Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Other Old Schools

Aside from the obvious fact of its being the 800 lb. gorilla of the hobby, one of the reasons that the term "old school" is almost always conjoined to "Dungeons & Dragons" is that D&D is one of only a handful of RPGs where there's a significant schism in its fanbase. There's clearly a "before" and an "after" in D&D, though precisely where that line is drawn can be a matter of debate. The point is that, when dealing with D&D, "old school" isn't just a synonym for "old;" it's a statement that, after a certain point, something changed and changed in a way some didn't find congenial.

Among the many, many roleplaying games produced since 1974, I suspect only a handful of them have changed enough over the years to make the use of the term "old school" in reference to them meaningful. The two most obvious are Traveller and RuneQuest, as I've noted before. In the case of Traveller, I think it was the advent of Traveller: The New Era in 1993 that precipitated the biggest and most lasting schism in the game's fandom, as TNE introduced both a new rules system and effectively rebooted the Imperium setting with which the game had become so strongly identified. I don't think Traveller fandom ever really recovered from the launch of TNE and, indeed, the entire subsequent history of the game and its setting can be seen as a series of course corrections, modifications, and outright backpedaling in relation to what GDW did in 1993. I think it could be argued that the launch of Hero Wars (now HeroQuest) in 2000 had a similar impact on RuneQuest/Glorantha fandom, but, not being plugged into that community, I can't be certain if this assessment is correct.

But, beyond these three games, how many other RPGs have both sufficiently changed over the years and are still played by enough people that there's even a need to distinguish between their current incarnations and their "old school" ones? As I understand it, there are some disagreements among Tunnels & Trolls fans about the merits of editions after the 5th, but those disagreements are comparatively small, owing perhaps to the relative smallness of T&T's fanbase. I also vaguely recall that there was a minor split in GURPS fandom between those who favored pre-Compendium GURPS and those who did not, but I have no idea whether such a split continues or if it was ever enough of a concern to make talk of "old school GURPS" meaningful. I'm sure a similar kinds of minor split exists in the Champions/HERO community too, though, again, this is an outsider's conjecture.

No one speaks of "old school Space Opera" or "old school DragonQuest" or "old school Call of Cthulhu" and for good reason. These, and other games like them, are either so little played in 2011 that no one cares to make any distinctions between "before" and "after" in their histories or they've changed so little over the years that such distinctions are impossible to make. This is why "old school," as a term, largely remains the province of Dungeons & Dragons: it's one of the few RPGs that has a large, active base of players and has experienced a number of major changes, both mechanically and philosophically. It seems to me that these are the primary ingredient for the acknowledgment of an "old school" within a game's history and they're ingredients most RPGs simply don't possess.

50 comments:

  1. What about World of Darkness? There is a sharp divide between the "old school" of the "old World of Darkness" (oWoD) with games like Vampire: the Masquerade, Werewolf: the Apocalypse & Mage: the Ascension & the "new World of Darkness" (nWoD) with games like Vampire: the Requiem, Werewolf: the Forsaken & Mage: The Awakening. It is a pretty bitter gulf, actually, despite the fact that oWoD is pretty universally recognized as being mechanically broken.

    (Disclaimer: I use the nWoD to run my Weird Fantasy game, but don't have anything invested in the nWoD setting.)

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  2. That's a very good example. Thank you.

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  3. Not that you're looking for more examples, but there's a schism in the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay crowd over the Fantasy Flight 3rd edition, too.

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  4. More examples are good, so, please, do provide them.

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  5. Thanks for the post. I do credit you with motivating me to work on an "old school" version of Dragonquest, not that it matters to the 13 other people left in the gaming community that play DQ.

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  6. Well, while Call of Cthulhu is relatively little played, it also must be said that Chaosium ruleset has seen little variations in its incarnations so, IMHO, this is the main reason there is no Cthulhoid Old School to speak of.

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  7. To a degree - Rolemaster has two (somewhat) different audiences. One group of folk playing from the early days using what we call "2nd edition" (now referred to as Rolemaster Classic (RMC)). The other group of folk using the Rolemaster "standard system" (RMSS). The changeover from RMC to RMSS is not dramatic but significant enough (IMHO) such that there are the 2 audiences.

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  8. Old School Warhammer 40K (Rogue Trader era) is very different from just about everything that came after that. The old books was full of DIY style "make your own models and stats!" and the new stuff is very much the opposite of that.

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  9. Rolemaster's schism is actually fairly significant - enough so that ICE has kept both versions in "print" for the past several years. The skill system changes are the major bone of contention, though there are others. Now that ICE is once again under new management, the old arguements have flared up as both sides want their version to be the basis for a revised Rolemaster.

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  10. I think the term "old school" often refers not only to the game itself, but the style of play it promotes. D&D is, again, the biggest example of that. "Old School" D&D feels like a grittier, more "in your face" style of play. Largely due to the presentation. The b&w illustrations, the propondence of evil creatures, and the promotion of "good guys" fighting the good fight. Whereas new D&D, especially 4E, feels scrubbed clean, and very sterile. It's all about button mashing, and shiny new pwrz, rather than building and tweaking characters.

    I don't get a chance to play a lot of games anymore, so I don't know if any other games have had this happen as well.

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  11. I can't see much evidence of a 3e/4e GURPS split in the SJG forums.

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  12. blizcak mentioned WFRPv3 as a rift-opener, but there was a similar conflict among fans when WFRPv2 was released. So WFRP is a good example, albeit a game with far less fans than D&D.

    In Sweden, the leading fantasy rpg "Drakar och Demoner" had a few versions that lead to much acrimony among the fans, almost at the level of the D&D version debates. Although again, the fan base is not as big as that of D&D.

    Strangely enough, no "old school Drakar och Demoner" has emerged.

    Also, "Mutant Chronicles" had predecessors that were very different, and the outrage agains MC was at the level seen mostly in regards to decisions made by WotC.

    /Magnus

    /Magnus

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  13. No one speaks of... "old school Call of Cthulhu"

    This is technically true, but there's been a raft of Cthulhu licensed products over the past decade or so that decouple the brand from BRP and create a bouquet of distinct Cthulhu flavours. It's not a schism, you can use CoC to refer specifically to the "oldest school" game, but I guess there's still a division of the fan base and its expectations.

    ...I still can't decide if this is smart or not, BTW. I think they work because they're partnerships between distinct entities: the setting and the ruleset (and ownership of those components is clear and separate). That doesn't seem quite possible with D&D. Maybe it's because Cthulhu-ness was always a licensed property with its own fan base. Maybe the Old School Lovecraftians are still spitting mad about their spooky getting quantized.

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  14. Battletech springs to mind. (Granted, it's better known for being a wargame, but there's plenty of RPG support for it.) In the early 90s (IIRC), a major update to the game took place in the form of the Clan invasion, which basically overhauled the technology levels of the game and radically changed the political situation of the in-game universe.

    I know there is a niche of Battletech fans (myself included) that felt that something important about the game's tone and style changed with that update. When I play Battletech or Mechwarrior these days, it's almost always set before the big change using the original technology levels. I don't hate the post-Clan stuff, but it doesn't feel like the same game I fell in love with back in the 80s. Does that make it an old/new school divide?

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  15. I think there is also the minor distinction between an "old school" approach regarding game mechanics and an "old school" approach regarding the way the people play the game.

    For D&D it seems that both are involved with that "Old School" movement.

    For T&T, even if one is playing the newest 7.5 rules (and I don't see as many fundamental differences as some others do between that version and 5th) the old adventures (GM and Solo) and the new ones are extremely compatible in the way they are played (and many times both exist in the same campaign with no problems). The attitude towards gaming of 'old' T&T and 'new' T&T are arguably the same.

    CoC, is similar in that the system versions aren't significantly different and the old adventures and approach are still as valid now as they were 25+ years ago.

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  16. Empire of the Petal Throne has been followed up by various other systems for Tekumel gaming, analogous to RuneQuest/Hero Quest (though RQ also has the RQ2/RQ3 split that is pretty significant while being based on the same core mechanics).

    Frank

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  17. What about the split between the 1972 and 1987 Mazes and Minotaurs game? The loss of the Faith stat has created some bitter feuds. ;-)

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  18. "I'm sure a similar kinds of minor split exists in the Champions/HERO community too, though, again, this is an outsider's conjecture."

    The current edition of Champions is not that different from the 4th edition published in 1989 - which was the first edition published as a nice hardcover. 4th edition rationalized and cleaned up the rules from the earlier editions, but I never felt it was a drastic departure like the last couple editions of D&D. Just my opinion as a Champions referee.

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  19. Maybe the Old School Lovecraftians are still spitting mad about their spooky getting quantized.

    This, except it isn't so much a matter of quantifying the "mythos" that rankles, as it is that I'm not a fan of the way Chaosium handled it. CoC partakes way too much of Derleth's and others' (mis)interpretation and bastardization of Lovecraft's work to hold much appeal for me as an admirer of HPL's fiction.

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  20. How about Gamma World? There seems to be a significant rift between the 1st/2nd edition crowd and the 3rd edition (superhero) version, as well as all previous versions and the d20. Not sure where the new "D&D" GW fits in, but I'm sure it has it's detractors.

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  21. I think that the old/new school division is so powerfully pronounced with D&D fans for obvious reasons. As you pointed out, it's the 400kg gorilla and it reaches an enormous audience. I’m sure that the divide increases proportionally with the size of the crowd. Another key reason is that there is such a radical change in game mechanics from the initial to the current edition that it was DESTINED to tear the community apart.

    One could argue that these divisions exist from the beginning; there will be those fans that like a game just the way it is, and there will be those who think that this approach or that rule is "broken" and they will desire to see the game take a different direction. So when a popular/venerable game changes to appease the unhappy or to attract new customers, it will absolutely cause dissention among the original "contented" crowd.

    And my vote is for Gamma World. WTF?

    Word verification: elydr - old school elf

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  22. Although RuneQuest and HeroQuest are very different games, I'm not sure it's accurate to call it a schism, as that implies a certain amount of ill-feeling or One True Wayism. From what I've seen, both "sides" seem content to let the other get on with it with no fuss, but I have to admit that it's very much an outsider's perspective.

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  23. @kelvingreen In the early days of HeroWars and leading up to the release of HeroQuest, there was a fair amount of flamage, ill-feeling, and One-True-Wayism flying around -- it was just reasonably well contained to the RQ/HW mailing lists. One advantage that HeroWars/HeroQuest had was (a) it was relatively easy to use legacy materials without too much effort, and (b) there was a large fan movement that made it their business to enact point -a-: that is, a great deal of fan effort went into making legacy materials more widely available, /and/ in original and converted/translated form.

    And, I think the one-true-wayism was muted somewhat by the fact that the leading light behind the movement to a new set of rules was the principle voice behind the Gloranthan IP (Greg himself), and that HeroQuest proceeded (more than HeroWars) from the fundamental assertion that "your campaign was yours and you could what you liked with the background". In fact, Stafford, and others, went out of their way to explain how local variances /didn't/ break the notion of a canonical background (by proceeding with an "all stories are true" point of view).

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  24. @Andrew and @arcadayn -- how does the ICE fan-base react to HARP in contrast to RM? Or is HARP pretty much killed off as a bad-dream? Frankly, I rather liked the look of HARP much much more than either branch of the RM tree, but that's perhaps just me...

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  25. @Andy

    Well, you took my example of Battletech and I would definitely agree with you, there is a split in the game pre-/post-Clan Invasion. The rules didn't necessarily change a whole heck of a lot (nothing near the degree of changes D&D went through with various editions), but they kept adding more and more new and improved weapons, `mechs, systems, technologies, factions and so forth that the feel of the game completely changed.

    It went from a declining-empires/dark ages feel to something approaching the Star Wars Prequels or somesuch. It just wasn't the same.

    I think you can easily define the Battletech "Old School" as 3025-era players of which I am proudly one.

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  27. I agree with Andy about BattleTech. I was gung ho until the Clan invasion, so I ignored all products related to it. Eventually, I grew apart from it as a result of the new official emphasis. Another uprising occurred when BattleTech made the move to collectible clicky miniatures (along with a change of scale and a new time period). I was at the Origins seminar where Jordan Weisman fielded questions and complaints from an audience that contained some gamers who were very fervently opposed to the new direction. So there have been at least two major schisms in BattleTech.

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  28. I don't know If I'm in the minority but I associate "Old School" with PCs starting out as normal folks (with hero potential) who get more skilled/powerful/adept through play over time.

    who doesn't have fond memories of their newly minted fighter being shove out the door by his father, equipped with nothing more than a sack, some hand me down leather armor, a vaguely martial farming implement (and maybe bag of sandwiches his mother packed) to head out into the world and seek his fortune.

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  29. @Rob Crawford

    I don't know about the state of the SJG forums now (nor at the time of the launch of GURPS 4th edition, because I mostly avoid forums), but some of us who preferred 1st-3rd editions simply abandoned hope and concentrated on filling the gaps in our pre-4th edition collections. It wasn't so much a change in rules as a change in approach: the new emphasis on republishing old books in much more expensive editions rather than releasing new source books or reprinting out-of-print books; the new meta-setting (I'm not sure if that's the right word); even the new layouts. It's a matter of preference, but it's clearly a divide. I'm still not sure I would use the term "old school" for it, though.

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  30. RuneQuest suffered an earlier schism in 1984 with RQ 3, which a) introduced Sorcery, b) decoupled RQ from Glorantha, and c) transfered publication to Avalon Hill, who seemed pretty clueless about how to develop and market an RPG. Among the RQ grognards I knew in college (a) was a big deal, since many considered it "broken". (b) and especially (c) essentially sunk the game until Mongoose picked it up again in 2006.

    Also, to clarify comments on GURPS: SJG republished updated and collected material in more expensive hardback editions. IIRC, they said retailers liked $35 hardbacks better than $20 softcovers. (Thanks, White Wolf and WotC.) The rules tweaks ticked people off, although I never understood that: 3rd edition suffered from redundant and contradictory material in scattered sourcebooks, which the Compendia only partly rectified. Making advantages and disadvantages more general and orthogonal made sense to me. For that matter, the great HP/FP swap fixed both the "body-building mage" problem and split HT for large creatures. (Background: 1-3rd edition based FP on STrength and HP on HealTh. Mages expended FP to power spells; large creatures required far more HP than their HT score, coincidentally about the same as their ST score ...)

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  31. I think that, to an extent, Old School is a style of play, not necessarily something inherent in edition schisms. I have a friend who ran a 3.5 D&D game, which he did just as he had once run 1e games, and the feel and style was the same (with buy in from the players). Newer rulesets might make it easier to resist the old school ethos, but I think it is intrinsic in the style.

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  32. You couldn't call it a schism, nor an old-school/new-school divide, but Trail of Cthulhu is something of a reinvention of Call of Cthulhu. Although the mechanics of Trail's Gumshoe system are rather different to BRP, I'd suggest that Ken Hite and Robin Laws would say Trail of Cthulhu is about supporting mechanically the kinds of game people were trying to play in Call of Cthulhu anyway.

    Also, I'm not a historical wargamer, but my impression is that there is a succession of phases that their communities go through, as their games swing between accurate simulation and "bang, you're dead" gaming. At the moment, rules that reflect wargaming as a social hobby are in the ascendant, which, in a sense, is reaching back to the hobby's roots - H G Well's Little Wars, for example, and you can hardly get more old-school than that. I believe that Black Powder encourages players not to fixate on the rules in the book, but to make gentlemanly agreements at the table on how something should play out, which reminds me of Matt Finch's "rulings, not rules". If they are "old-school", though, it is only in spirit not in presentation: the books are lavish publications, heavily featuring beautiful photography of miniatures on the table.

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  33. Following up on what Mordecai said -- I cannot speak for anyone other than myself, but what angered me the most about the nWoD was the way it tossed aside so much rich background. Yes, the rules were probably horribly broken; but if White Wolf had kept the setting (refining and rebooting as necessary) but changed the rules as needed, I would have switched to nWoD.

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  34. 'Trail of Cthulhu' set out to 'fix' something in CoC that wasn't broken... that cheeses off some of us CoC fans. But I still value its contribution of interesting alternate views of the Mythos... it makes for a nice CoC supplement.

    I'm with those saying that 'old school' is more about an approach to gaming... a more individualized, DIY approach that doesn't need as much 'official' sanction. A willingness to make up your own rulings for something rather than clamoring for a 'professional' to pass down the word from on high.
    Also, for me, it's a general... distrust... of over-produced glossy hardbacks with full color paintings on every page... vs. the energy and verve that was on show in a lot of 'amateur' products.
    It has some common blood with the punk and low-fi movements in music. Taking back something that was getting a bit too corporate... celebrating the idea that homemade is better than store bought.

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  35. Around 2003, I was playing Magic: the Gathering with a group at a comic shop. One day I declared that I was putting the damage from one of my creatures "on the stack" (a rules change that came about in 1999 with Sixth Edition). Everyone looked at me like I was trying to pull some ridiculous rules shenanigans on them. I tried to explain it, and the guy there who others relied on for rules interpretations just said, "That's not in my Revised rulebook."

    Only time I saw that with Magic, but I suppose it's possible that the old school crowds can be found in pretty much any game that has seen changes.

    Also, I think knobgobbler is right on in comparing old skool RPGing to certain music scenes. Fight On! often gives me a feeling similar to reading ska zines back in the day (where'd they all go?).

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  36. I'm surprised at the most obvious one. Star Wars. The WEG d6 system is radically different then the WotC d20 version. Most people that I know who play Star Wars (myself included) prefer the d6 system, mainly because there is not as much emphasis on Jedi and the mechanics that go with it.

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  37. It's been mentioned at least twice, but definitely there is a schism amongst WFRP fans; particularly with the release of 3rd ed.. While 2nd ed. introduced a few mechanical changes, for the most part, the largest change was the introduction of new developments in the Old World (which I ignored). 3rd ed. is a drastic mechanical departure.

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  38. I think it could be argued that the launch of Hero Wars (now HeroQuest) in 2000 had a similar impact on RuneQuest/Glorantha fandom, but, not being plugged into that community, I can't be certain if this assessment is correct.

    I'd have to say it's true. You now have the sense that Heroquest is the only way to play adventures in Glorantha, at least from the various mailing lists, even if you don't agree with the play philosophy involved with the new rules. Which admittedly I don't. They can actually get quite preachy about it (although in many cases it's just supporting an element of work they have laboured long and hard on), in a fanatical convert sense. Some individuals in the community actually got quite rude about it.

    I think the exact point of schism was when Tales of the Reaching Moon was shut down, since that fanzine had a tremendous effect on uniting a Runequest fan community during the dark ages of Avalon Hill. [Interestingly enough, you could easily argue that Avalon Hill's mishandling of Runequest was what gave the fan community such strength.]

    Interestingly the Mongoose Runequest II rules might reunite the camps to a degree. At least, it combines the simulationist (Runequest) approach with the new cultural definitions proposed by the narrative (Heroquest) camp.

    [Then again the official idea of what is Glorantha tends to get "Gregged" every few years (eg Heroquest Glorantha is different from Heroquest 2 Glorantha), so everyone really runs their own game of Glorantha with common and recognisable elements.]

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  39. I experienced this a few years ago whe I started reading BoardGameGeek.com. In it, there is a sharp schism between Old School Gamers (which I'll call OSG) and Modern Gamers (MG). Old School gaming is associated with "Ameritrash" - lots and lots of "chrome" filled rules which add flavor but can make it unclear as to what the rule IS; usually lots of detailed pieces, esp. figurines or chits, and especially a thematic attitude toward problem solving through violence and a conservative political strain...this is very much consistent with RPG's and their "Fighting Men" and general Hack N' Slash attitude...Modern Gaming is associated with the "EuroGames" trend which kicked in during the 90's...this trend entailed simplified rules, less "chrome" leading to a more abstract flavor, and a more "politically correct" approach to themes. Modern RPGing saw the trend towards storytelling rather than straight smash & grab, and a more inviting stance towards women players in general. I'd say gaming across the board has followed this line. I think it's a mistake to adhere strictly to one school, however...BOTH schools have their serious flaws AND advantages...

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  40. I like to see how Gamma World gets mentioned again and again as it holds a special place in my heart. In case you are interested in (yet another ;-) old school alternative for Gamma World (besides Mutant Future - which is great), I have spent the last couple of weeks on a new project called "Gaia Gamma", an old school revisioning of Gamma World. You can find the details spread all over the accompanying blog http://www.gaiagamma.com) which chronicles the way the game is designed.

    Input and followers are more than welcome as the game design process is meant to be an open space for ideas and the game itself follows a "release early, release often" philosophy in order to document the desig steps.

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  41. There is a minor schism between those favouring Ironclaw and those favouring Ironclaw: Squaring The Circle. Although given the size of Ironclaw fandom, this is more in the manner of personal disagreements than an actual schism.

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  42. There is indeed a split between Chivalry & Sorcery 2nd edition and C&S 3rd-4th edition, as you can see here:

    http://chivalrysorcery.myfastforum.org/How_much_of_Simbalist_in_3rd_edition__about194.html

    and here:

    http://tinyurl.com/3tehtca

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  43. I can vouch for there being a MASSIVE rift between players of old white wolf and new white wolf :D
    I know alot of people who were flat out addicted to that crack, but refuse to buy anything from the new edition. I suppose its something to do with metaplot rather than rules though, after X amount of years you have quite alot invested in the setting, and when they do a complete restart it's like they pulled the rug out from under you!

    Actually thinking about it, I'm guilty of this myself, I really like Mage, but the new edition leaves me cold (thats more to do with the magic system though, Mage has the best open ended magic system I've ever seen, so seeing it replaced by a point by spell system left a bad taste in my mouth - Do like the Orpheus reboot of Wraith though because it's a continuation of the existing metaplot rather than a restart :D)

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  44. Shadowrun had a pretty big split between 3rd and 4th edition too. They changed the mechanics from the ground up when they removed variable target numbers, rewrote the Matrix replacing cyberdecks where you had to actually plug your brain into the matrix using a fiberoptic cable drilled into your skull with a wireless matrix where anyone could interface with it using a palm sized comlink and a bunch of other stuff...

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  45. @Viktor Haag - HARP caused quite a bit of a stir when it was first announced. Many (including myself) felt that the last thing ICE needed was yet another fantasy system to confuse consumers. It was basically seen as a D20'izing of RM. Some of its reviews even stated that it did D20 better than D20!

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  46. @arcadyn -- From my reading of HARP it seemed cleaner, easier, more modular, and vastly simplified. These things appealed to me. However, I can easily see that they wouldn't have appealed to a huge portion of the existing RM fan-base.

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  47. It is pretty much all of those things. I like HARP in and of itself. I especially like the spell system, but especially dislike the combat. However, my biggest problem with HARP is that it competes with RM. I just don't get the logic of one company publishing two systems for the same genre.

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  48. I wouldn't call it a real schism (the fan base is too small, and we were desperate for any new material at the time) but a lot of DragonQuest players we're seriously ticked by TSR's changes to the game - and more particularly their decision to kill it and bury/not publish work in progress.

    If you want a huge schism outside of roleplaying, the StarFire SF wargame community went through a huge one a couple of years ago with the move from 3E to 4E (and especially the decision to kill the release of a major revised 3E supplement). There were extremely nasty flame wars, threats of law suits, division into camps and beleaguered neutrals, etc. Since then there has been internal work on a new "old school" edition to be marketed simultaneously with the current iteration of 4E.

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  49. Old School, I think is also a mindset or a philosophy toward gaming rather than a specific edition. Older RPGs by virtual of being sandbox games can acquire the title easier than more modern games in which the focus has been more about (re)creating the video game experience around the tabletop.

    I see that younger gamers raised upon newer games come with surprise and shock, when a GM allows them to do something unscripted or tells them to disregard the dice roll and act it out. The best players combine both - and that is the essence of Old School - but even the most able of fatbeards find this an arduous task.

    So, I am wondering if the synthesis is what we will need in the years ahead. As I am now raising the next generation of gamers - sure they will be coloured by Wii's and interactive virtual environments but I am trying to instill all this is meaningless unless you can see the story in your head - first.

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