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

Bedrockgames

Adventurer
I think people are engaging the content of this article emotionally, rather than looking at the essence of what he is saying. People often make generalizations when contrasting styles, and there are a couple of notes in this piece I can see folks reacting negatively to, but for the most part he is encapsulating a pretty common approach to old school play (and listing off its advantages). As I said before, it isn't a zero sum game, old school and new school can sit side by side as options. But I do like the reliability of the tools afforded by the more old school approach, and I find much of the old school style fits what works for me at the table (often for the reasons the OP gives). Yes, this is presented as an opinion by the writer, but people are going to have opinions about different styles of play. I've seen countless negative opinions directed at old school play here. If he is being inaccurate, point it out. I'm certainly open to my own misunderstandings of new school play. A lot of this is just about what we perceive when we go into other forums, groups, etc. When I step away from my own table and go to more new school tables, many of the things the OP lists as differences, do jive with what I experience. I think he probably could have framed things a little more diplomatically, but again, gamers tend to have strong opinions about their preferences and they often get presented in those kinds of terms.
 

AriochQ

Explorer
Personally, I agree with many of the points he is making. I find the tone offensive. He comes across as dismissive of NS style play.

I am a firm believer that there is no correct way to play D&D (obviously I have my preferences, as do others, no denying that fact). Different play styles suit different groups. While it is often interesting to compare and contrast the strengths and weaknesses of differing play styles (with OS v NS being an interesting comparison), we should strive to do so objectively with accurate representations of each. This series fails in this regard.
 

Blue

Orcus on a bad hair day
I am for exploring different viewpoints in positive ways that can help us explore our hobby and better understand our fellow gamers even if they do things which may not be our personal mode of play.

However the 3 parts to this article come by as very dismissive of other methods of play, injecting personal preference in the guise of factual information and putting down foreign types of play as BADWRONGFUN. I wish these articles approached the differences in a positive style that highlighted where each can make good games to fit the differing needs of various tables instead of coming across as screeds putting down certain ways of enjoying our shared hobby.

To compound it issue, judging from the responses on parts 1 plus 2&3 they seem to have been poorly researched, with a superficial understanding of new school games.

Even if articles are about something that may not appeal to the whole audience, approaching it in a positive way to talk out a particular stance would be better then tearing apart a different stance. It would be very possible to write articles espousing old school gaming (or new school gaming) which would have an audience.

Please ENworld, [MENTION=3285]talien[/MENTION], hold the articles to a high standard.
 

darkbard

Explorer
I think people are engaging the content of this article emotionally, rather than looking at the essence of what he is saying. [...] I think he probably could have framed things a little more diplomatically, but again, gamers tend to have strong opinions about their preferences and they often get presented in those kinds of terms.
I think there is a loaded tone to both (all three) articles. But while that's what is mostly being reacted to in this thread, the initial installment has seen most of its strong reaction against the terms employed by Lew: they seem confused about actual trends in game design over the last decade or more and attempts by some theoretically-inclined gamers to create terminology that can be used with precision in discussions and analysis of such. In these articles, Lew's terms seem to ignore (be unaware of?) the ongoing discussion of how certain game elements or design philosophies have shaped how a general audience thinks of the terms he employs. And that makes it very hard to engage his ideas on a practical, functional level, tone aside.
 

Henry

Autoexreginated
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.
I made similar points in my comments on part 1; I think there's room for both, but it's important for ALL GMs, not just old schoolers, to be aware to set the tone of the game and game system before even session 1 of your gaming, because I don't think the newer crop of players are a small fringe fad element who will disappear in five years; there's a sizable fan base of "new school" as well as "old school."

I think people are engaging the content of this article emotionally, rather than looking at the essence of what he is saying. People often make generalizations when contrasting styles, and there are a couple of notes in this piece I can see folks reacting negatively to, but for the most part he is encapsulating a pretty common approach to old school play (and listing off its advantages). As I said before, it isn't a zero sum game, old school and new school can sit side by side as options. But I do like the reliability of the tools afforded by the more old school approach, and I find much of the old school style fits what works for me at the table (often for the reasons the OP gives). Yes, this is presented as an opinion by the writer, but people are going to have opinions about different styles of play. I've seen countless negative opinions directed at old school play here. If he is being inaccurate, point it out. I'm certainly open to my own misunderstandings of new school play. A lot of this is just about what we perceive when we go into other forums, groups, etc. When I step away from my own table and go to more new school tables, many of the things the OP lists as differences, do jive with what I experience. I think he probably could have framed things a little more diplomatically, but again, gamers tend to have strong opinions about their preferences and they often get presented in those kinds of terms.
Quite true on the emotional content, both for the article and responses. Some ask why host these articles - I can't speak for ENWorld, but for me they hold my interest far more readily than a forum post debating rules brokenness or an alignment debate. If it stirs up the blood without being about religion or politics, it's doing something right. :) Rather than dismiss it out of hand, I'd rather see people ask, "is this incorrect? if so, why?" and throw some examples, whether from their own experiences or something documentable.

The "Old school is about the team" thing I still disagree with, as noted above - All of Gary's old players seemed to be "every man for himself" where Gary's death-treks were concerned. :)
 

jasper

Rotten DM
After my second cup of coffee, I see an addition to the article. To help put in context the first part. It does not.
STRATEGY OVER TACTICS.
The whole section is off. Depending on the people and their training, the group may do either. “Follow the script” laugh. Old School and New School players were playing in 1980.
HAND-HOLDING
I played in too many 1E modules where the special magic was a room or two before the boss monster. To edit. (you recognize the description of an OLD SCHOOL Module..)
WHAT’S IMPORTANT IN PLAY?
I never in my experience came across the “wartime” attitude. Perhaps, I did not play with enough military players. I gamed with plenty “ALL About Me” players since I began playing in 1980.
SPORT OR WAR?
Various players back in 1980 treat combat as either Sport or War. It depended on the player. Don’t forget Combat as War means a player can buy the module ahead time (insert other methods of knowing adventure), or do his best to play mind games with GM.
NUANCE
The nuance of this part evades me.
“RPGs can accommodate all kinds of tastes. But we don’t have to like every kind, do we?” This is the only sentence in the article I agree with.
 

Henry

Autoexreginated
I will say, in defense of Lewpuls' point, I do see far less tactical thought than was evident back in the old days - it's why I loved that dungeon survival article from him so much thirty-five years ago. It had great points about:

1) Brainstorming multiple uses for spells (a fun pastime)
2) Coordination of characters on a team so that friendly fire and conflicting objectives are minimized (i.e. everyone engaging in one-on-one duels with foes and grandstanding like you're at some tournament, even if you're NOT playing the headstrong Cavalier)
3) Not assuming that all NPCs are honest
4) Not blindly interacting with unknown features in a dungeon (The "Critical Role style of Dungeoneering")
5) Gearing for defense as well as offense (The "always pack at least one dispel magic" axiom)

I'm not going to interrogate every party member with truth serums before every session, or check every coin from a treasure haul for numismatic value on the chance that my DM is screwing us over, but all of the above points are very worthwhile, and do add a tactical element to adventures that I find quite fun. I ran the infamous "dead-end high room with evenly-spaced stone holes in one section of the wall, containing wood fragments in each hole" on an adventuring group years ago, (this was an example from both the 1st edition DMG, and from a Dungeon Magazine module), and my players were stopped for three hours trying to figure out what the deal with that room was -- but it never occurred to them to check above 5 foot height on the walls for secret doors. They had other ways to go, but they fiddled with that room for three hours trying to figure it out. Same thing with puzzles or riddles -- most of my players over the years seem to hate 'em, to the point I don't bother to include 'em any more.
 

Henry

Autoexreginated
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...
Not to monopolize the thread, but I just got struck with an example from a CR session yesterday --
Light SPOILER:
[sblock]One character, a monk, was grappled by a powerful creature that emerged from a ruin. A second creature emerged right after this, intent on some of the more vulnerable members of the group. She intentionally lashed out using an opportunity attack on the second creature, despite knowing seeking attention of TWO of these things could kill her. However, she did it anyway, because she knew the creature's target couldn't take the heat in melee, and drew fire so that they could continue to do their (quite effective) ranged damage.[/sblock]
 

hawkeyefan

Explorer
Having read through the initial post a couple of times, I can say that I find there is very little substance to it. It's a bit of opinion with not a lot to back it up. As a compare and contrast type of piece, it seems remarkably one sided. I don't mind if Lew has his preference, but he seems to be incapable of accurately describing what he is calling New School games. He's quite good at describing Old School games. When comparing the two, it would help if he was able to accurately site both sides, and provide examples.

His tone is certainly dismissive, but that's fine. I don't question EnWorld's decision to run his articles. We can all deal with a little sass. He's being a bit provocative, and in the "in my day /get off my lawn" manner that will always be present in any discussion.

I figured that it would make sense to break it down by section.


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”.
So there seems to be no noticeable difference given here between how Old School and New School games approach adherence to the rules. Instead, it seems that Lew believes that it's more a choice that any GM can make for themselves, and he explains why he prefers flexibility to strict adherence.

Nothing about how the two Schools compare in relation to rules. Lew does offer FATE as an example of a New School game, and how it has rules that make it easier to tell stories. But that statement doesn't seem to have much to it.

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.
I don't know if the GM's two roles are rules arbiter and a sort of god. He seems to be implying that in order for storytelling to be present in a game, the GM has to oversee it all, and that rules mostly get in the way of this. By contrast, rules light systems would better fit a more story focused game because then there are less rules to get in the way.

I don't think this is particularly accurate. I find that some games have rules that help promote story, others have rules that can at times hinder story. This seems more a criticism of a GM who has decided to railroad his preferred story into the game, which is something that can certainly happen in either Old or New School games.

Here, at least, Lew seems to actually attempt to compare the two styles. I don't agree entirely with his conclusion (old school= rules heavy, new school= rules light), but at least there is something here. It would probably have helped if he provided some solid examples.

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.
Here we delve into some odd assumptions about New School games. According to this section, the following must be true of New School games:

- Nothing unpleasant happens
- Nothing terrific happens
- Failure is not possible
- Every monster provides a loot drop
- No one gets in serious trouble
- The game has no pacing, no negative consequences, and no losses

For lack of a better term, this is utter nonsense. In my opinion, it also gives the sense that Lew is woefully ill informed about how New School games function.

I don't know of ANY game that would fit the above criteria, and none are given as examples.

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.
Here Lew talks about board games, card games, and video games. He gives one example of a video game by providing a quote from PC Magazine, which seems to lament how easy the game makes certain aspects that would otherwise likely be tedious.

The statement that board and card games have moved away from competitive play and high level of player interaction to "parallel competitions that are usually puzzles" is not backed up in any way. This doesn't seem to map to my own experiences. Yes, many board games have adopted a cooperative play element ("Arkham Horror", "Pandemic", "Gloomhaven", etc.) but there are still plenty that have competitive play ("Scythe", "Game of Thrones", "Twilight Imperium", etc.). I don't think this is a shift from one to the other so much as designers experimenting with styles and mixing and matching until they find interesting results, like some of the games that are both competitive and cooperative ("Betrayal at House on the Hill", "The Thing: Outbreak at Outpost 31", etc.).

One thing I can say is that all these games are very high on player interaction.

I'm less familiar with card games myself, but from what I see, Magic and Pokemon and other competitive card games are still going strong.

The video game market is likely even more varied, and to try and pin down a trend based on one minor example seems hasty.

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.
Why do New School Games de-emphasize strategy? Because strategy requires planning, and planning means you deviate from the story.

This again relies on some odd assumptions of New School games. To me it sounds like we're talking about a railroad, which I think we can all agree is something that can happen regardless of system or school of play.

The bit about tactical games seems unrelated to the overall point of New vs. Old school and how they relate to tactics. There were such games before the rise of RPGs, and there continue to be.

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.
Here, there seems to be a salient point. Lew does provide a valid distinction from Old to New School. But he then draws a pretty shaky conclusion based on that distinction.

Yes, exploration and reading cues to determine the best way to proceed is a big part of Old School games, and one that is less often found in New School games. Some New School games actively seek ways around such aspects of play because for many people, they are tedious in the extreme.

I personally found things like that to be frustrating and boring when I was playing as a kid. If we didn't find the secret door, then we could only proceed to a certain point. That kind of design is frustrating, and I think it has been addressed in several ways, in both the Old School and the New School.

I don't think that the fact that New School favors a different sort of challenge means that they need their hands held. In fact, in the old days, when our party ran into a dead end for whatever reason, the DM would inevitably simply allow us to find the secret door, or to learn the pass phrase, or otherwise access whatever key we missed in order to proceed. Sounds exactly like hand holding to me.

So again, I think that removing such types of challenges to focus on others doesn't mean the GM is holding the hands of the players. Again, this is something that seems just as likely in any game, depending on the mechanics and how they are applied, and if any alternate solutions are at the ready, and how the players react.

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.
How so? What New School games focus on the individual? In what way does Old School focus on the party? Here Lew sites only himself from an earlier article as a source.

You have to back up your thesis with examples.


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.
Again, Lew sites himself, with nothing else to support his statement.

Do New School games view combat as sport? How so? We can't know from these statements here.

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.
I suppose all of this is true. It seems that Lew is basically saying that all his points may have exceptions. Okay.

RPGs can accommodate all kinds of tastes. But we don’t have to like every kind, do we?
Certainly not. Unfortunately, if you're going to analyze them, you may want to be familiar with them to the point that you can actually discuss them and provide examples that demonstrate the conclusions you've drawn.
 

Arilyn

Adventurer
There are, of course, differences in play between approaching adventures as, usually, massive dungeons which need to be solved or survived, and games that are closer to emulating an adventure story. This could be used as a difference between old and new school, but since the divide is as old as the game, perhaps the labels are inaccurate?

My biggest problem with the article is the claim that in recent years, players prefer to have no risk, and lots of reward. The idea that there is no failure in new school games is absolutely ludricous. Of course, this playstyle seems boring to lewpuls, if that's what he honestly thinks is going on. It would bore anyone.

And then there is the inevitable blaming of computer games. They are popular because players are engaged. Easy games are panned. Rpgs don't play like computer rpgs anyway, so it really isn't relevant to the argument. Same with board and card games. I'm assuming lewpuls is thinking about the popularity of Euro games and cooperative games in recent years. Yes, in many Euro games, players work on their own thing with little interaction with others at the table. What has this got to do with rpgs? People don't work together or communicate anymore? And if they do, in a cooperative game, it's too easy? I'm a little muddled. There is also a huge diversity of board games right now. They aren't all Euro style anyway.

There is obviously a wide variety of ways to play rpgs. Players skipping easily through encounters, getting whatever they want, never losing or suffering, at least not much, is not going to be a style that lasts. Maybe a new gm might make these errors, but it has nothing to do with ns gaming.

This article is very innacurate, and obviously biased. I would welcome lewpuls' thoughts on his gaming experiences, if he would take more care with his research, and be less dismissive of the changes that have been occurring for decades in our hobby.
 
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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
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.
Much of his point was made with the "grey goo" quote. It sets a tone that is... unwelcoming to anyone who happens to enjoy other styles of gaming.

The rest of it seems poorly researched, as there are other folks around here and elsewhere who seem to have thought more deeply (and I'd say more evenhandedly) about this subject, and the author seems ignorant of that. The author probably should have gotten himself up to speed on the state of scholarship and theory (such as it may be, it is better than his) before starting to write. His use of loaded terms and factually incorrect absolute statements do not strengthen his arguments.

Maybe some discussion with *current* designers of games would have been helpful, too.

And, to answer his final question - No particular gamer has to like all kinds of games. But, around here, we do ask people to limit the time they spend trash-talking styles they don't like, or how often they tear down things other people love to make their own favorites look good.

Overall, this is a disappointing series. I would hope for better from this place.
 
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Alzrius

The EN World kitten
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
That's not really the best example. Not only has Gary himself told us that all of Robilar's henchmen (a grand total of five orcs) died at the beginning of the Tomb (one killed by Robilar himself when he didn't want to proceed any further), but more notably Rob Kuntz has said that he played through the Tomb as part of a playtest, making it sound as though he was the only player at the time. So in other words, there wasn't anyone else accompanying him; it was a one-on-one session.
 
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Henry

Autoexreginated
That's not really the best example. Not only has Gary himself told us that all of Robilar's henchmen (a grand total of five orcs) died at the beginning of the Tomb (one killed by Robilar himself when he didn't want to proceed any further). More notably, Rob Kuntz has said that he played through the Tomb as part of a playtest, making it sound as though he was the only player at the time. So in other words, there wasn't anyone else accompanying him; it was a one-on-one session.
...and admittedly, Robilar was played as evil alignment, as well, exploiting everyone he could -- but that's kind of the point; so many of the anecdotes I've heard from Mordenkainen, Tenser, Erac's Cousin, etc. were pretty self-centered ones, ones often in which they weren't even adventuring together, but employing henchmen to do dirty work, sometimes even working against each other as part of the 'sandbox' style they often employed for their gaming.

Heck, Tenser's name (one of the more lawful and good ones) is lent to spells whose purpose is to out-fighter the Fighters: Tenser's Deadly Strike, Tenser's Fortunes of War, etc. (Ernie didn't necessarily have anything to do with those spells, but the point being, there was a lot of centering on individual characters and grandstanding among the general populace of gamers back in the day, which carries to this day.) One can't simply say that "everything was all about cooperation and success of the group in the old days." There are plenty of solo stories or stories of PCs abandoning one another when the going is bad, because of the high death rate and uncertainty of combat.

I love this anecdote:
wikipedia article said:
As a player, Gygax created many different characters for the Greyhawk world. At the point when eight of these characters — Mordenkainen (wizard), Yrag (fighter), Bigby (wizard), Rigby (cleric), Zigby (dwarf), Felnorith (elf), Vram (elf) & Vin (elf)[2] — had collectively accumulated both enough wealth that they couldn't easily spend it, as well as standing armies that rivalled most nations' forces, Gygax had the eight characters form an alliance that he called the Circle of Eight.
source: http://www.enworld.org/forum/archive-threads/46861-q-gary-gygax-pt-3-a-17.html

He formed an alliance... with himself. :D I loved Gary, and it's stories like this which are part of why I enjoyed talking with him years ago. But it also goes to show the level of individualism that was just as present in early D&D play as today, and some could argue MORE so, not less.
 

Saelorn

Adventurer
This article makes it sound like his primary complaint about "New School" games is that he doesn't like Combat as Sport or the mandatory magic item progression in 4E.

It's a reasonable preference to have, but tying a connection between 4E and the entirety of NS gaming seems a bit of a stretch.
 

Count_Zero

Explorer
Much of his point was made with the "grey goo" quote. It sets a tone that is... unwelcoming to anyone who happens to enjoy other styles of gaming.

The rest of it seems poorly researched, as there are other folks around here and elsewhere who seem to have thought more deeply (and I'd say more evenhandedly) about this subject, and the author seems ignorant of that. The author probably should have gotten himself up to speed on the state of scholarship and theory (such as it may be, it is better than his) before starting to write. His use of loaded terms and factually incorrect absolute statements do not strengthen his arguments.

Maybe some discussion with *current* designers of games would have been helpful, too.

And, to answer his final question - No particular gamer has to like all kinds of games. But, around here, we do ask people to limit the time they spend trash-talking styles they don't like, or how often they tear down things other people love to make their own favorites look good.
Yeah - the sentiment in these articles as a whole feels very strongly like gatekeeping - that if you're not playing the style of game that [MENTION=30518]lewpuls[/MENTION] endorses (I'm not going to explicitly describe it as "old school" because has been mentioned over the past few threads), you're not a real role-player, and frankly that's a mindset that really needs to have been dumped into the Orb of Annihilation yesterday, as it's literally a mindset meant to drive people out of the hobby.
 

Aldarc

Adventurer
[MENTION=6785785]hawkeyefan[/MENTION] already provided an excellent overview of some of the core problems of these past three articles, particularly Part 2 and 3.

I will add my own voice of displeasure regarding Lew's articles. I don't think they were written well.

First, let's play a quick game here. If you were reading these articles expecting to learn something new about "New School" games and/or "Old School" games, after reading these articles would you be able identify what either of those terms mean, provide ample examples, and then articulate what you have learned back to someone who has not read the article based on the content of the article? Okay, that was not a fun game, but I hope y'all get the point.

Overall, they suffer three resonating problems: conflicting tone, poor display of knowledge, and deficient argumentation. When you mix all of these together into an article that attempts to demonstrate the differences between "Old School vs. New School" TTRPGs while ultimately demonstrating little of any real substance, then you are going to leave a lot of people sour about the article (and author).

Conflicting Tone: Lewpuls's article suffers the problem of a conflicting tone. There are several dimensions of conflict at play here. First, the tone is lost amidst the author's unclear purpose. What is the purpose of the article? Is it meant to be informative? Teach us the difference between OS and NS? Persuasive? Will it persuade us that Old School is better than New School? It's unclear, as the first article jumps directly into the discussion in medias res:
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.
Okay? There is a "last time" without any link. But herein is also what seems like a muddled thesis statement: "the difference between Old School and anything else is...in attitude..." So this is what we should expect the articles to demonstrate sufficiently well. Does it?

Second, the author's tone is heavily in favor of Old School gaming. When coupled with the aforementioned unclear purpose, then the article feels all over the place, coming across more like an uninformed rant than something meant to either persuade or inform, because his poor writing results in him failing at both. Having a preference in itself is not a problem. What is a problem is treating another gaming preference with condescension, derision, and badwrongfun. This problem is then magnified by his next problem.

Poor Display of Knowledge: Lewpuls may be knowledgable about his subject matter. I don't know. I do not that he does not demonstrate that knowledge in his articles. And this ignorance is perhaps best exemplified in the graph he uses to start his debate, particularly the quadrant intersecting "Very Dangerous" with "Entirely Storytelling" where it says, in full honesty, "I don't see how this is possible." If only one such a game existed, then maybe he would know. But this article would have you believe that none do.

This issue does get into his deficient argumentation. He does not define his terms well. (Maybe he had in prior essays. I don't know. But I am clearly not alone in the confusion.) What is an Old School game? What is a New School game? What are examples of OS boardgames and NS boardgames? And how about video games? He cites Torchlight 2, but he fails to contextualize the game in its genre. It's an action RPG in a similar vein (and with a number of the same creators) as the Diablo franchise. The game's Skinner Box that is meant to engender prolonged gameplay revolves around these loot drops. This is a genre feature since at least Diablo 1 (1996). Is that a New School game?

That said, the impression we are left with of "New School RPGs" is not very flattering, and that certainly is an understatement. Is he complaining about NSRPGs or "special snowflake" Millennials? It's so difficult to tell. He does seem to associate Fate with a NSRPG, but he does not provide much content or argumentative support in that regard. The extreme dearth of examples of either NSRPGs or OSRPGs deprives his argumentation of any real meat or support. If this essay were an assignment, nearly everyone of his assertions would have been besieged by red ink markings that read "citation?", "such as...?", "evidence?", "how? please show support for your work," etc.

Without the author to supply any content or support for his argument, the reader is left to presume that "New School" reflects more contemporaneous trends, leaving us to supply our own assumptions about what games are included in the respective lists But there are plentiful counterexamples among these "NSRPGs" that would seemingly debunk the author's claims. And we see these in egregious assertions like this:
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.
How can anyone assert this with a straight face or with any intellectual honesty? This leaves the impression that Lewpuls is ignorant of the subject matter. Is he not familiar with these other games? Given his preference of OSRPGs over against NSRPGs and state desire to demonstrate a difference of at least attitude, one would then assume that he would be prepared to shell out some examples with well-reasoned argumentation. But no.

Deficient Argumentation: We have covered some of these already. There are no citations or insufficient evidence. There are a series of conflicting tones. But often the argumentation is just fallacious and downright horrendous by any reasonable standard:
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?)
At first I found this outrageous, but then I muted my feelings - as we are encouraged to do for the sake of calm logic - so that I could recognize in myself how impressed that I was that the author combines both a false analogy with guilt by association. Dogs have four legs. Doesn't that remind you of my earlier discussion on the wickedness of cats who also have four legs? Your honor, I rest my case. We could continue, but other posters will likely point out those problems, much as [MENTION=6785785]hawkeyefan[/MENTION] did previously.

RPGs can accommodate all kinds of tastes. But we don’t have to like every kind, do we?
This is most definitely true. And thanks to the author, whose articles seem hellbent on presenting a negative, misinformed one-sided portrayal of New School RPGs and keep the audience ignorant about meaningful differences, you too can dislike what the author intends for you to dislike!
 
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TrippyHippy

Adventurer
The problem with this sort of theory is that it starts off with a bogus dichotomy, and then seeks to manufacture evidence to support it.

'Old school' and 'new school' is just the latest attempt to create categories for an arbitratory game theory. They are just monikers, however. Old games don't inherently have less storytelling than new games, and new games don't inherently carry less danger.

Individual games have different emphases in rules and approaches, but the attitude/desire to make more simplified and more complex rulesets have existed since the year dot. Tunnels & Trolls (1975) was an attempt to create a more rules lite version of D&D, while Chivalry & Sorcery (1977) was an attempt to do the opposite. I'll leave it to readers to decide which was more 'narrative' or not, but it should be noted that classic campaigns like Call of Cthulhu's Masks of Nyarlathotep (1984) manages to have a great story combined with a lot of personal danger to PCs.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
His tone is certainly dismissive, but that's fine. I don't question EnWorld's decision to run his articles. We can all deal with a little sass. He's being a bit provocative, and in the "in my day /get off my lawn" manner that will always be present in any discussion.
Agreed in all respects.

As for the article itself, there's a few bits I found quite relevant. One is this:
lewpuls said:
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.
Then you said (broken up to include my replies):

hawkeyefan said:
Here we delve into some odd assumptions about New School games. According to this section, the following must be true of New School games:

- Nothing unpleasant happens
We've already seen in other threads that at least in D&D the level and degree of 'unpleasant' has clearly declined over the editions, so while saying 'nothing unpleasant happens' goes too far it's certainly fair to say 'there's much less potential for unpleasant to happen, leading to it happening much less often'.
- Nothing terrific happens
Well, not quite: in fact 4e and 5e, at least in the published adventures, are combat-designed so that terrific happens all the time - which is just as bad! Most of the set-piece combats (particularly in 4e adventures, which did these really well) are set up such that the enemy gets the jump on the party for the first round or two, then the party roars back to victory. Problem is, when everything's special then nothing is...meaing it can all tend to end up looking the same if the DM isn't careful.
- Every monster provides a loot drop
Again taken too far, but the concept of "treasure parcels" (4e) and "wealth by level" (3e) do smack of a degree of prepackaged-ness not really present in earlier versions.
- Failure is not possible
- No one gets in serious trouble
- The game has no pacing, no negative consequences, and no losses
I changed the list order so as to batch these three together, as they're all variants on the same theme along with 'nothing unpleasant happens' above. In some games built around fail-forward a true flat-no failure is quite difficult to achieve, be it on something basic (climb a wall) or something grand (an entire mission) in part because the game - for lack of a better term - wants you to succeed. This to me is a real difference from what we'd call old school games that didn't give a hoot whether you succeeded or not and just went on their way regardless.

As for the rest, see my comments re 'nothing unpleasant happens', they all apply here too.

I personally found things like that to be frustrating and boring when I was playing as a kid. If we didn't find the secret door, then we could only proceed to a certain point. That kind of design is frustrating, and I think it has been addressed in several ways, in both the Old School and the New School.
This is what I mean by a flat-no failure, and it's intended to be frustrating - that's the point! If you were frustrated, that means it worked as intended. :)

So it's a mission fail - so what? Go back to town, recruit a better thief or find a device of secret door detection, and try again. Or find a different mission. :)

The frustration and aggravation in trying to find the way forward makes it that much sweeter if and when you finally succeed. I think this is often overlooked.

I don't think that the fact that New School favors a different sort of challenge means that they need their hands held. In fact, in the old days, when our party ran into a dead end for whatever reason, the DM would inevitably simply allow us to find the secret door, or to learn the pass phrase, or otherwise access whatever key we missed in order to proceed. Sounds exactly like hand holding to me.
It is, and is also another form of railroading. As a player I don't like it when a DM does this, and I try not to do it as DM.

Do New School games view combat as sport? How so? We can't know from these statements here.
From these statements no. But I think CaW v CaS is one distinction, albeit a bit fuzzy, that can be made between old and new at least within the D&D realm; not just in design but in player/DM preference. Look at the discussions in here for example, whenever this topic comes up: the CaW supporters are generally those who started with (and maybe never left) 0e-1e-2e while the CaS supporters are generally those who either started more recently or whose main focus of play has become 4e-5e.
 
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dwayne

Explorer
WOW, condensed much, mind you both have their good and bad ideas on things but it is a style and if it works for the group and gm then that is all that matters really. I prefer to play/run old school variations of 5th edition with my groups and i inform them of that before we play. Still some do not realize the full extent until knee deep into it. But regardless I like the players to find their own way in the game and make them use their skills, and their real brains and not hand hold or lead them by the nose. I give hints and such and there are consequences for missing them and ignoring the signs just like in life.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I think people are engaging the content of this article emotionally, rather than looking at the essence of what he is saying.
1) The author's approach has a significant impact on how the readers will react. We can take the piece apart in that vein, if you like, to show how he set himself up (intentionally or not) for such a reaction.

2) The essence of what he is saying seems to be emotional - it is how *he feels* about the games, not about objective facts, or statistical trends, or even the considered opinions or theories of significant people in the field today.
 

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