Player Agendas for Old School Gaming
Old school adventures are weird, wild, unfamiliar. The rules of the game leave a lot of space for you, as a player, to be creative with your problem solving. The best adventures will let you pry opportunities from them, and the best referees will be open and honest about the fruits of your efforts. But how should you look to engage with the game to get the most out of it?
- Dig into the fiction - Discard your assumptions about D&D, and be curious about the game world. Pay attention to details- about characters, the environment, social situations, and more. Take notes on them! Make maps of them! Those details can save your life. When you write your notes, write questions for yourself too- What do they eat? Do they have any social rituals? What's that smell? Why is there a breeze in this room? Is there an empty space where a room should be? Information is leverage, my crafty friend.
- Engage the fantasy as real - If you were in a room with a heavy vase in one corner, and you wanted to know what was behind it, what would you do? Probably drag it to the side, right? Looking for an air current? Lick a finger and hold it up. Judging the slope of a floor? Spill a little water on the ground. Engage the fiction of the game world as real. Describe the real actions you take to achieve the effect you're looking for. Remember, other games may have dice rolls to do this for you- many old school games don't, so engage!
- See a dead end as an opportunity - That dead-end hallway may hide a secret door, or maybe there's another passage to investigate. The gargantuan monstrosity in the courtyard? Maybe you can get around it, or negotiate. A recalcitrant noble? Maybe someone knows how to get some leverage. Couldn't pick that iron door? Maybe one of those unidentified potions will help. Old School games have lots of hard blockers. When your first attempt fails, change tactics- the dead end is just the beginning of your solution. Often, digging into the fiction and engaging the world as real will open up new and unexpected avenues.
- Let your unique creativity flow - Your class and/or race can do some unique things the other folks can't. Learn to recognize when it's your turn to shine, and when it's someone else's. When it's your turn, really go for it. Outside of the game mechanics of your character, what are your unique inspirations and ideas? Do you see a clever use for a magic item? Do you want to try negotiating with the ferocious monster? Do you see a weakness in the defenses the others don't immediately recognize? Could you combine a few of these opportunities in a unique way? Open up your brain, and let in the weird and the creative. The world is so bizarre... it just might work.
- Know when to run - Old school adventures often present encounters that, to a modern gaming eye, look like fights- only, if you fight them, you'll just die. Learn to dig into the fiction to see the relative power of what you're facing, and don't be afraid to cut your losses. A party that drags away one dead body is a party on their way to a Cleric, instead of on their way through a monster's digestive system.
- Play to win, but delight in losing - Everyone wants to succeed, and certainly everyone wants to play with friends they feel are aiming to succeed- but that may not always happen. Your characters may get turned into frog-people, lose limbs, be stricken by leprosy, turned into stone, cursed to burp up slugs, entombed in the earth for 10,000 years, or just die from being stabbed in the gut by a farmer with a pitchfork. Learn to love the disgusting, horrifying, shocking, surprising, and even disappointing ways your characters are set back. After all, there's always Resurrection.
Now, certainly these are great player agendas for many games, new and old (school). But especially in mechanics-light old school games, players who keep these tenets in mind will be engaging with the game the way it wants to be played.
Of course, it helps players engage with an old school game if the referee has built it to support these agendas. Next time, we'll define some Referee Agendas for Old School Gaming to make sure we hit the mark whether we're running a published adventure, or creating our own devious traps and terrors.