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Worlds of Design: “Old School” in RPGs and other Games – Part 2 and 3 Rules, Pacing, Non-RPGs, and G

Worlds of Design: “Old School” in RPGs and other Games – Part 2 Rules, Pacing, and Non-RPGs

For me, the difference between Old School and anything else is not in the rules, but in attitude, as described last time. Yet the rules, and the pacing, can make a big difference; parts 2 and 3.


“Old School Games have a lot of failure, more mediocre outcomes... and the brilliant stroke that suddenly feels astonishing because there is something there to contrast it with. New School Games are grey goo.” Jeffro

Last time I talked about some differences between “Old School” and newer approaches to RPGs, especially related to story. Here are some more.

Rules

The difference in “schools” is not about rules. Rules are not sacred, nor do they fit for every person. I think about rules in terms of game design. Occasionally choices designers make in games are arbitrary, one is as good as another. Some of these choices, the game designer(s) might want to change after publication, if they could. And over time, a game designer might make different choices for rules simply because tastes/trends change. For these reasons it makes no sense, to me, to adhere strictly to every rule in an RPG set.

Jeffro Johnson goes back to rules before AD&D (first edition as we tend to call it), or rules intended to substitute, such as Moldvay-B/X-Basic rules. So Jeffro says thieves must have d4 for hit points, because the rules he loves specify that.

I’m much more willing to vary from the original rules in order to make the game better (from my point of view, of course), so my thieves/rogues have d6s, can use bows (Robin Hood), and vary in other ways from the original rules. My 1e clerics can choose one of three types of sharp weapons (two-handers, one-handed swords, bow and arrow) and use those weapons as well as the blunt ones - because it’s better for the game. They can memorize twice as many spells as they can cast. And so on.

But a GM can make his game Old or New regardless of the actual rules. Some rules make it easier to tell stories (e.g. FATE). Simpler rulesets in general give the GM more freedom to tell stories, as there are fewer rules to get in the way of the story, and likely less “rules lawyering”.

GM Role

In terms of the two major conceptions of the GM’s role, the GM as rules arbiter and the GM as a sort of god, which works better for the storytelling that’s part of New School? I think rules arbiter is much less effective, as the rules can get in the way of the story. GM as rules arbiter tends to go with long rulesets (which more likely need an arbiter), and rules-heavy games get in the way of story-telling. Rules-light games ought to be better for GM storytelling. Players who don’t want the GM to control the story may prefer rules-heavy RPGs. These are tendencies, of course, not certainties, and likely there are counterexamples.

Pacing

Pacing is a big part of the difference between the two extremes. Good pacing (in novel and film terms) calls for alternating lows and highs, to make the highs that much more effective.

Old School recognizes that there will be not-very-exciting or even unpleasant/horrific adventures, to go with super-exciting and terrifically rewarding adventures. New School “evens it out”, ensuring that nothing will be unpleasant but also effectively ensuring that nothing will be terrific – because you can’t fail. “Loot drops” are boring when every monster has a loot drop. Boatloads of treasure become boring when you always get boatloads of treasure. “No one ever gets in serious trouble” is boring. In other words, the New abandons good pacing in favor of enabling “no negative consequences” or just “no losses”. You can certainly do that, but it sounds tedious to me.

Non-RPGs, too

This Old/New dichotomy can be seen clearly in board and card games as well. Such games have moved away from the traditional direct competition, and from high levels of player interaction, to parallel competitions that are usually puzzles (i.e., have always-correct solutions) rather than games (which do not have such solutions). Each player pursues his own puzzle down one of the "Multiple Paths to Victory," that is, following one of several always-correct solutions provided by the designer.

"As an Action RPG, the best thing about Torchlight II is the way loot, skill choices, and chance bubble over into a fountain of light and treasure at the whiff of a right-click, every single time, for as long as you can keep going." PC Gamer magazine, 2012

We see the difference in video games, too, but for commercial reasons those games have gone far into the New. To begin with, computers lend themselves to avatar-based "experiences" (forms of story) rather than games. Also, computer games of all types are far into reward (or at least, lack of negative consequences), having left consequence (Old School) behind some time ago. In other words, you’re rewarded for playing while not having to worry/take responsibility for the consequences of your own actions. (There are exceptions of course.) In the extreme, players will blame the game if they don’t succeed. If you make a free to play video game (a very common type now), practically speaking you MUST make it easy and positive so that players will stick around long enough to decide to provide you with some revenue via in-game micro-transactions.

(Editor's Note: We decided to add in Lew's third article, below, so it puts all of his points in context; please see my comment below).

Here are some Old/New School differences in actual gameplay.

Strategy Over Tactics

Military strategy (what you do before battle is joined) is de-emphasized in opposite-of-old-school games. Why?

  • Good strategy requires planning; tactics can become standardized, rule of thumb, easier
  • If the GM is telling a story, he or she wants players to follow the script, not devise their own ways of doing things overall (which is what strategy is all about)
Tactical games, on the other hand, are all about immediate fighting, what 4th edition D&D was built for, what many computer RPGs are built for because computers are at their best in tactics and worst in strategy.

Hand-Holding

Old School games are often about exploration, about finding/identifying the objectives. And recognizing when something about a location/opponent makes it too dangerous to take on right now.

Something like a secret door becomes a “dirty GM trick” instead of a challenge for the dungeon-delving skills of the party. “New” games are about being guided by the game (GM) to where the fight is, then fighting, then getting the loot. (You recognize the description of typical computer RPGs, especially MMO RPGs?)

In other words, the GM “holds the hands” of the players, guiding them rather than leaving them to their own devices. Every GM does this on occasion, but it’s the norm in the extreme of New School.

What’s Important in Play?

In Old School, it’s the success of the party that counts, much more than the success of the individual. This is a “wartime” attitude now quite uncommon in the USA, but common amongst the Baby Boomer wargamers who originated RPGs. In the extremes of the newer school, it’s the individual that counts (e.g. as expressed in “All About Me” RPGs), not the group. This makes a huge difference in how people play the game.

Sport or War?

I talked about this in an earlier column (RPG Combat: Sport or War?). To summarize, in war everything is fair, and stratagems – “a plan or scheme, especially one used to outwit an opponent” - are the ideal. If you get in a fair fight, you’ve screwed up: fair fights are for suckers. That style puts a premium on intelligence-gathering and on strategy. Combat as sport looks for a fair fight that the players will just barely manage to win, often as managed by the GM. Combat as War is less heroic, but it’s a lot more practical from the adventurer’s point of view. And for me, a lot more believable. If a fight is truly fair, you’re going to lose 50% of the time, in the long run. That’s not survivable.

Nuance

There are lots of “in-betweens”, of course:

  • What about a campaign where the party can suffer a total or near wipeout, but someone has left a wish with a reliable soul who can wish away the disaster. They can fail (lose), but most or all of them will survive.
  • What about the “All About Me” style I wrote about recently? Usually, there is no possibility of failure, but a GM could put a little failure into the equation if they wished.
  • What about the campaign where everyone knows their character is doomed to die, likely before reaching (in AD&D terms) 10th or 11th level? Then glory (and a glorious death) often becomes the objective.
  • What about the campaign where characters normally survive, but when someone does something egregiously stupid or foolish, the character can die?
  • You can hand-hold players to the point of combat, and still make that combat deadly.
RPGs can accommodate all kinds of tastes. But we don’t have to like every kind, do we?

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

Ramaster

Explorer
This is by far the worst article I've ever read on this site. Dissecting it and pointing out each and every thing that's wrong with it is useless.

I find it better to just point out the only sentence that isn't either a wrong conclusion from a fallacious premise or outright factually wrong:

"Good pacing (in novel and film terms) calls for alternating lows and highs, to make the highs that much more effective. "
 

Ovinomancer

Flip Nazi
This is even more of a dumpster fire than the last one. It starts with a clearly insulting quote, meanders into Lew's favorite house rules, wanders by a malformed but maybe rescuable discussion of OS vs NS (by, not through, though), and ends with his favorite non-sequitur hobby horse -- beating up video games.

Why does ENW continue to encourage these random excursions through Pulsipher's personal one-true-wayisms, especially when they so badly malign a playstyle not uncommon among readers? Sure, they drive clicks, but is that where ENW is?
 
Anyone who cannot see "very dangerous" and "entirely story focused" as being able to exist in the same game has no grounding to be commenting on this in the first place r_r

It is entirely possible to run a rules free game where death or failure is around every corner, personally I like mechanics playing a role but it is from being implausible like the image suggests.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
I have read this twice. Lots of words but no focus. I still would have the writer use Gameist and Storyist. Going for coffee.
 

lowkey13

Exterminate all rational thought
This should be good! :cool:


....Just wondering how you start with:

Old School : New School :: No Storytelling : Storytelling


And from the premise, end up with the conclusion that new school is terrible because it doesn't have dramatic, um, stories.
 

5ekyu

Adventurer
Gotta say - not enough sense or experience in that post to deserve more discussion than to just say "nope".

To even be inflaming, it needs to be engaging on some level of sense or logic.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
I finished half my coffee. And read some other thread and other forums. This is what I think the OP is trying to say.
RULEs.
A GM can be Old Scholl/Gameist or New School/Storist regardless of the rules set. Some game systems like FATE are geared toward Story.
GM ROLE
Is the GM a gawd or rules arbiter? I not answering that question. But a rule heavy system gets in the way of STORY telling.
PACING
Old School/Gameist people know some times the adventure will be boring or bad. New School/Storyist makes sure nothing really bad happens.
NON-RPGs TOO
Even with three fourths of my coffee gone, I don’t know what the author is trying to say.
 

talien

Community Supporter
Hi All,

In the interest of helping Lew make his entire point, I've added in his third installment to this article just so that it's presented together as a whole.

I realize not every article is for everyone and appreciate the constructive criticism. We'll keep that in mind for future articles.

Thanks for your feedback!
 
Great first paper, bring them on! They are fantastic! This is one of the best Philosophy 100 papers I've had to grade. Excellent examples of straw man arguments. It is refreshing to see someone really understand the "Write a fallacious argument using one of the 12 logical fallacies we discussed in class" assignment. So far I would give it an A-.

My only criticism is that the author does need to be a little more subtle in the Old School==Good, New School==Bad argument. If they were to make their biases a little more subtle, it would be more persuasive and give them a full A.
 

Ramaster

Explorer
“New” games are about being guided by the game (GM) to where the fight is, then fighting, then getting the loot. (You recognize the description of typical computer RPGs, especially MMO RPGs?)
This 3rd part is downright insulting. I'll reiterate my comment from the other thread:

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.
 

Henry

Autoexreginated
What’s Important in Play?
In Old School, it’s the success of the party that counts, much more than the success of the individual. This is a “wartime” attitude now quite uncommon in the USA, but common amongst the Baby Boomer wargamers who originated RPGs. In the extremes of the newer school, it’s the individual that counts (e.g. as expressed in “All About Me” RPGs), not the group. This makes a huge difference in how people play the game.
I do have a question here -- if this is true, then how is it that all the old school stories of exploits from the 1970s involve individual characters and their exploits -- Robilar, Mordenkainen, Tenser, Erac's Cousin, rather than the groups that they were in as a whole? Contrast this with the "CelebriD&D" crowd currently, where the focus is the success of the group - Vox Machina/Mighty Nein, "The Heroes of Trunau" of Glass Cannon Podcast, etc.? We can see and hear frequent examples of sacrifices made by individual characters from these groups so that the group can succeed. I would posit the truth is the exact OPPOSITE of this statement.

In fact, one of the most famous stories involving the Tomb of Horrors was how Robilar was the sole survivor who conquered it: "...When he found the tomb of [Acererak] Robilar scooped all the magical treasures he could into his bag of holding and ran off leaving [Acererak] hanging..." ...as well as all his henchman and anyone else accompanying him, it sounds like. Not really a "focus on the success of the group" kind of thing.:p
 

darkbard

Explorer
Hi All,

In the interest of helping Lew make his entire point, I've added in his third installment to this article just so that it's presented together as a whole.

I realize not every article is for everyone and appreciate the constructive criticism. We'll keep that in mind for future articles.

Thanks for your feedback!
IMO, one of the great advantages in a serial publication (like a planned 3-part essay) is the opportunity to revise each piece in response to feedback on the preceding installment. The decision to publish Lew's third piece immediately upon the negative reception of part two implies nothing of the sort happened here, or even had the possibility of happening. I.e., the pieces were all writtten and would be published as is, regardless of responses that make clarification seem like a good idea, introduce an unconsidered (or ill considered) viewpoint, etc.
 

5ekyu

Adventurer
Hi All,

In the interest of helping Lew make his entire point, I've added in his third installment to this article just so that it's presented together as a whole.

I realize not every article is for everyone and appreciate the constructive criticism. We'll keep that in mind for future articles.

Thanks for your feedback!
In the interest of fairness, gotta say, I dont think that helped but rather hurt as the third section is even more hostile in its tenor - but it foes st least help wrap context on the other.

But I gotta say, I get the sense that if I took half thing statements made in that article about what the author claims a game of x type does and I took those claims and put a forum poster name on them "5ekyu games do..." I would be at least dancing on the border if not over the line for forum regs regarding attacks or misrepresenting others.

Maybe it's ore ok on this forum to essentially insult or malign an entire class of gamers or style of gaming as long as you avoid pointing at any specific person - so this is not only ok around here but sanctioned?
 

Lord Mhoram

Explorer
I sorta feel like if this were some random post, it would have had an infraction for edition warring (style warring?).
 
I

Immortal Sun

Guest
Hi All,

In the interest of helping Lew make his entire point, I've added in his third installment to this article just so that it's presented together as a whole.

I realize not every article is for everyone and appreciate the constructive criticism. We'll keep that in mind for future articles.

Thanks for your feedback!
Here's my feedback: Lew writes terrible articles. He is insulting, demeaning and outright rude. His threads (i went back and read a few) would by most other posters be considered violations of the rules (edition warring). Why you staff him is beyond me except to cater to a few grogs who hate everything that isn't their favorite edition.

And are those really the kinds of people you want to toss a bone to?
 

AriochQ

Explorer
Drivel. That is my opinion of this article.

His characterization of differing styles of play is wildly inaccurate and bordering on a rant. Presenting his personal opinion, which are not widely held and nonsensical, in an article format makes me question what contribution he is actually making to enworld or the community.

I would enjoy a well written article speaking to any of the several aspects of gaming that have changed between early D&D and later D&D (e.g. Story telling, deadliness, DM control, etc.)

This is not that.
 
Last edited by a moderator:
Judging by the universal mugging lewpuls has been subjected to I think he might be on to something. I don't actually agree with lewpuls' major argument about attitude. Personally, I think the larger difference between old and new school are the rules and specifically the danger level and perceived unfairness of the old school rules. (save or die). However, it's a matter of taste. I have played them all and like them all. I am currently involved in a 5e campaign (more new school?) and a Labyrinth Lord campaign (definitely old school?) and have played others like Fate, Gumshoe, etc. In terms of my current campaigns, the key differences are the finality and frequency of death (5e is more survivable and there are many player options and tactics built into the game to facilitate this) and the speed of combat resolution (we can clear out a whole dungeon level in LL in the same time it takes to do a handful of encounters in 5e). So old school is more death certain and rules quick. Whereas new school is more player-centric, heroic and survivable but also with more cool stuff built into the rules.
 

Shadow Demon

Explorer
Judging by the universal mugging lewpuls has been subjected to I think he might be on to something. I don't actually agree with lewpuls' major argument about attitude. Personally, I think the larger difference between old and new school are the rules and specifically the danger level and perceived unfairness of the old school rules. (save or die). However, it's a matter of taste. I have played them all and like them all. I am currently involved in a 5e campaign (more new school?) and a Labyrinth Lord campaign (definitely old school?) and have played others like Fate, Gumshoe, etc. In terms of my current campaigns, the key differences are the finality and frequency of death (5e is more survivable and there are many player options and tactics built into the game to facilitate this) and the speed of combat resolution (we can clear out a whole dungeon level in LL in the same time it takes to do a handful of encounters in 5e). So old school is more death certain and rules quick. Whereas new school is more player-centric, heroic and survivable but also with more cool stuff built into the rules.
This pretty much sums it up rather succinctly. I would have rather not read the article and just this comment.
 

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