Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

The Key Difference Between Old School and New School D&D

The thing the really differentiates the old school from the new school in role playing games is where player choice manifests itself.

New school games typically give the players latitude to play whatever type of character they want. This ranges from GURPS where classes and levels are dispensed with and every conceivable character ability is broken down into point values all the way up to recent editions of D&D where there are a bewildering range of races, classes, feats, and so on. The newest of new school games emphasize elaborate player character backstories that the Dungeon Master is expected to somehow tap into in his campaign story.

But notice where all this choice for the players manifests itself. It resides almost entirely in the pre-game area. Players can be the exact type of character that they want to play, but in game they end up pretending to play a more or less linear set of situations that are already charted out.

Old school games in contrast give the players very little choice in character creation. You roll your attributes, pick a race and/or class, roll your hit points, buy equipment and you’re done. There is, for example, only about a 1-in-9 chance of someone qualifying for the paladin class. There is no guarantee that there will be one in a party and if there is one, there is no telling which player will be the one that gets to try it out! Playing an old school character is thus more about looking at what the dice give you and then making something out of it. Someone in the group is liable to be stuck with a “hopeless character” while someone else gets to play the best character they’ve ever rolled up. It happens! Dice are like that.

While choice is quite limited in an old school character generation, everything changes when play actually begins. In an old school game, the players can pretty much go anywhere and do anything. They can freely take actions that aren’t even covered by the rules, set their own campaign objectives, pass over the Dungeon Master’s scenario hooks and set off to find a place that an improvised non-player character mentioned in an offhand and ad-libbed comment. Rpgs are like that.

One more factor exacerbates these two difference and that is of course the frequency of player character death. New school players can be expected to play their character effectively forever, so they require a lot of choice (and balance) in character generation because this one choice will pretty well be set in stone. Old school players are playing a game. If their pawn is “killed” they have a chance to come back with a better character or perhaps one that is more suitable to the current strategic situation. Balance between each player’s characters can emerge over time due to the law of averages, but only if death is allowed to level the playing field and cull the herd.

In general, the inevitable result of player choice is to create unused system and/or unused scenario preparation. A dungeon master that has created an elaborate dungeon will start the game at its entrance and limit the campaign to its exploration. Give the players a choice and all that prep is liable to be in vain!

Similarly, in the Moldvay Basic D&D rules, magic users get their choice of starting spells for their magic users. This one choice typically induces analysis paralysis in new players as gameplay stops while they attempt to assimilate the implications of a dozen cryptic spell descriptions in a game they are unfamiliar with. Old hands will typically just go with the most powerful combat spell and ignore the rest. Some groups are so sure about which spell is the most essential to optimal play, the choice of which spell a magic-user takes is liable to cease to be a choice at all!

I’m not familiar with the Wizards of the Coast strains of D&D, but I’m told that choice of which feat must be chosen is pretty well set by the “community” of players that surround the game. People that refuse to go along with this out of a desire to explore something different are looked at askance; their idiosyncrasies come at the expense of the party’s ultimate effectiveness.

With the Adventurer Conqueror King System I saw the same thing happen with its proficiency system. Given free rein, players will typically spend every free slot on some sort of healing-related skill. The entire effect of this elaborate system could be dropped altogether and replaced with AD&D style bonus spells for first level clerics and the end result would be maintained with far less friction. Player choice ruins that system just as assuredly as impetuous players laughing your “old man with an adventure hook” out of the tavern spoils the adventure you had planed.

How do you get it back? With randomness. The ACKS Players Companion contains tables with a variety of templates for each character class, each one embellished with a few deft proficiency choices and equipment selection. This allows not only for the proficiency system to be used as it was designed, but it also makes each new cleric or fighter rolled up significantly different than the one before. Which obviates the need for a great many house rules and variant classes as well.

Meanwhile, further back in time we see Gary Gygax utilizing a similar technique with regards to spell selection in the AD&D game. All the way back to Greyhawk magic-users were required to make their “chance to know” roll in order to be able to use a given spell. Gygax went even further, however, and made the four spells that magic-users start with something that is left entirely to the dice. The effect on the game is immediate. Instead of players collectively limiting the magic-user to just one or two spells from the list, suddenly almost all of the first level spell list is brought into play.

This depth and range and color is only possible because the sort of choice that new school players take for granted was ceded entirely to the dice.

7 responses to “The Key Difference Between Old School and New School D&D

  1. MishaBurnett April 5, 2020 at 8:46 pm

    That has been exactly my experience. The vast number of options in character creation in modern D&D actually yields less player agency, since there is pressure to min-max the “right” build. 3d6 in order, limited character class options, limited race options, rolled rather than chosen spells–all of those things force a player to use whatever comes up and to find creative ways to solve problems.

    • Jacob Hawkes April 14, 2020 at 11:32 am

      I think it was you who introduced me to gamma world. It struck me as the perfect system. Can’t find players for it though. Might create some effects coding for fantasy grounds and see if I can get my normal group interested now that they are all shut ins.

  2. Wayne's Books April 6, 2020 at 9:31 am

    A good summation of old school vs. new school.

    A couple of areas, the generalization gets overbroad. Player agency in particular.

    >>”In an old school game, the players can pretty much go anywhere and do anything. They can freely take actions that aren’t even covered by the rules, set their own campaign objectives, pass over the Dungeon Master’s scenario hooks and set off to find a place that an improvised non-player character mentioned in an offhand and ad-libbed comment.”

    Player agency is more up to the DM and group than game system. I’ve seen and heard plenty of old school DMs railroading the hell out of their sessions. Happened back in the day, still happens today. DMs will be DMs.

    Our 5e parties wander all over the place. The DMs create a broad region to play, and only details encounter locations when we get close, and even then often guesses wrong. Sometimes we abandon dungeon exploration part-way through and go elsewhere.

    Player agency isn’t baked into old school rules… However, DM agency could be argued as more intrinsic to old school, at least in the lower character levels. Once characters get strong, and/or larded with magic items (a reliable hallmark of old school play), the DM is necessarily constrained.

    • Christopher R. DiNote April 11, 2020 at 8:54 am

      I think modern games, both tabletop and videogames, suffer from “analysis paralysis.” Too much information, too many options of ambiguous worth, and you end up playing less. They look pretty, the production values are incredible, but they might as well be collectibles, not games. It’s true in so many arenas of culture, they focus so much on the little things – and they do the little things, they do the ephemeral things VERY well, but can’t get the big things right.

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