Wednesday, April 15, 2009

New School-->Old School-->Open School

I’m back, after a completely unexpected hiatus—Real Life™ has been demanding most of my time lately. Thanks for your patience!

The title of this post originates as the result of some interesting discussion that flared briefly in the blogosphere a couple of weeks ago. It started on The Lord of the Green Dragons in a post by EN Shook, then split off onto Mike’s Cgowiz’s Old Guy RPG Blog and Benoist’s The Citadel of Eight. All three posts are well worth reading, including the comments, but if you’re lazy or pressed for time, here’s the gist:

Shook expressed concern that “Old School” as a term for a nascent “movement” was ultimately doomed to fundamentalist pigeonholing. Seeing a stultifying lust for a particular “original” ruleset, he worries about the trees getting in the way of the forest. He feels that a subtle revisionism is happening in the form of people slapping later assumptions onto the original text and creating a false “new canon” of how the game should be played. His recommendation is to take up the term “Old Guard” instead, to focus attention on the method of play and the resulting product, the building and those who live there instead of the tools used to build and maintain it. To quote him, “The coin of the roleplaying realm should be the world.” Mike and Benoist’s posts amplified and discussed a couple of those main points.

For myself, I agree with the core of his argument but not at all with his premise. I hear no voices clamoring for strict adherence to any iteration of the rules, let alone the Original D&D rules as they stand (for which you can make a pretty strong argument that they must be interpreted to be used.) While other-edition assumptions can certainly color someone’s encounter with ODD, and I speak authoritatively from my own baggage here, it was actually constant exposure to others struggling with those same assumptions that helped me finally release the ballast with a simple realization: Old School isn’t about a rule set; it’s about a mind set. A method of play used to grow a particular world or milieu, which is why I agree with his essential conclusion. “The coin of the roleplaying realm should be the world” is now engraved on my +2 pencil of dungeon-scribbling.

Given that insight, I really don’t think it matters what the hell you call “it,” whatever “it” is. Due to a newfound interest in Napoleonic wargaming, I even like the term Old Guard! But I don’t think this is a movement per se; it really seems more like the actual Renaissance, where the collision of a critical mass of new and old knowledge literally changed the landscape forever. I know it’s changing me.

You see, I started fresh with RPGs a bit over five years ago when my last group imploded, and I was dangerously close to chucking it all. By pure chance someone directed me to The Forge, and it was like a bomb went off in my head: Here was a whole New School of gaming. I devoured it, as only a geek and a theory-junky can. I read, wrote, designed and played. It was like an interactive, game-design college degree, and I learned an amazing amount from a lot of brilliant people, some of whom I keep in contact with. However, after about 3.5 years of it, I found myself obsessing over creating games composed of rules to create a particular kind of story. It was all about constraints. I realized that this had sucked all the simple fun out of the game, in favor of what I was viewing as artistic necessity. This was a terrible irony since my strongest memories, which I had been trying to recreate with my tightly bound rule sets, were of the fun had when first playing the game. I had to let it go.

Enter quick and dirty, ocr’d pirate copies of all the ODD books. I’d actually first found them about eight years ago, and had read and ruminated, but only found Knights and Knaves and, soon after, the ODD74 board, about 1.5 years ago, to give me some guidance. I now considered myself Old School. I did indeed start with the idea of using the rules “as written,” but that soon faded. I started posting, then Fight On! took off, and then I started actually (gasp!) playing again, after an almost 1.5-year hiatus. I’m not agreeing with the Old School Renaissance, or believing in it, or even supporting it. I’m participating in it. And I’m doing it with a mindset I haven’t had since I was an entranced 11 year-old making Silverclaw the Werebear, my first ever character. And then soon after another character named General Wolfe, who was a skeleton and fired lightning bolts from his bony hands. Which isn’t supported by any written rules except

We have attempted to furnish an ample framework, and building should be both easy and fun. In this light, we urge you to refrain from writing for rule interpretations or the like unless you are absolutely at a loss, for everything herein is fantastic, and the best way is to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way! On the other hand, we are not loath to answer your questions, but why have us do any more of your imagining for you? Write to us and tell about your additions, ideas, and what have you. We could always do with a bit of improvement in our refereeing.

This is from the last page of the 3rd Little Brown Book, “The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures.” And really, it’s the only rule that ends up mattering. It trumps all the other rules, and underscores another one of Shook’s points questioning the possibility of a movement cohering around guidelines. He’s right. It can’t. That rule won’t let it. When Gygax decided to change the game with AD&D, he had to very explicitly erase that rule: If you followed it, fine, but you were then playing something other than Official D&D.

Maybe you don’t buy my last paragraph. Maybe that quote doesn’t strike you as a rule. But if there’s one thing I learned in all my time at The Forge, it’s that the most important rules for these games we play are often unspoken, implied, or simply unassuming. On the other side of my +2 pencil, I now inscribe: “Decide how you would like it to be, and then make it that way.” This to me is the guiding principal of the School that, in my mind at least, I like to think of as not New, or Old, but Open. I use the ODD rules as my base because I like their aesthetics, I like their historicity, I like their tropes, which are deep in my blood. They are an Open School in which I strive to learn how to Have the Most Fun Playing the Game.

Whew. That ended up being a lot longer than I had intended. Next post, I’ll walk the talk and present my first truly major houseruling, which will do away with Hit Points, the Combat Matrix, and the standard way of making Ability checks. :)


  1. Cool post, Kesher!

    I should say that I agreed with that one point of Shook's, but much of the rest of the post left me scratching my head and shrugging.

    Sometimes I think those that played this 30 years ago at the start are wondering WTH we're making such a big fuss about. I have to laugh about that.

  2. I agree with you 110%, Kesher. Thanks for putting it into words.

  3. Great post, and so true: "I’m not agreeing with the Old School Renaissance, or believing in it, or even supporting it. I’m participating in it." Preach it, brotha!

    General Wolfe is totally going to become an NPC in my library megadungeon game...

  4. Great post!

    The growth of over-complicated rules have driven me almost completely away from RPGs - the only games I've played in the last few years have been with really good GMs who free-form great games with simple mechanics.

    Two comments - first, I agree that a lot of these rules were written to try to ensure a certain experience...but I also think that those rules are around to make up for GMs who don't, can't, or won't create that experience themselves. On the other hand, good GMs are hard to find, so there ya go.

    Second, the style of gaming you guys do is based around the gaming experience as a whole. Lots of complicated rules naturally generate rules-lawyers. That creates a dynamic where players are trying to "win" instead of experience. Much less fun for me.

  5. @chgowiz: Yeah, I agree with you; it's definitely a generational thing. Those who started playing (maybe you can call them the first half generation?) as adults were less likely to ditch what they were doing for the new, shiny version of the rules. I, starting young (the first full generation?), went quickly from Moldvay B/X to AD&D, and I really tried to live up to Gary's injuction. I realize not every young'n felt the same, but that was my experience. So absolutely, many of those maybe now in their 50's or older who've been playing with the original sense of freeforall are now wondering, "Huh? How did they THINK they were supposed to play?" :)

    @gnomebient: General Wolfe is hereby released into a Creative Commons existence! Recycle and Reuse! I only wish I still had his character sheet...

    @teej: Absolutely, the opposite of what G&A practically begged everyone to do! Tell us exactly how to play! Package everything for us and make it pretty! I mean, I used to love that stuff, of course, all the rules, all the details. No longer. It makes me kinda sad sometimes, actually, when I'm in The Source and I find I have NO interest in any of the games on the shelves; buying and reading (though rarely playing) those games used to be a big part of my RPG experience. Then again, what we do know is simply more FUN. :)

    You're right about the feedback loop of rules-->rules-lawyers-->rules. Much less fun for me, too. Less fun even for the rules-lawyers themselves, in the end, I imagine. It was Will who pointed out to me that the absence of any lawyering, due I believe to the mind set we play with, is the reason we keep having fun.

  6. I don't know how i got to this blog, but thanks for this post man!

  7. I don't know how you got here either, but keep coming back! And you're welcome! :)