The End of the Old School

One of the problems that I’ve had with the “old school” tabletop RPG movement has been its overwhelming affection for and indeed utter reliance on the early D&D rules. The old school – my old school at least – was a lot more varied than that. While I like D&D as a system and do indeed feel some nostalgia for a youth spent planning and playing it, I’m not at all attached to the purist’s vision of the early rules system. Indeed, my old school ideal of D&D remains the first edition of AD&D, and I laugh at those making the stipulation that AD&D1 was too newfangled – such an argument could only be true by applying criteria under which not even white box D&D – as it was actually played after the first year or two and how it actually evolved at the table – would satisfy. Too, such an argument ignores the reality of the gaming community at that time, which departed from the older iteration of D&D in droves in favor of AD&D, and saw its peak years under that rules system, both creatively and in terms of popularity.

Even so, a couple of the key hallmarks of old school play are elements that were at the heart of D&D from the beginning: classes and levels and graded ranks of spells. But are the Palladium Fantasy RPG, published in 1983, or Rolemaster, released from 1980-1983, which include those same features very prominently, less “old school” than AD&D1? For that matter, is Champions from 1981, with its point-buy character creation? Is 1978’s RuneQuest with its skill system? Is Traveller, from 1977?

Ultimately the answer depends on the personal experience of the oldster in question. Me, I played plenty of D&D back in the early 80s, but my formative experiences happened mostly in those other games I mentioned instead (excepting Palladium, which escaped my notice for a good decade.)

So I’m annoyed by the old school “renaissance” as it currently stands, because I am not as fond of D&D, especially early D&D, as is required to embrace the movement, and because a lot of the newfangled features that one is commanded by Holy Writ to reject exist in other titles with, to my mind, just as much old school cred. I love the idea of “old school” gaming but am obliged to reject any environment in which there’s a serious discussion about whether the inclusion of the Thief somehow ruined the game. Defining “old school” such that something released in 1978, thirty-three years ago, is somehow disqualified as not old enough or pure enough is a symptom of a movement that’s disappeared up its own ass.

Now, I suppose that one has to determine (for oneself) some line or date when the end of the era of old school gaming occurred. The old school people often point to 1983’s Ravenloft and the beginning of the Dragonlance brand in 1984 as the time when the gong of doom began to ring. Within the context of D&D being the only RPG that mattered, this did indeed represent an important shift away from skeletal sandbox settings and toward detailed backgrounds and metaplot.

While I absolutely see the appeal of gaming in the sandbox era and tend to dislike canned plotlines handed down by a committee, I also reject any paradigm in which D&D is the only important RPG. I am personally inclined to place the end of the old school era in 1987 with the release of Ars Magica, the first RPG overtly focused on “storytelling” as a major game element, a full four years before Vampire: The Masquerade would popularize it. But here’s a fun fact for you – the first published discussion of RPGs as a storytelling device appeared, near as I can tell, in the Foreword to 1977’s Chivalry & Sorcery – another game with strong old school chops.

Somewhat paradoxically, I also think Ars Magica is kind of old school itself; it’s got the crunch and the sandbox attitude to make it fit – although later editions of the game, especially the White Wolf-produced third edition, would wear away at this to varying degrees, and I think there’s no question that, by being centered on one specific type of character, it pointed RPGs in the more focused direction they’d take in later years.

Even after that, though, a smattering of other games were released that, to my mind, exemplify the old school feel; Lace & Steel springs to mind, as does Dangerous Journeys by Gygax himself for that matter, as well as the excellent Castles & Crusades from the D&D clone camp, a game disowned by the “old school” movement at large because of, as far as I can tell, the perfectly sensible inclusion of ascending Armor Class. Too, there are some old games that probably don’t qualify as old school despite long predating my arbitrary line in the sand. The most obvious of these is 1975’s brilliant Empire of the Petal Throne for its inclusion of a detailed and wonderfully weird setting.

All of this is intended to illustrate where I personally am coming from on this issue rather than handing down a manifesto of what should and should not be considered old school, and to show that RPGs in the early era were more varied than the current “old school” herd would care to admit. Where one draws the line is arbitrary and up to each individual. If you really think that the only game worth playing is the one hand-assembled by Gary Gygax in his living room, then I suspect that you and I are going to have a fundamental disconnect, because I think Golden Age-ism is a load of bollocks. Not to mention that I was actually around in the old days and for the life of me cannot remember even the rumor of anyone playing White Box D&D after about 1979. I believe in progress; fits and starts and dead-end paths it may have but in the big picture I think RPGs are better now than then, even and perhaps especially those games that try to play in the old school sandbox. There’s room for old school, but there needs to be more room in old school, too.

11 responses to “The End of the Old School

  1. Wow, memory lane! I started with “Chainmail” – “What do you mean a wargame with no counters?”

    My old gaming group “back in the day” played AD&D, Traveller, and Runequest almost equally. I GM’ed the Traveller sessions, and one of the others would DM AD&D, but preferred the skill-based Runequest system. So, AD&D was only a part of our gaming rotation.

  2. Funny – a lot of people today think that D&D3e is old school compared to the new-fangled 4e rules! 🙂 This is a good read to put that into perspective.

    Welcome back to your personal blog, too!

  3. I remember RuneQuest (as pictured, not the current browser MMO, which is about all you find when you Google.). We tinkered with that a bit back in the early 80s in our search for the best rule set for our needs. I seem to recall the character sheet and it having armor and hit points for various points on the body, like right leg, right arm, etc. And ducks. There was a player race of humanoid ducks if I remember correctly. That was a long time back.

  4. There are humanoid ducks. If you’re looking for a great Runequest experience, check out a forgotten indy PC game called King of Dragon Pass … brilliant and very deep in Runequest Lore .. Orlanth be praised!

  5. Arguably both from a mechanical perspective (e.g., in internal cohesion and adherence to common sense logic) and in the levels of organization present in the rulebooks, AD&D peaked with the third edition. D&D basic also peaked in it’s own way around the Rules Cyclopedia era. In fact, that became our preferred D&D system, we found a lot of the additional mechanics that AD&D layered on top of Basic completely superfluous to role-playing (and even stifling to it sometimes).

    We didn’t consider either to be a particularly realistic system, so it made sense to use the more streamlined of the two when we felt like playing in the D&D setting. When we did want to play something more “realistic” we tended towards GURPS or various genre specialists that did a good job with particular settings (Cyberpunk, Sci Fi, Horror, ect).

    In any case, 4e is not really D&D at all to me. It’s a miniatures combat game, arguably closer in feel to Warhammer Quest in terms of mechanics than AD&D. I can see why there has been a backlash against it. However, I don’t think going all the way back to the illogical jumble of 1e (or even further back) is really the answer.

  6. Hear, hear!
    I’ve always thought it was a shame that the OSR never really seems to get past D&D, with a very few small exceptions (Mutant Future & GORE come to mind).

    D&D was definitely the gateway drug back in the day, but in our circle it quickly fell to the wayside when we discovered Top Secret, Traveller, CoC, Champions, and more FGU games than I’m willing to list. I’d like to see more discussion and revisitation of some of those systems and play paradigms. Something, anything, that goes beyond the dungeon crawl.

    Great to see you blogging about tabletops again. Let’s get together soon and catch up!

  7. Regarding DnD and ADnD, ADnD is just cleaned up Brown Booklets plus Greyhawk, Blackmoor and Eldrich Wizardry – theres no actual new mechanics until 3rd ed shoe-horned a working skills and Advantage system into DnD.

    CoC was important because the new “key mechanic” of Sanity – you lost it by seeing Weird Things, and when you lost all of it, you werent a PC any more. Sanity, more than anything else, linked the rules set into the background brilliantly.

    Much as I love Glorantha, RQ2 didnt have any equivalent to SAN, although when I run “RQ2 and a bit” I fake it by giving “stats” for each of the Runes a player is linked to (ie a point for appropriate Battle Magic, 2 for Rune Magic etc), and using them as floating modifiers for just about everything appropriate to that Rune (*).

    (*) Grats. You just discovered my version of the GodLearner sight. Please report yourself to Termination Booth #3, where Ar-G-RTH will escort you to Termination Booth #6.