Monday, June 1, 2015

RPG Reflections - What makes an Old School System?

I've been giving some thought about this simple, yet puzzling question. What makes an Old School system feel like one? Or, in other words, what are the components that, put together, create what 'feels like' an old school game?

After some consideration and pondering, I think I've found an answer, or, at least, a possible explanation which I would like to share with you folks. In order to scrutinize and pin point what should be the core of an Old School system, what about we first number the main characteristics that we may find in an Old School system? I believe these four points are the most expressive:

  • . Randomness: Most rpgs deal with random elements, most of the time in the form of dice rolls. However, Old School games go to the next level: encounter tables, fumble/critical charts, random character creation. Even the reaction of NPCs would be randomized. And also town encounters, random gossip at the tavern, and random quests. Old School was enamored with randomness. Even with negligible character statistics, like height, weight; or important ones, like nature, demeanor, quirks and desires.
  • . Deadly rules and Improvisation: The rules were most of the time, unbreakeable. When the dice fell, it was set in stone. Because of that, death was not an option – it was a happenstance, inevitable. The GM's main obligation with the rules was to employ them impartially. If a medusa petrify a character, dead. If a character disintegrates a dragon, then the dragon is dead. No fumbling.And, because of such hard rules, the players were left with improvisation as their weapon. Breaking glass, putting it in jars and trowing at an enemie's eyes: who didn't? You got to be smart to stay alive, and sploiting the gaps in the rules were great part of it.
  • . Hard statistics: Things were wired deep in an Old School system. You would have many diferent resolutions for specific problems, and, most of the time, they would have diferent statistics. If you travel by sea, you'd have a specific roll for it. If you want to resist an attack, you would have different saves for it (rods, poison, death magic, dragon breath). If you are trying to speak your way into the king's court, there would be a specific resolution just for it.
  • . Strict player options: Character classes, career paths, skill progression. Old School had very strict directions for players, and most of the time with little space to move. You chose a class, and that class had habilities that others did not have. Or you chose a career that needed specific trappings and did specific things. If you were a player, you had to work through it, through your limitations and carve a path with ingenuity, lest you die without much to say.

So, what can we conclude out of these? That old school systems are a Matrix for Conflict Resolution.

In them, there is always a challenge that must be overcame – travelling through space, exploring uncharted territory, going deep down a dungeon. And, in order to overcome such challenge, the system bring to the table statistics, numbers and a matrix for resolving conflicts. There is a GM, judging and describing the characteristics of the challenge at hand; and there are players, trying to find their way through the maze, plow through the dungeon and survive to tell the tale of their battles. It is a game where, through the rolls of the dice, stories sprout. Characters, after surviving stressful encounters, develop their own quirks and stories.

But, in the end, Old School systems are about resolving conflicts and defeating challenges. With randmoness, improvisation, deadly rules, hard statistics and stric player options. A Matrix for Conflict Resolution.

What you folks think? Do you concur with me, or do you think differently? Give me your ideas amd tell me your opinions if you may.

Until then,


  1. How about "House rules accepted and encouraged"?

    1. Gosh, I've forgotten about it. In a way, all rpgs accept houserulling, won't they? I've never found a group that did not tweak the rules in some way. But it is true that OS games have a much stronger hacking vibe than others. I might develope this further in a part II, maybe. Thanks for your comment, =3

    2. *ALL* RPGs will accept house-ruling, because the players/DM are the "boss" at the table. However, some games actually encourage them, other games strike a tone that you shouldn't monkey with anything.

  2. It's often said old school systems are cruel and indifferent to PCs and their struggle to keep themselves alive. Most of the new school system tries to remove this "one hit kill" or insta-death from the game, but then what happened afterwards is a game where the players could simply beat everything with a diceroll, which pretty much diminished any sense of danger or a limit what a character can become on his heroic path. Oldschool games did it the right way: A character may have many skills, powers, habilities, and may have defeated many powerful creatures that a peasant mind can't even imagine that it exist. Still, a poison sting or a deadly magic can be enough to destroy that epic powerhouse in one single blow. If the player isn't ready to deal with powers he can't beat with dices or rules, he pretty much isn't ready to venture on the higher levels of the game. You have to become smart and resourceful, or the game will ground you for relying too much on your levels or destructive power. I find it quite amusing how old schools games likes to remind the players you can't just solve anything with fireballs and lightning bolts. That's just how it is.

    1. Exactly. To me, when a GM fudge a roll, it kills the reason to play. The game feels more real when the rules exist by themselves. When I play a game, I always say that the monsteres exist independent of the characters. If they want to go to the mountains, there is always a chance that the old red dragon might see them and casualy breath of fire them to death. Monsters exist and you should study where you go before you blindly through yourself into the wild.

    2. I am the physics of the game world I've designed... not the capricious deity of a Greek pantheon. I use dice so I'm as surprised by my game as my players are!