... now with 35% more arrogance!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Primer Rage

So, there’s something I’m sure many of you have seen, either on RPG forums, blogs, or G+/Facebook communities: rage against Matt Finch’s Quick Primer of Old School Gaming. Every time the primer is mentioned, and even some times when it isn’t, someone pops in to say how much they hate it and hate Matt Finch and think he’s a horrible person for telling them you have to play games his way or else.

A good portion of this can be assumed to be hyperbole and attention-seeking, but some people seem to be legitimately unhappy with the primer. And I think I’ve finally figured out why.

The reasons normally given are:
1. that Matt is portraying modern editions of D&D as bad ways of playing the game,
2. that old school play is the only correct way of playing the game, and
3. that only the original three booklets, no supplements, are old school, and everything after that is modern.

This was hammered home in a forum argument I’m currently sucked into, where someone literally said

The popular and previously discussed Primer excludes 2e from it’s definition of what’s “old school”, and arguably excludes everything but OD&D sans supplements.

But I thought, “Wait a minute. Does Matt Finch say that?” I disagree with some minor points in the primer, but I’ve always thought it was fairly laid back. Many of you probably thought the same thing. Does he actually exclude everything except 0e without any supplements?”

Here’s how the primer begins:

This booklet is an introduction to “old school” gaming, designed especially for anyone who started playing fantasy role-playing games after, say, the year 2000 – but it’s also for longer-time players who have slowly shifted over to modern styles of role- playing over the years.

So, right off the bat, he’s making a distinction between games presumably published after the year 2000 and those that weren’t.

He goes on:

If you want to try a one-shot session of 0e using the free Swords & Wizardry rules, just printing the rules and starting to play as you normally do will produce a completely pathetic gaming session – you’ll decide that 0e is just missing all kinds of important rules. What makes 0e different from later games isn’t the rules themselves, it’s how they’re used.

“Pathetic”, here, isn’t a judgment on modern play styles. He’s saying that 0e is expecting you to do something that isn’t written down in the rules, and if you don’t, you will probably be disappointed. The primer is literally an attempt to write that stuff down.

No where in those paragraphs does Matt say “0e is the only old school game”. He’s only claiming that 0e is an old-style game, not the old-style game. He never even says that you can’t play modern games in an old-style way, although for practical reasons, you probably can’t. People would object.

And what about other TSR-era versions of D&D?

I’ve done the searches. I can’t find that he ever mentions any of them. He doesn’t say “AD&D”, “1e”, or “2e”. He doesn’t mention the supplements (Greyhawk, Blackmoor, etc.) by name. He doesn’t even seem to refer to any of these indirectly, or tell you that you can’t use supplements.

He literally names 3e and 4e as “modern” and not “old school” games. He mentions them in a couple places as the kind of games modern gamers might be used to. Again, he never tells you whether you can play those editions in other ways. All he ever talks about is how many people play those games, in contrast to the way people played 0e.

He does give some examples of old style vs. modern style play, which have received some criticism. I’m not going to go into that here, but instead will just point out this quote before the first example:

Note: The modern-style GM in these examples is a pretty boring guy when it comes to adding flavor into his game. This isn’t done to make modern-style gaming look bad: we assume most people reading this booklet regularly play modern-style games and know that they aren’t this boring. It’s done to highlight when and how rules are used in modern gaming, as opposed to when and how they aren’t used in oldstyle gaming. So the modern-style GM talks his way through all the rules he’s using, which isn’t how a good modern-style GM usually runs his game.

(Emphasis added.)

So Matt is telling people these examples are not the way people actually talk when playing these games, but are deliberately designed to emphasize which rules are being used. And none of the three criticisms listed above are supported by a careful reading of the primer.

But I said I think I know why people came to the opposite conclusion. Some people think that if the rules don’t say you can do something, you are forbidden from doing it. Those people are also reading the primer that way. If the primer doesn’t say 1e is old school, then 1e must not be old school, according to Matt Finch. If the primer says playing 0e in a modern style leads to a “pathetic gaming session”, then it is calling the modern style “pathetic”. If the primer says modern games tend to add skills or classes for disarming traps, then any game with a disarm trap skill must be modern. If the primer tells you “rulings, not rules”, then it’s telling you any game with rules is wrong.

And so on. It’s all based on an overly literal interpretation of the primer.

Written with StackEdit.


  1. My only issue with the Primer — which I otherwise like — is that it seems to misrepresent 3e a bit. It's truer of how the online community approached the game and how it changed over the years, but I've always felt it was originally intended to play closer to a late old-school style (definitely closer to 2e or post-UA 1e than OD&D, but a very different beast from 4e). Most of the "zen moments" were not only applicable to 3e, but actually encouraged by that edition! I'll concede that it is guilty of superheroics (I suspect some people at Wizards were Warlock fans), but the core rules weren't too bad

    1. I think there's more to the old school/3e distinction than just the superheroics "zen moment", but I do agree that 3e is closer to old school than 4e. After all, they did market 3e as "back to the dungeon".

      Although the primer talks about two extremes of playstyle, I'm sure Matt Finch would agree that there's a continuum from extreme old school play to extreme modern play, with a lot of points in between. Different editions as written fall at different points along that axis, but can wind up being played different ways. A couple moments in the history of D&D get held up as important turning points in the change from old school to modern, such as Dragonlance and the advent of preprogrammed stories, or 2e and the glut of kits and splatbooks, but critics of the OSR seem to take complaints about those turning points as hard dividing lines defining old school vs. modern, when in reality, very few bloggers or OSR fans are anywhere near as strict.

  2. Well Said! I came away from the Primer with virtually the same opinion. I don't play 0e (I'm a B/X kind of guy), but I still agree with the Primer's general philosophy. People are people, and will find reasons for what they believe regardless of the evidence.

  3. I started playing in 2000, did so for 12 years before I became too dissatisfied with it, and didn't understand why. Reading the Old School Primer made me realize why the game didn't play out like I thought it should and offered a good alternative option that might do it better.

    And I've been very happy with B/X ever since. It did for me what it says it wants to do. That it's not a universal codification for official oldschool gaming rules really doesn't matter.

  4. Aaaaarrrrrrgh! The Primer!

    Actually, this is the first I've heard of it. I just wanted to greet your return to blogging with an appropriate expression of enthusiasm.

    1. Wait, you've never heard of the primer?

      There are a few things I need to do before I am really back to blogging, but I'll try to post a little bit in the meantime.

  5. Some people think that if the rules don’t say you can do something, you are forbidden from doing it. Those people are also reading the primer that way.

    Well, at least they're being consistent.

    The primer isn't saying that you can't have fun with new editions; it's pointing out that the proliferation of official rules serves to limit options on the player's part - and the more I think about it, the more I agree, which is why I've gone from rules-heavy systems to light rules like Searchers Of The Unknown and Microlite.