I don’t know where I’m going, but I sure know where I’ve been. Hanging on the promises in songs of yesterday…”
— Whitesnake, “Here I Go Again”
Old habits die hard.
In my last article, I said that I’d be talking about setting up an Old School campaign. But before I get into the nuts and bolts of Old School design, I thought that I’d focus on the first thing that I needed before diving into this, and that was changing my mindset on my role as a Game Master (or Dungeon Master, or Referee, or you get the idea!).
You see, for the last several decades, my style put me firmly in the driver’s seat of my campaign. I’d decide on a setting, its tone, design adventures, guide the players on creating appropriate characters, and then run them through those adventures, shepherding them back on course if they’d go astray of the intended direction until they reach the thrilling climax.
But that was not the expectation of an Old School GM, at least one pre circa 1983. The idea of assuming that characters would participate in a prepared adventure was anathema to Old School players. If they were going to delve into the Dungeons of Discord or pledge themselves to save the Baron’s son from the Ophidian Cult, they wanted it to be because they decided to do it, not because that’s what I prepared for them to do.
And since I wanted to emulate that Old School experience as much as possible, I had to dismiss a lot of my traditional thinking as a Game Master. I had to learn how to think of myself as less of a “Game Master” and more as a “Game Facilitator.”
So, beyond semantics, what does being a Game Facilitator mean?
[Disclaimer: When I use the phrase “Old School,” I am specifically talking about how I’ve interpreted what I’ve read about “the way things were” during the “color in your dice with a crayon” era and how I’m implementing them at my table. I claim no authority on the subject beyond that!]
You Aren’t Writing a Story
Throughout my time in the hobby, both personally and professionally, there’s been a lot of debate over whether it is appropriate to call adventures “stories.” Understandably so, many players feel that “story” implies that their characters are riding the railroad of the GM’s novel rather than being active drivers of the adventure. And there’s a bit of truth to that.
When I write an adventure, I usually have a good idea of where the characters are headed. If they accept the mission at the outset, then their “orders” pretty much point in that direction. If nothing else, their in-game reward (represented these days by “milestone advancement”) usually motivates them to stay the course and finish the mission.
While I do my best to give my players meaningful choices and agency over what their characters do, I can’t say that I don’t gently steer them towards my prepared materials. After all, if I spent weeks designing the Sapphire Skull Fortress, then I certainly don’t want them to skip it by waiting until the Grand General marches out with her army and setting up an ambush!
As a Game Facilitator, however, I had to toss that all away. Yes, the Sapphire Skull Fortress might be somewhere on the map, but so are the Castle of the Electrum Viscount and Dinosaur Island. It’s up to the PCs, through rumors, interactions with the locals, or prior experience, to decide where they want to explore. I can certainly have an influence by ensuring that the players learn about the lucrative sapphire mines beneath the fortress or that a local baron is willing to handsomely reward anyone who can bring him back a living dinosaur, but setting tantalizing hooks is as far as I go!
Motivation is Baked In
Unless they craft a very focused campaign, one of the most difficult things for a GM to do is ensure that the PCs bite on the hooks they’re given to participate in the prepared adventure. While this may seem like a no-brainer, I can’t count the number of times that my players have gotten so invested in their character’s lives protecting a remote village that pulling them away to sky-sail to the mountaintop ruins of the Snowcap Kingdom is a tall ask.
But in an Old School campaign, player character motivation is not an issue, as it is presumed that they are after fame and fortune. Any rumors that they are given that potentially lead to growing richer and more powerful are likely to attract them. A player is still free to create an elaborate backstory for their character if they wish, so long as their motivation gels with the base assumption.
And if the PCs are looking for fame and fortune, they are likely only going to find it in the mysterious dungeons, ruins, and evil fortresses that populate the campaign world (i.e. the map that you’ve prepared). Thus, there is little to motivate them moving beyond what you’ve set up.
Randomness is Expected
Another thing that I’ve struggled with as a GM are random encounters. In the past, I never quite understood their purpose beyond “give the PCs another annoying distraction” and I quickly dispensed with them in my campaigns. PCs tended to only encounter things in my adventures that they were meant to encounter (unless they avoided them), and these encounters tended to be helpful for the overall mission.
My players also expected me to always be on top of things. While they weren’t averse to the odd random encounter per se, they tended to see too much dice rolling on my end as a sign of unpreparedness and, therefore, unimportant. Why bother treating an unnamed NPC as someone important or follow a randomly generated teal dragon back to its probably unmapped and unstocked lair?
In the Old School, however, randomness is not only expected, but part of the game. I quickly discovered that my players really leaned into the randomness if it all and weren’t bothered if I had to take a quick pause to roll on a couple of charts or look up monster statistics. They realized that I was playing the game as much as they were, and that I could be as pleasantly surprised or horrified at rolling a fearsome monster or awesome magic item as they were.
It’s Okay for Them to Break Things
Another lesson that I quickly learned was that it was okay for players to do the unexpected. In the past, my adventures had a narrative flow and defeating a villain too early could derail the entire adventure (in fact, I recently flummoxed my GM in a D&D 5e adventure by flying up the side of a tower, correctly presuming that the Big Bad was at the top and not wanting to waste resources ascending the tower from the inside!).
In the Old School, however, coming up with creative solutions to bypass encounters or defeat enemies without rolling out the battle mat is encouraged. Since I’m not nursing any particular plot, it doesn’t really matter to me how the PCs stomp through a dungeon or bait out powerful enemies. And, even better, if the dungeon remains, then it won’t be long before new tenants move in, and new rumors bring the PCs back to it!
If there’s one lesson I’d like to impart after almost a year of Old School play, it’s that being a Game Facilitator is much less stressful than being a Game Master as I understood it for decades. By allowing my players to explore the world I’ve created at their own pace and following their own agendas, I don’t have to worry about them following any particular plots or worrying when they stray off course.
Nor do I have to worry about “saving” an NPC or Boss Monster because defeating them early ruins the rest of the adventure, or foil by fiat an awesome idea that a player has simply because allowing it would mess up the intended flow.
And, as an added bonus, I get to enjoy and be surprised by the development of the campaign as much as my players do without feeling like it’s going to make more work for me!
That’s all for now! Next time I’m going to take a deep dive into building an Old School campaign world!