I was thinking about "Old School" gaming the other day, and the "Old School Renaissance" that seems to be blossoming recently. Indeed, there also seems to be quite the debate raging in more than a few quarters as to what "Old School" gaming is, or how to define it. Some argue that "Old School" gaming is defined by specific, objective characteristics and traits, while others dismiss "Old School" gaming as merely "nostalgia".
I would never have thought that the question, "What defines "Old School" gaming?" would ever be such a provocative topic! Still, to my mind at least, "Old School" gaming can be defined by several characteristics and traits, *including* nostalgia, but not primarily by or limited to merely "nostalgia". While it remains true that if one were to ask five different "Old School" gamers to define "Old School" gaming or games, it is quite likely that one would receive at least five different definitions, and probably more, in response! Nonetheless, some particular characteristics and traits can be determined, perhaps not in spite of such diversity of views, but particularly *because* of such *diversity*.
"Old School" gaming, as typified by OD&D and AD&D, as well as many replica game systems inspired by the orginal classics--introduced in recent years like Labyrinth Lords, Osric, and others--has certainly been enjoying an "Old School Renaissance" recently. Whether or not such a "Old School Renaissance" escalates and grows into something bigger, or more commercially significant, if for anyone to guess. I honestly do not think such a consideration even matters that much to most "Old School" gamers and fans, in any event. Nonetheless, it definitely seems that "Old School" gaming, like AD&D, are certainly not dead--and are here to stay.
Of course, there have been gamers all along through the years that have continued to play "Old School" games, and many have done so exclusively, eschewing any newer editions produced in recent years. Meanwhile, some have also developed replica systems that present new rules, or reorganize older rules within the classic system. In addition, various websites have flourished through the years, perhaps most notably the premier AD&D website, Dragonsfoot. (http://dragonsfoot.org). Dragonsfoot, and other websites, blogs, and so on, have kept the fires burning for AD&D and other "Old School" games. Such work, passion, and enthusiasm has kept games such as AD&D very much alive, long after they were first introduced.
"Old School" games, such as AD&D, embrace some particular characteristics and traits that can commonly be found in virtually all such "Old School" game systems. "Old School" games generally embrace the following elements:
- Free-form style of play
- Often elegantly simple game mechanics
- Speed and ease of game-play
- Speed and ease of character design, and adventure design
- Specify and stress DM authority and creativity
- Specify and stress intrepid Player creativity, inspiration, and fun
- Support and maximize narrative freedom and expression
- "Fun" and narrative freedom are of higher priority than adhering to rules that restrict and confine such narrative freedom and creative expression
- Classes are all distinct, and each class is interesting and has good options to contribute to the group during game-play
- Campaign elements and themes remain distinctly rooted in classic mythology, history, literature, Fantasy, and Sword & Sorcery
"Old School" games also do not have the tendency--by suggestion, or by the implementation of numerous rules--to keep player characters alive. Player characters can and do often die, rather frequently. If player characters are to survive and prosper, they must generally do so relying upon their own player-skill and wits, as opposed to simply quoting a rule from somewhere, and relying on a grip of such rules-mechanics to keep them alive.
"Old School" games embrace some particular traits not seen with more recent editions of the D&D game, such as 3.5 and 4E. It is also evident that some traits and system-philosophy of "Old School" games have been clearly discarded abandoned entirely by 4E, as well as 3.0 and 3.5E. After all, more than a few philosophical "Medusa's" of 4E have their genesis in the "Pandora's Box" of 3.0 and 3.5E. For example, Class distinctions, DM authority, narrative freedom, alignments, non-integral use of grid movement/miniatures, and maintaining classical Fantasy and Sword & Sorcery themes rather than resembling an MMO immediately spring to mind. Recent editions, such as 3.5 and 4E have abandoned or moved far away from these philosophies.
A key element that differentiates "Old School" gaming from recent editions is seen from the old academic admonition in textual analysis to not only view and note what is being said--but often, just as importantly, what *isn't* said, or what has been excluded or omitted from the text. In a similar fashion, a key element to "Old School" gaming, in marked contrast to newer editions of the rules, is the scope of what *is* said and defined, and just as importantly, what is *not* said or defined. The recent editions of the game are distinctly *rules-intensive*--and in their systemic pursuit of "depth" and "completeness" have seemingly defined everything, created a rule or several layers of rules for everything, and have ended up actually reducing player and DM creative expression and narrative freedom.
It does seem that the "Old School Renaissance" has at least to some degree been inspired by a large segment of the D&D fanbase rejecting a mosaic of design-philosophies embraced by both 3.5 and 4E, and returning to the simpler, less rules-intensive and narrative free-form approach of "Old School" systems established by OD&D and AD&D. This has definitely boosted older game systems visibility, as well as brought new attention to replica systems, and had a revitalizing effect on a growing aspect of the RPG hobby.
For myself, I simply brought out my old DMG, PHB, and MMI AD&D books, and spent several evenings carefully reading them--as opposed to more casual perusals of recent years--and was amazed at the elegant simplicity, narrative freedom, and speed and ease of game-play from a system far stronger and more flexible than many critics have allowed over the years--and packaged and presented with far less page-count and supplement-bloat of the modern editions of the D&D game.
I am glad that the "Old School Renaissance" is alive and well.
Game on, my friends! Game on!