Old-School Dungeon Fantasy

When I think about working creatively, I’ve realised that I do this best when I begin to talk out loud to another person, or at least to talk to an imagined person.

This has been my process through most of my life, beginning back when I was in Middle School and would talk out loud (ostensibly to myself, but in my mind to an unseen listener) while working on my gaming stuff at home.

I think this is why writing a blog and especially recording a podcast episode has proven so rich for me. I get to work out my ideas in a live drafting process that is reinforced by sharing it online. At some level, while I might be trying to convince myself that I am doing this for other people, the reality is that I am doing it at least as much for me.

This morning is no different except that, as I sit down at the beginning of a period of school holidays, I am asking myself what I intend to do with the time that I have. While there is undoubtedly work to be caught up on, this is being scheduled into the latter part of the week to allow myself time to be creative.

The project that I have been talking about doing but failing to get started on is the one about taking GURPS – my favourite roleplaying game – and stripping it right down so that I can provide for myself a workable set of rules for playing an Old-School dungeon game. To be fair, I think that the most likely vehicle for such a game would be to base it on the Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game because much of the customisation work has already been done.

I’ve been wanting to find a pathway towards running an Open Table megadungeon game for so long that I had begun to believe it would never happen. The problem, of course, is that while I think about these projects a great deal, there is a huge chasm between thinking and doing. It’s part of the pattern of thought which fuels my anxiety that I will think and think… never quite getting around to doing.

This project needs a blend of straight-forward GURPS selection work and the creation of a workable series of processes – a system – for running a dungeon game in an Old-School manner. I am going to begin by defining what I mean by the Old-School manner that I am trying to emulate. From there, I can make some choices and draw together the resources I need. I can choose an Old-School megadungeon to play with and I can begin to create a prep habit that will ultimately help me get things to the table.

Going back to 1974 for my primary inspiration, I am set to explore the original Dungeons & Dragons formula and build my new game based on the framework outlined therein. I’m also going to refer to, “A Quick Primer For Old-School Gaming” written by Matt Finch in 2008. It’s a great touchstone and was the basis for my recent episode, “Uncomfortably Old-School” released on the podcast. It’s with this latter publication – alongside the reality that OD&D never had much pretense to uphold it – that I invoke Finch’s Fourth Zen Moment and immediately alienate most of the GURPS community: “Forget Game Balance”.

Decision number one is simple: I am going to help players to largely ignore Character Points for character creation, relegating points to being the replacement currency for “Experience Points,” useful for improving a character during play. The character building that is the accepted norm of GURPS Fourth Edition is the single largest barrier to entering GURPS play for the neophyte. I’m going to point to GURPS Third Edition’s Random Character Generation rules as my justification, alongside the assertion that a big part of what makes OD&D entertaining is randomly rolling up your character.

Decision number two is related: referring to “Rulings, Not Rules,” Finch asserts that:

“Rules are a resource for the referee, not for the players. Players use observation and description as their tools and resources: rules are for the referee only.”

A Quick Primer For Old School Gaming, page 2

I will sit this alongside the classic Eisen’s Vow which states that, “I will not permit the players (people who do not know about D&D yet) to discover the rules.” In other words, I’m going to invite players to engage with the World of the game rather than the rules of GURPS. As much as possible, I am seeking to minimise player contact with the rules. They will roll dice and play the game, but the focus is to be on the fantastic mazey dungeons and not the rule books.

Game on!


  1. Randomly roll characters also could mean faster generation which can lead to a more “expendable” char… I mean if you need 5 hours to create a pc it is normal if the player gets angry when the char dies in the first 10mins for a bad roll.
    I will start soon a small gurps campaign to try the system/learn the rules and the time required for char creation is making me think to “pull my blows”.
    I’m also not a fan of “game balance”, as a player part of what drow me to the old school game is “make the best out of the worst situation”, something that require lateral thinking without the need to know the rules


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