The Alternate Primer for Old School Gaming

by Gabor Lux

This one-page document was first included in Sword and Magic: Adventures on Fomalhaut as a sort of “mission statement”, intended to offer a personal view on old school gaming. It is consciously specific and highly subjective. Similar to The Quick Primer for Old School Gaming by Matthew J. Finch or Philotomy’s Musings, it represents a possible take on running and playing old school games in a way we find rewarding in our campaigns. I have recently realised it may be of interest separately from the system itself, so I am reposting it here. All that follows is unenforced personal opinion.

Imagination-driven simulation

At their heart, RPGs give us “what happens if” scenarios. Seeing the consequences of actions taken by imaginary characters in a made-up (but to a degree, internally consistent) context might be the original definition of “role-playing”, predating its current meaning which tends to imply “role-assumption”, some sort of identification with the imaginary characters and setting.

Sword and Magic advocates imaginative simulation: bold decision-making, and seeing its physical and moral implications in the game world. It is best to imagine an encounter, adventure or campaign as a system where every relevant action has its consequences, and there is a never-ending chain of causality as they are reintegrated into the campaign and the world: action –> reaction –> action –> reaction etc. The end goal is player involvement: encounters should capture the group’s imagination, encourage them to take action, and further their engagement not only with their specific situation, but the adventure and the overall campaign as well.

Since Sword and Magic is about fantastic adventures instead of simple, conventional realities, it is appropriate to have a bias towards larger than life events and use PC actions to generate instability and further conflict (in this respect, PCs can be seen as agents of change, even as Leigh Brackett’s analogy for poison introduced into a living system). Still, the GM should interpret actions fairly and present mostly plausible consequences – within the context of a fantastic setting where not everything may be strictly logical.

Who watches the watchers?

Context through interaction

Many role-playing games dedicate considerable effort to the intricacies of fantasy worlds. Sword and Magic’s suggested approach is to paint with broad strokes at the outset and let details emerge during the course of play.

As the characters come into contact with their environment (meaning the physical game world with its NPCs and monsters, but also its societies, ideologies and power structures), the process of interaction itself fills out a lot of the blank areas. The GM can extrapolate the details from a general idea or loose notes (e.g. a desert city implies the importance of its wells), or fit improvised/randomly generated detail into the world in a sensible way (e.g. a randomly generated pyramidal megastructure in a Hellenic town might imply prehistoric, fantastic or alien origins, which in turn could also influence how the locals view its presence). Through this process, the environment becomes more complex, action begins to involve more actors and interests, and the campaign develops further adventure hooks and contexts for interaction.

In this model, the game doesn’t have strictly defined boundaries; what matters is maintaining a semblance of internal consistency and an unbroken chain of causality. The world itself is open, continuous without absolute limits: if you go to the end of what ‘is’, it expands. Play may even extend into new forms of interaction with the imagined alternate reality. The method, if used well, can maintain a significant degree of internal consistency while avoiding the mass-production of irrelevant but time-consuming mundane detail.

Flow and fluidity

Many campaigns and systems, both old and new school ones, are unnecessarily strict in their procedures or interpretations of what characters can do and what forms of action are possible at all. This impedes the flow of play, and restricts the ideas that lead to the most interesting adventures.

As a GM, it is best to be generous with the rules and allow characters to try actions that may be logical from their perspective. In combat, but also in problem-solving and setting the direction of the campaign, loose boundaries encourage imaginative action and risk-taking. Adventures that are open-ended and lead smoothly into other adventures, and campaigns that emerge in an organic fashion, make for a good, memorable experience.

Fluidity is also encouraged by using sliding degrees of success and failure. While the threat of sudden and total failure (or success) can create welcome tension, it is often better to be more gradual: a character loosing footing on a treacherous mountainside might at first tumble down the slope for 2d6 damage; then on another failure, lose half the contents of his backpack; and only then plummet to his doom. The same principles apply to social encounters and confrontations – in fact, especially social encounters and confrontations.

Naturalism vs. surrealism

The preceding sections have advocated campaigns that are internally consistent and don’t fall apart on a bit of scrutiny. Yet fantasy is also about things which are fanciful, strange and unexpected (in a way a magic missile or orc is no longer so to veteran players), and it is perhaps at its best where the fantastic details stand against a generally plausible backdrop. In the underworlds, wilderness areas, dreamlands and hostile planets of an imagined reality, fantasy and internal consistency are not mutually exclusive categories; rather, they are juxtaposed to create a sense of strangeness and wonder.

These elements of surrealism are typically best added through loose free association: in the ruined jungle temple of ape-worshippers, one might find not only storerooms and appropriately deteriorated mechanical traps, but also sacrificial chambers filled to the ceiling with skulls, magical mirrors that transform the characters’ reflections into hostile simian monsters, an idol that can control minds and a tower between the past and the present where strange bargains can take place.

The goal is not to create something that is mundane and governed by strict natural logic, nor total unreality: rather, a synthesis where the former provides sufficient foundation to appreciate the weirdness of the latter.

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