Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Old School and New School: Settings

One thing to keep in mind as we identify design philosophies that are “old school” is that, as Lewis Pulsipher will tell you, the Old School not only lost, they are hopelessly irrelevant. Video games dwarf tabletop role-playing games altogether. So when I’m talking about old school gaming, we are looking at tiny fraction of a tiny fraction of the scene in general. And the people carrying on about it…? Even River Tam has their number:

I’ve known a dozen like you. Skipped off home early, minor graft jobs here and there. Spent some time in the lockdown, I warrant, but less than you claim. Now you’re what, petty thief with delusions of standing? Sad little king of a sad little hill.

(Y’all think I’m joking, but it really does all go back to thieves.)

So why do people care? Because “old school” is synonymous with a great many things: superlative quality, foundational texts, deep insights…. It’s cool. And the hobbyists and game designers and authors in earshot of this sort of thing, they all want to be in the club. So that moment that I come out and say that this particular thing is Old School and this other contrasting thing is New School…? Man, it actually hurts.

Some of this is due to nerd hierarchy stuff. The guy that reads only Forgotten Realms novels is lower down than the guy digging up old pulp fantasy. A guy with a thirty year old first edition AD&D campaign beats anyone running 5th edition. Prolific authors and game designers outrank them all. It’s just how it is. I wouldn’t get hung up on it, though. We’re still talking about an incredibly small group of people that are very much the losers of the rpg culture wars.

But there’s another part of it, too. People outside of the old school are invested in having had just as much fun as anybody else. To some extent, they don’t want to feel like they’re missing out on anything. And so they’re both skeptical and defensive. I think that’s one reason why Matt Finch’s use of Zen Moments to explain some of this was so effective. It made a lot of people stop and think rather than just react.

Anyway, here’s a less emotionally charged one:

  • Little Brown (and/or Black) Books are old school.
  • One yard of hardback rpg books are new school.

Yeah, that one shouldn’t hurt any feelings. This one is about as obvious:

  • Rpgs that draw from a wide range of literary sources to produce a kind of kitchen sink “anything goes” setting that can provide referees with the raw materials with which to create their own settings…? Old school.
  • Games that are focused mainly on just one setting…? New school.
  • Canned campaign settings in general…? New school.

That would make Traveller’s Third Imperium setting new school. And Mystara. And Greyhawk, too, even. That rhetorical question posed in the closing volume of the OD&D core booklets: “why have us do any more of your imagining for you?” It doesn’t just apply to merely the interpretation of the rules. Just as with the first Traveller box sets, old school rpgs supply “a framework describing the barest of essentials for an infinite universe.” Referees were expected to complete the design process by fleshing out the world implied by the bare bones rules.

How were they expected to pull off this impossible chore…? That’s right there in the books, too:

One very interesting source of assistance for this task is the existing science-fiction literature. Virtually anything mentioned in a story or article can be transferred to the Traveller environment. Orbital cities, nuclear war, alien societies, puzzles, enigmas, absolutely anything can occur, with imagination being the only limit.

Gosh, there’s that “i” word again. Imagination.

And what’s fueling it? What’s inspiring it…? Well, with the kind of rules that were available during the earliest stages of the hobby, just about any paperback novel available at the time would have served as a de facto gaming supplement.

And there were no limits.

Does this mean that there was something wrong, say, with my beloved Kara Tur boxed set from back in the day…? Well, hey, of course not. But the point is that the people that made OD&D and Traveller… they could not imagine people needing something like that. That sort of thing was simply outside of the scope of how they expected people to use what they created.

At the very least, then, there is a certain amount of dissonance between the more or less classic style rpg rule sets that were on the market in the mid-eighties and a lot of the products that were being created to support them around that time. But what if there were more to it than that? What if people really did miss out on something by having game companies do their imagining for them…?

17 responses to “Old School and New School: Settings

  1. Hooc Ott June 22, 2016 at 1:26 am

    “What if people really did miss out on something by having game companies do their imagining for them…?”

    I don’t think I have ever DMed a store bought module. I did run a Dungeon magazine adventure once and I only ever DMed AD&D 1e and 2e.

    There was nothing that stopped new school AD&D players like me from rolling their own so there shouldn’t be anything stopping anyone from doing the same with 5th edition or pathfinder or whatever.

    They probably exist. I wonder how you find them. Isn’t 5e supposedly a hit bringing hordes of millennials to roleplaying?

  2. emperorponders June 22, 2016 at 1:39 am

    “Video games dwarf tabletop role-playing games altogether.”

    Heh, It’s the same problem with video games, really. I’d say it’s even worse.

    Compare the original Doom (designed by D&D nerds, by the way,) with people still making their own maps, modules, total conversions; or many old games that came with almost the same tools that the developers used to design their game. Compare that with new games that are closed, finished, “cinematic,” linear products, full of expositions, cutscenes, and simplified gameplay (and, usually, boring.) They are the Dragon Lance modules of video games.

    “So why do people care? Because “old school” is synonymous with a great many things: superlative quality, foundational texts, deep insights…. It’s cool.”

    Same thing. The new DOOM made his PR campaign claiming its “old-school” status, and although it was an improvement (like, I guess, D&D 5e is an improvement compared to 4e), its old school elements were superficial. A pose.

  3. Cambias June 22, 2016 at 4:31 pm

    I don’t know why you say the people who created original D&D or Traveller couldn’t imagine people needing something like Kara Tur or the Imperium — it was the same people who created them! The original publishers put out their frameworks for imagination rule sets, and promptly followed them up with pregenerated settings. Now I suppose it’s true in the metaphysical sense that Marc Miller in 1977 was not the same as Marc Miller in 1984, when Atlas of the Imperium came out, but the point is that the creators realized quickly that a lot of potential customers lack either the time, the imagination, or simply the desire to create their own settings, and will gladly pay for someone else to do it.

    • ckubasik June 22, 2016 at 4:42 pm

      I think Jeffro’s point is that both Gygax and Miller explicitly said they never anticipated anyone would want or buy pre-generated settings. Like, it didn’t occur to either of them when they wrote their respective games. (Gygax at first simply refused to offer his Greyhawk setting notes over for publication. He thought the idea ridiculous.)

      Both men assumed that Referees would want to create their own settings. They thought that was the point.

  4. Lewis Pulsipher June 23, 2016 at 2:49 pm

    I try to ignore the labels Old School and New School, and instead try to figure out what the actual differences are.

    It’s the Age of Convenience. Having to make up your own campaign, your own adventures, is inconvenient. Call it New School, say it’s the zeitgeist, whatever.

    Some people believe that imagination – real imagination, not just brain fever extending some existing thing further into the completely unbelievable – imagination is in short supply with younger people, because their toys were usually presented to them with settings and stories already attached. They didn’t have to make anything up. As opposed to those much longer ago who would get some racecars, or make some paper boats, and then make up their own ways to use them rather than follow predetermined stories and settings – because there weren’t any.

    If that’s so, it’s not surprising that the publishers provide settings and adventures for inexperienced referees to use. (That’s also the capitalist thing to do, of course.)

    • ckubasik June 23, 2016 at 3:40 pm

      So, if the current age is one of buying pre-made settings, can we consider the opposite of that to be something different?

      There are plenty of people creating their own, strange, unique settings — even today — using rules sets from 40 years ago.

      Would such behavior count as actual differences? Leaving aside the labels for a moment, would they be actual different things.

      And if so, can we bring the labels back in? Because one is pre-publishing mill (Old School, because “old”). And one is newer in the approach (publishing mill), thus New School.

      • Lewis Pulsipher June 23, 2016 at 3:46 pm

        Words wear out when they begin to mean too many different things to different people. “Euro” has so many, often quite different, meanings, for example. “Theme” is a mess of meanings (Many meanings of “theme” ). OS and NS, in RPGs, appear to have reached the same point, where people argue forever over the meaning, and at some point just waste time.

      • ckubasik June 23, 2016 at 4:00 pm

        While I agree with that first sentence, I don’t feel the Old School as defined by the OSR is worn out… but I haven’t had any endless arguments with anyone on the matter, so maybe that helps.

        But back to the main point of my previous post:

        We agree that there are plenty of people who by settings and splat books, which is, as you point out, the presumed way of How Things Are Done Today.

        And we agree that there are plenty of people who *don’t* do this, who make their own settings for their own groups that have nothing to do with published material?

      • lewpuls June 23, 2016 at 7:28 pm

        Of course there are both. How could there be any doubt, in a group as large as this? “No generalization is always true, not even this one.” I think the people who make up their own settings and adventures are a *much* smaller proportion of RPGers, than in the 70s or even 80s. The reasons I suggested, plus the tendency of just about everybody to feel they don’t have enough time to do what they want, can explain this.

    • ckubasik June 23, 2016 at 8:11 pm

      I’m not concerned about the proportions. I assume the same as you do on the matter… but in fact, I have not a shred of data to back that up. The number of people at home playing their home brews for a decade or two without ever bothering to post anything online and tell us of their experiences may well be legion.

      My point is only this: Your stance is that it makes perfect sense to buy published settings and material. For all the reasons you mention, it does.

      However, my point would be (and I think this is Jeffro’s as well) is that *some* folks think otherwise. This thinking is part of the OSR. It stands apart from well, the this-makes-more-sense thinking of your stance. The reason it is apart is because some folks have to keep insisting it because the presumption is it makes so little sense to take the time to create your own setting.

      Jeffro’s closing question is, “What if people really did miss out on something by having game companies do their imagining for them…?”

      For me the answer is, “Yes.” Jeffro is noting a tension in that your view is often seen simply as The Way Things Are (For Good Reasons) and some of us saying, “Actually, if you look at how these original rules were written, the Referee was expected to come up with his own stuff.” It’s the “original” and “back in the day” part that would make this a portion of the Old/New School dichotomy. Creating material that isn’t more paste spread across a hex map of elves and such is often a very weird proposition for lots of people.

      Since I’ve started writing about original Traveller, a couple of dozen people have told me that playing Traveller (that is, using the rules) but not using the Third Imperium or the OTU setting really *isn’t* playing Traveller. I mean, that blows my mind.

      (I say this as someone who a) buys LothFP products (they are awesome) and fold them into a campaign of my own creation, so I’m no purist about this matter. However, I am baking up my own Traveller setting.)

      Books like…
      • Yoon-Suin (pdf) (print)
      • Carcosa
      • A Red & Pleasant Land
      • Quelong
      • Chthonic Codex

      …among others are celebrated as settings in the OSR crowd because the are so unique and different.

      Note several things about them:

      Yoon-Suin, Carcosa, A Red & Pleasant Land, and Chthonic were not designed first as game products. They were home campaigns that others got interested in when they heard about them, and folks encouraged them to publish them.

      Note that most of these books are most sketches of the settings, providing details of the worlds not though a yard of source books on a shelf, but thorough encounter tables, bestiaries, and NPC encounters. Each explicitly says, “There’s not correct version of this setting,” with Yoon-Suin explicitly stating that there are as many Yoon-Suins as there are Referees using the setting. This matters because there is actually a lot of work to be added to these settings. In design they are specifically different than source books from the late 80s and the 90s.

      (If I ever have a chance to build a publishable Traveller setting, I’m going to be formatting my subsector very much like the formatting of Yoon-Suin. It builds on the same random setting details, random encounter systems, and, improvised play through random result elements and turns them to 11.)

      Now, I’m not going to get into a discussion about what “is” OSR and what isn’t. (I don’t see the point, and it’s fluid anyway.) But the fact that the OSR crowd thinks these books are worth recommending and using them speaks, I think, to a certain value of them as something separate from well… It Makes Sense to Buy Books That Have Everything Laid Out. Because the books are *not* that. They are springboard to entice the imagination… and then they step back and let the Referee get to work both in prep and in play.

      You will not be surprised to hear that many people used to today’s products complain about the products being unfinished and such. Again, a distinction that I think matters and touches on Jeffro’s points.

      I bring this all up to address the first sentence of your first post above:
      I find these matters to be “actual differences.”

  5. PrinceofNothing June 23, 2016 at 8:31 pm

    I have been elected to suggest to you that Tekumél, 1st edition Runequest and arguably Metamorphosis Alpha were all fairly setting focused yet indisputably oldschool, given the time of publication.

    • jeffro June 23, 2016 at 9:27 pm

      Metamorphosis Alpha follows the same basic model as D&D and Traveller: items looted fro, a range of literary antecedents bolted together to capture a fairly broad genre that the referee is expected to flesh out into a full setting.

      • ckubasik June 23, 2016 at 10:21 pm

        And, for me, both Glorantha and Tekumél are examples of how far ranging a setting can be.

        For me, like all the examples I listed above, they are “proof of concept” of how crazy and personal your own shit should be.

      • PrinceofNothing June 24, 2016 at 5:41 am

        Fair point on Met Alpha. It is indisputably true the GM needs to flesh out the ship and Bob’s Warden will be different from Tyrone’s Warden.
        I would say the literary antecedents are considerably more focused then something like DnD or Traveller with Aldiss’s exquisite Non-Stop towering above the rest of the herd with Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky knuckle-dragging close behind it.

        Regardless, are then Glorantha and Tekumél to be treated as outliers?

      • Rjschwarz September 14, 2016 at 2:05 pm

        # PrinceofNothing, RuneQuest was setting focused but it really wasn’t difficult to scrape off the Glorantha and use the system on Harn.

  6. Pingback: Revisiting Gygax’s Advice on How to Have a Great AD&D Campaign | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

  7. Gordon July 1, 2016 at 1:42 am

    “Games that are focused mainly on just one setting…? New school.”
    Games, maybe, but play … Old School play was – and I think is still, if considered as “like it was played back in ’72-’82” – quite varied. I looked back at my play recently – literally looked at it, as I unpacked and read notes and marks on my Back-in-the-Day play materials. A LOT of it consisted of treating various modules – Tegel Manor, Temple of Ra Accursed by Set, Dark Tower, The Malteese Clue, Escape from Astigar’s lair, even the TSR Giant series – as a game in just one setting.
    We did do build-a-world, use the Outdoor Survival map, and some of that is memorable. But overall, we failed to create our own Greyhawk, or Blackmoor, or Glorantha, or even City State of the Invincible Overlord.
    Another way of putting it … in Old School, the play was always “the game, plus something, plus you” The “something” could be a number of things, and when it was “this particular module”, old school looked a lot like “focused on just one setting.” Of course, something = your own appendix N inspired world-creation is also possible.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: