“The Old Ways were dark,” agrees Patrick Rothfuss, whose character was dead at the time.
Maybe it’s because of this, or maybe it’s the growing influence of D&D Next in my gaming consciousness, but the recent dungeon being explored in my 4E game had something my players hadn’t really seen in a while. As they were searching, I asked them to describe their search, and I let their Perception checks give them clues, but I didn’t flat out tell them certain details. I made them tell me where they were looking and what they were looking for. I gave them a physical description and a sketch of the puzzle they were looking at, but nothing beyond that.
My friend James’ eyes lit up a bit. “You’re going kind of old school.”
It occurred to me that there are certain elements that can still be part of a great game but which definitely add a feeling back into D&D that might have been missing in 3rd Edition and 4E. I thought it might be interesting to look at some of the things that give an old school feel and how they might be used to good effect in any great game.
“The Old Ways were dark…”
I know what the guys from AI were trying to say in this. D&D used to be kind of merciless. Traps were dangerous, and they could outright kill you if you weren’t careful. Monsters could be really awful to deal with. They could make you go down levels, turn you permanently to stone, destroy your awesome vorpal sword, drain you of permanent attribute points and so on.
As we were into 3rd and 4th Edition, D&D slowly let go of a lot of these negative influences, or at least mitigated them, or made them less long lasting. Almost all “Save or Die” type things were gone, and I don’t mourn their passing. Speaking as someone whose colossal red dragon was killed in round 3 of a combat by the cleric’s Implosion spell, I can attest that nothing sucks the drama out of a fight more than an unlucky Saving Throw allowing for something important to the scene to die instantly.
It’s fun (at least as a DM) reading the descriptions of monsters. I’ve smiled at the return of rust monsters that really destroy your stuff, succubi who can lower your maximum hit points, and trolls that can grow from a severed limb.
At the same time, however, it’s clear that they’ve learned a lot from the latest editions of the game that there are things gamers just don’t enjoy. I have yet to find a creature that can literally kill with a single attack, unless it just does plenty of damage. Things like drains to one’s hit point maximum go away after 24 hours. It’s a nice balance of old and new school.
Letting Go of the Grid
I heard a lot of complaining when 3rd and 4E came along about how Wizards of the Coast was trying to force people to invest in miniatures and maps. I always found this enormous comical for two reasons. First, if you don’t want to buy all that expensive stuff, it’s so easy to cannibalize boardgames, toys, and more into minis. I used to play a game with a friend of mine who used Legos, and some friends of mine use little figurines that come with their Red Rose Tea. I also laugh because I’ve used figures and maps since 1st edition. In fact, when D&D started, it was a minis wargame, and I always found it was helpful for people to know where they were by comparison to the enemies, the terrain, the rope that was attached to the chandelier, etc.
Now, I can run a theater of the mind game with no effort at all. I might use a piece of paper just to vaguely keep in mind where people are, who they’re fighting, and so on, but I don’t need to. I ran multiple fights at the D&D Next playtest at Pax East in 2012 without a map. I happen to like the visual aid of a map and minis, and I think maps and minis cut down on arguments during combat. If you can look and see unequivocally that your mage is a certain distance from a monster, or that certain monsters are adjacent to you, or what’s within a potential area effect from a spell, then you can make really informed decisions and not fight with the DM over whether or not a certain monster was going to get caught in your burning hands spell.
Now, I absolutely respect anyone’s way to play D&D, and I can say that D&D Next takes a lot of the intense tactical nature back out of D&D. In the end, all I want is a smooth, easy combat system that lets me describe an exciting story narrative through combat.
Richard Garriott, creator of the Ultima series of video games, noted something interesting about his new Shroud of the Avatar game. If you play the game as intended, you won’t see characters with exclamation points over their heads, or anything similar. Instead, as you have organic discussions with the NPCs, they might reveal details about dungeons, quests, and the like. It’s up to you, however, to decide that something was important and therefore worthy of investigation.
In a way, I’ve already been doing this in my own game through my “Sandbox with Benefits” model. I dangle various potential plots at the players, and I write adventures based on what they decide to do. I will sometimes give the PCs “Quest Cards” that I designed to remind them of what quests they’ve shown interest in, what the potential rewards are, and who they have to work with to get rewarded. I like doing this, as they occasionally remember certain plot elements as they look over old quest cards they haven’t fulfilled yet. It does feel, however, just a little bit like one of those quest journals one finds in MMORPGs.
By not overstating the obvious, making your players make note of things, and letting them drive which details are ultimately important and which aren’t, you can develop a game with an old school flavor that, behind the scenes, at least, is player driven, fun, and nostalgic. When 3rd edition came along with skills like Spot, Listen, and Search, and then 4th edition with Perception, a lot of games I ended up in tended to make exploration something of a hand-wave, when it had always been an important part of the game. The phrase, “Describe your search,” if used sparingly, can push players into being quite creative and descriptive with what they’re trying to locate, and it turns the exploration of the dungeon back into something more freeform and role-playing than a simple mechanical series of rolls. I’ve seen how D&D Next treats the process, and I’m intrigued to see what kind of advice they ultimately have for the DM in terms of setting the target numbers, how to handle exploration, and so on.
While it’s clear that D&D Next is a step back into some of the “Old Ways”, it’s also clear that there are innovations that 3rd and 4th edition introduced that won’t be ignored. The concept of the Short Rest, with chances for healing and the recovery of some powers, is firmly rooted in the game, as is the idea of being fully healed during an Extended Rest (though not all resources recover during an Extended Rest at higher levels.) The concept of all characters being able to heal themselves a bit is in there. And I don’t think we’re ever going back to armor class that goes down instead of up. Some New School things are here to stay.
I don’t think the future of D&D lies in the Old School or the New. One of the reasons 4E was so universally disliked was that it went too far in establishing itself as something completely new. Suddenly new races, new classes, a whole new system of powers for everyone, and a new world were all part of the core game. People who felt comfortable with things like the Great Wheel cosmology and the nine alignments found that even these old chestnuts were abandoned in favor of something new. Although I adore 4E, I can understand why people had difficulty accepting it as D&D.
D&D Next will evoke a feeling of nostalgia, especially in players who stopped after 2nd edition. Heck, we’re playing through Keep on the Borderlands in my campaign; talk about nostalgia! But it innovates, takes some of the best elements from the latest versions, and promises to stride boldly forward.
What other Old School elements do you hope D&D Next will bring? What do you hope to see preserved from the New School realm of things? Are you just done with new versions of D&D? Let us all know.