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Full Circle

Maybe those old games really weren’t that bad…?

A regular on YouMeetInATavern.com [1], Longcoat000, posted a comment that triggered a flood of memories and nostalgia. In a long and tangential discussion [2] (my favorite kind, and one of the best aspects of YMIAT.com), I half-jokingly mentioned [3] how nearly all gamers go through a phase of overcomplicating their games by tacking on all kinds of additional rules, which is usually followed by a phase of falling in love with indie games, and then analyzing the fun right out of the mechanics.

To which Longcoat replied [4], “And after that, you come full circle back to “old skool” gaming and realize that all of those old systems were actually pretty fun and robust, but you didn’t have the experience to truly appreciate them until now…”

And my jaw dropped. We poke a lot of fun at the earlier RPGs, but honestly, AD&D 1E wasn’t that bad. How could it have been, if we played it for hours on end? Neither was Traveller, so long as you didn’t die during character generation. I joke about “getting shot in the Dexterity”, but if you’ve ever pulled a muscle in your back or had a cut on the web of your thumb, you know exactly what that means.

Okay, there were admittedly some shortcomings in the game. Races and classes were extremely unbalanced at different times during their careers, and there were exploits and ‘broken’ rules a-plenty, but can you name a game which doesn’t suffer from some imbalance or potential exploit? Are RPGs really improving with each generation? Or are our tastes changing (as we mature, and new generations enter the picture), and the games are merely changing to reflect them?

Just to show that I’m not the only Grognard [5] pining away for Ye Olde Schoole, it appears that there is a bit of a revival. Both OSRIC [6] and Castles & Crusades [7] attempt to recreate the feel of early gaming. “A Quick Primer For Old School Gaming,” a free PDF [8] by Matthew Finch has been making the rounds and stirring up quite a buzz.

As an old school gamer, who rolled his first 20-sided die back in 1979 or so, and remembers the Basic Rules set to have a blue cover [9], I’m getting a little verklempt [10].

Talk amongst yourselves; here’s a topic: “Old School is neither old, nor a school. Discuss.”

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "Full Circle"

#1 Comment By Rafe On February 3, 2009 @ 6:57 am

—Are RPGs really improving with each generation?—

Generally, yes. If we look at only D&D, AD&D was waaay better than 1st Edition. 3.x was better than AD&D. The point of contention is whether or not 4e is better than 3.5. Some say yes, some say no. There are things I love about 4e (especially on the DM’ing side of things) and things I’m quite “meh” about.

WoD and Shadowrun are other good examples of positive evolution, as is Burning Wheel (from what I’ve heard).

I don’t disagree that games tend reflect where we feel they need to go. Often, this is a matter of the developers and players both feeling like a new edition should be in the works. That said, I side strongly with the “positive evolution of editions” position.

#2 Comment By HappyFunNorm On February 3, 2009 @ 6:58 am

This is exactly the reason I’m liking M20 more and more. It’s incredibly simple, but provides for fairly complex gameplay.


The fact that it’s just so customizable as well makes it well suited to so many different applications.

#3 Comment By DeadGod On February 3, 2009 @ 9:01 am

I don’t really think any edition of a game is “better” than any other. They change over time. They offer a different way to game. They are a way to engage a genre through a specific purview. My only exception to this might be the transition from 0ed up. The first game Gary and Dave put together was a big step in a new direction. While 0ed is fun (and that a game ever needs to be to achieve success) I feel like a lot of kinks were hammered out getting it to the “Basic” edition. This is merely a minor quibble, though.

Ultimately, a GM and players will make their own of any game system. I think there is great value is experimenting with other systems and older editions, and attempting to engage the game from a different angle (or perhaps an angle you forgot about over time.)

Shameless plug (but related): Check out my post on recently running basic D&D for a bunch of “new school” guys: [12]

#4 Comment By Patrick Benson On February 3, 2009 @ 10:24 am

Old games can be like classic cars. You don’t get the latest features, they really aren’t that safe compared to modern day automobiles if you crash, and they are ineffecient compared to the latest technology.

But they are still fun to drive! 🙂

Shameless Plug: Everyone go and join [13] right now because it will increase your gaming karma by a bazillion kurklestiens (the official measurement of cosmic forces). This has nothing to do with my being the admin of the site.

#5 Comment By thelesuit On February 3, 2009 @ 1:08 pm

I have to admit to being an old school grognard as well. I started with the old Avalon Hill games and later discovered the purple dragon boxed set of D&D. I have a great fondness for those days.

Recently I have had the pleasure of introducing my own children to the RPG hobby and I started with a very streamlined tailored version of 3e that looks a whole lot more like 0e or early 1e. It was a blast. I took those lessons I have learned over the centuries since the 70’s and the myriad systems I have played and applied them to something close to 1e.

It was a blast. I laid out some basic rules to the players — kept things very free form and remembered rule 0 (Never say no to the players).

Good times.

Conversely this is not really something I could have done with many experienced 3e or 4e groups. “Advanced” players want a consistent and predictable rule system where they know the rules as well as the GM and can use (take advantage) of them. Which is one of the reasons I think most modern game systems aren’t as much fun to GM or play (I’m looking mostly at 3e and 4e D&D here). (In many cases) They (games/players) have become all about optimizing the results and crunching the numbers. It isn’t as much fun as it used to be.

I like the changes that have been made to standardize things and make the rule systems coherent and internally consistent — but I don’t like that many of them seem to have taken the magic out of the experience.


#6 Comment By Tommi On February 3, 2009 @ 3:05 pm

New games are most definitely not objectively better than old games.

They are more suitable for some styles. Old ones are more suitable to other styles.

Rafe; By what measure do you declare newer editions better than older ones? Are the measures you use the only possible ones or the only correct ones?

#7 Comment By Scott Martin On February 3, 2009 @ 3:58 pm

I enjoy lots of games, and always have. I think that most revisions are improvements– that a second edition usually improves on the first edition by removing unwieldy mechanics, fixing errors, etc.

Between systems, I’m a lot less confident. In many ways PTA is more minimalist than 0e– is that evolution, the circle squared, or what? I appreciate the older games, but think Patrick’s right when he notes that, like classic cares, you appreciate them for entirely different reasons than your daily driver.

#8 Comment By Rust On February 3, 2009 @ 5:24 pm

With Red Box Hacks out for some time and Vincent’s Storming the Wizard’s Tower deep into playtesting, I think there is a big “get me back some oldskool” vibe going on out there.

I read something over at Grognard, that put much of the blame on the Thief.

As soon as the Thief showed up with his fancy list of “skills” it all went down hill. Soon the diabolical problem of separating successful Intent vs. successful Task got clouded by lists and lists of skills, which spawned complex rules and well…. not to tempt anyone into analyzing the fun out of anything… 🙂

Telas, have you had a chance to look over Vincent’s new rules? I’d enjoy hearing your opinion of them.

#9 Comment By Karizma On February 3, 2009 @ 11:44 pm

Being a young gamer, I don’t “remember” old school gaming, but view it with a foreign mystique. One day I’ll play Swords & Wizardry (or whatever that free 0e one was).

The philosophy is different, and it’s something I would like to try.

#10 Comment By Rafe On February 4, 2009 @ 6:09 am


It’s definitely not an objective ruling. It’s my opinion. 🙂 If we’re talking about fun, then any edition can be fun. However, if we’re talking about rules, I feel that it’s hard to argue that newer editions of most games haven’t improved older editions. Other than D&D 4e which really changed the direction D&D was headed, I can’t think of a system that hasn’t been improved (and thus made better). That’s not to say that a particularly awesome frame of mind (or nostalgia) doesn’t make those games better. Some people like to play older editions and remember how it felt to play for the first time. That’s different than saying the older edition is the same as newer ones. It’s the mindset we’re talking about at that point, not the game.

Please note that this is not the same as saying “You all playing Shadowrun 2e are playing an inferior game to Shadowrun 4e.” It depends what you want out of it, but when it comes to rules clarity and fluidity, newer editions tend to enhance the system over older editions. That’s just the nature of how things change over time.

#11 Comment By theEmrys On February 4, 2009 @ 10:55 am

Well, for me, I started back with Red Box D&D… moved to AD&D, 2nd Ed, 3.X… tried 4, but didn’t love it… but then moved to HackMaster which was like 1e on steroids. What was interesting was that all of the things that I loved about 3.X (multiclassing, balance, monsters having levels, no class limitations, etc) and moved away from 1e/2e happily, were the same things that drew me back. Maybe it was nostalga and just wanting “the good old days”, but I really enjoyed going back to old school multi-classing, and wizards that got powerful but started wimpy… all the quirks that I’d initially fled from.

Even better, I found a product which was still being published with most of what I loved on the old system, but with even more good stuff as well.

Now, I can appreciate the newer games, but they just weren’t my thing… but that could be because of where I started.

#12 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On February 4, 2009 @ 1:00 pm

[15] – I don’t think that AD&D 2E was truly an improvement over 1E, and the jury is definitely out on 4E vs. 3.xE.

I think a good general rule is that new editions tend to do away with the annoyances from their predecessor, but in doing so, they are creating new annoyances. This is a far cry from (say) the auto industry where cars are far more powerful, efficient, reliable, and less expensive than previous ‘versions’. (The 2009 Mazdaspeed 3 has far more horsepower than Magnum PI’s Ferrari 308.)

For instance (IMHO) 3E took a very structured and consistent approach to the game (monsters leveling like PCs, using the same spells and effects, CRs, standardized DCs, etc). This replaced 2E’s “crazy quilt” of patchwork subsystems which was one of the bigger complaints about the system. But it also created its own problems with game prep, character optimization, and a focus on tactical efficiency over roleplay and imagination.

Another way to look at it: The mere existence of OSRIC and C&C seems to indicate that there is demand for the “old school” gaming experience, although I readily admit that they are cleaned up a bit.

#13 Comment By Rafe On February 4, 2009 @ 8:29 pm

Well, as I said, it’s an opinion of mine (perhaps too forcefully stated) that most new editions improve upon old ones. From my experience, that has always held true (until 4e). Ignore D&D for the moment: Shadowrun and WoD/Vampire both saw great improvements over previous editions. …Trying to think of other systems that I played a good deal of back in high-school and I’m drawing a blank in terms of updates to them. RIFTS didn’t see an update that I paid any attention to and I didn’t play GURPS enough to draw distinctions.

I suppose it all comes down to what you consider “improvement” to be. To me, 3.x was far improved over AD&D (and 3.5 was certainly better than 3.0, but let’s call that fixing mistakes and not really a new edition). Of course, that’s all after the fact. I don’t think anyone playing AD&D pre-3.x thought “Boy, when a new edition comes out, that’s gunna rock.” In retrospect, I think 3.x is better than AD&D but I was a huge AD&D fan when that was the latest version.

It’s certainly true that new annoyances are created with new editions, or that new editions can sometimes head in directions we, as individuals, didn’t really want to see. I’ve actually gotten to the point where I’m just plain ol’ tired of D&D. I was hoping for a different kind of change in 4e from 3.x and got… well, 4e, which in some ways exceeded my hopes (in simplification and ease of DM’ing crunch) but also fell horribly short. Gone was customization and the real idea of classes. Now it’s all about your role, and the focus is primarily on combat role and ability. Good intro system but really lacking in options.

Hmm… is this making any sense? Perhaps it’s just a matter of agreeing to disagree. 🙂 I simply feel no nostalgic impulse to return to older game editions. None in the slightest.

#14 Comment By LordVreeg On February 5, 2009 @ 8:33 am

I think I am agreeing with Tommi on this one. I’m in the “VERY old Boxed set” division (0D&D), though I was only playing then. I don’t think every ‘advancement’ in the rules has done much to advance the systems, but has made the game better for certain types of games.
(Though DeadGod I believe has a point, the very first steps with the same people working on them were amazing changes, from 0 to A)

I also think this addresses the theory at hand; in that how much of this revival is not actually a pining for the rulesystem itself but actually for the type of game that it created?

BTW, I also number in the ranks of those who feel no need to play D&D right now at all. I view my old games with the same nostalgia I view other earlier parts of my life, but my major issues of the game have always stayed around. It’s a combat system with a few peripheral rules around to allow for a more complete game, and that has only gotten worse in the latest editions.

#15 Comment By Tommi On February 5, 2009 @ 1:44 pm


I’ll go ahead to say that rules tend to be more consistent and presented in a clearer manner.

I hold consistency to generally be a good thing in that if there are rules to cover a number of situations, it would be better if those rules followed the same base logic. Some people disagree. James Maliszewski of Grognardia (http://grognardia.blogspot.com/), for example, IIRC.