Thursday, May 1, 2008

"Old School"

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.


  1. Old school is not a synonym for "old fashioned" so much as "stripped down", "back to basics" or perhaps "unadorned" or even "pre-decadence". And I think that's what it's always meant in all sorts of contexts: The Sweeny is Old School, even Delia Smith has been called "Old School".

    Obviously, if you like New School, then it can be used as a term of abuse, but most people recognise it as simply a description of a style - a rejection of later ideas as overly-refined. But that's what it's always meant.

  2. First off: Great post!

    Like “old” itself, “old school” is a relative term. It can mean the difference between oD&D without supplements and oD&D with supplements. It can mean the difference between oD&D and AD&D. It can mean the difference between D&D and its imitators, each adding their own bits that they felt D&D was missing. It can mean the difference between White Wolf and the rest of the industry. It can mean the difference between AD&D 1e and 2e. It can mean the difference between pre-2000 D&D and post-2000 D&D. Soon, it will be able to mean the difference between 3e and 4e.

    Does this wide range of uses make it meaningless? No! Merely that, like most things, it’s meaning depends upon context.

    And, as you say, it’s mere existence highlights that there are breaks (“change happened”—lots of it) that bear examination.

    Also, I think “old school” gets used instead of “old fashioned” to express affection for it. (Though sometimes more and sometimes less, depending upon the speaker.)

  3. I also think that "old school" has often come to refer to "out of print" or "unsupported" in any official industry sense (and by implication therefore "outdated", at least when used as a pejorative), but of course that is becoming less and less true since there is now a whole renaissance of "old school" sensibility in published products (like C&C, Dungeon Crawl Classics, etc.) all of which aim to recapture that "old-school-ness" (again with somewhat differing definitions of what exactly that was) in their own products.

    As has been mentioned 'old school' ultimately comes to mean what anyone wants it to in their own personal context and the definition can thus be varied. Often it's as simple as "this was the D&D that was current when I started playing as opposed to what they play as 'official' today."

  4. This is really interesting to me. I'm in my mid-20's, started gaming with 2E D&D (which I spent more time trying to 'fix' than I did playing, which might tell you something about me).

    When I hear or use the term 'old-school' it is never derogatory. It carries a respect for those that came before. In certain circles of videogaming, even a whippersnapper like me gets to qualify as 'old-school', and I wear it as a badge of honor.

    Just as you can go to automobile shows and find really beautiful renovated cars from an older era, gamers recognize that there are things of value and beauty in the games that came before, and some of these ended up getting discarded as new games have come along - perhaps they didn't fit right with a new design paradigm, or perhaps the new designer didn't understand them very well or recognized his inability to fit them into the game he wanted to create. Whatever the reasons, some very neat things get left behind in nearly every field. This doesn't mean we hate or despise the newer innovations - just like those guys at the car show don't hate safety belts or airbags - but we recognize that sense of style and creativity, and that the newer guys, for the most part, are standing on the shoulders of giants.

    That is what old-school means to me - a reminder that John Henry can still beat the machine. It means respect for the people who invented the hobby that I love, and those who paved the way for future generations.

  5. It’s interesting that the Wikipedia article traces the term back to Dickens, writing about theological differences in the 1850s.

    For me, the phrase speaks of getting back to basics and respect for what has come before.

  6. "Old School" has been applied to Magic the Gathering?

  7. "Old School" has been applied to Magic the Gathering?

    Of course! Get with it, man. That game is sooooo 20th century! ;D

    - Brian

  8. Even though I use 'old school' a lot, I prefer using the comic book age system to describe what game is what.

    For example, calling OD&D and AD&D 1st Ed as Golden Age, 2nd Ed as Silver Age, 3rd Ed/d20 as Bronze, and 4th Ed Steel. This doesn't demean the older players, who don't like what they are seeing in 4th Ed as being behind the times, which is the implication of the term 'old school'.

  9. Hesiod’s Ages of D&D:


    The Golden Age Dungeons & Dragons

    The Silver Age Advanced D&D

    The Bronze Age Second Edition AD&D

    The Heroic Age “Third Edition” (It was a heroic work. Like the Hesiod’s Heroic Age of Man, the only one to improve on it’s predecessor. Late 2e being my least favorite.)

    The Iron Age “Fourth Edition”? Maybe. Maybe the “eBay and retro-clone Renaissance”. (^_^)

    “The Ages of RPGs” would take more thinking

  10. Re: John Henry

    What a marvelous image! Thanks for that.

  11. Old-school is just the 'new-school' way of saying grognard. There's nothing new about progressive gaming, either. It's a reaction to whatever the established system is at the time. The only real difference is that some newer writers are implicit in their disregard for classic themes or mechanics to the point of absurdity.

    IMO, games are not disposable gadgets that benefit from constant re-engineering to match current trends. Each new-school trend in gaming is always followed by a similar trend in old-school nostalgia. Game design is similar to music in the sense that labels like 'modern' and 'old-fashioned' bear absolutely no relation to the quality of the thing itself.


    P.S. AD&D Revisionist History: The only real 2E innovation was THAC0. With 3E, we got the OGL and eternal permission to stick with 1E and ignore any and all further editions. Now that's progress!

  12. Of course, THAC0 was present in 1e too, but it was more of a shorthand mnemonic to aid the DM in running combats.

    That aside, I think you're right that 2e wasn't innovative and didn't intend to be. In that respect, it's the last edition of the game where the Gygax/Arneson still predominates.

  13. You don't like the word evolution, but I think it does apply here. But not in the colloquial sense of improvement. More in the original Darwinian and scientific sense of "descent with modification". That is, the original D&D was a simpler animal with a specific niche. But there were a lot of ecological "niches" that were empty, so new games (animals) arose that were more complicated and more specialized to fit specific niches (horror, sci-fi, gritty medievalism, etc.). I think evolution describes the development of D&D very well, and one can even describe it in terms of families, with WoD being a specific family, say ursines, and D&D now being canines, with the common ancestor of D&D being some type of small mammal back in the late Permian epoch.

  14. I think I might end up preferring the term "classic gaming" over "old-school gaming".


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