Over at “Discourse” and Dragons there is a “rant” about the new edition of D&D, which being inside the OSR echo-chamber is largely agreed to by its respondents, until a chap called Shazbot (from Points of Light) turns up and delivers, in comments, his own handy little rant about old school logic. I believe a good rant deserves credit (where I agree with it) so I’ve reproduced some parts of it here. I think Shazbot ought to turn this into a blog post, because some of its content really reminds me of the way the game was played back in the day.

Why is it that old-schoolers are prone to filibustering and hyperbolic arguments?

“Ohhhh…4th Edition ruined the game forever…all of my previous gaming experiences have been retroactively sodomized. I now know exactly what it means to be a victim of genetic cleansing in Darfur. By proxy. Because of 4th Edition.”

That’s number 1 on my list of stupid old school arguments that I hate.

Number 2:

“It’s not roll-playing…it’s ROLE-playing.”

All because latter editions of the game have included things like fleshed out mechanics for social interactions and skill checks, like say, disabling a suspension bridge. Well hold on there, Crusty Withercock…neither term is actually correct. The term is “roleplaying GAME”. See, the “game” part implies a chance of success or failure which is impartially adjudicated through things like rules. So the first question this leads me to, is what exactly, is the practical…and I stress PRACTICAL…difference between a player rolling his/her diplomacy skill and the DM rolling on a reaction table behind the screen and adding reaction adjustments? Since both use game rules to determine outcome, both would be considered “roll-playing” by the aforementioned standards.

“Oh but Shazbot…our group eschews such rules and the DM simply decides how each interaction plays out.”

Super. Fantastic. But well, that’s not really a GAME then, is it? That’s a magical tea party wherein the DM arbitrarily decides if your efforts succeed or not…based on how his/her day went, or whatever. Hell, this was how just about everything worked in OD&D, because there were absolutely no rules for anything that wasn’t swinging a sword or casting a spell, so everything was either hand-waived or the DM pulled houserules out of his/her ass that inevitably changed week-by-week. OD&D, and you can’t get anymore old school than the old 1974 white box, you started at the entrance of the dungeon, and your character probably didn’t even have a NAME before 5th level…let alone a detailed and compelling backstory. Yeah…that’s role-playing right there. From there, things devolved into a battle of wits with an adversarial DM, laden with semantic booby-traps. “You said you were checking the floor and the chest for traps…not the chandelier…so now you’re crushed. Now get me another Blue Nehi.”

Which brings me to number 3 on my list of stupid old-school arguments that I hate:

“Dwuh? Healing surges? Action points? Daily attacks for fighters??? Bu-bu-but…verisimilitude!”

Okay…tell me how much verisimilitude is in this regular old school occurrence:

“So your unnamed Halfling thief companion has just been crushed by a falling chandelier. Luckily another Halfling just happens to wander through the door.”

Bob: “What-Ho, fellow adventures! Having lost your companion a scant few moments ago…it seems that you are in need of another hand, similarly skilled in the larcenous arts as luck would have it!”

Party: “My! What a fortuitous bit of random happenstance! Why yes stranger, we would be privileged to include you into our merry band! Forsooth!”

A revolving door of interchangeable characters in what amounts to a dungeon fantasy vietnam who, by the end of the adventure, would have absolutely no personal stake in the quest?  Uh yeah…verisimilitude.

Fine…let’s use another example. XP derived primarily through collecting treasure and not, in fact, overcoming challenging foes or completing quests. Please explain to me how picking up coins translates to casting more powerful spells.  In any case, one wonders why adventurers would go adventuring at all, when the safest and most efficient road to god-like power is running a successful business. Also, wouldn’t wealthy merchants ALL be high level characters? Oh, I forgot…PC’s don’t follow the same rules as anyone else…because they’re “heroes”. We know they’re heroes, because PC’s do heroic things, like robbing tombs of their wealth and hiring commoners to run down corridors and set off traps for them.

See here’s the thing…roleplaying games aren’t meant to simulate reality…grandpa Gygax said that himself in the 1st edition DMG…no roleplaying games are meant to emulate fiction.  Now tell me, in which Conan story did the Cimmerian get incinerated by haplessly stepping on the wrong floor-tile only to be immediately replaced by Conan the II. Regale me again with the story of Sir Percival resorting to cowardice and skullduggery to overcome an otherwise worthy foe. Tell me again about the time Merlin the Magician ran out his daily allotment of spells at a critical juncture. Sorry…but the only fantasy that old-school D&D emulates is old-school D&D. It’s become a genre in and of itself…and in my experience this sort of thing makes for terrible reading.

And finally…number 4 on my list of stupid old school arguments that I hate:

“WotC D&D is too videogamey/anime/superheroic/durple”

Because apparently any fighter not wearing a buckskin mini-skirt and a horned helmet is obviously ported straight from a Final Fantasy game.  Someone here has said that D&D should have remained a classic game that has never seen a revision…like Monopoly.  Bull. Shit. Even if Gygax should have been the final authority on all things D&D, he himself revised OD&D into Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. The original White Box wasn’t a game as much as it was a proof of concept. An experiment.. D&D has gone through a series of revisions over the years because D&D has NEEDED to go through a series of revisions over the years. Anyone who can honestly say that the mechanics haven’t improved over the years, is probably going to write a silly rebuttal, log out, smear poop on their face, put on a bicycle helmet, and promptly ride the short bus to school.

Over the years, game mechanics have evolved to become more efficient, intuitive and user-friendly…like technology, Even though you may not like the aesthetic direction that newer versions of D&D has taken, as in actually becoming a game centered around adventuring and telling heroic stories, instead of a random menagerie of cheap death traps…you cannot reasonably argue that the actual game portion doesn’t function better with each iteration. And you know what? D&D still has a long way to go before it reaches a sublime state of mechanical nirvana. But it’s slowly crawling there.

Stupid old-schooler argument number 5: And now we come around full circle…back to hyperbolic filibustering…

“WotC has destroyed the SOUL of D&D”

Yeah…no it didn’t. The soul of D&D isn’t in anyone edition. It isn’t in the rules…it isn’t in the art. The soul of D&D is still where it belongs…in the players. Maybe you don’t like what the players are doing these days…whatever. You’ve got your own game…now it’s their turn. Because if you honestly believe that a GAME like D&D is more about some bullshit, imagined ideology that you’ve applied only in retrospect, than it is about actually having fun…then your head is stuck so far up you’re own ass, you’ll be eating your lunch a second time.

This is one of a series I aim to run describing the old, successful campaigns I have run in the past. I think this was the second campaign I ever ran with a determined plot, to fruition, over a year or so in about 1998. My players were all friends rather than devoted nerds, though two were ex-players enticed back to the fold by me. The campaign setting was determinedly high fantasy, and it was the first and only campaign I ever ran in high level Rolemaster, starting at about 9th and ending at about 15th level. None of my players had done RM before and I had a very definite plan for this campaign, so I gave them their characters. In many ways this was the most railroad-y campaign I have ever played, and probably the most railroad-y anyone will ever play.

The setting

The setting was the borderlands between two huge Empires, the Northern Empire being a roughly Western European-style mediaeval Empire, and the Southern being an Oriental combined Chinese/Japanese Empire. To the West was an African/Islamic-style desert kingdom, separated from the Northern lands by a Mountain range occupied by elves. In between the Northern and Southern kingdoms were a series of small independent city states and countries, with the two most relevant to this story being the Kingdom of the Lakes, a little feudal kingdom carved out of nothing by a retired adventurer (and his big-cat riding soldiers), and the key city of the campaign, Innsfelle, a massive city-state resting between the Northern Empire and the Kingdom of the Lakes, heavily fortified and buttressed to the South by the Mountain range separating the North from the Kingdom of the Lakes. Innsfelle, famously impregnable and never having been defeated in war, famously independent, and in possession of a few small outlier towns scattered through hills, forests and farmlands; a city-state that is essentially part of the Northern Empire culturally, but ferociously politically and militarily independent.

The characters

The characters I handed out for the players to take on were very carefully designed to work together, and partly based on some PCs I and my friends played in 1995 in a previous campaign:

  • Kusumi, a Japanese-style Fighter, essentially a soldier, from common stock (not a Samurai) who is a crucial component of this campaign. He was a key part of the Southern Empire’s armies but joined a rebellion against the Empire, and rose up through the ranks of the rebellion; but at the last the leaders of the rebellion screwed him over (see below) so he took over a large chunk of the army and led it North. He has a single, historical adventuring experience with two of the other PCs. RM class: Fighter.
  • Amber, an Elven enchantress, who adventured briefly with Kusumi, helping him to crush a smuggling ring when he was in charge of security for a Southern Lord. Amber is cast out from her own community, having rejected an arranged wedding and fled her homeland to take up a life of adventuring. RM Class: Enchantress (Companion 1 I think?)
  • Cwael, a half-black (Western kingdom), half-elven assassin-hunter who has adventured for a very long time with Amber, and essentially thinks of himself as her bodyguard. RM Class: Nightblade (Companion 1: this is my favourite RM Class)
  • Eldar 1: I forget the PC’s actual name now, but he was basically a dark elf Rogue, and Amber’s lover. In this campaign the dark elf are called Eldar and are not evil black-skinned elves from underground; they are elves who were cast out of the Elven kingdoms many millenia ago and live as nomadic mercenaries, selling their martial skills to the highest bidder. Eldar 1 is a rogue but also the leader of a small warband of about 50 eldar (half of whom are combatant). The group has this warband at its disposal. Eldar are reviled by all civilised races, like gypsies, and live in caravans like gypsies; they are also the most vicious mercenaries the world knows, and of course capable of all the non-wartime adventurer-style nastiness that you can imagine a warband of dark elf mercenaries getting up to. RM Class: Rogue.
  • Asian 2: I can’t remember this PC’s name either, but he was a Southern Battle Mage, essentially a wizard trained in blowing shit up while soldiers run rampant around him. He and Kusumi fought extensively together in the Southern rebellion, and famously won the battle of the Oni Peaks before the rebellion (they had a magic bell). They rebelled together against the rebellion’s leaders and led their soldiers north. RM Class: Magician.

All the PCs started at 9th level. 9th level RM characters are a lot of fun.

The Adventure: background and purpose

The story opens with the area around Innsfelle in a state of war. Kusumi and Asian 2 were in a rebellion of young Lords in the Southern Empire, which went horribly wrong. The young Lords, finding themselves losing and being trapped in an increasingly small area, had barricaded their army in a mountain fastness and determined to commit suicide and take their whole army with them. Kusumi and Asian 2, discovering this, slaughtered the Southern Lords and fled North with their army. Reaching Innsfelle, they decided this seemed a perfectly good city, and thought they’d take it over. Thus, they laid siege to it and started capturing the outlying towns. Nice guys all round. However, they have until the end of Autumn to complete the job; it is expected that by the end of Autumn the Northern Queen will have finished putting down a rebellion to the East, and her crack force of rebellion-putter-downerers, the “Queen’s Men” will come to Innsfelle to sort stuff out. But Innsfelle, Kusumi and Asian 2 have discovered upon arrival, is impregnable…

… At which point the campaign starts, with Kusumi and Asian 2 stumbling upon their old allies Cwael and Amber in a battlefield full of dead Innsfelle soldiers. The Eldar warband controlled by Eldar 1 have ambushed and destroyed the soldiers, and Kusumi and Asian 2 been invited to the aftermath. Here Cwael and Amber reveal that they have a letter from the Mayor of Innsfelle, sent to an important General, which makes it pretty clear that the Mayor is using the war to enrich himself. He has set up a nest of “bandits” – actually soldiers in the mountains and they raid supply trains of the Mayor’s own army, then sell the items they steal, and return the tax money they loot to the Mayor. The Mayor is so confident in Innsfelle’s impregnability – and the Autumn arrival of the Queen’s Men – that he is willing to undermine his own war effort for short term wealth.

The characters realise that, if they can get more concrete proof of the Mayor’s perfidy, and subsequently capture Innsfelle, then they may be able to convince the Queen to grant them suzerainty over the city, since the exisitng mayor is a Right Proper Bastard. In order to do this they need to:

  • Prove the Mayor’s perfidy as extensively as possible
  • Find a way into the city
  • Make contact with the Queen

And thus the campaign unfolds, with the PCs having 3 months to capture a city.

Bsaic conditions of the campaign

The first thing to note about this little railroad is that none of the PCs can die. They are all essential to the plot (except maybe Eldar 1). Everyone knew this, but there were some famous moments in this campaign where everyone was in abject terror for their lives, despite the fact that they knew they had to be kept alive for the plot. It was through this process that I discovered that, with good storytelling, the proper choice of scenes and enemies, and the correct atmosphere, you can suspend or break every one of the supposed precepts of good adventure-setting, and particularly the notion of rewards and incentives is completely irrelevant if you’re running a fun campaign that everyone gets into in detail. There were no experience points in this campaign – I handed out levels at regular intervals – and no threat of death. Yet all my players acted on the assumption that all their actions were potentially deadly, and were the most cautious and inventive players you can imagine. I think this is because, more than any other campaign I have ever run, this campaign had a distinct and definite notion of “winning.” If Innsfelle fell into their possession at the end of the campaign, they had won – and beaten me – and if it didn’t, they had lost even though they lived.

Plus I set up a damn scary setting. During the campaign they discovered that actually the raids on the caravans by the mayor were cover for a search he was undertaking for a certain magic item, that would be used in a ritual on a hidden temple beneath Innsfelle. This ritual would free a Demon chained beneath the city millenia ago, and ultimately this campaign ended with the characters discovering the history and location of this demon, and banning it permanently. The quest for this demon and the truth behind it involved some exploration of frightening underground settings, interviews with dragons, and a variety of other scary encounters that kept the whole campaign in a continual atmosphere of creepy doom.

This is also the only campaign I’ve run where the PCs had extensive resources to call on from the start. They were mates with the leader of the Kingdom of the Lakes, and Amber was mates with a dragon, plus they had that Eldar warband, not to mention Kusumi’s entire army, at their disposal. Though all the adventures occurred on the level of the party, the campaign itself spanned a country-level war, with corresponding forces and resources in play. This gave the players a lot of flexibility in how to deal with particular problems.

The Eldar

During the campaign the PCs uncovered the mystery of why the Eldar were cast out from the Elven nation – essentially they refused to commit a terrible act as part of a war between elves and humans, and were exiled. This terrible act was related to the Demon locked under the city, and at one point the characters had to visit the ancient underground city in which the original Eldar were slaughtered by their elven compatriots for refusing to cooperate – the modern Eldar being the remnants of this slaughter. I can’t remember clearly now, but I think it was a type of Masada, in which the elves were surrounded and outnumbered, so decided to kill themselves and all the non-combatant elves in the city; but the Eldar objected and fled, fighting their way out of a secret entrance and sealing it behind themselves to avoid pursuit. Eldar 1 learnt all this history during the progress of the campaign.

Enlightenment man and Innsfelle

The PCs clearly constituted a group of outcasts, exiled from both their own lands and the city they aimed to capture, and in some case bound to a history of exile and revulsion. As the campaign developed this became an important theme, with all the PCs looking on their eventual capture of Innsfelle as an opportunity to establish a new kingdom of exiles in the gap between the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, and to establish a new polity based on the laws and histories of these exiles. As the game developed this became a kind of multicultural dream, with the PCs increasingly in a type of Hamlet role, as misunderstood thinkers standing on the edge of the Enlightenment, returned to a more brutal feudal world and hoping to change it to a new and brighter outlook. The players became quite driven by this quest by the end and, being in charge of armies and strategic decisions, were willing to make some quite hard decisions to get there.

Role-playing weekends

We also pioneered the “role-playing weekend” during this campaign. Two of the players moved in together in the Blue Mountains, and we went to their house twice to do all-weekend-long extravaganzas. In fact, the final concluding session of this campaign occurred as part of a weekend-long session. We would cook, drink and do other things as part of these weekends, but the main part was the 8-10 hour sessions we would do each day of the weekend. This type of immersion really helped to maintain the intense and broody mood of this campaign.


In the end all the threads of the story – the Eldar history, the site of their original exile, the bound Demon, the treacherous mayor, the negotiations with the distant Queen, and Amber’s dragon ally – all came together to a cracker of a conclusion. Unfortunately, however, the players screwed up (I can’t remember how, now) and although they captured the city and were granted it in perpetuum by the Queen, they also accidentally unleashed the bound demon. The plan was to have a sequel campaign – a high-level RM campaign! – in which the PCs hunted down the demon. Unfortunately, 3 players had to move away and the sequel never happened. But the first part was an awesome campaign with a dark, frightening mood, a complex story enacted on many levels, and a group of interesting and well-developed PCs who became only more interesting over the course of the game. I consider this campaign to be the one in which I realised that role-playing can be about soooo much more than killing things and stealing their stuff (even though that was, writ large, the exact topic of this whole campaign!) It really provided me with an opportunity to run an absorbing, fascinating and complex story that was so much more than just another anodyne fantasy arc.