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Old Screeds

Back to School ... OLD School in Labyrinths & Liontaurs

Tone and Style in RPG Design - In my RPG game, I'm going back to First Edition's flavor

As I put together Labyrinths & Liontaurs, I find myself returning to the roots of the game in First Edition. A lot of this is tone. I find that in designing a version of the game that *I* would want to play, I remember the game of my youth, and I see that sometimes more modern changes are not for the better.

Non-Oriental Monks: Back in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, First Edition monks were not as directly linked to Asian traditions as they are now. There was no Ki use in the game. [And I object on principle to the inelegance of using multiple magic systems in the same game.] Instead, monks had a natural feel. They could talk to animals. The greatest monk in the world was the "Grandmaster of Flowers." I've returned to that tone in the L&L Monk. No Ki. Since all characters in L&L are spell casters, I gave monks access to nature-oriented spells. I used animal- and nature-based names for some class abilities.

Good Rangers: Advanced Dungeons and Dragons lifted Rangers from Tolkien, and the result was a very popular class -- so popular, you were not allowed to have more than three in one party! For the L&L Ranger, I've returnd to the original class tone: foremost, rangers must be good. I've no loyalty to the Drizzt Do'Urden tradition, and I've de-emphasized the combat options; instead, rangers protect the weak, fight valiantly, and scatter their enemies before them. From the Lord of the Rings, rangers know about healing herbs, they are weather-worn, and they can track at speed. From First Edition, they get an extra hit die, are hard to surprise, and are decent casters.

Don't Coddle Players: Back in the day, you died if you hit zero hit points. You were often just one failed save away from death, especially against poison. When we were kids, we played hardball: it may not have been core, but we had a house rule that no character could be raised more than once -- multiple raises seemed like cheating, somehow. I once ran a 10th level ranger named Armath with hit points in the high nineties who had died once and was on his second, and final, life. He found a pair of artifact eyeballs you could put in place of your originals, but you had to rip out your natural eyes first. I asked the DM, "How much damage does ripping out your own eyeballs do?" He paused a sec and said, off the top of his head, "1-100." I said sure, rolled a d100, got a 99, and that was all she wrote for poor Armath!

Heck, we used to play old-school Traveller, a sci-fi game so hardcore you could die during character creation, before the first session!

Kids these days play a very tame game in comparison, with training wheels and bumper guards to stop you from rolling gutter balls. In 3E, you got negative hit points -- no more dying when you get to zero. In Pathfinder, spells such as Breath of Life bring you back the moment after you die. In 5E, if hardly matters how many negative hp you have -- you still get multiple saves to delay and avoid death.

There's a grittiness factor in modern play vs old-school play as well. Under some play styles, and fostered in most big modern games, player characters go all out right away, using up their hit points and daily uses of spells, class abilities, and items. Then they run away to recover and come back the next day. Fifth Edition, recognizing this, put short rests in the game, letting you recover hit points and some daily uses so you can continue adventuring. On the other hand, the old-school play style treats the game more seriously -- players have to be careful using resources, and clever. The point is not to make each battle epic, but to make each battle more simulationist, and trying to get whatever edge you can realistically. For more on the differences between these two styles of play, check out this blog post from another author.

My point is that a grittier style of play, enphasizing more than just combat, placing game events in the context of a fully realized world, with a realistic risk of death close at hand, is something I want to emulate. I've kept that in mind as I revised the rules on poison, for example. I like a game in which even powerful PCs can die if they are stupid or foolhardy or just too unlucky, in which there are threats bigger than you are, in which your actions matter more than through a series of minifights in a colosseum leading to the boss fight. If you want that, you can play a video game. Or Pathfinder Second Edition.

When I ponder these issues, I fear that I am just being reactionary, thinking back to halcyon gaming days of my youth that were really not all that great. Well, maybe. But I see games like Dungeon Crawl Classics, a modern game that also hearkens back to First Edition, and so I suspect it is not just me.

For more on these ideas, check out the design notes for Liontaurs & Labyrinths

Photo credit, with thanks: The photo above, credited as "Old Agassiz School by Boston City Archives" and found on Openverse, is used under a Creative Commons license. My deep gratitude to people and organizaions that put great work into the public domain.

Home | This screed was written on 30 January 2023, based on my ongoing work developing Labyrinths & Liontaurs.