May 25, 2009

Old School Defined!

Boy does James Maliszewski know how to stir the pot! Of the "old school rennaissance" guys, he's one of my favorites. And the fact that the "what is old school?" debate is the topic of the day shows how influential his writing is among this growing community.

I wasn't offended in the least by his statement that old school could be objectively defined - I saw it as a gauntlet being thrown down to us to explain what we mean when we say something is, or is not, old school.

AD&D burst into my life around 1981. I was in seventh grade, just that age when boys start getting interested in details. I didn't have any experience with original edition, or basic D&D. Though I did get copies of Keep on the Borderlands and Isle of Dread (the first adventure I ever ran. Poorly I might add.). In general we frowned upon basic as being inferior to AD&D. I mean there it was on the cover Advanced, of course it was superior. Little did I know at the time about the intriguing history of D&D.

Many years later I eventually acquired a copy of the white box, along with Chainmail, and all the supplements. I got them more out of a collector's mentality than anything. I read them, and as someone who has designed successful games that did well enough to make it worth the time spent on them, I admired the spark of genious that original D&D was. However I never seriously considered playing it until recently.

Professionally, I work as an art director in video games. And I work with Andrew Leker of Jorune fame (yeah, old school indeed!). He made an interesting comment about AD&D once. He said there was something special about the original D&D, but that when AD&D came out it was like they were taking themselves way too seriously. Coincidently, it was shortly after that I acquired some old Polyhedron magazines, and read an article by Gary Gygax about AD&D and that the intent was to impose order and uniformity on the D&D community - which had become too diverse.

That helped to define "old school" for me. Before AD&D it was like the frontier - the wild west where every gamer was forging what this new hobby was and could be. Then AD&D "civilized" the frontier, so to speak. Of course, it didn't because as teens all we did was argue about what a rule did or didn't mean. The books, contrary to settling the issue, opened up even more. Because it is impossible to define every possible situation. This is where the "old school" mentality really shines, and why Swords & Wizardry does it so elegantly for me.

Take how Matthew Finch defines "Surprise" in combat:
The Referee determines if one side gets a free initiative phase before the first initiative roll. This is either through common sense (adventurers or monsters are not alert), or it can be a range of probability (e.g., a particular ambush has only a 50% chance of succeeding when the victims are alert and watchful).
To me this is such a beautiful paragraph. It says so much - yet gives absolute authority to the referee to adapt to the specific situation. We don't have details and complications, or boring charts, just a guideline on how to handle the situation. Now, if surprise is so important to my campaign I can write up my own detailed charts, or look up what others have written about it. I can adapt the rules to my campaign - I don't have to adapt my campaign to the rules.

This is the same spirit we see in the original edition white box, and in the classic Holmes and Moldvay editions. There are rules where needed to make it a game, guidelines where rules would just complicate, and the rest is left to the community to develop.

This same spirit is alive in all the rennaissance games like Basic Fantasy, Labyrinth Lord, and so on. They all share a quality that can only be properly called "old school".

As I get older, my time becomes more precious. I have less time to waste on details, and want to get to the fun. While fun is hard to define (believe me, in video games, I've been involved with so many game designer's discussions on "what is fun?" to know), it is the challenge of trying to define it that makes the debate worth participating in.

1 comment:

  1. Please pass on my deep thanks to Andrew Leker for all his contributions to gaming via Jorune, a game that is still making itself felt through my current RPG rules-set.