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Teaching Old Dogs Old Tricks

Updated: Jun 14, 2018

I wrote this blog post some three years ago:

I feel like I gave Pathfinder a fair shake.

I gave it a year, really.  And it taught me some things, like a DC 10 = auto success, and a

DC 15 = auto success, and a DC 20 = reliable success, and that a DC 25 is seldom difficult to achieve etc.

It made me realize over the course of a year just how milquetoast the systems have become.  They seem phobic of causing players or their characters any meaningful stress and therefore any lasting drama. The thought of characters actually dying is a novel concept on a battlefield stacked with feats and traits and DC checks that seldom fail. HP totals are astonishing, especially for wizards.  Feats function as a smorgasbord of what are essentially mix and match abilities that can be bought at regular intervals without regard for an economy of power that was (once upon a time) given as a reward by the DM for excellent play — rather than as part of a player’s self-directed and entitled process for level advancement.

There are ways to check this.  There are ways to reign it in.  But to do so means looking stingy, heavy-handed, and in perpetual friction with what is presented in the rules.

The amount of prep time I’ve put into sessions has been vast but enjoyable and I certainly don’t begrudge my players.  One does not become an RPG referee if you expect players to understand or appreciate the time you put in.  You become a referee based on the desire to create stories, drama, and worlds filled with opportunities for creativity.

After our last session, however, I mused how the wizard in the group had managed to, by brute-forcing the dice with a few mythic surges, tracked as well as a ranger in any game I’d seen.  I even murmured out loud to the ranger in the group that his class was clearly unnecessary.  We laughed of course but the system of skills and feats allows each character to be a jack of all trades and a master of many.

The ranger was not with the wizard when the wizard was tracking but, the need to hire a tracker and thereby have meaningful interactions with NPCs, resource sinks for money and the like,  is reduced if one can simply do it themselves. When things are hard, when you need help to succeed, drama and intrigue follow. When things are easy, interest fades.

I have found it increasingly difficult to become enthusiastic about game night because regardless of how stingy the referee is with magic, the players essentially have access to their own suite of powers that I find poorly balanced, difficult to keep track of and focused not on encouraging co-operative play, but on building a powerhouse who sneers in the face of any who oppose.

It is ironic that in the opening pages of the 1st Edition DMG, Gygax warns against precisely these types of rules changes and mechanics.  The evolution of gaming, to me, has been a de-evolution into self aggrandizement and showboating.

Hence I will retire my Pathfinder tomes.

It is with derision that many current gamers look back at the archaic systems and “underpowered” characters of 1st Edition AD&D.  When one of my players told his friend that I was advocating for a return to the classic rule set, his response was, “Good luck with that.”


I’ve seen forum posts arguing that without feats, “How can you know whether you can accomplish things?”  “How can you create a unique individual character: a fighter that is different from other fighters?”

Ironically, reliance on feats does NOT lead to unique characters but to munchinism and worse: reliance on dice rolls (without the preamble of actual problem solving vocalized as an argument for success).

The ONLY thing standing in the way of unique characters in OSR is a lack of creativity and a reliance on words printed by other people. 

My players are not this breed, I think.  But they are wary of leaving what they know behind.  I cannot fault them.

Many AD&D campaigns were certainly run without heeding the most important rules Gygax set forth in the original books.  Many a player must have soured on experiences served them by immature, inept, spineless or otherwise egoistic DMs.  By placing so much power in the hands of players and by exposing so many ways to manipulate a scene, the authors of newer systems have mitigated the DM’s ability to inflict harm.

It is hard to say that a player with a +12 to his diplomacy roll (easily achievable prior to level 10) can fail a “difficult” DC 20 unless his luck is truly abysmal. Therefore, the player’s ability to challenge and scowl with incredulity is increased and the sense of the unknown, the worry about potential disasters unfolding is reduced.

Truth be told, I have had self doubt that all my fondness for 1st edition is based on the ill-founded nostalgia of a middle aged man pining for the misty hours of his youth. Yet were there not 40-somethings gaming away in the 80’s?  Were they not then the same age that I am now? Certainly then they were at least as jaded, skeptical and intelligent as myself.  Surely they were capable of discerning value and fun.

So, no.

I will not relent on the point.

I do long for those olden hours of tense adventuring and swiftness with which battles could be resolved.  It is my burden to prove to my players that AD&D was not a sophomoric attempt, not a naive maiden voyage into the waters of tabletop gaming, but the product of much discussion, much play and much thought. Hopefully I succeed in this endeavor as, if I fail, it will most certainly mean the closing down of game night since I cannot justify the work of refereeing a system that provides me with so little satisfaction.  Nor do I care to invest additional funds in the endless money grab of companies claiming to have improved, re-balanced or rediscovered the roots of whatever ideal seems most marketable.

I do recognize a certain amount of naivete in my approach.  We live now in a world where self aggrandizement is hawked from every corner; where we are taught not to ask for help or admit that we need it, and where the notion of anything not instantly delivering of gratification and ego-stroking is looked upon at best with skepticism.  This might make the old school co-operative, nail-biting rhythm of AD&D less-than-enticing to today’s gamers.

Time will tell.

I have planned to introduce my group to a dose of 1st edition on May 18th so…my mettle will certainly be tried.  If I fail to enthuse them, I wonder if it will be my fault or simply the fault of inevitable change.

Wish me luck.

As the naysayer I quoted above surmised, I may need it.


Today is May 15th 2018.

July 27th 2018 will mark the 4th anniversary of my RPG group. Yes, I started gaming again on that day on purpose because it aligned serendipitously with my impulse to pick up dice again. Aside from the first 8 months, our entire campaign has happened using AD&D rules. The naysayer in the group left and was replaced with not one but two new players.

We are having a blast.

What have my player's said?

"The lethal element is very rewarding. You really feel the drama."

"I can't remember all the characters I've lost in the past 4 years...I stopped counting."

"Seeing the dice rolls out in the open really adds to the tension and drama."

"A combat like we just had (in AD&D) would take a month of game sessions in 4th Edition. AD&D

moves way faster and you feel like you are accomplishing things."

I'm going to claim victory on this. I'm going to plant a flag on the hilltop. OSR is fundamentally different from modern games in so many useful and meaningful ways. I'm so glad (and thankful) my group was willing to give it a try. It wouldn't be any fun without them!

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