Monday, March 22, 2010

The Old-School Party

Without a doubt, one of the most often neglected aspects of old-school gaming is the old-school party dynamic.  For many reasons, contemporary players have become accustomed to the modern style of party - a small band of specialized adventurers, each filling a certain role.  Originally, however, the troupe of heroes was a motley band with no rhyme or reason.  There was generally a plethora of fighting-men (because with their superior arms and armour, they actually mattered) and a nonsensical assortment of demi-humans and magicians alike.  This led to each party having a very specific feel and approach to the game world, rather than the de facto "diversified" and "balanced" parties we see nowadays.

One reason for this development has to do with the smaller groups of players that are typical today.  Referees are lucky if they can get four steady players around a table each week, compared to the dozen or more players common to the late night game sessions of the last century.  At the same time gaming groups dwindled, the industry started to redefine the point of roleplaying games.  Instead of the play being the thing (solving puzzles and defeating the referee), the dramatis personae increasingly became the focus of gaming, so that players came to care more about what made their character unique or interesting rather than how they could "win".  Indeed, the idea that roleplaying is not about winning or losing became popularized, which is a bald-faced lie when one looks at the original game - the players lose when they are slain and they win when they reach roughly tenth level.  The effect of each character becoming somehow "special" meant that every player wanted a very unique persona, so that the overlap that made old-school parties interesting quickly vanished.

The latter problem, which I term the "special snowflake" syndrome, is merely a question of philosophy.  In this case, I think the Old School Renaissance is in good hands, as it largely recognizes that playing a role is about imaging what you yourself would do in a given situation, not how some persona would act, and thus focuses much more on the problem solving than on the dramatics.

The former problem, that of the diminished population of players, is not so easy to remedy.  By my own approach, I allow for random multiple starting characters per player:

Starting Companions
Each player starts the campaign with 1d3 characters, and may run them all simultaneously as a small gang of companions.

This sets up the prologue to the story well, gives small groups the reinforcements they need and mitigates persona-centric gaming.  In addition, the variable size allows for a diverse party and different play styles for each player (according to the number of characters she has and classes she chooses).  Later in the campaign, I generally only allow new player characters to be drawn from those non-player characters already established in the game world (the popular bartender, the local duke et cetera).  The exception to this is the rule for relatives.

It is also important not to forget the rules for hirelings.  In Original Dungeons & Dragons, hirelings are simply first level characters that can be permanently recruited for 100 coins (and perhaps some other bauble, depending on class).  They have an additional ability, Loyalty, which changes over time and affects morale checks.  The size of your army of hirelings is ultimately limited by your Charisma, but average characters can have around four mercenaries at a time.  The downside to this, of course, is the cost to keep these henchmen fed and paid, as well as the drain on experience.  Finding the balance of which hirelings you absolutely need is key.


  1. In OD&D there is in fact a distinction between "special" and "ordinary" hirelings (see p. 11 of Men & Magic. The ubiquitous, if relatively undefined, normal man makes up the latter category and does not count against charisma.

  2. Very interesting, I had overlooked that rule! So characters can have an army of mercenaries (who probably only need steady pay and good working conditions) but also can have a small retinue of loyal followers (who probably only need experience and a share in the treasure). I like the division.

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