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RPG» Forums » General Discussion » General Role-Playing

Subject: QOTD FEB 7: What makes a role playing game "old school"? rss

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Patrick Zoch
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Other than being an old RPG (there are numerous new RPGs that taut being an OSR), what makes a role playing game "Old School"?


Do you have a question you want asked as QOTD? Post here!

And if you want to find an old QOTD: The big QOTD Summary and Subscription Thread Volume 3
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The constant threat of a TPK.
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pdzoch wrote:
Other than being an old RPG (there are numerous new RPGs that taut being an OSR), what makes a role playing game "Old School"?


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This is a non question. Until YOU define "old school", I can not answer this question. On Enworld someone posted an article of Old School vs New School. Trouble was half of what was listed as New School I was seeing in 1980. And half of what was listed as Old School is currently happening in my Adventure League group.
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I think that really depends on who you ask. Different people seem to have different ideas.
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henry proctor
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jasperrdm wrote:
This is a non question. Until YOU define "old school", I can not answer this question. On Enworld someone posted an article of Old School vs New School. Trouble was half of what was listed as New School I was seeing in 1980. And half of what was listed as Old School is currently happening in my Adventure League group.


Then the question is effectively how do you define "Old School". Clearly you disagree with the Enworld poster. Why? Please elaborate.


I think people will agree that at least 1st ED D&D is "Old School".
How far beyond that, will likely vary.

Given when/where I've seen comments like "how Crom intended" and the like, I would say rolled stats over point buys have a more "old school" feeling.
A hard HP cutoff between living and dead is also a sign. (No death saves)

Sometimes it's easier to define what it isn't. So I'd say the usage of dice with symbols on them is certainly not Old School.
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henry proctor wrote:
I think people will agree that at least 1st ED D&D is "Old School".
How far beyond that, will likely vary.

How about until Dragonlance?

Dragonlance changed a lot, from adventure design (for better and for worse) right down to the game's genre, which shifted from sword and sorcery to high fantasy.
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If someone at least 10 years my elder can look at me with slight bemusement and start a sentence with "In my day we used to have to deal with..."

Then it's old-school.




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jk I have no idea
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henry proctor wrote:
I think people will agree that at least 1st ED D&D is "Old School".
How far beyond that, will likely vary.


Chainmail or bust.
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Paul Unwin
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For me, "old school" is anything played for how it "feels" rather than for any functional design goals it intentionally achieves (or, at least, tries to achieve).
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I can only talk about what I perceive as common practice around this term in my own conversation and reading circles. Others will obviously have different perceptions. Too much text follows...

I usually only hear "old-school" on its own, without qualifier, with respect to D&D-like games. Like, if you wanted to play GURPS 1st Ed, people would say "we're doing GURPS 1st Edition", but if people were playing 1st Ed D&D, they would just say "we're going old-school", if that makes sense. So that would be the first element. Just being old is not "old-school", it has to be old D&D.

Given the above, "old school" is both a description of system, and a description of a style of play, and sometimes is used inconsistently along those dimensions.

For style of play, it easier to consider it by example. My friend Justin is running the Rappan Athuk megadungeon using D&D 5E, but he is purposely going for an "old-school" style of play. By this he means play that has the following elements (among others)...
* No level/encounter security - you could easily blunder in to an area of the dungeon far more dangerous than you can handle
* Expectation of a lot of player-level strategy and tactics - players will speak openly about the challenges they face and try to develop plans to handle those challenges
* An actual map to crawl - not a series of chained encounters
* "rulings not rules" - an expectation that players will try to do all kinds of stuff that the rules don't account for, and the GM rolls with that and adjudicates.
But he is using D&D 5E, which is definitely not old-school.

For system, the most obvious old school games are things like Old School Reference and Index Compilation (OSRIC), which are literally re-written versions of some old form of D&D. But in addition, there are games like The Black Hack that are inspired by old-school ideas. System features I have encountered that I've seen described as old school include...
* Simple characters, with relatively few traits and special feats/powers/etc.
* Simple monster descriptions; monsters usually take up no more than a few lines of text, as opposed to entire blocks of space in later versions.
* Race = class constructions - e.g. you play an Elf, or a Cleric, but you can't play an Elf Cleric.
* A lot fewer rules in general
* Contradicting that, a lot more rules on certain things that had a lot of rules back in the day. (I think this differentiates two distinct streams of "old-school" to some extent, those that are looking to simple early versions of D&D versus those looking to somewhat later more complicated versions for inspiration).
* a focus on random generation of story elements (people, places, things, character features, etc.).
* a focus on "crawls" - dungeon, hex, point, etc.

Again, all of the above is meant to be descriptive, not creating a definition. I don't think the term really has a useful definition, it is more useful in describing the desires and aesthetic preferences (as Paul suggests above much more succinctly than I do) of the person using it than it is in describing anything about the games themselves. If someone says they want "old-school" I can fairly reliably guess they mean at least some of the following:
* a focus on player and GM choices, not rules systems. That is, if they are facing a dangerous situation they will be disappointed if that situation is resolved through some skill checks, and happier if the situation is resolved through some kind of player creativity.
* a focus on dangerous situations, not interpersonal ones. Anything that gets in the way of kicking down doors, killing things, and taking treasure will be considered a distraction.
* interacting with a detailed situation instead of telling a story. That is, they will be perfectly happy to crawl two hours through a dungeon room by room, but will find any kind of major "plot" development as a bit of a distraction, or actively try to subvert it.

Not everyone who loves old-school likes all of those things, obviously. But those are some of the things I have seen.
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I find it interesting that age-old cultural phenomena aren't usually referred to as being "old school", but more recent phenomena (relatively speaking) are often divided into "old school" and "new school".

Is Bach's music "old school"? Nah. 80's/90's hip hop? Def old school.
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I think I've trotted this out before, but in the words of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it..."
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As another way to look at "old-school", I think it is worth mentioning two games that I have heard described as the antithesis of old school. Its sometimes easier to understand a concept by looking at what it is not. I'm not judging either of these games below, one is one of my favorite games ever and the other I think is quite solid. Again, I'm trying to be descriptive, not defining something.

Fate Core - Fate has one big feature that a person who loves "old-school" is likely to hate; an underlying system that can be used for every kind of interaction. This means that every situation can be solved by the mechanics: skills+fate points+aspects. This can be illustrated by the example of solving a fiendish trap. In an old-school style game, players are either encouraged to find some clever solution to get around, deactivate, or deal with the trap or alternatively spring the trap and get hurt because they didn't notice it. They have to come up with this solution AS PLAYERS, by poking and prodding the situation and asking the GM questions and proposing solutions. In Fate, they could roll "Trap Expert" or similar to Create Advantage to make an Aspect "Good scheme to disarm the trap", then roll to disarm it, spending fate points along the way and invoking the aspect. That aspect, "Good scheme to disarm the trap" will, in my experience, make someone who says they love the Old School run screaming from the room.

Dungeon World - I think Dungeon World is probably the most divisive game among people who say they like the Old School, because there are some that hate it with a deep and abiding hate, and some that enjoy it tremendously. It is divisive for bunch of reasons, a lot them I would call "cultural baggage", which are honestly tedious and not worth much discussion here, but arise from the indie games movement in the 2000's and the reaction to it. It doesn't help that this system is cloaked, from an old-school perspective, in a lot of new-school language like "agenda", "principles", "moves" and "fronts". So much so that Michael Prestcott of the Trilemma blog felt he needed to write a whole blog post trying to translate the games for old-school folks: http://blog.trilemma.com/2018/10/pbta-for-old-school.html

But there is an important system element that truly divides people. This is the fact that Dungeon World obviates the whole "rules not rulings" element of old school gaming by providing a clear distinction between what things MUST be resolved by rules and what things MUST be resolved by rulings. Is there a Move? Use rules. If not, GM makes a ruling. The old-school paradigm is that there is a continuum, from the GM simply saying what happens, through a simply skill or ability check demanded on the fly, to a series of planned checks/rolls, to combat, etc. for the GM to determine the appropriate way to resolve a situation. But Dungeon World has no continuum, it is dichotomous; Move (a specific set of rules) or no Move (a GM ruling). This really divides people; some see it as a great simplification, a "clearing of the air" as it were, that makes the whole game more straightforward. But others see it as a direct affront to the level of GM authority they believe is necessary for old-school gaming.

As an aside, I've tried using Dungeon World in an "old-world" style, you can see my report about it here: https://rpggeek.com/thread/2098599/devils-molar-mega-dungeon... In practice I think it really works for some things that people would consider "old school" style elements, but not for everything, and it requires a radical adjustment in GM attitude to certain common "old-school" elements, such as traps.
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Old school is so far outside my tastes I've never looked closely at it, so have no idea what it is.

In fact, I simply consider it a form of D&D, and I literally could not tell you a single difference between any edition of *D&D from another, or from any old school game. Because, you know, I don't examine closely anything I have no interest in ...
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Yes, Dungeon World is an interesting case. It was obviously designed to evoke some of the feel of "old school" through "new school" mechanics. As someone who tends to avoid the old school feel, the intent of the game often rubs me the wrong way, but because it gives me, as a player, so much control, any real issues with it that I might have in play will be due in no small part to what I establish.

I feel like the intent behind Fate is rather old school, because old school tended to allow for the blending of "fluff" and "rules" that Fate makes explicit. I feel that part of the "feel" of an old school game is players arguing that something should work because it makes sense. For instance, one might claim that a dwarf should get a bonus on dealing with a stone golem, because dwarves know about stone, and an old school GM would be obliged at least to consider that (though there's nothing from stopping any GM from saying yes to something like that). All Fate really does is cut out the middleman, a bit, by saying "If you think something should be true, then it's true... within limits." A dwarf could have an aspect like "Dwarves know about stone," and would be quite entitled to spend a fate point to invoke that aspect for a benefit when dealing with a stone golem.

Fate, overall, is not old school, but it seems clear to me that it's design owes a lot to how some people play in old school games. It's "rulings not rules" but with rules. It can easily be seen as a way to demonstrate how "rulings not rules" can work for people who don't see it. I never liked the "rulings not rules" approach but Fate (really one of it's predecessors, Spirit of the Century) made it clear to me how it could work.
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My old school is palladium, cyberpunk 2020, marvel superheroes, Wod.

When I played them they were already old school for some, completely novelty to others.

I like building my own systems and playing them so whatever comes out feels already old.

The new old is the old new.
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All ya'll that think Olde Skool can't be reasonably defined are wrong.

You know it's Olde Skool if...

Almost everyone at the table is wearing readers.
One or more players at the table is using oxygen.
There is a grand-kid also playing in the game.
The game starts in the afternoon so it can conclude before 7:30 PM.
The junk food mostly is a veggie tray.
At least 1/4 of the time is spent using horrific Monty Python accents.
Somewhere in the scenario, there will be a damsel in distress.
The damsel in distress looks much like either Farrah Fawcett or Cheryl Tiegs.
The table in the next room has spouses doing a Ravensburger puzzle.
Occasionally from the next room a spouse will holler something like "remember your diabetes!" or "don't get his blood pressure up!"
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d10-1 No expectation of balanced encounters

d10-2 You may be expected to use modern real-world knowledge to solve a puzzle or riddle

d10-3 PCs do not level up at the same rate

d10-4 Attributes are determined randomly, not selected via point-buy

d10-5 Natural healing is SLOW and magical healing is expensive and hard to obtain at low levels

d10-6 Death rate is high at low levels

d10-7 Player metagame discussions are acceptable when strategizing a way around a dangerous situation

d10-8 Lots of random table usage by the DM

d10-9 Rules are sparse, so the DM must make ruling on the fly because there is often no written rule covering a specific situation

d10-1d10-0 Resource management (e.g. torches, spikes, rations, rope) are likely to become important elements of the game
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I agree with DMSamuel's list because I generally dislike all of those things, at least how I've experienced them.
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For me it's part nostalgia and part roguelike (yes, the video game genre).

I actually started playing video game RPGs before pen-and-paper RPGs, so for me, Old School will always be Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (2nd Edition) as portrayed by the Gold Box series of video games.

What this boils down to:

• Low Hit Points/High Lethality: character death is a real and present danger and very likely to happen over and over again
• Randomly rolled stats, often assigned in order
• Epic overland adventures (maps!) with terrain and weather conditions as characters travel from one dungeon to the next
• Lots of Dungeon crawls with sweet loot tucked away in hidden rooms
• Powerful Dragons!
• Need for diversified character classes or races: a party of all mages or all elves will not get as far as a party with multiple classes or races.
• Experience leads to gaining levels, which leads to more/better abilities and/or improved ability to survive
• Lots of random tables!
• Need to eat/drink or suffer fatigue
• Weight burdens/carrying capacity/tracking how many of each item you have matters

Granted, not every "old school" game I play will have all of those, but they hit enough of the points to make it feel "old school" to me.
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enduran wrote:
I agree with DMSamuel's list because I generally dislike all of those things, at least how I've experienced them.

Meh, our likes & dislikes are not defining in new school- old school thing.
Genesys combat is the equivalent of always rolling against a difficulty.
My combat is always have opposing rolls.

Both are pretty modern implementations of parts of old systems.
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shiva666 wrote:
enduran wrote:
I agree with DMSamuel's list because I generally dislike all of those things, at least how I've experienced them.

Meh, our likes & dislikes are not defining in new school- old school thing.

No, but it often seems as though the traits of "old school" are chosen specifically to turn me off. In fact, I get a strong sense that the entire concept is meant to send a signal to one's own "kind," to say "Hey, the people you don't like won't play this kind of game, so you can relax."
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d10-1 Minimalistic rules except for combat.
d10-2 either Class & level or very broad skills
d10-3 either published before 1984 or attempting to emulate such games or be compatible with adventures and bestiaries from such games
d10-4 no "balanced encounter" expectation
d10-5 risk of death in combat is high.
d10-6 Usually, save-or-die traps in exemplar adventures
d10-7 Usually, hit-point systems for damage tracking
d10-8 Usually, Either...
1 Combat and magic mechanics only
2 Combat mechanics and non-combat mechanics differ
d10-9 Usually, Experience tracked in large numbers (thousands).

Note that I count Original D&D, AD&D 1E, T&T, S&S, Palladium Fantasy, Mechanoids, Valley of the Pharaohs, WFRP 1E, Classic Traveller, to be genuine old-school.
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adularia25 wrote:
For me it's part nostalgia and part roguelike (yes, the video game genre).

I actually started playing video game RPGs before pen-and-paper RPGs, so for me, Old School will always be Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (2nd Edition) as portrayed by the Gold Box series of video games.

*snip great list*
Granted, not every "old school" game I play will have all of those, but they hit enough of the points to make it feel "old school" to me.
I find that really interesting Caroline. That's the first time I've seen that particular spin on "old-school", with specific reference to the old D&D gold box video games. I think it is possible that far more people played those D&D video games than actually played D&D (although I don't have the data to prove it), so your viewpoint on what counts as "old-school" might be much more common than my own reading would indicate, especially for people who are coming into RPGs now.

Moving a little forward in time, I feel pretty confident in saying that far more people played Baldur's Gate than any tabletop RPG, so I wonder if there will be a new "old-school" trend to try to replicate that experience in tabletop?

Anyway, its an interesting phenomenon. On a related note, I've noticed recently a lot of people who play D&D in our local game cafe scene are coming into role-playing from the eurogame side of things. That is, they have been playing games for a long time, but their first game was Catan or Carcassonne, not D&D or (in my case), Squad Leader. Those people will have a very different idea of what constitutes "old school", I would guess, if they even have a concept of it.
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