Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Game Design: Capturing That Old-School RPG Flavor (New & Expanded)

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 20, 2010

This is a reposting of a fairly recent post from the old blog. But I keep finding myself referencing it for the awesome links, so I figured it was worth updating to the new system… with some brand new links on the subject.

“Old School” computer RPGs means different things to different people. For some people, it means going back 10+ years to games like Baldur’s Gate and Fallout 1. For others, they think of the 16-bit Japanese console classics that didn’t always make it to western shores. Still others might invoke names like Ultima, Wizardry, and even Apshai.

But then there are others who think of the early days of dice-and-paper gaming – when Dungeons & Dragons was new and gaining steam, and of the very early (often non-commercial) computer games that attempted to capture the excitement, enthusiasm, and off-the-wall creativity of the hobby when it was new. While some may lift their noses in derision of such primitive sport, saying that RPGs have evolved to a higher form of gaming since then, some of us feel that the efforts to streamline, mainstream, and – yes, improve – on the computer / console role-playing experience have made collateral damage of some really cool and entertaining ideas.

But it’s never too late to bring ’em back.

I thought I’d share some extra-nifty links related to “old-school” fantasy RPG design (appropriate for both dice & paper and computer RPGs). This doesn’t necessarily mean these are good ideas – but they are definitely ideas worth considering when trying to capture the spirit and flavor of classic dungeon-delving experiences around the table and at the monitor. Some of ’em favor the more elderly definitions of “old-school,” from the days where being able to hit an orc with a sword via a random die roll was still considered a novelty. But there are some cool ideas that could both capture the old-school flavor AND could use a modern make-over here.

Old-School Adventure Design
First up:

Old School Dungeon Design Guidelines at Grognardia.

Based on some forum discussions at Knights & Knaves and ENWorld, this list felt a little bit like reading a classic D&D module. Or – even better – playing in one of those old games. They got away with a lot of crap back then that wouldn’t fly today, but it worked because it was a new, exciting, thrilling hobby without any boundaries.

The 50/50 gambling idea with permanent changes (item #5) never did thrill me. And in a computer game, with access to save files (so any non-online game), it’s pretty unusable. I guess back in the era, if you got lucky, your character became all that much more powerful and more likely to survive. If not, you just hastened the character’s inevitable demise and your chance to roll up a new one.

One of the cooler aspects of the recent indie game Knights of the Chalice was the incorporation of elements from the second feature mentioned in this article – difficulties enhanced by circumstances, not just beefed up monsters. Of course, as a game based on the 3.5 OGL rules, there was beefed-up, templated monsters as well. But having monsters take advantage of terrain, cover, and area effect possibilities (even if pre-scripted) is very cool.

Stepping outside the dungeon, some of the additional elements I wrote down while studying some old modules for research for Frayed Knights included:

* Really strange fantasy names (still a popular option)

* An old hermit who could be useful, dangerous, or both.

* Riddles were popular by adventure creators (though I guess that falls into the same category as #4 – Puzzles, tricks, and obstacles). Not so popular with players, though.

* An evil high priest (“EHP”) or wizard running the show for the bad guys. These days, its more likely to be a drow, dragon, or mind flayer.

Dungeon Puzzles
Next up: Brian “Psychochild” Green posted the results of a brainstorm of puzzles for use in an old-school “maze-style” computer RPGs. Most of these have appeared in some form or another in older games. This one is a great resource for computer RPG designers or a Dungeon Master coming up with ideas for next Saturday’s game:

Brainstorming Puzzles In Dungeons

It’s a pretty impressive list. Man. Teleport / tile-flip movement traps – I remember those. Ick.

Design Lessons From Gary Gygax’s Dungeons & Dragons
Finally, this one is less old-schooly but still useful. Lewis Pulsipher has an article about the design and gameplay lessons learned not from modern video games, but from old dice & paper forays into the world of D&D:

All I Really Needed to Know About Games I Learned from Dungeons & Dragons

I don’t know if I agree 100% with all of his points, but it’s a useful checklist of core concepts about what made Dungeons & Dragons (and gaming in general) fun.

UPDATE: Now With 66% More Links
Since writing the original article, I was reminded of a couple more articles that may be of value to the billions and billions of people (okay, at least one or two) who are fascinated by the subject of old-school RPG design, just like me!

Progressing Through the Adventure
Melan has a post I’d almost forgotten about from the 3.0E days – breaking down the actual map / adventure flow for old-school adventures from the Dice-And-Paper world.  His point: “I hope that these brief demonstrations helped underscore the gist of my argument: good map design contributes to the fun of an adventure, and it is not a total crapshoot – there are clearly identifiable design principles which (admittedly from a gamist/”old school” standpoint), when followed, benefit a given creation.”

Dungeon Layout, Map Flow, and Old School Game Design

I’m just grateful that he took the time to abstract out the map flow of these games so I don’t have to. That looks like a lot of work.

More Games and Links Than You Can Shake a +2 Stick At!
And finally, Gamasutra has an article that should probably be part of a textbook for anybody planning to be a developer of computer and / or console RPGs:

Game Design Essentials: 20 RPGs

While not strictly focused on “old-school” RPGs, it goes into length about the “legacy” of each game – the design principles they employed which may (or may not) have been passed down to later games in the genre. It’s useful for mapping out something of a “family tree” of the more popular cRPGs, and to see how design ideas have been borrowed, changed, and lost.

So there ya go. Everything you ever wanted to know about old-school RPG design flavor? Not hardly – I know you really wanted more! But hopefully that’s a good start.

Filed Under: Design, Retro - Comments: 2 Comments to Read

  • Wavinator said,

    Priceless. Thank you, I had none of these!

  • WCG said,

    Some of those design ideas are just annoying, rather than fun, IMHO. Others don’t work in a computer game, since players will just reload a saved game. (If you eliminate saves, that’s another annoyance for many of us. Instead, you need to remove the incentive for constant reloads.)

    Here are couple of lines that caught my attention:

    “In human-oriented games, the idea is to enjoy the journey, not the destination. In D&D there is no destination, just a journey that continues until the campaign ends or you (the player) die.”

    “If you count OD&D as a role-playing game, then you necessarily have to admit that RPGs don’t have to be games of storytelling, or at least not games of ‘top-down,’ DM-driven storytelling. (RPGs have always been games of what we might call ‘storywriting’.)”

    Along this line of thought, I’ll leave a link to a post on my own blog:


    To my mind, rather than trying to tell a story like a movie does (which is inherently linear and passive), computer games should focus on that “storywriting” (i.e. the creation of a world in which the player makes his own “story” through his choices and the actions of his character(s). It’s also where the journey is more important than the destination.

    We are only just beginning, in a few games, to move in this direction. And I don’t think we have the technology to go very far just yet. But IMHO, the promise is huge.