Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Old School and New School: Where Do You Draw The Line?

Okay, several comments have come in more or less on the same theme here.

Over at Dark Heritage, we have this nugget:

But this is nothing. The other day Jeffro made the argument that the Thief class was the end of old school—and in old school discussions, that’s hardly a unique position. While one can say that the way the Thief class was implemented may have had an unintended cascading effect that changed the tone of the game over time, that’s not really the issue. The Thief class was being extensively used (pre-publication) at the very first Gencon that post-dated the publication of D&D—mere months after it was published. Greyhawk, the supplement that included the thief officially, was in print a mere year after the first printing of D&D. To suggest or even imply that the only old school game predates the thief, as can reasonably be inferred from both Jeffro and Maliszewski’s posts (and many of the comments that follow) means that old school becomes a vanishingly small window of gaming, and begs the question; why not suggest that the publication of D&D in the first place was the end of old school! Gygax and Arneson really sold out when they printed the game up, man!

jddyalblog comments here saying that my whole “looking for it in the weeds” approach in this series of asking “is this very particular rule old school or not is probably a hopelessly quixotic endeavor.”

And over on Twitter, Lewis Pulsipher has this:

Finally, more than one person has struggled with the fact that “old school” means different things in different contexts. People which chips on their shoulders want to find a counterexample that cause my generalizations to fall apart. People that want me to be their cult leader want me to tell them that how they are playing right now is legitimately “old school” and totally not “new school.” And then there’s the people that are getting really nasty. But never mind them.

Lets just clear all this up right now.

Gaiseric over at Dark Heritage completely misread me. In fact, I’m not sure he even read me at all here. If anyone is going to conflate my position on anything with James Maliszewski… well that’s quite the compliment to me, but I don’t think that’s fair to him.

So no, the introduction of the Thief class is not where I draw the line. The cutoff being between TSR D&D and Wizards of the Coast D&D is going to be good enough for most people most of the time, but I have quite a few problems with post-Gygax AD&D. So I’m going to be drawing the line a little further back than most people.

Personally, I think that thinking of Old School and New School only in terms of D&D is a mistake. So lets look at a couple of other examples.

In Traveller, the introduction of the “Official Traveller Universe” a.k.a. The Third Imperium setting is where I draw the line. The style of Traveller campaign I’m most interested in exemplified by what Ken Pick called the Burgess Shale Period of the game.

In Car Wars, the relegation of the role-playing elements of the game over into the GURPS Autoduel line would be where I draw the line. The style of Car Wars campaign I’m most interested in is the original Amateur Night campaign that is outlined in the original pocket box or zip-loc baggie edition.

Of course Traveller’s breaking apart of the class system into a more generic approach that models the various career abilities through skills would generally be considered “new school” if you were looking at those types of game mechanics in a D&D-only context. And the typical combat-heavy Car Wars adventure is often going to have a linear format that is very similar to the typical 4th edition D&D game. That type of adventure design sets the ardent old school D&D fan’s teeth on edge!

The common denominator here is that the implied campaign and the implied setting of many vintage role-playing games is at odds with how the games were ultimately supported over time. The cognitive dissonance this creates was certainly confusing to me back when I was trying to figure out why the third edition Gamma World rules I had as a teenager looked like they were for an entirely different type of game than the module series that ended up coming out for it. I always thought that there was a similar gulf between the first edition Forgotten Realms material and the game system they were intended to be used with.

Now… maybe you aren’t interested in this aspect of role-playing and/or the history of game design. Maybe you don’t want to pick up a vintage game and then try to run it more or less as it was originally intended. And yep, even back in the day, everyone knew how to do it all better than even the designers. Good on them!

I am not outlining a game design methodology, though. And the design movement that these sorts of explorations tipped off already got off the ground years ago. Still, I gotta say… if you want to conflate this kind of investigation with an act of physical violence– or worse– ISIS and/or the Taliban… then I don’t know what to tell you. I mean I really don’t get that stuff.

But yeah, I use the terms “old school” and “new school” a little differently than most people. I even use them a little differently than the people that affiliate themselves with the OSR. Still, I don’t think this is near as complicated as most people want to make this out to be.

14 responses to “Old School and New School: Where Do You Draw The Line?

  1. Hooc Ott June 27, 2016 at 1:00 am

    “Old School and New School: Where Do You Draw The Line?”

    Before even reading the article I really wanted someone to ask me this….

    but I am pretty sure any answer I give will be like describing that real cool dream I had last night. ie it was really cool but no one will care to hear it because I lack to ability to describe it properly with words and because it was my dream and who the heck cares about other peoples dreams.

    Anyway the line is at 1984 with the release of the first Dragonlance module “Dragon’s of Despair.

    It is unique among pretty much all previous modules in the it was polished, it had a hard unbending linear story (series of funnels) and gave explicit and thorough exposition in regards to characters (the module literally gives you pre-rolled characters with back stories and even art) setting and events.

    This all may be positive, a prospective DM should have no question about what he is supposed to do while running it…..but at the same time by being so thoroughly defined it pushed out any room for characters and the DM to improvise, riff off each others play and just see what happens.

    The old school module Keep On the Boarderlands in contrast doesn’t even give names to any of the NPCs or even where the keep the caves of chaos is in the broader world setting and expects the DM and players to fill it all in by themselves.

  2. travisalee June 27, 2016 at 3:01 am

    Too many people give too much importance to such an arbitrary distinction. To me “old school ” is dm discretion and party consensus… “new school ” is rules lawyers and character optimization. The year doesn’t matter, the spirit does. Beyond that, if you and your party are having fun , who the F cares?

  3. ashley858 June 27, 2016 at 6:15 am

    The thing is that there is no fixed line between old and new, because the new evolved from the old, and everyone has a slightly different perspective of when the change from one to the other occurred, which is not to say that a consensus will evolve over what is or is not old school, only that said consensus will also change over time.

  4. jddyalblog June 27, 2016 at 7:36 am

    I should point out that Gaiseric as a Google ID and jddyalblog as a WordPress ID are the same person. And in suggesting that even you were saying exactly that the Thief class is the end of Old School I was, of course, using hyperbole for effect to some degree.

    That said, I stand by my assertion that the only way to meaningfully define old school in a way that’s at all coherent HAS to be in a way that ignores the details, and focuses instead on maybe a high level 10,000 foot view aesthetic.

    And maybe I’m not old school at all; I do like to say frequently that I’m not old school; I’m old fashioned. If I really like the old school aesthetic, but don’t particularly like the actual rules, what does that make me, for example? But this is why I think analyzing old school from the point of view of “let’s deconstruct, to some degree, this very particular rule” is going to always be an approach that invites more disagreement and more incoherence rather than the opposite.

  5. ckubasik June 27, 2016 at 10:02 am

    This discussion has come down to Old School vs. New School. Which, if that’s what folks want, is great.

    But the thing that kicked this all off was the Old School *Renaissance*. A rebirth — not a recreation. And exploration of old techniques and procedures that had been forgotten or dismissed, brought back to be used in new ways and explored for new purposes. The Italian Renaissance got lots of things wrong abut the past, but they used the past to create new things that were terrific.

    I don’t know if this distinction matters. But I thought it was worth bringing up.

    • Steven D Warble June 27, 2016 at 1:36 pm

      Any Revolution (as in Old School Revolution, if you ascribe to that version of OSR) starts as wild eyed reformers and dreamers, and ends up with doctrinal factions stabbing each other in the head with ice picks. And eventually the next revolution arrives.

  6. Brooser Bear June 27, 2016 at 2:13 pm

    I think that Old School means Keyed Maps, Site-based Adventures, Dungeon Crawls, Hex Crawls. No railroading and no story. No reason needed for looting mega-dungeons. Regarding Gamma World and expectations. I got the First Edition Box for my birthday. The cover was awesome. It looked like a straight-laced hardcore Sci-Fi game, and that was how I ran the adventures with a snippet of the sample adventure and wilderness as a starting point. Imagine my surprise, when I read much later than GW was played as a Science Fantasy goof-game that was not serious role-playing.

  7. Hooc Ott June 27, 2016 at 6:44 pm

    “The other day Jeffro made the argument that the Thief class was the end of old school”

    “My tone does tend to be a bit too dry to work well in text, I admit.”

    Calling a lie dry is ironic.

    • jddyalblog June 27, 2016 at 7:37 pm

      Don’t be a moron. It’s a perfectly valid reading of Jeffro’s post, especially right after his quoting of Tim Kask’s quote on the end of old school. Even after his clarification, I don’t feel the post is more clarified, as the undercurrent of “the way the thief was done was ‘the end of old school’ hence everyone in the old school’s drive to ‘fix’ it” is so strongly implicit in the post that I really have no idea how to interpret it any other way.

      But if Jeffro says that no, that’s not what he meant, then fine, I was wrong. If you don’t know the difference between being wrong and lying, you’re being a moron. Don’t do that.

      • jddyalblog June 27, 2016 at 7:39 pm

        Of course whether I thought he seriously believed that or not, and I did, I didn’t exactly take that position seriously. The whole point was that it was a bit of absurd hyperbole to suggest that something with that kind of pedigree isn’t old school. Which is where clearly I have been misinterpreted, because my tone is too straight.

  8. Hooc Ott June 29, 2016 at 3:14 am

    Speaking of d4 thieves:

    “As they halted before one of the polished hardwood doors, Tarzan slipped into the shadow of a passageway not a dozen feet from them”

    – The Return of Tarzan pg 18

    No way Tarzan is d4….

    Maybe he is a monk.

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