As a way of introducing the OSR to some of my friends, I recommended to them Matt Finch’s excellent “Quick Primer for Old School Gaming”, available here.
Matt Finch has been involved with a great many of the more important old school games. He was an editor for Castles and Crusades, co-wrote OSRIC, the 1st Edition retro-clone, wrote all the Swords & Wizardry editions, which are various versions (some with the supplements, some with not) of Original Dungeons and Dragons.
The “Quick primer” is, just as the name suggests, a short (though expanded from its original length, I believe) essay which talks not about the difference in rules for retro-clones, but the difference in play-style. This is condensed into the four ‘Zen’ moments, or paradigms that explicate old school play.
Rulings, not rules.
Player skill, not character abilities.
Heroic, not super-heroic.
Forget game balance.
I encourage you to download the “Primer” and read it yourself, I won’t recapitulate more here.
One of my gaming buddies, Afredo, wrote some of the following comments on my Facebook page have reading the “Primer.”
I have to disagree with you on less is more. Less is less. More is more. What you do with it is all that counts.
I have to say, after playing in several high level campaigns, that my experience doesn’t bear this out. After my players reached about level 8, I was easily forgetting elements of stat blocks, strategies, taking advantage of using spells correctly every single fight. If I have so much I can’t properly use it all, would it not be better for me to use a set of rules that has less baggage, so that I could use what I have properly?
I can easily anticipate the objection that while this was fine for me, the GM, it’s not that great for the players. But I have yet to experience a PC with a back story or character so weird that we could not have used a simpler set of rules along with some house ruling to get exactly what they had in 3.0/3.5, and with a lot less guff and power bloat.
In addition, as a GM, I am much more interested in seeing a properly played classic fantasy archetype than I am seeing a build fomented by some weird splat-book. A 3.5 dragon shaman may seem great, without the rules exploits built into the thing, no one would actually want to play one.
Zen moment 2: if your character's abilities are limited by your skill at playing, you are restricted from playing out of character. Less is definitely less.
I would rather encourage a shy or less skilled role player to come out of their shell than I would to give them lots of cool toys. It may be true that you would have a harder time playing someone who is somehow more cool than you, personally, because you don’t have a lot of feats and weird abilities to back you up, but from my perspective, having the players feel cool and competent is less about rules as much as it is about campaign tone. I like having player characters who are cool bad-asses, but I know that is more about how the NPCs treat them than it is about how many feats and prestige class abilities they have stacked.
You've changed the game so that a different type of player has the power focus then said it's okay to be imbalanced but the issue is the same as with PC builds.
I presume you mean that I have moved the focus of player power from those players who can come up with superior builds to players who role play well and are clever. Well, yes I have and I am totally OK about that.
If I understand the second part of your comment, you are saying that that the imbalance in a game world is just as much as a flaw as it is if PCs are imbalanced because their builds are too strong.
That’s not exactly the game balance that Finch is talking about. If I understand the “Primer” correctly, Finch is simply saying that the PCs may encounter forces that are too powerful for them and have to withdraw or run away. That’s a world of difference from the PC having such exploited builds that the 3.0/3.5 challenge system becomes effectively useless. If I have to judge XP handed out and threat levels on the fly, based on my gut instinct, because the character builds have broken the way challenge levels work, then why am I playing the more complicated game?
I do firmly believe that my players can have individual and interesting characters in OD&D just as much as in 3.0/3.5, all it takes is some willingness on my part to meet them half way.
Next: Improvisation and the One Page Dungeon.