The other day I came across A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming on a thread on Enworld. Given that one of the goals of D&D Next is to allow for a wide range of play experiences with the same rules set, it occurred to me that I should look deeper into what a more "old school" style has to offer. The most salient points are organized into what the author calls the four "zen moments."
First Zen Moment: Rulings, Not Rules
This is an interesting point, and even if it's one that's widely known it's not necessarily one that's widely understood. The assumption that many people make is that the first TTRPG systems lacked a plethora of rules because the hobby hadn't evolved that refinement yet. This may be true to some extent, but it doesn't explain the recent proliferation of retro-clones. I personally appreciate a simple, streamlined system with only a few core concepts that can be applied to a wide variety of situations. The reason why I haven't embraced Basic D&D, AD&D, etc. is because after looking through the books I find the rules that do exist to be clunky. There are a lot of tables (some that need to be regularly consulted in-game), situational subsystems, and that's not to mention the utter lack of balance and non-intuitive systems like THAC0 (the system whereby lower AC is better). 4E may have suffered from supplement glut, confusing errata, and a few math errors here and there, but the core system was very solid and intuitive.
Here is where D&D Next has an interesting opportunity to realize a more old-school style of play while using modern rules to do it. Not only that, but players can toggle anywhere they like on the spectrum, and in some cases the more complex modules can inform rulings using the more simple core. To illustrate what I mean by this, let's use the Fighter as an example. The Fighter is going to have the option for maneuvers-based, 4E-style builds that will presumably be as balanced against competing options as possible (that's what a whole team of game designers, as well as a slew of playtesters who in some cases are competent in game design themselves, are tasked with accomplishing). Even if you're not interested in using those tactical modules or that complex Fighter build, it pays to be familiar with it because those maneuvers can serve as extremely useful reference points. In a purely old-school game using a non-modular system the GM can make rulings for improvised actions, but they'll always be a shot in the dark. The easiest methods are to substitute an attack for an improvised maneuver (like a Dex vs Dex contest to trip a foe), which if past experience is any measure is almost never going to be used because it's usually underpowered, or to simply allow the Fighter to attempt things like this in addition to attacking, which is obviously overpowered (and will result in players fishing for improvised actions every single turn, which will bog down gameplay). The middle ground is much more interesting, where maneuvers and attacks can be combined with a drawback in some sort of middle ground, with the end result being tactically powerful but not automatically the obvious choice all the time.
Improvisation and creativity can be maintained alongside balance, instead of "you need a feat/power/etc. for that" for the sake of balance. Ultimately I do think that rewarding creativity and improvisation is important because that's the biggest strength of tabletop gaming. You can attempt anything you come up with instead of being railroaded by computer codes like in video games. In a way, some modern game rules bring that "coded" element too far into the foreground, and that's just not playing to the advantage of the medium.
Second Zen Moment: Player Skill, not Character Abilities
This one's a little more contentious in my opinion, but the beauty of delving into this old-school toolkit is that everything doesn't come pre-packaged; groups can choose different elements to suit their tastes. Aside from the fact that simply testing player skill can bog things down (i.e. requiring players to specify searching every corner of a room instead of simply rolling a search check), it also breaks the immersion of roleplaying a character who is different from you.
The biggest sticking point to me comes into play during social challenges, and there are two issues here. The first is simply that different players have different levels of comfort and interest getting into character and actually acting. The classic example is a shy player who wants to play a smooth-talking Bard. Requiring such a player to come up with the actual speech he uses to change the king's mind is simply not good gaming if the player would rather just give a short, general description and roll a Diplomacy check. The rules shouldn't restrict personal style too much, and besides that it's easier to give roll-players what they want and allow roleplayers to ignore it than it is to force rollplayers to invent their own mechanics. Second, there's a disconnect with a clever player controlling a stupid character, or a smooth-talking player controlling a character who dumped Cha, etc. The idea is that Int, Cha, or whatever can be dumped but the character won't really suffer the drawbacks of doing so. In other words, the player's skill gives the character a free ability. Why should the Fighter be able to out-Charisma the Bard when the Bard class specifically gives up some combat expertise in order to have more of a social presence?
Ultimately, there's not "right answer" and fortunately it seems like D&D Next will support both playstyles well.
Third Zen Moment: Heroic, Not Superhero
I'm not sure that this one's all that important, but perhaps old-school grognards would disagree. The premise is that starting out as Joe Normal is requisite for the experience, and I don't necessarily buy that. More adept individuals have just as much of a need to survive using their wits as every day people, because the simple fact is that every day people don't run around doing the sorts of things that adventurers tend to do! It's really a question of how deep into the "origin story" you want to go ("I just picked up a sword for the first time" vs "I've already demonstrated my skill and potential in the field"). Where your character eventually ends up isn't necessarily an old school vs modern element, either. I would argue, in fact, that old school Magic Users are indeed superheroic; the goal of modern games is simply to allow the non-magic guys to do the same.
Fourth Zen Moment: Forget "Game Balance"
Isn't this an interesting point! As someone who was attracted to 4E specifically because the classes are all balanced against each other, you might think I'd wholeheartedly take issue with this. True, I don't want to repeat my 3rd edition experience where the casters are all but useless in the first few levels, and by the high levels the situation is flip-flopped. However, one component of the argument is that not every encounter should be assumed to be "fair," and I've come to realize that this is a very good point. Of course a modern game like 4E gives you to tools to finely craft a balanced encounter, but that doesn't necessarily mean you need to adhere to them! Admittedly it's easier in a more streamlined system to gauge threat level more quickly (in real time), but I think this is generally good advice for GMs in any system to keep in mind, as it grounds the players into the game world (which feels more dynamic and realistic by being inhabited by all manners of creatures, and not just those that are an "appropriate challenge").
It takes the effort of everyone in the group to run a game more old-style, and it's helpful for players to know the basic assumptions of what they should be doing. Mapping is emphasized (even if it's just a flowchart), as the player needs to keep in mind where things are to use the environment and terrain to not only their advantage, but to avoid getting flanked by reinforcements or trapped. Dungeons tend to be tests of attrition, with the end goal being the monsters near the end with the big loot pile. Fighting everything means you'll never make it far enough, so scouting ahead is important (see also using the environment to your advantage). Asking a lot of question is important, both to clarify what you may be facing and any details of the environment that may be important. As a side note, this is valuable in any game from the GM's perspective because having to think about such details can provide a spark of inspiration (which can lead to an interesting scenario, or just help to more fully flesh out the world).
Other tips include using hirelings, protecting the Magic User, keeping in mind that not all monsters will be within the party's skill to defeat, and gathering information about a dungeon beforehand. This means doing your research and talking to people in-game before heading out. Ultimately, it's about preparation and careful thought.
Spicing things up outside of the standard procedure is required. Otherwise things turn into "I attack," "Monster Attacks," "I attack again," etc. Yes, you can spice things up in any system, but you arguably have more time for it when combat options are simple and fights end quickly. Coming up with random consequences for bad rolls (and benefits for good rolls!) is encouraged, as long as you play fair and don't favor either the monsters or the players. You need to give players a reason to trust your judgement.
Colorful descriptions and improvised actions are often easier without the constraint of a grid and minis. Even if you use a grid, go with what makes sense in the game world rather than just what makes sense on the table in front of you. Resource management is important to consider, and make sure you can think of ways to counter the 5 minute workday. Apparently a lot of old-school gamers consider this stuff a feature and not a bug (personally I'd rather not be bothered with tracking rations, arrows, etc., let alone being locked into a spellcasting system that assumes this is important to you).
The closing statements are "You are the rulebook. There is no other rulebook." and "Make it fast, make it colorful, and make it full of decisions for the players." At the very least it speaks to my aversion for 3rd edition's "you need to have complicated rules for everything, which then must be remembered or referenced" philosophy.
As a final thought I'll simply state that there's some valuable stuff in the old-school philosophy, as well as things that are eschewed by modern games for a reason. One thing that this reading has emphasized for me is the value of keeping in mind the strength of TTRPGs, which is maintaining the sense that truly anything is possible. The more I think about it, the more I've come to the conclusion that a simple core that can handle a wide variety of situations is an admirable quality in game design. D&D 3E had too many complicated sub-systems, whereas 4E probably had too many specific "exceptions" such that they became hard-wired pieces. That's not to say that either are bad games (even if I despise 3rd edition personally), but rather that they don't play to the main strength of the TTRPG. Third Edition's major goal is simulationism and system mastery, whereas Fourth Edition's is tactical combat that borderlines on being a miniatures war(mini)game. Both are valid experiences, but they give up some of the open-endedness that makes roleplaying games great. I sincerely hope that Fifth Edition's modularity really can allow groups to switch as the situation dictates (namely for me, being able to bust out a tactical combat for major battles but otherwise have a simple core).