Ozymandias, a regular commenter on this blog, asked me what I thought of the pamphlet, Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, written by Matthew J. Finch in 2008. I couldn't remember having read it (and I looked for everything I could find before writing How to Run), so I found a copy on Lulu (it's free) and read it.
Finch makes the claim that "old school" gamers ran their role-playing campaigns in the way it is described in his pamphlet. Perhaps I harp upon this too often, but I'm legitimately an "old school gamer," having started in 1979, and I can say with expertise on the matter that Finch is absolutely correct. Old school gamers did, absolutely, run their games exactly in the way that Finch describes, with exactly the philosophy described in the pamphlet. We had a name for these gamers. We called them "assholes."
There's no point in my debating the document argument by argument. I deeply regret that this philosophy exists in the same way that I regret there are people in the world who continue to treat women as seat covers or that there are people in the world who have trouble being in a work environment that hires gay or black people. There are just bad people in the world. Some of them play RPGs.
And just as bad people with other philosophical perspectives invent complete and utter bullshit that vaguely sounds legitimate in order to supposedly legitimize their perspective, it isn't very hard for any thinking person to see right through the nonsense. It isn't there to convince people that "more rules are bad" or that "the game is about telling a story," the arguments are there to support the single, greatly desired and wholly unsupported argument, the DM's decisions must be incontestable.
We can say that the DM makes choices based on "common sense" and "embracing the chaos," but these things are charmingly devoid of accountability or misconduct. Fundamentally, we're arguing that it's the DM's game - and being the DM's game, if the DM interprets your roll of 15 as "you stab yourself in the leg," then you do. I'm personally unsure how the decision to take a completely abstract number and assign a totally arbitrary result translates as common sense . . . but this is where the argument is coming from.
Why is it, I might ask, that I don't stab myself in the arm, or I don't put the sword through my partner's leg? Why is it that the most obvious reply to the roll is that my sword is put through any part of anybody's body? Is this common? If I'd rolled a 14, would the result have been different? No. Because the result isn't according to any "rules," remember. It is according to an "interpretation of guidelines," "a good GM being impartial," "the referee describing the results," "making a ruling" or any of the other vague and glib explanations for why the results are what they are. Remember, dear players, when we play the way Finch describes, "The referee will be just as surprised by the results as the players are."
Presumably because the referee is participating in a grand Rorschach experience.
Well, I can testify that young, inexperienced DMs running 4e and 5e right now are running this game in exactly this way, because there are about two dozen instances that Finch describes that I can personally vouch for having occurred in games I've attended in the last 12 months. The game doesn't have to be "old school" or "old-style" to be played this way. Any ignorant boob who's unprepared to play even by the rules as written in any game can DM by just this kind of fiat and claim entitlement with just this much smug certainty. Just as a racist today can equal every bit the rabid, frothing spittle that their grandfathers managed in the Good Old South sixty years ago, an asshole is still an asshole.
There is one quote I'd like to draw out. It is on the first page and has little to do with DMing:
"The 0e rules don't give you much specific guidance, and that's not because they left out the answers to save space."
From this, I feel I'm meant to conclude that the original makers of the game had created or seriously intended to create a great many more rules - but then decided to deliberately make the original books shorter because they honestly felt that this would make a better game. I feel I'm also supposed to make the conclusion that the original makers of the game were in no way restricted by a budget, and that the format of the white box set and the books inside - the sort of format that would only be chosen by people who did not have the sort of budget necessary to publish actual books when said publishing was very, very expensive in the 1970s - was intentional. Yes, much better that we print four page limited tiny rulebooks held together with staples than produce a far more comprehensive rulebook with actual binding, because this will be better for the game!
Yet, strangely, when the game sold very well, the comprehensive rule book was the first step forward that the burgeoning company of TSR took. Perhaps because they felt a compulsion to then destroy the game with more rules?
I don't know how old Finch is. He seems to have a number of books that can be purchased that would seem to suit the 4e and 5e market he finds unacceptable. I can't seem to find anything about him personally. I would tend to think, however, that he knows profoundly little about the difficulties of publishing anything in 1974. That would seem to suggest, to me, that he really knows jack shit about old school gaming or thinking - and that the document was an early exercise in writing something, anything, about D&D in 2008. I certainly embrace that. A writer has to start with something. No writer should be held accountable to their first works; people change, they grow up, they embrace communities and actions they once criticized. I wish him all the best.
In this particular document, however, he seems to be talking through his hat. No doubt, he knows people who were gaming in the 1970s and early 80s. But since he does not actually make it clear what his personal status was at the time that this "old-style" form of play was in vogue, I would encourage readers to take into account the possibility that Finch is full of shit.