Wednesday, June 1, 2011

It's not about the textbook, it's about the students

I've been pondering again -- rather pointlessly, I know -- about just what divides "Old School" RPGs from "New School" RPGs.

And once again, I'm coming up with a conclusion that points more to the players than to the rules systems presented in any rulebooks.  Of course, the rules are connected, and can serve to reinforce what the players expect out of the game.  But I feel that what's actually written on the page is a lot less important than how the players (and I suppose I should state here that when I'm using players in this little essay, I'm including Game Masters/Referees) interpret and use those rules.

First off, we can pretty easily say there's no specific 'cut off date' that divides games.  We can't say that everything after 1989 is new school, or everything before 2000 is old school, or anything like that.  The existence of the retro-clone movement has created neo-'old school' games recently.  And some of those games created back in the 70's/80's definitely don't feel like what I personally, at least, consider to be that old school feeling.

Second, it again really falls on D&D's shoulders to be the benchmark by which other games are judged.  It's the first and most popular RPG, and the changes in its various editions show a lot of adaptations of, or reactions against, innovations and player desires in other games.  And those other games are often adaptations of or reactions against the current version of D&D on the market. 

Third, and most importantly from my perspective, is that there are people who can adapt any rules set to suit their preferred style of play (as evidenced by the recent "I'm with D&D...any edition" internet badges out there).   For many players, the real fun of an RPG isn't so much in what rules you're using, it's in that spark of creativity and shared imagination you have when the group you're playing with are all helping feed each other's shared imaginings.  Yes, there are some people who get bogged down in rules minutiae and love the mental challenge of it. 

The real breakdown between Old and New Schools, I'm thinking, is completely based on what the players are expecting out of the game.  And it's got a lot to do with how well a player accepts limits on their character's potential.  This is not about power gaming, but it is about being able to embrace the sub-optimal choice or to embrace the unlimited potential

For Old School players, not every character created needs to be able to achieve the maximum potential for 'power' under the rules.  If you get lucky, you might be able to create Luke Skywalker or Elric of Melnibone, but you're still willing to play as Fatty Bolger or Napoleon Dynamite.  The limits imposed by the game are there to make those powerful characters feel special.  Not every character is supposed to achieve the maximum potential under the game rules.  And finding the best way to play that sub-optimal character is the fun of the game.

For New School players, it's important that any particular character have the potential for the maximum development.  You don't need to get lucky, you just need to make the right choices and you can have that power (eventually).  No one needs to get stuck with an Elmer Fudd unless they purposefully choose to play him.  If you choose, you can be Gandalf.  (With an implication that you'd better play Gandalf, because Elmer Fudd won't be able to pull his weight alongside John Carter, He-Man, and Cloud Strife).

So basically, if the game has 'balanced' classes, or a completely selective skill system, or a group's house rules allow repeat mulligans or for selecting options rather than rolling randomly, that's New School.  If the players take the limits of the game and the results of random character creation and just roll with it, that's Old School.

Feel free to rip this analysis to shreds in the comments.


  1. Yawn...
    You owe me two clicks, one for the one that brought me here and one for the closing of the tab.



  3. I think that's a reasonable analysis. Bonus points for pulling that off without making a value judgement on either style of play. :)

  4. yup. What Christian said. Including the part regarding bonus points. It's hard to summarise such a vague, complex and nebulous as issue as the definitions of old and new school, but you've pretty much hit the nail on the head.

  5. So basically, if the game has 'balanced' classes, or a completely selective skill system, or a group's house rules allow repeat mulligans or for selecting options rather than rolling randomly, that's New School.

    Weird West has these things, yet is generally considered 'Old School', and is compatible with other OSR games like Swords & Wizardry. :)

  6. @Woodstock--I think I paid my JOESKY for a while in advance here

    Stuart--I still need to take a look at Weird West. But it may in fact prove, under this metric I'm proposing, to be in fact New School.

    AD&D (1E) can be 'New School' if one's house rules include using some UA stat generation method (roll 100d6, pick out the statistically likely 16 or 17 sixes, and then a five or two, arrange to taste...OK, slight exageration here), eliminate demi-human level limits and race/class restrictions, and a few other changes.

    Basically, I'm saying Old or New is more in how we use the game, not in how the game is presented. Just because you allow for mulligans or broad selection of options in the text doesn't mean a group can't put some limits on it. :D

    Course, like I fully admit at the end (and Woodstock, as always loves to point out) I could be full of shit here.

  7. For me old school is the attitude and atmosphere of the gaming session/group. You can run almost any edition or system with an old school feel. Although I do admit that some require a bit more tweaking than others. The people playing are more important than the rules. Plus it depends on what you consider old school. If you and your group played a very tactical miniatures oriented game then AD&D 4e would feel old school. For me a more free form game with no minis and hand drawn maps is "old school". It is completely subjective.

  8. A quite interesting post! This would make the new Gamma World "old school" - something I tend to agree with.

    Also, what Geek Gazette said :)

  9. I don't really agree that random chargen = old school, and non-random chargen = new school. New Gamma World (D&D 4e variant) doesn't fit with what I think of when I talk about old school games. Adding random chargen to 4e and non-random to OD&D doesn't switch the old/new schoolness.

    This is how you know something is old school. :)

  10. @Stuart -- I'm not convinced it's all about the char-gen, either. That's just one example. What I'm trying to say is that it's more about player expectation of that char-gen process, and other rules of the game. If you make a character, and think "There are 9th level spells, I WILL cast them some day" then that's a new school attitude. If you make a character and think, "I hope this guy will be able to cast 9th level spells some day" then it's an old school attitude.

    Does that make sense?

    And, Who wants a body massage? Love those Fensler films.

  11. In other words, what Geek Gazette said. I need to work on succinctness.

  12. LG: Am I correct in stating, based on your post, that 'Old School' play begins in the minds of the players, and not the DM?

  13. The minds of the whole group (or at least the majority, including the DM). If the DM's new school but the players are old school or vice versa, I'm guessing things will break down quickly, or else one side is gonna have to compromise and adopt the other play style.

  14. To some extent I agree, Den. Player mindset dictates how they will approach the text. However, mechanics is important because it can facilitate a variety of play-styles, giving some an advantage over others.

    I dislike the term "New School" because ever since 2nd edition AD&D came out, there have been a growing variety of gaming outlooks and mindsets that approached roleplaying in different ways. "Old School" pretty much approached it with a very specific style of play in mind, and it isn't just found in character generation. It's found in the emphasis on the megadungeon crawl, for example, and the lack of rewarding XP for character development and role-playing, and post hoc storytelling. Character gen is simply one aspect of the gestalt "Old School" mindset.

    Is "New School" the 2nd/3rd edition era emphasis on character development, predesigned storytelling, emphasis on grandiose epic quests and de-emphasis on the megadungeon? Or is "New School" the 3rd/4th edition era emphasis on min-maxing, monsters-exist-to-be-killed, video-gameyness, where all classes can fight and cast magic (de-emphasis on specialization)?

    I agree that mindset dictates approach, but system does matter, in that it facilitates a certain approach. I dislike 4th edition because I feel that it impedes my ability to play the way I want in the milieu that I want to play.