Old School Review 2 – Gary Gygax Himself, on the Old-School Style of Gaming

I may have found the best answer to a question I raised on this blog earlier: “How characters under the early rules of D&D and AD&D were able to survive at lower levels?” In Gary Gygax’s original AD&D Players Handbook, the section “Successful Adventures” (pp. 107-109) illustrates the style of play he envisioned for traversing dungeons, one which is quite different from how most RPG players conceive the same challenge today.

Gygax asserts that it is paramount that the players agree upon an “objective” before entering the dungeon. This can be “so simple as to discover a flight of stairs to the next lowest unexplored level or so difficult as to find and destroy an altar to an alien god.” They must then pursue that objective, and only the objective, until they are too weak and must retreat from the dungeon, accomplish the objective, or form a new objective to singularly pursue.

Here is a particularly illustrative quotation:

Avoid unnecessary encounters. This advice usually means the difference between success and failure when it is followed intelligently. Your party has an objective, and wandering monsters are something which stand between them and it. The easiest way to overcome such difficulties is to avoid the interposing or trailing creature if at all possible. Wandering monsters typically weaken the party through use of equipment and spells against them, and they also weaken the group by inflicting damage. Very few are going to be helpful; fewer still will have anything of any value to the party. Run first and ask questions later… Do not be sidetracked. A good referee will have many ways to distract an expedition, many things to draw attention, but ignore them if at all possible. The mappers must note all such things, and another expedition might be in order another day to investigate or destroy something or some monster, but always stay with what was planned if at all possible, and wait for another day to handle the other matters….

“Run first and ask questions later.” That is not how many people today imagine their fantasy heroes!

The early visions of D&D had characters that were not far removed from regular people; they attained extraordinary ability only after taking considerable risk and through a combination of cleverness and — noted ominously by Gygax — “luck.” Heroes started out as average people; thus, it is no coincidence that early D&D’s rule for generating hit points and ability scores (roll a single die for hit points, and 3d6 in order for ability scores) is reflected in D&D 3.x/Pathfinder’s rules for generating commoners: roll a 1d4 (D&D 3.x) or 1d6 (Pathfinder) to determine hit points, and either roll 3d6 or use an array of ability scores that average out to 10-11.

Nowadays, if a publisher releases a module that has a dungeon crawl, perhaps 95 percent or more of the encounters can be overcome by the party at its current level of experience. But in the AD&D Players Handbook, Gygax advised players to avoid every encounter that does not take them closer to their objective and seriously consider running away at all times. Accordingly, the Dungeon Master is to make a dungeon that does not necessarily at all times concern itself with the power level of the adventurers about to explore it. An interesting proposition — one that conflicts with the design principles of most publishers who release adventure modules today.

Gygax’s section is accompanied by a full-page illustration that is currently my favorite example of art illustrating the old-school gaming style. (It is reproduced at the top of this post.) The halflings do not look extraordinary. Nor are they engaged in a titanic battle. Rather, they are traveling ever-deeper into a foreboding environment, perplexed by the magical mouth that their sputtering torches have just revealed. They have no idea what horrors they will encounter or whether they will all come out alive. (Note the ominous pair of eyes in the stairway.)

Necromancer Games, which has as its design philosophy “3rd Edition Rules, 1st Edition Feel,” has launched a Kickstarter (is it me, or has Kickstarter suddenly exploded in popularity over the past few weeks?) to finance the next iteration of their killer megadungeon, Rappan Athuk. As I’ve written earlier, I really want to run this killer dungeon! But I wasn’t sure when I would have the opportunity, because my players are just now entering the hobby, we don’t get to meet that often, and the latest version of Rappan Athuk required characters of mid-level or higher. But NG’s announcement that they want to add low-level sections for character levels 1-10 makes playing this monster a more immediate proposition. As soon as I get the funds, I will support their project to get in on their exclusive offers, and I encourage others to do the same.

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About ronaldsf

Grandmaster of the Pathfinders' Guild at Martin Luther King Middle School.
This entry was posted in Old School Review, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Old School Review 2 – Gary Gygax Himself, on the Old-School Style of Gaming

  1. Just wanted to say…

    I have read and re-read this article quite a few times. I have also shared it with friends. GREAT STUFF! (Might want to do a once-through edit job though, a few misspelled words and typos here and there.)

    Thanks for the great read. I will be linking to this in an adventure I am currently writing for my site http://Adventureaweek.com. In the new C-Series we are delving back into the realm of Gygax to construct adventures with a classic theme and feel whilst providing everything using 3.5 and Pathfinder statistics.

    C1: Alagoran’s Gem will be the first in this series. Let me know if you would like a PDF copy once complete. I would love to share it with you given our love for the old school and the new! (1st edition/Pathfinder)

    • ronaldsf says:

      Thanks for linking me! I honestly haven’t been as obsessed about spelling and grammar in recent articles because I’m not sure how many people are reading after my somewhat-hiatus. But your comment definitely spurs me on. 😀

      And yeah I’d love to see your work as well.

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