taken from Quick Primer for Old School Gaming by Matthew J. Finch and Mythmere Games
You’ve realized by now that your job in an old-style game is a lot different than it is in a modern-style game. Your job isn’t to remember and apply rules correctly, it’s to make up on-the-spot rulings and describe them colorfully. It’s your job to answer questions (some of which will be off-the-wall) and to give the players lots and lots of decisions to make. You are the rulebook, and there is no other. Just as the players need to lose the idea that their characters are in a level-appropriate, tournament-like environment, you’ve got to lose the idea that situations are governed by rules. They’re not governed by rules, they’re governed by you. Focus on making the situations fun, not on making them properly run.
Tao of the GM: The Way of the Ming Vase
If you’ve got a choice between running a predictable, fairly-executed combat, or on the other hand running a combat in which swords break, people fall, someone throws up from a blow to the stomach, a helmet goes spinning away, someone gets tangled up in a curtain, or other such events outside the formal rules … embrace the chaos. This is the rule of the Ming Vase. Why is it the rule of the Ming Vase? Look at it this way. There’s a priceless Ming Vase sitting on a table in the middle of a room where combat rages on all sides, swords swinging, chairs flying, crossbow bolts whizzing through the air. There is, however, no rule covering the chance of some random event that might affect the priceless Ming Vase. I’m not sure I need to say more, but just in case, I will. If someone rolls a natural “1,” or a “3,” or even if nothing specifically happens to trigger it, it’s blatantly irresponsible of you not to start some chain of events involving the Ming vase. A sword goes flying – the table underneath the vase is hit by the sword – the vase is swaying back and forth, ready to topple – can anyone catch it, perhaps making a long dive-and-slide across the floor? That’s gaming. Is it unfair? Well, it’s certainly outside the existing rules. It’s your job to create events outside the standard sequence of “I roll to hit. They roll to hit. I roll to hit.”
In combat, bad rolls can spontaneously generate bad consequences
(make sure you do this to both sides, not just the players). You don’t
need a table to generate bad consequences – just make it up on the spot.
Good rolls might get good consequences,
such as disarming the foe, making him fall, smashing him against a wall for extra damage, pushing him backward, etc. Again, make it up on the spot. Remember the Ming Vase!
Tao of the GM: The Way of the Moose Head
Without spot checks and automatic information gathering rolls, players don’t have a way to generate solutions by rolling dice and checking their character sheets. They have to think. That’s how player skill comes into the game. Here’s an example of exploring a room where a secret compartment is hidden behind a moose head on the wall.
John the Roguish: “We open the door. Anything in the room?”
GM: “No monsters. There’s a table, a chair, and a moose head hanging on the wall.”
John the Roguish: “We check the ceiling and the floor – we don’t step in yet. If there’s nothing on the ceiling and the floor, we push down on the floor with the ten foot pole, and then I step inside, cautiously.”
GM: “Nothing. You’re in the room.”
John the Roguish: “I search the room.”
GM: “What are you checking?”
John the Roguish: “I eyeball the table and chairs to see if there’s anything unusual, then I run my hands over them to see if there’s anything weird.”
John the Roguish: “Are the moose’s eyes following me or anything?”
John the Roguish: “I check the moose head.”
John the Roguish: “I twist the horns, look in the mouth, see if it tips sideways …”
GM: “When you check to see if it tips sideways, it slides a little to the side.”
John the Roguish: “I slide it more.”
GM: “There’s a secret compartment behind it.”
In other words, die rolls don’t provide a short cut or a crutch to discover and solve all those interesting puzzles and clues scattered throughout a dungeon. The same goes for handling traps (unless there’s a thief class).
You might be saying to yourself: “God, that sounds time-consuming.” Sure enough, this sort of detailed exploration of the adventure area occupies more time in old-style gaming than it does in modern gaming. 0e is a game of exploration, searching, and figuring things out just as much as it’s a game of combat. Game designers, over the years, decided that the game should focus on the fighting and the more cinematic moments of the game, with less time “wasted” on the exploration and investigation side of things. Over time, more and more detail was put into combat rules; and die rolls replaced the part of the game that focused on mapping, noticing details, experimentation, and deduction. Don’t conclude, though, that the exploration part of the game makes everything slower. Combat is so much faster-paced in 0e that there’s more time available for the exploration/thinking part of the game. In my experience, a session of 0e allows the players to get through many more combats and investigations than the same amount of gaming time would permit using Third Edition D&D. Fourth Edition D&D seems to have a faster combat system than Third Edition (the game hasn’t been out long enough, at the time of this writing, for me to have played more than three sessions), but what I’ve said above still seems to be true – perhaps to a lesser degree.
Tao of the GM: Your Abstract Combat-Fu Must be Strong
One criticism that’s often leveled against old-style gaming is that it’s boring to just have a series of: “I roll a d20. Miss. I roll a d20. Hit. I roll a d20. Miss. I roll a d20. Miss.” Except for very quick and unimportant combats, old-style combats aren’t done like this, or it would indeed be a little boring.
The reason old-style combat isn’t boring – and in fact it’s often much more colorful than modern-style combat – is because of things that aren’t in the rules but are in the combats. In these games, a player can describe and attempt virtually anything he can think of. He doesn’t need to have any sort of game-defined ability to do it. He can try to slide on the ground between opponents, swing from a chandelier and chop at a distant foe, taunt an opponent into running over a pit trap … whatever he wants to try. That doesn’t, of course, mean that he’ll succeed. It’s your job to handle these attempts colorfully and fairly, choosing whatever probability you think is the right one and rolling some dice. Sometimes the answer is just, “there’s no way that’s going to work; I’m not even going to roll for it.” When the players truly understand – and it may take a while – that they truly aren’t constrained by abilities, feats, skills or rules, you’ll find that combat becomes quite interesting.
It’s also your job to inject events from outside the rules during combat. “You rolled a 1. Your sword goes flying.” “You rolled a 1. You trip and fall.” “You rolled a 1. Your sword sticks into a crack in the floor.” “Hey, you rolled a 20. You spin around and gain an extra attack.” Hey, you rolled a 20. You slay the orc, kick his body off your sword, and blood spatters into the eyes of one of the orcs behind him. He’s not getting an attack this round.” “Hey, you rolled a 20. You knock his sword out of his hand even though you didn’t do enough damage to kill him.” That’s just a set of examples for the various ways you could handle natural rolls of 1 or 20. Each result is different, and none of them were official – you just made them up out of nowhere. You’re being consistent – the high and low rolls always generate a good or bad result – but exactly what happens is pretty much a matter of you deciding what seems realistic, or really fun.
Also, flavorful combat isn’t just in the naturally high and low rolls. A character leaps onto a table, but the table breaks. Swinging into combat on a rope succeeds – but the rope breaks and the character ends up swinging into the wrong group of monsters. A hit by a monster causes one of the characters to drop a torch. The feathered plume on someone’s helmet is chopped off by a missed stroke. All these little details add to the quality of old-style combat, and change it dramatically from a sequence of d20 rolls into something far more alive and exciting. This doesn’t mean, of course, that every swing of a sword blade and every step into combat must generate lavish descriptions and details from you. It’s a matter of pacing, and frankly I can’t explain how to do it well other than to say you’ll get the hang of it.
Keep in mind, too, that it’s not just the players who can use unorthodox tactics. Monsters do unexpected things, too – throwing a bench in the attempt to knock down two characters at once, monsters that try to swing by chandeliers, and other such challenges that don’t often surface in games with tighter rules.
Finally, try to put some “toys” into the combat areas some of the time: benches, places where you can fight from the high ground, slippery patches, etc. Because of the speed of the abstract combat system, unusual tricks by the players and monsters don’t cause delays while the rules are consulted. It’s all you – you are the rulebook.
It’s true that from time to time the “tape” of an old-style combat is exactly like this. Some combats are unimportant enough that no one bothers to try anything particularly unusual, and if there’s not a fumble or a critical hit, and the party doesn’t get into hot water then this kind of combat won’t use much tactical thinking on anyone’s part. So why even have it? Because every quick, less-significant combat uses up resources. And when I say quick, I mean very, very quick. In modern games, where combat contains special moves and lots of rules, combat takes up lots of time. An “insignificant” combat is a complete waste of gaming time. In older rules, a small combat can take five minutes or less. So small combats work very well as a way of depleting those precious resources in a race against time. The players will actually seek to avoid minor combats when there’s not much treasure involved. They’re looking for the lairs and the treasure troves, not seeking to kill everything that crosses their path. The classic old-style adventure contains “wandering monsters” that can randomly run into and attack the party, and some modern gamers see this as arbitrary. It’s not. It’s another instance of running a race against time – if the characters aren’t smart and fast in getting to the lairs and troves, if they shilly-shally and wander, they’re going to lose hit points and spells fighting wandering monsters who carry virtually no treasure. This is also, by the way, why olderstyle games award experience points for gaining treasure as well as for killing monsters. If killing monsters is the only way to gain experience points, then one monster’s pretty much the same as another – the players don’t have much of an incentive to avoid combat. When treasure is the best source of experience points and there’s a race against time, the players have every incentive to use all their skill and creativity to avoid encounters that drain their resources. They’ve got to press on to the mission before they become too weak to keep going.
So that’s why combat is abstract, or at least it’s one reason. Also, of course, fast combat mimics the pace of combat – in more complex games, players may have to sit for a while, contemplating the next “move” like a chess game. I’ve heard of egg timers being used to limit thinking time. With old-style, abstract combat, this just doesn’t happen (not often, anyway). Abstract combat also opens the door for one of the things that’s most important about old-style gaming – the freewheeling feel of “anything goes.”
Tao of the GM: Way of the Donner Party
Old-style gaming has a strong component of what’s often called “resource management.” Spells get used up, hit points are lost, torches get used up, and food gets used up. This is another part of the game that’s been minimized in later editions (particularly in 4th edition). The theory is that no one wants to spend time keeping track of mundane things like torches and food. And it’s a good point – a poor referee can bollix this up if he spends too much time on it. However, one thing you have to realize about 0e: it is indeed a game where managing resources is at the game’s very heart. In fact, I would have called this a fifth Zen moment of realization except that resource management is still a factor in later games – just to a lesser degree. Nevertheless, from the referee’s standpoint you have to manage your game based on this premise: excitement and tension increase as the party is deeper and deeper into the danger zone and their resources are running low.
It takes artistry on your part: higher level adventures shouldn’t be about declining food and light sources, they should be about declining hit points and spells. In lower level adventures, food and light sources can be the key to success or failure of an expedition (remember, 0e is about the little guy).
Here’s the key point in terms of running the adventure, things to include so that resource management adds to the excitement instead of being a chore. First, you have to keep track of time in the dungeon so that you can quickly tell the players what resources to mark off their character sheets. If you lose track of game time, you lose quality in the game. Second, there has to be a meaningful choice for the players between pressing forward or retreating from the dungeon. Pressing forward with low resources is obviously risky, and there should be an incentive to keep going without just going back to memorize spells and heal up for a second try. These incentives and disincentives might include the following (1) high cost of living in an inn, (2) a reward from the local baron for completing a particular mission quickly (the reward declines per day), (3) a prisoner might be killed – and the kidnappers might even have given a deadline for this, (4) the way back has become blocked by a monster, trap, or portcullis, and another way out must be found, (5) the party is lost due to a teleportation trap or bad mapping, (6) the treasure the party seeks is being destroyed or consumed with time, (7) the party has been told not to come back out until some mission is finished – always a good trick when the party has legal troubles, (8) a wager or other social situation means that the party will lose money or be generally ridiculed if they return without a certain amount of treasure, or (9) the party has to pay a fee each time they enter the dungeon. I’m sure you can think of more. In some way, the adventure needs to be a race against time, even if the pressure isn’t necessarily all that high (cost of living, for example, is a very low-pressure race against time, and rescuing a hostage is very high-pressure).
At higher levels, creating the race against time requires a bit more creativity on your part – especially because you don’t want to make it into something that forces the players into any particular adventure. The players should generally have a choice about where they go and what sorts of adventures they want to risk, so you’ve got to avoid overusing the whole “the king will have you executed if you don’t rescue the princess” sort of adventure hook. It’s okay sometimes, because running away from the king’s guards is also a legitimate choice for the adventurers, but never eliminate that choice.
You are the rulebook. There is no other rulebook.
Make it fast, make it colorful, and make it full of decisions for the players.