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…?