Tuesday, February 02, 2010

What is Neo-classical Gaming?

Jonathan followed up his post on WotC’s D&D Encounters with a tongue-in-cheek post about all the comments the announcement has spurred. As a footnote, he comments:

I should footnote this post and point out that it is purely hyperbole and for the sake of humor. Except the part about neo-classical games; I still don't know what hell that is supposed to be other than some sort of bourgeois intellectualism about RPGs

Damn! I wish I was bourgeois. Frankly, I’m not even measuring up to proletariat these days!

But seriously, I’m also getting hits from folks entering the phrase “neo-classical gaming” into search engines. As one of the proponents of the term, I suppose I ought to promote it and explain it every now and then.

The term was coined by Stuart Robertson (or, at least, that’s where I saw it first). But my favorite explanation comes from Rob Conley of Bat in the Attic:

To me the Old School Renaissance is not about playing a particular set of rules in a particular way, the dungeon crawl. It about going back to the roots of our hobby and see what we could do differently. What avenues were not explored because of the commercial and personal interests of the game designers of the time.

We’re not going to play those games today the way we did then. I wouldn’t want to even if I could. After earning a college degree in history and exploring a wider range of literature, I’ve got all sorts of new and neat ideas to toss into the mix that I didn’t have before. It’s not so much the old games the old way, but the old games a new way. It’s about taking those games, seeing what made them work, as well as casting a cold, critical eye on what didn’t work, and repurposing them for what we want out of RPGs today.

It’s also very much an exercise in social archeology, primarily based on James Maliszewski’s Grognardia. While he may be more willing than most to assume that “D&D is always right,” his eagerness to understand why things were done that way at the birth of the hobby gives us all insights into how games are made, how they are played, and what the assumptions were that created the very first RPGs.

Beyond that, it becomes a difference with too many distinctions, ranging from my own “Silver Age” attempts at building a living, breathing world to Jeff Rients Retro Stupid play to JB’s writing a Companion book to the Moldvay/Cook Basic and Expert sets. The unifying concept is only an attempt to retrieve what worked best from the early days of the hobby, and bring it into the sort of gaming we want to do today.

Art by Frederic Edwin Church.


Michael S/Chgowiz said...

Yup. I believe that if the OSR should be credited with anything, it would be that it's injected a new life into the DIY attitude and the willingness to take new approaches to things. I believe the OSR is a portion of a bigger movement - where gaming comes back to the masses as a product of our own imagination and what we can do.

It started with the old school because that is where a great many people wanted to start. Makes sense, this is where the least amount of movement had been in a long time. You're seeing that DIY spirit, self publishing and "tear it down and make something new" go off in new directions all over the place.

I'm glad to be here. And yea, I'm still playing the game much the same way it was played - except with a love and an openness to keeping it rules light, imagination heavy. 'Cause I love it that way.

trollsmyth said...

Yeah, I really think you had a perfect storm there. The older versions of D&D were well-known to a group of gamers who were getting back into the game, but were daunted by the amount of work necessary to get into the new versions. So you had ease-of-modding, plus folks who started with those games with the time and interest, plus newer editions of the game which spurred Reformation-style interest in going back to a "purer" form. And all of this coincided with a appearance of honest-to-goodness-do-it-from-home desktop publishing.

And really, the OSR is just picking up where the Forge movement kinda stumbled. As you say, we didn't create the DIY attitude, we just picked it up from where it had been, and took it in an new (via the old) direction.

Jack Badelaire said...

I actually like that term. It seems to be more inclusive than "old school" which is so open to debate. Neo-classical just says to me "Classic gaming in a new light", which seems to fit what's being done far better than calling it "Old School". Using a moniker that's been the title of a frat-house comedy kinda loses some viability in my mind, like middle-aged dads trying to talk "hip" to their teenage kids.

Unknown said...

The term was coined by Stuart Robertson (or, at least, that’s where I saw it first)

I totally made it up. I had no idea it would catch on.

I still don't know what hell that is supposed to be other than some sort of bourgeois intellectualism about RPGss

Haha! :D

Natalie said...

Funny. Just yesterday saw someone a similar complaint/question about the neo-classical term on Twitter. The ensuing conversation concluded it's a slightly pretentious term for "retro-clone."

And it is a bit pretentious, I guess. I mean, I like it, and I like things like Literary Criticism, so I can't really deny the "bourgeois intellectualism" tag. But, being a college kid, I feel vaguely ridiculous calling anything I do "old school," so there ya go.

Nope said...

great post, I think neo classical is a better term that personally I like more than the catch all undefinable term old school. honestly, I hate the term old school, it's just one of those subjective sort of terms that everyone has their own definition for which inevitably leads to clashes over personal preferences and philosophies.

Rob really came up with a great definition on what old school...erm... neo classical could be about. Exploring the unexplored by starting from the beginning.

Anonymous said...

The term "old school" - I LOVE IT. And yes, great post. :)

Unknown said...

This discussion has inspired me to return to the comfy leather chair in my study and look further at what comes after neo-classical RPGs.

JB said...

@ Stuart:


Unknown said...

Yea Verily


Tom Fitzgerald said...

If my too-many-years-of art school serves me right Neo-classicism tended to be a port in a storm aesthetically and philosophically speaking. Classical civilisation and the values it espouses can be seen as a comforting bedrock upon which western society has been based and has been what is returned to when the barbarians are at the gates. The passing of Gygax, as well as the release of 4E, which occurred at a similar time, represented a kind of double shock which brought the old school movement into being.

I think investigation of Neo-Classicism in other areas of culture as a simultaneously idolatrous and iconoclastic force at various times in history could illuminate the OSR, especially to provide caveats about where not to go. I think the Soviet Socialist Realist and Corresponding Nazi approach, entailing as they do an adherence to a stultifying series of strictures and a fear of innovation as a potentially destabilising force are good examples of what not to do.

I like the OSR when it is fresh and actually allows a diversity of opinions to thrive. So at the moment I reckon it's going great guns.

rainswept said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
trollsmyth said...

rainswept: Thanks for catching that. I think it's fixed now. But then, I thought it was working before, too. :p