Common assumptions lately are that it's a label for:
- any old game (where "old" is in the eye of the beholder, and as such has reached the impossibly distant 90s in some cases)
- any rules-light independently produced fantasy game
The Decline of the Old School — The Adventure
At the same time, there's plot and then there's plot: the "story" of the Giants series is a quick framework designed to get play going, an artifact of its tournament origins, and D 1-2 opens with the note that "Unlike the expeditions against the giants, no compulsion is placed upon adventurers to undertake this journey." The players have a large amount of flexibility in how they accomplish their task, there's no unkillable NPCs, quantum ogres and other events, predetermined resolutions, and so on: to compare it to later efforts because both have a forced impetus and an overall framing arc / villain motivation is to distort things beyond a useful point.
The Curse of Xanathon is an unusual module, in that much of the players’ actions will be in the form of detective work
If a group of players is unfamiliar with this type of detective game, they may become frustrated or disinterested. The DM is encouraged to offer additional clues whenever these would seem to be necessary. This can be handled in a number of ways. For example, the High Priest of Forsetta, who moves around in a beggar’s disguise, is introduced in Scenario 1. The DM should feel free to use this character whenever necessary as a source of information and guidance to the party.
they will progress in an orderly fashion through 5 scenarios, puzzling out what is going on and eventually setting things to rights.
Herein lies the problem of this module. No party of players that I have known ever does what they are supposed to, in the right order, through five different adventures. To assist in getting the players through the module properly, the DM is provided with Eric of Forsett. He sounds like a steak & kidney pie manufacturer but is, in fact, a clerical heavy. He pops up whenever the party is going astray and guides them back on course. After he has appeared a few times, it is going to look a little obvious and players may feel overmanipulated. Similarly, the first three scenarios are prompted by Ducal proclamation. The first time the Duke's Herald comes round shouting his head off is OK but after that players tend to become a little cynical and ignore such an obvious ploy to guide them where the DM wants them to go.
The investigation / mystery itself would always remain a minority of adventures, difficult to pull off at any time and D&D being replete with spells that make a lot of mystery elements unfeasible except with awkward convolutions besides, but overall this was very much a new style of adventure, one that reduced player agency and provided hamfisted direction to better facilitate a plot. It was a distinct harbinger.
Another notable element in the evolution of module design was the creation of boxed text—segregated blocks of text intended to be read aloud to the players. The separation of DM text from player-intended information can be seen as early as 1979's T1 (The Village of Hommlet). However, boxed text proper first appeared in 1980 with A1 (Slave Pits of the Undercity) and C1 (The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan). This was a natural development: it's the DM's job to convey information to the players, and a module would logically provide such. Boxing it helps separate DM and player info, and if written well can provide good atmosphere. That both of these were tournament modules was likely no coincidence: boxed text also ensures that all competitors get the same core of essential information, helping maintain a level playing field.
The downsides to this innovation became apparent fairly quickly: the practice soon moved from telling the players what they see and hear, to telling the players what they think and feel, and ultimately to telling them what they do or don't do, robbing players of agency as their very actions and emotional states were determined for them and removing much of the question-and-response interaction between player and DM that made up so much of the early exploratory playstyle. Additionally, boxed text soon became a vehicle for writers to indulge their worst storytelling tendencies, a phenomenon referred to in some quarters as "failed-novelist syndrome". Paragraphs soon grew to half-columns, full columns, and even page-long and multi-page-long narratives the DM was expected to read aloud and the players were expected to sit passively and absorb, with descriptive colour and essential facts haphazardly mixed together so that players easily missed key detail.
Here's an example from C1, highlighting some of the tendencies that began appearing on day one:
Nine sentences in length, this is already pushing the limits of what players can easily absorb, though it does largely limit itself to useful descriptive room detail. At the end, the players are presumed to be taking action, whether they want to or not ("upon approaching the other door"). (As an aside, it also seems confused as to whether or not it is describing action ("upon approaching") or potential action ("will come into sight"), likely an artifact of still working the idea out.) Boxed text in many ways encapsulates the practices that would eventually kill off the old school: an item that was a logical outgrowth of existing gameplay, meant to be helpful, at its best capable of being quite useful, but in its most common manifestation detrimental to the playstyle.
1983 was notable in that, with the exception of I6 (Ravenloft),
none of the modules released that year are considered classics. Some
of them feature what would become the worst excesses of TSR (and later)
module design, though Ravenloft and UK1 (Beyond the Crystal Cave)
attempted to do some things differently. A second generation of
designers had arrived at TSR: Michael Malone, Garry Spiegle, Carl Smith,
Merle M. Rasmussen, and Bruce Nesmith were writing material in a different mode. TSR had filled sixty new positions in 1981, and as of August 1982 nearly 40% of its employees had been hired
in the previous twelve months.
Meanwhile, by the autumn of 1982 Gygax began stepping back from
development duties, as the larger concerns of TSR as a corporation
occupied his attention: particularly his presidency of TSR
Entertainment, which saw him spend much time in Hollywood chasing after
film and animation deals rather than writing or directly supervising
Let's take a look at an early example of what would become typical in post-old-school adventure design. 1983's X4 (Master of the Desert Nomads) was written by David "Zeb" Cook, who had helped create the original Expert (of B/X fame) box set. Primarily a wilderness exploration module (which the X series was intended to contain), the players are recruited as part of an army to battle a group of increasingly troublesome desert marauders led by "The Master". However, the players arrive too late to the army's assembly area and must hurry on alone to catch up. This is a strong framing device that tells the players what's happening and what they're up to, but as we've seen, such a thing isn't really different from several treasured modules released earlier.
More egregious, at least from an old-school perspective, are the fixed, quantum-style encounters and overall assumptions of reduced agency that occur throughout the adventure. For example,
Encounters #1 and #2 should occur, in either order, before players reach the swamp: it is suggested that both occur some distance upstream from the village of Pramayama. Encounter #3 should occur while the characters are crossing the swamp.
The DM is advised that these programmed encounters should be carefully doled out, based not even on where the DM has chosen to place them ahead of time but on the perceived pace and status of the player group:
if several of the player characters are severely hurt, the DM should wait until the characters are almost to the end of the river before having the next encounter, The Watchers on the River. The DM controls the timing of all the encounters. He does not have to worry about the characters missing an important encounter by not going in the right direction.Similarly, there is a later encounter delivered via boxed text based entirely on the premise that the players have agreed to do something, whether they would have wanted to or not:
Not finding the company of the caravan the most pleasant or sociable around, your party has accepted orders from Lamshar to act as an advance guard.
will discover that their mission has even attracted the attention of higher beings. Appearing at one point in the module is an "Unknown Benefactor." There is no explanation of who or what this being is, and the player characters are not able to observe it closely. The being only appears in the most absolute of need, but it should not be used to bail the characters out of situations into which they have stumbled through their own stupidity or foolishness! The Unknown Benefactor appears in the module for atmosphere and feeling, not as a cure-all to the characters' problems.These are important caveats, but caveats or not, the appearance of what amounts to DM-placed training wheels (for characters levels 6-9 no less, ones presumably in the hands of experienced players) is a notable reduction in assumptions of player self-direction and responsibility. David Cook would go on to be the lead developer of 2nd edition AD&D.
Reviewers were noting these changes, often favourably. Future TSR employee Rick Swan's review of X4 in Space Gamer #71 commented that it provided "welcome relief from the tedious dungeon exploration all too common in TSR D&D modules". The release of more and more products like X4, and similar reviewer comments in this period about "the traditional dungeon crawl" and the like, indicated that the idea of just exploring a complex for the sake of exploration was becoming passé. By this point D&D was approaching ten years old, and people were looking for it to provide something different.
1984's Dragonlance megasaga, the first five modules of which were released that year alongside the first Dragonlance novel (Nov 1984), provided it. The immortal Dave Langford reviewed the novel Dragons of Autumn Twilight for White Dwarf #65 in his long-running book column, suggesting that it was "inspired by an AD&D campaign full of chunks ripped bleeding from Tolkien" and critiqued the "Deadly predictable questing, with stock D&D characters in familiar encounters." Modules 1-4 were written before the first novel (which adapted them), a process reversed for the final two books in the initial novel trilogy. In this new series, we had player characters on a fixed quest—not just one to set up the game, like G1, U1, or I3 (Pharaoh), but to drive the entire adventure. The PCs were heroes from the start, rather than characters that might become heroes if the players behind them were so inclined and managed to achieve that. The story—to restore the presence of the gods to the world and defeat the forces of evil—takes primacy over anything the players might wish to do otherwise. The series was notoriously railroaded. For example, take this encounter from DL2 (Dragons of Flame), which jumps the party with two ancient red dragons so that they can be taken prisoner if they're not performing as expected:
This encounter returns the PCs to their epic path if they stray or dally. Run the encounter when the party is in open terrain (plains or low mountains) and has no place to hide.
In short, the sandbox was closed. Tracy Hickman, one half of the team that produced the novel (and also Ravenloft), also wrote five modules in the series. Its approach reflected his long-standing frustration with traditional D&D: around 1978 he had written a proposal for an adventure series to be entitled Nightventure, which had the following explanatory opening:
Some time ago, I found, with mounting frustration, that my so-called "epic dungeon" was rapidly turning into an "eternal dungeon"; one which even I would never discover the bottom of, let alone any player characters. My evil wizard would never be routed from the tower--not because of the treacherousness of the way--but because of its tediousness. There had to be a better way.
Presumably not everyone was happy with this new direction—in particular, Imagine #26 had coverage of the UK's GamesFair '85, and it was noted that during a Q&A session with some TSR staff several members of the crowd expressed concern "about the Dragonlance modules and the direction that modules seem to be taking." But the series was a culmination of already existing trends, and since the initial Dragonlance (DL) series eventually ran for 16 modules, presumably sales told besides.
Several months before the start of the year ... the entire design department (game designers and editors) would be called into a meeting. There our manager would hand us all next year's schedule. On it were all the products that were to be published by TSR over the following year. Each product (module, hardback, supplement, etc.) would have its name listed, the product line it fell into, its page length, and the month it was to be published. There would be much laughing over some of the stupid names the execs picked out for products, but altogether it wasn't a jolly process.
This schedule was presented to us as a fait accompli, set by upper management. I believe it was also vetted by Random House, our publisher, which had a tremendous amount of influence on TSR's schedule and sticking to it (think in terms of how Wal-Mart dictates everything to its suppliers and you'll have some idea). We could bitch about various products, refuse to work on them, point out stupidities, and so on. We were able to push back sometimes and get products dropped or shifted around. But our primary function at that point was to decide which designer and which editor worked on each product. That was mostly on a volunteer basis. When it got down to products in lines people didn't like to work on (Buck Rogers, MSH for most people, D&D [by that time a sideshow compared to AD&D], etc.), most of those were farmed out to freelancers as no internal employees wanted them.
|Box text from 1987's I11.|
There was a long period of time when action, rather than role playing, was the major focus of gaming, and this was especially true with respect to tournament scenarios at conventions. Thus, an AD&D® game scenario would typically stress combat with monsters to achieve the goal set before the characters. Now, the pendulum has swung the other way — much emphasis is being placed on how well the player takes on the role of his or her character. Personification and acting are replacing action of the more direct and forceful type — be it sword swinging, spell casting, or anything else. Before this trend goes too far, it is time to consider what the typical role-playing game is all about.
First, it is important to remember that "role-playing" is a modifier of the noun "game". We are dealing with a game which is based on role playing, but it is first and foremost a game. Games are not plays, although role-playing games should have some of the theatre included in their play. To put undue stress upon mere role-playing places the cart before the horse. Role playing is a necessary part of the game, but it is by no means the whole of the matter.
— Gary Gygax, Dragon #102 (October 1985)
 I want to add an important caveat. Overall we're talking about how the initial designers of D&D intended it to be played and what the rules and modules published by them were intended to support, rather than making a universal claim as to how DMs outside the initial Lake Geneva TSR circle actually played D&D in this era. OD&D was so vague and AD&D so baroque that both lent themselves to all sort of alternate interpretations. Additionally, D&D is attractive to creative minds, and so even with clear rules the first thing a role-playing gamer often does is tinker and modify, throwing out things that don't fit their style. As such, people immediately took the ruleset in all sorts of different directions (as published lamentations from Gygax et al. in the period demonstrate; addressing this playstyle drift was one of the design impetuses for AD&D), and you could certainly find people who rapidly abandoned the open site exploration style of play in favour of what would become later norms (i.e. heavily plotted heroic questing) even in this early period; after all, the newer wave of TSR designers and their different design style had to come from somewhere.
 Dragon #34 (Feb 1980) also has Doomkeep, an adventure by Bryan Blume, featuring numerous text sections that, while not formally boxed off, are written in red ink and intended to be read to the players.
 Back in 2005 two Wizards of the Coast employees conducted field research at GenCon about, amongst other things, the effects of boxed text on players forced to endure it. The article is worth reading, but the key point was this: "My hypothesis was that boxed text longer than a paragraph probably isn’t worth reading, because players tend to have pretty bad listening comprehension when it comes to boxed text. Their eyes glaze over pretty quickly. What I actually saw was much more dramatic than my hypothesis. If you’re the DM, you get two sentences. Period. Beyond that, your players are stacking dice, talking to each other, or staring off into space. Time after time, players were missing the actual data in the boxed text – basic stuff, like room dimensions, how many doors exit the room, and number of monsters."
 Anthony Pryor, author of 1992's WGQ1 (Patriots of Ulek)—a module infamous for its large amounts of boxed text—said of the use of boxed text that "I don't recall it being a hard-and-fast requirement, but since everyone else was doing it, we followed suit. It was an example of a good practice getting worn out by overuse and becoming a major tool in the 'railroad the players' arsenal."
 Per Jon Peterson.
 I'm not arguing that the old-school method is the one true way to play D&D, though it's the one I prefer. It's simply the focus of this article series. For those fine with more structured modules, X4 can provide a solid play experience, though you really need X5 (Temple of Death) for it to work, since it's not so much a sequel as the other (and better) half of the module.
 Not even Gary Gygax was immune to this sort of thing. 1982's S4 (The Lost Caverns of Tsojanth) has a hermit encounter with the advice that "You should place this encounter at a location that is most useful to the players. Place it near the caverns if they are not doing too well, at some distance if they are highly capable." There's also his last module for TSR, 1986's WG6 (Isle of the Ape), which has a full two pages of boxed text to open it.
 Swan's review of WG5 (Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure) in Space Gamer
#73 is a much deeper exploration of his thoughts on how tired old-school D&D had become for him, but his review is written with the sense that this feeling is a much wider one. "As roleplaying becomes more sophisticated, those early days of Dungeons & Dragons seem long ago indeed. The once-fascinating attraction of assuming the identity of a mighty warrior or magician purely to explore a creature-filled dungeon in search of treasure now seems hopelessly quaint to today's experienced roleplayer. I'd venture a guess that Gary Gygax's cheerful admission in the preface ... that 'this is what is generally termed a hack-and-slash' module will send many roleplayers running for the hills." In the same issue, Swan gave a glowing review of DL2 (Dragons of Despair), despite noting that it was "tightly scripted" and "not particularly flexible".
 The author of the 2nd, 6th, 9th, and 14th volumes was Douglas Niles, the author of X3. Niles and Hickman also co-authored the 11th volume, which though given a DL module code like the rest was a wargame module for the series rather than a RPG supplement.
 Frank Mentzer stated that TSR simply felt able to publish modules with little to no playtesting after its early days, due to feeling that they had acquired enough experience designing modules to not need it. "Most of my later RGPA tournaments were never playtested."
 Note the caveat: "paraphrase the following ... or intersperse it with questions from the PCs to avoid reading it in one long section." Future module writers would often skip this sort of warning, even as the amount of boxed text climbed even further.
 The close of 1st edition is a little difficult to make categorical statements of with regards to modules, as TSR was performing a lot of experiments at the time. The original short-adventure anthology and the Battlesystem / War Machine mass-combat module, both relatively short-lived things, flourished at this time. And then there was the DA (Dave Arneson) line, the DragonQuest crossover, Castle Greyhawk....