Sunday, March 15, 2009

No School Like Ye Olde School

As a designer, I've always been more interested in creating places and situations than crunch. Let me sketch out a planet, a city, or a temple in a smoking volcano and I'm golden. I love lean, seat-of-the-pants game systems—skeletons I can hang my creations on and bring to life. You know, systems like Basic D&D, Call of Cthulhu, Feng Shui, Teenagers from Outer Space, and WEG's d6 system. I like to keep my homework to a minimum.

What I don't particularly care for are the fussy systems replete with min/maxing, stacking, two hour combats, and artifacts that require formulas to create. GURPs, d20, and 4eD&D, I'm lookin' at you. Now, there are plenty of folks who love crunch-tastic gaming, and I'm not knocking it. It just isn't for me.

Meeple in Minutes
When I'm selecting a game system to GM or write for, one rule of thumb I go by is determining how long it takes to generate a level boss. If I can throw a bad dude together in a five minute game break or assemble an entire rogues gallery for a 20,000 word adventure in an hour or so, it's a go. If it takes hours of prep time and a calculator…not so much.

I took on a number of d20 freelance gigs in its early days. They were all great projects with leads and co-writers I enjoyed working with. I even cranked out the crunch on demand. But what soured me on d20 was the time it took to create a cast of NPCs. I'm talking hours. I couldn't help but contrast that with my experience in creating rosters for Star Wars d6 projects, which took a fraction of the time.

That 70s System
So when I began poking about for a suitably svelte system for my nascent campaign, I found that something remarkable had happened in the past year: the return of the original D&D system. It seems that the number of gamers who desired to get back to old school gaming, with its emphasis on the player interacting with the game environment rather than the character doing so, had reached a critical mass. And rather than digging out their own game books, they had used the d20 Open Gaming license to reverse engineer the d20 system into something resembling the original D&D game system. MicroLite 74Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, and the Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game (and OSRIC if you want to emulate AD&D) are all solid options for recreating old school gaming. Developing the system anew enabled designers to post their creations without worrying about stepping on WotC's legal toes. 

And boy, have they. You can opt for either a free pdf, or, by the miracle of on-demand publishing, buy soft- and hardcover rulebooks at cost. All of these systems are supported by small but active fanbases that are producing high-quality blog content, magazines, more magazines, game products, and most recently, communal megadungeons.

More on these intriguing developments in the future. Suffice it to say that my next campaign is going back to the 70s.


  1. Seeing as I may have the honor of playing this next campaign and that I'm the RPG newb of the group, I suppose it'd be in my best interest to read the old school gaming e-book, eh?

  2. What, and ruin the newgie surprise encounter? ;)
    It shouldn't be a shocking transition if you haven't gotten neck deep in 3.0 and beyond.