Sunday, May 24, 2009

More Than a Feeling

In my experience, there are two common dismissals of the old school movement. The first is semantic, claiming that the term "old school" is so devoid of a commonly accepted understanding that it's meaningless. The intention behind this dismissal is to prevent discussion by undermining the common meanings of terminology. Needless to say, I don't think much of this point of view, because, while I'll concede that lots of people do in fact use "old school" in a wide variety of ways, that doesn't in itself say anything about the meaningfulness of the term as it's generally used among players of these games. It's a rhetorical trick, not an actual argument.

The second dismissal claims that old school is "a feeling" and can be divorced both from particular games and particular mechanical designs. The intention behind this dismissal is to claim that one can play any game in an old school fashion, regardless of its vintage or rules. It's an attempt to divorce the animating principles of the early hobby from its mechanical foundations. This is a somewhat more sophisticated dismissal, but, ultimately, it's still a rhetorical trick rather an argument. It's an appeal to an ill-defined "spirit" of the old school as a means of undermining attachment to any particular old school game.

That's precisely why I've never bought into the notion that the old school is just a feeling: it makes rational discussion impossible. If the old school is just a feeling, then it's purely subjective and beyond our capacity to argue for. It's a mere fancy rather than the product of serious thought. Now, I don't' want to argue that the old school isn't a feeling, because, on some level, there definitely is an "emotional" component to it -- but that's not all that it is and I don't think it does the old school movement any good to tacitly accept the idea that "old school-ness" is primarily felt rather than apprehended.

There is in theology a term that seems apropos: indifferentism. Indifferentism is the notion that all religions are equally good and valid provided that one practices them with proper intentions. To my mind, the idea that the old school is primarily a feeling is a kind of ludic indifferentism. No doubt many proponents of old school-as-feeling do so out of a genuine desire to avoid One True Wayism, which is certainly laudable. The problem is that, by arguing for a primarily emotional understanding of the old school, one quickly reduces all arguments to arbitrary preferences. That I consider, say, Swords & Wizardry a game truer to the old school than Exalted or 4e is nothing more than my personal feeling on the matter, a feeling that's impossible to articulate rationally and that others can feel free to dismiss without having to understand just what I mean when I say this. Likewise, when a player of such games claims he's doing so "in an old school style," I have no recourse but to accept him at his word and move on, because no argument could possibly be offered to disprove his feeling that he's playing an old school game.

Let me stress again that I am most emphatically not arguing against the notion that feelings and intuitions have a role in coming to an understanding about what the old school is and is not. However, I feel "I'll know it when I see it" is inadequate and contributes to the absolute subjectification of the term "old school." Consequently, I think it's vital, particularly now that more and more people are looking at old school games with new eyes, that this community shy away from speaking primarily in terms of "feelings," since that path leads to the chaos of indifferentism.

If one actually believes, as I do, that games like OD&D, Tunnels & Trolls, Empire of the Petal Throne, and so forth offer something unique that no game published in the last 20 years can match, then we ought not to rest our case too heavily on nebulous quasi-emotional impressions. I think there are enough clear, rational, and unambiguous arguments in favor of the old school that there's very little need to invoke feelings at all. More to the point, to resort to feelings is basically to concede the argument before one has even begun, which only contributes further to the mistaken notion that one's liking for an old game system is nothing but nostalgia for one's lost youth. In some cases, that may be true, but it needn't be the case and the continued success of the old school renaissance depends greatly on promoting the unique qualities of older games in a clear and rational fashion.

Otherwise, we really are just a bunch of middle-aged guys clinging to the past.

64 comments:

  1. All of your various tones in writing articles for Grognardia are interesting to read, in addition to the content, and this one was no exception.

    I suppose my core question is: Why does it matter?

    Don't misunderstand me, I realise that involvement in an undertaking generates its own sort of heuristic importance, and gaming philosophy discussions are certainly no different than serious discussion of literature, philosophy, etc.
    I 'grok' that part of it and freely partake in aspects of it at times.

    But, why, and in what manner, does the definition of OS matter to those of us within the demographic, or to those outside of it?

    Are your concerns public- or financial success of existing OS producers? Ensuring added numbers of folk within the OS demographic? ?

    Sorry for a long post,

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  2. "What, then, is Time? If no one asks me, I know."

    As suggested by St. Augustine's self-deprecating jest, philosophers want to know the definitions of things, because if you don't know the definition you don't really know much at all.

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  3. Blues could be the "old-school" of heavy metal. Which is better? Too different to compare, no real rational arguments to be given.

    Arguments can only be "reasonable".

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  4. @Korgoth: I'm not sure if your comment was directed at me (it reads that way at 2:31 AM). If so, I take issue with your conclusion, but likely on semantic grounds.

    a priori knowledge, for instance needs no definition.
    Likewise cultural differences, let alone linguistic ones, change the complexion of a definition, as well as the terms --and even the need for definition.
    Perhaps 'Western Philosophers' would have been a more appropriate usage given your apparent meaning.

    So, while most RPGers may assume that most RPGers are White American Males, that small focus will certainly lead to a very parochial definition of the Old School, indeed.

    If your comment was not directed at me, please accept my apology.

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  5. I would think that there are certain basic parameters around which old-school games can be defined. The strength of these parameters can shift from old-school game to old-school game, but all are necessary to some degree if you want to consider a game "old-school."

    Now, I'm pretty newly come to this whole old-school renaissance shtick, but things like "quick character generation/quick character death", "focus on challenging players rather than characters," "highly lethal combat" seem crucial for defining an old-school game. Probably some stuff about the dungeon also, but I don't feel up to articulating those, and will leave that for someone else instead. :)

    Thinking about it, I'm not convinced that you can't get an old-school experience out of Exalted or 4e or what-have-you. I would say that it is substantially harder, given the degree to which the system resists you, but I have faith in some crazy bastard being able to pull it off.

    I guess you could call me a mild indifferentist, in that I will have fun in just about any game as long as the GM is good and the players fun to hang with, but see old-school gaming as sort of the Platonic ideal of a gaming campaign. (I don't think the 'nostalgia' argument applies to me in my gaming preferences, since I'm still in my Golden Age of Gaming.)

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  6. A prominent theme of modern religious history is the struggle between absolutism and relativism (or indifferentism)--best expressed on one side with terms like evangelicalism, confessionalism, traditionalism, conservatism and fundamentalism while on the other side we have terms like liberalism, modernism, relativism, and ecumenicism. I find the parallels between religious bloggers and role playing game bloggers quite humorous and yet eerily disturbing at the same time. The difference here is that those religious bloggers, in their debates on epistemology, soteriology, hermeneutics, and eschatology, are arguing about the nature of truth, reality, and the destiny of all things (at least as they see it, and here I reveal my own "indifferentism" on the subject). With D&D, on the other hand, we have elves, dwarves, dragons hording desirable treasure, polyhedral dice, good friends staying up past their bedtime, and (hopefully) lots of salty snacks. I prefer AD&D, not because it is somehow true to a spirit of this or that, but because it is more fun. I found 3.X too much like trying to use dice and miniatures to play a gamed-up version of the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles. But that is just me. I have friends who love the 3.5 edition and I have not shunned or excommunicated them for it. It is a game. Games are meant to be entertaining and fun, unless you are in the military or doing corporate trainings. They are not expressions of some greater reality (again, maybe I didn’t get the same little white box from TSR as others and missed out). I write this, not to pick an argument, but because you are kinda sound a little fundy to me and I am not sure if that is your intent.

    WWGD?

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  7. Oops..sorry for the typo in the last sentence. I meant to say that "you are kinda sounding a little fundy"--which you could figure out from the context. I should be sleeping.

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  8. @Timeshadows: Things exist and possess definite characters. A definition is that which makes the definite character of a thing intelligible to intellectual beings such as ourselves.

    If you say that you like dogs and I ask you "What is a dog, anyway?" (suppose I was set adrift from Patagonia and raised by penguins...) I should hope your definition of a dog, however colloquially phrased, gets back to Canis Familiaris. Then I can know some properties of those things that you like. And if someone says "I love to see dogs flying through the sky on a cloudless day" I can know that the speaker has misidentified the flyer; he must be talking about something besides a Canis Familiaris.

    Whereas if you said "I like dogs" and I said "What's a dog?" and you said "Well, I dunno...." I'd think you were a really strange person. How do you know you like dogs if you don't know what they are?

    So isn't it the same *sort* of thing with "Old School gaming"? If I can't say what it is, I'm not really entitled to say that I like it. And even if I'm not able to speak with precision (not everyone is a scientist, after all), I should at least be able to verbally distinguish it. And it's a good work to disclose the being of something... that makes us all smarter. And it's good that there is a being of things to disclose... otherwise we couldn't be wrong about things, and there'd be no science.

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  9. ...

    Now, I don't deserve to identify myself as old-school in any way -- for one, I'm too young, and secondly, I was born in the wrong place and in essence a Johnny-come-lately to the hobby.

    But I always got the impression that what was old-school was in essence ideas and principles, not emotions. Within these ideas and principles, you can say that this is wrong, this is more old-school, this is incorrect, this is not good. Within this framework, following this principles, you can say certain things to a high degree of objectivity.

    Wouldn't you agree, though, that the choice of these ideas and principles would not necessarily be purely rational or objective, that the decision to stick to these ideas and principles were made with to a significant degree, of emotion and desire for a certain kind of aesthetic? Is there something wrong with that?

    There are people who still love 4E and 'story-gaming' and Forge-ish terms. They adhere to principles and ideas that appeal to certain aesthetics too. Are they objectively wrong because of that emotive decision to pursue those aesthetics?

    Sorry. I'm not exactly clear about what you were trying to say... to be honest, using "indifferentism" the way you did just rubbed me the wrong way.

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  10. "If I can't say what it is, I'm not really entitled to say that I like it." Entitled? Is that what your pseudo-Platonist argument leads to? Entitlement? That is one of the sillier things I've read in a while. So if I cannot describe, in manner that meets your satisfaction, the process of breathing (i.e. respiration), I am not entitled to say that I like it? I can only like that which I can define? I work with children with cognitive disabilities, who usually can define very little, but are very good at liking things. I'll have to correct them of this error immediately.

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  11. T-Boy. I agree. Thomas Kuhn, one of my intellectual heroes, called these frameworks "paradigms." His work, "The Structures of Scientific Revolutions," is all about old school and new school. I think someone who comes to 4E as their first RPG can the same evocative experience that I had with my little white box of OD&D joy. Just because I didn't have the same joy with more recent editions doesn't invalidate the experience of others. That is my own subjective experience. Maybe I am wrong here, but I am not willing to use the church fathers, Plato, Aristotle, or Linnaeus to validate my own approach to a game played with graph paper and dice.

    WWGD? Maybe laugh at us all and play LA.

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  12. @Rusty: Maybe. It's hard to say though, because who's to say the joy is the same?

    I suspect 4E scratches a different itch, and old-school games scratch different itches. They're not the same joys, but aren't they joys, nonetheless?

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  13. T-Boy: I agree with both your thoughts. And I find that when I read the Grognardia blog, I usually think "Better than I could have said" or "Wow. That is so profound." However, I am not comfortable casting judgments about the gaming experiences or preferences of others.

    Even my own gaming experience with the same games have changed. I find I have a different joy that comes different aspects of the game than before. In my teens, it was the adventure. Now, it is the escape (dealing with an ancient dragon is far easier than a lot of work-related things). And perhaps that is why this particular blog entry seemed irritating; gaming is an escape and this felt way too much like "real world." When it comes to RPGs, sometimes I really am just a middle-aged guy clinging to the past. But if and when I do try 4E, you can bet I won't post it on any blog (ha ha ha).

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  14. Guys,

    Just to be clear: I am not arguing that people who say they enjoy non-old school games aren't really doing so. My point is simply that, if one starts using an emotional response as the core of one's argument, then one quickly becomes so immured in subjective experience that it becomes impossible to mount an objective defense for one's preferences.

    I have and do play other RPGs and have even enjoyed them, but I'd never argue that they were old school unless I could make that argument in a rational, reasonably objective fashion without having to say they "feel like" old school RPGs to me.

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  15. I suppose my core question is: Why does it matter?

    It matters to me firstly because, if someone asks me what an old school game is, I like to be able to say more than "you'll know it when you play it." I find that approach inadequate and largely unhelpful when dealing with gamers who have never played an old school game before.

    Secondly, the co-option of the term "old school" for games that are patently not much like those from the early days of the hobby perpetuates the confusion many gamers have about the meaning of the term.

    Ultimately, I think a lack of clarity on these points makes it harder for the old school movement to make its case and thrive, particularly in a hobby that's over-saturated with choices.

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  16. Blues could be the "old-school" of heavy metal. Which is better? Too different to compare, no real rational arguments to be given.

    I'm not arguing that old school games are better than others at all. I'm frankly uninterested in pursuing that line of discussion, because I think it's as fruitless as trying to define old school solely by reference to feelings.

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  17. Games are meant to be entertaining and fun, unless you are in the military or doing corporate trainings. They are not expressions of some greater reality (again, maybe I didn’t get the same little white box from TSR as others and missed out). I write this, not to pick an argument, but because you are kinda sound a little fundy to me and I am not sure if that is your intent.

    My intent is not about denigrating other games or arguing that it's wrong to play and enjoy them. My feeling is that people who play the games they like. The intent of this post, though, was to remind old schoolers that it's potentially problematic to reduce our preference for older games to mere feelings, because doing so undermined any attempt to discuss with others the reasons behind our preferences by reducing them to arbitrariness.

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  18. Are they objectively wrong because of that emotive decision to pursue those aesthetics?

    There is, in general, no rightness or wrongness when it comes to the games we choose to play. I never suggested there were. The purpose of this entry is simply to point out that, if one rests one's entire case on an emotional response, it makes it difficult to communicate one's case to others, because emotions are so subjective. I happen to think there's a lot more to the attractiveness to old school games than feelings, which is why I reject them as the primary means of discussing what old school games are and why they are so appealing.

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  19. I think someone who comes to 4E as their first RPG can the same evocative experience that I had with my little white box of OD&D joy. Just because I didn't have the same joy with more recent editions doesn't invalidate the experience of others. That is my own subjective experience.

    For what I hope is the last time, I am not devaluing anyone's experience of joy at playing any game.

    Let's say that again: I am not devaluing anyone's experience of joy at playing any game.

    That was not the point of this entry in the least. My point is that, because, as you say, feelings are subjective experiences, they are a poor basis on which to base an argument in favor of old school games. Reference to feelings leaves us without anything but whimsy -- "Why do I prefer chocolate to vanilla? I don't know; I just like it." -- that I find inadequate.

    This is not about which game is "better" or which one someone ought to prefer. It's about the difficulty inherent in explaining why one likes something is one claims that the basis for that like is solely based on how it makes one feel.

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  20. I suspect 4E scratches a different itch, and old-school games scratch different itches. They're not the same joys, but aren't they joys, nonetheless?

    Well, yes, and nowhere here did I argue otherwise. But if we never make any attempt to elucidate just what itches each scratches, then we can't really talk about why we prefer one over the other and that's not very helpful when someone comes to us and asks, as they regularly do, "What's so great about old school games?"

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  21. Nostalgia is inherently emotional. Look up the origin of the word.

    There's value in incorporating the emotion, feel, and experience of OD&D or AD&D (etc), into any definition of Old School. To exclude it would be cutting off your nose to spite your face.

    Moreover, objectivity doesn't exist. We can't abstract ourselves from our social, cultural, and historical context and make our minds blank slates devoid of bias. Just doesn't happen. Those sorts of statements over-simplify rather than acknowledge complexity.

    Finally, why does Old School need to be defined? To what end? What's the advantage? To construct an inclusive definition, across such a diverse community, would likely be SO broad it would be devoid of meaning and thereby render the exercise pointless.

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  22. To exclude it would be cutting off your nose to spite your face.

    Who said anything about excluding it? If you'll note, the title of the post is "More than a Feeling." That implies that feeling has a role to play, but it's not the whole story.

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  23. "Old School," in its current cultural usage, owes its origin to hip hop and refers to (1) a certain era of music OR--unhelpfully--(2) a certain approach to creating music (instead electronically produce tracks, the music is played on actual musical instrument, often of an age and type used by Motown or 70's funk musicians). I pulled part 1 from Answer.com (and Wikipedia) and part 2 out of a couple of "Bass Player Magazine" articles from some back issues. What was not clear to me in the original blog posting was whether you were arguing for a objective definition of old school gaming or for its objective superiority. And I'm not sure the reference to indifferentism was helpful here (in the religious context, many of those who are differentists categorize those who they see indifferentists as being on the fast train to a very warm eternal destination--a bit harsh for an RPG blog).

    I do think that you could define an old school game as as game from a particular era. That seems consistent with the wider cultural use of the phrase. That leaves out emotions, nostalgia, value judgments, and all sorts of other things that cloud the discussion; except for the predictable dispute over the definition (which games and editions are in or out?...good luck with that). A retroclone game, for example, may have an "old school feel," (a subjective definition) but you might not necessarily consider it an "old school game" (because it does not fall into the old school time frame for publication). I think it gets really squishy to make an argument based on the unique qualities of older games because both the criteria you use and the data that feeds into the comparison-to-criteria are likely to be value-laden.

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  24. @Rusty: Calling my argument "pseudo-Platonist" only shows your lack of education in philosophical matters. But in any event you should re-read my post. It might have been too subtle for you, but when I discussed colloquial definitions I specifically allowed for "unscientific" distinctions... but you still have to make a distinction.

    And yes... if you cannot distinguish A from B then if you say that you like "A" I won't be able to know what you mean.

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  25. Okay, let's just clear some things here.

    You said, in your initial argument, that basing one's argument for old school gaming merely through subjective emotions, feelings, is a bad idea. It disallows rational discussion, reduces the reasons why one would choose old school gaming to reasons that one feels, not one sees.

    You tied this with your implied statement that the emotions one feels while playing old school games and the mechanical underpinnings and lineage of said games should not be divorced from one another; that divorcing one for the other would undermine one's argument in support of old school games.

    You're not saying that emotions do not play a part -- they don't play all of it, but they have a role. You are saying, however, that if you buy the argument that OD&D, T&T and EotPT have something unique that games after them can match, you should ease off using "emotions" and "feelings"; not abandon them, but to also look at any clear and unambigious contributions that these games provide.

    Okay, you've also have a problem with people co-opting the term "old school", thus muddying the waters further.

    And you're saying that "old school" isn't better than others at all... and yet at the same time that old school games have something that no other game in the past twenty years have? Your focus right now is with old school games, not other genres, so you're not denigrating other genres. Okay...

    So you're saying that if you were trying to sell the idea of old school gaming, relying just on emotions is a bad idea. Old school gaming has more advantages than just "emotions" and "feelings" -- . There are solid, dependable reasons to like old school games; it's not just nostalgia. These games make you feel good, here are the reasons they make you feel good. Just saying, "It just does; you have to play it to experience it" is not a good argument.

    You haven't necessarily directly said any of the above. Have I got it right, though?

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  26. I tried to post a response but it was too long. It is over here:

    http://wondrousimaginings.blogspot.com/

    and here:

    http://www.enworld.org/forum/general-rpg-discussion/256489-my-response-grognardia-essay-more-than-feeling.html#post4800633

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  27. Have I got it right, though?

    Almost exactly.

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  28. T-Boy,

    I think you're overcomplicating. To paraphrase what I understand James to be saying, it's simply that "old school" has to have an objective meaning beyond "games I like to play" or "games that feel old school to me", if you want to be able to make the case that these games have something to offer which other games do not. Similarly, that definition has to have something to do with the actual rules of the game, because if not what's the point of trying to create all these venues to keep older games alive? You might as well just go and play 4e.

    If you have a shared definition of what an old-school game is, such that you can point to some games and say why they qualify and others don't, then you can talk about what those games do that you prefer to the alternatives. Some people won't care about those things, or aren't interested, and there's nothing wrong with that.

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  29. Secondly, the co-option of the term "old school" for games that are patently not much like those from the early days of the hobby perpetuates the confusion many gamers have about the meaning of the term.i.e. The games of the early days of the hobby are definitive 'old-school' games. Let's maybe extrapolate: The more a game resembles the Old Stuff mechanically (simple rules, no pretense to realism, archetypal player-avatars, etc.) the more 'old-school' it is. 'Old-school' is a continuum.

    Whatever. A clear enough definition and not particularly interesting.

    Now...

    Why don't you talk about the games themselves, then? Why don't you evaluate them as design? Why don't you discuss the evolution of RPGs beyond the Old Stuff, the way RPGs have become vastly better-suited to storytelling-with-dice over time, and have stretched well beyond the adolescent morality/cosmology of D&D to e.g. the undiluted grownup cosmicism of Call of Cthulhu (and its smart, beautifully-written update Trail of Cthulhu) or the evocative lightning-quick system Savage Worlds? (Lemme speculate: because you know you'll have to stop praising Gygax et al. in the charmingly obsessive/defensive way you do. Because RPGs have come a long way from anything Gygax was capable of imagining.)

    James, near as I can tell (having read all your posts here) you don't make any arguments on this blog as to why 'old-school' gaming requires a specific kind of ruleset. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you seem to have assumed and accepted the claim. Hey, if that's what it takes to get you back to the game table, fine - that's what matters most, right? But your assumption is clearly incorrect, yet you don't seem to want to argue it.

    Anyone willing to make the silly claim that cosmetic decisions like 'ascending/descending AC' nomenclature have anything to do with the worth of a roleplaying system isn't actually talking about the system - he's talking about his childhood.

    I reread Finch's interesting, polemical Quick Primer yesterday; I'm DMing a 4e game and have been adhering to his 'old-school' principles for some time without knowing so, and 4e quite nicely suits that style of play. Indeed it's explicitly built to encourage it. (Did you even read the 4e DMG? Page 42 is a one-page minimalist skill/combat engine; it differs from OD&D in that it's balanced, scalable, and playable at every level without patching.) You talk constantly about an old-school 'spirit,' and have next to nothing to say about how mechanics relate to gameplay, which is the atomic element of modern discussions of games. There are arguments to be made using concrete examples, as you've said, but you don't actually make them. I'm not sure you actually want to (see above).

    When you're ready to discuss whether D&D is or has ever been good at what it does - or good at what it wants to do, another thing entirely - you'll be addressing questions of game design and analysis, instead of cultural (and largely, overwhelmingly personal) history.

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  30. @Kevin: Well, the reason I overcomplicated it was because James' decision to include the theological term "indifferentism" rubbed in the wrong way, extremely.

    And I like and respect James, so asking him all of those questions, checking on his position, demanding that precision from him, was my way to pull back and look at his argument and respond to him in a way that wouldn't degenerate into another Pointless Internet Fight.

    So... okay. I agree that to a significant degree the reasons why one likes old school is not just a matter of feeling. If anything, old school gaming, to me, can be understood as a set of principles tied to game mechanics and (meta-)setting that follow a series of aesthetics that originate from games like OD&D and the like. What principles? Well, I'm not an old school gamer. You guys figure it out.

    No, seriously. I just like listening to James; he makes good arguments, and a significant number of the principles that he's talked about and championed make for good gaming, in my judgement. Simplicity and clarity of rules. Not being afraid to impose arbitrary limits. A distrust for realistic everything. Pulp fantasy conventions like "magic is dangerous" and "alignment is a side you pick, not necessarily ideals you live by". Meta-settings instead of meta-plot. Gygaxian (un)naturalism. Distrust in universal skill systems.

    I think I got them right. James, you be the judge.

    But the reasons to choose these principles, the lynchpin of choosing these principles, the final "Why these?", I feel the answer should generally be because, "Because I like them". Or "It makes me feel good". No more, no less. That's by no means not the first argument you trot out, do not make the bulk of the arguments you employ to defend old school gaming... but they are central.

    There is a part in your mind, a small part, that likes this, and this particular part can't be copied to anyone else. When you argue for old school gaming, there will be a time when the other person will say, "No, I don't think that's important to me". That part, that irrational part, possibly shaped by early upbringing or whatever, won't change -- or at least I don't have the ability to change it.

    But there will be lots of people who share that part of the mind with you, and they'll grok what you say. Even if their upbringing is completely different from yours, their minds are completely different, they'll Get It. And you have a new convert to old school gaming, who'll listen to your ideas and find them good.

    I mean, look at me.

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  31. @James M.: I would then have to agree that the 'Historist' model is likely the best method of demarcation, rather than Korgoth's necessary definition.

    As regards identifying non-Historist commonalities of the OS, here my short list:

    * A middle ground between minimalist structured rules and freeform play. In this, I think that AD&D began to become something other than OS, although that didn't happen at any given moment, but rather was a continuum of drift away from that principle.

    * An accent on the gaming aspect of the hobby as opposed to pathos-ridden meta-story, such as found in the White Wolf tradition. Adventurers are fools who go looking for trouble and treasure and frequently don't survive, not Angsty tormented souls struggling to maintain their humanity.

    * A clearly identified, Do It Yourself encouragement from the author(s) to the GM and players. This is another point of divergence with AD&D and the tourney-style absolutism that drove me away from the School in the first place.

    * Emphasis on adventure, not politics and metapolitics of the planes and a trickle-down power structure starting from the gods and reaching the PCs, as in the Forgotten Realms era-start (ah, an AD&D product, I note...)

    * No particular attempt to define tone, or player mindset to achieve 'optimal' enjoyment or verisimilitude. Mike Pondsmith's CyberPUNK was so terribly heavy-handed in this regard: 'THIS is cyberpunk: Gloom, meaninglessness, flash of function,' etc.

    * Fast Play v. Simulationist logic and structure upon the rules set. The fact that OD&D can be played with d6s is an important aspect in this particular category, but not a -defining- one, as latter, very non-OS games certainly did re-embrace the minimalism criterion without the stylistic elements and mindset of OS games.

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  32. >>Why don't you discuss the evolution of RPGs beyond the Old Stuff, the way RPGs have become vastly better-suited to storytelling-with-dice over time

    Easy answer: Because they haven't!

    >>and have stretched well beyond the adolescent morality/cosmology of D&D to e.g. the undiluted grownup cosmicism of Call of Cthulhu

    Big monsters who are big into astrology that don't much care about humanity even when they even notice... yes, quite mature.

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  33. Don't take offense to this, but this exercise sounds a lot like an attempt at detaching the emotional laden "baggage" from a loaded term.

    This sort of exercise is very common in the tactics of people who are supporters and advocates of very unpopular ideas such as: communism, Nazism, fascism, eugenics, neo-conservatism, "Final Solution", extreme Islam, extreme environmentalism, white supremacy, black supremacy, anarchism, racism, the "end days", etc ...

    For example, many modern advocates of communism will attempt to argue that what happened in the 20th century Soviet Union was not "real" communism, by retroactively redefining "communism" such that it does not include any of the emotionally laden baggage of 20th century regimes like the Soviet Union, People's Republic of China, Cuba, eastern Europe, etc ... (Similar story with modern advocates of Nazism).

    Though personally I would choose another term than "old school" to encompass stuff like OD&D, 1e AD&D, basic set D&D, Holmes D&D, etc ... which is not as emotionally charged as "old school". In analogy, the biggest mistake modern communists, Nazis, etc ... have made is still using the emotionally charged terms of "communism", "Nazism", etc ...

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  34. You know what? I think there's more to this than meets the eye. Take a look at Ron Edwards very insightful article System Does Matter.I think that we probably can numerate a couple of things we think should be in an old school game. I think those are indeed keystones for its "old schoolness", but maybe it is a feeling as well? Let's say that what old school is, is a mode of play. Then those things like easy char gen or deadliness is not in itself the old school "feeling". But, they are effects facilitated by certain rules and mechanics. The interplay of certain rules, dedicated for certain effects generates a mode of play which we get a warm and fuzzy feeling from. This we then grab hold of, and run back the chain of effects and call it "old school".

    What? Was my argument itself fuzzy?

    Ok. Maybe it was. What I mean is that even though you can play in a specific mode with any kind of game, there are ways system does matter! A game system can help you get some things to happen, and invoke a feel. A game with extended rules for social conflict will play different than a game with more rules about martial conflict. Nothings stops you from playing in a set mode, but some games help you do it.

    So, maybe Old School is a feeling, but also something more tangible which we can analyze and discuss.

    Hm. Maybe I should have written a blog post of my own instead of this long comment. Well. Enjoy.

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  35. JamesM - May 24, 2009 8:22 AM - The intent of this post, though, was to remind old schoolers that it's potentially problematic to reduce our preference for older games to mere feelings, because doing so undermined any attempt to discuss with others the reasons behind our preferences by reducing them to arbitrariness.I DM 4e, yet I am also an old schooler. I have been dming since 1978 and have liked most of each edition of D&D in it's own way.

    But I DM 4e. Am I not an old schooler? I certainly do try to inject some old school sensibilities into my game, so I like to think I DM 4e in a old school style way by by having some plot-light regions, some site based adventures, as well as some dungeons with not-so-realistic ecologies.

    I also play up the idea that the rules for PCs are different than the rules for NPCs, Monsters and their environs. Not that the world "physics" are different for PCs, but that there are options for NPCs and Monsters that don't exist for PCs. i.e. if I want a monster to have some cool ability or something, then they can have it. I don't need a book of stats to explain to me how to play it out.

    Also, for me, old school style presumes a fair amount of "winging it" and DM Fiat.

    But are my definitions wrong if these are the things that make me FEEL like my game is old school style?

    In my opinion, the term old school has been tossed around so much, that each old school style gamer has their own experiences that help define what that old school feeling is for them, so I ask, why is a strict definition needed? And who gets to define it? And what makes them most qualified to do so?

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  36. Just to follow up on my linked-to response I posted above, a few more comments.

    You say that "...the continued success of the old school renaissance depends greatly on promoting the unique qualities of older games in a clear and rational fashion."

    How would, say a C&C fan, feel if the official defining qualities which are decided upon exclude C&C as a game with that "old school" feel?

    Even if it didn't affect them personally, how would they feel if it affected detrimentally the # of people who give C&C a try because it didn't fit the arbitrary exclusionary definitions regarding essential mechanics needed for an old school game? These definitions, propounded by a bunch of middle aged guys on a few very popular blogs and boards, affect people who are investigating what old school is all about. What if there came to be a list of old school games, ranked according to how well they fit the arbitrary definitions of essential qualities? What if C&C was way down on or off the list entirely? The new guys, checking out old school, read the list, and never try C&C.

    That's the big reason the essay rubbed me the wrong way. By trying to isolate certain qualities in older games which fit an arbitrary old school criteria, you are in essence defining what old school is, and more importantly for games like C&C, what it isn't. Seems a bit presumptuous to me.

    While the mechanics can drive the feelings of enjoyment one gets from a game, ultimately it is the feelings of fun which drive people to play a game, not the mechanics. Trying to define mechanics or other criteria which define old school means you are effectively saying that "You can call what you are doing fun, but please don't call it old school. We want to keep that definition clean and pure, as defined by us."

    Who are you to make such a decision? You don't get the right by virtue of sheer number of posts on a particular topic.

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  37. I reread Finch's interesting, polemical Quick Primer yesterday; I'm DMing a 4e game and have been adhering to his 'old-school' principles for some time without knowing so, and 4e quite nicely suits that style of play. I can't speak to 4e - my familiarity's with 3e, so the Primer is a bit dated in that sense. I've played 4e for a couple of sessions, and some areas of the game seem like they've definitely been redesigned to assist a more free-form approach to the gaming outside of combat. Dealing with the old "spot" and "search" numericalization of the exploring part of the game seems to have been replaced with a single passive detection type of check? I think? That's definitely a move back into what I'd call old school.

    But I'm one of the people who think "old school" is a useless term except as a blanket description. It does tend to identify a group of similar gamers, including some people playing games the others wouldn't at all consider old school. But for purposes of any kind of in depth discussion, the term falls apart. That's why the old school renaissance is a phenomenon, not a movement. It's not one thing, it's several things that are loosely batched together.

    But yes, except for the highly stylized combat system, 4e seems to have made it easier than 3e to reach a freer form approach to a lot of the "old school" (here we go again) parts of the game like exploration and puzzle-solving.

    I don't LIKE 4e, because I think the combat system is really awful, but it definitely reintroduces some of the old feel outside the combat system.

    So if you like highly defined tactical combat, 4e seems to me like it would touch on the best of both worlds.

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  38. James M.: I wish you would exercise a little authority rather than entertain every last gasp of windy guff that comes your way in the comments. Anyone who has followed your blog and taken the time to understand you knows you have credibility and your opinion on old school principles is more valuable than garrulous passers-by.

    By setting the wrong tone (ie too passively inviting) you are missing an opportunity to create an environment where those who are respected for their opinions at the forums could contribute to meaningful arguments. Instead the comments are filled with the careless misapprehensions of all kinds of tiresome yappers.

    JimLotFP: "Big monsters who are big into astrology". Like that, very funny.

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  39. All this complicated and heated talk is rather... Well, I won't say. Honestly, to me old-school simply meant the original rules, or close to. I can't really define it as a feeling. And relating to philisophical and or religious applications really seems to complicate matters further. I don't associate old-school with middle aged men, only with the orginal rules. I guess by that I mean that anyone who picks up the original books and such can play an old-school game. Why over complicate such a simple definition?

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  40. Three thoughts and then I'm on to other things:
    1. My apologies to Korgoth. I was a bit obnoxious and foolish in my sleep-deprived state and let my agitation get the best of me. Sorry about that.
    2. As much as anything else, it seems to me that the concept of "old school games" is a social construct that contains a number of elements (such as many responses above already have identified). It is not based on nostalgia or feeling, but on a common understanding within a group of interested people ("common" doesn't mean complete consensus--its obvious that there are LOTS of disagreements about the particulars of what it means to be "old school"). Within any dynamic movement, understandings and definitions are fluid and shift around, leading to the occasional disagreement. After all, if everyone readily agrees on every aspect of the contruct, the movement has probably already met its demise and has become a fossil.
    3. As a recovering fundamentalist (formerly part of the confessional church movement, a particularly combative element of the christian church, with a several years of graduate work and degrees), I have a visceral reaction to the intrusion of ideas or language that opens the door to the sort of judgmental attitudes and behavior that I witnessed among confessional-types (hence the horror at my own behavior, as expressed in #1). I agree that it is more than a feeling, but I am not sure where to take it from there beyond my thoughts in #2.
    P.S. I've been playing C&C as my game of choice. I would say (perhaps unhelpfully) that it has an "old school vibe" to it, based on a similar level of complexity and the archetype character class system. The AC system is 3E-lite and a few mechanics are unique to C&D. It plays very very similar to AD&D (the level of abstraction is the about the same, the mechanics are different in some places as just mentioned). Is it actually "old school?" Someone else can make that decision.

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  41. Defending Old School= defending Nazism. There it is friends. We're done here.

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  42. It's not "just a feeling" to say that you can play a newer game with an "old school style". There's a certain style of play which we've chosen to label "old school", and is described well in the Quick Primer For Old School Gaming.

    This playstyle can't be done with any game - it doesn't work with games with exhaustive rules - but it can be done with more than just OD&D and a few others.

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  43. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  44. I think old-school is "DYI" vs. "Cult of the Official", "Vague and loose rules and ad hoc rulings" vs. "Codification, official Q&A and erratas", "Freedom of the DM" vs. "Player rights to rewards", "diversity" vs. "standarisation and sameness" and a general irreverence for game balance.

    And other stuff as well

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  45. Holy crap. Hasn't this pointless discussion run its course yet? Most of the people who champion this whole "old school D&D" movement probably whine more about it than they actually play.
    Play what you want, stop bitching.

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  46. And how the hell do you know that?

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  47. The discussion over this post has once again solidified my opinion that there are some battles that don't need to be fought. It is laudable that James is willing to respond to all posts, no matter how dismissive and how much they question the legitimacy of old school games, but I think in some cases it is also quixotic: many posters are obviously not interested in an exchange of ideas, only tearing down others.

    Maybe I have been worn down by so many discussions that ended up going nowhere, by the frustration that well-reasoned, eloquent and even respectable posts by so many people were responded to with random discharges of bile and spittle, or uncompromising, vacuous obstinacy, but I have got to say -- it is no longer enjoyable.

    Posters, those of you who never liked D&D, those of you who will never like old school gaming: go away. Please. Just go away.

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  48. Oops, I meant to write "incomprehension" instead of "obstinacy". Sorry.

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  49. Old School is only useful as a vague term to describe older games - eg. "Do you want to play New D&D or Old School D&D?" Beyond that, what makes a new game (Swords & Wizardry, Encounter Critical, 4e) *feel* like an old school game is going to vary from person to person - and thus not an overly useful term.

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  50. I got to agree with Melan. There is simply no need to invest time and energy with people that have an acid waste answer ready for whatever you are going to post.

    After some thought, I got to agree with James. Old school is MORE than just a feeling. It's a series of very concrete ways of approaching the game, that I don't think it can be achieved with every game, but it's certainly not only something that can only be done with TSR's D&Ds.

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  51. Much as I love reading James’ blog, I think this thread got a bit nasty in places in part because of the combative language of the original post.

    The original post starts off by addressing two “dismissals” of the old school movement or games, and diagnosing the “intention” behind those dismissals. James is speculating as to the motives of people who disagree with him. Furthermore, he’s taking on these dismissals and judging them to be rhetorical tricks. This is a value judgment.

    The problem with the post is twofold:

    1. Undoubtedly there are some people who are genuinely dismissive of the movement, and who engage in rhetorical tricks. But these people are already lost to us, and are quite possibly just jerks or trolls, so why bother engaging them? It’s a waste of time and electrons.
    2. There are some people who levy the “feeling” and “devoid of common meaning” criticisms who are NOT trying to be dismissive, and are NOT trying to earn cheap rhetorical points. When you lump these people in with the latter group, you’re picking a fight with people who ARE sympathetic to/interested in old-school gaming, which is counterproductive.

    When you add the religious/theological angle into it, you load the discussion with even more potential for conflict and feelings of being judged, as Rusty has eloquently explained.

    All that said, this post, though inflammatory, DID serve the useful function of inflammatory posts. It stirred up some good discussion. I want to thank everyone who had contributed positively, which contributions far outweighs (so far) the unpleasantness in this discussion. I want to particularly recognize: Rusty, Timeshadows, T-boy, Kevin Brennan, JoetheLawyer and Matt Finch for useful stuff. Thanks! And thanks James for hosting another thought provoking discussion.

    James, I’d be particularly interested in seeing you respond in a little more detail to the points raised by Wally, T-Boy, and Joethelawyer.

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  52. I think we should quite calling "old-school" a movement. It's too much of grandiose term for people who just like barbarians hacking up land octopuses and clerics syncretised with vancian magic of save or die death fingers.

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  53. PD: calling a type of gaming "a movement" is just taking things too seriously.

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  54. I think it's a reasonably accurate term, alongside the use of it in regards to styles in art.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_movement

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_movement

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  55. I tend to disagree with Delta a lot, but he had a great post recently about the enjoyment of RPGs and how it differs from how he defines simple "fun". It's often a more complex and emotionally variable stimulation more akin to the appreciation of art, as opposed to the popcorn entertainment you get from (most) TV or a fun movie that's not intellectually challenging:

    http://deltasdnd.blogspot.com/

    Hope that's not too pretentious, but in this I'm right on board with Delta, JimLotFP and (I think) James M.

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  56. Mark my words, trying to get a committee together to form a "Ten Point Criteria of Old School Gaming" of what is or isn't considered old school gaming is Step One in the end of this burdgeoning movement....

    Why can't we just play the damn games and enjoy ourselves? Sheesh.

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  57. This is by no means a dismissal of the idea that 'old school' can have a proper definition or demarcation, but more a request for clarification. Your initial post mentioned OD&D, AD&D, EoTPT, and Tunnels & Trolls. Does this mean that other games whose first editions appeared contemporaneously with those four would also be 'old school' by definition, such as C&S, RuneQuest, Traveller, maybe even only slightly later ones such as TFT, V&V, CoC, Champions, and even the 1st edition of GURPS in 1986? After all, these are all from more than 20 years ago, and before VtM made 'storytelling' explicit as a new assumed method of game play. If some of these diverge too much from the assumptions of OD&D to be considered old school, where or what exactly is the cutoff?

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  58. I think Wally's comments above about 4e provide the perfect example of exactly why some sort of definition of old school that is more concrete than "it feels old school" is needed. Wally clearly feels that the 4e game that he is running is old school (in spirit at least), and as long as old school is merely a feeling, then he is right. Of course, Wally is entitled to his opinion, but I would have to beg to differ with his assessment of 4e's old schoolness. I would also like to rebut Matt Finches (self-admittedly not very well informed) assertion that 4e is relatively old-school outside of its morass of a combat system. Let me start out by saying that anyone can play any game in nearly any fashion, so of course I agree that you could play 4e in an old school manner. That does not mean that the game as written is old school. Some of the suggested defining features of old school that have been mentioned above are ease of character generation and a corresponding tendency towards higher character mortality rates, the absence of player entitlement (i.e. the DM decides what happens and the game itself does not lead the players to believe that they are entitled to specific rewards, etc.), a very rules light approach that leaves much if not most of the non-combat mechanics up to DM adjudication and a relatively uncomplicated combat system that allows for swift resolution of even large melees with multiple opponents. These characteristics combine to give old school games a distinct character that is often lacking in new school games which have far more exhaustively written rule sets; namely, the rules of an old school game seldom if ever impinge upon the fun of the game, while many a new school game session is constantly interrupted by players and DM's alike referring to the rules to keep the game moving forward. While that may not be a definition that could be agreed upon by everyone, I think it is a good start and will at least serve my purpose in examining 4e's purported old school qualities. (see next post)

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  59. (continued from previous post)
    I have read the 4e core books and ran a few sessions just to see how the game would work as written. I deliberately refrained from doing away with the elements of the game that I deemed ridiculous, just to see how it would work. Character generation might be slightly less complicated than 3e, but it is certainly light years beyond old school. The combat system is so involved that many melees stretched out into an hour or more long encounters. However, neither of these two factors are the least old school parts of 4e, IMO. 4e divides the game up into combat and non-combat encounters, and turns non-combat encounters into an exercise in dice rolling through the ingenious mechanic of skill challenges. If the party has to sneak into a castle, or negotiate with a hostile baron for the release of a party member, etc., there is no need for any actual role playing in 4e; you simply roll against the appropriate skill until you accumulate the requisite number of successes (as determined by the DM) without accumulating enough failures to fail the skill challenge. Thus, you never have to think or role-play, you just roll and roll and eventually the DM says, "OK. You succeed in the skill challenge and the Baron releases your comrade." Wow. It would be entirely possible for a party, if the DM runs 4e as written, to never think once (outside of thinking about how strategy in combat). The party should attack every monster encountered, because 4e tells the DM to balance encounters so that the party can defeat them. If some troublesome non-combat element intrudes into gameplay, the skill challenge mechanic allows the players to roll dice without thinking until the non-combat element disappears and more glorious combat can be had. Finally, 4e is perhaps the apex of the steady progression towards player entitlement that has moved newer editions of the game away from the old school editions. For instance, the magic items have been moved into the player's handbook, transforming them from a toolbox that the DM can pick and choose from into items that a player feels that he or she should have access to. That is not simply my opinion; the players handbook (page 223-224) explicitly states that you can buy any and all of these things, and not only that, but the prices can only vary up to 40% more than the base price listed! You are expected to get magic items commensurate to your level, and that maximize your capacity to sustain and inflict damage (again, not my take: page 125 of the DM's guide states "Tailor these items to your party of characters... A great way to make sure you give players magic items they'll be excited about is to ask them for wish lists. At the start of each level, have each player write down a list of three to five items that they are intrigued by that are no more than four levels above their own level. You can choose treasure from those lists"). All of these features combine to make 4e decidedly not old school in any way shape or form, if played as written. Sorry for the long post, and sorry for the 4e bashing, but it seems like Wally's assertion that 4e is old school is exactly the kind of thing that a definition of old school could head off at the pass. Oy.

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  60. I'm not sure how you can say that the Old School Revival movement is more than a feeling. The fact that it lumps together retro-clones of OD&D, AD&D and BD&D seems to prove it, since they have little in common in terms of design goals, approach to gaming, or philosophical underpinning other than their date of publication. The only objective commonality they have is that they're emulating games that are old.

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  61. @Joshua - I think the retro clones of OD&D, BD&D and AD&D do have some objective commonalities, namely the entire list of qualities I mentioned above (briefly:rapid character generation, rules light approach to non-combat situations, simple combat mechanics and a lack of player entitlement). Obviously, AD&D is less old-school by those definitions, but still far more on the old school side of the continuum than, for example, 3e or 4e. If you limit AD&D to the 1e player's handbook and DM's guide, it would be even more old school (without the optional non-weapon proficiencies to muddy up character creation and all the options from unearthed arcana). Of course, I am sure people could argue with me but I think that at least advancing some tentative definitions could bring some useful stuff out of this discussion and maybe bring into focus some of what makes old school games cool besides simply the fact that they came out decades ago.

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  62. I'm not sure that that's sufficient, though. All of those also apply to, for instance, The Window, or FUDGE. Are those, then, also old school games? I think obviously not.

    Besides, I think that's a rather superficial comparison. AD&D in particular, was a concerted attempt by Gary Gygax to codify a ton more situations that could come up in play, and provide a standard response to those situations. 3e, then, was clearly an evolution of the same design philosophy that informed 1e, but it is in stark contrast to the design philosophy that informed OD&D and BD&D (which is probably better placed as the spiritual successor to OD&D.)

    The fact that they were still fairly similar superficially only means that they weren't temporally separated by much yet, not that they really were going the same places for the same reasons.

    So, how is it that these are all lumped together as part of the same "movement" if the very design philosophy that informed them was actually radically different?

    In my opinion, because said movement is really more about either 1) nostalgia and trying to recapture the games of our youth, or 2) romanticism of the early days of the hobby and trying to recreate the "Gary Gygax" experience. Certainly, the latter is a strong feature here on this blog, where "how would Gary have done this? Why did Gary do things this way? What were Gary's direct influences here?" and questions of that nature is the primary discussion topic.

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  63. I definitely agree that AD&D was heading away from any objective definition of old school and towards 3e and 4e. It still seems closer to its roots though, even if that is only, as you suggest, because of its temporal relationship with its predecessors. I am not sure that the design philosophy behind a game should matter as much as how it plays. You could intend to create the best game in the world and if it plays like crap it really doesn't matter what the design philosophy behind it was. I have no experience with FUDGE or the Window, but your comment that they are obviously not old school suggests that there must be some sort of definition that you are using, even if only subconsciously, to decide what is and isn't old school. Perhaps what is needed is to add to the definition a list of things that old school games are not. Tentatively: old school games are not storytelling games, for one. From what little I know about FUDGE and the Window, that could be the main reason you think that they are not old school.
    Regardless, the "old school games are old school because they are old" argument seems particularly hollow to me. I can easily imagine a completely new game released in the future, not a retro-clone, which scratches the same itch as OD&D. Why deny it the old-school tag just because of when it came out? Old-school to me is a style that can be emulated, not just a time-frame.

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  64. Well, for one thing, they're not old. They also hold themselves out as kinda "the anti-D&Ds" in some regards.

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