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Worlds of Design: “Old School” in RPGs and other Games – Part 1 Failure and Story

For me, the difference between Old School and anything else is not in the rules, but in attitude. Is failure, even losing, possible, or is it not? Is it a game, or is it a storytelling session?


Notice it’s “storytelling”, not storymaking. Every RPG involves a story, the question is, who creates the story, the GM or the players?

Inevitably, 40-some installments into this column, “Old School” would come up.

. . . role-playing games do not have plots. They have situations at the campaign, adventure, and encounter level which the players are free to interact with however they wish– as long as they accept the consequences!” - Jeffro Johnson (author of the book Appendix N)​

This will be in three (oversized) parts, because understanding of this topic is fundamental to discourse about what some of us (at least) call RPGs, and there’s too much for one or two columns (I tried). I think of a Quora question that asked what a GM can do when a player’s character does something insane or ludicrously inappropriate during a game. The answers varied widely depending on the goals of the answerer. The Old School answer is, “let the character suffer the consequences of the action”; but for those on the New School side, it was a much more complex problem, as the character’s actions would make it hard if not impossible for the GM to tell the story he had devised for the adventure.

Likely everyone reading this has seen and perhaps discussed the term “Old School” in connection with RPGs. When I started to reconnect with RPG fandom a few years ago, I wasn’t sure what “Old School” meant. There seem to be many definitions, but I now see the fundamental divide as not about rules. Rather, it’s about the attitude of the GM, and of the players, toward losing and failure. That’s at the root of Jeffro’s rant, though he puts it in terms of plot and story, which are closely related.

As I said, this is in three parts. The second will talk about rules, GMing, and pacing, and about non-RPGs reflecting the two schools. The third part will talk about differences in actual gameplay.

I’m not going to be “one true way” the way Jeffro is (“thieves must have d4 hit dice” is one of his rants). I write about RPGs as games, not as story-telling aids or playgrounds, but I am describing, not prescribing even as I obviously prefer the Old School. Let’s proceed.

If it’s a game (Old School (OS)), there’s a significant chance you can lose, you can fail. If it’s a story session, with no chance you can lose, it’s something else. This is like a co-operative board game that you cannot lose: why bother to play?

In terms of story, in OS the players write their own story, with the benefit of the GM’s assistance. The GM sets up a situation and lets the players get on with it. (This is sometimes called [FONT=&amp][FONT=&amp]"[/FONT][/FONT]sandbox[FONT=&amp][FONT=&amp]"[/FONT][/FONT] in video games, though video games tend to impose an overall story as a limitation of using computer programming instead of a human GM.) The other extreme is when the GM tells the players a story through the game. (In video games this is called a linear game, where the story always ends up the same way.)

If a GM is Old School and runs the same adventure for several different groups, the results will probably vary wildly. If the GM is at the other extreme, the overall shape of the adventure will be the same each time, with variance only in the details.

Old School adventures are usually highly co-operative, because the characters will DIE if they don’t cooperate. New School doesn’t require cooperation, you’re going to survive anyway.

Not surprisingly, as the hobby has grown, the proportion of wargamers (now a small hobby) has decreased drastically. Many players are not even hobby gamers, that is, they’re not quite “gamers” in the old sense because the only game they play is their RPG(s). Many people want their games to be stories, so the shift from Old School to something else is not surprising.

D&D 5e bears the marks of the newer playing methods, as there’s lots of healing as well as the ridiculous cleric spell revivify for mere fifth level clerics.

There are all kinds of shades of the two extremes, obviously. And all kinds of ways of running RPGs. Next time, I’ll talk about more differences between Old School and newer ways of playing such as Rules and Pacing, and compare with non-RPGs.

This article was contributed by Lewis Pulsipher (lewpuls) as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. You can follow Lew on his web site and his Udemy course landing page. If you enjoy the daily news and articles from EN World, please consider contributing to our Patreon!
 
Lewis Pulsipher

Comments

Blue

Orcus on a bad hair day
The article mentions failure, while the chart shows danger -- these are VERY different concepts when discussing "old school" vs. "new school".

Failure is not only common in "new school", but at times is to be embraced. Because failure isn't the boolean "you're dead, game over" common to old school, but another fork of what's being told.

"Failing forward" is a concept very new school, where the idea is that the GM (see, still GM-lead in this) reworks failures that would stop a game cold. For example, if there's no adventure if the party doesn't find the hidden door in the bookcase, in an old school system if you fail the search roll then the game halts -- there is no way forward. No fun. But in a new school "fail forward" approach there's a cost to missing the roll but it doesn't stop the game. Perhaps they took so long that that the encounter a patrol coming out of the exit, and unless they work very quickly the hidden lair is now on alert.

New school games like FATE actually encourage mechanically players to fail in several ways. To continue to use Fate, first the GM effectively bribes the players to play out of one their flaws to the detriment of the party in exchange for currency to activate their abilities later. And if your character is badly hurt, it's better to take the loss because if the the GM forces the loss then the results are a lot worse.

So failure is actually embraced as much or more in new school games since the effects are tailored more towards the GM telling a good story then penalizing the players by having them sit out due to character death or miss part of adventures due to poor rolls.

Getting to how the chart is labelled, Risk (of which Danger is a subset) is something that is present in both old school and new school games. Statements like "New School doesn’t require cooperation, you’re going to survive anyway." is just speaking from ignorance. Sorry to be blunt, there are a good majority of new school games that can be just as deadly, or inflict permanent issues of characters. For that type of game - Superhero games won't have death commonly regardless if they are old school like Champions or new school like Icons. Each genre has it's own aspects of risk.

Now, new school are perhaps not as punitive about it -- doing everything right and a single roll kills you is more of a factor of the oldest RPGs, but that's something even some old school RPGs went away from.

I just find this article to have either a limited exposure to new school games, a misunderstanding of them, or is comparing across genres because there are more variety out there, and different genres have different risk levels.
 

Henry

Autoexreginated
There's been a lot of discussion of Critical Role and other streaming shows as contributing to the popularity of D&D lately (past 3 years or so). I wonder what their fans' opinions would have been had they LOST their final fight with Vecna's Ascended Avatar at the campaign's end? There are a lot of new fans in the hobby who do want story more than game, or at least want the story aspects to be predominant - would they have been turned off by this? Are there a lot of new players in the hobby who assume you can't 'lose' in D&D because their favorite streamers haven't 'lost' yet?

Most streamers, not just Critical Role, might have setbacks, but they haven't suffered TPKs, I presume because such would kinda be bad for ratings, :) but also because the RPG systems most of them use don't lend themselves to coin-flip level outcomes. In the wave of new gamers, as WotC has said before (via Mike Mearls, in some roundtables) we're approaching a mark where the total fan base is almost 50%/50% gamers from pre-2014, and gamers from post-2014. That's a culture shift of seismic proportions in what gamers might want out of a game, compared to the minis-wargame culture that spawned and molded it from 1974 to the 2000s:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqjLO6YNKV0
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pFbCxuvknWM

(I may be misquoting Mike's figures, but I do know he talked about the huge influx of new players in the last three years and how it's changing their expectations of what gamers want in their D&D.)
 
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imagineGod

Explorer
Yes, this avoidance of TPKs is one reason I am not enthused about Society Play (Pathfinder and Starfinder) and Adventurers' League. There are obvious play group interaction requirements not just to create a rules consistent game world, but actual attempts to encourage all the various GMs running the same adventure module at different conventions, clubs, or homes, to end up with similar final results per session for their diverse play groups. This sort of restricts the ability of GMs and Players to deviate from the written adventure to experience some memorable outcomes, including a TPK in within the very first hour of play.
 
I'd imagine a "very dangerous, high storytelling" game would be possible if the danger was mitigated by having more characters per player. I could imagine running a GoT-style game with a lot of death, cheap character life, and a lot of plot/storytelling... but I guess it wouldn't really be "dangerous" anymore if each player were running four or five characters they weren't particularly attached to, as it would be no different than having one character who was unlikely to die (from the player's perspective).
 

Flexor the Mighty!

18/100 Strength!
Interesting article but some issues. You do have to cooperate, even as easy as, IME, 5e is on the player. Especially over teh first few levels when it almost feels like and older edition at times. I do agree generally with the idea that the DM is telling a story is a part of the newer game styles, though it was there in the old days as well. A GM who wants to tell a a story makes me wary. I'm a mini wargamer as well so maybe my POV aligns more with the old guard over that.

In the game I'm running we are playing a game with no set outcome, and I'm a referee rather than a storyteller. The player actions and luck of the dice have a much larger input on where things go than I do, I just try to keep it running and keep it fair. A story of some kind will probably be compiled as the results of game sessions though. One of the parties in the campaign had a story that ended in a TPK in a pit of ghouls. Its a memorable story since that last session is still talked about now and then and may not be over since the new party may venture into that very pit of ghouls and recover the gear of that old party and in a way that "story" may go on in some form. I'm guessing a lot of gamers may not like the save or die style of older D&D but it works for us and thankfully there are tons of games to play so we can all get what we need.
 
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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
As usual, I fundamentally disagree with some of the basis of the piece.

If we are going to break it down largely as you are doing it, I think you are confusing "New School" games in general with what for lack of a better term I'll call... green New School GMs.

An experienced GM working in a new school framework *DOES NOT* have a particular story they are trying to tell, and *DOES NOT* guarantee that characters will succeed or survive. A green, inexperienced, New School GM will lean on the side of ensuring survival or success, or forcing a particular story, as a crude tool for getting at the real point. But, an experienced, skilled GM doesn't have to.

A New School GM doesn't want a *particular* story, but they do want some cogent, interesting story to come out of play. They don't have a particular plot in mind, but they may be aiming for a particular flavor or genre or emotional beats. They don't mind if PCs fail, or die, but they want that failure or death to be meaningful to the player, the group, and be relevant emotionally and/or to the plot of the story.

To elaborate, let me describe to you an Old School game from my past. The very first game of a new group, back in college, playing 2E. The group came in... and we got completely destroyed. TPK in the first session. The next day, we rolled up new characters (which were pretty much the same as the originals, to be honest), and we tried again, and didn't die.

And, today, not a one among us can tell you a darned thing about that first TPK. We remember that it happened, but not a single detail. There is no war story of how we all died in that awesome fight. We just... all died, and tried again the next day. No big whoop. Overall, that TPK became irrelevant to our gaming experience. This *irrelevance* is the antithesis of New School gaming.

A New School GM worth their salt would look at that TPK and think, "What a wasted opportunity to make something memorable." In a New School game, if the PCs are going to lose or die, it should be in a manner that is dramatically satisfying, or funny, or... somehow leaves a mark worth talking about. Sturm Brightblade, standing on the parapet, facing down Kitiara, now *that* is a New School PC death. He died. He didn't win the fight. But the moment mattered.
 

GrahamWills

Explorer
This article seems to have two points, mixed up and presented as one. The first is that OS means players can fail, whereas NS means they cannot. Mixed up with tha are statements about player agency: OS is a sandbox and NS is a GM railroad.

I am currently running two old-school style games: AD&D2 in a dungeon crawl, and Deadlands Classic. I have just finished up a new school game (GUMSHOE; Night’s Black Agents) that ran for ~60 sessions. I’ve played in very strict campaigns with little GM variance allowed (Living Greyhawk) as well as Fate campaigns.

In all of them, players failed (in the sense of not having characters achieve objectives, which I believe is the point of this article. Players rarely fail in their actual objective, which is to have fun). The difference is not in the fact of failure, bu in how they failed. In OS games, players typically just roll badly and, if they are in a bad situation, their characters die. That’s what an OS failure looks like. It’s sort of binary; feat or glory. In a NS game, failure is rarely like that. I have had some player deaths like that, but I’ve also had characters die because their players thought it was right. Is that “failure”? Or a character defeats an enemy, but picks up a major disadvantage — NS has a lot more “you succeed at a cost” outcomes.

The second concept; sandbox versus GM railroad. I’m afraid this is just not right. My GUMSHOE game started with “here is a book with over 100 leads in it; I also have materials for another 100 or so other scenes. Go get them”. In that campaign, I was all ready for the players to head to the USA and confront the child-stealing conspiracy they literally watched their target sail away and decided to go talk to some Italian communists and never left Europe again. Whereas my OS AD&D game (Maze of the Blue Medusa) starts coercively with a scene forcing characters to enter a door and become trapped. The Deadlands campaign is very sandbox-y; many NS horror games I run are pretty linear.

I don’t think there is a real correlation here between OS/NS and railroading. NS school games, in my experience, usually allow more varied outcomes because they tend to encourage the players to get involved in the story. In OS games there are rarely rules for that, so they present one less avenue for variation in story. Now, this is just my experience. It might be that OS games tend more to sandbox campaigns because they need some way for players to affect story. In NS games there are many ways for them to do so, so it’s possible to affect story in a strongly plotted adventure. In OS games, if the GM has a strong plot, it’s hard for the players to do much about it (except fail and die) so maybe sandbox campaigns are more necessary to give the players a solid means of affecting the story?

Like the other posters, I think this article misses the mark; for me OS games are characterized by binary outcomes, by strong contrasts in results — save or die, death or glory, good versus evil, law against chaos, success or failure. NS games tend to graded outcomes, and that leads to a different attitude. NS games tend to let the players modify results, whereas OS games do not, and that also makes a huge difference.

Perhaps a better restating of the original article’s point would be “players fail in OS games because the games are built around binary success/failure outcomes, whereas a complete failure is rare in NS games as they are built around graded outcomes”
 

Henry

Autoexreginated
Yes, this avoidance of TPKs is one reason I am not enthused about Society Play (Pathfinder and Starfinder) and Adventurers' League. There are obvious play group interaction requirements not just to create a rules consistent game world, but actual attempts to encourage all the various GMs running the same adventure module at different conventions, clubs, or homes, to end up with similar final results per session for their diverse play groups. This sort of restricts the ability of GMs and Players to deviate from the written adventure to experience some memorable outcomes, including a TPK in within the very first hour of play.
That said, I think 'Iron Man Gaming' has a place, but for convention one-shots, as well as regular campaigns, DMs should bill them as such up front. As an established gamer, I'd try something like that, on a lark, and see how well I did. Hell, I didn't cry and run home from any of those multiple Magic the Gathering tournaments I mustered out of in the first or second round. :) However, I don't think it needs to be the norm for first-time experiences; despite the anecdotes I've heard over the years of "I played D&D once... but then I was killed by an elf" and the person loves it and goes back for more, I don't believe those are very common.

However, a question that arises based on Lew's statements -- this DOES make an impact when low risk is baked into the system as the default assumption, unlike Basic D&D and AD&D where your 2 hit point cleric with his two prepared spells gets killed fifteen minutes in by a stirge. I think there was an attempt to make a "hard mode" option in the 5e DMG, (both massive damage checks, and the 1-week long rest rule) but it wasn't considered or playtested very well. I would be nice to have something a little more thought-out as part of the system, a 'threat dial' if you will, much the same way that some of Savage Worlds' setting rules serve.
 

Henry

Autoexreginated
Perhaps a better restating of the original article’s point would be “players fail in OS games because the games are built around binary success/failure outcomes, whereas a complete failure is rare in NS games as they are built around graded outcomes”
Do you think these gradation of outcomes is out of a desire for a story to arise from its play result? Lew's point seems to be that story to his definition of 'Old School' is incidental; it's fine if you can make one out of what happened, but if you can't, then that's fine too, because the purpose was to play a game. However, more graded or modified outcomes is more appropriate if one wants to tell a story out of what arose during play, and make meaning from it -- more "we tried, and failed, but we made a valiant last stand" instead of "we rolled the dice and lost"; more "Battle of Thermopylae" than "Saint Valentine's Day Massacre."
 

Von Ether

Explorer
While I agree that Old School is matter of attitude, I have two demarcation lines:
  • The balanced encounters vs. environmental encounters. i.e. Every encounter the party faces is balanced towards their combat effectiveness as compared to encounters being designed to reflect the environment -- thus a party may get in over their head in a fight if they don't read the signs or refused to use other strategies (stealth, parley, etc.) The game world cherry picks between "simulation" and the game being just a game.
  • The game leans more on playing group's overall intelligence and knowledge and allows for lots of table talk so if the player of the dumb fighter figures out the puzzle, he can coach the wizard's player through the steps of the solution so as to maintain a suspension of disbelief.

If the GM is at the other extreme, the overall shape of the adventure will be the same each time, with variance only in the details.
This statement is exaggerated and completely discounts GM improv skills.

Just because death maybe off the table for many storytelling games, doesn't mean the GM's railroads the group down one path, or that player decision don't deal with real consequences or create new paths for the emergent story at the table.

If you envisioned a old school sandbox game were the GM slavishly went with every random table roll and didn't tweak the results (guidelines, not rules) you might be able to make the same statement about Old School. The main difference being that instead of a GM making an plot outline, the dice did it for him.

From what I've seen, a lot of old school GMs use the tables as tools for inspiration, springboards for improve, and to randomize some plot details, but they still make the final call if the results are to be used.

And just in case it needs to be said, I don't think either attitude (or combination of attitudes or even switching attitudes) is badwrongfun as long as your group is also on board with it.
 
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Ramaster

Explorer
This reads like it was written by someone who played 1ed D&D for about 10 years 30 years ago, then played 2 sessions of 4e about 5 years ago (DMed by a 14 year old GM who was running a game for the first time), then read a bunch of articles by people who had similar experiences.


You claim that you won't be "one true way" then expend the rest of the article being exactly that, what gives?


Quote:


"There seem to be many definitions, but I now see the fundamental divide as not about rules. Rather, it’s about the attitude of the GM, and of the players, toward losing and failure."


Then immediately go on to criticize a 5ed spell.


Yes, RPGs have changed since their inception. What's the point of the article? I suspect that, even after the 3 parts, there won't be any. Or it will be that Old School is the "one true way", but you’ll arrive at the conclusion with a hyperbole. I don't know what's worse.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
The very first game of a new group, back in college, playing 2E. The group came in... and we got completely destroyed. TPK in the first session. The next day, we rolled up new characters (which were pretty much the same as the originals, to be honest), and we tried again, and didn't die.

And, today, not a one among us can tell you a darned thing about that first TPK. We remember that it happened, but not a single detail. There is no war story of how we all died in that awesome fight. We just... all died, and tried again the next day. No big whoop.
Tangential note: my first game (back in 1977) as a player resulted in a TPK by attrition, with my fighter and the party wizard as the only participants in the game’s final battle. I can’t speak for the others, but I remember that battle extremely well. It was epic and it hooked me for life.

And the thing is, it was entirely an Old School style of play. The DM had no real interest in storytelling, but the game was memorable anyway.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
In the wave of new gamers, as WotC has said before (via Mike Mearls, in some roundtables) we're approaching a mark where the total fan base is almost 50%/50% gamers from pre-2014, and gamers from post-2014. That's a culture shift of seismic proportions in what gamers might want out of a game, compared to the minis-wargame culture that spawned and molded it from 1974 to the 2000s:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqjLO6YNKV0
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pFbCxuvknWM

(I may be misquoting Mike's figures, but I do know he talked about the huge influx of new players in the last three years and how it's changing their expectations of what gamers want in their D&D.)
I haven't watched the videos you linked to, but I'm curious if Mike Mearls gets further into what constitutes "the fanbase"?

Is it people who regularly play D&D a certain number of times per month?
Is it people who spend X dollars on D&D products over the course of a year?
Is it people who watch streaming games and read about D&D online for some-odd hours per week?
Is it people who self-identify as fans of D&D?
 

AriochQ

Explorer
This reads like it was written by someone who played 1ed D&D for about 10 years 30 years ago, then played 2 sessions of 4e about 5 years ago (DMed by a 14 year old GM who was running a game for the first time), then read a bunch of articles by people who had similar experiences.


You claim that you won't be "one true way" then expend the rest of the article being exactly that, what gives?


Quote:


"There seem to be many definitions, but I now see the fundamental divide as not about rules. Rather, it’s about the attitude of the GM, and of the players, toward losing and failure."


Then immediately go on to criticize a 5ed spell.


Yes, RPGs have changed since their inception. What's the point of the article? I suspect that, even after the 3 parts, there won't be any. Or it will be that Old School is the "one true way", but you’ll arrive at the conclusion with a hyperbole. I don't know what's worse.
Most, if not all, of Lew's 'articles' have a "Get off my lawn!" feel to them. They do generate comments, but most tend to be in opposition to the point he is trying to make.

I put 'article' in quotes because I generally expect a more non-biased viewpoint in this type of forum. IMHO, these type of posting would be more appropriate to a blog. That being said, it is entertaining to read the comments and they are, ironically, often more informative than the OP.
 

Ramaster

Explorer
That's just saying "X politician is running our country into the ground, but I voted for him/her because it makes for funnier memes".
 

Henry

Autoexreginated
Most, if not all, of Lew's 'articles' have a "Get off my lawn!" feel to them. They do generate comments, but most tend to be in opposition to the point he is trying to make.

I put 'article' in quotes because I generally expect a more non-biased viewpoint in this type of forum. IMHO, these type of posting would be more appropriate to a blog. That being said, it is entertaining to read the comments and they are, ironically, often more informative than the OP.
...and therefore, Rope Trick is a healing spell. :)

Sorry, joke from another thread...

I like Lew's articles specifically because they generate lively debate, not of the ever-present "Sharpshooter Feat is overpowered / Class X is underpowered" variety.

Ramaster said:
This reads like it was written by someone who played 1ed D&D for about 10 years 30 years ago, then played 2 sessions of 4e about 5 years ago (DMed by a 14 year old GM who was running a game for the first time), then read a bunch of articles by people who had similar experiences.
Nonetheless, he's got a point in that newer RPGs are designed to minimize TPKs as much as possible; The odds of a TPK are (totally imaginary numbers here) like a 1 in 20 versus AD&D's 1 in 5. The odds of outright "save or die" is almost nil for any one character in D&D5 - only very rare amounts of damage in one shot. There is no save or die for any spell, no save or die for any poison, no dying immediately at 0 hit points. For letting characters continue play despite setbacks, this is awesome; but for someone whose first experiences were under a system with those as distinct possibilities, it doesn't evoke the same environment; kind of like Lord of the Rings versus Game of Thrones. (If I were playing an actual Game of Thrones-style D&D game, I'd probably use something like AD&D, too.) :)
 
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Henry

Autoexreginated
That's just saying "X politician is running our country into the ground, but I voted for him/her because it makes for funnier memes".
There's a vast difference between having strong opinions in a Tabletop Gaming column versus having political power, and that's where I'll end that thought. :)
 

Arilyn

Explorer
The danger of OS philosophy on character death is the often the opposite of what it is trying to achieve. If you know that there is a decent chance your character will die, probably through bad rolls or mischance, you stop engaging with your characters. They become game pieces. You bring a binder full of backups, or start creating Bob the 2nd, 3rd, etc. I've seen players deliberately kill off their current character, because they are bored and want to try something new. If you are on your third character of so, I would argue that there is probably not much suspense left.

In NS, you can't usually escape consequences. You failed to save the village, you backed the wrong noble who is an evil manipulator, the super villain has taken over your country...
Even in a game that has no player death, these are real failures that generate as much, if not more tension, than just dying from poor dice rolls, or a bad decision. Of course, OS can have these issues too. My point is that these kinds of failures are more interesting than dying.
 
Are there a lot of new players in the hobby who assume you can't 'lose' in D&D because their favorite streamers haven't 'lost' yet?
They've at the very least dealt with player character permadeath, though, which should be condition them to at least expect that their characters _can_ die, if nothing else. :)
 

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