How Frank Should You Be?

Quick question for my fellow Old School DMs…

When you are DMing a group that might not be as in tune with the OSR as you are, how explicit are you about some of the conventions that are now accepted as part and parcel of our way of playing?

Specifically, would you come out and say, “Don’t expect to clear out every level of a dungeon”, or “There are some things you’re expected to run away from, rather than fight”? Or would you let them try to clean out every level, and get frustrated by the futility of the effort? Or let them attack the trolls when they’re 2nd level, under the mistaken assumption that “it wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t a way for us to kill it”.

Hasn’t happened in the campaign that I’m currently running, but it has in the past. Just wondering how harsh everyone is in teaching these valuable life lessons to their players.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

23 thoughts on “How Frank Should You Be?

  1. I would let them know that old school games don't care if you win – which means, they are not designed in such a way that every challenge will (or must) be overcome.

  2. I'd let them know not to expect to be able to defeat every encounter. Let em figure out managing their time and resources, by their lonesome.

  3. Good question — I'd tell them. Specifically, I'd tell the most experienced player and let him pass the information along organically in game. In fact, this happened last weekend. Two new RPG players joined an experienced player in my AD&D campaign, and he cautioned them that they should be prepared to shuck their backpacks and run if things went south in the dungeon. It helped that I didn't have to say it explicitly to the newbies…instead, it was passed along as "veteran tips" from an experienced player.

  4. With the players in my campaign, I talked about Old School philosophy a lot before I actually started running games, so they know that there are different assumptions, but I still included tips for them at the end of the collection of modifications to S&W I collected for this campaign. I distilled them from the one-page summary of Matt Finch's "A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming" called "Intro to Original Edition-style D&D Gaming," which I *think* ChigagoWiz authored back before he took his blog down. The document is a little unclear on who authored it, and I can't remember where I downloaded it. (The only thing is says about authorship is "The excellent guidance from this document was taken from “A Quick Primer for Old School Playing” © 2008 Matt Finch, found here: Thanks to Michael S. for the original document:😉

    For your question, I'd probably give them at least that one-page document, introducing it to them as "some tips that might help you." If they wanted to know more, I'd send them to the "A Quick Primer for Old School Playing." I might also expose them to Christian's excellent recent comment: "Played in a certain style, D&D is like a game of fantasy Call of Cthulu. Slightly off kilter – but otherwise regular Joes and Janes – plumb the depths dark and perilous to unearth hideous truths and stacks of gold. Instead of going crazy, they get ripped in half." I think that goes a long way in conveying what kinds of things it is advisable for their PCs to do.

    After you've let them know, though, I wouldn't stress the matter. If they don't learn from reading (and, honestly, while many DMs thrive on RPG theory, how many players want to theorize all that much?), my feeling is that they'll learn pretty quickly through trial and error. Like Raggi says in LotFP:WFRPG, "No one should ever feel guilty about killing a first level character, and nobody should ever get upset that their first level character dies. It is during this developmental time in a campaign that everything about the campaign is established: The campaign tone, the Referee's style, the facts of the campaign world."

  5. I realized that I forgot to cite where I quoted from Christian and Raggi-

    Christian's quote is from

    Raggi's quote is from page four of the Referee booklet of LotFP:WFRPG.

  6. If there's any doubt, I try to clear it up in advance of play starting. Probably a good thing to address in the "pre-campaign coffee talk" with prospective players.

  7. That's an excellent question, actually.

    I find that it's not particularly bothersome to remind one's players that their characters are low-level, and that there are beasts out there which will stomp all over them and eat their corpses.

    Then again, my generation was raised on video games, where challenges are "appropriately scaled" to the player's relative progress, so the game ramps up in difficulty gradually. To such a mindset, the idea that a 4HD ogre could appear in a level 1 adventure is absolutely foreign, so a reminder doesn't hurt.

  8. I run into this occasionally. But I don't frame it as "old school" because some players have political issues with the concept (ie – they are Indie or anti-Indie, and so "old school" can carry some baggage). I just tell them that in my world, with my rules system, you're better off playing carefully because you can get yourself killed. It ain't even that hard to do. My rules are homebrew and I'm experimenting with a very tiny-numbers system (1d6, believe it or not). And so it can be *very* unforgiving. There are, it turns out, definite pros and cons to this. The pros – my players have developed a real sense of danger in the game. They do run away from stuff, and they don't need hints to do so. They just like their characters and don't want them to get killed. It's a pro because they actually care about their characters, are fond of them, and don't take undo (ie – stupid) risks. The cons – they can be overly cautious. 🙁 … in the most recent case there is a pretty tough veteran character who got stuck at tiny-size in a spider hole. In the spider webs there was a large man-sized mass of webbing that started wriggling and moaning. She was too scared to attempt to free the poor slob, and ushered the party past, fearing that the mass was a trap from which would spring something horrible, that might kill her. Poor slob. The baby spiders got him. Alas.

    The "old school" convention of letting characters get killed off if they play with "new school" assumptions is something that players who don't have experience with it should be warned about, unless you and they enjoy the glee of finding out the deadly consequences of bad assumptions first hand. I'm on the fense about it. Depends on the maturity of the players. If they can handle it and are able to man-up to the facts, then it's actually great not to warn them. LOL. But if they're not, then a pre-game warning is best. And sometimes it's hard to know which is best, especially if you're playing with people who you don't know very well. So my default is to post a pre-game warning.

    I love the idea, btw, of having a veteran player clue them in. Much better than the GM doing so, imo.

  9. How harsh? Harsh. Or rather, honest. It's not a videogame, levels aren't for "clearing out", and their PCs can walk away anytime, and in fact, should run sometimes, or even often. If they can't deal with that, then the players themselves can and maybe should do the same thing.

  10. I always like to err on the side of being explicit about this kind of thing. RPGs, especially old ones live or die on the GM's ability to get across information verbally. Since a lot of old schoolers seem to be almost exclusively GM's, it's easy to forget just how much in the dark even the canniest player can be. All they know is what you tell them.

  11. I'm actually in the process of reassembling my OS-RPG group for a separate campaign and I've spent a little time (while talking through their characters and the world background general knowledge session) giving them a little run-down on a few points. "Expect to have to run away" was one of those points, as well as "My job is to kill you all, don't expect me to always play nice. It doesn't mean I don't love you all, just that I love being a jerk more. That's why I'm the DM."

    Some very basic explanations of certain principles is not a bad thing, but I usually only take the time to do it briefly (on character creation) with players that don't already know what to expect with me DMing fatal and unforgiving adventures.

  12. I think it's important, regardless of edition or system, for the GM to communicate his or her expectations to the players clearly before a campaign begins.

    For me as a DM, I'm not in the business of 'teaching lessons,' and I derive no pleasure from watching players fumble to divine the unwritten rules of the game they're playing.

    Moreso, I'm blessed enough to live in a community with a diversity of gamers who enjoy games of all different styles (and more than one at the same time), and I'd be absolutely loathe to punish a player unfamiliar with the "old-school ethos" who makes the mistake of joining an AD&D or S&W game I might run just for the sake of I don't even know what.

    I'm there to help people have fun playing a game.

  13. I always have a primer for new schoolers joining a basic game.
    I find if you don't warn new schoolers about the quirks and "strategies" of old school play they tend to have a lot of PK's and generally don't have a good time.

    I find the thing that gives most new schoolers trouble are situations that aren't explicitly in the rules. I've had one player walk out on a game after a player disarmed a trap with a spear rather then using a thief skill.

    That and running. I've seen more then a few valiant last stands go down when a new schooler decides to cover their companions escape (or when they curse the cowards for running.)

  14. Great question, and something me and my players have been struggling with since I finally managed to convince them to return to the older editions. These are guys I've been playing with for over 20 years, my best friends; but they don't read OSR blogs and most of their experience is with 2nd & 3rd ed. – which, as your post indicates, involve a completely different style of play, particularly as regards lethality.

    They hate the mechanics and hours-long combats of more recent editions as much as I do, so – in that respect, at least – the return to the old school (in our case, Moldvay basic in the form of Labyrinth Lord)has been a godsend. We're all on the same page there.

    But they still get attached to their characters in that we're-not-average-joes-we're-heroes-let's-all-have-balanced-encounters-and-never-die kind of way. And in a way, that's cool – I want them to get into their characters enough to give a crap about what happens to them.

    Trouble is (and this is another reason I wanted to move back towards older editions), if there's no REAL threat of death, then we might as well just put the dice away and tell each other stories about our essentially unkillable badasses – which is, of course, lame.

    I did tell them up front how OS games were different and more lethal, but nobody's died yet – probably partially as a result of me nudging things to avoid the inevitable conflict that will arise when I do.

    It's a tough situation, but I still consider myself lucky to have the same group showing up every weekend ready to roll, as opposed to having to rely on skype or whatever like I know a lot of others have to. So I'm not about to tell them to take a hike.

    Sorry for the long post.

  15. Um. I don't say anything. I just do what I do.

    I mean, I don't make any apologies or excuses or bother providing "explanations for Old School play." I run an Old School game…I explain the differences between editions for folks who aren't familiar with the B/X rules (like say, Elves are Elves and all damage is rolled on a 1D6), but I don't bother trying to explain the philosophy.

    So far, so good. I mean people just seem to "get it." I guess anyway.

    Of course, PCs DO seem to die a lot in my games…

  16. I think one good way to do it is to really telegraph that first roundhouse. The first time they're about to be outclassed, really play it up. They don't just hear scratching sounds, like they did a minute ago.. no, this time they hear soul-tortured howls echoing up from black gulfs of cosmic horror.

    Shredded knights in the remains of the realm's finest plate mail, now worthless and bloody, or doorways spiked shut and peppered with the sorry remains of silver arrows can work wonders too.

  17. In introducing brand new players I absolutely explain that they are "either down and out or slumming it. They are seeking fortune and it will be very dangerous. The idea is to find treasure without having to fight anything."

    With new players that is enough. They understand. Because it is really the way we would all act if put in a real dungeon. It shows you how artificial the idea of "cleaning" out a dungeon room by room is. No one would ever do such a thing unless the safety of their keep depended on it or something.

  18. On topic I think not having a talk to get everyone on the same page to start with is just asking for ill will. You need to communicate expectations.

    On a side note I feel compelled to comment on… 3.5 and 4e may focus on a concept of balanced encounters, but hat doesn't mean it's "safe". Yes you are big damn heroes (especially compared to Basic). But there are risks. A balanced encounter can kill you if you push to far, or get unlucky, or are tactically stupid. The risk levels may be set differently, but they do exist.

  19. I don't think you should tell them. Because the only thing more old-school than spending most of your life running and cowering to to be unexpectedly killed by the most innocuous-looking things.

  20. What do you mean it hasn't happened? I mean those centipedes must have been level 10! They one shot a cleric for crying out loud.

  21. +1JB.

    I don't tell 'em, I show 'em. If they don't die now and then, they don't learn.

    When they 'clear out' a section of dungeon, and then find it repopulated next time they visit, they get the message.

  22. Well, I usually try to lay out some of my assumptions. They aren’t necessarily “old school” things. It could be about the system versus whatever system we played last. It could be about how I run a particular system versus how I’ve seen others run it. It may be things tailored to the specific players.

    The more we can get on the same page, the more fun it’ll be for everybody.

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