failure than we do from success. These kids are getting a different experience from me than the 5e game they are involved in. Hopefully, the learn from their mistakes, and listen to the old geezer who says "you might want to think about that equipment you didn't purchase."

    That giant spider encounter - I explained why the boy's character died. I explained to my niece that it was her responsibility, as the warrior, to protect the weaker members of the party.

    Their next encounter showed more thought, and more planning. They were too cautious, retreating and allowing the goblins to escape with treasure. But, no one died. They learned.

  3. If you put yourself in the mind of a parlor game where wit is an important element, the dice are almost an afterthought.


    It’s instructive that people who are not self-identified conservatives could have made that prediction! Who doesn’t love some dice?