This is the first of the newschool - to - oldschool conversion notes I made recently. I'm talking D&D systems here, not general old-school "theory." This series is about nuts and bolts, with the slight exception of this introductory entry.
Conversions: System Matters
I don't think of conversion as a numerical process; you can't "plug and chug" through a newschool module converting to old school methods, because there's no single old school "rule," and often the method is (and should be) different according to the intended potential results of the situation.
In the next issue I'm going to cover a couple of "climbing" scenarios, but a moment about the general theory, as I see it, of good conversion. The point of conversion is to take a good adventure idea, and the structure of the adventure, and then adapt the details to fit the strengths of the new system, avoiding its weaknesses. In other words, writing to the system instead of the numbers. System matters, numbers don't.
Method: Discrete Challenges
In general, I'm writing at one of the possible micro-levels of conversion, breaking an adventure down into discrete particles of "challenges." It might be a mapping challenge, combat challenge, climbing challenge, swimming challenge, etc. Most adventures are composed of a series of such challenges, no matter what they might look like from the outside. Indeed, part of good adventure writing is to conceal this fact by blending the challenges together, describing them in non-numerical terms, and other tricks that conceal the squares of the players' decision tree.
There are essentially two "pure" sorts of challenges, plus the hybrid situation where they are mixed (which is the most common form in both new and old school gaming). The pure forms are (1) challenge to the character sheet, and (2) challenge to player (PLAYER) skill.
All challenges have, or should have, a set of possible results that can affect the party's success and capabilities down the road. Otherwise it's pointless unless it's a self-contained potential source of experience points, and even there it affects party capabilities, just not in the short term and on a different level of the game.
General Strengths of Old-School: the conversion's sweet-spot target
The general strength of old school systems is that you can pose challenges to the players themselves (puzzles with no default to a dice roll being the clearest case) without having the test of skill be sidetracked or constrained by pre-existing rules or elements of character generation. In many new-school games, players invest lots of time in pre-planning for what they may face, and picking skills accordingly. Bypassing those skill rules is slightly unfair to the players, since it's hardwired into the game. On the other hand in old school gaming there's no constraint about the structure of player-challenge puzzles. It's structured however the GM/DM wants to structure it.
Lack of pre-set form for a player-challenge puzzle is a strength of old-school systems. For one thing, it's a hell of a lot easier to WRITE them. It's hard enough to think up cool mental challenges without also having to structure them with lots of possible skills that might bypass the thinking. "OOps, I forgot that Knowledge (linguistics) can let them read this ancient warning without using the book from Area 7." Stuff like that.
Variation of Method
Some people complain that old-school systems aren't streamlined with single-resolution methods. I think this is a strength, in that it provides variety. Providing a variety of resolution methods, games-within-games, etc. is one of the sweet-spots to work towards. Things don't always work the same way, they conform to a specific situation. That's a strength, it keeps people on their toes, which means it keeps them excited.
So the goals, in looking at discrete challenge situations, are to: (a) write toward challenging the players, with less emphasis on using the elements of a character sheet. In most cases, since these are almost all hybrids of player vs. character sheet challenges, the character sheet is still going to come into play on each one; (b) include a variety of methods for resolving the parts of a challenge that challenge the character sheet. Blending them with player skill in different ways, which is possible when you have different resolution methods. I know this probably sounds densely theoretical, but the next issues should hopefully make it a lot clearer when it's reduced to the mechanical engineering rather than the physics.