GM Advice: Want To Try Something New? Try Something Old!
Game Masters! Let us make one thing very clear; we work very hard. Even when we cut corners, roll randomly, and have our hooks all in a row, the work we do behind the screen is still sizable. Still, we put out the best games we can with a smile on our faces, a song in our hearts, and a tiny glint of evil in our eyes.
"Roll for initiative."
Sometimes we make things a little more complicated for ourselves. We see all the other GMs running games with core races and classes, keeping things by the book and we get restless. We get aggravated. Worst of all, we get bored. How can those players find any kind of enjoyment from such boring settings and boring races? So sometimes we take it upon ourselves to go back to the drawing board and reinvent the wheel.
"Keep rollin', rollin', rollin' rollin'."
We want new settings, new races, new this, new that. Until finally we are left with something almost entirely unlike the original game we intended to play. We've removed the core races and replaced them with brand new ones. We have altered and gestalted each class, we've replaced the magic system with one of our own devising, overhauled hit points and experience points, added a few mechanics, set it on a flat floating rock world hovering over the abyss, and completely done away anything vaguely resembling the original system.
And then we run it, and it lasts... maybe three sessions? The players become frustrated because they wanted to play the game that was in the player's handbook instead of... whatever the hell this is. The Game Master is frustrated because they wanted to run something new, original, and never before seen, so they put a butt-load of work into the campaign, only to watch it fall apart.
A lot of GMs try to do something new. They try to make their mark with something different, and while occasionally it takes hold, most of the time it falls flat on its face with players mildly interested in what's going on and humoring their Game Master for fear of hurting their feelings. It can be a trap that starts as a noble pursuit to give your players something they've never experienced before.
I blame Eberron. It was well written, an original idea, and masterfully executed, but it put the idea in a lot of heads that GMs could go off in a wacky direction and it would work out. I'm not saying GMs shouldn't try to mix things up, but these days it becomes such a constant parade to distance themselves from the source material, it seems like it would make more sense to try different systems. All of this for the pursuit fo something new.
"A new campaign is born every three minutes. Sadly"
Well, sometimes new is overdone, and it can get old. Really old, really fast. However, if you are looking for something new to add to your game, might I suggest something that is already old? Something old enough to be considered new?
I will confess that I did not get into tabletop role-playing until the advent of Dungeons & Dragons 3.5. That was the basis from which everything I know has grown. Luckily, however, I was also a massive comic book nerd, so I knew full well that, if you want a better appreciation for what you are reading now, you have to go back and read "the classics".
For me, those classics were The Tomb of Horrors, The Village of Homelet (and the immortal Temple of Elemental Evil), Against The Giants, Castle Greyhawk, Castle Ravenloft, Castle Amber (Wow, they had a thing for castles), and Vecna Lives.
"Is it me, or has Lloth gotten hotter... I mean, she's still a scary spider lady, but now she is a hot scary spider lady... I have a lot of confused feelings about this..."
To be quite honest, I have found more inspiration from older modules than I have from newer ones, and the elements I have taken (or stolen I guess is the more accurate word) from these classics have been the most well-received among my players. They love the dynamics set forth in things like the Keep On The Borderlands.
But why? Why do these dusty old adventures have anything to offer in today's adrenaline-fueled landscape of epic quests and God Of War-style encounters?
The Scale Is Intimate
Too often today, GMs are concerned with presenting their players with apocalyptic, world-ending scenarios, where reality itself can be in jeopardy. And while that is all well and good, it happens with a startling amount of frequency. It seems that every plot results in keeping the whole world safe from certain doom. This much armageddon on a regular basis can become a bit of a running joke. Just look at Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
"Silly world. Stop trying to end."
But the old games, aside from a few notable exceptions, keep the threat more localized. Often it's a town, kingdom, or region that needs saving (if it gets that large scale at all). It is exciting in its own simplicity. The smaller scale threats can be infinitely more intimate. Look at Matt Mercer's Critical Role. The number of threats that the brave souls of Voxx Machina have faced is many, but the number of world-ending threats? Zero, by my count. When the threat is small, the characters can relate more to the villain and the situation. You can always go big later, but keep it simple, and keep it fun.
If there is one thing that can be said about classic modules, it is that they have withstood the test of time. Players are still delving into the Caves of Chaos all these decades later. That is because there is something appealing about them. Something tangible but undefined. Old School players remember the games with fondness. It may be nostalgia, whisking them back to a magical time, or just something on their bucket list they hadn't gotten to yet.
For new players, everything is new. They've never heard of Homlet, or Greyhawk, or Acererak. They get to experience something that millions of others have experienced, and for them, it is brand new. They'll form memories withing those darkened halls and years later, those that rise as Game Master will want to run those adventures for their group.
The classics endure. They transcend time and preference. If you are playing Pathfinder or D&D, they fit anywhere, which brings me to my next point...
You Can Use Them To Fit Your World
So you have your own world. Awesome. The classics (more so than modern modules set in specific campaign settings), can be set in any world of your choosing. Homlet can just as easily be a village a week's ride from Waterdeep, Sharn, or Magnimar. The Tomb of Horrors can be transplanted anywhere.
The adventures are just generic enough that you can adapt them to your story. Perhaps your characters are looking to acquire the great McGuffin, forged in mount McGuffin out of pure Mcguffinnite (thank you GM That Guy), and the current home of said McGuffin is in The White Plume Mountain. Maybe it has a different name like "Cloud-Rise Mountain" or "Mt. White Smoke", but the flavor is still the same.
Sometimes Your Players Just Want To Be Old School: One holy grail I have always sought as a player was to play in an old-school-style game. Don't get me wrong, I love Pathfinder and the new D&D 5E, but I really dig the feel and dynamic of games run like they were in days undreamed of when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas.
"I think we all know what's best in life."
I am not the only player that feels this way, either. Whenever I pitch such ideas to other folks the response is usually "LET'S PLAY THAT!"
I am also not the only one that sees this. If you even take a fleeting glance at Wizards of the Coast's release schedule these days, it seems they are embracing that old-school feel. With revamps of Ravenloft (Curse of Strahd) and the Temple of Elemental Evil (Princes of the Apocolypse), and with Storm King's Thunder feeling more and more like a spiritual successor to Against The Giants, the big boys are loving the old ways, and the players are digging it too.
"We're going to need a bigger boat."
So sure, you could jive with the new-fangled worlds with new-fangled rules and new fangled classes, or you could bite the bullet and run something from the 70's, 80's or even 90's. But don't be surprised if you actually start to like it.
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Roll well, my friends,
+Ed The Bard
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