You have received notice that the great sorcerer, Wolfgang Constantine, your patron and friend, has died in mysterious circumstances. The missive further indicates that you were included in the wizard’s will, and as such have been bequeathed a part of the Blackwater Falls estate.
So began one of the most successful RPG campaigns that I have participated in. This was in the late 90s. Some friends and I were tired of campaigns that did not last, so we wanted to put something together that would require a very small upfront investment in preparation, and would not require extensive referee work from any one person.
The principles of the game were as follows:
- Your character must have a relation to the archmage Wolfgang Constantine (this would also provide an easy way to introduce new characters as needed, since not all of the inheritors had been located)
- Referee duties would be rotated
- Multiple characters were allowed, but we had to pick only one to play at the beginning of each session (this also meant that we didn’t have to wait for one set of characters to get back before starting another adventure, particularly if different players were involved)
- Referees were not to use important NPCs created by others (this was to allow recurring villains and sub-plots)
- The world map began mostly unspecified and would be elaborated as needed over the course of play (it started as a college of wizardry, a town, and the Blackwater Falls mansion)
- The mansion itself, built into a cliff of black stone over which tumbled a waterfall, was huge and unexplored; no one knew how big it actually was, or what purpose it served
- In addition to the exploration of the mansion and its catacombs, the PCs would have to deal with tax and debt collectors coming after the great wizard’s heirs (Constantine was a big spender, but everyone was afraid to try to collect from him, since he was such a powerful and feared wizard)
- PCs must start and end every session at the mansion (if at all possible)
We called this a “house” game, since the PCs started and ended every session at the Blackwater Falls mansion. At the time we attributed the campaign’s ultimate success mostly to the idea of referee rotation and the “house” concept (which we borrowed from some older White Wolf gamers, though I don’t know if the term was in general use). Looking back on this now, though, I think that the real reason the campaign worked was that we had unwittingly stumbled upon many of the principles of old school gaming. The lack of initial setting specification. The megadungeon (in the mansion). The lack of too much pre-planned plot (mostly due to the rotating referee duties). In other words, we started with only the principles of what would make a successful RPG, and we ended up with old school D&D (the rules for adjudicating success and failure were different, but the way we played the game was remarkably similar). The only major principle we were missing was the use of random tables. The focus on treasure was even there, since all the characters started out poor, but needed to accumulate funds to pay off Constantine’s debts.
The game started using AD&D 2E rules (with some modifications to support a pseudo-Victorian and steampunk setting), but after some play was transitioned to a generic homebrew skill system based roughly on White Wolf games (after all, back then the smart kids were playing Vampire and Mage, not D&D). But the rules were mostly immaterial. It was the sense of exploration, at least for me, that made the game work.
That’s what makes the OSR so fascinating to me, getting back into this hobby. I’m currently running a 4E game (3 sessions in), more or less because that is the system my coworkers expect. I hope to make use of some of the old school ways though. In fact, I partly see this blog as an investigation into the following question: can an old school sandbox game be run effectively using a modern ruleset? I am greatly inspired by the empirical style of James Maliszewski’s Dwimmermount campaign. My experience so far is that combat is slow, clunky, and does not lend itself well to creativity and imagination. But I don’t yet consider this to be a fair appraisal, because I am still learning the rules (as the referee), and we are playing with at least one player who has never played any tabletop RPG before.