LQuinze on the Autarch fora asked recently about running old-school games, noting that one does not usually see hex-crawling-style adventures in movies and literature and that a lot of OSR material has many implicit, poorly-documented assumptions. I was going to reply there, but it turned out that there were more links than I felt would be polite in a forum post, so this was going to be a blog post instead. But it got too long for that, too, so now it's going to be a series of posts... I'm going to bold links that I believe are critical to the topic area.
Unpacking Some Important Assumptions:
The Alexandrian has done some great work documenting some of the assumptions of old-school play. His posts Subtle Shifts in Play, Prime Requisites, and the Death of the Wandering Monster are must-reads, and his other Reactions to OD&D and OD&D in the Caverns of Thracia posts are also worthwhile. Subtle Shifts are particularly relevant to ACKS, which wholeheartedly embraces the phase-changes Alexander talks about.
the Prime Requisites post's section on Darwinian Attrition points out
(and as the OD&D in Thracia posts suggest), death is a common part
of the old-school experience and helps balance out the very random stat
distribution. There was an excellent post at Dungeon of Signs which argues that PC death is useful for worldbuilding and that in OSR games, the party as a whole is the main character. Also, death can be fun
and shared danger helps unify the party. Losing a PC is not the end of
the game for a player; try to avoid putting PCs in positions of such
cosmic significance (The Prophecied One!) that the death of a PC means
the end of the game-world, because sometimes these things happen. Do
not point the dice at anything you are not willing to destroy -
therefore if you are going to point the dice at PCs, you (and your
campaign world) must be willing to tolerate the consequences of
occasionally destroying those PCs.
If you are going to
be harsh, you ought also to be fair, where by fair I mean consistent. Autarch and the Judges' Guild prefer the term Judge to DM or GM, and I think this gives the right mindset. I
have in the past put substantial stock in Beyond the Black Gate's take
on referee impartiality and the Western Marches approach,
but am slowly swaying back the other way a little. Still, make as many rolls as
you reasonably can in the open, especially if a PC's life is at stake.
If you're going to kill a PC, it's best to do it By The Book, and to
make sure your players agree that it was legitimately done - either through unambiguous application of the rules, or as an forseeable risk of interacting with something known to be dangerous and outside the rules (artifacts, deities, &c). Avoid succumbing to DM bloodthirst; monsters should do their best to kill (or drive off, capture for ransom,
implant with their eggs, or whatever their objective is) the PCs, but
you as the DM don't need to make much of an effort. Deaths will happen
on their own, and typically PCs bring it on themselves by being too
Next up: Dungeon Design