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Saturday, August 1, 2009

A The Grand Tapestry Exclusive: Jeff Berry: "What's Old School Gaming?"-

The following was an unsolicited (but much enjoyed) e-mail I have received this fine day from Jeff Berry, friend to and gamer with both Dave Arneson and Professor M. A. R. 'Phil' Barker, as well as the author of the Tekumelani wargames rules set: Qadardalikoi.

(c) Copyright 2009 Jeff Berry All Rights Reserved. Used here by permission of the author.

Linking to this article is permitted.
I'm a dinosaur, I think...

(This is a short little essay on gaming styles that might be of interest to folks, in response to the various postings I've been reading lately.
All opinions are my own, no warranty express or implied, and are packed by weight, not by volume; some settling of contents may have occurred during shipping and handling...)

Okay, I give up. What's 'old school gaming', and how does it apply to miniatures and role-playing games? I've just managed to get my head around the 'simulationist' and 'narrativist' schools of role-playing games, sorta, but now I'm even more confused. I got started in miniatures back about 1970, and in role-playing about 1975, and I have the feeling that I'm either a dinosaur or trapped like an insect in ancient amber; I still do things the way I have been doing them since that ancient and long-lost time, both in miniatures games and in RPGs.
Am I an 'old school gamer', or just imprisoned by the conditioning I got at the hands of Dave Arneson (of D&D), and Phil Barker (of EPT)?

For the benefit of those of you in the audience who hadn't been born yet, gaming back then consisted of historical miniatures. Period. Sure, some folks had been calling their medieval figures 'orcs' and 'elves' so they could play out the battles from Middle-Earth, and if you took the five SPI "Prestags" board games and put all the maps together - and sorted the counters from all five by color - you had a mega-game that looked just like Tolkein but evaded copyright issues; but, oh my patient listeners, the world of RPGs as you know them just didn't exist.

Enter, stage left, a bunch of bored Twin Cities Napoleonics players; enter, stage right, a bunch of bored medieval players from Lake Geneva.
Net result, D&D, followed in short order in the Twin Cities by something really weird called "Empire of the Petal Throne": all three of the authors involved were old hands at historical miniatures, and their first sets of rules reflected this - the 'Simulationist' school of game design, they tell me. Dave Arneson was a particular example of this kind of design; he was a perfectionist at getting all of the little details nailed down before the players showed up on his doorstep, and he played - like they did - for keeps. Sitting down with Dave to play with him was an invitation to having your heart cut out, doused with Tabasco sauce, and eaten with great glee; you - like all of the folks who regularly played in that group - had to be quick on the uptake, fast on the draw, and really smart; you had to know your stuff, or you'd get handed your head on a platter. The only exception to that was if you were a new player, and didn't come into the game session with an attitude; if you were polite and reasonable, that bunch of unreformed Visigoths would be more then happy to help you learn the game and the rules.

Phil Barker certainly did his own rules, of course, but his natural flair for story-telling usually showed through the rules mechanics.
Tekumel was the setting for his stories and fiction writing, and those of us who gamed with him were the 'bit players' in the story arc and quite often provided him with the 'local color' he used in his books.
Very quickly, he dropped using any rules more complicated then the following:

Prof. Mohammed abd Rahman Barker's Perfected Game Rules:

1) We both roll dice.
2) If you roll high, your view of reality prevails.
3) If I roll high, my view of reality prevails.
4) If we're close, we negotiate.

Simple, yes? I still use this complex and detailed set of rules to this very day, which - I assume - makes me a 'Narrativist' like Phil. Mind you, I also do all of my research and planning ahead of each game session, just like Dave did, so I guess I'm sort of a hybrid of the two genres. And just perhaps, is this hybrid 'old school'? The major objective of any game run by either of those two was to have fun; if there wasn't a laugh or two around the table in the course of the mayhem, we all thought we were slipping up somehow. I try very hard to make sure my players have fun, and I also make damn sure that I know my source material, too.

Over on the miniatures table, I run games pretty much the same way.
Yes, I confess, I did write a set of miniatures rules for Tekumel; it's still in print, still being played, and still being denounced as "too simplistic" by historical gamers (who have never played it) and as "too complicated" by RPG gamers (who have never played it). I might modestly mention that both types of gamers who have played the thing discover that it's neither, but that may not be important; what is important is that I try very hard to provide players with a good time; everyone gets something to do, everyone gets a laugh and some fun, and everyone gets to play equally heroically. I do the figures and the scenery, and that's where I get my jollies; I'm a model-builder before I'm a gamer. (Which may be rank heresy, and probably the subject of another essay.)

So, I think I'm a fossil. I game the same way both Dave and Phil did, and my players don't look at the published rules very much; they seem to be having fun at game sessions, which think is the point of the exercise. We keep it light, simple, and fun; is this 'old school'?

[Bold: mine]

I realise that the above will not settle the matter for either the Old Guard, the OSR or New School crowd, but then again, nothing is likely to do so.

Sally-forth unto Adventure, Honour, and Glory!


  1. Very nice. I am one that thinks 'old school' is what you make of it and where you began in the hobby. A more relative term than a definable hard-set term. Old-school for me is sitting around with guidelines, and making the game your own; whether it be high fantasy, S&S or the lovely gonzo area and gaming. Miniatures? Yeah I use them, a rather eclectic blend of reaper mini's, glass beads and army men. How can you not be any more classic?

  2. Josh,

    Cool. :D
    --Agreed, definition-seeking just smacks of...dunno' what, exactly, but it doesn't seem 'right', and certainly more of a killjoy than pro-Fun.

    Yeah, play what you like, with whom you like, the way you like.
    --Sir Mix-A-Lot had it right all those years ago (and he wasn't dawn of Old Skool, either) ;)

    Minis: I do love me some minis. I started in minis and then got around to Moldvay D&D. I just prefer to keep them separate from RolePlay. I find them distracting from the theatre of the mind's eye, and confine their use to wargaming.
    --If I had come into gaming in an era in which they were as essential to '7x gaming, I'd be using them the way Jeff Berry does. No grid, and with exquisitely wrought scale settings and accoutrements.

    I hate grids mixed in with RPGs. Hate 'em. Folks quickly start counting steps, thinking in 5' steps, and so forth. Grr!
    --BUT! I don't wee in the tureen of others for using 'em in their RPG-play. To each their own! :D

    Thanks for posting! :)

  3. I forgot to say that mini's are used for marching order and combat formations. I have no squares, grids or movement rules. They are just arrayed to get an idea where everyone is when the mage cracks off her fireball.

  4. @Josh,

    I'm sorry if you thought I was ranting on your use of them, as I wasn't. :D
    --That's cool. I just had a discussion with one of my nemeses (also the LGS owner), where he disagreed strongly with the 'D&D doesn't use minis' position. Meh.

  5. Awesome! Thank you!
    Fossil? No way - the four rules are pretty wonderful!

  6. Interesting comments on miniatures and the mind's eye! Miniatures aren't *needed* for D&D, or any other RPG (exceptions do exist, of course!); back in the day Dave used to use piles of six-siders in different colors to indicate march orders and where people were in melee. I used to have Dave's very first set of cheap dime-store plastic 'monsters' in our collection, which he got when people started showing up with their conversions of historical figures; after that, things got more 'scenic' as all too many of us were model builders and couldn't resist dressing things up on the game table.

    It's all about what works for you and your game group on your table, not about what I or somebody else might think; do what's fun, for gosh sakes!

    I freely admit to being a niche specialist in a specialist niche; let's face it, folks, you are highly unlikely to see a game set on Tekumel complete with miniatures at your FLGS. Tekumel has always been a very visual game setting; the Professor used to whip little sketches off during games to illustrate someone or something, and I'd have a miniature done from the sketch by the next week's game session. I still do this for my own players, as seeing the setting seems to help them assimilate the admittedly complex setting. I love to make things, and they help me tell the stories and run the adventures for my players; I think of such things as the 'sets' and 'props' for the cinematic style of gaming that we seem to prefer as a group.

    I don't think that they are required, just that they are handy tools for making the game sessions work for us. I've tried other things like counters and mats as tools, but I always seem to keep coming back to 3-D models. Don't really know why, but there it is.

  7. That post made me really miss the good old PRESTAGS games... :(

  8. Nice post, thanks! Assure Jeff Berry that both are clearly Old School, where's the confusion?

    One should not attempt to apply modern classifications to the ways the games were played back then.

  9. Thanks for sharing this, Timeshadows.

    And my appreciation goes out to Jeff Berry, of course, as well!

  10. :D I'm glad this was a unifier (:

  11. I can’t resist posting a “me too” thanks for this post as well. Gratias tibi ago

  12. Good gosh. D&D was my first "real" RPG (we'd actually played around with the old Chainmail rules before that came out). The original EPT was my second (and I've bought new edition except the D20 version since then). And I still use the SPI PRESTAGS to fight out mass battles in my campaign (I've got multiple copies of each)though I'm slowly switching that over to the Medieval Battle Quad, rules just work better).