In my review of The Original Bottle City below, I noted that "the mere existence of the term "old school" only highlights the discontinuity modern gaming has with its past." I won't go so far as to say that that insight was the most important thing I came away with after having read the module, but it's certainly very close to the top of the list. Among grognards, the term "old school" is accepted uncritically and, like many terms created to marginalize non-mainstream viewpoints, is even worn with a certain amount of pride. Being able to say you're an "old school gamer" is a badge of honor in many circles. Now, I certainly have no objection to this. After all, I regularly use the term "old school" without a hint of opprobrium, but I think it important to give some consideration to what the term implies and why it is used.
I'm not sure precisely when the term "new school" came into use with regards to roleplaying games. My guess would be that it's of pretty old provenance, perhaps as early as the advent of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, when AD&Ders wanted to distinguish themselves from OD&Ders, but I don't know this for a fact. When I was younger, I never heard the term -- or "grognard" for that matter -- and it wasn't until the late 80s/early 90s that I have any recollection of a distinction being made between "old school" games and what we were playing at the time. At any rate, I think it's fair to say that, by the time Vampire: The Masquerade rolled around, there was a widely accepted acknowledgment that there were old school games and, by implication "new school" games.
Exactly where that distinction lay was always vague and remains so. I have absolutely no interest at this time in hashing out that topic. Suffice it to say that I could easily come up with some criteria to distinguish between the two eras of RPGs. But that's not what I want to talk about here at the moment. Instead, let's focus on a fact that no one seems to dispute: there is an old school and there is a new school. Everyone, from grognards to the hippest Indie designers, seems to accept without question that there is such a thing as an old school and that the term carries some meaning. Certainly, that meaning will vary from person to person, according to their understanding of gaming history and their ideological agendas. But no one that I know of disputes that the term "old school" conveys something. ("New school" is rarely used explicitly, which I also think is significant)
So, what does the term "old school" convey? As I commented in my review, it implies a discontinuity with the past. Unlike very specific terms used in some forms of entertainment, such as, say, the distinction between "rock and roll" and "rhythm and blues," "old school" is broad and vague; it's a blanket term for a style or philosophy -- thus the use of the word "school" -- that is deemed out of date, antiquated, or at least not current. "Old" can, of course, be used to mean "original" and I suspect most grognards use it that way, but I imagine that the nameless originator of the usage didn't mean it that way.
"Old" can also simply mean "from the past," as in "Look at that old building," but that's not what's going on here. "Old" isn't modifying the noun "game," as in "OD&D is an old roleplaying game." Rather, it's modifying "school," which, as I pointed out above, suggests that the style or mode of thinking behind the game in question is out of date -- "old fashioned," as we say in English. And "old fashioned" is generally not a complimentary term. At best, it can mean "quaint," but it generally denotes something that has fallen out of favor, preference for which is noteworthy and eccentric.
To be fair, I think "old fashioned," in all senses of the term, is a pretty good synonym for "old school." I'd never argue that my preference for older games wasn't eccentric and out of vogue with contemporary trends in gaming. But therein lies the crux of the matter: the discontinuity with the past. Everyone recognizes this; no one denies that old school RPGs are, well, old school. Preferring an old school game isn't just like preferring R&B to rock and roll. Instead, it's viewed as evidence that one is a fuddy-duddy, who's not hip to the latest trends in gaming (or even ignorant of them). It's a way of relegating certain games and the people who enjoy them to the netherworld reserved for old guys who hang out in coffee shops and reminisce about the good ol' days.
I am not advocating banning the use of the term "old school," because I think it's a very useful term. It's filled with meaning, both positive and negative. Indeed, I can think of few terms that better describe my own preferences than "old school." At the same time, though, I think it's important that everyone recognize the central truth that it reveals: a rupture, at some undefined point in the past, between the origins of the hobby and what it has become today. We can -- and will -- quibble and argue over exactly when things changed (for good or for ill, depending on one's own philosophical commitments), but we all see that things have changed. Some will call it "evolution," some "betrayal," and others will just see a succession of different fads. But the change is real. Change happened.
The games that we today call "roleplaying games" aren't the same kinds of things we called roleplaying games in the past. The "new school" (or schools, as I think there are several of them) is every bit as real as the old school. One of the things I admire about White Wolf's World of Darkness games is that they call themselves "storytelling games." It's a self-identification that might rankle some, because could come across as pretentious and perhaps it is. Yet, it's also an acknowledgment that playing one of these games is not in fact the same activity as playing OD&D. The two may share common descent, but they are quite different things. This is one of the new schools and I applaud its clarity of vision.
I should close with a note that, while I firmly believe there was a rupture in the past between old and new schools, this isn't about the superiority of one approach over another, so much as a preference for the older approach. I've been gaming more or less continuously for nearly 30 years now. As a professional writer, I've written for too many game systems to count, including new school ones. Nevertheless, I think we do the hobby a disservice by denying the discontinuity between the old and the new and by speaking of "evolution" or "progress." I don't believe in such things where the hobby is concerned, but I do believe in change. And the hobby has changed a lot since the early days and not always for the better. I remain convinced that the old school still has many lessons to teach us, if we're willing to listen.
Alas, not so many people are willing to do so.