Why 4e D&D is old school

There’s a lot of talk about 4e D&D being influenced by video games, and there’s little doubting that’s true. But I’m here to tell you that’s a good thing, and it makes 4e D&D more old school, not less. Here’s why.

All those video games, from Final Fantasy through World of Warcraft and beyond, have one thing in common. They’re all about generating characters who’s main aim in life is to kill creatures and take their stuff. That’s old school at the core, right there. What they do though is add several additional layers to the mix. The first and most obvious alteration is the big flashy graphics. Fantasy-inspired video games don’t do subtle effects where a big orange explosion will suffice. Some of that has carried through to the flavour text in 4e D&D’s Powers, but that doesn’t have to be how you play the game. Even Lance of Faith from the much-maligned laser Cleric could have a less flashy rationale in your game-world. It could be a direct stab of conscience that grips the heart of the target, or something more directly linked to your patron deity. The Lance of Faith from a Cleric of the Raven Queen could leave the target feeling like someone has literally walked over their grave.

In short, the game is as flashy as you want it to be; the effect of the Power remains the same. That opens up a whole range of old school potential. Want your Wizard to be an conjurer, illusionist or elementalist? Just describe your Powers in those terms, and you’re there.

The other thing that video games bring is multi-player support, and that’s carried across to 4e D&D with classes such as the Warlord and Powers that explicitly encourage tactical co-operative play. Add in the Skill Challenge mechanism that downright enforces every player to get involved, and you’ve got a version of D&D where teamwork is a central tenet. That’s not old school in itself – heck, in those days it was every man for himself – but it does help to bring back some of that old-style flavour. For example, in a recent short session I ran, the players had to climb up a 30′ statue to retrieve a ruby from it’s eye socket. Yeh, that scene.

Had I run this in 3e D&D, the action would have gone something like this: Rogue makes a Climb check. Rogue makes a Strength check to prize out the ruby. Rogue makes another Climb check. The rest of the party sit at the base and twiddle their thumbs.

In 4e, I ran it as a Skill Challenge. Haile (Eladrin Wizard) made a History check to identify the statue’s design and a Perception check to pinpoint a weak spot. Fomor (Human Ranger) made a Dex check to fire a tethered arrow, Fenugreek (Human Rogue) made his Climb roll while Osgrith (Orc Fighter) made an Athletics check to hold the rope taught. Dude, it was so old school it hurt.

Had any of them failed, the players had no shortage of other ways to get the Ruby. I hadn’t planned anything, just sat back and let the players brainstorm; the Skill Challenge mechanism put them on the spot. I’ve just added one House Rule to the mix – if a player says he’s not doing anything, that counts as one failure. You’re a part of the solution, or you’re a part of the reason why the solution didn’t work.

Unlike 3e D&D, 4e is more about what “feels” right than it is about mathematical accuracy. I remember ENWorld reviews where the poster would run off reams of errata where the math was wrong in a statblock. That’s just sucking the fun out of the game. 4e puts fun first, and the numbers are just there to back up the fun, just as it should be. I can make a monster who’s a 3rd level soldier-type, but make him how the heck I want. The rules give me the guidelines, and nothing more.

I like that. It’s old school.

It hearkens back to playing Red Book D&D where I’m winging it and describe a huge Ogre, deciding on the spot that he’s got 9 Hit Dice and bad breath. In 4e, I can make that 9 Hit Dice Ogre again, on the fly, and wing it once more (Ogre Savage, MM 199, add two levels means +2 to attacks, saves and AC, +1 to damage and 20 more HP. Done).

4e D&D isn’t perfect. I’m still not a fan of the PHB’s layout, wish that Rituals weren’t such an afterthought and that Wizards’ put decent indexes in their books, but these are all things that have either been solved by the fans or Wizards’ themselves by now. What we’ve got is a system that’s…. well, it’s the best darned version of D&D since 1989. That’s old school enough for me.

61 Comments on “Why 4e D&D is old school”

  1. They’re all about generating characters who’s main aim in life is to kill creatures and take their stuff. That’s old school at the core, right there.

    It really bugs me when that old stereotype is trotted out. I think it’s one whose time has come to dispel, much as the same as that old-school was all about the “tyrannical DM”.

    Old school, if you really plumb the depths, was about AVOIDING combat. Pulpy fantasy was about lurking in the depths and plundering the forgotten ruins to gain treasure and glory. Combat was a part of it, but by and large, it was best avoided and engaged as fast as possible. Retreat was a far better option.

    Interestingly enough, if we follow the video game argument, we’ll see that old school video games themselves were more about puzzles and thought, than mindless combat.

    If anything, I think the focus on flashy combat and “kill ’em all” is more reminiscent of newer age thinking and entertainment, both in reflection of the popular games and popular culture. Flashy combat that has lots of effects and powers… the subtle is lost and even mocked.

    Flashy combat is not “bad”, but to try and establish a theme that 4E is “old school” because it appeals to a bad stereotype is a fallacy.

    Chgowizs last blog post..Erol Otus contest – art project

  2. @Chgowiz I guess it depends on the kind of games. Final Fantasy and WoW both subscribe to the more combat-oriented side of things (each in their own way), and that’s the path that most folks who claim 4e D&D “is” a video game sim tend to follow. Add in Skill Challenges though, and 4e more than caters for puzzle-based play too.

  3. I really have to agree with Chgowiz on this one. One thing I remember, and haven’t heard in year, was players wanting to start the game at 3rd level instead of 1st because, “First level character die to wandering tumbleweeds.” It was very much a huge cliche of what D&D used to be about, that characters could DIE. EASILY.

    MMO’s, which seem to be the games you’re comparing them to most here, are NOT old school. Areas are very carefully crafted so that low level characters can and do avoid being killed merely by not traveling too far afield. In both FFXI and WoW, death is not something I worried about – so long as I am willing to grind.

    Grind is not something you find in “old school” games. The term didn’t even exist in that context at the time. And yet, I’ve more than once heard it in reference to 4E.

    So, while I find your premise in this post interesting, I also find it inherently flawed.

    Viriathas last blog post..Alchemy: Creating A System Part 4

  4. Any game can cater to puzzles, but the focus of the OP and of many who try to link 4e to either old school or MMORPGs tend to take a narrow point of view. I’m just as guilty of that as anyone – it’s an easy, cheap shot.

    Tying to link 4e via senseless combat to old school uses a bad stereotype to give the new version some sort of cachet. To really compare apples to oranges is impossible. 4E is a completely different system, with a completely different set of mechanics to reward a completely different style of play versus older versions of the game. Saying 4E is old school because of mindless combat or skill challenges is similar to saying Metallica is still old school because they play guitars and manage to squeeze out a similar sounding riff now and then. (OK, now I fess up to hyperbole on that, but you get my drift…)

    I think the reading of writings like Grognardia and that debate on ars ludi really brought it into focus for me. There’s an almost obsessive need to somehow link 4E to “old school” and it’s really not needed, nor is it valid. Any game can feel any flavor, based on how it’s played. What would make a game “old school” is if it rewards/encourages a similar play and approach that the older versions did. If it does, then you have 4E old school.

    But again, my disagreement with the original post stands. Linking senseless mass killing with old school does old school a disservice.

    And I’m still waiting for microlite20 stats. *chuckle*

    Chgowizs last blog post..Erol Otus contest – art project

  5. “To really compare apples to oranges is impossible. 4E is a completely different system, with a completely different set of mechanics to reward a completely different style of play versus older versions of the game.”

    Older versions of many games were easier to adapt to particular types of campaigns in terms of treasure amounts. Dirtfarming games were a significant percentage of old school games. Forgotten Realms began killing this and catering to what we used to call the “Munchkin”. The player who wanted more magic, more items, more power, more, more, more.

    Waterdeep had shops where magic items were for SALE. And the death of low magic games began. It’s been a sad thing to watch. I meet alot of gamers all the time and the average has shifted into much higher gear for power levels. 4E only takes this even farther.

    Viriathas last blog post..Alchemy: Creating A System Part 4

  6. One thing I do miss about 4e D&D is the low-level play. I’ve said before that 1st level in 4e is akin to 4th level in Third, or 6th level in Classic D&D. It completely skips the bump where characters are fragile things who could be killed with a lucky roll from a passing Kobold.

    As Viriatha said, folks tended to skip those levels anyhow, jumping in at higher levels to increase their chance of survivability. 4e D&D makes that redundant – 1st level characters are much tougher than their counterparts from previous editions.

    Whether that’s a good thing or not depends on your group’s style of play. We’ve come to accept it (painful though the loss is), and hit the ground running.

  7. I don’t know that everyone skipped them. I heard that often but only from about half of my players. Several of us have decided the loss wasn’t acceptable and switched systems.

    Valiant, for example, is a deliberately crafted low-treasure, low-magic setting. I don’t call it old school though because it uses a system without classes or levels.

  8. I don’t claim to be an expert by any means, but I understand that even coming up with a mutually agreeable working definition of “old school roleplaying” is very difficult.

    I don’t think people are trying to stretch the definition of old school to fit some “obsessive need”, I think gamers just have different definitions of old school, and some definitions sync up with 4e, and some don’t.

    Dave T. Games last blog post..5 Things I Loved and 5 Things I Hated About 2nd Edition AD&D

  9. 4e doesn’t seem to be a very old school to me, game system wise. To me, old school game systems have:

    a) Short, simple, very incomplete rules (by rule for everything standards) designed to be guidelines for the GM. Players don’t have to know many rules, let alone be expert in using the rules. Players might not even feel the need to own a copy of the rules.

    b) Very fast playing combat systems as these allow things wandering monsters without “wasting: lots of game time

    c) Rules designed to feel (but not necessarily to actually be) realistic. A player can describe his actions in real world terms and the results of those actions easily can be described in real world terms. You can’t trip a gelatinous cube.

    d) Player skill is as important or more important than character skill. Note, however, that by player skill I do not refer to rules knowledge or skill in manipulating the rules to get the best result.

    e) GM rulings outrank rules. The rules as written are not considered sacrosanct.

    f) Characters in old school fantasy games grow to be powerful, but usually still normal people. They do not start out as extraordinarily powerful people and grow to be fantasy comic book superheroes.

    Could 4e be used to run old school style adventures? Probably, with a lot of effort on the part of the GM. But the gamesystems don’t really lend themselves to easy “old school style” play. 4e is too complex rules-wise and hard to align game effects with reality — and, of course, combats still take too long.

  10. Good post. I very much enjoyed reading about your skill challenge. That’s the kind of skill challenge that should be more present in the rulebooks as an example, rather than the stuff they have right now.

    As for magic item consumerism, I kick that up a notch in my settings by introducing a magic item monopoly run by an eccentric wizard chick and her thousand clones. It’s so awesome when the players become stuck in an alternate dimension, and they decide the best place to gather information is to find a Sicily Store, because there’s bound to be one, and it’s bound to have some tenuous connection to their world (it almost never does though, just to mess with them, but at least they can buy magic crumpets while they sit around thinking what to do.)

    If 4e was really old-school, I probably wouldn’t play it. So while I find these kinds of posts very interesting, I know 4e isn’t really old school. It has shades of it because it’s D&D, and all D&Ds harken back to killing things and taking their stuff, and having Wizards with less Hp than everyone else, and all that. But really, I don’t think it’s very old school beyond a few superficial things. I think it comes off that way because it’s simpler than the excesses of D&D 3e that people have become so used to.

    Wyatts last blog post..Adventure-Writing Layout

  11. I think gamers just have different definitions of old school, and some definitions sync up with 4e, and some don’t.

    I agree, but when the synchronization uses bad stereotypes, I think it’s important to refute it. Similarly, I don’t really subscribe to the “4E is just MMORPG/Video Game/CCG” stereotype. I used to, as a cheap shot, but it’s inappropriate and doesn’t really serve anything.

    Chgowizs last blog post..Titles and Reputation

  12. Opinion. Its all opinion. When I was actually playing what is now called “old school” we didn’t fit the stereotype. We weren’t dungeon crawlers, we were plot and intrigue and wonder and character driven. The players had more to do than just kick in doors, kill monsters and take gold.

    The stereotype for 4E will probably be videogame-like combat & dungeon oriented adventures.

    HermitDaves last blog post..disposable week

  13. “Killing things and taking their stuff” is, and always has been, a part of D&D to a greater or lesser extent depending on your style of play.

    Old School is a difficult thing to pin down because it means different things to different folks, and that’s cool too. I like how 4e fits _my_ idea of old school though :D

    Whether if fits yours (or, for that matter, whether you want it to) is open to debate :D

    Good feedback, folks, keep it coming!

  14. I think it comes off that way because it’s simpler than the excesses of D&D 3e that people have become so used to.

    I think you are probably right, Wyatt. 4e RAW feels more like “old school” than 3.x RAW does. However, I don’t think either are really old school by any meaningful definition of the term.

  15. I disagree with the main point of the post. As an amusing experiment, let me see how well 4e fits with Matt Finch’s quick primer for old school gaming. (Google finds it.)

    Rulings, not rules: Out of combat 4e fits this somewhat, in combat it is the epitome of the contrary.

    Player skill, not character abilities: The statue example with all the die rolling is a good example of relying on rules and character skills as opposed to player cleverness, description player skills. All the powers are, likewise, very much contradicting this principle.

    Heroic, not superhero: Right. I don’t think this needs further elaboration.

    Forget “game balance”: Right.

    On that score, zero or maybe half out of four. It takes some skill to get farther from the old school.

    The primer also has hints to players. Most are about strategy in dungeons. If adventure paths are used, the advice is close to worthless; otherwise, it may be somewhat applicable.

    The advice for GMs: One point is directly applicable, others might be useful or make wrong assumptions.

    So, based on this SCIENCE!tific measuring tool, 4e is very from the old school, as illustrated by that particular primer.

  16. @Tommi One man’s science is another one’s disprovable theory. I thought much the same about 4e D&D until we actually sat down and played the thing. It plays much better than it reads, that’s for sure.

    On to the Primer……..

    Rulings, not rules: out of combat (and especially with regards to Skill Challenges), 4e D&D is definitely more of a GM-led rather than rules-led game. In combat, that’s much less so – this “zen moment” isn’t about combat. It’s about the other times when the rulings are needed. 4e does this admirably.

    Player skill, not character abilities: I think 4e D&D is about encouraging player skill. It’s about working out funky uses for your character’s abilities in Skill Challenges and finding ways to use what you’ve got. I don’t think that the two are mutually exclusive – some of the most complex games ever made (Rolemaster, for example) provided tonnes of character abilities but are still firmly old school in delivery. 4e’s not perfect, but it gets the balance between player skill & character stats pretty close.

    Heroic, not superheroic: Agree with you there! I’ve said before that 4e is superhero-fantasy :D

    Forget “Game Balance”: That’s taken much more of a back seat with 4e than it had in Third Edition, and that’s a Very Good Thing. There’s less emphasis on numerical accuracy (especially as regards monster building and “balanced encounters”. Ick), and more focus on the fun again. That’s a definite step in the right direction.

    I think the Primer’s tips for Players and GMs alike are relevant for any edition of D&D regardless of rules set. If you want to play old school, they’re a pretty good primer how to do it – and they all apply equally well to 4e.

    Science? Bah.

  17. I think one of the elements of “old school” play is the concept of the game setting as a logistical challenge. The magic-user and cleric must choose which of his spells will be most useful and memorize them ahead of time. And once they’re gone, he needs to improvise. Hit points are a limited resource; especially at lower levels, and engaging in combat with a bunch of goblins can require a decision as to whether it’s possible to continue, or does the party need to make a strategic retreat (if that’s even possible; one aspect of the old-school dungeon complex was the propensity to get lost)? Even character levels themselves can be seen as a consumable resource; one encounter with a couple of wights can leave you wondering whether your now-fouth-level-fighter is able to handle the terrors of the sixth level of the dungeon…

    4E, with its special powers that are either unlimited, or that regenerate after each combat, and instant healing (even in the middle of combat!) completely discards that element, which I would regard as central, of “old school” gaming.

    Josephs last blog post..AD&D’s Lost Second Edition

  18. Assuming I can get an hour to myself between now and the end of the weekend, I am planning a post on the unsung virtues of the 3.5e skill system. I see your Old School, young man, and raise you to the tune of a Useful Skill System!

    However, I need to find that time first… currently I’m just rolling critical failures on Time Management.

    faustusnotess last blog post..Theatre review: Shunkin

  19. First, I’m not attacking 4e. I think it is a focused design and much better at what it does than almost all other roleplaying games. (Almost all others, because Rune might be a contender; only play could tell. Exalted, too. And maybe some never-heard-of-Forge-games. I have played none of these and will hence not judge their quality.) Anyway. What 4e most excels at is flashy tactical high-fantasy combats. This is not what old school gaming in the sense of the primer is focused on at all. If you disagree with the primer, which seems pretty likely, it would be advisable to tell what you mean by old school feel or games or whatever. (And the primer is not a religious text.)

    (The SCIENCE!-thing was my version of humour.)

    On to nitpicking analysis;

    Rules, not rulings: In the primer it precisely applies to combat, too. Consider the second example (IIRC). And though 4e is more flexible than third, it is also more structured in combat than most other rpgs. Out of combat: Whether skill challenges count as rulings and not rules is highly debatable. I’ll say they are a useful half-ground, illuminating how rulings versus rules is a continuum.

    Player skill: Rolemaster is not very old school by the primer’s standards. It has almost unified resolution (2 tables, IIRC, for almost everything that is not combat) and emphasis on skill systems and hence character skill. When using the primer as a measuring stick it is advisable to actually use the primer as a measuring stick, not other more-or-less related games whose old school credibility might well be disputed.

    Balance: Maybe less emphasis than 3rd ed had. Plenty more than almost all other games have. Treasure parcels and character class balance, for example. Compare to, say, the D&D retro-clones (or the originals for that matter).

    Player and GM tips are highly dependant on the style of play. I’d say 4e is clearly designed with an eye towards certain style of play much different from that where the retro-clones work optimally, which is where the main argument for 4e not being old school lies. Arguments arise when people who play (or played or would play) the games in similar way start saying that they play them in similar way.

  20. “Rulings, not rules: Out of combat 4e fits this somewhat, in combat it is the epitome of the contrary.

    Player skill, not character abilities: The statue example with all the die rolling is a good example of relying on rules and character skills as opposed to player cleverness, description player skills. All the powers are, likewise, very much contradicting this principle.

    Heroic, not superhero: Right. I don’t think this needs further elaboration.

    Forget “game balance”: Right.”

    The first two things on your list are fully covered by the rule on page 42 of the DMG. The rule on 42 gives you guidlinces on making rulings. It is the best support of old school gaming in D&D ever. There was a lot of suggestion about making rulings, but never any advice about how to pull it off. This support makes it easier than ever for new players to have fun games in an old school style. Escaping the rules of the system is only dependent on the culture of your gamaing table. 4e acknowledges this, and supports the escape from the rules, and apposed to just not providing the rules, and assuming that you would figure it out yourself.

    The third thing on your list implies that you do not think that it is possible to play a non-superhero in 4e. You are very much wrong. It is all in perspective and context that hero and superhero are divided. This is game dependent, not game system dapendent, at least for D&D. My games really seem heroic, but not super-heroic. They are made even more heroic because the characters are not super heros, and so the things that they do require sacrifice and danger. That is what makes a hero. Super heros are not really that heroic.

    The last thing on the list I will give you. 4e is pretty well balanced. Not perfectly, as the wizard still is weaker than the other characters in the low levels, and comes to be incredibly powerful later in his career, but the power difference between the classes has been minimized. This is a good thing in my opinion. I am truly OK with discarding old school memes on this one.

    In short, I do not think that your analysis of whether 4e matches the definition of old school as espoused in the primer you quoted is very sound. I do not jump to conclusions, but the way you write about 4e makes you seem like you have no experience with it.

  21. @precocious –

    Ahem. I do have experience at playing 4E, having perused the rules in some detail when they first came out and played in several games.

    It is the best support of old school gaming in D&D ever

    Not to descend into contrasting hyperbole, but I hardly doubt that a 4E book is the best support of “old school gaming.” The best support, to me, is for those who take the rules and create fantastic adventures and campaigns that aren’t shackled to other’s rules, rather to their own. The best support, in old game spirit, is the support you give yourself in creating your world and bringing people into it. Gygax hardly wanted a ruleset or a page in a book to do that.

    Chgowizs last blog post..Man begins real life quest for 2nd level as fighter…

  22. While you are correct Chgowiz, the support I was referring to was from the system. By saying that no system is needed to support old school, you are completely removing yourself from this argument. If we contain the argument about old school to system support, I think that 4e wins in a landslide. It provides advice for how to aproach aspects of play not provided for in the rules. Other editions left it to “the DM shall decide”. This is somewhat where we are left in 4e, but with the addition of a little discussion on how you might approach your decision as a DM. I have played since the red box, and as an 11 year old kid, I could have used some of that advice.

  23. By saying that no system is needed to support old school, you are completely removing yourself from this argument.

    I call “bull pucky” that one needs a “system” to be “old school.” If that statement needs to be agreed to in order to have a discussion, then indeed, I’ll be removed from the argument.

    That’s not because you are right, rather I think that you are wrong. A system does not make “old school” – one can look at many systems and find a common philosophy and approach to gaming. Those philosophies have been spoken about in previous comments.

    4E may provide “guidance” and “advice” that assist someone in approaching 4E from a “rulings not rules” standpoint, but that has been supported in many books and editions – I can’t speak with authority/memory for 2E/3E/Moldvay, but I can say that I gain much insight and assistance from the older editions on how to deal with things.

    I have played since the red box, and as an 11 year old kid, I could have used some of that advice.

    That’s a common theme for most of us that grew up with D&D. I think that speaks more to us processing what was there than the advice that was there. I find, reading it with a more experienced eye, that the support was always there.

    Chgowizs last blog post..Man begins real life quest for 2nd level as fighter…

  24. Chgowiz, I very much agree with you that no system is required to go old school. That is why I am saying that your statement removes you from the argument. If no system is required, then 4e can be just as old school as Chainmail, or any other system, if it is approached in an old school way.

    You could also be correct about the support that was needed. I have not looked at any of the OD&D products since I was a kid, but I always resented the fact that there was no support for my decision making. I gravitated to more complex systems as I aged in a futile effort to get the ruling support. This only compouned the problem, and 3e was ultimately a total failure for me as a system for the style of game I wanted to play. I quit before 4e came out.

    4e wiped the slate clean of a lot of the simulationist rules (I am not really a fan of GNS, but people understand it to some degree, so I use it here.) It also provided explicit advice on how to massage the system to get the rulings you make work how you want them to.

    I have actually matured in my understanding of games an playing since 4e was announced. The omnipresent edition wars have brought into focus the things that are important to my games. It supporst a lot of things that were only subconscious desires for me, desires that I have had since I was 11. It makes it wasy to have the games that I wish I could have had at that time. 4e might not be pure old school, but it gives me a system that proguces the old school feel for me, and without a lot of the crap that resulted from our 11 year old gaming mentality. My games were fun, but if I had 4e at 11, I would have had much more meaningful games, with less internal conflict about how I was supposed to do it all.

    4e and old school are not at all mutually exclusive. If you apply an old school mentality to 4e, your games will feel old school. It might take a bit of forging new paths outside the rules to get that old school feeling, but I think that this ability to stray from the rules to get a certain feeling is core to the old school experience. If you could do it with OD&D, you can certainly do it with 4e.

  25. @Randy

    “However, I don’t think either are really old school by any meaningful definition of the term.”

    As my post states, we totally agree. Having played both retroclones and the original old-school systems, trying to follow old-school with old school people; 4e doesn’t feel anywhere close except in a few elements (which I believe to this day just comes as a product of wanting to bury 3e as far away as possible, a noble endeavor if you ask me) and in some externally-applied philosophy.

    But that being said, I much agree with Dave and Greywulf when they say that it can fit OTHERS’ perception of what old-school is and that this isn’t a problem or absolute definition. The ways I experienced old-school don’t really fit what I play in 4e now (and thank God for that!) but we all have differing viewpoints and experiences on this.

  26. @precociousApprentice – I will have to say that I find that the biggest thing *I* attach to old school is a rules light approach (and one could say that AD&D 1E probably pushes my comfort level on that, which is why I run OSRIC/1E very light and I gravitate towards Holmes/OD&D and the retroclones thereof).

    This also explains why I’m here. Greywulf’s microlite20 (and Randall’s subsequent microlite74) brought me back to D&D after being turned off by 3E/4E rules heavy approach. That’s why I keep smacking Greywulf in the head (with fondness) when he forgets to make microlite stats for his characters.

    It sounds like you struggled with the earlier editions and were unhappy and now 4E makes the game good for you. Excellent! That’s a win for RPGs and that’s good.

    That’s also why I will probably always disagree about 4E having anything to do with “old school”; I don’t feel that 4E can be run with the old school flavor that I love. The fact that a rulebook has to provide specific guidance on how to ignore the rules to make rulings just seems … backwards to me. When I read that, I just sighed. This is not the D&D for me.

    Chgowizs last blog post..Man begins real life quest for 2nd level as fighter…

  27. I understand. 4e is definitely not rules light. It seems pretty rules medium. Perfect for me. And when the rules produce results I don’t like, I tell my players, “Give me a damn good reason for that, or quit being stupid.” It makes me be flexible, creative, and empowers me to not be stupid. 3e very much discouraged this. I guess that is mainly why it feels very old school to me. It is not 3e, and I am mature enough to get the old school elements I like out of it.

    And as always, to each his own.

  28. @precociousApprentice – After playing in one of Jeff Rient’s games, I’ve learned the simplicity of not having a rule mechanic and being comfortable to say “OK, you want to toss a grappling hook around a statue’s neck and Joe here wants to climb it to get the crystal. To make this all simple, and because you guys have decent Dex scores, I’ll roll this d6 here. I’ll give you a 4 in 6 of making it, success is high.” :roll: Oh crap, 2. Well, as you get halfway across the rope, it slides off the neck. There’s this darkness here and some slavering jaws… roll for initiative…”

    I think maybe that comfort at doing those things comes from me being a drama-queen. I tend to feel very restrained by rules complex, and all those powers and feats and whatnot just make me, as a GM, feel constrained. If Joe wants to be a wall climbin’ fool, I don’t need him to have Feats or Powers to try… just tell me reasonably why he would succeed. If I like it, then he does. If not, I have my d6 here. I like the one with the skull as a 1 for life/death throws (or wandering monster checks…)

    This does bring up a nice tangent – How do we get people to feel comfortable stepping outside of what the book tells us to do? I think that even 1E, with it’s many rules, allows me a great deal of freedom (ask my players about wall climbing kobolds who toss gourds of doom) in going places without too many rules. When I tried 3E and when I looked at 4E, it was the sheer number of *stated* options that turned me off, not to mention the way the combat play went.

    When I tried to do stuff outside of the box, as a player, I got blank stares. As a GM, I could do rulings on 4E all day, but the rules lawyering from players who want Power XYZ combined with combat maneuver 21.3-12 to lead to a Cleave of Happy Headsplitting Doom.. yea, that would just get in the way.

    So I have microlite20/74 and S&W and OSRIC/1E and Holmes and LBBs and literally a mountain of ideas from the Internet to keep me going. However… how do we get other people to feel comfortable with rulings not rules?

    Chgowizs last blog post..Man begins real life quest for 2nd level as fighter…

  29. Do I get the Can o’Worms Award for today? Do I? Do I? :D

    Me, I’m just loving the debate right now from both sides of the fence. That’s pretty much why I posted it – I hadn’t expected 4e D&D to feel old school at all, and that surprised me. In play it feels a lot closer to the games we run with the D&D Rules Cyclopedia than it does with the Third Edition rules. It’s more free form, more trusting of the GM, more…. well, more old school. And that’s coming from me, a gamer who cut his teeth on the the very first RPGs in the late 70s.

    Keep ’em coming folks, I’m loving the input!

  30. @Chgowiz… Something has been bugging me about the way that you are presenting OD&D, but I wasn’t able to put my finger on it until your last post.

    “The fact that a rulebook has to provide specific guidance on how to ignore the rules to make rulings just seems … backwards to me. When I read that, I just sighed. This is not the D&D for me.”

    I think that you are looking at previous versions of DnD from only your current perspective – what you like now and the way you play now. That’s fine, we all do the same thing, but I think it’s causing you to miss some things about both historical and current systems.

    When I was a relatively inexperienced gamer and especially when I was an inexperienced DM, having “specific guidance on how to ignore the rules to make rulings” for any system would have been GOLDEN. DMing is about group management as much as other things, and specific help in that regard is very, very important.

    Now, we all know that you’ve been a gamer for a looooonnggg time (since dragons ruled the earth, practically), so advice that that clearly isn’t needed for you anymore, and I’m betting that you play with a group that is capable of working effectively in a “rules-light” environment. But you’re the minority, sorry to say.

    A rules-light system is good and all, but if you don’t have the group for it. Well, I hope you like arguing. And arguing, and arguing. More than playing, even. Plus, I think that any mention of “player skill” has no place in any system that has a “save or die” mechanic. You have abrogated all skill at that point, and put everything purely into the land of luck. Providing simple, flexible mechanics that reward player innovation and encourage teamwork is how, IMO, player skill is really made valuable.

    4e isn’t OD&D, but some comparisons here are worthy, and not to be dismissed because you don’t like the tone of the system.

  31. @wickedmurph – there are a helluva lot better DMs and players than I, any advice I give is IMHO only and take it with the grain of salt you’d take with anything on the Intertubes. However, I will speak passionately about what I believe in, including UFOs and lottery fairies. If my passion comes across as somehow a “better than thou” attitude, please understand that is not how I feel. The text interface always leaves alot to interpretation.

    I agree that there are many camps of gamers, some who like rules lite and some who don’t. I make it very clear up front in my games that I do run rules lite and “rulings not rules” – yet I’m also clear up front that I will discuss anything with players and will change/adjust to make for a better experience (maybe not always fun, but then, not everything is fun, that’s another story…)

    That’s a real eye opener for me, that some may like the rules heavy systems because of struggles as a kid. I think that although I missed a ton of the wisdom in the books as written as a kid, I still felt an ease with coming up with a game that worked. That’s what we wanted, even if it came down to just rolling a die.

    And again, I have no problems with 4E as written, save that I don’t think it reflects my old-school loves nor do I wish to see old bad stereotypes used, ie., 4E is old school because it brings back kill-em-all adventures.

    I have a feeling that GMs will struggle with a lot of the same problems today as they did 30 odd years ago. There were articles in various magazines and examples from play that helped to shape my skills and ideas as a GM. Should 4e be called be ‘be all end all’ of old school’ism because it tells a GM to make rulings, not rules? Probably not. *chuckle*

    Chgowizs last blog post..Man begins real life quest for 2nd level as fighter…

  32. “Should 4e be called be ‘be all end all’ of old school’ism because it tells a GM to make rulings, not rules? Probably not. *chuckle*”

    Chgowiz, I have a feeling that this is directed at me because of my claim that 4e provides more support for rulings not rules than previous systems. I stand by that, even if it is a tough sell.

    See, what I said is not that 4e is the be-all-end-all of old school. I said that it provides support for escaping rules. I cannot really recall correctly, but from what I remember, the advice that OD&D gave was on the order of “roll a die”. Sounds like you like that. I don’t really. Neither as a player, nor as a DM. I want to connect it to something that reflects the characters. I like the rule on 42, because it tells you where to start, gives advice on how to adjust for unusual circumstances, and gives suggestions for ways to balance what you decide with the rest of the system. This makes most players feel comfortable with any decision you make, and avoids a lot of arguments. Unfortunately, all of the gamers I have ever known have been ones of great opinion, and avoiding that argument has always lead to better games.

    4e is not old school because it dispenses with a lot of the cliches of old school. I agree, kill things, take their stuff is not the sum total of old school. Even at 11 I wanted something different than that. Some of that, but something else as well. One round TPKs are mostly done away with in 4e. Fighters whose only atributes are high HP and a good attack rating. Gone. Wizards that a house cat could kill and that are useful in combat for one round at 1st level, but become deities at higher level. Mostly gone. I like that about 4e. It is not old school in this way. It would be incredibly easy to houserule it to make it more old school in these ways, but the core rules are not.

    But it is old school in that the rules are not the sum total of the game. It is old school in that the game mechanics are not supposed to represent all of physics in the game universe. It is old school in that it allows me to play the way I always wanted to play when I was a kid. Somewhere between “The DM decides” and “That’s not how it works! On page 225 of the Armorsmith’s Handbook, it talks about metalurgy, and it says….”. 4e is not rules light. It is also not very rules heavy, it is definitely not dictated strictly by the rules content, and doesn’t aim at completely generating a fantasy world through the rules. It is pleasantly rules medium.

    I think that in the right 4e game, you could have a lot of fun. I like it when my players think outsid the box. I like it when they reframe an area of the rules. I like to reskin almost everything, and I like feeling comfortable with what the players attempt, and what I am able to give them both in the system and the meta-system of the game. Old school is a very nebulous idea, and all I can say is that I can run a game that feels like my games as a kid, with less hastle, less argument, and that also fits MY definition of what old school is. This is basically what I have been looking for in other systems for a long time. The happy medium between rules light and rules heavy, and at least a little advice on how to make the game feel “right” to me.

    As a side note, the thing that I most resent about the content in 4e is that they don’t come out and explicitly state the design goals and assumptions. Stating this sort of info would make me even more comfortable stepping outside of the published material, unleashing even more home brew, and empowering my at-the-table improvisation. I have brought this up to Mike Mearls, and he has remained silent on the issue. I beleive that the true reason they did not include this info is that by doing so, they would put themselves out of business. Who needs the cooks when you have the recipe and love to cook? Oh well. I will just need to reverse engineer the whole thing. Not terribly hard to do with the unified math of the system.

  33. Precocious apprentice;

    Rulings: As Chgowiz said, you don’t need a table, you need a die and a modicum of common sense to make rulings. System benchmarks may be of help sometimes (by which I mean things like difficulty 1 is easy, 2 is routine, 3 tricky, 4 difficult, on from there), but they are really only relevant when there is a fairly unified resolution mechanic.

    Superheroic: I am not saying that it is impossible to play non-superheroic 4e. I am saying that 4e is well-suited and encourages superheroic fantasy. The characters are, by design, very competent (especially in combat). Also, mook rules are always something that encourages higher power level, partly because they make fights against larger hordes feasible time-wise. Again, I am not saying this is a bad thing. Personally I consider the sort of fantasy communicated by the art and character power names to be utterly boring, but YMMV.

    On play: Yes, I have not played 4e. I do have the PHB (as GM loot from a roleplaying convention) and I have read it and “enjoyed” the art.

  34. Further, an interesting social behaviour: Argument started as “is 4e old school” and now some are defending the design choices of 4e, as if claiming it is not old school is an attack.

  35. Wow. I’d just like to put it out there that this photo —> makes you look like a flamingly gay fat nerd diva. Seriously, the way the light glistens off your gut is so artistically grotesque it hurts my head. I’m all about positive mental body image and all, but please take that down and put up something else that doesn’t make you look like such a fucking queen. I don’t think I can take one word that comes out of your mouth / onto this page seriously until you do something about this.

    Hugs and kisses, your secret bear buddy.

  36. @Marauder ROFLMAO! I’ve been called some things, but “flamingly gay fat nerd diva” is a first. Probably those words, individually, bot never together in that order. If I was giving out prizes, you’d get one for that.

    But I’m not.

  37. Greywulf,

    Is that like a Marvel Comics No-Prize?

    I love you to pieces, but seriously my friend…you’ve got the shot hip, the turned foot, the crossed arms, those tiny little shades…

    Tell you what. Get like a fur diaper and a viking hat and like, a big scary axe and a foaming horn full of ale and pose all you want. Then it would just be pure awesome. Right now you look like some reject fashion designer from Project Runway…and you don’t want to be that guy.

    Bears for Bears, my friend (I actually have no idea your orientation, but you’re a-ok either way in my book).

  38. If there is anything which embodies the true essence of “old school” role-playing for me, it’s enthusiasm for the new and different — the open-minded embracing of that which was daring and imaginative that I saw in my fellow players back at the dawn of D&D. At the gaming table or away from it, we used to roll our eyes and shake our heads at the traditionalists around us who would dig in their heels and cling to “the way things have always been” as if it were some magic talisman to ward off all of life’s evils.

    The “old school” gamers I grew up with wouldn’t have concerned themselves with whether 4E was “real” D&D. They’d have concerned themselves with whether it was fun or not. That’s all.

  39. I don’t understand why your players didn’t cooperate before the 4e and Skill Challenge? I guess some people start “roleplaying” only if WotC writes it down as a rule. What will you do if they remove Skill Challenge in 5th edition, the party will stop cooperating again?

  40. @hex Lol! Considering we’ve been role-playing as a group for almost 30 years, I think it’s fair to say we’ve been doing it for long before 4e D&D came on the scene, and will do it long after it’s gone. What I like about skill challenges is that they provide a non-combat goal to aim for within a pretty decent framework. Our group, and I suspect 95% of all D&D’ers out there, overlooked their appearance in 3e D&D/SRD and it’s great to see such a role-playing friendly mechanic pushed to the forefront in 4e.

  41. Whenever someone mentions 4e being like WoW I smile, because World of Warcraft is one of the best RPGs ever. Then I correct them, and tell them it is in fact not like WoW but like Final Fantasy Tactics. Also one of the greatest RPGs ever. I don’t see how comparing D&D to a game that has millions of subscribers is meant to undermine the game, but the critics continue to try.

  42. Judging by this post, at the time you wrote it you deeply misunderstood what “old school” gaming was about. You say, “They’re all about generating characters who’s main aim in life is to kill creatures and take their stuff. That’s old school at the core, right there.” Though that has been bandied about as the core of “old school” gaming, a study of what was actually done in the 1970s among gamers shows that it is not so, not by a long shot. “Old school” gaming can be better understood as a process of exploration – the oldest rules discouraged killing things in favor of circumventing them. One got so many more experience (or victory, to use an old school wargaming term) points for taking treasure than for killing things, and the risks (especially at low levels, where one might even have no chance of surviving a single successful hit by even the weakest creature) of trying to kill things were so great that it is very apparent that the goal was to avoid things and take their stuff. This alone renders the rest of your argument about 4E being “old school” moot, but there’s more.

    Another feature of “old school” play could be described as “player skill, not character skill”. This is the principle that actions need to be described in detail, not deferred to an abstract “skill roll” or, as you note it is called in 4E, “skill challenge”. If one is searching a room, then one describes where the character is searching and how, one doesn’t just roll a Spot Check or whatever. The dominance of “skill challenges” in 4E is another way in which it is not at all “old school”. Similarly, “old school” games include no detailed, lengthy combat systems with “attacks of opportunity” and similar detailed, rigid methdologies for resolving combats. In “old school” play, the players are encouraged to try unusual tactics, but those tactics are not enumerated, and so limited, in the rules. They are the province of rulings by the referee. This, I realize, is a fairly alien concept to modern gamers, who have grown up with games that have been increasingly reliant on enumerating ever-larger numbers of special cases in the rules themselves, but that’s how we played back so many years ago.

    I could go on, but I think that these simple distinctions are enough. 4E may have many virtues, but it is not, in any sense, “old school”. It is very much a product of a much newer gaming aesthetic.

    1. Oh my. Where do I start? :D

      You’re right – 4e is a product of a newer gaming aesthetic, but it is one born from old school methods and sensibilities, especially as compared to Third Edition. As I said, it is an evolution, and it draws much inspiration from purer, old school times.

      Considering I began gaming in 1978, you can take any “study” which says I’m wrong and (putting it politely) shove it. In Classic D&D, the hero was rewarded primarily (but not solely) for two things: killing things (for which they gained XP) and taking stuff (for which they gained XP – one 1gp = 1xp). That’s not to say they the heroes were mindless killing things at a frag party – far from it . You’re right in that exploration was a key part of the game but it’s a (highly enjoyable) means to an end. In some editions of D&D you gained XP for each mile travelled, but that’s an incidental reward in most games at best. Once you arrived at the Dungeon, the heroes generally had one job, and one job only.

      I’m not sure about the oldest editions actually discouraging combat given that they were spawned from a wargame, but cunning play which circumvented a threat was certainly rewarded, especially at lower levels where hit points are a precious commodity. The emphasis however was, and always has been, on battling monsters whether deep underground or in the wilderness.

      This is a moot point because exactly the same thing applies in Fourth Edition. Have you actually read the 4e Dungeon Masters Guide? XP is rewarded for many things including defeating (not necessarily slaying) monsters, completing major and minor quests, defeating challenges and great role-playing. All of these are elements you’ll find in an old school game.

      Skill Clhallenges are, imho, a sadly underused element in 4e. Done right and they perfectly mimic the old-school way of tackling a puzzle or problem, but with a solid framework to support it. Don’t believe me? A suggest you read this where I put my players through an old school Skill Challenge. Heck, why not read the entire series.

      Then come back and tell me if you still think I’m wrong :D

      1. Here’s what I say about “Old School Gaming.”

        Gaming old school, for me, meant:
        *getting together with some friends
        *making some characters and putting them on a sheet.
        *sitting around a table with said friends
        *the table had maps, dice, chips and soda
        *said dice were of different shapes and got thrown around a lot.
        *monsters were killed, fair ladies were saved, treasure was found, and sometimes characters fell
        *those that lived grew stronger
        *a make-believe story was told, with us as the heroes
        *we went home at the end of the night, waiting to come back.
        *we talked about the game at school or work (powers, rules, classes, races)
        *and we moved onto other games when it was time.

        Hmm, that’s pretty much old school for me.

        .-= Tourq´s last blog ..Special Thanks =-.

  43. Trying to convince someone that 4e is old school, or even legitimately is heir to D&D isn’t really my fight. In this fight, there isn’t any real clear winners or losers. Not when 30 years of our gaming heritage is held hostage by WotC itself.

    Quite frankly, I think fighting amongst ourselves over which D&D is D&D is meaningless to me. I really think we need to regain our heritage as a group than fight over which D&D has D&D. At this point, I think we should pick our fights wisely. I’m publishing Galatea with Pathfinder Rules and with a CC license not because I hate or love 4e. I’m doing it in spite of Copyright itself. We all use machines that make it meaningless everyday. The edition wars isn’t our fight, or how or what we decide what edition is “our” D&D. That particular choice is personal as far as I am concerned.

    Greywulf, you just stated your *opinion* over which D&D is D&D to you. That’s fine. Doesn’t affect my opinion of the game. What matters to me is when and how our Content Industry is going to wake up and understand that the publishing industry has them over a barrel. However, the Internet exists so that there is another alternative and there are a lot of people understanding this. It just takes 1 person, just 1 to stand up to them and enough is enough.

    I’m rebelling against the reason why we have this edition war. WotC made a gutsy move — they locked away our gaming heritage all because of all of them felt threatened because a .pdf of Player’s Handbook II leaked out. It’s one that pushed me over the edge. I’m standing up and saying enough is enough.

    Thanks to Nina Paley, I have a viable business model. It isn’t perfect, but it will improve. What I’m asking is for some support. I’m making my move. I’m providing content outside of the system making all of you my publisher. :) It’s gutsy, it’s dangerous, and there are people who are decrying it (one guy is stating that its economically unsound). But, it has to be done in our culture.

    4e sucks. Not because of the rules, not because of anything else; but because Wizards of the Coast has managed to put a censorship lock on the game. There are far fewer 3rd Party Publishers of 4e than for 3e or Pathfinder (although, if I’m wrong, Greywulf you have the right to correct me. :) ).

    Although this is the era of indie RPGs again, I don’t see any new indie RPGs cropping up. And I certainly don’t know what the sales are of GURPS or other long time indie RPGs. It’s time to admit it, it’s a good thing to copy; and ten years ago we had seen a new golden age of gaming. Now, 30 years of our heritage is locked away.

    It’s time to make a stand. 4e sucks. Lets make it so that 4e doesn’t have to suck.

    1. I would exactly say it’s “held hostage”. Like it or not, the GSL is still much better than not having a commercial license to use their material at all – which is the state of play with pretty much any non d20 game out there. Try to publish a third party handbook for Warhammer (for example) and see how far you get before the lawyers come knocking.

      Wizards dropped the OGL for Fourth Edition because it was being abused. Plain and simple – it’s not their fault, but ours. When so-called publishers simply rebundle the System Reference Documents and sell it without adding an iota of new creativity into the mix, and we the consumers are stupid enough to buy them, we’ve only got ourselves to blame.

      The thing is that they didn’t revoke the OGL at all (not, I suspect, that they could due to its wording). The Third Edition System Reference Document is still there, and you’re free thanks to Wizards of the Coast to use it in any way you can. They have moved on, but have given Third Edition as a gift to us all. They should be praised for giving us a lasting legacy, not decried.

      I’m not condoning the GSL – far from it. Imho the game industry was a much stronger one with the latest edition of D&D being available as an open document for all to use. But I can understand and respect Wizards’ motivations and where they came from.

      Maybe you should too.

      Oh, and 4e doesn’t suck :D

  44. I guess the test of time calls to how “old school” 4E was. I’ve been playing various versions of D&D (and other game systems) since 1980 or so. About 16 months ago I started a 4E campaign, and my publishing company signed the GSL and has produced 4E materials. This june I searched for blogs about 4E campaigns. Didn’t find many that were still active – found a lot of stuff last posted a few years ago.

    It would seem that the die hard, old school gamers either finally gave up their hobby…or started playing something other than D&D 4E. (Pathfinder mainly, or never left 3.5). Si my guess is that 4E didn’t feel old school enough in some fashion to kindle whatever fired their soul to get them started in fantasy RPGs.

    We never did well with the GSL. Frankly, it stinks. Just a litle tidbit to keep the 3rd party publishers from whining about locking down a system. It has never been updated to allow use of stuff past the first set of core books. Want to write about druids, gnomes, or avengers (and a bunch more); use monsters not in MM1 or made by yourself, tough luck. It’s not covered.

    And frankly, it looks like 4E is being abandonded by WoTC in favor of D&D Essentials. They keep using focus groups to drive their game design parameters. My guess is that the audience they want to reach (15 to 25 year old MMG gamers willing to shell out cash for their gaming fix every month) are the people in the focus groups.

    And while that is not wrong from a business standpoint, those people are not what I would call “old school”. And I think I have an inside track on that audience as I own one. A 16 year old WoW player that sometimes plays 4E with me.

  45. Old school D&D, the first true roleplaying game in the industry, was not influenced by video games; the original D&D game came out in the mid 70’s, precisely because computer gaming had not yet come on the scene as a major cultural pastime. Dice, chads, pens & paper and miniatures were used because computer technology was not yet prevalent or powerful enough to even approach the human imagination.

    Rather video games like Final Fantasy or Might and Magic were directly influenced by Dungeons and Dragons, the pen and paper game, essentially porting the fantasy RPG model from tabletop to console gaming in the 80’s.

    So I wouldn’t say that the influence of video games on 4th edition in any way makes the game more old school, rather it’s indicative of the direction the hobby is taking these days. There are ups and downs to this, but I will say that the new game doesn’t remotely feel like D&D to me, and I’ve been playing since AD&D 2nd edition.

  46. The thing about dnd 4e is that it isn’t really classifiable. you can do any and everything you want. hell for one of my campains i placed my pcs in 2011 and gave them guns but they decided to rob banks and what not. so it can be old school or new school it all depends on the dm and the type of game he is making

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