Monday, July 28, 2008

The Three Old Schools

I know it's quite fashionable of late to claim that "old school" is either purely subjective or indefinable in the manner of pornography ("I know it when I see it."), but I simply don't buy these claims. Most of the confusion arises, in my experience, from people failing to distinguish two uses of the term "old school" that, while valid in certain contexts, have no bearing on what grognards like me mean when we use the term "old school." These two uses are as follows:

1. "Old School" = "Old": This the most subjective usage of the term. Gamers who began with, say AD&D 2e consider it "old school" because it was released almost 20 years ago, just as I am sure some 3e gamers will call their edition "old school" in a few years (if they're not already doing so). I frankly consider this usage laughable, as it's both narcissistic and, more importantly, utterly devoid of "scholastic" elements. That is, this usage makes old school simply a turn of phrase to mean "not current" and pays no heed whatsoever to the idea that the "old school" games encompass a philosophy or approach to gaming. This "old school" isn't a school at all.

2. "Old School" = "Adhering to Game Canon": This is another popular usage and one with which I have limited sympathy, even if I don't think it's deserving of the name. It holds that "old school" means "consonant with the earliest editions of game X," whether mechanically or (more likely) based on setting elements, etc. Under this definition, a carefully researched 3e book that holds true to details set down in earlier editions about, say, elementals is "old school," whereas 4e isn't since it creates a new canon that rejects and contradicts the earlier one. This usage treats "old school" as brand identification rather than anything scholastic. It's all about ensuring that, if Gygax said demons do X and 3e says demons also do X, then, because Gygax and 3e are in accord, 3e counts as "old school."

Neither of these usages is what I or most grognards mean when they talk about "old school." For us, it is a school of thought we're talking about. It's a philosophy of game design and game play that emphasizes loose rules, the sovereign authority of the referee, and player skill over notions of "balance," "story," or "fun." Granted, all these emphases are fuzzy around the edges and there's room for quibbling over whether, say, RuneQuest qualifies as an old school game or not, but that's a far cry from saying there's no such thing as an old school. Likewise, despite the fuzziness, the old school still possesses enough rigidity to clearly exclude certain games from its honor roll. No one who uses this third and primary definition of "old school" would ever say, for instance, that Ars Magica is an old school game, despite its being over 20 years old. That's because old school does have a very clear meaning in most cases.

Now, I don't object to equivocal uses of the term "old school." After all, I use the term "grognard" to refer to old school roleplayers rather than wargamers, which is its original definition. Nevertheless, I think it's important to realize that the old school to which I most frequently refer and the one that's currently generating renewed interest among some gamers is not primarily characterized either by its age or by its adherence to hoary canon so much as by a spirit that has kinship with the spirit of the early days of the hobby, when rules were suggestions, referees made rulings based on them, and players, not characters, were whose skills were tested in play. That's the old school. The rest is often either simple preference or mere nostalgia.

13 comments:

  1. Quote: "Now, I don't object to equivocal uses of the term "old school." After all, I use the term "grognard" to refer to old school roleplayers rather than wargamers, which is its original definition."

    Well actually, the orginial definition was old school warriors, not old school wargamers. Freaking 20th century wippersnappers. :)

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  2. Your own definition seems to undermine your point. If "old school" is "a philosophy of game design and game play that emphasizes loose rules, the sovereign authority of the referee, and player skill over notions of 'balance,' 'story,' or 'fun,'" then any edition might be old school, regardless of the rules set, if the GM creates such an atmosphere. As a GM, if I take the 4E PHB, use only a few "loose" rules, but buy completely into the weird 4E elements of PC roles, starting hit points, non-vancian magic, etc., I will be old school if I create an environment that mimics your philosophy. What if my 2E game stresses GM authority while being demanding of player skill instead of game balance and the scenario's story? Am I then old school?

    By your definition, if "old school" is merely a philosophy, rather than a set of rules, then any talented GM can turn any game from any era into "old school."

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  3. By your definition, if "old school" is merely a philosophy, rather than a set of rules, then any talented GM can turn any game from any era into "old school."

    I think you misunderstand me. While the old school is built around a philosophy, you'll note that I said it's a philosophy of game design as well as game play. That means that the mechanical basis for any game is important to whether it qualifies as old school or not.

    Now, that said, I actually think it's possible to run more contemporary games in a quasi-old school fashion, but you'd be running them against the grains of their designs, almost all of which aren't informed by old school principles.

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  4. Would you say Castles and Crusades is "old school" in game design? I guess I'm just trying to get around the apparently narrow definition of the term. I have always been a foe of narrow definitions.

    I would still argue that any game's "old school factor" is more dependent on the GM and players than on the system or scenario.

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  5. Would you say Castles and Crusades is "old school" in game design?

    C&C is one of those marginal cases. I personally believe that, as designed, it's far closer to the old school than anything we've seen in many a moon. My main quibble is that I suspect the "culture" around C&C, which consists of a lot of 3e drop-outs, will forget mantras like "the rules are your servant, not your master" and treat the SIEGE Engine as a new school universal mechanic rather than a guideline. That's not the fault of C&C, mind you, but it could come to affect the way C&C develops as a rules set, in much the same way that the culture that grew up around 2e changed that game (which is fairly old school mechanically) into something that, eventually, wasn't.

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  6. One mantra you keep repeating is that a game should test the skills of the player, not of the character. So what happens when the resident ditz wants to play some sort of lore-collecting wizard? Should the character have to suffer because the player's ability is lacking? It simply doesn't seem fair to the players to challenge them with things they might not have the ability to do, even if ideally their characters would.

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  7. With regards to C&C and AD&D 2e, I broadly agree that the systems are designed for traditional play styles, but I also think they were designed to be very open, which means they can lend themselves well to more modern styles of play.

    It simply doesn't seem fair to the players to challenge them with things they might not have the ability to do, even if ideally their characters would.

    If you're no good at chess, you're no good at chess. If you emphasise player skill over character skill, unskilled players will taste defeat even when their character probably wouldn't if left to their own devices. Fortunately, just as with chess, the more you play, the more potential there is for improvement.

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  8. It simply doesn't seem fair to the players to challenge them with things they might not have the ability to do, even if ideally their characters would.

    And that right there is, from what I can tell, the dividing line between "old school" and "new school". A big part of the old school mentality is that RPGs are first and foremost a game, while new school games are about role-playing. From the old school perspective, if you create a character who you can't play effectively that's your problem, not the system's or the GM's.

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  9. From the old school perspective, if you create a character who you can't play effectively that's your problem, not the system's or the GM's.

    Absolutely correct. The fighter exists, at least partly, as the "easy" option. Almost anyone can play a fighter effectively, whereas a magic-user is much, much harder to do so. The class is extremely weak and fragile at low levels and, even after it's acquired a good range of spells at mid-level, using those spells takes a lot of skill to manage.

    I never really got the knack of playing magic-users. I simply lack the skill and never bothered to hone my paltry talents in that area. That's why I've always played fighters, clerics, and paladins (with the occasional ranger for good measure).

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  10. For what it’s worth, I think there is a philosophical difference between 3e and 4e design. Though that’d make it...what...“middle school”? ^_^

    Should the character have to suffer because the player's ability is lacking?

    When I play a game, I don’t want to remove myself from the equation. I want success or failure to hinge primarily on my decisions. Not my playing piece’s stats. Not die rolls. Not hand-eye coördination or such.

    Oh, I like stats and dice to add some spice. (And I like games of physical skill—tonight is Rock Band night—but not on RPG night.) But if my success or failure most often hinges on those things, then I quickly get bored.

    So, yes. For me, my PCs should suffer because of my inabilities.

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  11. I am partial to a "middle ground" philosophy (to which C&C lends itself particularly well), which Greg Stolze has eloquently summarized as "say yes or roll the dice."

    Bob plays Melvin the Mage, and tonight the fate of the kingdom hinges on Melvin solving the great wyrm's riddle.

    If Bob solves the riddle, I do not call for a roll, and reward him with a hefty amount of XP.

    If Bob is stumped, I allow Melvin a roll (an Intelligence check or somesuch). If he succeeds, I award him no XP for that.

    And in this scenario, the stumped player is better off failing, because that makes for a more interesting story - and raises new opportunities to gain XP, by creatively managing the "angry dragon flies off to eat the King" scenario.

    Rolling the dice becomes the player's way of asking for a Deus ex machina. Which is boring, but within the player's rights IMHO.

    What do you think?

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  12. "Say yes or roll the dice" is, I believe, the invention of Vincent Baker of Dogs in the Vineyard fame, although many indie game designers have adopted it as their own.

    In principle, it's sound and it allows each referee to decide for himself how often he wishes to require his players to fight for everything they wish to do/know/acquire. In practice, I worry that it relegates dice-rolling only to "important" (in the dramatic sense) events, whereas I think much fun can be had be requiring the players to roll dice even for mundane things like going to buy equipment in town or interacting with city guardsmen. My feeling is that failure is often as interesting as success and so I like there to be a goodly amount of opportunities for failure to occur, which means more dice rolling.

    Which is boring, but within the player's rights IMHO.

    This is where your example worries me a bit. I think the very notion of "player's rights" is antithetical to old school play, where the only "right" players have is that the referee will adjudicate the rules fairly and objectively.

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  13. Hm. I think I sort of understand... but it still leaves me at a loss for physical skills. I don't know a damn thing about how to swim, but if I'm in a maritime campaign, it seems like I'd be at a significant damage. I like iglesias's point of view. I think that skills or what have you exist to allow an alternativefor when a player simply can't roleplay his way out of something, although the rewards should be higher if the player uses his own skills creatively to find a solution. Though in my case, (since I like rolling dice) I would offer some benefit, but in most cases there would still have to be rolls made to determine if the solution actually worked out.
    Example of what I mean:

    DM: You come to the wall of the castle. Being magical stonework, the masonry is perfectly smoothThere's no telling what could happen if you tried to climb this wall.
    Thief PC: Hm... The wall has archery slots, right? What if I threw my grappling hook intoone of them so we'd have something to hold onto?
    DM: Good thinking, dave! 50 XP. Now if you'd please roll to see if you can hit the gap... Nice.
    Fighter PC: Alright, I'll go first, and I'm going to hammer some spikes into the wall as I go so there are better footholds.
    DM: Also clever. 50 XP to you too. Roll, please, to make sure you can hang on. No, not the twenty, since you have something helping you, why don't you take the two d10s over here and add 1 to the result? Ooh, good one. Alright, everyone else, the thief and the fighter have done a good enough job that you can all roll 3d6+4 on this.

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