Hell, I’ve been running D&D since before it was published.  I’m not “old school,” I’m PRESCHOOL!


Yes, Virginia, there are really very substantial differences between Original Dungeons & Dragons (OD&D) and later editions.  There are also differences in the way I run D&D, no matter what the edition.

First – YOU MUST BE SELF MOTIVATING.  In October of 1972, Rob Kuntz introduced me to what would become OD&D by saying “Gary’s got this neat new game called Greyhawk.  You’re a bunch of guys exploring an old abandoned wizard’s castle full of monsters and treasure and stuff.”

That’s it.  No quests to rescue the princess, no magical doohickey to throw into the Zazu Pitts of Fordor, no mysterious strangers meeting you in an inn.  We were in a game to explore, and we did.  We explored a lot of the dungeon.  Then we wondered “What’s over on the other side of those hills,” and we started doing outdoor adventures.

Our characters were entirely self-directing.  Yours will need to be as well.

Second – YOU ARE A TEAM.  The game is not all about how wonderful your character is.  You are part of a team and fulfill your role in that team.  These roles, in this world and in these rules, are derived from the traditional composition of medieval armies; heavy troops hold the line, light troops flank, and missile troops fire from a safe vantage because if they get meleed they’re dead.  The magic users have heavy firepower and can easily dispose of a threat much faster than the fighters can; but if the fighters don’t protect the magic users, the magic users are going to be useless.  Similarly, the magic users represent too valuable a resource to allow to go to waste for the fighters.

It’s not all about you, singular; it’s about you, plural.

Third – GET YOUR SHIT TOGETHER!  This game is run in a very simulation-heavy way.  For instance, if the players get into an argument and start shouting, it means that the player characters are standing deep in some monster-filled dungeon screaming at the top of their lungs, drawing wandering monsters by the dozen.  Have a leader.  FOLLOW that leader.  If you’re the leader, LEAD.  Make decisions.  When the players discuss things, do so quietly in short, high content sentences.  The game is a game of exploration to find treasure; to explore, you have to MOVE.

We have only a few hours to play; make the most of it.

Fourth – COMBAT IS DANGEROUS.  You’ll have to fight, but like any army, make the conditions as favorable as you can.  If your attitude to combat is “We’re the player characters!  CHARGE!” you’d better bring plenty of paper, because you’ll be rolling up a lot of new characters.  In real life, flanking wins battles, it’s not just a “nice little sweetie.”  OD&D doesn’t have explicit flanking rules, so I made my own.  I’m not going to go into great detail, but I am going to say that, just like real life, flanking wins battles.  And flanking does not have to be the modern lame-ass “two figures opposite each other” bullshit.  If you hit an enemy in the flank, it’s flanked.  And hitting them in the back is far more powerful than flanking.

Of course, the same applies to you.  Do be careful, won’t you?

Likewise, close order is your friend.  Three humans fill up a ten foot corridor.  Fewer than that, and the monsters can get past you to the soft, chewy, unarmored magic users behind you.  Also, spears can strike from the second rank.  Isn’t that lovely?

Fifth – THIS IS MY WORLD.  I am the absolute unquestioned demiurge of this imaginary world.  It works exactly and precisely the way I say it does, and nobody else has any say in this at all.  This is important because my vision of my world forms the basis for all rulings I make.  And there will be far, far more rulings than rules in this game.  I can be reasoned with on the basis of logic, historical precedent, or common sense, but “appeal to the rules” will get you nowhere.

Sixth – DESCRIPTION, NOT DICE ROLLS.  You don’t roll “observation” to look around, you tell me what you’re doing and how.  This subject is covered very well in Matt Finch’s “Quick Primer for Old School Gaming.”  You should definitely read this, and you can find it for free at

Read it.  You’ll be glad you did.

Seventh — REACTION AND MORALE.  Not every creature you encounter is necessarily hostile, and not every fight has to be to the death.  Negotiation can be a lifesaver, and so can intimidation.  Back “in the day” most of us were Neutral and learned the alignment languages of Law and Chaos, just to maximize our chances of getting out of a tight squeeze with minimum bloodshed.  Remember, wandering monsters have no treasure and treasure is where the XP is, so don’t fight wandering monsters if you can possibly avoid it!

EIGHTH — WHO FIGHTS AND RUNS AWAY.  Don’t be afraid to withdraw from an unfavorable situation.  Spiking the door behind you can buy you the time you need to escape.  Also, don’t be afraid to say “We’re torn up, let’s go back to town to heal and come back.”

16 thoughts on “GRONAN’S GUIDE TO GAMING

  1. Scott Anderson says:

    You did a good job of explaining what we love about the older style of play. I would quibble with point 3, but I can go either way on that. The rest of it is base minimum stuff.

  2. Erik says:

    Mike, I loved your writeup here and shared it with my local group. To my amazement and disappointment, it has resulted in controversy! I’ve been trying to recreate early formative experiences with the game and find that I’m reaching at smoke. I’m finding that many players won’t tolerate the parameters of the old game.

  3. Erik says:

    Thanks, Mike. At the risk of being less interesting than at first blush, I’ll expand.

    I’m actually just back into gaming over the last couple of years after almost 25 years of inactivity. Seeking out that old feel has been trial and error, as all I have are faint memories of deadly dungeons from the early 80’s. I certainly recognize this is “late to the game” to such as yourself who played so heavily in the 70’s, but I hope my perspective has some merit.

    Initially, I thought I’d want only older, mature players in order to generate that old feel, but was pleasantly surprised by the fresh perspectives brought to the table by some rookie millennials filling out our group. Maybe it was a bit Monty Haul at first as they enjoyed early success, but as I turned down the screws and turned back the clock, they turned against me. I’ll try to relate it to your 8 points…

    1-I’d broken them in with some mission-specific adventures with clear-ish goals and such, but as I introduced them to the mega-dungeon, they kept saying “why are we here?” I returned their gaze with “I don’t know, why ARE you here?” It might also have something to do with them getting their asses kicked repeatedly by shrewd Kobolds, but I was a bit shocked that they didn’t seem to know what to do if I didn’t point them somewhere.

    2,3 & 4- Conversely, they seem stuck on their individual agency and reject the idea of following a leader or playing “team-first” in spite of the success it can bring. Nobody wants to be told to do anything so the most qualified leader stays quiet. They want to keep screwing around talking their options into the ground and seem to think I’m just being an old meanie by ushering in the wandering monsters. How indignant they were that enemies defended their homes so assiduously. How dare they not lay down for the charges from the “stars of the show?”

    5-This is where I think I’m running into an “I don’t have to stand for this” attitude with the younger players. I strive to be fair and reasonable, but if they don’t get their way…they may not show the next week. That might be the most aggravating part of this experience, where they keep you hanging until the last minute and act as though it’s no big deal when they glibly cancel. Not a lot of respect for the hours put into preparing this buffet for them.

    7,8-I guess I’ve run on long enough, but how disappointing to put in thought and preparation only to have these players investing so little of themselves in the scenario. Visualize! What WOULD you do? How satisfying to succeed with brains over brawn, and dialogue over dice.

    I hope this isn’t too rambling. Wish I’d met you at Garycon when I went a couple of years ago. I wonder if you’ll go to North Texas this June?

    Thank you for your interest, and for being interesting!

    • Erik,

      That matches a lot of my experiences. Though I did have one younger player say “I don’t know HOW to look for adventure on my own!”

      And older players are indeed some of the worst.

      How have I coped? What would I do?

      I’d say “Screw this,” that’s what I would do, and did.

      I’m done running D&D at cons.

  4. Griff says:

    I can’t love this post enough.

    I often joke about Killer DM’s. What I really mean is that as a DM, you have to be willing to kill PC’s based on die rolls in order to be FAIR. It’s hard to watch people get all butt hurt, but if it happens a lot, they get used to it.

    And then if you’re with friends, you find ways to get a person back in the game: Ok, you are the hobbit’s donkey.

    I am?

    Yeah, you are actually a gargoyle that was bitten by a were-donkey, but no one else knows this yet.

    Back when I began, the reason we all loved the game was because it had risk in less than equal measure to reward. The house always won, but you could find solutions to problems by being creative during play. Ask questions – understand better – find a new answer – live another day.

    Wow, you got to 2nd level. OMG 3rd level? 6th level – God Like!

    I tried playing a newer system a few years ago. I got bored. It was beyond clear to me the everything in the game was NERF’ed in favor of the players. Combat was run like an easy war game for us players. What is worse is that all the interactive portions got sucked out of the game through skills and other freebie checks. i.e. I roll the die and open the chest, gimmie the treasure.

    NO no no – by the dim light of your torch you see a wooden chest pushed up against the far wall, what do you want to do?

    What your blog post describes is exactly the game I want to be a player in. Don’t stop running games at Cons; without people like you who know the old ways, the essence of the game will become lost.

    A great part of the need for people like you, is that no one runs the old systems much anymore. After OD&D, all other games slowly progressed to the happy padded world of NERF that people call RPG’s these days.

    I recently turned back to using the LBB’s because I finally realized that as simple as it is, it is a purely immersive experience like no other.

    While most of the gaming community may not be aware of it, we need people like you, Michael.

    • I appreciate your kind words. However, the fact is that each year’s game at GaryCon is worst than the previous. This year was a complete, total, unmitigated clusterfuck, complete with one old asshole growling “I paid money to come here and have fun!”

      Yeah, well, I’m not getting paid either. I’d rather spend my time in the Legends of Wargaming room either running or playing miniatures.

      Not gaming is better than bad gaming.

      • Jonathan Becker says:

        I’ve read back through your blog, but didn’t see any notes on the last GaryCon you attended (nor the one prior) other than this comment. Would you care to write about it and why it’s caused you to swear off running D&D at cons?

        Thank you for sharing your thoughts.


    3 years ago, they had a treasure map. They even figured out the Greek letters spelled “jewel,” and deduced that the treasure was jewels. About two hours in, somebody said they’d heard I had a McDonald’s on the seventh level and was it true. I said yes, and they all decided they’d rather go to McDonald’s. No, they didnt get there.

    2 years ago, it took them two hours to go down a set of stairs, 100 feet down a corridor, and turn around and go back to the stairs.

    Last year, despite being TOLD not to stand around and argue in a dungeon, one stupid bastard insisted on arguing down in the dungeon, despite the REFEREE telling him not to, and got the party TPKed three times.

    I’m tired of finishing up GaryCon games and thinking “That’s four hours of my life I’m never getting back.”

    The miniatures gaming in “Legends of Wargaming” on the other hand, is wonderful.

    • Jonathan Becker says:

      I appreciate you taking the time to answer. Thank you.

      My follow up question (which I will try to be delicate in asking): do you have a thought on why these games went the way they did? I infer that you feel this was an issue with the players (“user error”), and I want to check-in that I am reading that inference correctly. But if so, why do you think the issue is occurring? A problem of age? Of maturity? A lack of shared expectation? A failing of “education” (on how to play the game)? A need for mentoring? A system failing?

      I haven’t been to GaryCon. The last Con I went to (last year, in Seattle), I played in four D&D games, all slightly different, all based on older editions of the game. At the end of the first day I found myself feeling a real sense of ennui…like, “I’m too old for this shit. It isn’t fun any more.” And that was in games when we had gotten along with each other, accomplished our objectives, and (more-or-less) “succeeded” and “had fun.” The second day was a little better…despite one of the players at the table being a dick-weed…but still less than stellar. In sixteen hours of gaming, I felt like I’d gotten three or four good hours.

      And this was with players/DMs my age, with my expectations, playing systems I (we) wanted to play, and generally being all “on the same page.”

      I thought, at first, that perhaps I simply disliked the way the DMs had been running the games, or that (perhaps) I have grown beyond wanting to be a player, and that maybe I would have felt better in the DM’s seat. But reading your account…which seems to have gone off far worse than MY particular experience…I’m not so sure. Maybe I would experience the same frustration that you experienced. Maybe I, too, would have been ready to throw up my hands and stick and skip the role-playing tables.

      Thanks again.

  6. Skerples says:

    Hello Mr. Monard,

    I’ve been trying to contact you regarding a bestiary project I’m working on. I’d like to quote include your “Up in the Air Junior Birdmen” story (here: in its entirety as part of a section on alternative uses for Hit Dice.

    If you’d like to discuss the idea, my email address is coinsandscrolls [at] gmail [dot] com.

    Hope you are well. Thanks for all the stories over the years.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s