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[I thought that old school was the meat grinder sort of play, where PCs dropped every session from unspeakably horrific deaths, Wizards died from a stiff breeze and had to track their bat poop on stone tablets, traps had none of this silly "take X damage" frivolity but just "save or die, b****". The sort of game where you didn't bother naming your PC for their first three levels, because it is a bad idea to form attachments to dead characters walking. The sort of play where looking into a statue's mouth puts your head into a sphere of annihilation, no save, and where getting off the cart at the tavern results in several broken bones because you need to stop the cart first, dumb***. You know, the way Gyngax intended*. None of this nonsense about "choice" or "point buys" or "Role-Playing". That gets in the way of the players learning the meaning of suffering and loss and getting crushed in hilariously unfair ways.
I guess that just goes to show that "Old School" means whatever the hell the person saying it wants it to mean, either as a pejorative or as a badge of supposed superiority.
*Yes, I know exactly how factually valid this statement is. The question is though, how many of this particular flavor of "old school" think that competitive tomb of horrors play is the way Gyngax wanted DMs to run their games in general.
Yep, there were a few of those. Thankfully rare, unless it was for a one shot competition, where the idea was to survive. Those can be fun too- saying you "beat" Tomb of Horrors was real cred.
Roleplaying over tactics. Not necessarily roleplaying over powergaming or optimizers, plenty of those in the Old School days, but tactics were rare. Battlemats were uncommon, and the main use for figures was to show party order in a dungeon crawl. More dungeon crawls, too.
Traps werent always that deadly but they were far more imaginative than today. The idea of just "walking ahead and taking the damage- who needs a Rogue?" was unthinkable. Traps didnt just do damage. And there were lots of them , so the idea of "just summoning something would make you run out real soon. Not to mention it wouldnt work at all on half the types of traps.
A Thief was necessary. I should know!
Oh and yes- you mapped. Always.
Buying magics items was pretty much impossible, other than potions, scrolls and magic arrows. Thinking your character would have a flaming scimitar by level 7 was the definition of "hubris". Heck, you might have a small pile of +1 and even +2 weapons. But you used what you found.
Rolled, and often rolled in order. "Ooh, this would make a good wizard! " Not- "I will do up a wizard, he'll start with a 18 Int". Ha!
A good deal of this is indeed what I experienced in old school gaming. But, to elaborate, I think it goes beyond this. You can still get this sort of mechanical approach today with the old D&D/AD&D versions or retro clones, but there is a bit more to it than that, something I think was touched on earlier.
In the Old School Gaming, you didn't have a message board that you could appeal to in the middle of the game or afterwards/before to ask if the DM was being mean or how to best beat a trap. There were precious few resources for getting information from the game company or other gamers outside of the rare conventions.
The idea of some sort of mutiny against the DM was something akin to the Bigfoot -- you'd heard someone had done it, but always in some far away place and the information was never very clear on why.
You learned to play the character that you were dealt. Sometimes you died, but a lot of the time you managed to persevere. The fifteen minute adventuring day was not even a twinkle in its grandfather's eye yet; you grimly plowed on if the magic user ran low on spells.
Was it better? No more or less so than the TV shows and movies we watched then. My son asked me why I was watching an old episode of Star Trek the other day when the newer ones are so much more vibrant with colors and special effects. I could have just told him about nostalgia, but that wouldn't have been true. I liked the show because not only was it an interesting show, but it evoked memories of that time of watching it and it being new, different, and exciting.
Old School gaming was like that, at least for me. At the time it didn't have all the fancy options and bells and whistles we have now. There weren't the myriad of choices in game system, let alone options for all sorts of different genres of gaming experiences. There weren't video games about it, it wasn't accepted widely yet. But it was what I had, and it was mine, and it was fun.
Old School games and today's games share a lot, and a lot is lost as well. Neither is worse or better than the other, any more than my wife is better or worse than my first love. They both represent a time in my life and the things I liked then and now. And I wouldn't give either of them up.