Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Old Schoolin': How To Get Started

In the comments section of the last post reader Sam for some advice:
[I] was wondering if you could give some advice for a beginner looking to try out some classic D&D.

I started playing in 2nd edition(think Jeff Easley cover of mounted warrior riding through a desert canyon) and have played plenty of 3.x , so I have absolutely no experience with this great stuff you keep talking about. What would be the best bang for my buck? What books do I need? Would love to know what you would recommend as a starting set.
There's a lot of ways you can go starting some old school action and my answers here will only be one guy's opinions, but I'll take a shot at it. Here's my take on the four key components for embarking into the wondrous realm of kicking it old school.

Component One: Attitude

This is the key to the whole affair, really. If you nail this you could use lots of systems (including the 2nd edition AD&D Sam started with) to produce useful results. To get in the zone I recommend reading Matthew Finch's Quick Primer for Old School Gaming. It's free and wicked awesome. Not every grognard will agree with everything written there, but it's still great stuff. Get your players to read the Quick Primer if at all possible, so you're all on the same page. The number one lesson to learn here, in my opinion, is that whenever the rules, your notes, or a module are silent about something then it's you and your players job to make something up. And most importantly, that sort of on-the-fly invention is meant to be the best part of the game. Try not to lose track of that whenever something comes up that isn't covered by the rules.

Component Two: Rules

The rules you pick aren't as important as what you do with them, but there's three basic angles of attack in picking a ruleset. The hardcore choice is to go straight to the beginning, with the original version of D&D. For six bucks you can get PDFs of OD&D at DriveThru and here's a link to some great instructions on turning those PDFs into your own Little Beige Books. But if you go OD&D you need to be prepared to do some extra work. You can't just skim over the rules and start playing right away without a lot of heartbreak. This is a work that requires attentive reading and active interpretation. I personally find that very rewarding, but if you are itching to play right away there are better options.

Labyrinth Lord is my pick for the best ready-to-rumble version of D&D currently in print. It's a retro-clone of Moldvay's near-perfect '81 Basic/Expert rules. Some purists will claim that the Golden Age of Old School was already dead by the time Moldvay's D&D rolled out, but personally I rank purity of essence a lot lower than making sure the rules rock the block. You can snag a free PDF version of LL here or swing on over to this Lulu link to buy a print version. I've got the Lulu softcover and it is totally sweet. If you or your players rankle at the idea that Elf and Dwarf are classes as well as races, then the 1st runner-up in this pageant is Basic Fantasy a.k.a. BFRPG (Free download here, print edition here). Unlike Labyrinth Lord, BFRPG doesn't exactingly emulate any particular previous version but it sorta lives in the same neighborhood as several older (A)D&D editions.

The third route to go is to find a d20 game that imports some old school elements. I don't really recommend this route, but I mention it because you might have players still stuck on the d20 stuff. Castles & Crusades is one good d20 option. I personally dig the C&C Collector's Edition boxed set. The rules are slimmer than the full-blown hardbacks but it's an all-in-one affair with monsters, treasures, and a tiny little module. When running C&C try to keep in mind that the Attribute Check rules are just one handy tool, not some universal resolution system meant to cover every situation. Another extremely cool d20 option is the Microlite 20/Microlite 74/Hard Core M20 family of tiny d20 rules.

That's probably more options than Sam wanted when he asked, so here's the short answer: Labyrinth Lord.

Component Three: A Dungeon

I consider it axiomatic that D&D requires both dragons and dungeons. And I don't mean monster lairs with six or seven rooms all rationally designed with complete ecologies, I mean big honkin' crazy ass dungeons. Your absolute best bet is to design your own dungeon, perhaps using the random dungeon stocking charts in your rulebook of choice. If you want to start out with a prefab dungeon, here are some good options, organized by rule set.

OD&D offers several interesting options. Issue #2 of Fight On! has the first level of "The Darkness Beneath", a megadungeon that's being created as a collaborative effort. If you go with OD&D, you're pretty much going to want every issue of Fight On! anyway. Erroneous Grog has a couple of adventure downloads available (scroll down the page a bit). And I wrote a little number called Under Xylarthen's Tower that might do you some good.

For Labyrinth Lord I recommend doing some digging over at Dragonsfoot. DF has some great stuff in the Classic D&D downloads section that ought to be highly compatible with LL. I recommend The Haunted Keep. Honestly, I don't know Basic Fantasy well enough to recommend BFRPG-specific modules. Can anyone offer a little help here?

Castles & Crusades: Castle Zagyg. 'Nuff said.

If you go with M20/etc then looting the rotting corpse of 3.x will get you down the road with this one. I suggest starting with Goodman Game's Dungeon Crawl Classics line.

Component Four: Sandbox Setting

The short definition of "sandbox" is "full of useful, immediately gameable crap". Again, Fight On! magazine should be of use if you go with OD&D. Issue #2 has a great little sandbox by Rob Conley and James Maliszewski. Or if you want to make your own sandbox issue #1 has a great article helping explain how to do so. For Castles & Crusades the Castle Zagyg setting book, Yggsburgh, is pretty effin' sweet. If you can hold off a few more weeks James Mishler of Adventure Games Publishing is finishing up his Southern Reaches gazetteer for C&C. For Labyrinth Lord I suggest downloading The Phoenix Barony. If you can track down the Wilderlands of High Fantasy boxed set and the accompanying Player's Guide they would be a good match for the M20 family of games. And Points of Light would make for excellent setting for any set of rules you settle on.

(Most of these setting book are extremely light on rules and you could mix-n-match beyond my recommendations. I'm pretty sure I could run the Wilderlands with OD&D or Yggsburgh with Labyrinth Lord with little difficulty, to give a couple examples.)

When you settle on a dungeon and a sandbox don't forget to place the dungeon in the sandbox somewhere close to where you plan to start the PCs. Ideally pepper the surrounding landscape with some smaller dungeons as well. Add a dragon lair if neither your dungeon nor the sandbox include any. Trust me on this one. You need a dragon.

Now that I've finished this post I can't tell if I've been helpful or if I've muddied the water by giving too many options. Anybody else have any other suggestions for Sam?


  1. I agree with pretty much everything you said here.

    Attitude is the key.

    Remember, everybody's there to have fun; that includes you.

    The GM's motto should be: "The buck stops here."

    [Oh, and Jeff, I'm curious: Regarding the C&C Collector's Edition Box, did yours come with either Alignments or Movement rates for the monsters? Because mine didn't. That really ticked me off, until I broke down and copied them from the 3.0 Monster Manual. I was just curious about that, since you're about the only person I've heard of that has that set.]

  2. Ugh. My set is missing those fields as well. Alignment doesn't concern me too much, but it'd be nice to have movement rates.

  3. I think I still have the list I made up; let me check when I get home. I can get them to you.

    Oh, and one last piece of advice on how to get started Old Schoolin':

    Don't be afraid to kill characters. Death is a big part of the old school experience; when they learn how to keep their characters alive, they'll have actually accomplished something.

  4. Issue #2 has a great little sandbox by Rob Conley.

    Just to clarify: Rob did the map, while I wrote the text.

  5. I'm bookmarking this post, on the off chance that I get a chance to run a West Marches-themed sandbox game one day. A guy can dream, right?

  6. Crap! Sorry James! I didn't mean to cut you out of the action there!

  7. Anonymous10:34 PM

    wow, thanks Jeff and crew. I really appreciate all the time you put into helping me out. I'm really looking forward to getting my hands on some material.

    And thanks also for all the helpful advice on gaming outlook. I think there are some subtle differences that will be really interesting to see in play.

  8. If you use OD&D you can't go wrong with Judges Guild ready ref sheet.

  9. Dare I say there's a rule #0?

    Have fun.

    If you think it would be fun to have your goblins riding giant frogs, do it.

    If you think it would be fun to steal the Red Wizards of Thay from Forgotten Realms, kung-fu lightning-bolt-throwers from "Big Trouble in Little China", sleestaks from "Land of the Lost", or that giant switch-blade-throwing-star glaive thingy from "Krull", do it.

    Especially the switch-blade-throwing-star thingy.

    If you decide you want to introduce steam-powered battle droids, magic-powered starships, black-laser rifles, multi-dimensional gunslingers, or anything else that you'd find in a Saturday morning cartoon or music video from the '80s, wallow in it.

    Hope this helps, and be sure to let us know how it works out for you.

    - Brian

  10. Great answer. A couple of points:

    Wilderlands is available in it's original OD&D glory at RPGnow along with the rest of the great (and some not so great) Judge's Guild stuff. Including the above mentioned Ready Ref Sheets. At $2.20 they're one of the best investments you can make. Interestingly, they are one product I think works very well as a PDF.

    Second, and the Quick Primer might cover this, to help get the right attitude read some of the literature that inspired OD&D. Much of the original Robert E. Howard stories are on Australia's Project Gutenberg site, some Lovecraft is on the US Project Gutenberg site, and almost all of Clark Ashton Smith's work is at Eldrich Dark

  11. A couple other in-print old school rules options to consider would be one of the various Tunnels & Trolls versions out there. I particularly like version 5.5, available here:

    Also the original Empire of the Petal Throne rules available here:

    And a great way to get in the mood for true old school gaming is reading the fiction that inspired it, best represented in Appendix N from the 1e DMG, about which more can be read here:

  12. Anonymous10:11 AM

    As far as I can see, it's not more expensive to buy the Moldvay/Cook rules second-hand than the Labyrinth Lord or BFRPG rules new. Although I don't think the exact system matters very much at all, as long as it isn't 3.x or 4th edition.

    Having said that, one purchase that would be very high on my list of recommendations is the 1st Edition AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide - regardless of which system you use.

    One free game which you don't hear a lot about is Dragon Warriors, a British game from the 1980s similar to Moldvay/Cook D&D. IMO it beats Tunnels and Trolls hands down. You can get pdfs here:

  13. As far as I can see, it's not more expensive to buy the Moldvay/Cook rules second-hand than the Labyrinth Lord or BFRPG rules new.

    You can buy it used for $8 or new for $8...which is an easier sell?

    But you're right...exact system doesn't matter. One reason I've come to like BFRP is it's Intermediate D&D: BX rules with the AD&D PHB, which is how I played AD&D anyway. I suspect I'm far from alone on that.

  14. Anonymous12:03 PM

    I never had the Basic/Expert rules when I was a kid, but I ignored all the more complicated AD&D 1e rules. I did play once in a group that used ALL the rules, which came as a nasty shock: "Segments? Oh yeah, I think I've heard of them . . ."

    What I like about the Moldvay Basic Set is not just the rules, but the look, layout and writing. Which is not to knock BFRPG or Labyrinth Lord which are also nicely designed and written.

    I have spent more time than is healthy ruminating on the merits of different versions of D&D!

    My conclusions: if one is talking purely in terms of rules, BFRPG is an improvement on Basic/Expert D&D, and simpler and clearer than AD&D. Castles and Crusades and AD&D 2e are simpler than 3e and more elegant than AD&D 1e. I like C&C's skills and saving-throw systems. White Box OD&D and Hackmaster both have many interesting features. Hackmaster is too complex for my tastes though.

    On the other hand, OD&D, AD&D 1e, Moldvay/Cook D&D and Hackmaster, despite having less than perfect rules, have a certain something that is attractive. Something halfway between "attitude" and nostalgia - even though I only ever played AD&D as a kid, and Hackmaster is a recent game.

    Occassionally, I feel the need to write the perfect homebrew version of D&D, but I've never got any further than the character creation section! Anyway, my most current attempt is aiming to be a combination of White Box OD&D and Castles and Crusades in terms of rules, but with Tom Moldvay's prose and Gary Gygax's Dungeon Dressing tables.

    There are three new D&D variants "coming soon". Swords and Wizardry: Core Rules and Swords and Wizardry: White Box are both OD&D clones, which is a Good Thing. Legends & Labyrinths bills itself as a version of 3e that "removes everything non-essential, leaving behind a simple, fast-and-loose, easy-to-use system". Which also sounds like a good idea.

  15. Anonymous1:59 PM

    Sam, the thing that I found most confusing about the Labyrinth Lord rules:

    If the creature's Hoard Class is 1 to 7, that's for each individual creature, regardless of whether they're wandering or in their lair.

    If the Hoard Class is 8 or more, that's for the whole group, and only in their lair - if you meet wandering examples of the creatures they won't have anything.

    I think this isn't spelled out because everyone involved is so familiar with it.

  16. Anonymous2:01 PM

    Oh yeah - the other thing is that there doesn't seem to be an agreed interpretation of what saving roll is used in what situation.