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Old School: A Style of Play or Just Playing Early RPGs?

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Microlite74 lead to an online reunion with one of the players in the college games of D&D I ran in late 1975 and 1976. One of my early players downloaded a copy and was surprised to discover he knew the author long ago. After a few emails catching up on that last 30 years, John got to asking just what is "Old School" really is. He sees it as a style of play, but over the last few weeks of looking at "Old School" web sites he thinks most online "Old School" players see it mainly as playing old, out-of-print games or clones of those games.

Unfortunately (In my opinion, at least), he sees the majority of online "Old School" movement as "a sad attempt to repeat the last half of the 1970s with rehashed games, rehashed articles about variant rules and classes, and even rehashed debates about role-playing versus rolling playing -- just with much higher production values." Please understand that he considers himself "Old School" as his homebrew campaign runs the player-skill, relatively rules-lite, sandbox swords & sorcery style that online "Old School" proponents advocate. He just doesn't run it with old rules. In fact, some of his rules have very modern origins.

My rules incorporate all sorts of "modern" things that online "Old School" proponents would have a hissy fit over given their reactions to things like ascending armor class or spell points. For example, players get narrative control to describe the results of their hits (subject to GM veto, of course). I discovered that borrowing this player narrative idea from story games makes our combats more interesting to newer players who really like 3.x and 4.x tactical slugfests without the complex combat rules that annoy my long-time players and make a 5 minute combat in my game take an hour in D&D3 or D&D4. However, I've been told by a couple of online "Old School" pundit-wannabes that this alone means my game and campaign aren't really "Old School." The impression I get from online "Old School" proponents is that "Old School" means "I'm playing an early version of D&D and playing it by the book." By that definition most of the people playing D&D or AD&D in the 1970s and early 1980s; the time period the "Old School" movement apparently wants to bring back were not really playing "Old School" games.
While I think John's criticism is a bit too harsh and projects the position of some of the extremists in "Old School" movement on the entire movement, I have to admit that I have encountered the attitude he describes far more often than I would like to. And, IMHO, far more often than I think is good for the "Old School" movement. If "Old School" is to ever be anything more than an small fringe of RPG players, it is going to have to accept the idea that "Old School" is a style of play that can be played with many different rules sets, not just old favorites from the early days of the hobby.

What do you think?

Talysman said...
June 20, 2009 at 8:01 PM  

I think it's a valid criticism. Alternative character classes and monsters for old school games are, to some extent, dangerous, because that's what originally led to the new school approach in the first place, with its stat blocks and detailed ability breakdowns. If you don't like new school, why re-invent it?

For me, the point of "old school" is to get back to minimal rulesets and one-line descriptions of items, spells and monsters. I have alternative rules for octaNe (an indie narrativist-style game) which make it superficially D&D, but with the same underlying octaNe approach. No '70s-era rules, all indie/narrativist, but still old school.

The recent suggestion of the term "neoclassic" for retroclones and old school-style rules may help. The original rules are "classic". Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, Spellcraft & Swordplay, and M74 are "neoclassic". Minimalist indie games with a focus on player puzzle-solving and adventure aren't classic or neoclassic, but can still be "old school".

Anonymous said...
June 20, 2009 at 8:36 PM  

I agree with Talysman: Minimal rulesets and one-line descriptions of items, spells, and monsters. And I am also wary of all the optional this class and that ability. I don't want to be trapped in a time loop and relive the past. I've started thinking of old school in terms of affordance. What is it I like about the game and how are the rules or their lack going to support it?

Anonymous said...
June 20, 2009 at 8:39 PM  

On my blog, I talked about affordance and listed the elements I specifically liked when it comes to my particular favorite ruleset.

Spike Page said...
June 20, 2009 at 9:01 PM  

I agree that minimum rules is a big part of what makes any game old-school, but minimal published rules does not have to dictate how you play. For me at least,the house-rules experience is just as important. Leaving game-masters and players the option to house-rule and ad-lib whenever they want is what appeals to me and others I have had this sort of discussion with.

Randall said...
June 20, 2009 at 9:37 PM  


I think that there is something to your affordance
point especially if the players or the GM are expecting something like the rules as written. If they aren't it is less of a problem. However, the rules as written are always going to set up expectations in the minds of players.

I still think it is possibly to play old school style with just about any system if the GM and players are willing to ignore rules that get in the way and house-rule things to work better. To me, this "make the game your own" with house rules is just as important to old school as rules-light and fast-playing. In some cases, the amount of effort this take might be akin to writing a new game from scratch. However, Microlite20 shows that it is possible to boil down even a very complex system like 3.5 to something that could be played old school style with little effort.

Robert Fisher said...
June 20, 2009 at 10:06 PM  

In my opinion, I’ve seen old games run in a style I wouldn’t call “old school”. Heck, to me any “new school” was largely spawned by people, like me, trying to fill in the missing pieces that the books failed to communicate.

I also believe I’ve seen “new school” games played in a largely “old school” style. The bits that the “new school advocates” tout about the new games—these people largely ignore those bits. They play the game much the way they always have...just with the new rules, which they ignore and tweak just as much as gamers always have.

That said, I find doing these things is suboptimal. Choosing rules that are a good fit for your style makes things go smoother.

Well, in the end, I can only speak for myself. I’ve come back to the old games because I didn’t enjoy the way I used to play them, but I discovered people who did enjoy them but played differently than I used to. For me, it’s been about discovering the style that makes the old games fun, and discovering that I really enjoy that style.

Tom said...
June 20, 2009 at 11:05 PM  

The Old school debate is tired and pointless. We might well try to place a definitive definition on "good" or "fun".

If you're enjoying your game, does it really matter whether or not it qualifies for some imaginary distinction?

Sham aka Dave said...
June 20, 2009 at 11:05 PM  

"Old School" is a style of play that can be played with many different rules sets, not just old favorites from the early days of the hobby.

Very true. To me the argument is not one of ascending AC or Spell Points, though. These are nothing more than mechanics. I never understood the rejection of modern, often simpler or more logical means for resolving the same game details. M74 is a good example of streamlined mechanics which address the same game details found in OD&D, but in a more modern method.

I'm all about the concept these days anyway, much more than the actual printed words or tables from 30 years ago.

I think one of the big issues with OD&D is that by nature Referees are going to make that game their own, so much so that it can become not "Old School" to a certain small segment of our gaming brethren. AD&D 1e was no more than Gary's version of doing that very thing.

My own appreciation of OD&D stems from the fact that in order to play the game in the method I enjoy most, I need to remove or change a whole hell of a lot less than I would with later editions.

Norman Harman said...
June 21, 2009 at 2:05 AM  

"with rehashed games, rehashed articles about variant rules and classes, and even rehashed debates about role-playing versus rolling playing"

He's spot on. But that is just the loud part of the Old School Blogosphere. It has nothing to do with people actually playing games or the OSR in general.

Anonymous said...
June 21, 2009 at 5:19 PM  

I firmly believe it's playing style, not rules, that determine whether a particular game is "old school" or not. It's very subjective, but I can imagine new-edition rules being used to play old-school games.

That said, playing new-edition games by the book would make it very difficult, if not impossible, to get a real "old-school" feel because of the cumbersome and complicated ways of doing things.

There's a light freebie game out called Dungeonslayers that, I think, has the potential to capture the old-school vibe perfectly. It uses mostly new-school mechanics, but it's simple, light, and open.

School's out for summer. Go play.

Talysman said...
June 21, 2009 at 7:07 PM  

@kensanata: from your use of the term "affordance", I take it you've read "The Design of Everyday Things"?

On the issue of alternate character classes, I guess I should mention I have no problem with changing the existing classes or even writing the info down for others to use. But to me, the best way to do that is, again, short descriptions and off-the-cuff rulings. Too many alternate character classes -- especially the ones that later became official in AD&D -- put too much emphasis on changing hit dice and experience progression or detailing fancy new powers, instead of saying something like "my character is a death-mage. He's like an ordinary magic user, but change all words like 'life' in spell descriptions to 'death'. And he can try to retain a spell in memory after casting it, but he has to make a saving throw vs. death or lose 1d6 constitution."

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