Firstly, we need to speak the same language. My go to guy for anything old school is Matt Finch. You might remember him as the creator of Swords & Wizardry, but he also wrote a fantastic article on old school play that will be central to our discussion.
Go ahead and download it. Read it. Learn it. Live it. Breath it. It is your new religion.
Matt describes "Four Zen Moments" to learning and understanding old school play and they really are more than ‘ah-ha’ moments. Calling them Zen moments is not by accident, as they are profound and significant pillars as to what is old school.
I’m going to break this treatment on the subject up in segments, so as to allow for the format of questions and answers. Also, it is my belief that shorter entries tend to imprint themselves on the minds of online readers easier. Ready? Here we go.
First Zen Moment: Rulings, not Rules.
Rules are NOT in and of themselves old or new school. They are simply devices to assist a DM/GM/Ref make decisions in his/her game. Gygax understood this implicitly, as is derived from his quote about Refs not needing rule books to play. Rules are NOT in and of them selves old or new school. It bears repeating. Skill rolls exist in Empire of the Petal Throne and Traveller, and both are considered old school games - not so much because of their rules, but because how their rules are applied.
The old school player doesn’t need a rule to search a room, but there are degrees as to how thoroughly the player may have searched. If the player is very specific, then a RULING may suffice. The DM/GM/Ref may decide to tell the player what he/she found – if anything. Not all players are created alike, however, and this is where a skill role may come into play. Not every situation falls to the bounce of a die in old school play. This method also increases the immersion into the game – the player becomes more intimately involved in the gameworld without the distraction of rolling dice. He or she is living and breathing the world with every action of their character, and most people will tell you this is RPGs at their best.
I recently had an ex 4th edition player, now 5E, search a room simply by rolling his 20-sider. He then asked what did he find. I said, with such a cursory glance into the room, you find nothing. He insisted he should have found something based on his roll – if there was anything to find at all. I replied, how could you have found anything without telling me where you are looking? This is a large room with several unique features and plenty of furniture. Forget the dice for a moment and play the game. That’s when I saw a flash in his eyes, that ‘ah-ha’ moment that in time and training, will become so much more – even second nature to his play style.
Second Zen Moment: Player Skill, not Character Abilities
The one question that comes up time and again at the table is, “would my character know that?” What I like to tell players is your game knowledge is what makes your character exceptional in a world full of NPCs. Player skill cannot and should not be ignored or handwaved away. Sure, your 5E character has skills and abilities that separate him from normals, but so does everyone else at the table playing a character. Player skill brings even more diversity to the table. Player skill represents what these novice adventurers have heard in ballads and tavern tales, if you need an ingame reason for it existing. You need not Role-play your character to death via forced ignorance.
I think it was Bob Bledsaw that said something to the effect that it’s not his fault your characters picked a first level dungeon that has a Red Dragon lair in it. Your 1st level dumb-dumbs should be smart enough to not bother the beast or they deserve a fiery death. In the natural world, there is very little balance when it comes to your individual survival. What makes man a dangerous animal that can contend with apex predators in the wild is his intelligence, otherwise he’s just another item on the food chain menu. I go to Natural Geographic’s documentaries all the time to rationalize what some may consider imbalances to my games.
But let’s be rational in doing this – dumb/dead characters does not an old school game make. Help the PCs out with rumors or what should be obvious clues about what awaits them. As my old man used to say, give them all the rope they need to hang themselves with. Not every encounter with a monster should necessarily default to a combat situation – not if you have thinking players exercising their skill of the game.
I’m currently running an old school module at the store that is about a level and a half higher than the party’s current level. Why? Because they have had a pretty easy time of it in previous old school modules that I have run. It’s about 5th level now and time for a few challenges. It has been challenging, and then some, as it has forced my players to actually think about combat electives and finally embrace tactics as their friend.
D&D isn’t all about combat, but there is enough of it going on that players need to become fairly good players of the game as well as good role-players – not just the character personalities and such; but understanding their roles as character classes in the party. Player skill is vital for that old school feel, and should be constantly encouraged.
Third Zen Moment: Heroic, not Superhero
I think most everyone here has a handle on this one. That said, I try to add what I can without repeating what Uncle Matt has to say on the subject.
To say 'Heroic' might rub some of you wrong, as there is a prevailing attitude in the old school that Swords & Sorcery is the way to go, and heroic stuff isn't what the game is about. Yes and No. Appendix N is full of heroes, but at the same time, they are not over the top heroes like Superman. Keep your scenarios very personal to your player characters and try to keep them as 'realistic' as possible in a game about dragons, dungeons, wizards, and such.
In my opinion, avoid most Greek myths like the plague, as they were in a lot of ways, the first comic book stories. The story of Odysseus might be okay, but Hercules is definitely out.
5E may seem superheroic to a lot of 0D&D players, but really it's not. There are fewer Feats to deal with and those that are there have been scaled way back from previous editions. Abilities have the potential to go up to 20, but this is not a common thing, whether you roll dice or point buy a character. The skill system is pretty well handled and not overpowering considering the DM holds all the cards by determining the difficulty number to beat - there is a potential for misuse here on the DMs part by administering poor judgement, however. Good DMs are fair and impartial.
Fourth Zen Moment: Forget “Game Balance.”
Here's another one the Good Folks of The Ruins of Murkhill got a pretty good handle on, but this doesn't just apply to the gameworld and encounters. There need not be balance among player character Classes either. As the Pawn is not an equal to the Knight, so is it the same for Character Classes. Each have a role they should fulfil; that roll may not be the equal to another. No big deal.
Game balance became important in D&D when AD&D was produced, and the powers that be wanted it to be the tournament rules for the game. In such a contest, sure, you'd want an even playing field. I'm not knocking on AD&D, just stating a fact. From there on Balance and its importance became more and more ingrained in the rules.
Go to Ruins of Murkhill and join in on this and other old school discussions!