So, it was with some pleasure when I saw old school sage T. Foster pop into a thread about the definition of "Gygaxian." Amidst all the usual nonsense, he offered the following:
solutions coming the player's problem-solving ability rather than the character's stats, casual out-of-character/out-of-milieu anachronism, punning/word-play, and an affected appeal to a very old-fashioned "high cultural/literary" mindsetThat's about as good a summation of Gygaxian old school play as I can think of and Mike Mornard, the "Old Geezer" and one of Gary's gaming buddies from back in the day agrees. I can certainly say that my own preferences tend toward the Gygaxian, right down to the old-fashioned literary mindset, which is why you'll hear me go on and on about pulp fantasy and the extent to which D&D has lost sight of its heritage.
The crux of it, though, is this: challenge the player, not the character's stats. That's probably the single most important difference between old school and contemporary roleplaying games. I think that it's at the root of why most old schoolers have an instinctive hatred of skill systems in RPGs. Skill systems often imply not just what your character can do but also what he knows. That creates both a powerful separation between player and character knowledge but also creates the expectation that a character's knowledge ought to be able to give the player the solutions needed to solve in-game puzzles, tricks, traps, etc.
Now, I don't think skill system necessarily have to work that way in play, but they frequently do. 3e is notoriously bad on this score -- beat the DC on a skill check and your character does X or knows Y. The player's knowledge or cleverness is rarely engaged and "challenges" are reduced to game mechanics. I haven't a clue how 4e handles such things, but I'd frankly be amazed if they were more in line with the Gygaxian heritage of the game than they were with 3e's approach. D&D is often accused in some circles of being "gamist," but the history of the game suggests that such narrow distinctions are predicated upon yet more ignorance about the history of RPGs and what Gary and his contemporaries did when they played.
As with all such things, I don't think this style of play is the be-all and end-all of roleplaying, nor do I think it's for everyone. However, I think it's mightily important that players and designers alike know where RPGs came from and what they were like in the past rather than relying on half-truths, misunderstandings, and outright slanders of what came before now. The truth is that old school play is not somehow underdeveloped or inchoate "modern" gaming. Rather, it's a totally different perspective on what an RPG is and how it should be played. But most importantly it's fun. Sometimes that simple reality gets lost in all the theorizing and polemics. If old school games weren't fun in their own right, the hobby would never have survived to reach its "culmination" in this or that contemporary game.
Once again, thanks, Gary.