Thursday, July 15, 2010

Old School ≠ Kill-n-Loot

“Remember the good old days, when adventures were underground, NPCs were there to be killed, and the finale of every dungeon was the dragon on the 20th level? Those days are back. Dungeon Crawl Classics don't waste your time with long-winded speeches, weird campaign settings, or NPCs who aren't meant to be killed. Each adventure is 100% good, solid dungeon crawl, with the monsters you know, the traps you fear, and the secret doors you know are there somewhere.” - Dungeon Crawl Classics website

“Of course, if your players are not money grubbing tomb-robbing misfits, they are probably doing something wrong in the first place and don't deserve to level (I hear alot about these new-agey indie/story games). Isn't this a core conceit of old school rulesets? “ - Lord Bodacious (in a comment to my last post)
These two quotes I think crystallize a strong notion among many people that old school RPGs are, at their core, all about killing monsters and stealing treasure.  I have never understood this stereotype. Not only do I not understand it, I think it’s harmful to the public perception of our hobby (read this stinging and highly critical Gygax obituary if you haven't already) and I think it has very little basis in reality.

Look, I have complete respect for my pals that like to spend their hours imagining they’re running around a maze, stabbing orc babies in the face, stealing little “Gold Pieces”. This is a cool weird diversion I thoroughly enjoy myself on occasion. I do not believe, however, that this mode of play best represents the heart of 70s-style paper and pencil gaming. I think it mostly represents (1) the first early-70s experiments where wargaming began mutating into RPGs at Dave Arneson’s house, (2) early-80s D&D fad gaming, and (3) current 4e “D&D Encounters” boardgame-style play. So, yes, from the earliest days of D&D there have been kill-n-loot gamers, but I don’t detect a significant association with this play style specifically with 70s RPG culture. If anything, kill-n-loot mostly represents the style of play I see in the 4e RPGA rooms at modern gaming conventions. If you want to go by the numbers, kill-n-loot is thoroughly new school, strongly appealing to the modern generation of gamers weaned on World of Warcraft and console games.

I must admit that the only dungeon crawling I was doing in 70s was on the floor in diapers, so I have no first-hand experience of the play styles of the era. Thus, in my broaching this topic I willingly open myself to criticism and retort. I do see, however, much evidence that kill-n-loot wasn't the only game in town in the 70s.

Many printed artifacts in particular soundly reject the hypothesis that all prominent mid-70s gamers focused on kill-n-loot dungeon crawls. My favorite of these is Empire of the Petal Throne (TSR 1975) - a self-contained OD&D-based game that has pages and pages of compelling storylines, weird campaign settings, and awesome NPCs. The players’ goal in EPT is to advance in standing in a complex and socially stratified city-state. Sure, you can kill weird alien monsters and get some money on the way up the social ladder, but killing and looting isn’t the point. To me, EPT is what it’s all about. This is the spirit of the old school RPGs I love the most. There is so much more mind blowing RPG material from the 70s with highly imaginative settings and scenario possibilities: Metamorphosis Alpha (TSR 1976), Traveller (GDW 1977), City State of the Invincible Overlord (Judge’s Guild 1976), Gamma World (TSR 1978) and on and on. Kill-n-loot? What?

Furthermore, the oldest DMs I’ve played with – guys who have been gaming continuously since the 1970s using old school rulesets - all have imaginative story arcs, complex homemade worlds, and awesome NPCs. Although I’m sure they exist, I personally don’t know any 30+ year RPG veterans that run kill-n-loot campaigns. Convention one-shots? Yes. Campaigns? No. And campaigns are what it’s all about – just read the OD&D rulebooks.

So where does the loot-n-kill stereotype come from? Certainly many of the early (and celebrated) TSR and Judge’s Guild D&D modules had paper-thin scenarios emphasizing killing monsters and stealing treasure. As well, the rules of most D&D editions require killing and looting to advance in level. Okay. But there are two assumptions at play if you want to extend these facts to say “Old school RPGs are all about looting and killing”. The first assumption is that the primary goal of most D&D players is to advance in level. In my experience, this is not accurate at all. In my two current campaigns my players are showing almost zero interest in playing-to-level. It’s almost like piles of treasure are a nuisance to them. It's not just my game - as the comments to my last post and this post by Jeff Rients illustrate, many DMs running old school D&D campaigns, including Dave Arneson himself, house-rule to give experience points and allow leveling for activities other than killing and looting. The second assumption is that D&D is the prime representative of old school gaming. Now, I love classic D&D and play it more than any other game, but there was a Cambrian-like explosion of other highly imaginative RPGs and supplements in the 70s that deserve more recognition (and table time).

Ultimately, evidence and anecdote lead me to the impression that a significant portion of mid- and late-70s RPG activity was centered around creating interactive experiences where players could “walk into” a story such as Robert E. Howard, Brian Aldiss, or Jack Vance would have dreamed up. This is what I think of when I hear “Old School RPG” and this is what John Eric Holmes was excitedly trying to describe in his 1981 book Fantasy Role Playing Games. As far as I can tell, racking up Gold Piece Points in a tedious proto-videogame has no particular relationship with old school gaming.


  1. I totally agree that it is a mistake to assume ALL “old school” games are Kill ’n Loot. That being said, in the case of D&D, it’s not a stereotype, it’s a feature. The rules as written clearly, mechanically support a game focused on killing monsters, taking their stuff, and leveling up. As the most successful game of the period, this is the game people most associate with “old school” gaming.

    Game design is funny, little tweaks to the rules have BIG impact in the game. Even the relatively small changes in monster XP between editions has a HUGE impact on the tone and focus of a game, quickly changing players from bloodthirsty monster killers to skulking thieves (avoiding vs. pursuing combat). If one assumes that "the rules are right" and the designers successfully executed on their vision, an accurate pursuit of these rules will result in the game experience they have envisioned. Of course, most (all?) of the D&D books clearly include suggestions that the DM customize and tweak the rules. To this point, you can certainly tweak things to reward other behaviors. Does EPT have alternate XP rules? I bet it does specifically to advance the designers goals of a socially focused game.

    You’re certainly right that there are "old school" rules out there that explore other, story based behaviors, setting immersion, and so forth… but from everything I’ve seen, D&D isn’t one of them. If your players prefer having tea parties with the monsters, rather than killing them and debating what to do with the babies, you might could look somewhere else. There are tons of great “old school” games that support this – we recently ran Runequest which featured a lot of this jazz, and I’m told there are others as well.

    You’re probably better read on the subject, and certainly better spoken, but as buffoon of record for the viewpoint in question, I feel compelled to chime in. My experiences are based primarily on LBB’s and B/X. At the end of the day, you should play the game you like, and if it isn’t out there, you should make it. That being said, I think you may be blurring the line between what you want the game to be and what the rules say it is. I probably really shouldn’t come storming in here making big blustery declarative statements like this, but what the heck, that’s what the internet is for. Love the blog, btw.

  2. @Lord B. - Thanks for your excellent and thoughtful reply, and also for being a good sport about my quoting you! I pretty much agree with everything you say, and I recognize kill-n-loot IS and HAS BEEN one of the dominant styles of play since before D&D was published.

    I guess that I mostly wanted to write this post because I'm a bit exasperated with trying to defend old school RPGs in conversations with modern "enlightened" gamers who have bought into the stereotype that old school games are all mindless hack n' slash. They are not all hack n' slash. The best of them, including OD&D, are simple and elegant rulesets for roleplaying in evocative pulp fiction-like settings.

    Slightly house-ruled D&D is really perfect for me. I totally love classic D&D for its simplicity, malleability, and setting-neutrality. For fantasy gaming I have no need or desire to switch to Runequest or any of later, more complex, or more "sensible" rulesets.

  3. I think the rules do imply a certain amount of killing and looting, but I think its really reduction when people say that's all its about and that's how it has to be done.

    Also, I'd point about that a game simply having a lot of killing and stealing in it doesn't necessarily make it simple in other respects. Many classic films and great works of literature are built around killing things and taking stuff without them having to be solely about that.

  4. Re: That Gygax obit

    D&D sucks but GURPS is awesome? Huh?

  5. While killing and looting does not have to be the focus of play, that's the only way to level if you play the rules as written. Because of that, I think D&D lends itself to a certain style of play. I really wish someone would write a (or modify an existing one) rules-light fantasy system to address that.

  6. This is a discussion I've been having with some of my friends about old school D&D vs 4E... and we all seem to come back to the same point: the game rules in both versions point toward hack and slash, but the GM and the players can and should make the game what they want to make it. Take a look at White Wolf's storytelling system... the newest version started out oriented towards storytelling... but the more supplements that come out, the crunchier the rules get. Crunchy numbers seems to be what sells. Doesn't mean you can't make an excellent pulp adventure out of just about any set of rules out there... given enough work and time. There's still a certain nostalgia for the old school systems... especially when I think back to the quick house rules me and my friends would come up with for the insane ideas we kept popping up with, mid-campaign.

  7. Couldn't have said it better myself, Lord Bodacious.

  8. Oh I've been waiting for someone to say this.

    I wasn't around in the 70s either, but my impression is that a lot of the early campaigns involved *both* styles of play - sometimes the PCs would be doing straightforward kill 'n' loot dungeon crawls, and sometimes they'd be exploring weird environments, interacting with NPCs, deciding how to spend their loot or whatever.

    In my head, a "standard D&D adventure" consists of both a dungeon where the PCs can fight monsters and find treasure, and a "base" where they can get involved in sticky social situations.

    I find the Dying Earth RPG adventures and supplements are very inspiring for getting away from a pure dungeon-crawl style of play. Christian, maybe that is the system you are looking for? Or maybe Blue Rose?

  9. @Lord B.
    I have to disagree.

    1. The pre-WotC D&D rules dish out more XP for gaining treasure than from defeating monsters. Also, subdual and morale rules allow for monsters to be defeated without actually slaying them.

    2. Of the 194 magic-user spells in the AD&D 1st edition PHB, only 21 of them can be categorized as straight out attack spells. The rest have dual-use or utility functions which require their effects to be role-played out.

    3. Modules like Tomb of Horror, in fact most modules, contain puzzle elements which emphasize critical thinking and adventuring skills over just kill-n-loot.

    4. The emphasis on adventure role-playing over simple kill-n-loot in the pre-WotC D&D can be seen in how the 10' pole has become a virtual icon of that particular style of gameplay.

    To write such things in the obituary of a pioneer of the art is dishonorable. To fail to see the difference between pre-WotC D&D and whatever failing the author has for the merchadised product that carries the D&D name today is a shameful display of ignorance. The truth of the matter is that Gygax's D&D evolved from a strategic war game and into a game of high adventure and fantasy. Then the rights to the game was taken away from him and the people who took over made it into something else.

  10. "What the rules reward" and "how the game is played" are two different things. There seems to be an assumption, especially in indie analysis of D&D, that players are most interested in actions that get them "points," leading to increased in-game power. This in turn assumes that players are most interested in in-game power.

    Obviously, some players want to "win" by the rules-provided metric, and that's all they're interested in. But as the prevalence and popularity of "easter eggs" in video games suggests, many players are at least as interested in solving puzzles and simply interacting with the environment for the joy of doing so, sans points.

    The rules skew gameplay in a certain direction, but I've never understood the notion that in order to support a certain play style, the rules have to explicitly reward the associated behavior. Decades of empirical evidence disprove this.

    And the Goodman Games DCC blurb always struck me as asinine, basically a bad troll post in ad form.

  11. @ Icarus - Well, different editions (pre-wotc) have variable rewards for monster killing vs treasure, and from my experience these small variations have a really surprisingly significant impact (I actually cited this in my post).

    @Scott - In general, "people" as a market force will gravitate towards greatest gain for least effort. I'd argue this is as true in gaming as in matters of economy. We aren't throwing oil and using Guisarmes because that's what the coolest heroes do, or for roleplay, it's because it's the most efficient way to kill stuff. I think you might be giving the rules less credit than they deserve.

    Believe me, I totally get that when we game, there is a ton of fluff, RP, and fun that has no mechanical benefit (I'm pretty sure I get no XP for using a preposterous french accent). Every gamer has a min/maxer hiding inside them, and when you're deep in the shit of a dungeon, you will YELL at the guy sitting next to you if his Fighing man insists on using his father's dagger while leaving his Vorpal sword in it's holster.

  12. 3rd and 4th edition seem to me to be more dedicated to combat (as opposed to cunning theft) than previous editions.

    PS Empire of the Petal Throne seems to have the same player aims as the D&D of the time, but with a lot more 'weirdness'. I think citizenship happens automatically when you hit a particular level.

  13. PS That obituary read like it was written by a teenager who's just moved from D&D to Vampire.

  14. > PS That obituary read like it was written by a grad student who's just moved from Vampire to the Forge.

    Apologies for the correction ;)

    Probably the single greatest insight from the OSR, whatever that may be, is that the focus of older rules on combat and treasure no more prescribes a hack'n'slash game than finding a T-rex fossil means that, in olden days, skeletons walked the earth.

    The missing "meat" is in the GM's setting up and judging situations outside the rules. To be fair, whether and how to do this was not stressed enough in any of the original D&D materials.

  15. I'm a little too young to have started with OD&D - I started with the 'basic' D&D box set, moved on to AD&D, and from there into the combinatorial explosion of games offered by TSR and others in the '80s. There was certainly a fair share of fighting in those early games, but puzzle solving is the thing I remember most from those days. I agree that the heavy focus on combat seemed to come about with WoTC and 3rd edition. I remember distinctly to this day spending hours trying to figure out how the technology in 'Expedition To The Barrier Peaks' worked (which, incidentally was how I was introduced to Gamma World).
    I think that the pseudo-war-game style that 3E introduced really brought the genre as a whole down. I have nothing against complex rules and systems, but 3E's emphasis on tactical positioning ( even then only half a solution - attacks of opportunity but no facing? Really?) really began a generation of gamers who began looking to the rulebooks instead of to their DM for how a situation would play out.
    I've been introducing my girlfriend and her friend into the RPG fold, and I've had much better success with sessions where wit, dialog, and smart interaction were highlighted as opposed to moving figures around a tabletop. That sort of combat can be fun, too - the versatility of a roleplaying game is the primary attraction, I think. I also think that combat should be in moderation in a game.
    To return back to point, I think that the old systems were far easier to play in a less combat-intensive fashion than 3e or 4e, where the enteire game mechanic and class design revolves around combat first and last.


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