At first, I thought that the Old-School Renaissance (or Revival) was only an attempt by veteran gamers to get back to the “golden years of the hobby”. Maybe it was, I don’t presume to know. But then, a friend of mine with who I play regularly had good things to say about the OSR and was mostly interested in trying to play a sandbox based upon the Western Marches campaign by Ben Robbins (http://arsludi.lamemage.com/index.php/78/grand-experiments-west-marches/). So when I found a second-hand copy of Labyrinth Lord for 2$, I jumped on the occasion to finally get to know why there was such a buzz around the OSR.
I was hooked! I never played any edition of D&D older than AD&D 2nd edition and I remember not liking it that much. The big feature that really sold me the retro-clones was that experience was based on gold instead of being based on monsters/encounters. It meant that you were rewarded based on the success of your expedition as a whole and since most monsters didn’t give much XPs, encounters were actual obstacles on your path instead of the being the point of play. Now, fleeing an encounter was a viable option (even though you risked being chased or getting lost) because most of the time, it would cost you too much resources for too little gain.
Shadowrun shares something similar with Labyrinth Lord on that matter. In Shadowrun you’re getting paid for accomplishing the job, not killing/defeating people. Sure, you could expect having to battle your way through, but both cash and advancement were based on success in the mission. So again, fighting wasn’t always the best solution and risked alerting people and screwing up the whole job.
Another feature of retro gaming that appealed to me was that the GM was only there to play out the consequences of the players’ choices. No pre-planned storyline to follow but only responding to what the players were doing. You design the dungeon in advance, you prepare your random encounter tables and then, you provide information to players so that they can make choices about their course of action. That last bit is of utmost importance. Of course you don’t go saying: “There’s a trap in that corridor” But, by your description of the corridor, you should give enough details so that the players can then tell you how they go about it. You could include things like corpses of adventurers. Not only does it provide atmosphere, but that’s also a warning sign: “That corridor is dangerous.” They still have to figure out if the dead adventurer met his fate because of a trap (and what kind of trap) or because he was lost without food or water. If they don’t get the clues and set off the trap it wouldn’t be because you were out to get them since it was already decided that there was a trap and you gave them sufficient information for them to at least attempt to detect it. All of this means that as a GM, you’re not actively trying to kill the PCs by retaining information and preventing them from figuring out what are the risks and threats they’re currently facing. You’re there to give them opportunities to make decisions and play the consequences of these decisions.
This also means that if my character dies, I know that it wasn’t the GM’s fault. Maybe it was bad luck, a wrong tactical decision in combat or poor resources management. It means that the game is also based on my talent as a player. Imagination, good situation assessment, great leadership, teamwork, etc. all contribute to the success of the party at getting treasures and thus, experience. Gold and treasure are truly rewarding to acquire.
All of this also implies that everybody plays by the rules. Both players and GM know how the game works and if nobody cheats, fudge dice rolls or otherwise change the rules when it suits them then the gaming experience stays fair. It is that same fairness that guarantees that my success as a player actually means something.
Next part I’m going to show how the sandbox game style benefits from these features.