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Review of the “A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming”

Posted By Patrick Benson On June 10, 2009 @ 11:19 pm In Reviews | 36 Comments

Reader Lesink requested that we review “A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming”. The funny thing is that our own Matthew J. Neagley already did back in October of last year. Matthew had a lot of praise for this work, and I agree that the fundamental concepts that it teaches are good ones.

And that is about all I can say that is good about this PDF. Why? Because it reeks of a zealotry that is unfounded, and it does a really poor job of explaining how the concepts that it teaches come from the “old school”.

Let’s talk about that term for a moment – old school is about as useful a term as “real American”. No one uses the term real American when they are talking about someone’s citizenship and loyalty to the United States. They use it as a sort of one-up when trying to persuade you to support the policies, views, or to vote for one United States citizen over another United States citizen. The term real American is bullshit. A real American is anyone who exists and is a citizen of any of the nations residing upon the continents of North and South America if you want to be technically correct about what the term means. Yet every election year I have to listen to two “real Americans” and their supporters explain how they are more of a “real American” than the other candidate. The term is bullshit. It means nothing.

That is exactly how I feel about the term “old school”. It is just a bullshit term that someone uses as if it validates their approach as being better than other, usually newer, approaches. And that is what this primer does. It takes some very good advice on how you can run an RPG game and then wraps it up in some whining nostalgia.

I shared this primer with my friends. Some liked it a lot, yet three of my friends found it to be a ridiculous fantasy of how old 1st edition D&D games were played. The funny thing is that all three of these people still have the original 1st edition D&D books that they purchased when there was no such thing as “old school gaming”. It was all new at that time, and they were very happy as the rules were expanded upon and the games improved.

Granted, a rules heavy game is not for everyone. I am not big fan of them myself, yet this document does not acknowledge something essential to why these rules heavy games came into being: Some players wanted them, and were willing to pay for them. Rules heavy games started appearing as soon as D&D came out. They might have been house rules, but it didn’t take long until publishers were printing larger and larger volumes of rules for their games. Long before there was a “modern” game movement.

By the way, look at your older rule books sometime. I am talking about games from the early eighties if not earlier. They usually do have less rules, but they also have less art and smaller print (at least all of the books that I flipped through did). Think about that the next time someone says “Modern rulebooks are huge! They are full of rules that you don’t need!” Maybe, but I’m willing to bet that the extra pages comes from the modern layout and not the rules.

Why I am so disgusted with this document? Because it is just bashing what others find to be fun. That’s it. My favorite game system is Fudge. It is by far one of the most rules light systems out there. It is very subjective and relies heavily upon the GM’s judgment. It was first released in 1995, and a lot of new games are built upon its system. These are modern games that capture and expand upon the style of game that this primer claims to be all about, and they do it without explaining how that approach is “better”.

Folks, do not fall for this kind of crap. There is some solid advice to be found in this primer, but you have to strip the obvious bias away that that good advice is wrapped in.

Don’t be an “old school”, “modern”, “indie”, or whatever type of gamer category is next to be made up. Just be a gamer, and run the style of game that your group enjoys despite what others may tell you. You want lots of rules and your group agrees? Go for it. Rules light with hardly any books? Fine.

In the end, if your group says “That was fun. Let’s play again some time soon!” then you have done your job. You don’t have to judge another person’s style to get that kind of experience. You just do it on your own.

That’s my opinion. What is yours? I’m sure some of you will agree and others will disagree, but whatever you feel leave your comments below and we’ll get this party started (that’s an “old school” saying I guess).

About  Patrick Benson

Patrick was born in 1975, and is more or less your typical American male for someone of his age. Except he is a tabletop RPG gamer and a damn fine game master! What else matters?




36 Comments (Open | Close)

36 Comments To "Review of the “A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming”"

#1 Comment By LesInk On June 11, 2009 @ 6:39 am

Hehe. I guess I should have done a better job of searching for previous articles before asking the question, so I’m a bit embarrassed by this article. (Note to everyone else: use the google search bar or Patrick will write an article like this with your name in it — ::laugh::).

Thanks for taking the time to review it again. It apparently was a painful process.

But let me see if I can explain why I was interested in the article and brought it to your attention. In short, I’ve got players who are saying, “D&D 4E isn’t a role playing game — it’s so rules heavy and combat focused that you can’t role play it.” That’s a pretty heavy blow, but I tell them it’s nonsense and they’re just stuck learning the rules and putting all their energy into learning the combat system (which does have plenty of intricacies). When they come back to the land of ‘oh I know that’, they’ll return to their role playing habits.

Coming across the ‘primer’ at about the same time was basically a godsend. It reminded me about the core concepts that old school … ahem … previous D&D game versions used. I needed that reminder even with all the bias.

As for wording, I technically have more offense of the title’s use of ‘primer’ than the use of ‘old school’ because I don’t see it as a primer at all. Yes, its nostalgic, yes its a bit out there, but let’s just call it a ‘reminder of how things were or had to be.’

The article definitely is bias, no doubt there, but so is most of the things you read on the internet. It just helps when the writer declares their bias (as I will point out that many of the Gnome Stew writers do, thank you).

So, yes, I was looking for discussion about the subject (the good intentioned kind) and here we are. I will go to the other article and make extensive review of the comments.

Side note: And for what it’s worth, I think people hold the word “indie” in holier-than-thou praise sometimes too.

Gnome Stew Recipe?
1 fresh article
a dash of bias and opinion
9 veteran GMs
several RPG game systems
mounds of readers

Combine all ingredients in order above. Eat stew while hot.

#2 Comment By Rafe On June 11, 2009 @ 6:39 am

I agree people ought to play what they want, but I would say there is a difference between most “modern” approaches to gaming and old-school approaches. Old-school does exist. Whether that mentality is elitist or not… well, I guess that’s subjective.

#3 Comment By deadlytoque On June 11, 2009 @ 8:30 am

What I can’t figure out is why the “old-skool” thinks they have a lock on rules-light gaming. Have they even SEEN In a Wicked Age? That thing is 36 pages long and it’s one of the least-old-skool games (not to mention one of the best) I’ve ever seen, and created by Vincent Baker, darling of the indie crowd! How about Ghost/Echo at a whopping 2 pages.

“Rules-light” is not a style of play. It’s a game development choice that can be used to support any style of play, depending on what those rules are.

#4 Comment By LordVreeg On June 11, 2009 @ 8:56 am

You know, maybe I am used to reading between the lines and maybe I read too many articles with not-so hidden agendas. I saw and noted the bias, but really, I found the .pdf more about a style of game versus the run-of-the mill edition wars I am used to avoiding. I liked the descriptions and the philosophy (in some cases I really liked it), but my biggest issue is with the implied ‘rules = lack of creativity’ idea.
I went to a skill based, pretty rule-heavy system years ago, and the creativity never went away.

#5 Comment By NeonElf On June 11, 2009 @ 9:08 am

I have not read this article. However, I have read many of the RPG blogs that talk about “old-school” and “sandbox” styles of game play. I’ll admit there is a concern with over-skilling a system. Just imagine: “Ok, you failed your breathe role, now make a consciousness roll to see if you’re still awake.” Yeah, that would be pretty dumb.

To continue what LordVreeg said, creativity is only stifled if the players/GM allow it to be. “You failed your spot check so you don’t see the angry troll charging towards you…” again ridiculous. The thing about have rules and skills is that it allows you to create a character who has different skills and abilities than you do in real life. I created a lawyer in a game, so I could roll “knowledge law” instead of going to law school. Without these rules it’d be hard to do something like that.

I have to agree with Patrick that the use of “old school” (or “real American”) is a poor defense, and only conveys a meaning if the connotation is the same among the person who said it and the people who hear it.

#6 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 11, 2009 @ 9:22 am

Everyone – I’m glad to see that this post is leading to some good discussion. I do have my bias in this article, and I think it would be more appropriate to call it an opinion than a review in retrospect. That said, if you like this document by all means defend it here. I do not post articles with the mentality of “I’m right.” (not always at least :) ), and I want to hear from others what they think.

When I first read the doc several months ago I liked it. Then upon a second reading I started to notice how skewed it was. By the time that I read it again for this article I was just disgusted by it and I finally understood why – the tactics and approaches described by the doc are good advice. I liked the primer at first because I recognized my own GMing style being described. Of course I was going to like it, because I already was GMing in that manner.

And once I got past the “I like it because it validates my way of doing things.” moment I read it again and started to see how it probably is doing more harm than good. It is one of those things that tries to create a rift where none exists IMO.

@LesInk – No reason to be embarrassed. I’m sure that this article was not what you expected, but Matthew had already done his take on the primer and I wanted to be honest on how I felt about the primer.

As for the term “indie”, well that too is used incorrectly. It means that the creator is also the owner of the game. Nothing more, and for some reason there are people who think that implies that the game is somehow better. I’ve played lots of indie games that sucked, corporate owned games that rocked, and vice versa.

@Rafe – That is a valid opinion, but I disagree because when I introduce kids to RPGs they naturally gravitate towards these “old school” techniques despite never having played 1st edition.

@deadlytoque – Good point about rules light being a design decision, but I think that there is also a rules light style of play as well. I have been with groups that removed rules from games, and those that added rules to games. To me that is the group finding the style of game that they like best.

@LordVreeg – I agree that rules do not lead to a lack of creativity. I run two 4e games right now, one group embraces creativity and the other embraces the rules as written. Same system, but two very different groups playing two very different games. You take what you got and make it work for you.

#7 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On June 11, 2009 @ 9:51 am

@LesInk – No worries. We’ve got more than enough authors with more than enough viewpoints to write multiple articles on plenty of topics. Heck, sometimes we do them in rapid sucession and make a feature of it, so no big deal.
Patrick’s article on this product was different than mine, and I think that’s for the best. Not only does he provide an additional position for everyone, but I enjoyed his perspective greatly.
I stand by my article, but I don’t disagree with Patrick that the term “old school” is bandied about too often, too loosely, and too often as an attack to have much real meaning. That doesn’t mean the primer is without merit however and Patrick says as much before he gets to the meat of his discussion, so I’d say I agree with him too.

#8 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 11, 2009 @ 10:22 am

@Matthew J. Neagley – Yep, this site has been stress tested to deal with the rants of 1,000 gnomes. It passed with flying colors!

Different points of view are something we gnomes want to encourage. IMO – GMing is not a “one size fits all” activity. You need to find what works for you personally, and then tailor it to work with the members of your group as well. The players should do the same as well.

When your group is able to cater to various styles and personalities you will have better games. That has been my experience. This document takes a different approach in its presentation that I do not agree with, despite my endorsing of the GMing tactics that it describes.

#9 Comment By LordVreeg On June 11, 2009 @ 10:38 am

Yeah, I have to agree with the “Love the message, despise the Slant”.

I run a skill-based game with hundreds of described skills. And all this does is give the game more grist for the creativity mill, if you GM it right. Proper play, as described, gives a bonus to succcess %.
Ah well.

#10 Comment By Tommi On June 11, 2009 @ 10:39 am

I read it some time ago and did not find it hostile towards, well, anything. Mr. Finch describes how he plays and contrasts it with how he thinks 3e is played. He decides to call his way “old school gaming”.

“Play like this if you want to enjoy Swords & wizardry / 0th edition.”

So I’m confused. Where’s the hostility and edition wars?

#11 Comment By Rafe On June 11, 2009 @ 11:00 am

@Patrick BensonThat is a valid opinion, but I disagree because when I introduce kids to RPGs they naturally gravitate towards these “old school” techniques despite never having played 1st edition.

Since you listed 1st edition in there, I’m assuming you’re talking about D&D. I wasn’t being exclusive when I spoke about old school, and I didn’t think you were, either, in your main article. It’s a gaming thing, I think, and not so much a system thing (though definitely seen it at its ‘height’ with D&D).

My experience has been the complete opposite, both with kids and adults. They don’t tend to get into what is being generically referred to as the “old-school mentality.” Interesting… What age of gamers are you talking about, and are you focusing specifically on D&D?

#12 Comment By John Carr On June 11, 2009 @ 11:10 am

I find that people tend to use the term “Real American” when referring to the Hulkster, brother!

(Also, good article and interesting discussion.)

#13 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 11, 2009 @ 11:49 am

@Tommi – I didn’t say that it was hostile. I said it was written with a does of zealotry. It makes unfounded claims about “modern” games and never really defines what is a modern game. Printed after 2000? A game using the D&D 3.5 rules? Anything after 1st Edition D&D? I don’t think that he could define what a modern game is, because it doesn’t exist IMO.

@Rafe – Understood, and thank you for clarifying that. I’m talking about younger gamers around the ages of 10 to 13. I think wanting to manipulate the game world and to interact with it in creative ways is a very natural type of role playing with any level of experience.

My kids, 3 and 5, also show a certain creativity when I run a game for them. They ask a lot of questions like “Can I climb that tree?” or “Is the monster ticklish?” Of course at their age I have to encourage good decisions when presenting them with choices. “If you get surrounded it will be difficult to defend yourselves, so think about why you want to do that.” and other such advice/mentoring. But that is beign a parent, not a GM. :)

@John Carr – Generic diety, I can still remember his theme song and cheering for him when I was kid watching him entering the steel cage to face King Kong Bundy in the title match for Wrestlemania 2 on Pay-per-View…

Where did I put my “Hulkamaniac!” headband?

#14 Comment By Tommi On June 11, 2009 @ 12:17 pm

Patrick;

Okay, that makes sense. I think it is referring to 3rd edition of D&D, as it fits the target audience and the descriptions. He might be talking about some vision of modern game solely living in his head, too, but certainly it does little to harm his point, in my opinion.

The text is naturally biased, but zealotry I do not see. Several times mister Finch mentions that the other way is okay, too (e.g. superhero paragraph). A few times the bias shows through, like in him saying that old school gaming has more colourful combats.

Marketing or biased writing? Certainly. Zealotry? Still not seeing it.

#15 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 11, 2009 @ 12:33 pm

@Tommi – That’s cool. The funny thing about perception is that two people looking at the same thing don’t see the same thing. :) Yet, I do see where you are coming from and respect your take on this document.

Anyone who disagrees with me and puts it so well gets what this site is all about. We gnomes don’t want to tell you how to GM, but we do want to help you by challenging how you think about GMing and other gaming related items. So please continue to support this document if that is what you think it deserves. Encourage others to read it as well if you think that it will help them as GMs.

My only request is that if they tell you that they feel the same way about the document that I do that you respect that view as well. Gamers who you can disagree with are the best ones to play games with, because there is so much that we will all disagree about. fudging dice rolls ;)

#16 Comment By Scott Martin On June 11, 2009 @ 12:35 pm

I like the style it points to– like everything else, making the decision to go “old school” has pluses an minuses. NeonElf has a good point: that old school games are very good if you want player skill to equal character skill.

Sometimes you want a puzzle the players will enjoy (so go old school), other times you want a “complex puzzle only a superhero could solve” (so let the superheroically skilled character strut his stuff with an impressive die roll).

#17 Comment By Tommi On June 11, 2009 @ 1:21 pm

Patrick;

Never have I met a more reasonable man who can mention fudging in a positive context.

#18 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On June 11, 2009 @ 2:58 pm

I was originally taken aback by Patrick’s tack on this, but once I thought about it, he’s right. “Old School” is whatever the speaker wants it to be.

Iron Crown was “old school”, and was one of the most top heavy and over-detailed systems I’ve ever seen. Savage Worlds is “new school” and lives up to its “Fast! Furious! Fun!” tag line.

Each game system has its own flavor and style. D&D 3.5 (unintentionally, I believe) encourages playing the sheet instead of the character. 4E tends towards “Gamer Porn” because it’s all about the action sequences, baby; all that silly dialogue and story stuff is just to get from one ‘encounter’ to another (nudge-nudge, wink-wink). Original and AD&D were very loosely defined, so some groups played them in the Primer’s “old school” fashion, while others wrote their own house rules and played them “new school” style.

All that said, I think the core message of the Primer is still extremely valuable: Don’t let the rules limit your imagination.

#19 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 11, 2009 @ 3:09 pm

@Kurt “Telas” Schneider – That core message is so very, very true. And your examples of Iron Crown and Savage Worlds are so spot on!

#20 Comment By waxbanks On June 12, 2009 @ 3:29 pm

I didn’t say that it was hostile. I said it was written with a does of zealotry. It makes unfounded claims about “modern” games and never really defines what is a modern game. Printed after 2000? A game using the D&D 3.5 rules? Anything after 1st Edition D&D? I don’t think that he could define what a modern game is, because it doesn’t exist IMO.

I think you’re wrong – if you read the ‘old school’ D&D blogs, you’ll find that the boundary between ‘schools’ is chronologically somewhere around the 1e/2e transition and the dissipation of the simplistic ‘sword-n-sorcery’ model that obtained in the early days of the wargames-descended hobby. Spiritually, the boundary is as implied in Finch’s ‘Primer’ – the increased emphasis on rules expansions, ‘official’ backstory, pre-written storylines, and baroque skill systems, which marked the 2e/3e era.

Throw in some Gygax fetishism (the ‘old school renaissance’ was largely prompted by E.G.G.’s death, even if there had been revanchist interest before – don’t let the ‘grognards’ tell you otherwise) and a strong reaction against the ‘menu-driven’ powers and absolutely dreadful flavour of D&D 4e, and there you have it.

I think Finch’s ‘primer’ gets at something simplistic and dumb about fantasy RPGs, but he’s waaaaaaaay too charitable toward the clunky, incomplete OD&D rules, the ankle-deep B/X and Rules Cyclopedia years, and the abomination that was AD&D 1e. (The Gygax-love is a problem all over the so-called ‘old school’ scene – can we just admit that the man was a middling designer and a middling writer and be done with it?) That said, the larger problem with the Primer is his mischaracterization of modern games – I find that 4e allows for tons of roleplaying, so long as the group doesn’t approach it as a fucking adolescent numerical-optimization problem/escapist orgy-of-violence. And unlike earlier D&D instances, 4e combines an interesting, well-balanced combat engine with streamlined non-combat mechanics, handling its dice-rolling aspects well (and consistently, for once) and leaving plenty of room for dramatic/narrative experimentation elsewhere. Best of all, 4e combat is evocative stuff – none of the math-y slog of the overrated 3e, none of the paper-thin ‘simulation’ nonsense of the Old Days.

If 4e adventures are combat-heavy at the moment, then we need better 4e adventures. It’s trivial to convert old adventures to 4e, and the system imposes few restraints on players beyond the admittedly complex combat model. Want your beloved Vancian magic back? All spells are Daily powers, rejigger the numbers a little. Miss the useless-in-combat wizard? Cut his hit points. Lvl1 chars seem too strong? Beef up enemies. Don’t like treasure parcels, hate balance? Do what you like.

As a DM I spend most of my time improvising rulings when not doing straight combat dice rolls, and it makes for a freewheeling, fun game. That + competent art and design + stories that weren’t hackneyed before I was born = a system and implied style that stand on their own compared to the precious overwritten underdesigned ‘old school’ D&D flavour.

ALL THAT SAID, Finch’s essay is a great reminder that playing the scene (vs playing the sheet) is the most important step toward deeper roleplaying. Take out the nostalgic posturing and you have a solid ‘how to have quick’n'dirty fun at the RPG table’ guide, and only a churlish dick could get angry at that.

#21 Comment By GiacomoArt On June 12, 2009 @ 3:31 pm

The emergence of the term “old school” as an important thing in gaming is one of my own pet peeves, and I see it (and the whole pdf in question) in pretty much the same light that you do. Only a tiny fraction of the gaming population has more right to claiming “old school” cred than I do, but I frankly just see it as snobbery. I roll my eyes every time I read about “old school World of Darkness”, or how 4E isn’t worthy because it isn’t “old school” D&D. When did dis-ing things for being new and different become a favorite pasttime in a hobby that’s all about daydreaming? Just do your game your way, and let other groups enjoy their own styles.

I’m also with you on FUDGE. I’ve used it more for inspiration than anything over the years, but my wife and I were there when the author debuted it at GenCon, and he loved the way we “got” what he was trying to do. We even went on to do a bit of writing for the publisher. :o)

#22 Comment By waxbanks On June 12, 2009 @ 3:31 pm

(And let the record show that the ‘old school renaissance’ is strictly about late-70′s/early-80′s games. They’re talking about D&D and its first contemporaries, OD&D and AD&D 1e in particular, and they very definitely know what they mean by the term. Their various flaws and ridiculousnesses aside, the oldies can indeed talk passionately about exactly what ‘old school’ play means – if not univocally then all the better.

#23 Comment By waxbanks On June 12, 2009 @ 3:37 pm

@GiacomoArt -

I roll my eyes every time I read about “old school World of Darkness”, or how 4E isn’t worthy because it isn’t “old school” D&D. When did dis-ing things for being new and different become a favorite pasttime in a hobby that’s all about daydreaming? Just do your game your way, and let other groups enjoy their own styles.

Remember, the ‘old school’ guys are all about the implied gaming-group customizations attendant on half-written rules like OD&D. The idea was, you bought a toolkit for building a rules-based fantasy world unique to your group, and played in a style that wasn’t necessarily common to all such groups. AD&D was TSR/Gygax’s claim to ‘canonical’ rules status – its kitchen-sink approach reflects ongoing conversations about how exactly fantasy gaming should be done ‘right.’

Gaming cultures really were different back then – and nostalgia for that naive/innocent DIY hobbyist culture is a big part of the ‘old school movement.’ Hence the outpouring of love for the couple of 0e/1e/retro-clone ‘zines that have sprung up, Fight On! and Knockspell – which offer opportunities to connect idiosyncratic miniworlds consisting of a handful of gamers apiece.

3e/4e gamers, and even the 2e kids, wouldn’t understand what that’s like, as TSR/WotC’s corporate identities codified practices that were in flux between the mid-70′s and mid-80′s.

#24 Comment By waxbanks On June 12, 2009 @ 3:41 pm

Last thing: a lot of lamentation when Gygax died was about the lack of idiosyncratic flavour in modern D&D materials. It’s true: most of the fluff in the 4e core is insipid crap. Some books (Manual of the Planes in particular) dig into strong worldbuilding material, and the 4e DMG is a tremendous work, but the baroque, flowery Gygaxian house style is long gone. If you <a href="http://waxbanks.typepad.com/blog/2009/04/demogorgon-and-old-school-fetishism.html"grew up with that shit, it’s bound to be weird reading the new core books, which are essentially technical manuals for having fun.

That’s about professionalization, disciplinary boundaries, and so forth. Ho hum.

#25 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 12, 2009 @ 5:06 pm

@GiacomoArt – Very cool! I’m quite active in the Fudge community, so please let me know what you have written for Fudge. One of my personal projects is http://www.sinisterforces.com where I am trying to get my act together to produce a game based on the Fudge system, as well as just to provide a nice Fudge resource for fans. I love picking the brain of fellow Fudge fans for ideas, so feel free to contact me there. :)

@waxbanks – Sorry, but I disagree. The term “old school” applied to anything is bullshit.

For one it is a moving target. 20 years form now what will be considered old school? No one can say, because the term relies so much on what is available in the present in order to make a comparison against what came before it.

Second I have played 1e with gamers who have started playing RPGs when 1e first came out. They are technically “old school” gamers. Members of the first generation to play RPGs ever. And they consider the term bullshit. They read the primer and told me “He’s wrong. Plenty of younger gamers run their games this way without ever having played 1e and with no coaching from older gamers.” I’m sure you are a smart and trustworthy person, but how can I deny these statements from people who I have met in the flesh?

I agree that the principles behind the GMing techniques that the primer endorse are good ones. I use them myself. Yet I am 34 years old, so even though I can’t be “old school” because I wasn’t even born when D&D first came out what does that say about this whole chronological argument? I run modern games using the style this primer describes without being “old school” due to age. How is that possible? Simple, there is no “old school”.

Next week I’ll attack the term “indie” gamer… :)

#26 Comment By waxbanks On June 13, 2009 @ 11:38 am

I agree that the principles behind the GMing techniques that the primer endorse are good ones. I use them myself. Yet I am 34 years old, so even though I can’t be “old school” because I wasn’t even born when D&D first came out what does that say about this whole chronological argument?

Careful you don’t conflate the chronological category of ‘old-school’ gaming, i.e. what happened in 1974-198x, with the stylistic category/goal of ‘playing as they did back then.’ Yes, the term is overburdened with assumptions about the ‘true nature’ of D&D (I find wandering monster tables stupid and childish – a good DM can build an encounter that’s ‘random’ and interesting all at once, and fuck the ‘old-school’ mantra of ‘randomness breeds creativity’). But it’s clear that there’s a single model in mind among the crotchety old men:

* thin rules
* pulp aesthetics
* heavy randomness
* DIY culture – heavy system modding, not just world modding
* minimal written resources rather than big expensive core books – necessitating improvisation at every level of system design/modification
* rudimentary (combat) mechanics

These constraints suggest a play style that’s ruling-heavy and rules-lite, narrative-lite, and big on houserules and ad hoc subsystems. And, of course, relentlessly fucking juvenile in tone and preoccupation.

As for ‘old school is a moving target,’ unless you simultaneously live in the years 2029 and 2009, that’s meaningless – right now, among D&D players, the term refers to pretty much one cluster of things.

Look, I think 4e’s a great system and – crucially – I think you can play in an ‘old-school’ style with 4e rules. It’s well-designed and thin where it needs to be (not thin enough in some places, too much so in others). Best combat system in any D&D edition. But the gaming culture is totally different now, because of video games primarily. That seems obvious to me, and so the purpose of the term ‘old school’ in this particular topical domain seems equally obvious.

#27 Comment By waxbanks On June 13, 2009 @ 11:43 am

…but I should note that I have no age-related anxiety about the ‘old-school’ types; I’m 30, relatively new to roleplaying, and I’m interested in the games’ history, not whose piss stream is most robust.

Expectations and culture in gaming are totally different now from what they were in the late 70′s. As are system design standards. The purpose of the ‘primer’ is to assert a positive identity for the style of gaming that existed before the fragmentation of AD&D 2e, and (not) incidentally Gygax’s departure from TSR. Hagiography and fetishism without question, polemical hyperbole yes, defensive kneejerk nostalgia of course. But even if Finch’s characterization of ‘you whippersnappers’ doesn’t cover EVERY ASPECT OF EVERY SINGLE PLAYER EVERYWHERE, EVER, that’s not the purpose. Reading it for academic completeness is poor practice.

#28 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On June 13, 2009 @ 12:14 pm

Waxbanks – Your list describes Savage Worlds to a ‘t’. Is it old school?

#29 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 14, 2009 @ 10:33 am

@waxbanks – Sorry. I don’t buy it. I’ve read the original D&D rules. They weren’t designed for judges to improvise decisions and to house rule. The rules were poorly done in some ways, and the layout of the system was sporadic at best. As one of my friends who has played D&D from its first release said “We were happy to see such an improvement in the product when Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was released. The original books were confusing.”

I’m not a huge fan of 4e. It is what it is. Yet there are two things about the “old school” movement that annoys me:

1) Seems to apply only to D&D. Forget Tunnels & Trolls (1 or 2 years after D&D’s release, and it had less rules), RuneQuest, Bunnies & Burrows, Top Secret, Villains & Vigilantes, etc. Those systems were released within five years or so of D&D. They all were “old school” and they all introduced improvements to RPGs. Yet the “old school” arguments seem to focus on 1e vs. 3.5/4e. Those of us who skipped 3-3.5e and played games outside the realm of D&D hear this “old school” movement hype and think “What? Plenty of games have been doing that since D&D was first released. Haven’t these people been playing anything besides D&D?”

2) 1st edition is like the Model A Ford. It changed everything. Ford still had to introduce the Model T to really see huge success, and no one that I know of would want a Model A today when you can buy the cheapest new car on the market and have a lifetime of technological improvements immediately available to you.

I’m not saying that people shouldn’t play 1e. If you liek 1e play it. I’m not saying that RPGs haven’t changed since the original D&D rules were released. Their have been improvements and mistakes.

All I’m saying is that this supposed “old school” doesn’t exist. I will concede that it does exist only if you play D&D exclusively.

But someone who plays D&D exclusively preaching the merits of “old school” gaming to other gamers is like a person who has never been outside of their home nation telling international travelers about how the rest of the world works. Perhaps that person is correct, it is possible, but I doubt that person will actually have insight beyond that of the audience to which he speaks.

Its amazing how for the last 20 some years rules light systems that required heavy GM input have been avialble and now all of the sudden people wnat a return to that style. It never left. And rules heavy systems? They were there during the “od school” days too, and they also never left.

@Kurt “Telas” Schneider – Excellent real world example! Savage Worlds is a “modern old school” game I guess. ;)

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#31 Comment By LordVreeg On June 18, 2009 @ 1:57 pm

@Patrick,

“Its amazing how for the last 20 some years rules light systems that required heavy GM input have been avialble and now all of the sudden people wnat a return to that style. It never left. And rules heavy systems? They were there during the “old school” days too, and they also never left.”

And you have hit the crux of the “Old School Movement”.
It has as much to do with reaction as action. It is a response as much as it is a movement. There is no “Old School Movement”. There is a “New School Reaction”.

The other games you mention (all of which I played, including the Bunnies and Burrows) don’t have the desperately fanatical, serious following nor the continual editions pumped out to create ‘the reaction’.
I am of the contention that D&D got further away from one style of play and created rules that facilitated a different play style. No judgement needed.

There is no “Old School Movement”. There is a migratory reaction to a “New School” as it is very different from what some people have played ansd still want to play.

#32 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 18, 2009 @ 3:57 pm

@LordVreeg – Very well put, but I do have games from the early 80s that seemed to be about pushing modules at a very fast pace. I think what changed is that:

a) The cost of publishing dropped, and keeps dropping. Before you didn’t release a new version of the rules as often because of the expense involved. Now you can do so when you believe the market wants a new edition.

b) There are more publishers, and you need to constantly reinvent yourself to compete.

Neither of these indicate a new/old school movement of any sort. They are business decisions. TSR made some bad ones, WotC has been making some good ones, and there is plethora of other examples between the first RPG publisher and the current reigning champ.

Yet I look at modern games that don’t push edition after edition out the door, and some older games that do and the whole new vs. old argument crumbles for me. D&D pushes edition after edition out the door. So does GURPS. White Wolf with a far shorter history does the same. Are they old school, new school, or just businesses trying to sell you their latest products? My bet is on the businesses.

They were complex supplement pushing games in the beginning years of RPGs, and there are rules light systems available today. Why? Because there have always been gamers into crunch, rules, and lots of materials, and there have always been gamers into streamlined play, subjective approaches, and a mere 32 page rulebook. Two breeds born of the same beginning. Nothing more.

#33 Comment By LordVreeg On June 28, 2009 @ 11:54 am

@Patrick Benson – Patrick, I think I was kind of agreeing with you here. You might be seeing a disagreement whre this is less of one. I was reinterpreting the issue in question. My exact point in my last point (perhaps I said it poorly) is that the need for the supposed old-school revolution was created by the latest version of the game.

“Yet I look at modern games that don’t push edition after edition out the door, and some older games that do and the whole new vs. old argument crumbles for me. D&D pushes edition after edition out the door. So does GURPS. White Wolf with a far shorter history does the same. Are they old school, new school, or just businesses trying to sell you their latest products? My bet is on the businesses”

I agree, they are in business and are trying to make money doing something they love. But again, this makes my point. Gurps, Tunnels and Trolls, Traveller, and White Wolf’s new edition together did not create a Backlash effect, despite the fact that you and I both have mentioned their ‘pumping out’ new editions.
Because they are fundamentally games in the same spirit/mentality of their original versions, aimed at the same audience.

My assertation is that the evolution of the D&D rules, for better or for worse, have created a reaction that some people view as an Old-School movement. The reason for this reaction vs. other game system upgrades is simply that the newer versions have very different focus and are obviously aimed at a different audience and playstyle than the oldest variations. Not better or worse, no value judgement. I agree and stated that there have been rules-heavy and rules-light in all phases of RPGs. That is a smokescreen.

There are corrollary issues involved, but simply put, the old vs. new issue has a very simple litmus test. Most new generational systems cause some friction and adjustment, and people choose between them, but they don’t provoke whole supposed movements that fill up thread after thread on blog after blog, whether these new systems were put out to make money or not.

You don’t have a reaction without reactants. And there is a reaction in this particular pot.

#34 Comment By Tacoma On July 21, 2009 @ 4:19 pm

To the original article: you have nothing to be disgusted about. That quick primer thing describes the different style of play necessary when the game has few and ambiguous rules. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that you run FUDGE differently from how you would run Palladium, or 1E AD&D let’s say.

The article may say “old-style” but it includes in that category recent games that are of the same style as OD&D – requiring more arbitration on the referee’s part.

I read it some months back and it has some great points. I took those away from it and forgave it any pro-rules-light bias it may have. After all I can play what I want and a PDF isn’t going to stop me.

As for your argument about rule book size, it is true that older games had less-professional printing standards and less art. Honestly I’d rather have less art. I don’t need a half-page weredragon “swagger portrait” every three pages. I want narrower margins and efficient type. I want rules that I can easily learn so I don’t have to flip through the book all day. If I can find that with a complete rule-set of 210 pages (D&D rules cyclopedia), or 832 pages (4E) or 876 pages (pathfinder: 576 core, 320 bestiary), or 960 (3.5 D&D: 320 PHB, 320 DMG, 320 MM) … I can honestly say I like the idea of one-quarter the page count.

The RC is just as wasteful of space with art and typesetting as the later D&D games. So your argument that the above games are so bulky as a trade-off of looking better doesn’t really fly.

#35 Comment By Patrick Benson On July 21, 2009 @ 9:46 pm

@Tacoma – The point is that “old school” is not something that has been forgotten or lost. It is just a style where the GM is more active in those judgments, and the group is less reliant upon rules. There were rules heavy games back in the late 70s and early 80s. The primer conveniently ignores them.

The primer is wrapped in nostalgic bias, it bashes other styles IMO, and that is what I am opposed to. I don’t endorse it, and if you do so be it. If it disgusts me then it disgusts me. YMMV.

#36 Comment By larquinius_superbus On September 14, 2010 @ 11:15 am

It is funny that the makers of Swords & Sorcery had to redesign, revamp, and reorganize 0e so it would be easier to consume than its ancestor.

I think its telling that “Old-School” gaming was loosey-goosey; not because it was better, rather, the rules were not clearly written!

Also interesting is that D&D has always been rules heavy. Even the original games were rules heavy. So while I like the ethos that the primer is trying to convey, and I kind of chuckle at the self-righteousness of its tone, I agree that its really up to you to determine what style of play is fun for your group.

However, I do completely disagree with those of us who say that 4th Edition is as devoted to role-playing as previous editions of D&D. My stinky opinion is that 4th Edition is a very “new school” game, in that its trying to compete with MMORPG’s by giving people way too much power and way too many systems to govern said powers.
For me, as someone who has played almost every edition of D&D, I really don’t like the direction its going in lately, and when I play 4th Edition, I honestly don’t feel like I’m playing D&D.

With that being said, though, I’ve found the more I ignore the cornucopia of rules contained in D&D 4th Edition, the better the play experience has been for the group on the whole. So, I guess we’re back where we started?


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