Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Old School vs. New School

I find revitalizing movements exciting until they degrade into fundamentalism. The initial excitement revs everyone's engine like a Spring cleaning spree! This opens up space and makes it more useful, but quickly devolves into a set of repetitive instructions that eliminate making messes in the first place. These repeatable instructions, these rules, seek to preserve the openness, but make the openness that of a museum: "Don't touch!"

One can honestly read about "old school" and predict only one outcome: fundamentalism. The reason why is rather simple. Rules are more tangible than the fantasy adventure, so the rules lawyers have something they can easily discuss as if it were representative of the actual game. The rules are, after all, titled Dungeons and Dragons. Whereas, what actually happens in them, fantasy, is not so easily measured.

In all honesty, I can, and have, used any rules to produce the magic of my campaigns, and in a certain sense, I have never played Dungeons and Dragons in my entire life span. When I was introduced to the game the rules were up in the air. The rules books gave the initiate a sense of the mechanics, like a script outlines a movie, yet can say nothing about the effect of the final performance or directing. Back in the day, the script/rules were under constant change in order to better accommodate the actors and directors. The rules were a tool that could be rearranged rapidly and easily, to greater dramatic effect. Thus, everyone in Lake Geneva had a different version of Dungeons and Dragons. In fact, when someone else put out a new rules set, we were often quite eager to borrow whole cloth to see how it wears. At one point I was probably judging Rob using half D&D, 1/4 Chivalry & Sorcery, and 1/4 rules I'd made up or borrowed from the dozens of games in which I was participating.

Tell me if it isn't true that this exact same openness to rules isn't still taking place right now, throughout the role playing community? One can only imagine the answer is “more so!” I can hear you all shaking your heads in agreement here.

We are a community of strong minded individuals that pleases in a shared experience, which we might not otherwise have if it were not glued together by our amazement! It is the power of fantasy that permits us to open each other’s minds and dance inside of them, not the rules. The idea of our revival is to win over more members to the movement in order to extend and gain its greatest wealth. We need to generate a broad appeal. This is not accomplished by walking away from the future and only investing in the past.

Calling it old school is immediately limiting. At best, what we share is a certain sense and feeling of the game that we wish to return to, but that's not possibly achievable by settling upon a set of rules that wasn't even used for longer than a snapshot in time by its creators.

The successful and enduring mechanic of D&D can be found in almost all of the other games descending from it. Frankly put, once you've played one role playing game, you're far past the conceptual learning curve of any other. This is not true in the realm of board games, where one must compare Stratego to Candy Land to Monopoly to the thousands of counters and 32 square feet of map for Drang Nach Osten. The core goodness is much smaller than OD&D. It’s a more basic pattern.

The coin of the role playing realm should be the world. When comparing rules sets, we’ve not yet realized that what makes one rules set better over another are its organic elements. Do the rules abstract excessively, or are the mechanics closer to how things would really work? In other words, if I can cast a spell called magic missile without learning neurology, I'm better off. This means that the mechanics in a role playing game should correspond to what's found in the world. For example, there should be rules for pounding spikes, not rules for abstract success given the ratio of strength to skill additionally rated by experiences with hand held tools. We want to pound this flocking spike now, for heaven’s sake. We do so within the game world, not within the rules set. We must then ask, do the rules take us too far out of the world in which we are acting?

Of course, the more basic the rules set, the more likely we are in the world. But the truth is, the more organic the rules set is to the world, the more we are in the world and not the rules books. It is only happenstance that we find ourselves more attracted to OD&D, simply because we can see the more simple kernel of its truth. We certainly cannot be attracted to it because it makes the play any easier! It was terribly incomplete.

The idea of old school sounds to me like a well intended invitation to a retro dance, which seeks to honor the past. Right now I like the energy, the spirit, the intellectual endeavor, and the honest search for enjoyment that the movement seems to entail. However, I don't see anything new to adopt. I've been there. I'm hardly returning to it. I see no new ideas that would change my game. I have no reason to buy the rules. I knew them by heart in my childhood, but I’ve forgotten them on purpose, much preferring a D10 for fighter hit points over a D8. In fact, when I first encountered the phrase, “First Edition without its excesses,” I immediately thought, how about “OD&D without its excesses?”

If you want to go really old school, who's to say you shouldn't roll your character's hit points every morning when they wake up. So a fighter that rolled an 8 on that D8 yesterday may only start with a 1 today. Thus, the adventurers would need to consult with each other about how they're feeling before deciding to sally forth, or else wait until tomorrow. Does anyone really want to go back to that excess? It's how it was done for a period, and straight out of OD&D.

Frankly, OD&D introduces more uncertainties than most will realize. But folks don’t notice these differences because they apply what they already assume about the game to the rules set. OD&D isn't "D&D" anymore than 1st edition or 3rd edition.

And let’s admit it. Whenever we’ve been to someone’s game that intends to play exactly by the rules, we’ve quickly lost the enchantment of the evening, instead realizing we’re playing with someone that has very little understanding of what fantasy entails. The dim fact in these cases remains true: the DM can’t maintain consistency without recourse to the rules, therefore they also can’t adequately present the risk of chaos inherent in any conflict that fuels fantasy. Fantasy demands an imbalance if there is to be anything worthy of our rapt attention.

The game's essence is captured in the play. The proof for this is quite simple. We instantly recognize a suck-ass game when we're sitting there waiting to see who acts the fastest because we have to slowly figure out the dozen or so modifiers involved in the initiative system. Can anything be more ironic, waiting to see who’s not waiting?

It doesn't really matter what the rules say, too many rules and it's stupefying, not enough and you're assuming things. And what’s more, I haven't seen a single copy of D&D that fits my needs, because they are ALL merely guidelines. One could almost go as far as to say that a real and true fantasy campaign doesn’t have rules. It has only guidelines.

The chunkiest part of these guidelines would be the Action Resolution System (ARS), which would tend to seem mechanical, but which can be hidden using certain ideas as guides, such as class, rather than detailing out every single skill a character might have. Class is fairly organic, and while the idea of skill is also organic, a vast skill system such as one finds in roll faster (Role Master) is certainly not.

But even a most basic ARS is a guideline, since it can quickly be turned upside down on its head in a fantasy world. For example, a planar gate can transform strength into the force of one’s thoughts and intellect into the raw ability to hover in an amorphous, non-physical reality. How solid can any system be in such a place as magic rules? I’m more concerned with a DM’s consistency and ability to seamlessly lie than I am with rules in a fantasy setting. The lies of fantasy require convincing stories to hold them together, not a single, reliable mechanic. The idea of fantasy makes such a thing patently IMPOSSIBLE.

But what if a movement seeks to coalesce around guidelines? I can't imagine how that works. Where's the soul in that? Thus, there is an insecurity inherent in the idea of an old school movement. The strongest voices will tend to be the rules lawyers, those whose lack of imagination will succumb to fundamentalism.

Thus, while I am enjoying the feeling of the movement’s heart, I prefer to identify with the concept of the Old Guard, which implies honor, virtue, foundation, and generational preservation. I must refuse the term 'old school,' since I'm not part of a series of fads, not even if the succession of editions causes one to think in such terms.

Old school implies done and used, and anyone participating in fantasy is hardly that unless they embrace the limitations of the past, in which case they are defying the natural magic of the game's profusion and unpreventable advancement. And, magic is the one thing you cannot defy in fantasy without resulting in something boring and altogether unfantastic.

But are YOU really old school? Do you embrace the excessive limitations of OD&D? It doesn't even say how often you roll your hit points. Were you aware of that? Or, more likely, did you bring a core set of assumptions from your experiences with other gamers and editions to the table and simply didn’t notice how rudimentary and poor OD&D was due to these cultural aspects of the game that carry forward? A rules system is not a grail. It's a system that should be subsumed by the play of the game, not something we pride ourselves in using or are aware of on any level while immersed in a fantasy realm. I pride myself as a fantasist. How about you?

In all truth, I've noticed that much of the conversation about the old school is inaccurate. Folks are digging up the original game and making assumptions about it that were not present in that time, and therefore they are working a subtle revisionism. A canon is being created, not found. The story is identical to fundamentalism, where you return to an alternate past composed only of those parts of the past that conveniently fit the desired interpretation of the past. You end up interpreting reality to fit with a literal interpretation. You end up with unreal limitations that had no place in the movement’s heart at the outset, but which take it over due to the nature of talking versus doing.

If we all adventured together, the rules lawyers would have less weight. They tend to be less likely to come up with innovative ways to play. They tend to focus on the rules. They become the priests of any movement depending upon mechanics. But that’s not a revitalization, since the life of the game is in the play. How does it play? Not, what are the rules.

What do you do to make fantasy happen and how do you preserve it and propagate it? Are those specifically rules questions? No.

What will truly preserve the game would be the embrace of a “new school” that finds what is best and propagates play the easiest. But this isn't possible if you term the movement old school and tend toward fundamentalist rationalizing.

Any successful movement needs robin hoods more than altars. We need to steal back what is good without worshipping its wealth as if it were the end all.


Geoffrey said...

For what it's worth, in my Carcosa D&D campaign the PCs re-roll their hit points at the beginning of each combat. Yes, it's insane. :)

The Acrobatic Flea said...

I was refering to what I sought in my games as "old school" before I knew of this Old School Renaissance.

I have harkend back to the stories I've read about such settings as Greyhawk, Arduin and Blackmoor since I printed my first campaign guidelines book for players in 1988 (I'd been actually playing RPGS of all stripes for over a decade by then).

That, now, returning to RPGs, after a 15 or so year break, I have chosen to use Labyrinth Lord - following a stint with Castles & Crusades - is a sign of my eagerness to find a streamlined system that allows for quick dungeon creation and play that my group can easily grasp (it's just a game to them, they are not invested in the system and have busy lives these days with jobs, families etc).

That it is a retro-clone of an old D&D system is a co-incidence, I believe.

Lord of the Green Dragons said...

Eric makes very solid points here and those we have together recently discussed.

When it comes down to it, and as I've stated for years and years to hundreds of players and DMs, or even prospective writers and designers, if your players across from you (as a DM) are excited, are leaning forward on the edge of their seats, that you find them calling and asking you questions eager to play again, then you can be assured that the fantasy aspect of a game is being presented in such a way that the actual game rules meld into the act seamlessly. If that's "Old School" then that concept extends as far back and beyond the point of D&D's conception and to thousands of games which over hundreds of years have achieved that very effect, that of fun and enchantment winning out in a game.

That movements exist are unquestionable. That Old School movements seek to honor the perceived foundation of the game is also a truth. That DnD in its day was not a movement is also undeniable. It was an expression of design and one that was in motion. Constant motion. My confusion has risen while watching that same motion get codified into a realm where it slows down to its barest speed, which seems to predate the design event which has already transpired and which by course moved on with its intended motion. I find this image as contradictory as understanding what Old and New School are, as both seem only reactionary from two different POVs.

grodog said...

Some good comments in response over at Mike's/chgowiz's blog:


Benoist said...

I couldn't agree more, Eric. I think you've put your finger on exactly what I find objectionable in "old-school canon" - that there was no such thing as a canon back in the day.

I cam from a gaming environment that grasped the game and ran with it to make it much more than the sum of its written parts. My much older cousin, who introduced me to D&D all these years ago, was running a T1-4 campaign that is still running to this day. They took the game and one of its module and made it their own. They plugged some bits of Greg Stafford's Gloranthan mythology, started a whole universe where sons and grandsons of the first characters follow in their ancestors footsteps, tweaked the rules, borrowed here and invented there... these are my "old school" origins.

I do not believe in a worship of OD&D on its own merits. I also witness the subtle revisionism you are talking about. What I personally see in this game, as well as you guys here, is a way to reach to what you called the spirit of the old guard and reach for the stars from this point onward.

OD&D is like a barter, a base for fantasy and enchantment. From there, anything's possible - anything ought to be!

I think we need all need to be more vocal about this risk of "old school fundamentalism". "Retro-clones", "old school mags" and "traditional megadungeons" constitute a reach for the spirit of the old guard, but it very well may stop there and just recycled ideas in a constrained environment, until people just get bored with it and move on to other, yes, fads.

I truly see this as a starting point that may provide opportunities to reach for other, different stars than the ones visited so far during the past 30 years of the game's evolution. New doors and possibilities might be open if we reach for them. If we don't, then we dishonor the very spirit we try to grasp.

Benoist said...

I just posted a more developed version of these thoughts on my blog.

E N Shook said...

Some quick clarifications:

Old school is an excellent descriptive term for identifying what people do, love or cherish after spending years doing it. It's highly useful.

But, there's also a movement afoot, which can be described as a revival, which I dearly appreciate. Using the term old school to identify that movement limits its appeal. How does the old school gain *new* members?

If there is something new about the movement, why not identify it as a new movement? It seems sensible to me. Besides, the new is inherent in any creative project, and this is intensified by the scope of fantasy.

Is embracing OD&D essential to the movement? That doesn't seem true to me. If the bare bones of OD&D appeal because they can be more easily tricked out and experimented with, then let's get right down to a full rules set that's based upon the FRPG kernel. But then, we're not so old school, now, are we?

But really, to do this, the idea of the fantasy world must be addressed, first.

Focusing upon the rules will only eventually create a fundamentalist gap, not a revival. Why not just head that off now?

The term "old school" raised as a flag over fundamentalism is clearly more fitting than old school raised over a movement fresh with new ideas.

Benoist said...

Is embracing OD&D essential to the movement? That doesn't seem true to me. If the bare bones of OD&D appeal because they can be more easily tricked out and experimented with, then let's get right down to a full rules set that's based upon the FRPG kernel. But then, we're not so old school, now, are we?

Just to precise my thoughts on this: no, I do not believe that OD&D is essential to the movement. My remarks here were personal, really.

As for the complete rules set, I think that, precisely, getting right down to it would would avoid an evolution that only goes through the world, the immersion, and the play itself, and just end up in a failed experiment that would emulate what's already been done before.

When you are talking about focusing on the world first, what do you have in mind? Could you give me some examples that would help me understand what you mean practically?

Lord of the Green Dragons said...

Perhaps Eric means, "The world is your oyster"?

I see merit in siding with the FULL re-expression of D&D. When it comes down to it, you have openness as the guiding exhortation, and that is embraced in whatever ways that each DM wants to. On the other hand, we have at best "restatements" of the game; but if these fall short in anyway of fully expressing the original, then they can only be at best considered revisions of same. The fine line here is representation and how the restatement uses the information to engender the "movement". The dichotomies, at least for me, are 1) The game never stopped its motion, and thus to restate it is somewhat taking a backward glance at it whereas the game and its predecessors are known and still played; 2)thus, how does one restate an open game which can be different for each participant and which by realization is still promulgating itself, even in different forms, and even as I write this? This is perhaps where the fundamental view takes root? I dunno. Perhaps some believe that the game should have stopped somewhere in its evolution. If that is so, god bless us all now that that didn't happen in 1974. Life for many thousands of folks would have been a lot poorer in retrospect if it had.

Rediscovering roots is fine. I like roots, for if you follow them long enough you find that they reach all the way back in time, and thus by the obverse, all the way into the future, as well.

E N Shook said...

About the World First proposition:

The rules should be entirely bent on accommodating the fantasy world. For example, the artifice in 3rd edition that states you cannot run while blind is absurd. I've done it. You can run while blind. It can be painful. So the rules should be written with the possibility that blind running might be painful. A PC stating they will run while blind should not be met with a metaphysical impossibility. The rules in an FRPG should be concerned with action RESOLUTION, not action PREVENTION.

Let me refer to a very interesting passage in Matt Finch's Old School Primer, which can be downloaded here: Although I would express this differently, and find exception with pieces of the document, his effort here is exactly what I believe we should focus on more. The following quote gels well with worlds first, rules second.

"it’s not a “game setting” which somehow always produces challenges of just
the right difficulty for the party’s level of experience. The party has no “right” only to
encounter monsters they can defeat, no “right” only to encounter traps they can disarm, no “right” to invoke a particular rule from the books, and no “right” to a die roll in every particular circumstance."

(By the way, Matt is currently offering this download for free!)

In fact, the believability of a world is dependent on a fluidity that some rules systems simply don't allow. In 4E you would be more likely to come on a sign that says, "world under construction," which is exactly what Skip Williams did to our party back in the day. It is only when you embrace the rules as the substance of the game that you lose the ability to manifest the fullness of the world.

let me risk suggesting that major edition changes are cursed to produce this limitation. Thus, our move toward the original.

But, we could do better, by admitting the demands of a fantasy world and then conforming the rules to the world.

While you've got Matt's document open, his point on "rulings, not rules," was also keen on, IMHO.

ATOM said...

Pretty good topic! I think the "Old school" term means different things to different people.I was always of the opinion that players that dwell constantly within the rules are missing the point.Myself as a player, love to be surprized...whether it be by new creature types, to new/different situations.
If players get too accustomed to specific rules,the magic vanishes and game mechanics take over.House rules and conversions solve this for me.

Also the Old-School moniker for me makes me think of a particular look.Whether it be art wise or literal content. It generates a particular feeling, nostalgia, excitement, lacking from much of the modern stuff.

Benoist said...

I understand much better now, Eric. I can only shake my head in complete agreement (by the way, this Quick Old-School Primer really is an excellent document).

I'm really excited to see what the games we now have will give us that will be different, and better, than what we've had before in terms of evolution of the game.

I guess that now that we are aware of this we can all participate in ways to make this happen. That's the great thing about this ongoing discussion.

Aos said...
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