JoeTheLawyer kicked over the blognard anthill with his response to Grognardia's “More Than a Feeling” post. He's got a lot of interesting points, but I have to respectfully say that I disagree.
It might be nice to imagine a world with no judgments or categories, but we don't live there. More to the point, I don't have the time, treasure, or available players to play every RPG out there. In my quest for these feelings JoeTheLawyer talks about, it's helpful to me to know what sorts of games are most likely to produce them. In a broad sense, for instance, I know that modern-day special forces games don't do it. I can easily mark those games off my list for serious consideration. Sure, a friend or trusted blogger might convince me to give that sort of game a chance, but otherwise, I'm going to focus my time on those games in genres that are more likely to produce the feeling I want.
Old school isn't a genre, of course, but I think it can be usefully described in terms of mechanics and style that can help us judge the value of a game for us before we actually play it. This is the answer to JoeTheLawyer's query, “what purpose would a definition serve?” I know that games similar to BECMI D&D give me that feeling. So I'm going to go out and look for games like that, and supplements that support that style of play.
That style can be defined, and Matthew Finch's “Quick Primer for Old School Gaming” is serving as the nucleus around which that definition is slowly coalescing. It's a style based on rules-lite mechanics that are more concerned with giving players and GMs tools to build their own game than they are with elegant or unified mechanics. It's a style strongly geared to exploration-style gaming. It also promotes lateral thinking by shifting more of the challenges to the players rather than the characters.
What's interesting about this definition is how it seems to be drifting away from fitting other games from that early era of RPGs. Games like GURPS, with its extensive lists of skills and rules to cover every situation, are already slipping out of the “old school” definition. Ditto for Rolemaster, which uses charts in ways that are very different from what the old-schoolers are gravitating towards.
Here's another interesting thing: the process is largely out of anyone's hands at this point. The term “old school” is now being applied by lots of folks to describe, in very vague terms, what's happening with things like Swords & Wizardry and Fight On! It's becoming a short hand for the ethos, style, and techniques that make those things what they are. James Maliszewski is trying lead the discussion to shape that definition while we still can. He may already be too late. He's commented any number of times how he doesn't really like the term “old school” and thinks it shackles us too much to the ancillary trappings of the past that don't really have anything to do with how the game is played. It's far too late on that front; I don't think even the risen ghosts of Gygax and Arneson could banish the term “old school”. We're stuck with it now, for better or worse.
While I agree that a more rigorous definition will eventually have to define some things as “not-old-school”, I don't see this as being a nasty, exclusive tragedy. All of these games and mechanics and techniques are just bits that we all pick and choose from, assembling them together to create the experience, the feeling, that we are striving for. Just because 4e is described as being antithetical to the old school doesn't limit in any way our ability to steal things from it we like. In the end, these definitions serve us. They don't create impermeable barriers. They simply allow us to better shift through the endless array of options more intelligently, and help us find and play with like-minded folks who are searching for the same feelings we are.
UPDATE: Related thoughts from Alex Shroeder.
Image credits: Jimmy Joe, Matthew Finch, and ninahale.