Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Misha Burnett on How Classic RPGs Were Really Played

A great deal of pixels have been spilt in the past couple weeks on the topic what things were actually like in the honest to goodness Old School days. (See The RpgPundit and Don’t Split the Party for details!) In my mind, though, the best bits to come out of the kerfuffle is author Misha Burnett‘s reminiscences. He’s not a game blogger by any stretch, so he’s decidedly neutral when it comes to the usual battlelines among the varied rpg commentators of today. So check it out:

What I remember from the early days of tabletop gaming and the limited LARPing that I have done is the feeling that we were in some very basic sense making things up as we went.

There was a wealth of information out there, in supplements, in magazines, in modules, and it was all “unofficial”. Everything was house ruled.

I can recall running into orcs mutated by the Metamorphosis Alpha charts, for example. One DM I knew made up stats for the Ur-viles from “Lord Foul’s Bane” and my half-orc cleric researched an “odorless 10″ radius” spell specifically to evade them. I had a Cyclops paladin of Anubis once, and one of my vows was to always give any dead intelligent creature that I saw a proper burial. (Which drove the rest of the party crazy, because I had to stop and dig graves after every combat.)

That was just how the game was played. Sure, there were times when a particular GM would tell a player, “You can’t do that,” but it was the GM’s call, not because some rule book said so.

Okay, custom monsters ripped off from whatever the Dungeon Master was reading– and player character spell research in order to deal with them! Just a hunch, here: that style of play is going to be a little less prevalent when there’s three Monster Books and Unearthed Arcana on the table.

Compare that to his experiences playing the iterations of the game from this century:

The last time I tried to play D&D I was told to “roll up” an eighth level character. One of the players had a laptop and we made up the character on a spreadsheet designed to keep track of level abilities and feats and who knows what all else. I certainly had no idea what half of the numbers on the sheet meant. I ended up with a monk/paladin (Okay, I stole that from Order Of The Stick). Most of the brief time that I played that character was spent doing what other players told me to do (“No, you need to hold a half action and then use this feat and attack using these bonuses…”)

The more complex a set of rules is, the more it favors rules lawyers. I was under a lot of pressure to game the system because everyone else was gaming the system and my character would be absurdly underpowered if I didn’t. Which was fine by me, but the other players needed a fighter who could keep up with them.

There you go. That’s why the Old School Renaissance happened in a nutshell. You really don’t need to read anything else to understand it.

His reaction to this article by Christopher Kubasik is especially interesting given how hard getting the hang of the definitive space rpg has been for me:

This sounds a lot like the first Traveller game I ever played in. The GM was a great worldbuilder and had spent a lot of time on his sector.

He’d taken the the rolls as they had come and then come up with reasons why a particular planet had a poisonous atmosphere, a low tech level, and a very low law level, for example (I remember that world–the atmosphere contained a mild narcotic and the inhabitants were constantly stoned. The Triumvirate that ran the planet was based on the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.)

However, keeping the plot moving fell entirely to the players, since the GM didn’t want to write stories for us to follow, he wanted to create a universe for us to explore. And that’s what we did. We had a small merchant ship that was constantly in need of repairs and every session pretty much followed the same formula: Find somebody to pay us enough to buy the fuel and parts to get to the next destination. (If you’re thinking “Firefly” at this point, yeah, that’s pretty much how it went. Many years before Firefly, of course.)

I am pretty sure that he tweaked the rolls to make sure that something would happen every time. But it worked. The game ran for years with us trying to get from point A to point B and him throwing random obstacles in the way.

Sounds like a completely different universe than the one I came up in. Hitting the scene just a few years later meant working through a few third edition Gamma World modules when we weren’t distracted by Ultima II and Bard’s Tale on the eight bit computers of the time. More supplements meant less “do it yourself”. More competition to tabletop rpgs meant shorter and less wide ranging campaigns.

I always felt like I missed out on something important. Those old games from the seventies just never got played like I thought they should, really. That’s a big part of why I came back to them again decades later.

27 responses to “Misha Burnett on How Classic RPGs Were Really Played

  1. Cirsova June 15, 2016 at 10:25 am

    Stating up a deodant and filling a stony field with them after reading a Cugel story does sound a lot more oldschool than going to a website and buying pdfs.

    I think “OSR” may be aiming more to capture the second phase of gaming, where everyone was sharing their creations in magazines like Dungeon, even though that’s somewhat less “oldschool”.

    I experienced a similar phenomenon with my industrial band; when you tell people you play ‘old school industrial’, most people will think early Nine Inch Nails, Skinny Puppy if you’re lucky; when you say “No, more like Throbbing Gristle or early Cabaret Voltaire” they look at you slack-jawed.

    • jeffro June 15, 2016 at 12:38 pm

      If you look at Fight On! magazine, I think you’ll see a different side of the community. Alas, a side that has largely retired from blogging if not actually been outright excommunicated by the OSR’s RpgPope.

      The thing about the hard core “Do It Yourself” people is that other people’s “Do it Yourself” stuff is just not as usable as your own. Seeing how other people do it, though, is a great help to people that can’t imagine doing that sort of thing, though.

      • Cirsova June 15, 2016 at 1:37 pm

        My DM friend has several volumes of that; one of these days, I’ll have to do more than just thumb through them.

        As to your second point, I”m still impressed that he manages to actually get some use out of Fire on the Velvet Horizon at the table.

    • jddyalblog June 15, 2016 at 1:38 pm

      Nine Inch Nails and Skinny Puppy are old school industrial!? How does post industrial hybrids get called old school? I always think of slightly less old school stuff like the early Wax Trax releases of Front 242 and early Ministry and Revolting Cocks and stuff like that, but even then I know that that’s not as old school as it gets.

      I was really struck by the Tim Kask article from a little earlier. I’ve always thought of AD&D as definitely Old School, and the OSR has having been specifically spawned by AD&D grognards at Dragonsfoot and whatnot, creating the entire movement more or less ex nihilo with OSRIC. I do recognize that as the movement has evolved, it seems that clones of OD&D seem to have become the real go-to games; stuff like Swords & Wizardry seem to be what I see referenced the most. There clearly was a divide between the AD&D paradigm and the older D&D paradigm, but I’ve always considered them two separate flavors of Old School.

      Then again, that may have been largely informed by the fact that AD&D (in my opinion) largely failed in its goal to produce a standard that was intelligible and usable. I still to this day have hardly heard of anyone who played the game as written, because nobody could figure out exactly how you were supposed to. They filled in the gaps with something from one of the varieties of D&D that they knew, or just made something up that made sense. AD&D was massively house-ruled by every group I ever heard of.

      • Cirsova June 15, 2016 at 1:43 pm

        To run with the analogy, OD&D is like Throbbing Gristle, while B/X and AD&D are like Chris & Cosey and Psychic TV.

        “Yeah, we’re old-school, going back to doing things like they were just shy of a decade after folks had been doing things!”

  2. Cedar Sanderson June 15, 2016 at 11:25 am

    Hi Misha :)

    I’ve never done any RPG, but that trading ship game sounds like it was fun.

  3. jlv61560 June 15, 2016 at 2:08 pm

    Well, the one thing I’ll say is that back in the day…before there was AD&D 1E even, there wasn’t a whole lot of “*should* play it this way” in ANYONE’S game. You went with what the DM put together, and they could go pretty far afield for their ideas.

    We all took turns doing the GM thing, and everyone got to see how everyone else’s mind worked — it was fascinating to see the different “styles” of games that we came up with, and every style appealed to every one of us differently. My brother was very much into “psyching” us out, I was more mechanistic, my best friend was very much gonzo, my brother’s best friend was high fantasy/Tolkienesque, etc. Every individual game came at us from different angles and required a different way of thinking to do well in. I learned a lot about just plain people from those days; both in terms of creativity and in terms of mental flexibility (how flexible was the player in meeting these diverse sets of challenges).

    All these clowns that talk about “ur-D&D” have no freaking idea what they’re babbling about. There really wasn’t any such thing, unless you consider the concept of the GM relying on things other than dice rolls to determine outcomes to somehow be “ur” something… Then EGG got in the habit of talking about how to do it “right” (which actually alienated a lot of us early players — because we’d early on realized that the “right” way to do it was the “fun” way, not some slavish adherence to anyone else’s decision on what constituted correct play…).

    I remember those weird and pathetic people who used to write letters to magazines like Dragon or White Wolf, or Interplay in the early 80’s demanding that Thompson, or Gygax or Kuntz or someone should “rule” that their dead character was really still “alive” after a gaming session because GM so-and-so “did it wrong.” I mean, what kind of slavish follower mind-set would even consider writing such a letter? Sheesh. If you thought the GM was unfair, you voted with your feet, instead of whining to someone in the publishing business; but the times, they were a-changin’ I guess.

    Anyway, I just wanted to mention what I see as a core aspect of “old school;” there were no actual “standards;” whatever worked, worked; and everyone just kind of went with the vibe because we didn’t have all these straight-jacketing labels that everyone is supposed to copy and fit into back then. In short, it was pretty free-wheeling and a whole lot of fascinating fun.

    • Rainforest Giant June 15, 2016 at 6:01 pm

      Those were some sad letters. “My DM just determined that since I took an arrow to the knee (yes I know but that’s what it was) I lost a point of dex so I can’t be a monk.”

      That was the saddest because the guy couldn’t see that his DM was just giving him the shaft.

  4. Rainforest Giant June 15, 2016 at 5:58 pm

    Back in the day we had a GM who gave the group a magic item that gave you the powers of all the xmen once a day. Not all at once just one at a time.
    And music was Foghat, or my grandfathers old ‘dirty blues’ albums he collected back in the thirties or early forties. My grandmother wouldn’t let him play them when we were little so I didn’t hear the ‘good’ ones until I was older. He had tamer stuff we got to listen to. All lost in a garage fire when a chucklehead who was renting the place tried to wire it to grow pot.

  5. Tim Newman June 16, 2016 at 5:21 am

    Well, I certainly recognise the Traveller campaign. I’ve both run and played it, and certainly prefer it to the ‘Mil SF’ Gun-for-Hire style that’s also supported (though I like it less than the explorer/Scientist-for-hire version).

    I am rather less convinced by claims that ‘Old School’ has anything to do with ‘looser’ rules. Unless you’re defining everything by the standards of D&D, because there’s a whole range of complexity in the RPGs of the 1970s and a very similar range now.

    • MishaBurnett June 16, 2016 at 5:55 am

      I don’t think Old School necessarily meant looser rules–I think it mean that the decision regarding which rules would be used was assumed to be made at the table, not at a publishing house.

      I knew DMs who took the encumbrance rules very seriously–to the point where players had to decide what equipment to leave behind if they picked up a large treasure. I knew one who would use the morale tables in Greyhawk to set prices when we bought or sold anything.

      But it was widely accepted that the game being played was the creation of the DM–based on whatever rule books were available, but ultimately the DM’s world. There was negotiation in the sense that if players found the rules too annoying they would choose not to play, but the idea of appealing to the authority of the published works was foreign to us. “You have to let my character do this because it says so on page 27!” isn’t an argument that I can remember hearing in the D&D games I played in the late 70s and early 80s.

    • jddyalblog June 16, 2016 at 11:38 am

      I think to a large degree, perceptions ARE defined with regards to D&D. If you read something like Matt Finch’s Old School Primer, it’s difficult to come to any conclusion other that D&D is the entirety of the RPG industry in his mind.

      • MishaBurnett June 17, 2016 at 3:04 pm

        Okay, I’ll admit that I tend to use “D&D” as a generic term for RPGs. When I first started playing it was the one that people had heard of (not always in a good way, granted) and saying “We’re going to play D&D” was more likely to be understood than “we’re going to play a role playing game (and probably not decide which one until we get there).”

        So, yeah, a lot of what I think of as “D&D game nights” were really spent playing Traveller or Champions or Empire of the Petal Throne or Boot Hill.

        I still say “kleenex” when I mean “tissue”, too.

      • jddyalblog June 20, 2016 at 7:34 am

        Well, me too; but for many people that’s literally true. When they say they’re going to play D&D, they literally mean they’re going to play D&D. For the last year or two, when I’ve said we’re going to play D&D, we’ve literally been playing first Star Wars then Call of Cthulhu respectively. But not everybody has such a cosmopolitan gaming experience. I’ve met plenty of people who really only HAVE played D&D.

        The saddest thing I ever saw was in an online messageboard where some guy admitted that he pretty much had only ever read D&D fiction.

      • jeffro June 20, 2016 at 10:48 am

        Only D&D fiction? Way to take a step down on the Geek hierarchy there, man!

  6. Cane Caldo June 17, 2016 at 2:47 pm

    Who is meant by “OSR’s RpgPope”?

    • jeffro June 17, 2016 at 2:53 pm

      That a reference to this particular meltdown and some related incidences: here, here, here, and here.

      • Cane Caldo June 18, 2016 at 9:33 am


        It seems to me that pope-ishness is among the least of his traits; hence my confusion over whom you meant.

        He willfully misinterpreted your posts and then threw an online hissy-fit so that he could later come back and pretend to some high ground. Thsee tactics are most often seen in the social media feeds of silly women.

        I like The RPGPrincess.

    • jeffro June 18, 2016 at 10:38 am

      Hey, not everybody can be an award-winning cruelty artist…!

  7. Rainforest Giant June 17, 2016 at 3:22 pm

    Nobody ever makes me pope of anything. I’d bring back knights with swords and everything. Make sure they all had diplomatic immunity. It would be awesome. But no.

  8. Mediaspyder September 27, 2016 at 9:54 pm

    Honestly, my biggest problem with D&D at this point is that it’s simply not creative. Every game plays the same way; you pick a class, go to the tavern, get the quest, gear up, clear the dungeon, then come back for fame and glory. It’s fun at the beginning, but I crave something more. There should be more consequences involved behind your actions.

    I wasn’t gaming in the days of old, so I’m completely familiar with the “rules lawyer” systems. I don’t disagree that there is a lot to remember and loopholes to be found. But I do know that in regards to anything, too many rules simply restricts. Restriction kills the essence of D&D and other tabletop games, where you are supposed to be able to do anything you can think of (or at least try). The D20 gaming system of D&D is turning down a dark path that’s becoming more and more like the MMORPG games of invisible walls, button attacks, and exploits, and that’s never what it was about.

    • Mediaspyder September 27, 2016 at 10:01 pm

      For example, in D&D, one of the requirements for taking the assassin class is that your character has to “Kill somebody for no other reason than to become an assassin.” Honestly, that makes no sense to me. First off, assassins don’t usually kill people for no reason. The reason is usually pay, bloodthirst, twisted honor, political manipulation, or any other number of reasons. Killing without a reason just makes you a common murderer, not an assassin. In fact, why can’t I just be an assassin who has yet to kill their first target?

      Second, who says assassins have to be lawful evil? They don’t have to be evil. They can be chaotic good assassins who murder people in stealth in order to further a “greater good” motive. They could be mercenaries who aren’t bad people, but will take a contract given to them without regard to who it is. Or, they can be somebody just looking for the challenge of infiltration and precise killing. Lawful evil indicates that you directly serve a dark purpose to further an evil cause, but that isn’t necessarily the case.

      The assassin is the perfect example of how added rules just muddy the waters.

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