I've often seen it lamented in various quarters that the old school renaissance is simply recapitulating the early history of the hobby. An oft-cited example of this supposed tendency is the way that a lot of old schoolers, even those enamored of OD&D, like myself, keep adding on rules, mechanics, and sub-systems that detract from the simple elegance of the earliest game systems. As an observation, I think it's spot-on. I know from personal experience that, as I've run my OD&D campaign over the last 20 or so months, I've continued to add lots of elements from the Supplements, The Strategic Review, early issues of The Dragon, and other sources to the extent that I'm playing something that resembles "Dungeons & Dragons v.0.75," a kind of proto-AD&D without either true AD&D's persnickety rules or the mindset that often accompanies them.
Why would I want to do this? Why mar the pristine simplicity of OD&D? This is a question I'm often asked in comments and in emails. I think it's a fair question, but I think it's often based on a false premise, namely that "old school" equates with "rules light." Now, I can understand why this premise is so commonly accepted. A lot of the folks who write about old school gaming these days share a common story: turned off by contemporary RPGs, they looked back on the games of old and found in them something better suited to their wishes. Now, for some of these people, it's true, the primary appeal of older games lay in their rules lightness. That's why "white box" OD&D gets a lot more love these days than it has in many a moon.
I have no problem with saying that OD&D is, at least by contemporary standards, a "rules light" game, but that's not the whole story. OD&D is only "light" because so much is unsaid and left to the referee to make up for himself. In fairly short order, there was an explosion of expansions to OD&D, some official, some not, but all arising from the fact that, as written, the LBBs were only the barest skeleton of a rules set. To be able to play the thing, referees either needed to become "co-designers" with Gygax and Arneson, filling in the copious blank spaces in its rules or wait on TSR to publish a new supplement or article that, with luck, did this for them.
Speaking for myself, I think the skeletal nature of OD&D is in fact a virtue, because it pretty much demands that anyone refereeing it has to wrestle with the game's text and come to a solid understanding of it before adding meat to its bones, even if that meat is processed in someone else's butcher shop. I don't believe that this was either Arneson or Gygax's intention in writing the rules, but that doesn't really matter anymore. In recent years, OD&D has been accepted as a "do it yourself" RPG and some gamers, both young and old, have embraced it for that very reason. If I had to pick a single thing the old school renaissance has achieved over the last few years that's likely to have a lasting impact on the hobby, it's the recasting of OD&D as a "toolbox" game rather than as the hastily written, poorly edited "rough draft" to a later, "better" version of the game.
But even if one believes, contrary to its historical development, that OD&D is a "rules light" RPG, it does not in any way follow that all old school games are rules light or that rules lightness is an essential quality of old school gaming. I think any definition of "old school" that would exclude, say, the bulk of FGU's catalog is an inadequate one. Likewise, RuneQuest, while hardly a complex game, has rules written by guys who were involved in (pseudo-)historical reenactments and considered OD&D's combat rules unrealistic. For that reason, a typical RQ2 battle, involving even a handful of combatants, takes a lot longer to adjudicate than a similar OD&D combat does. But, again, I think any definition of "old school" that would exclude RuneQuest is a problematic one.
My point amidst all this rambling -- yes, I have one -- is that, while I have no problem with people being drawn back to the old school because of the rules lightness of some of its games, it's nevertheless a mistake to suggest that all old school games must be (or are) rules light, as that's clearly not true. Indeed, that's why some people feel, also mistakenly, that "old school" is just a mindset and any game can be "old school" if you wish really hard. That's not to deny that mindset is important nor is it to deny that, in general, old school games are noticeably mechanically different from later designs. However, that difference isn't limited to being rules light and I'll admit to some frustration at the way this characteristic of white box OD&D is often taken as universal. After all, f there's anything that marks a departure from the Old Ways in game design, it's a universal mechanic. (That's a joke, albeit a bad one)