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Definitions of Old School and New School

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I've seen a lot of discussion and argument about the terms "old school" and "new school" and exactly what they mean. Here is the best way to describe old school play vs new school play I've found so far. It's far from prefect, but it seems to get the major ideas across to those I talk to better than anything else I've tried.

Let's say there are two major styles of role playing games. From a player point-of-view, the first (and older) style says "Here is the situation. Pretend you are there as your character, what do you want to do?" This style has been superseded over the years with a style that says "Here is the situation. Based on your character's stats, abilities, skills, etc. as listed on his character sheet and your knowledge of the (often many and detailed) rules of the game, what is the best way to use the game mechanics to solve the situation?" Old school play strongly favors the first style and frowns on too much of the second. If your game tends more to the first than to the second, it's leaning "old school." If your game tends more to the second than the first, it's leaning "new school".

10 comments:
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Peter G said...
May 19, 2010 at 4:15 PM  

I'm wondering if "new school" became an option because the rules allowed it. AD&D didn't have as many rules to tweak or choose options from.

For example, a fighter pretty much used his sword & shield (normally the mechanically best weapon option) to attack; she didn't have the option of a fancy charge followed up with a flurry of blows that gained a bonus for having charged the previous round.

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Christian Lindke said...
May 19, 2010 at 5:26 PM  

Where do games like Sorcerer and the rest of the indie game movement fall within this paradigm?

I think that your distinction is a good one, as it avoids too much focus on individual "styles of play" rather than the play encouraged by the mechanics/fluff, but it does leave room for many exceptions.

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Joseph said...
May 19, 2010 at 5:27 PM  

I'm not sure I'd agree with the "often many and detailed" parenthetical. There were a ton of games from the 70's and early 80's that would make more modern games blush in terms of complexity; Chivalry and Sorcery comes to mind as perhaps the prime example, but even AD&D itself could be so described.

The recent "old school = minimalist" meme is not entirely accurate, and is, I think, colored by folks' predilections more than reality.

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Randall said...
May 19, 2010 at 5:43 PM  

Christian: I don't really know where many of the indie games would fall on this old school-new school continuum. I'm really not familiar enough with them to say for sure. However, at least some might not be on the scale at all as those few I'm really familiar with seem to have a different goal: to tell a good story. That strikes me as something that really isn't on this old school-new school line at all. Perhaps this is why some call them "story games" instead of roleplaying games?

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Rev. Lazaro said...
May 19, 2010 at 10:55 PM  

Everybody's talkin' bout the new sound, Funny but it's still rock'n'roll to me.

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David Drage said...
May 20, 2010 at 2:16 AM  

As an "old school" gamer, i.e. someone who role-played through the 80's and 90's (still love me some Rolemaster and Call of Cthulhu), I would say your description of "new school" is what we used to call "beardy play" i.e. that guy that always built his characters to most effectively tool up for any situation. More of a mathematical exercise than a roleplaying game.

To me, your description of "new school" has very little to do with actual Role Playing. It is much more in tune with modern computer games wher the player is always looking to the next powerful weapon and easter egg.

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John said...
May 20, 2010 at 5:18 PM  

Hey guys,
I'm not a retro-roleplayer by any means, but I do like mining all the old modules and sourcebooks for creative ideas. How about this definition?

Old school is like riding a single-speed bike. You have to walk up hills on occasion (i.e. come up with rules on the fly or house-rules to customize an otherwise basic rule set).

New school is the latest bike with 21-gears which takes more time to master, but once you do, you don't want to go back to your old bike. You could. After all, your new bike takes you to see the same sights as your old one, but.... it just feels old fashioned now.

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Joseph said...
May 20, 2010 at 8:05 PM  

So, as someone who still plays hex-and-counter wargames, I guess I'm riding a pennyfarthing!

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Randall said...
May 20, 2010 at 8:17 PM  

John: To me it's just the opposite. Old school games feel like the 21-gear bike that you can adjust and tinker with to make it work just how you need whether you are on the plains or in the mountains. Many new school games seem more like one speed bikes, designed to be very good in the terrain they are especially designed for, but if you want to ride in a different terrain you need a different bike to really enjoy the ride -- and riding through multiple terrains on one ride can be very exhausting.

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John said...
May 21, 2010 at 2:39 PM  

Hi Randall and everyone,

Hmmm. I think we're using the same metaphor but seeing something different. Let's go back to the original post. Old school says "Here are 4 classes, 4 races and 6 attributes, create a character and pretend you're in this situation. What do you want to do?"

New school says, "Here are 8 classes, 8 races, 6 attributes, 18 skills and 30 feats, create a character and pretend you're in this situation. What do you want to do?"

That's why I said new school is like a bike with more gears: it's got more stuff, but it's the same game.

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