Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Old School and New School: Foolish Consistencies

I’ve looked at skills in the old Traveller rules previously, but when my son decided to get heavy into creating starships with the High Guard rules, I was struck by these rules for the Zero-G combat skill:

Throw 10+ on two dice to avoid losing control. Allow the following DMs: Firing a weapon, -4. Firing a low recoil weapon (snub pistol or laser weapon): -2. Using a handhold, +5. Striking with a blade weapon, fist, polearm, or similar: -6. Wearing vacc suit: +2 per level of vacc suit skill. For each level of zero-G combat expertise: +4. If dexterity 9+, +2. If dexterity of 11+, +4. Using a handhold reduces dexterity (for the purposes of weapon accuracy; not for wounding) by -4.

So, sure… you get different bonuses depending on the weapon and what all you’re doing with it. This is another skill like Forward Observer were you get +4 per skill level. And for one final curve ball, the attribute bonuses for Dexterity come in at both the +2 and the +4 level. I don’t think any other skill or subsystem works like that in Traveller.

Now… the New School mindset looks at this and immediately wants to come up with some kind of unified system. It will do so with the conviction that this necessarily improves the game. What’s lost in the translation? Well the old school approach had a priority of actually modeling something. It’s like playing a wargame and getting a result at the table that simply doesn’t make sense and then the entire table unanimously agreeing to play it differently because the dice results and so forth produced a grossly ahistorical result. That whole philosophy is baked right into these Traveller rules.

Now, the New School approach is not always bad. Cleaning up the big mess of old school gaming via Melee and Wizard produced a masterpiece of game design. Of course in that case, the original object of getting things right was still a prime objective there. The problem with the New School crops up when that is arbitrarily sacrificed, or worse when it is applied willy nilly without regard to how each subsystem is composed into a whole.

New School designers too often prioritize “clean design” and unified mechanics over and above more important factors. It’s symptomatic of thinking primarily in terms of the rules themselves rather than what they are meant to simulate and/or how they fit in to the overall flow of the game.


16 responses to “Old School and New School: Foolish Consistencies

  1. morrisonmp June 21, 2016 at 10:03 am

    While I understand where you are coming from, and I enjoy some old school games (big ACKS fan for example)… I think the conversation is a little more nuanced than this. In many ways I see your example as relating to the old simulation vs. abstract mechanics discussions that used to happen around D&D and led to the creation of so many more complicated systems which attempted to model everything. Old School D&D, for example, is still pretty abstract.

    When I look at the Traveller passage you posted, I immediately glaze over and think that I don’t really have any incentive to remember all that at the table because I’d much rather just get on with playing rather than modelling each little subsystem with a plethora of modifiers which I have to memorize.

    I think – again, this is just my opinion – that this is less about what is good design and more about (1) what you want out of the design, and (2) how that design accomplishes giving a group the “style” of play they want out of the design. ACKS is – again – a good example of this. While ACKS retains much of the OS style and mechanics, it also streamlines them and most everything can be looked at as a series of modifiers which are effectively a +4, +2, -2, or -4 to something. Or it is a logical progression which is easily modeled on a chart/table.

    With many new-school designs (and I’m going to assume you are talking about D&D style games, not FATE or other Story-game style games) I see a push toward making the design more concise and sacrificing some level of world-modeling in favor of faster play, less cognitive load on the DM, and a desire to focus on outcomes – something like how Champions (and a newer game, Mutants and Masterminds) models powers. It doesn’t matter whether it is a laser or a fireball, the mechanics are separate from the description. And yes, they interact at the level of, “well my guy is immune to fire but still hurt by lasers” but that is secondary to defining a damaging effect in a clear way that makes the game move more smoothly.

    It really does take me back to those old arguments about simulationist play and even then, I was all for smoother play that let me just get on with the game. A personal preference, yes.

    • pcbushi June 21, 2016 at 10:15 am

      ^I agree with this in a manner. It’s definitely useful to have frameworks in place for these kinds of scenarios, and some people are more number-oriented. Again, my tabletop experience is pretty limited, but number-driven sequences (like some combats) were always my least-favorite the roleplaying experience. I get the eye-glaze when looking at modifier tables and reading about all kinds of check this-number-vs-that-number rules.

    • ckubasik June 21, 2016 at 10:45 am

      While I see the value of the kind of design describe above (though I’ve played them in games like Burning Wheel, In A Wicked Age…, Apocalypse World and the newer style games, not ACKS) there’s one thing that I love about the Traveller system Jeffro describes above:

      To get the Throw you *need* to describe the specifics of what the characters are doing. In lots of game systems, a skill is something a player can pull off a character sheet and make a roll without building the details of the fictional situation or environment. In the Traveller system, everyone the table is paying attention to things like, “Is he holding onto anything while he shoots the shotgun as the guy floating toward him?”

      I like these kind of details that get built up as the scene and the moment are played out. The accretion of these details is, I think, the value and focus of the CT system. It isn’t about remembering all the DMs. They can, after all, be created on the fly (as the rules themselves state). What matters is the accumulation of details as the players thing, “Okay, what can I do to get a better mod? How can I avoid a -DM?” These specifics paint pictures of the situation — concrete images of details — that I think make moments memorable.

      The adjustment of DMs matter in the game because of the 2D6 roll. Every point up or down really matters. So if the PC is firing a shotgun, he has to make decision, for example: Take the shot without a handhold (better odds of hitting, worse odds of staying in control), or grab a handhold (worse odds of hitting, but less chance he’ll end up drifting away into space…)

      Again, I get the appeal of the streamlined system. But I’ve noticed these gritty little choices and details get lost.

  2. lewpuls June 21, 2016 at 12:31 pm

    So is the fundamental divide between Old and New schools, the divide between those who want games to model something, and those who are happy with collections of mechanics, (abstract) games (including most Euros, that aren’t really about what they purport to be about)?

    Yet a modeler can certainly be in favor of the simplest solutions, not complex ones. “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

    • ckubasik June 21, 2016 at 3:34 pm

      That’s not what I would say.

      In the “Quick Primer for Old School Gaming” by Mathew J. Finch, the second section is titled:
      “Player Skill, not Character Abilities”

      That’s the crux… for me at least.

      I’d say that Classic Traveller put the emphasis on Player Skill to sort things out, while later systems often let the abilities of a PC solve problems for them.

      I think you can get a copy of the Primer here:

      i think it’s worth reading for anyone wanting a handle on this stuff.

  3. Robert Eaglestone June 21, 2016 at 4:02 pm

    Cleaning up the rules is NOT NECESSARILY a sign of “new school” rules.

  4. Brooser Bear June 21, 2016 at 5:21 pm

    New and Old School are two separate approaches – Nomothetic and Idiosyncratic – to trait description. Skills in RPG’s are essentially character in-game Traits, a concept from Psychology. Raymond Cattell and Gordon Allport. Cattel was Nomothetic approach, Allport was Idiosyncratic. Allport viewed traits as those qualities, which describe the person uniquely and make them different from anyone else. Cattell was taking a trait, measuring it across the population via a standard test, establishing a normal distribution curve, and studying those on the outskirts of the bell curve. Allport was active in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Cattell was in 1960’s and 1970’s. The first skill systems in rpgs, like that in Runequest, embraced Cattell’s nomothetic approach, the skill system in the post-TSR D&D was like that in Runequest. When Gary Gygax introduced skills in AD&D in 1985, he deemed them non-weapon proficiencies and used the Idiosyncratic approach. Gygax non-weapon proficiencies, and CT for that matter, present each skill as a mini-game with its own game mechanic. The approach is different also. Instead of making a normative roll for standard tasks, you only roll in critical situations, where most unskilled users will fail. You don’t roll a Swim check every time you enter the water, but when you fall into it wearing your armor, and most would drown.

    • John E. Boyle June 21, 2016 at 11:05 pm

      I’ve been playing Runequest since 1978, and in my experience it tends to be more Idiosyncratic than you might think. With the exceptions of combat, spell casting and certain magical ceremonies (summoning elementals for example), skill checks tend to be made only in the critical situations. You will find some GMs who require normative rolls for standard tasks as part of their style or for very young characters, but I have not found it to be common at all.

  5. MishaBurnett June 21, 2016 at 7:56 pm

    I see this debate in terms of the purpose of game mechanics with the narrative, and it’s been an ongoing one for as long as I’ve been gaming. I can remember reading a couple of different articles about “playability” vs. “realism” in gamer magazines.

    As with most things (Go, Team Fort!) I see it as a continuum, with one extreme being modeling every single possible action (“Okay, you put down your left foot, now roll for lifting your right foot”) and the other extreme being a pass/fail for the whole adventure (“Heads? You get the treasure and rescue the princess.”)

    I tend towards the more abstract end of the continuum myself, and favor systems that use a simplified modeling mechanism. I guess that makes me “New School” in your nomenclature?

    • lewpuls June 22, 2016 at 7:40 am

      The playability vs realism discussion is as much about simplicity vs complexity, as about abstract games vs models.

      Models can be simple, and still fairly well represent a situation. Simulations are models, but in a simulation the sim becomes more important than the game. I’ve never been a “simulation” fan because, in the end, tabletop games are much too simple to simulate much of anything. So make a good game.

  6. Cambias June 22, 2016 at 12:00 pm

    You do kind of palm a card here: what do you mean by “moeling reality?” the Zero-G rules are modeling combat in zero gravity. The game was published in 1977. No one has yet fought (with fists, guns, or blades) in zero gravity, with or without a space suit on. Therefore “realism” in this context simply means “one person’s wild-ass guess.” Given that, why NOT go with something easier to conceptualize and remember?

    • ckubasik June 22, 2016 at 1:41 pm

      A thought:

      He didn’t say “modeling realty.” He said, “modeling something.” In the same way that both CHAINMAIL and OD&D modeled the use and effect of a fireball spell without fireballs ever having existed.

      The key is not “reality.” It is consistency within the fictional world of play. *Details* are invoked when events involving Throws occur, the details either having been crated before and invoked by precedent, or minted new and on the spot. The Players and the Referee (with the Referee being the final arbiter) weigh the details, and determine how they might affect the throw (if at all). And then the Throw is made.

      While the fallback position might be called “reality” I truly believe that’s not the point. The point is the accretion of fictional details in play, creating a series of images, moments, and ideas that all the participants in play can both carry forward in play as precedent and carry in their memories as fun, scary, cool, or triumphant moments that are the bedrock of the pleasure of RPG play.

  7. Library Bob June 23, 2016 at 8:35 am

    So the New School mentality is for unified systems, “everything works the same way”? Has anyone noticed that this doesn’t as a consequence simplify anything? A pal of mine has invited me to try Pathfinder, and I plan to give it a go, but wow the Pathfinder Core Rulebook is bigger than LBBs 1-8 plus Supps 1-12 combined! Feats & Abilities each with a page of modifiers and conditionals? I plan to have fun, but the background reading’s a bear.

    • lewpuls June 23, 2016 at 9:36 am

      We may be forgetting a most practical matter here, that is, “money talks”. RPGs are in a sense prisoners of capitalism. (See/listen to my discussion at ) Simple RPGs, ones that are intended to stay simple, don’t make much money. People buy the simple rules, and there aren’t additiona-rule supplements. Complex RPGs keep providing income by increasing complexity. So we’re more or less “doomed” to commercial complexity in RPGs. Old/New School doesn’t come into it.

      • ckubasik June 23, 2016 at 10:17 am

        For me Old/New school and the publishing model (or lack thereof) do come into it. (For me… I’m no Old School expert.)

        Both OD&D and original Traveller (Books 1-3) were written as *done.* They provided a framework for play, explicitly telling readers to create their own settings and to create new rules as needed for specific situations and settings. The notion of a publishing treadmill was something that did not exist in the when each game was published.

        For me, when I look back to OD&D and original Traveller, what I see is a specific design aesthetic: “This is how we tackled adventure gaming with this framework. Use it, take it, enjoy for your own gaming table.” There’s a specific point of view in that thinking that certainly informs my understanding of Old School play and the OSR as I interpret it.

        Now, look, the genie left the bottle… and I certainly don’t blame people for making money from writing what they wanted to write (I was one of them!). But there’s no doubt there was a shift in design once the treadmill started. OD&D and original Traveller assumed Referees and players would figure things out. (See Loren Wiseman’s almost annoyed walkthrough of how to build a laser pistol in Traveller in JTAS #2 in answer to people complaining Traveller didn’t have one.)

        Grognardia quoted part of it ( but the whole thing is worth tracking down.

  8. ckubasik June 23, 2016 at 10:34 am

    Can someone tell me about all these “subsystems” in Traveller? I see only one system:

    2D6 +/- DM ≥ Saving Throw

    1. The Player says he wants to do something.
    2. Often, it simply happens. Either because the action is so mundane it never would warrant a roll, or because it is assumed that that particular character can do the activity without concern for an uncertain outcome (the result isn’t in a crisis, isn’t time sensitive, is fairly routine for anyone of the character’s background or expertise, and so on)
    3. If, however, the Referee decides the outcome is uncertain, or he cannot determine what the result should be, he calls for a Throw of the dice.
    4. The Referee can also decide certain actions are impossible, and not even a Throw can make it happen. If a Player declares “I jump to the moon!” it is in the Referee’s realm to prohibit a roll for it. It’s the Referee’s job to set the bar of “reality he wants for his game.
    5. The Referee determines a Throw based on the circumstances of the fictional situation at hand. It is, for example, easier to perform CPR than surgery.
    6. The Referee establishes positive and negative DMs are applied, sometimes for having skill, sometimes for not having a skill, some based on circumstances, tools, particularly high or low characteristics, and whatever else the Referee and Players decide is appropriate, with the Referee as final arbiter.
    7. Sometimes a conversation takes place between the Referee and the Player(s). For example, the Player might suggest that since his PC has Army training, he might get a +DM for an activity or not need to roll at all. Or a character might point out that the group had already established that a particular PC had spent some time studying xenomorphs during character generation and might know what to look for during the autopsy of an alien.
    8. 2D6 are rolled. If the roll (with DMs applied) is equal to or greater than the value of the Throw, then success occurs. If not, then not.

    This is how the combat system works. It’s how finding out if you spin out of control in zero-G combat works. It’s how you determine if get that jammed airlock open before the ship explodes.

    I don’t see the Zero-G rules Jeffro has been discussing as a subsystem. It’s a situation that might have be dealt with. The rules provide guidelines. And note the rules also provide a DM for the combat roll per the station. All we’re doing is finding out when Throws are needed and paying attain to what DMs — based on the details of the fictional situation — might be helpful or hurtful to the Throw.

    The distinctions, for me, at least, are twofold:

    First, the entire system is not contained on the PC sheet. That is, I don’t look to the sheet to see what I can do. I say what I’m doing, and we build modifiers. Some of those moodier might be on the sheet, others might not be. But the Throw is built of the specifics of the circumstances in the fiction — which is something I like a lot.

    Second, the guidelines in the skill descriptions can only be seen as guidelines. There is no solid list of DMs with the books, because circumstances might come up that demand modifiers that have’t come up yet. Truly, it’s up to the Players and the Referees. The original rules have no rules for suppression fire. Let’s say a Player is going to lay down suppression fire. Does the game grind to a halt? No. The Referee figures out, in that situation, what the rules will be. He carries those rules forward. The table now has new options and rules. This was the spirit and the letter of these early rules.

    The rules Jeffro has been quoting are not in Book 1, but from Book 5. That doesn’t mean such DMs could not have been created by players before High Guard came out. It was up to the table to sort this stuff out.

    Thus, I see a simple system that is very elastic, built off the needs of the table, the actions of the players, and the kind of game (the feel of the setting and so forth) the group wants for their play, with the Referee leading the way.

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