There is a bumper crop of Old School games available. Some are rebuilding the 1E / 0E rules based on the OGL. Others are re-imaginings. And others sit somewhere in between. This list includes, but is certainly not limited to: Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Dungeon Crawl Classic, Champions of Zed, Barbarians of Lemuria, World of Dungeons and certainly many more. Even the D&D Next, by other people's accounts, is harkening back to the days of yore.
I never played D&D 1E, having started on Star Frontiers, Rolemaster, and D&D 2E. I never had a character who had a cadre of henchman and followers. And none of my characters have made use of the ubiquitous 10 foot pole.
And from the outside looking in, this runs counter to what I believe to have been the Old School game. Characters were disposable “back in the olden days.” They were fragile. You needed meat shields to protect your characters. Yet, even then, a character was a fragile thing. The hyper capable heroes came along later.
The Old School games are about exploration…cautiously advancing through a dungeon. In fact, as I was reading my 0E copy, I found that turns (10 minute increments) were marked off based on the distance moved within a dungeon. And if memory serves 10 minutes passed after the party moved 120 feet. And strangely, that rule blew my mind. I don't know if that rule is in the 2E DMG or not, but I never discovered it when I first started out.
It seems so obvious to track time by distance moved, but it isn't quite as obvious saying that you would move so slowly in 10 minutes. Unless of course you were exploring your surroundings.
These days, I'm looking for a good story to emerge from play. Exploration is clearly one of the means to emergent narratives. To explore requires questions and answers, a constant back and forth for clarity. Each side of the screen engaging each other.
I remember scoffing at the idea that XP was derived from gold pieces earned. In our 2E days, I used to award XP for being on time, killing monsters, and role-playing. It only occurred to me much more recently how elegant a reward system the XP for GP really was.
There is an intrinsic reward in role-playing, defeating monsters, and arriving on time. But by tying advancement to gold, players are rewarded by exploring…by thinking up ways to avoid fighting monsters, which in the Old School are outright lethal, especially if you attempt to fight each room full of monsters.
So I've never played in an Old School game, though several of them sit on my shelf. I'm fascinated by the style of play and the reward mechanism.
Old School games don't have the implicit tyranny of the Tolkien inspired campaign – You know where you start out small and follow this plot arc that culminates in sneaking across the continent and casting the artifact of power into the volcano. That campaign where the GM plans everything in advance and ensures that you play with blinders on.
Because, let's face it, how many of those campaigns have you started? And how many of those have you finished?
The Old School is about getting together for an evening of adventure. One that is self-contained and doesn't require every one to be there. And if your cleric is missing? Find a hireling or two to fill the void for that evenings foray into adventure.