Why Do It Old-School?

More than once, people have asked me, “Why are you using old-school mechanics? Wouldn’t it be better to use a gaming system specifically built for your purposes? I love your GM tools, but the system leaves me cold.” Let me take a few moments to explain why it is that Sine Nomine uses old-school gaming mechanics as the backbone of my games, and why it’s a good choice for what I do.

First off, let me say that new-school gaming is something beautiful. I’ve played and DM’d 4e and had a great time. I haven’t had a chance to do much indie storygaming, but a lot of the stuff they’re doing over there looks fascinating. I’m a CO in the edition wars, and I do not want anyone to imagine that my allegiance to the old school is some kind of commentary on absolute gaming values. So those people who don’t go in for Stars Without Number‘s old-school mechanics, they’re saying something I can appreciate and understand. But for what Sine Nomine does, old-school is the best choice, and here’s why:

First, almost everyone understands how to play. You may not even like its ancestral games, but odds are that you know exactly what hit points are, know how to roll your attributes on 3d6, and are completely comfortable with rolling 1d20 to hit. You are not confused by the concept of levels and the idea of armor class. You know this stuff and it takes you only minutes to process differences or tweaks to the rules. Sure, not everybody started out playing this way, but enough of these ideas have percolated through our hobby that it’s a rare gamer who has to stretch to understand Stars Without Number‘s rules. Innovation is great, but not a lot of us are teenagers any more and every hour spent mastering a new set of rules is an hour less for us to be playing with our friends.

Second, Sine Nomine’s games are about a playstyle, not a mechanic. The games I make are about supporting a particular playstyle- sandbox gaming. The entire idea is to help the GM support and sustain a long-running sandbox campaign in a way that’s both fun for the GM and exciting for the players. The goal is to accomplish that in the least stressful way possible, while helping the GM have fun with their own creativity and inventiveness. This means that the core system needs to be so intuitive, so familiar to the GM that all their mental focus and energy can be put toward the game and not toward wrestling with the mechanics. Familiarity is vital to that. The GM needs to be confident that he can just whip up an enemy or set up a challenge without worrying over whether or not he’s “doing it right”. Old-school mechanics have that kind of familiarity for him. Sadly, I lack the necessary genius to develop a new mechanic that’s so powerful, so perfect for sandboxing that its value outweighs that of plain, time-worn familiarity.

Third, old-school mechanics work. They have their pitfalls and edge cases, but everyone’s used them so long and hammered on them so hard that all the real problems are clearly marked. As a designer, I don’t need to lie awake wondering if my combat system is going to collapse at the first clever shove from the forums. I don’t need to wonder if hit points will prove unworkable over long-term play, or if levels and experience points are going to break after the first eight sessions of a campaign. I can afford to focus my testing and my attention on the new elements I’m adding, making for a better, more tightly-tested design overall.

Fourth, I like it this way. And given that there are many, many parts of producing and publishing RPG books that have nothing to do with fun, I prefer to maximize the entertaining parts of this business. When I’m sitting down and writing 1,400 clever tag elements for the upcoming Other Dust, I don’t want to add any more aggravation to the job than already exists. Old-school mechanics are just easy, simple, and robust. I can have fun with them, because I know what they can do and I can foresee the effects of changes I make.

I don’t know that I’ll be sticking with old-school mechanics forever. I might take it into my head to try something different, if I find a mechanic that’s worth the sacrifice of familiarity. One of the nice things about being an indie RPG producer is that the money involved is so small that there’s no overwhelming pressure to stick with a particular line. But for now, for my current products and for upcoming items like Other Dust, the old school is exactly where I want to be.

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