Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Revisiting Matt Finch’s Zen Moments of Old School Gaming

Running the Isle of Dread at Madicon 22….

I never thought I’d play any sort of Dungeons & Dragons type game again. I gave away my modules. I traded my priceless boxed sets for games I would end up hardly playing. I got rid of just about all of it, including several beloved issues of Dragon magazine. Months passed and I become aware of the “revival” in Old School gaming when stumbling upon Jeff Rients’ game blog. It really blew my mind. I’d passed over D&D so quickly when I was a kid, that I couldn’t imagine it being cool in any way. And those covers to the first few issues of Fight On! just looked silly and amateurish to me. But it was Matt Finch that really made the case to me that there was something to it, yet I was incredulous as I read his patronizing-sounding “Quick Primer for Old School Gaming.”

I can’t tell you how how unbelievably crazy it sounded to me at the time. But time moves on, and whatever one might think about Old School gaming, guys like Jeff Rients and Michael Curtis were all around cool folk. I probably kept up with them because (like me) they played a lot of vintage games. Before long, though, a rules-light cooperative game that could be played by a wider range of people than my usual games-of-choice became something I would start looking into. I ended up running module B3 for my kids with Labyrinth Lord. I offered to run a game to some random people at a game store and ended running several sessions of Stonehell there. At Origins 2011 I picked up a Moldvay Basic Set and then later on ran Keep on the Borderlands at a local convention. This year I ran The Isle of Dread! It’s been a fun ride, so I thought that for today’s special event I would look back at Matt Finch’s Primer to see how far I’ve come in internalizing the deep spiritual lessons of the Old School Revival.

The first two of his Zen Moments are “Rulings not Rules” and “Player Skill, not Character Abilities.” I think these two can be boiled down into one idea: that Infocom was a far better model of how Dungeons & Dragons was played than the Ultima line. The fact that modern computer rpg’s and games are more influenced by the Ultima approach than the Zork style explains a lot of the generation gap when it comes to these things. It fully hit me one day when I realized that in rpgs, everything is filtered through rulings. I felt positively enlightened, but, you know… Matt had it pretty well laid out already. (Perhaps that’s why Matt Finch called them Zen moments: you have to keep playing until you suddenly think they were all your idea!)

The third Zen Moment (“Heroic not Superheroic”) was not all that new to me– after all, I played a lot of Car Wars where all the characters have just three hit points and can’t do much to change it. In fact, Car Wars had pretty well the same death rate and chances for advancement as Moldvay Basic. But it took a pretty high Old School D&D body count before I could understand the five pillars of player skill. That was when Matt’s fourth Zen Moment (“Forget Game Balance”) became completely real to me: when I realized that the “balance” that so many people thought they wanted seemed to undermine the entire point of the game. The truth is, when you give the players lots of options and leave it to them to actually make all of the choices, the game will necessarily balance itself. And if the game still doesn’t seem quite right to you after contemplating these points, I suggest not skimping on the wilderness adventuring component of the game.

Out of the rest of the Primer, I have to say I’m gradually mastering the resource management aspects of the game. (I was afraid to track rations on the Isle of Dread, though. In the convention environment, I just wouldn’t dare.) But this whole thing about combats being awesome in old school gaming… that’s something I still don’t get quite yet. Mostly I use the combat system to make sure that the players accept their deaths without a lot of backtalk. In fact… I like that combats are simple, random, fast, and boring– it shifts the emphasis of play up a level where resource management really is the heart of the game. Also, you can do a lot more encounters than the guys at the next table. So it looks as if I probably need to ponder these things some more– I think of the Ming vase in every combat, but I am no more than 10% of the way there on that. (From rereading the Primer, though, it sounds like Matt Finch’s game has more interesting combats withouth them ending up taking longer…. Ah well, it wouldn’t be fun if there was nothing left to meditate on.)

So… hopefully you are enjoying Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day. It is my sincere hope that you, too, achieve gaming enlightenment. But even if your sights are slightly lower than that, know that this game can really fill up a table at a convention… and a wide range of people will give it a shot– kids, teenagers, long time gamers… all sorts! It’s a lot of fun, too.

Check out more posts celebrating Swords & Wizardry today on the blogrolls at 2,000 Coppers. Also… see Tenkar’s Tavern for more updates on what’s going on.

Here is the coupon code for the Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day sale at D20PFSRD: SWAD252013

Frog God Games has discounted their entire line of Swords & Wizardry products for 1 day only in celebration of Swords & Wizardry appreciation day (April 17th 2013). The discount is good for 25% off S&W Products but you must use coupon* code SWApprDay on April 17th 2013 at check out. 

*The coupon excludes items less than $1, S&W Cards, Pre-Orders, and Subscriptions.

7 responses to “Revisiting Matt Finch’s Zen Moments of Old School Gaming

  1. Alex J. April 17, 2013 at 10:19 am

    I had thought of the Infocom comparison too. Now THERE’s a “you must guess what’s in the author’s head” situation. But it doesn’t apply to RPGs because he can tell you that the reason you can’t fit into the basket on the chain is that the basket is four inches across. And all of the things that are difficult to program in Inform, like characters, are easy to do yourself. Plus, winging it is possible.

    • jeffro April 17, 2013 at 10:23 am

      Yes, the analogy is not quite a perfect fit. But Infocom games do force you to describe what you are doing, though. There are certainly no skill rolls… with the lone exception of the bizarre “Beyond Zork” game.

  2. timsbrannan April 17, 2013 at 2:51 pm

    I am sort of the opposite kind of guy. I gave up on my Sci-Fi gaming years ago!

    So I came for the S&W and stayed for the SciFi.

    My Swords & Wizardry posts, The S&W Witch and The Ördög


  4. Pingback: Old School and New School: Settings | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

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