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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.
[h=3]Rules[/h] 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”.
[h=3]GM Role[/h] 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.
[h=3]Pacing[/h] 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.
[h=3]Non-RPGs, too[/h] 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.
[h=3]Strategy Over Tactics[/h] 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.
[h=3]Hand-Holding[/h] 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.
[h=3]What’s Important in Play?[/h] 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.
[h=3]Sport or War?[/h] 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.
[h=3]Nuance[/h] 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

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio


Do you still follow that outlook? I'm more conservative in allowing use of 3rd party material. I already provide additional perks/bonuses so I'm loathe to permit further variation in our 5e games

Oh, very much. After running a Primeval Thule game, we've now moved on to Dragon Heist. Ok, so, that's pretty standard, but, considering I have a variant ranger and a skeleton PC, I'm very much on the side that so long as it fits and/or is fun, I'll allow it.

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A few points, from someone who got started in 1979 with Blue Book.

The main difference between OS and NS is simple: professionalization. That's all.

In this context, "professionalization" means modern product professionalization. This includes some or all of the following: design and development by people with paid experience, advanced education or training, or all three; customer-driven or at least customer-responsive design and development; design and development intended to promote the ease of use, sale, scalability, and/or lifetime customer value of a product; and sustained, effective efforts to promote product use, e.g. "D and D nights," tournaments, etc.

OS games had none of these. The one unexamined thing in this monstrous thread is *time*--what seems to middle-aged me like unimaginable desert stretches of time. No matter how you played back then, kids, you played for LONG stretches of time ALL THE TIME. There was literally nothing better to do, and in lots of cases nothing else to do. In college in the late 1980s, we frequently played 8-hour stretches two or three times a week, with a ten-hour stretch on the weekend (our longest session was fourteen hours).

You can't have a product like that.

Modern D and D is designed to be played satisfyingly in four hours. It also has a lot fewer dependencies--there are a million subtle changes to make it possible to run something for strangers, say at a bar's Dungeons and Dragons night, in a finite, brief period of time. In that time you will get your quantum of solace, as it were: a regularized experience which will typically be Ok to pretty good, occasionally HELL YEAH, very occasionally truly awesome. It will almost never be terrible. If it is, the causes are easy to spot by the participants: players who use playing with strangers as an outlet for their nerd psychopathy, a crappy GM, etc. Even *that* is the sign of a professional product--you'll note the users don't blame the product, but other users.

This design serves the purposes of a professional consumer product. There's nothing wrong with that. But it's an overwhelmingly strong explanatory force for a lot of the issues raised in this thread.


still playing OD&D(1974), find my thread in gamers seeking gamers forum.

diaglo "will be at Gary Con in a couple weeks" Ooi

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