Don’t you remember? We built this city, we built this city on rock and roll.
— Starship, “We Built This City”
As I began preparing my Old School campaign, one of the first things that struck me was that my attempt would be more of an OSINO (Old School In Name Only), as I’d never actually played that way (as noted in the disclaimers of my previous articles). While I did get my start in the halcyon, pre-internet, Cold War days of 1981-ish, the way I played is very similar to how I play today, namely through “mission-based” adventures.
To clarify, a “mission-based” adventure means that there is a goal to be accomplished before the adventure is over. In the old days, a mission could be as simple as “Hey all, I just bought a copy of the “Spirit Tower of Newport,” want to run through it?” or something more involved, like rescuing a noble’s kid from the clutches of the Evil Duke or finding the magical starfish blade in the “Volcanic Caverns of L’Kurl.”
From my understanding, Old School adventures were less “mission” and more about exploring the campaign world. At the start of each “adventure” the characters would gather in a safe place (archetypically a tavern) and decide what they wanted to do, based on rumors they gained, requests for help, or other “hooks” designed to entice them. These hooks would invariably lead to dungeons, where the party would delve, face dangers, and gather treasure. The adventure ended with the characters back in the safe place, dividing treasure, gaining XP, and maybe leveling up.
So, for me, Old School play was as fresh and new as it was for my players, both veteran and newcomer alike (my group runs the gamut from Boomer to Gen Z; I haven’t yet convinced my Gen Alpha child to play!). For my experiment to succeed, I needed a plan.
My Old School Template
Before gathering my players, I set down a number of ground rules to help me shape my Old School campaign.
- We’d be using Old School Essentials: Advanced Fantasy (OSE) with a few house rules.
- We’d be playing on an irregular schedule (about once every 3-4 weeks) but playing 6-hour sessions as opposed to the 3–4-hour sessions that my group was used to. Unlike true “Old School” play, I wasn’t going to run other sessions or groups in the same campaign.
- Each session would start with the characters in a safe place and end with the characters in a safe place. This allows for missing players and character changes between sessions without breaking verisimilitude.
- Every character’s motivation is “seek fortune and glory.” At the start of each session, the group would decide where they wanted to go adventuring to find that fortune and glory.
- Once the game got running, I wanted my prep work to be minimal.
The last point was crucial. I wanted this to be a “beer and pretzels” type of campaign for myself as well as the other players. I couldn’t do that if I was stressing about plotlines and creating content for each session.
Deciding on a Map
With the ground rules set, the first thing I had to do to build a campaign was decide what map I was going to use. In keeping with the kit-bashy nature of my experiment, and the possibility that we’d only play once or thrice, I didn’t want to invest a lot of time designing a game world. I decided that I’d go with something that felt “old school.”
As is my wont, I thought first in terms of world settings. Specifically, I thought of the first two “official” settings for (A)D&D, Oerth (the World of Greyhawk setting) and Mystara (the B/X and BECMI default setting). I also thought about early third-party settings like Kethira (okay, I know we all call it “Harn” as that is the most fleshed out corner of that setting) and the Wilderlands of High Fantasy.
All are fine choices, but I quickly realized that I didn’t need any of them. What I really needed was a small corner of a world, any world, where I could set a home base and sprinkle in as many dungeons and other encounters as I wanted. By using an established setting, I’d have to pick an area that made sense for the world and had enough ecological variety so that a dungeon set in the hills could be close to one set in the forest or even one set in a desert.
But if I was going to stay away from an established setting, then all I needed was a cool map. With that in mind, I turned to Outdoor Survival.
It should have been my obvious choice from the get-go. Outdoor Survival is listed in the old “White Box” set as recommended equipment on p.5 of Book 1. Yes, the authors of the game expected you to pull the map out of another game from another company to incorporate into your D&D game! You don’t get much more old school than that!
Laying out the map, I decided that my campaign would involve an area of land destroyed by the nebulous “Wizard War” that lasted for centuries. When the dust settled, the entire area was littered with ruins and overrun with monsters. Only now, decades after the war had ended, was civilization beginning to creep back into the area.
Planting a Home Base
With my map in hand, I needed a home base, somewhere the player characters could rest, recuperate, and resupply. It really didn’t take me long to realize that what I needed was a certain keep on the borderlands (reflavored as “Onyx Keep”). Looking at the map, I found a good spot where I could plop the keep in the southwest corner.
The player characters would come from the civilized lands behind it, so there’d be no impetus for the player characters to adventure backwards on the map. That threw the entirety of the Outdoor Survival map out in front of them.
As a bonus, this campaign world didn’t care where the player characters came from, so each player was free to invent a “home culture” for their characters, or just go with the generic “just came from civilization” angle.
Telling the players that their characters were seeking “fortune and glory” is all well and good, but I needed places for them to go find it. Again, given the kit-bashy nature of this campaign, I didn’t want to spend a lot of time designing dungeons. Fortunately, I have a lot of the original modules (adventures) and Wizards of the Coast has made them available through DriveThruRPG.
In addition, the OSR movement has spawned dozens (hundreds?) of modules, including several megadungeons that can provide months and years of gameplay exploring just one of them. And while individual OSR games model different early D&D systems, they are all largely compatible with each other.
I chose adventures that were true “modules;” that is, they were easy to plop onto my map and justify as being part of the Wizard War. Obviously, the Caves of Chaos found their way on the map, so too did several others, including the original orange cover version of “B3: Palace of the Silver Princess.”
For my map, I used 6-mile hexes. In OSE, that means that the party can travel 2-4 hexes a day based on their encumbrance. So, any dungeons I placed within 2-3 hexes of the keep could be reached within a single day, while those further out would require overnight rests along the way.
Creating a Rumor List
With a map, a home base, and several dungeons sprinkled around it, what I needed next was a good list of rumors to entice the player characters. Fortunately, most of the published modules had a rumors list, so I plugged them into a d100 chart and made up a few of my own based on my own knowledge of the modules.
I’d like to pause here to note that a rumors list is one of those things that I never really understood in the past. After all, if I already told my players that I’d be taking their characters through The Tower of Power, then why did they need rumors? Was it just to tease what might be inside?
In old school play, rumors made a lot more sense. They’re designed to bait the player characters into choosing that dungeon/locale, and whether they were baited by a true or false rumor is on them. In my own campaign, I’ve had one player character obsess over a large ruby that was supposedly in a dungeon and he was frustrated every time the rest of the party chose a different place to explore. He’s either going to be really happy when he finds that ruby, or he’ll have egg on his face when the party finally explores it and there’s no ruby to be had!
Hopefully, this was a very long-winded way of saying that setting up an “old school” game is pretty easy! All you need is a map of a walkable area, a home base, a few published dungeons (although you are certainly free to create your own!), and a rumors list to get started!
Next time, I’m going to talk a bit about agency!