22 June 2021

Gygax and Third-Level New PCs

Something that came up recently, as it does from time to time, was the claim that later in life Gygax started his players off at third level rather than first, specifically in the context of his own private OD&D games.

The implications of this vary, interestingly, as people read into it what they want.  That Gygax felt he had made a mistake back in the day and sought to correct it is the most common and most basic interpretation.  Some however take it further, using it as a cudgel against the school of thought arguing that such early-game lethality was the way D&D was meant to be played (as well as against the grimdark / misery-porn wing of the OSR that loves to focus on 1st-level PCs and their tendency to die to overly aggressive housecats).  If Gygax himself couldn't even be bothered to play out those levels, the argument goes, then how can anyone claim that this focus on low-level play and high lethality is anything approaching how things were "supposed to be"?

I'm not one that treats everything Gygax ever said or did as sacred canon; I suspect most people with their own OSR games have this attitude, since you have to be willing to tinker with canon to make such a game.  At the same time, I think you'd be foolish not to pay close attention to what the guy who literally (co)invented the game says, especially knowing that it comes backed with decades of play experience.  But beyond all this, what I found interesting is that no one was actually posting an original source, something that always sets off my historian alarms.

Pretty much every mention of this decision of Gary's goes back to the same page, a post on the Cyclopeatron blog from 2010.  That post in turn links to this (now archived) page from 2005 by Robert Fisher.  That in turn led to this Dragonsfoot thread, from the same author and also from 2005.  Unfortunately at that point the trail gets a bit colder, as it turns out that the information comes from somewhere in Gygax's 440-page ENWorld thread.  And for whatever reason, ENWorld does not allow you to download threads, even if you're a member.

Fortunately, some kind soul took the thread in its original 13-part form and upped it to the Internet Archive, enabling me to put all the PDFs together and search away.  And finally I found the post.

Click to enlarge

The "reports" referenced come from posts made by Gygax to the old Gygax Games Yahoo Group (which I have archived but don't have access to this minute; I'll likely edit a shot of the original post in later once I get it).  The original post by Gygax on this though was copied to another forum, and is pretty straightforward:

Click to enlarge

So the original posts do confirm that Gary indeed was running new PCs at 3rd level.

At the same time, examining these posts, I think their ramifications have been overstated.  He was running this particular starting group in 2004-2005 at third level.  However, there's no evidence that this was the result of a change of philosophy on Gary's part.  What context there is suggests the opposite: that he was generally following the traditional approach but giving these particular PCs a boost because

  1. Previous PC actions had made the 1st level of Castle Greyhawk no longer a 1st-level PC environment (Gary ran a living dungeon, where the actions of different groups had wider ramifications), and
  2. The rules as originally written assumed much larger party sizes (as I explored previously here)--Gary specifies eight PCs plus that many helper NPC bodies--while the actual party, as seen in the second post, is a mere five PCs.

In other words, rather than shifting in his old age to a more heroic or generous (however you prefer to term it) style of play, Gary was adjusting this particular campaign to this particular group.  He was a flexible enough DM to understand that the precise circumstances of the campaign called for a different approach: his player group was one-third the recommended size, and so he simply tripled their levels.  But somewhere along the line a game of Chinese Whispers began, and what was clearly a localized phenomenon became transmuted by the fanbase into something much more.

I have to admit that I like this, because my choice for Simulacrum was to boost starting PCs to two hit dice and such, specifically because I was aiming for parties of 4-5 players and knew that old-school editions assumed much larger groups.  It's nice to see that Gygax reached a very similar conclusion for the same reason at the same party-size scale.


As an appendix to all this, the Dungeon Craft Youtube channel had an episode on the original blog posts that set most of this off (either the 2005 Robert Fisher original or, more likely since that blog has been gone since 2013 or so, the 2010 Cyclopeatron post, which is still live).  That post has a lot more game-running detail than just PCs beginning at third level: numerous other house rules make an appearance.  Dungeon Craft doesn't credit the original source because they don't seem to know it or to have gone looking for it, instead mentioning that they got it from a follower on Facebook who in turn copied it down from some unnamed forum and lost the original source.  Long story short, the episode claims that these were Gygax's "SECRET rules for D&D".  In the comments however is a post from Luke Gygax:

Click to enlarge

As Luke's post says it's "all bogus", one might be tempted to say that includes the third-level start.  But Luke only specifically references other changes, not the third-level start.  Besides that, as we have actual posts from Gary mentioning it, the apparent contradiction can easily be explained by realizing that Luke wasn't involved in this particular campaign (though Alex Gygax was) and so wouldn't know the specific campaign house rules made for it.  Dungeon Craft, like everyone else dealing with this list of rule changes, assumed that they were all-encompassing alterations to every campaign Gary ran and described them in that light--a larger change of philosophy rather than just a set of campaign-specific rules.  As such, it was only natural that Luke, who would know better than almost anyone how Gary ran his games in general, would call it out as untrue, since if you start from the wrong basis (i.e. that Gary ran all his games like this past a certain point) it obviously is.
It may also be that the other house rules mentioned were also specific to an individual campaign that Luke wasn't involved in, but as I wasn't interested in the others I didn't bother to check.  Feel free to do some digging and let me know.

EDIT: I found the original source for the other rules.  Gygax posted them on the Troll Lord forum in August 2007 (or see below).  They were used for GenCon 40, but the impression I get from the post was that they were general house rules, not ones just used for that session (when he first mentions them he says "my house rule").  At the same time, it's possible that they were tournament house rules (meaning used at any tournament, but not campaign games).  Alternately, they may simply come from a point past which Luke was regularly gaming with his father, which is why he called them out as fake; the post comes less than a year before Gary's death, after all.

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2 June 2021

Simulacrum — Beta Release

I've had a few requests to provide copies of my game, Simulacrum, and sometimes I've posted drafts in the comments section or to /osrg.   Overall though I've been reluctant to put it out in a main post.  In part that's because I wanted to continue to write about the process of development, and putting out a near-final release would seem to detract from charting its creation.  And I've not been in any hurry because this project has always been for myself, rather than based on any delusion that the world breathlessly awaits another OSR game.

But a lot of my reluctance has to do with wanting it to be the best that it can be before really releasing it to the wider world.  I'm currently running a playtest campaign with it; after a year in my players have hit 7th level and I'm looking forward to their exploration of the game's higher levels and the inevitable tweaks that will produce.  I like to edit things as much as possible, tweaking individual words, moving layout elements a few mm, and so on, and not to no effect: I think the benefits overall have been clear, looking back at older drafts.

Still, I think it's time.  So, without further ado, here's the beta for my humble game.  I'll be continuing to run my campaign, read blogs and other games, and take into account feedback, all of which will lead me to tweak things here and there, and eventually I'll put it up on DriveThru and make it "final", but for now you should find this perfectly playable.

1 - Simulacrum Player's Manual - Beta 21-08

2 - Simulacrum GM's Manual - Beta 21-08

3 - Simulacrum Designer Notes - Beta 21-08

4 - Simulacrum Playing Aids - Beta 21-06

The Player's Manual is entirely self-contained, and should be everything a player needs.  The GM's Manual completes the game; it has some cross-referencing, in that it expands and comments on Player's Manual material, but is GM-only.  The Designer Notes are bonus material, made simply because I'm tired of downloading OSR games and having no idea what they did to depart from the TSR baseline, let alone why they did so.  Everything I've done has been for a reason, and I imagine at least a few of you reading a history/theory/game design blog are going to be interested in that kind of inside baseball, as I am.  By reading it, those on the fence can decide if a given change has a basis that makes sense for them.  Lastly, the Playing Aids PDF consists of a few simple squares you can print and cut out to give to players so that they can announce their stances each round by throwing down their choice on the table, aiding the GM in running fights quicker.  They're not necessary at all: ever since I switched to Zoom I've been just handling that verbally, but in person I've found that it speeds things up.  The PDF also has a GM's sheet that I print off a copy of each session to track key session elements: time passing, treasure gained, and so on (the little dinosaurs in the time-tracking boxes are a reminder to roll for a wandering monster).

The only thing that I feel is missing is a character sheet.  I created one for my own use, but it uses graphical elements I stole from other works and so wouldn't be right to share.  Characters are pretty simple, as they are in most OSR games, and so this shouldn't be a major hindrance.

Why Bother?

As I said above, most of this was about creating a game for myself: very few people play most OSR games.  What it does and why is thoroughly explored in the Design Notes document, and there's lots of changes.  However, in short, I do think this offers a few key things that other editions / clones don't:

A thorough design focus on 4-5 players.  As I've explored in other posts, old-school D&D assumes large parties: 6 PCs/NPCs at the very minimum, with 15-16 total towards the top end.  Old-school lethality is definitely a thing, but a lot of it comes from your modern group of 4 to 5 players rolling up to keeps in the borderlands without any retainers and getting mobbed by hordes of monsters placed to challenge player groups that were two to three times the size.  Simulacrum takes a combination of PC toughening and monster weakening throughout the game framework that brings things back to a more even keel in terms of party / enemy balance.  PCs aren't superheroes, but neither are they hopeless frails in the face of the enemy. 

Native hexcrawl support.  Using the system I've worked out in an earlier post, the game handles hexcrawling in a far cleaner fashion than the traditional D&D rules, making the wilderness portion of the game not just something paid lip service to.

Two core classes.  A tight two-page spread gives you all your core character creation, so that making new characters is quick and easy.  At the same time, a mix of modular add-ons allows one to create a set of custom classes for their own campaign, or to have an extremely flexible structure that allows you to more readily capture a wide variety of archetypes and variations without needing page after page of classes and subclasses or descending into the hell of "builds".

I would welcome any questions or comments.  I'd only note first that between the GM's Manual and the Designer Notes that a lot of the "why" as to what I did is covered.  Still, if I missed something or are not clear there, by all means let me know.

I hope this is of some use to you out there, either as a full game or as a collection of elements for you to steal for your own OSR game, as is right and proper.  For those of you who commented on earlier drafts or run playtest games, thanks for your feedback over the years: it's been invaluable.  Happy adventuring.  Go forth and plunder!

15 March 2021

A Historical Look at the OSR — Part IV

Back of a TSR t-shirt advertising the upcoming third edition.
While TSR moved away from its original vision for Dungeons & Dragons (as explored in parts I, II, and III), not everyone moved along with it.  A minority[1] refused—whether due to their love of that older style of play and/or dislike of what replaced it,
or simply their reactionary natures—to adopt the new style.  They merrily continued along year after year with their dungeoneering and sandbox play, even as the very concept of the dungeoncrawl became an oddity in D&D, and still using those "rules you never used anyway".  These people became the old-school playerbase.

The release of 3rd edition D&D in August 2000, then, only altered the form of older players' scorn.  Old-school players soon defined themselves in contrast to both the 2nd and 3rd editions: by 2002, to the existing list of perceived advantages old-school D&D had over newer forms had been added the concept of "rules-light" design, an idea that many newcomers to the OSR are baffled by and many looking for cheap gotchas point out as an absurdity: how can one ever look at 1st edition AD&D, they ask, and claim that the old-school is rules-light?  The answer is clear in the context of the time that the phrase first came into use: compared to the avalanche of books and accompanying spells, items, feats, prestige classes and such that accompanied 3rd edition, and the mammoth statblocks of its NPCs and monsters, old-school rulesets, while less unified and sometimes more unwieldy, were ultimately far simpler than 3rd edition, which is what old-schoolers were often comparing themselves against at that point.  When one understands that the OSR was unquestionably a D&D-based movement and that its points of reference were almost all about D&D in one form or another, many seemingly bizarre elements of the OSR become clear.  And this rules-light principle was no modern rose-coloured-glasses reinterpretation of how things were done in the 1970s (a charge often levelled at the OSR): Tim Kask wrote in the foreword to 1976's Eldritch Wizardry that “D&D was meant to be a free-wheeling game, only loosely bound by the parameters of the rules.”  As the rules of modern D&D became increasingly codified, old-school gamers embraced this philosophy with a vengeance.

A modest example of dungeonpunk.
Old-school fans had by this point rejected the idea of Whiggish, progressive advancement that many gamers took (and still take) for granted: the idea that each edition was an improvement on the one prior to it, everything moving along a path steadily upward, twirling, twirling, twirling towards a superior ruleset.  While one of the marketing campaigns 3rd edition launched with was "back to the dungeon", its concept of the dungeoncrawl was rooted in superheroic play, a greater contempt for resource management than ever before, and an aesthetic that became derided as "dungeonpunk": moving away from the cliches of fabulous but entirely useless chainmail bikinis and such and moving to what rapidly became a new set of cliches based on fabulous but entirely useless straps, pouches, and belts everywhere (and then for 2008's 4th edition and 2009's Pathfinder to a different, World of Warcraft-based artstyle with an emphasis on exaggerated armour pieces that became derisively known as "pauldroncore").[2]

A similarly modest example of pauldroncore.
Third edition, however, introduced a key element that would make the OSR possible.  Wizard of the Coast's Ryan Dancey successfully pushed to allow third-party publishers to create new content for or related to D&D by means of a perpetual, free open gaming license (OGL).  The company followed this new license with a System Resources Document (SRD) that anyone could draw upon, containing much of what would broadly be considered D&D's intellectual and creative framework: its foundational stats, classes, spells, monsters, and terminology.  The fundamental idea was, in a nutshell, that D&D's popularity was now its greatest asset, and the best way to keep it on top of the RPG world was to make it easier to play than ever before, to spread it to every corner so that the RPG ecosystem was all D&D (or OGL derivatives) all the time.  For a social game, playerbase was everything; that one could make a "better" game (whatever that meant) was irrelevant in the face of the fact that everyone knew how to play D&D and owned the books and was comfortable with what they knew.  These innovations would help ensure that this phenomenon continued.

Bold concepts by themselves, the OGL and SRD (both released in 2000) would open to the public many of the elements that the notoriously litigious TSR had guarded so fiercely with numerous threatened lawsuits against fans and publishers alike.[3]  Now Wizards was offering to just give it away.  As Dancey explained in 2000,

The idea is to abstract the "game" inside Dungeons & Dragons and reduce it to a genre-neutral set of concepts and rules.  Then, we'll layer on a thick helping of D&D-type fantasy elements, like the standard D&D classes, races, spells, and monsters.  In the future, we might layer on a science fiction layer, or a horror layer, or any other genre we think would be interesting.  In fact, Jon[athan] Tweet feels that a very strong "rules light" version of D&D could easily be constructed from the existing manuscript; being completely compatible with but just smaller in scope and application than the full blown 3rd Edition D&D rules.

Jonathan Tweet was precisely right, but not in the way he envisioned.

Early Rumbles

Unfortunately, a great deal of material has disappeared down the internet memory hole.  One of the early hangouts for old-school fans was The Delver's Dungeon, where a decent amount of original OSRIC discussion was had, while the Swords & Wizardry and original Labyrinth Lord forums contained a lot of early information on those games: all gone now.  Google+ went too, even taking comments on non-G+ blogs made through its service (I lost a lot of early comments on this blog due to this helpful Google solution).  Nonetheless, we can still piece together a decent amount of the early history of what would soon become known as the Old-School Renaissance.[4]

In the early 2000s, several proto-OSR publishers appeared.  The first was Necromancer Games, founded in 2000.  They produced products for the new 3rd edition that aimed to capture the spirit of 1st edition: "Third Edition Rules, First Edition Feel" was their slogan.  As co-founder Clark Petersen said in a 2000 interview:

First Edition is the cover of the old DMG (Dungeon Masters Guide) with the City of Brass; it is Judges Guild; it is Type IV demons not Tanaari and Baatezu; it is the Vault of the Drow not Drizzt Do'urden; it is the Tomb of Horrors not the Ruins of Myth Drannor; it is orcs not ogrillons; it is mind flayers not Ilithids (or however they spell it); it is Tolkien, Moorcock, Howard and Leiber, not Eddings, Hickman, Jordan and Salvatore; it is definitely Orcus and the demon-princes and not the Blood War; it is Mordenkainen's Faithful Hound not Elminster's Evasion; and it is Artifacts and Relics from the old DMG (with all the cool descriptions).

I always say we want to be the VW Bug of roleplaying companies, meaning that we want to have a modern style and appeal but an obvious link to the past.  One of the ways we do that is how we design the modules.  For example, we use full color covers (not that funky mono-color of the old modules).  But our modules have the same basic format of the old modules—inset art, module number in the upper left corner, diagonal band in the upper left corner, logo placement, etc.  I guarantee you, when you look at one of our modules you will flash back to the old ones—just like when you see a new VW bug.  And hopefully you will say "Man, that is just like an old module except cooler."

(Goodman Games would follow with their similar line of Dungeon Crawl Classics modules, initially created for 3rd edition rather than their own game—not released until 2012beginning in 2003 with DCC #1, Idylls of the Rat King.)


The second was Kenzer & Company, which released Hackmaster in May 2001.  This pseudo-parody game, based on an absurdist take of old-school D&D as filtered through the medium of the popular Knights of the Dinner Table comics, took every caricature of classic D&D and dialed it to 11.  Taking advantage of a unique legal loophole,[5] they were able to use the AD&D 1st and 2nd edition rules as a baseline for their work.

The original "Collector's Edition".
The third, close on its heels, was Troll Lord Games.  Founded in 2000, in June 2001 the company announced that Gary Gygax would be writing books for them.  These were aimed at the 3rd-edition market, but of course carried strong old-school credentials.  They followed this up with an adventure by TSR alumni Rob Kuntz, and later further Gygax works related to the legendary, never-released Castle Greyhawk.[6]  They also released their own game system, Castles & Crusades, in 2004.  While not expressly old-school in terms of rules, it aimed to create a modern take on the concept, and generated a great deal of excitement amongst old-school players in the lead-up to its release.  Prior to the retroclone explosion (which in part resulted because C&C failed to be as old-school as many hoped it would), the game was a rather common subject in old-school discussion, even if there were numerous grumbles once it actually came out over its modern mechanics and resulting deviations from old-school play.  It is widely credited as a sort of old-school gateway drug, luring many newer players to the old-school fold, but though still supported today has largely been eclipsed today in old-school circles by other games.


The major hangouts for the old-school community in the third edition era were all forum-based.  The biggest by far was Dragonsfoot ("The home of TSR-era D&D"), its public website going live in May 2000, only three months prior to the release of 3rd edition.  A forum civil war over which editions should be discussed and how led to an exodus to the new Knights & Knaves Alehouse (K&K) forum in mid-2005; the new forum cut 2nd edition as well as B/X and BECMI from its list of approved editions, its members frequently deriding the latter two as "kiddie D&D" ("This board unashamedly and proudly supports Old School GYGAXIAN games.  Specifically: Original Dungeons & Dragons – the little books, First Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, and Judges Guild products for OD&D & AD&D.  This board is for the discussion of OLD SCHOOL style games and gaming.  We make no excuses and no apologies for other game systems not being supported here.")  And June 2007 saw the creation of ODD74, a forum dedicated to the 1974 original release and immediate offshoots.  There were smaller forum communities, such as the Grognard's Tavern, the previously mentioned Delver's Dungeon, the Doomsday Message Boards, Pied Piper Publishing's forum (which had a decent amount of participation from former TSR employee Rob Kuntz) and the occasional discussion on EN World and the not-yet hopeless RPGNet forums, and also a limited amount on Usenet and now vanished Yahoo Groups such as Gygax Games.  But K&K and especially Dragonsfoot were the key places, and these old-school D&D forums would be the centre of the birth of the OSR.
An important additional bit of context is that by this point all old-school books had been out of print for many years—in some case decades—and no legal PDFs were available.  Beyond the obvious fact that no significant support for old-school gaming was appearing,[7] it was increasingly difficult even to find the base rules, especially if you were a fan of 1974's OD&D.  There was a strong pent-up desire for support of all kinds amongst the old-school community that was not being met.

BFRPG (Basic Fantasy RPG), the first OSR game, was announced and released by Chris Gonnerman in a very incomplete form on the Dragonsfoot forums on 20 January 2006.  BFRPG was a new type of game, in that it was an unabashedly old type of game.  Built from the OGL, it was not merely inspired by older editions (as Castles & Crusades was) but specifically attempted to recreate the 1981 B/X edition of D&D.  It was not 100% faithful to B/X: it separated race and class, used ascending AC, and made numerous other changes, but there was no doubt overall as to what it sought to do, something made very clear by its creator (insofar as was possible: the OGL forbids any use of or direct comparison to Dungeons & Dragons or other elements of what it terms Wizards of the Coast "Product Identity", either in your work or as advertising, which is why OSR games are always so vaguely advertised as being "compatible with X edition of the world's most popular fantasy game" and the like; fear of litigation made designers even more vague and handwavy in these early days).  While unfinished when first released, BFRPG was rapidly iterated to the point that it could be run, with updates coming as much as daily early on, and received steady official support and soon a healthy forum of its own.

Cover of OSRIC v0.03
OSRIC (Old School Reference and Index Compilation) was announced by Stuart Marshall on Dragonsfoot on 7 June 2006, with a PDF available by the end of the month.  I'm going to spend a lot of time on OSRIC, because its story is more complex than that of the other first-wave OSR games, and because today I see many people asking what is the point of it and other similarly close-but-not-quite "retroclones" (as they came to be known) of various D&D editions, and why did they not go that last mile and just make it a full clone (as Old-School Essentials eventually did with B/X, to great success).

The game which would become OSRIC was begun in late 2004, by Matthew Finch, a retired lawyer.  He wrote an initial 76,000-word draft before handing off the project to Stuart Marshall, who would become the project's main editor and driver and see it through to completion.

I don't credit myself with the success of OSRIC, only for recognizing the legal framework that allowed a true retro-clone.  The success of OSRIC was due to Stuart Marshall.  I did a lot of the art (all of it in the first release, which has thankfully been leavened with more skillful work from others in the later versions), and obviously my original draft comprised the majority of the text, but basically I was out of the loop before OSRIC’s release.  In retrospect, too, I was hitting a bipolar downslope right at that point, so I wasn’t doing much of anything.

—Matthew Finch, 2011

OSRIC was unique for several reasons.  Most notably, it aimed to be a near-perfect restatement of a previous D&D edition—specifically 1st edition AD&Dsomething no third-party game had ever before attempted.[8]  That having been said, it had two important boundaries.  The first was that it was envisioned as a publishing vehicle, not a complete game.

The idea there is that the publishers will be able to say that their document is "compatible with OSRIC."  (Anyone can do this, without asking permission from me, and there's no need for a fee or royalty to me of any kind.)  I hope that the buying public will understand that this means your publication is compatible with other systems as well, if you follow that...  I realise this is vague but I'm under the constraints [regarding referencing Product Identity] I indicated earlier.

Secondly, it's an openly-usable label for your publication.  In other words, if you say you're selling something compatible with OSRIC, you'll benefit from the marketing that other people have put into their own OSRIC-compatible stuff, while they will also benefit from your own efforts.

I should say that I don't expect anyone actually to play OSRIC.

—Stuart Marshall, 2006

OSRIC was intended to allow people to make new supporting material for 1st edition from a legally sound basis, rather than to be played on its own: it was only a game insofar as it facilitated the release of content for the game it was emulating, and so was deliberately missing key material in its text: monsters, magic items, and treasure, in particular.  But enough was there that a designer could make a new adventure or other supplement, slap a "compatible with OSRIC" label on the front, and could rest easy knowing that by not directly referencing D&D and by using material that OSRIC had vetted as being okay to use, they were legally shielded, while anyone could look at that label and know that what they were truly getting was, at long last, new 1st edition AD&D product.  It is difficult to overemphasize the fear that people had in those days about attempting to employ the OGL for such a purpose: this is obviously not what it had been intended for, and the very recent and very rich history of TSR attacking others perceived to have infringed on their IP was in the back of everyone's minds.  OSRIC helped put that to rest; without it, many other games along these lines would likely never have existed.

The second important boundary was that, being the first of its kind and given the issues noted directly above, it was extremely cautious about infringement.  While BFRPG was shielded by being a more direct employment of the OGL and by adding in enough major variations of its own to make it legally distinct, OSRIC sought to be as close as it could to 1st edition, and therefore was a riskier venture.  Breaking new ground as they were, Finch and Marshall felt that certain deviations were necessary to give them a better legal footing, to enable them to safely state that this was not a copy or legal derivation of 1st edition.

The first element is the reasoning that lay behind such things as the elimination of the weapon type vs AC table (unnecessary in a reference ruleset solely intended to allow third parties to make 1st-edition-compatible adventures), while the second element explains things like OSRIC's experience point tables being subtly different.

[The first draft of OSRIC] was done with legal considerations in mind all the way through, and there were lots of decisions and judgment calls.  Being a lawyer, I'm pretty comfortable with those judgment calls as they were made for OSRIC, but each [other such] game would require the same step by step process.  It's not going to be clear to a non-lawyer why I made certain decisions or even where the decisions were made - except in the various areas where there's something major, like the randomization of the base xp required to gain level (which, since OSRIC is designed for supplement creation, would be utterly invisible to users of 1e supplements).

—Matthew Finch, 2007

The release of the OGL is what made OSRIC possible, but it also helped that a) OSRIC had been initially developed by a former lawyer and brought to solicitors for consultation and b) the final developer and person in charge of its release, Stuart Marshall, was based in Britain, an entirely different legal jurisdiction.  He did speak with Wizards of the Coast concerning the project, but while they were unable to come to a firm agreement, Marshall felt he had the grounds to release regardless.

OSRIC's legality is between myself and WOTC, and I have discussed it with their representatives.  I don't intend to provide any further information on our discussions on a public messageboard, except to say that those discussions ground to a halt over a year ago now and OSRIC remains available.

—Stuart Marshall, 2007

The narcissism of small differences and a fundamental misunderstanding of the legal basis that Finch and Marshall felt compelled to operate under ensured that OSRIC would be castigated by some for its deviations from 1st edition core, but overall it was a clear success.  Its popularity was such that Marshall was eventually persuaded to "finish" it: OSRIC v2.0 was a complete rules system, 402 pages to the original's 132 pages, and was released in November 2008.  Now one could play OSRIC instead of 1st edition if they so desired.  But the increasing popularity of B/X and games derived from it, and OSRIC's lack of direct (as opposed to third-party) product support, has kept it largely as the publishing vehicle it was originally intended to be.

Click to enlarge.

With OSRIC having blazed the initial trail, the release of the next major OSR game, Labyrinth Lord, was fairly straightforward.  Daniel Proctor announced the impending release on Dragonsfoot in May 2007, and the game appeared in August of that year.  It was a full game, like BFRPG, and based on B/X, like BFRPG, but Proctor did not see the two as rivals:

[I want to] discourage the thinking that Labyrinth Lord is in competition with BFRPG.  I'd rather that people not think of it in terms of what Labyrinth Lord can offer that other games cannot.  ...  The goal of LL is not to replace any game, but to be a reference document for players and publishers to produce compatible material for a classic fantasy game we all know and enjoy.  This is same goal as OSRIC.

BFRPG is a great piece of work.  It represents very different goals than what I am trying to do with Labyrinth Lord....

—Daniel Proctor, 2007

Though greater fidelity was a goal, Labyrinth Lord still had a similar series of subtle deviations from core B/X, intended to help legally shield it, following the methodology OSRIC had pioneered.  It was a great success, and Proctor successfully pushed to see that it was available in game stores as well.  Together with BFRPG it was key in making B/X—a ruleset only in existence for two years—the dominant old-school edition in the modern community.  While the lack of long-term direct support from Proctor's Goblinoid Games helped Old-School Essentials take the top spot in old-school emulation, that Labyrinth Lord proved to be legally and commercially viable allowed OSE to be as bold a direct reinstatement as it is, and overall (like OSRIC) the importance of Labyrinth Lord cannot be overstated.

Rounding out the big four of the initial OSR games was Swords & Wizardry (S&W).  Announced on Dragonsfoot in June 2008, S&W aimed at broad 1974 OD&D emulation (with some additional material from Supplement I: Greyhawk).  However, as creator Matthew Finch explained, it wasn't attempting 100% possible (i.e. legally allowable) fidelity; a prime example was its innovative single saving throw and its use of both ascending and descending AC.  Instead, he was aiming for what he called a "Rosetta Stone effect", so that he could both have a (mostly) OD&D clone while at the same time achieving compatibility with and linking together, as he put it, "Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, 1e, Holmes Basic, Moldvay Basic, and a couple of other games that use ascending AC but which I can't name without permission."

S&W as a whole rapidly spiralled into a series of sub-versions designed to represent different versions of OD&D and give its players the creative freedom it was created to foster: 1974 plus Greyhawk (the original release, which became known as S&W Core), pure 1974/LBB (White Box), 1974 plus all the original supplements (Complete), stripped down (Light: 4 pages), and almost but not quite as stripped down (Continual Light: 17 pages).  Finch teamed up with Frog God Games (a successor to Necromancer Games) to handle S&W in 2010, and support for the game now largely comes from that company.

Click to enlarge.

In addition to the normal reasons for creating a retro clone (organized/beginner-accessible rules, shared brand name, preservation of rules in free format), Swords & Wizardry is a project to re-initiate the "hobbyist" approach to OOP gaming, the idea that you can tinker from the ground up and make the rules fit any sort of fantasy you want.  Too many gamers (and this is not limited to modern gamers, I have seen it on OOP sites as well) approach games like consumers.  If it's not in the rules, it's not in the game; if it doesn't fit into the rules, it's not in the game; if the rules aren't completely specific, they're bad rules - you see what I mean by this mindset.  But games used to be approached with the ASSUMPTION that the GM and players were going to hack them apart and make them fit the desired effect.  The same way we'd take rules for Napoleonic wargaming and tweak them into rules for Space Marines or 52mm green plastic army men.

—Matthew Finch, 2008

From this point the retroclone explosion began, with dozens of different variations on the same OD&D, Holmes, B/X, BECMI, or AD&D theme appearing in short order.[9]  The vast majority of these Noun Ampersand Noun games came and went without ever being noticed, as readers found themselves with more games than they could ever hope to keep up with, let alone play, and most designers happy with being able to put their house rules into a published state but lacking the ability to articulate a reason as to why they were good changes to make and then get that information out to the potential gamer (in many ways further examples of Ron Edward's fantasy heartbreaker phenomenon).  But for those seeking variety and actual support for old-school playstyles, this era was paradise after the long drought of the 2nd and 3rd editions.

Though my focus here has been on systems, the OSR was not just about rulesets.  That having been said, they were clearly the spark for the wider explosion.  Once the clones were launched, dozens of new adventure modules were released for them and, thanks to the largely unified base vision in the burgeoning OSR in this period, they were almost all broadly cross-compatible with each other and old-school D&D with minimal conversion.  While many of them were terrible, Sturgeon's Law said that was to be expected: the point was that at long last there was support once more.

In a final post, I'll examine the OSR's mutation, fragmentation, and transition to its modern state.


[1] Per Ryan Dancey's famous assessment of the death of TSR, the company performed no real market research, in contrast to, for example, the immense efforts of Strategy & Tactics magazine to understand their customer base.  As such, while it's obvious that old-school players eventually became a minority amongst the D&D playerbase, we don't know (and will probably never know) precisely when this occurred.  In particular, it would be fascinating to know if in the 1980s it was a case of old-school players abandoning D&D or D&D abandoning them.


[2] For a brief look at the art direction philosophy at the birth of 3rd edition, see a note from the WoTC art director in Dragon #275, p. 4.


[3] In the 90s TSR was often either written T$R or said to stand for "They Sue Regularly".


[4] The earliest use of this phrase I can locate is a casual bit of speculation by an anonymous poster on the future of the old-school in the Castles & Crusades section of Dragonsfoot (since rolled into a collective "Simulacrum" subforum), in June 2005.  It popped up again in July 2006 on Dragonsfoot, used by long-time poster T Foster.  It was in common usage by 2008 to refer to the wider boom in old-school materials and play.


[5] As the story goes, when TSR put out their 1999 Dragon Magazine Archive, Wizards of the Coast failed to get permission to reprint the Knights of the Dinner Table comic, which had appeared there.  A contract dispute was settled out of court, Wizards and Kenzer reached an agreement about creating a derivative work, and that led to HackMaster.


[6] No, WG7 does not count.


[7] Rob Kuntz released a pair of old-school modules that year, though the first (Dark Druids) was not statted for AD&D specifically, presumably for the standard copyright reasons.  August of 2006 would also see Goodman Games release a 1st-edition version of DCC 12.5, The Iron Crypt of the Heretics, at GenCon, a conversion of a 3rd edition module under the OGL.  As such, it's possible to say that 1st edition and other old-school support may have occurred even without the appearance of the retroclones, but the clear avalanche of support--especially commercial support--that appears from late 2006 onward makes it difficult to argue that retroclones weren't the key impetus.


[8] The idea in general for OSRIC was fidelity, which meant no house rules.  However, some items were left out because Gygax later said they were a bad idea and the fanbase generally agreed (this also made further differences in the ruleset, further protecting OSRIC's creators), while initiative specifically was a homebrewed modification--albeit with a solid foundation in 1st edition--simply because it is literally impossible (literally literally, not figuratively literally) to run 1st edition initiative 100% by the book.


[9] The Taxidermic Owlbear list is extremely out of date at this point (and contains many 3rd and 4th-edition games besides), but gives a strong taste of how enormous the explosion was (and continues to be).

7 March 2021

In Memoriam — Martin McKenna

From "Revenge of the Vampire"


A few years ago people were chatting on the Hero Games forums about how the system lacks a really short and user-friendly guide to applying it to the fantasy genre.  The idea of tackling this as a personal project immediately grabbed me, and I quickly banged out a 28-page intro called the Fantasy Hero Primer.  But while it was purely a fan work, intended to be free, I didn't want to just throw it out there without art.  Casting about, I found some nice images online from that classic British CYOA-type series, Fighting Fantasy.  Rather than the cartoonish weird of early D&D or heroic realism of the game's 1980s period, the artists of Fighting Fantasy—Bob Harvey, Russ Nicholson, Ian Miller, Dave Carson, Alan Langford, etc—and their British Gothic style were absolutely formative to me in shaping what I thought "proper" fantasy art should look like, and none more so than Martin McKenna.


From "Daggers of Darkness"

McKenna secured his first paid illustration work when he was just 16, with Games Workshop.  Of breaking into the industry, he recalled:  

“It was probably more like a lot of little breaks.  Really early stuff like meeting Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone in ‘86 was helpful.  They liked the fanzine work which had included a Fighting Fantasy spoof, and they recommended a submission to Warlock magazine.  Coincidentally Marc Gascoigne had seen my fanzine stuff and liked it, and he was then editor of Warlock.  Most importantly, an invitation came from John Blanche, then art director at Games Workshop, to produce work for him.  John’s initial contact came as a result of me entering an art competition featured in the Citadel Journal.  Instead of the hoped-for prize of a two quid postal order, I got a letter from John expressing interest in my stuff.  This led to my very first paying commission: illustrations for an Out of the Pit article in Warlock. So a bunch of things came together in the very beginning."

He provided a steady flow of work to GW in its early years, working on early 40K and WHFRP releases like Death on the Reik.  On the recommendation of Blanche, McKenna sent some samples to the editor at Puffin Books, and to his surprise this resulted in him being assigned an entire Fighting Fantasy title.  Daggers of Darkness was an early work and it shows: he told me, "I was 17 when I did that first book, still at school and doing it in my spare time.  I was very unsure of myself and it looks like I was emulating the style of John Blanche.  When Puffin amazed me by asking me to do another book I found much more confidence."


From "Howl of the Werewolf"



His style improved by leaps and bounds, and soon he was producing some phenomenal work, being regularly called in on some of the darker and more gothic titles in the FF line, like Revenge of the Vampire, Howl of the Werewolf, and Night of the Necromancer.  He wasn't just good: he had a fantastic imagination.  McKenna said that he had "pretty much a free hand on the look of the artwork, as long as it followed the important details in the brief."  Even his filler pieces—those small art bits the FF editors used to fill out page space during layout—were lively and full of character.







He was asked to avoid anything too horrific in his FF pieces, but his ideas on what that meant vs those in charge sometimes differed: for Revenge of the Vampire a Puffin editor edited out some rivulets of blood he had running across a female vampire's cleavage.  It was a series intended for the young, after all.


From "Revenge of the Vampire"


To return to where I started, I emailed McKenna with some trepidation, asking how much he would charge for the use of some of his old FF artwork in this primer I was making.  He was extremely welcoming, allowing me to use it for free as long as there was no profit involved.  A few years later, when I started to put together my homebrew Simulacrum, I asked him again to buy some older FF pieces, with the idea that this time I would eventually be selling it, even if I anticipated a vast audience of several dozen.  He charged practically nothing and was nicely complimentary when I showed him early drafts.  The two books will be full of his art, and I only wish I had the opportunity to acquire more to show off; I had hoped to commission an original cover from him.  In September 2020, Martin McKenna committed suicide.

There's a page where you can buy prints of his art, with the proceeds going to his family.  It also serves as a nice overview of his work.


27 February 2021

A Historical Look at the OSR — Part III

Comparing the ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS 2nd Edition game to the first edition (now over 15 years old!) is like comparing a Porsche 959 to a Model T Ford.  Both are great cars for their times, but which would you want to drive in the 1990s?
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Preview, Dragon #142 (February 1989)

In parts one and two I covered the evolution of the adventure module and the changes brought about by the introduction of skill systems to D&D.  By this point I hope it's clear that, regardless of (and indeed, in spite of) the rules framework the game was operating under, by 1989 the supported playstyle at TSR had moved on from its original style of self-directed site and area exploration to heavily plotted heroic tales.  We can't actually know to what degree this reflected the desires of the player base for something different after years of the original style and to what degree it was pushed by the designers and editors themselves, who oversaw TSR's output and selected what appeared in its house organ, Dragon magazine.  All available information indicates that sales began steadily dropping after 1985, but how much of that was widespread dissatisfaction with D&D abandoning its roots and how much of it was the natural collapse of what was to some degree a fad we can't know.

This week I want to tackle 2nd edition itself: what the new edition was meant to be and what specific changes were made in that ruleset that moved it from 1st edition's old-school foundations.

Dragon #142    

The New AD&D 2nd Edition is a giant stride forward from the first game.  Experienced players will find all the rules they've grown accustomed to.  New players will discover a more complete and easier to understand set of rules.
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Preview




There are many changes between 1st and 2nd edition, many more than is usually noted.  At the same time, many of them are subtle ones.  Ultimately, this is an article focusing on the shift away from the old-school playstyle, and as such I'm going to detail only those rules changes that affect that.  So while, for example, the alteration of the bard, or the removal of artifacts from core, or the elimination of the monk and assassin are notable changes, the game isn't any more or less old school because of them.  If you want just a changelog, I've assembled one over the years compiled from various sources and my own observations: you can get it at this link.

Flavour and Guidance

The Dungeon Master's Guide, of course, contains extensive articles on how to conduct a game (2nd Edition is a major improvement over the first edition in this regard)
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Preview

Over and above rules changes, there is a strong flavour argument to the 1st vs. 2nd edition wars.  A common charge is that the 1st edition ruleset is more evocative than the 2nd edition.  In the new DMG, David Cook, Steve Winter, and Jon Pickens (the main developers of 2nd edition) wrote in a far less evocative fashion than Gygax.  I suspect, however, that they would have worn this as a badge of pride, in that crafting accessible rules requires accessible writing, and ease of access was clearly one of 2nd's goals.  For every player I have seen complain that the prose of 2nd is bland (comparatively or otherwise), I've seen another grateful that they can parse a rule quickly in mid-game instead of wading through statements like "perforce, as the killing of humans and other intelligent life forms for the purpose of profit is basically held to be the antithesis of weal."

But while one's preference for the functional vs. the evocative in rules text is subjective, there is a certain amount of crossover into content.  On page 7 of the 2nd edition DMG was a section titled "The Fine Art of Being a DM".  

Being a good Dungeon Master involves a lot more than knowing the rules.  It calls for quick wit, theatrical flair, and a good sense of dramatic timing, among other things.  Most of us can claim these attributes to some degree, but there's always room for improvement.

Fortunately, skills like these can be learned and improved with practice.  There are hundreds of tricks, shortcuts, and simple principles that can make you a better, more dramatic, and more creative game master.

But you won't find them in the DUNGEON MASTER Guide.  This is a reference book for running the AD&D game.  We tried to minimize material that doesn't pertain to the immediate conduct of the game.

From certain perspectives the decision made sense, in that it kept page count down and led to the book having a tight rules-based reference focus, which the Dragon preview revealed was a core design goal.  It was also likely felt that the existence of Basic D&D freed the Advanced line from having to worry about foundational play guidance (as the DMG section on page 7 references).  However, this was the period in which Basic was rapidly on the way to extinction, as more and more players decided to start immediately with Advanced, and so while an approach that made sense in 1986-88 when the new edition was being prepared, this plan was rapidly obsoleted by market trends and matching TSR priorities.
As such, and despite the statement given in the Dragon preview that 2nd edition would be "a major improvement" over 1st edition in terms of help on how to conduct a game, this choice meant that an element the book itself admitted was essential was cut because it didn't fit the design framework.  A lot of what people perceive as "flavour" in the 1st edition DMG comes from this material: on the surface somewhat fluffy, but key in conveying the sort of game Gygax intended and providing advice and inspiration to support it.  The original D&D game knew what it was and what it wanted to facilitate.  While some of its decisions can be said to be just plain strange with almost 50 years of hindsight and design evolution,[1] there are more that are frequently labelled "stupid" or "pointless" by modern readers only because they lack the appropriate context for rules that make perfect sense in the context of old-school play.  The loss of this material in 2nd edition, either in the name of leaving out DMing principles or removing "pages of type [dedicated] to topics that no one understands or uses" (2nd Edition Preview p. 5) resulted in the emphasis on heroic play already seen in late-1st edition modules being picked up in the new ruleset as well.  The new edition had no section laying out a clear statement of purpose, but the Player's Handbook did state at one point that "the AD&D game is a game of heroic fantasy."[2]

Much of what's relevant to running an old-school game is found in the 1st edition DMG's "Campaign" chapter.  Portions of that chapter could still be found scattered throughout the 2nd edition DMG, but much of it was cut, and that book had no dedicated campaign-running chapter of its own.  Some of the key 1st edition "flavour" material that was removed was:

1st edition DMG's sample dungeon
1) A Sample Dungeon (pp. 94-95): The 1st edition DMG has a brief (three-room) sample dungeon.  It's so short as to be of limited usefulness, but it does have a full-page 39-room map to go with it, encouraging the DM to create their own room entries.  The 2nd edition DMG has no sample areas.

2) The First Dungeon Adventure (pp. 96-100): Immediately after the above is a lengthy example of play, and notably it's centred around dungeon exploration.  It explains such vital concepts as adventure setup, NPC roles, and how to describe things as a DM.  It breaks out key concepts into subsections (Movement and Searching; Detection of Unusual Circumstances, Traps, and Hearing Noise; Doors).  It adds a "live" example of play, written in narrative voice, in which a DM and a party engage in a game, with march order discussion, searches, and a combat all occurring.  There is a much smaller (not quite a page) and simpler equivalent in the 2nd edition PHB, but, appearing as it does in that book and at the very start, it's nowhere near as useful for a DM aiming to figure out how to run things.

In neither DMG is there an encouragement to tightly restrict the movements of the players to best suit the story the DM is trying to tell.  However, the 1st edition version, through its example of play, describes how the ideal DM is prepared for the example scenario it helpfully lays out:

Before you are three maps: a large-scale map which shows the village and the surrounding territory, including the fen and monastery, the secret entrance/exit from the place, and lairs of any monsters who happen to dwell in the area; at hand also is a small-scale (1 square to 10’ might be in order) map of the ruined monastery which shows building interiors, insets for upper levels, and a numbered key for descriptions and encounters; lastly, you have the small scale map of the storage chambers and crypts beneath the upper works of the place ... likewise keyed by numbers for descriptions and encounters.  So no matter what action the party decides upon, you have the wherewithal to handle the situation.

A proper DM is thus shown to be one who has prepared enough material ahead of time to allow the players to wander to some degree.  Both editions emphatically insist that a DM must be prepared to wing it, but only the 1st edition version provides the foundations of dungeon crawling the game was originally built to enable, and emphasizes player freedom in this particular fashion.

Today this shunting of advice off from, say, an OSR rules reference makes more sense, in that there's a mountain of third-party advice—primers, blogs, forum posts—available online (although I think a clone should at least include advice about how to accommodate it and its changes specifically with the wider world of old-school play, but that's a topic for another time).  But in 1989 (unless you were one of a handful of people able to access Usenet), your advice was limited to whatever your local fanzines and the Dragon magazine Forum column—if you could get these—were discussing this month, and so this choice was crippling if you were in search of specific playstyle guidance.  You had the rules, but large parts of how to apply them were missing.

With the 2nd ed DMG lacking these key avenues of advice, new readers picked up tone and guidance from fellow players ("We always urge newcomers to learn from experienced players": 2nd Edition Preview p. 6) and, of course, TSR's wider world of support materials.  In terms of adventures, as we've seen, this support was almost entirely directed at heroic plot-based play.  In terms of more direct advice, according to Shannon Appelcline the DMG was originally intended to contain 100 pages of advice (which might explain the apparent contradiction between the Dragon preview's claim that it would be providing "extensive" support and the DMG introduction statement saying it wasn't needed).  Ultimately, however, it was decided to cut this due to space concerns.  Buying 1990's DMGR1 (Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide; where this cut material wound up) and 1993's DMGR5 (Creative Campaigning) plugged much of this gap, but that was two more sourcebooks and several years of wait, and the specific dungeoneering advice and examples were entirely of the naturalistic Dungeoneer's Survival Guide school rather than rooted in fantasy and useful examples of play.  These books also added some decidedly non-old-school advice besides:[3]

keep in mind that the PCs are supposed to be heroes.  They are unusual persons whose skills and abilities stand head and shoulders above the normal man (figuratively speaking in the case of dwarves and halflings).
       They should be able to perform heroic actions without worrying about the fussy details of their activities.  They should be concerned with finding lost artifacts, slaying horrible fiends and saving the world; not cleaning their swords after each battle, counting the arrows in their quivers or telling the DM exactly how they prepare for sleep each night. (DMGR1 pp. 36-37)
If the DM can bring himself to think of his campaign as a story with an unwritten ending, he has made the first logical step in successful campaign design.  Players, regardless of type, want to do more than just slay endless streams of monsters or loot bottomless treasure hoards.  They want to be heroes who perform legendary deeds like the characters in fantasy fiction or film. (DMGR1 pp. 85-86)
Eventually, the encounters should serve to point the adventurers towards what the DM has determined to be the climactic encounter of the adventure. (DMGR1 p. 90)


While the 2nd edition rulebooks cut key bits of old-school-related guidance, there are also noticeable drifts away from the older style of play of a mechanical nature.  Some of these are small.  The default roll to find secret doors was left out (1 on 1D6), which may suggest how much dungeoneering was done during playtesting.[4]  Encumbrance was made a optional rule (though it also was in B/X), but even then, there's no weight value for a week of rations, an essential for wilderness adventuring.

Others were more important.  The movement rate inside dungeons became ten time greater (from 120 feet per turn to 120 feet per minute), which made the exploration and clearing of dungeons a much quicker thing, while at the same time the recommended wandering monster rate dropped from 1 in 6 every 3 turns to 1 in 10 every 6 turns: about a two-thirds decrease (and when coupled with the fact that a group now raced through a dungeon ten times as fast, this was an even greater decrease).  Non-weapon proficiencies were included in core (albeit still optional), as I covered in part two.  And for all that 2nd edition has a reputation of streamlining material, the Reaction Table (as I explored previously) was only made clumsier in 2nd, expanded to a 2D10 4-column monstrosity.  The table also rewards an aggressive style of play, by assuming that hostility is the "good" result.  That is, hostility is the highest result, so that any positive table modifiers (such as from Charisma) the party manages to accrue leads the players towards it (i.e. the more charismatic you are, the more likely you are to get a result leading instantly to combat).  This is true even if the players want to be friendly: a friendly approach only reduces the range of possible hostile results.[5]

The most significant change by far, however, was the shunting of gold for XP to optional status.  What causes a PC to level up is the fundamental driver of gameplay across the board, and thus shapes the entire game.  A great deal of 2nd edition was optional, so this change was in part deceptive (as I covered in part two, one of the major design directions of 2nd edition was to make as much optional as possible, to enable a DM to built their own game out of a toolkit).  However, the game does list a number of default, official methods of earning XP.  Defeating enemies is the one most clearly articulated,[6] but this is supplemented by a bewildering array of additional approved methods: a variable story-based award arbitrated by the DM, an award for surviving, and awards for making the game fun, creating magic items, and for player (not PC) improvement.  An optional individual XP award system was added as well, which if used could give awards for behaving in a class-appropriate way, good roleplaying and so on.  Amongst all this was the gold-for-XP option, for the group as a whole and/or for rogues at a double rate (2 XP per 1 GP), as the DM felt was appropriate.  However, support for the game proceeded along the primary lines suggested in the DMG, and while plenty of 2nd edition products awarded handsome treasure hauls, I'm aware of only one product—1999's deliberate throwback module Return to the Keep on the Borderlands—that suggested XP be earned from gold, in keeping with that rule's optional nature.

A recent poll on 2nd edition XP awards taken on the Dragonsfoot forums.  Though from a limited sample base and taken twenty years after the end of 2nd edition, it's interesting to see what DMs use.  Combat and then the story award, the two methods most strongly emphasized in the DMG text, have the most votes.  Click to enlarge.

The "story award" was nebulous: all the DMG really suggested was that it be for completing the adventure, and that it shouldn't outweigh what was earned by defeating foes that adventure, emphasizing the primacy of combat.  This story award was implemented in a spotty fashion in official modules (as were all the non-combat methods, official or not).  It's difficult to examine the 2nd edition module lineup as a whole: over 100 modules were released in its 10-year lifetime, so I hope you'll forgive my random cherry-picking (and feel free to point out anything interesting you notice in one).  In some cases the story award was used: for example, in 1993's GA3 (Tales of Enchantment) we have elaborate guidance at the module's conclusion:

Any solution that leaves Gwellen and Barens together deserves some award.
Any solution that returns Barens to Jareb deserves some award, as that was the PCs' mission.
Any solution that allows the pixies' harassment campaign to continue should receive only half XP awards.
Any solution that doesn't return Barens to Jareb should receive only half XP awards.
Any solution that starts a war between the pixies and the "large folk" deserves no award or a negative award based on the other circumstances.
Any solution that pleases everyone deserves at least 10,000 XP, and even more if the players are particularly creative or role-played particularly well.
Any solution that allows Gwellen and Barens to marry and live together happily as man and wife deserves a bonus award of at least 10,000 XP.
This level of specificity was the exception, rather than the rule.  The module immediately preceding it in the same series (GA2 Swamplight), released that same year, had no such awards stated, merely a quick note on the first page that "the PCs should get additional experience points if they find the real menace in the adventure and defeat it.  The amount of experience awarded is left up to the DM."  1999's Against the Giants: The Liberation of Geoff gave a simple 25,000 XP award for completing the story goal.

Many modules did not bother awarding the story award at all.  This includes most of the modules released in 1989 to support the new edition.  1989's FRE 1, 2, and 3 (the godawful Godswar trilogy for Forgotten Realms) had none.  The infamous initial Greyhawk trilogy of 1989 (WG9, WG10, and WG11) were refashioned older RPGA modules, but they had no awards added as part of their polishing up for wider release.  1990's WGA1 (Falcon's Revenge) and WG12 (Valley of the Mage) and 1991's WGS2 (Howl from the North), all-new Greyhawk works, also had none; neither did 1990's LNA1 (Thieves of Lankhmar) or 1992's LNQ1 (Slayers of Lankhmar).  Again returning to the GA series (and also 1993), GA1 The Murky Deep gave no special awards or even the suggestion of them.  Leaping forward, 1998's The Shattered Circle and The Lost Shrine of Bundushatus worked the same way.  While the RPGA generally emphasized role-playing, its 1997 module The Star of Kolhapur and its 1999 module The Wand of Archeal (to pick a random pair) also had none.

More often seen was the individual XP award, despite it being optional in the DMG.  For example, while FRE3 had no story award, it does suggests an unspecified XP award for any character who can "orate exceptionally well" in front of the master of the gods (though the players can have no effect on what happens at that point, regardless of what they say, but that's neither here nor there).  1995's The Return of Randal Morn grants a mighty 100 XP bonus if the party attacks a catapult as their first target in the climatic scene (but has no story award, despite being the culmination of a linked module trilogy).  In 1998's rework of Destiny of Kings, the character that defeats the enemy in a joust to conclude the adventure receives 1,500 XP.

For all that old-school D&D is often depicted as a hack-and-slash game, gold for XP produces a clear gameplay incentive based on wealth, not slaughter.  Combat did give XP in 1st edition and Basic, and was often the gateway to the treasure you needed, but the main avenue of advancement was loot, which—when coupled with the dangers inherent to low-level combat especially—often inclined players to avoiding battle, not seeking it.  With 2nd edition, power instead was best earned at the point of a sword.  There were other means of gaining XP, as we have seen, both official and not, but combat was suggested to be made the best source, and the clear itemized awards laid out in the Monstrous Compendium entries were simple to use, vs. the "figure it out yourself" approach of the other awards.  Wealth as a major aspect of D&D gameplay in any fashion increasingly became vestigial.[7]


So, can you run an old-school game using 2nd edition?  Absolutely.  Fold gold for XP back in, reduce combat XP to compensate, and draw on the vast OSR/old-school knowledge base for how to run that style of campaign, and it can be accomplished with absolutely no difficulty.  The vast majority of 2nd edition's rules changes are matters of taste or mechanical tinkering, not of style, and there's clear improvements in terms of accessibility and overall layout.  That it doesn't support an old-school game as well as 1st edition doesn't mean it doesn't support it at all, and if you prefer its layout or enjoy the rules tweaks it made, it makes perfect sense to make some simple changes and run your old-school game with it as you normally would.  And as the old-school isn't the be-all and end-all of D&D, you can still get an enjoyable heroic or other style game out of 2nd edition: as I've mentioned previously, this isn't a series intended to delineate right vs. wrong (though I do feel rather strongly that 2nd edition does feel comparatively directionless, not attempting to do something other than "be a fantasy game" with an implied heroic bent but next to no rules changes to actually facilitate this).[8]

Even for an old-school player, there's lots of decent material that came out during 2nd edition that is of use.  The long-running Monstrous Compendium series offers mountains of additional monsters.  The Diablo II: The Awakening supplement and the mammoth Encyclopedia Magica series gives you thousands of magic items to play with, and the four-volume Wizard's Spell Compendium and three-volume Priest's Spell Compendium are similarly authoritative.  For more niche play, the Castle Guide is excellent for those interested in the domain game, while Of Ships and the Sea expands the game into the nautical realm.  I've always found the three-book Forgotten Realms series on deities—Faiths & Avatars, Powers & Pantheons, and Demihuman Deities—to be far more useful to steal from (even in non-FF campaigns) than the comparatively tepid Deities & Demigods/Legends & Lore, bound as the latter were to real-life pantheons.  And there are even some fun adventures in the period: Night Below is remembered by many as largely offering an excellent underdark crawl.

I hope these first three articles have managed to explain why some people don't consider 2nd edition to be properly old school.  For those coming to D&D long after the fact, there's little on the surface to differentiate 1st from 2nd.  And if your sole criteria is the broad ruleset in general, then it's easy to consider 2nd edition just as old school as 1st.  But if considering playstyle instead (which includes a few rather specific and important rules), it's clear that 2nd edition offers almost nothing along old-school lines, and in fact a decent amount that runs counter to it.  Broadly, those who were around for 1st edition's original lifecycle are the ones most likely to consider 2nd edition not old school, while those who started with 3rd edition or later are separated from the controversies and arguments of the time and also have such a radically different starting point that they're more willing to accept 1st and 2nd as two sides of the same coin.  Thus, the old school might be defined as "pre-1984 D&D" (a date chosen due to the year Dragonlance came out and the lack of anything exceptional released otherwise) or "pre-3rd edition D&D" (1974-2000), depending on who you talk to.  Realistically, 2nd edition is at once both the last of the old-school editions and the first of the modern ones, and will thus be prone to disappointing fans of either.

What we have in this new edition is a better version than the first one.  It is a new version that can provide even more fun and excitement.  It is also a smoother flowing game that can work to stimulate the player's own imagination in even more new and exciting ways.
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Preview

I see no need to delve into 3rd edition and later in any deep fashion: I think by this point it's clear that by 1989 the game had firmly moved away from its original base in numerous ways large and small: staff, support materials, rules framework, and general design intent.  Insofar as 3rd edition matters specifically, we'll cover it in the next post, when I examine the birth of the OSR itself.


[1] The raging arguments over ascending vs descending armour class aside, I've always thought the observation that, were negative armour class not in use at the game's start, no one would have ever seen the need to invent it, to be a powerful one.  Steve Winter explained that "We heard so many times, ‘Why did you keep armour classes going down instead of going up?’  People somehow thought that that idea had never occurred to us.  We had tons of ideas that we would have loved to do, but we still had a fairly narrow mandate that whatever was in print should still be largely compatible with second edition.”

[2] Page 47 (1989 version).  "Hero" appears seven times in the 1st edition PHB (mostly with regard to heroism effects), 38 times in the 2nd edition PHB.  At the same time, the 1st edition DMG's beginning does speak of populating "imaginary worlds with larger-than-life heroes and villains", so certainly there are hints of such behaviour even there in the 70s.

[3] Besides the DMGR1 quotes that follow, see also Jonathan Tweet's "Freestyle Campaigning" chapter in DMGR5.  Also, I'm not clear on why DMGR1 a) is called the Catacomb Guide rather than the Dungeon Guide, and b) has no catacombs, strangely enough.

[4] Or it was just lost in editing.  It's always dangerous to speculate on these things without adequate information.

[5] The effect of Charisma is so counterintuitive that I'm inclined to treat it as a mistake, though neither Sage Advice nor the errata ever bothered to address it, perhaps an indicator as to how few people were bothering with encounter reaction by this point: between the cumbersome implementation and the general incentive to kill things, why would you?  The section in the DMG also doesn't mention Charisma modifiers at all, strangely, but that only inclines me all the more to think that there was a mistake, in that I don't think it took into account how Charisma would affect it at all.  However, that still leaves the table structurally inclined to aggression as a whole, by having any other positive effect push the result towards a Hostile result.

[6] Though the section at times reads as though two different sections were glued together somewhat haphazardly.  Page 45 lists character survival as a primary criteria for XP gain, stating that "Although having a character live from game session to game session is a reward in itself, a player should also receive experience points when his character survives."  However, page 47 then deals with survival awards again, stating "Finally, you can award points on the basis of survival.  The amount awarded is entirely up to you.  However, such awards should be kept small and reserved for truly momentous occasions.  Survival is its own reward."

[7] The complete removal of training costs and the domain game in 3rd edition was a major shift in this direction, though the commodification of magic items in that edition somewhat compensated.


[8] Interestingly, "soul" was literally forbidden from 2nd edition TSR products, but I'm sure that's a coincidence.