|Larry Elmore's cover from the 1983 Basic D&D Set|
To understand old games and the way they were played the first odd thing to grasp is a bit of information about the 1980’s - there was no meaningful internet. The Dungeons & Dragons community was limited to the players in one’s immediate community with a little input from the rules and modules, perusal of hobby magazines like Dragon and perhaps attendance at local conventions. For most players and GM’s running early editions of the game there was no one to teach them how to play or how the rules worked except for someone else who’d learned by word of mouth - maybe someone at a hobby shop, or an older more experienced player. Every old Dungeon’s & Dragon’s game is therefore using a set of house rules. The concept of Rules as Written wasn’t especially important and debates over rule inconsistencies were argued out a 1,000 times by 1,000’s of different groups of players with almost no chance of definitive clarification and no authority to appeal to. This atomization combined with the smaller amount of gaming material, lower amount of fantasy cultural references, and less refined rule sets made for a community whose first principle is creativity.
In that spirit, it’s important to understand that it’s your game, players and Game Master together. Any changes you make at your table will be better than what a distant author provides. Better for your game, because you are the people most intimately involved with it and will play for your own enjoyment. Be bold, change things and remember: whatever you do it will be an improvement on what’s provided here or in your rule books.
With that first principle in mind I’m going to discuss some overarching ideas and definitions that will frame future examinations of classic game concept and mechanics.
Locus of Play: When one plays a tabletop roleplaying game there’s some set of activities where the players spend their time, and more importantly where they make the most decisions. This is the locus of play. If during a typical session of play your table spends ⅔ of the time in combat it’s likely the Locus of Play for the game you are playing. I argue that the Locus of Play for classic editions of D&D is exploration - specifically the exploration of adventure locations and a set of ‘minigames’ around discovery and various types of puzzles related to these locations - but that’s a later discussion.
Mechanics: Mechanics is the term I use for rules and systems that determine how play proceeds. This doesn’t only mean the rules as written that directly involve dice rolling or effect and are effected by the numbers on the character sheet but the procedures or order of operations that one does engages in when playing a game. For example, in older games the primary feedback loop between players and GM is the GM describing a location/creature/other object in play, the players interrogating the GM regarding detail and the GM providing details that inform potential player actions until the characters act, the setting intervenes or there are no more available details. This cycle of question and answer is as much a mechanic as rolling a certain die to hit and modifying it will change the way the game is played.
Design Principles: At a level above mechanics are the design principles of a game or setting. Usually aimed at the Game Master or adventure designer, these principles include such decisions as where the locus of play should be: combat, role playing or puzzle solving? Likewise issues like the interaction between risk and reward or the amount of narrative control that players and GM have are a design principle. The main distinction is that design principles are an overarching set of goals that direct the formulation of new mechanics and the application of existing one.
Game Ethos: The ethos of a game is a set of expectations about how players will approach it. Does play revolve around clever articulations, combinations and application of written rules or intuitive solutions that may not be specifically built into the rules and require GM intervention or ad hoc decision making. Do players engage in combat with enemies with the expectation that these combats should be fair challenges or are combats extremely risky and players expected to avoid them or tilt the odds in their favor through extrinsic means such as allies, scouting and trap creation. Game ethos is important and distinct from Mechanics or Design Principle because it describes the players’ expectations and the norms of how they are to interact with the mechanics. For a non-rpg example imagine how badly designed chess would seem to someone who knew how all the pieces moved but had a radically different idea of the goal and expectations of the game - seeking to control as many white squares or advance as many pawns as possible to the rear rank.
Aesthetic: The aesthetic is simply how a game world (and likely the product) looks or feels. A game can have all sorts of aesthetics - the high fantasy aesthetic of Forgotten Realms, or the Swords & Sorcery the permeates earlier additions. Aesthetics are primarily important because they can help players, especially new players, understand the ethos and design principles by reference to the aesthetic genre. For example a high lethality set of principles and mechanics combined with an ethos of discovering character identity through play (a combination I’d argue is at the core of Dungeoncrawls and other styles of classic play) is often easier to accept where the setting aesthetic has elements of horror, grit and hardboiled pulp sensibilities rather than anime pop.
Dungeoncrawl: The term that I prefer for a certain set of design principles and game ethics that were popularized by the earliest editions of Dungeons & Dragons, which focus relatively tightly on the players interactions with and exploration of a mythic underworld (though not necessarily always underground). Out of the original style of dungeoncrawl games which focused on the literal exploration of underground mazes players and GMs have derived a set of principles and ethics that make for a tabletop game somewhat different then more contemporary narrative or scene based play and the dungeoncrawl (alternatively ‘exploration’ or ‘location based’ play/design) has certain advantages in encouraging some types of player choice.