Saturday, October 30, 2010

What Are the Attributes of an Old-school Game?

Yeah, okay, I went there. I'm not sure I want to, but as this OSR thing keeps rolling on, it's going to become a bigger and bigger question. Clearly, D&D, Traveler, Rune Quest, early versions of GURPS, Star Frontiers, and similar games are all old-school. Are there games from the '70s and early '80s that are not old-school? Are their new and original games that are? Exactly how far can Raggi go with his alterations to the basic D&D chassis and still be able to call his games old-school?

I ask this because I think the OSR is about to turn a corner. Most of what we've seen up until now has been attempts at faithful re-creation of the old games. There have been notable exceptions, including X-plorers, Mazes & Minotaurs, and possibly Mutant Future. But I think we're about to start seeing a number of games that are not so faithful to the mechanics of the games of yesteryear. I think we're about to start seeing games that try to capture the spirit of old-school while striking out much further afield in terms of mechanics.

The OSR is getting very playful. For instance, there are things like Zak's map of an inn run by a medusa and Raggi's excellent character sheets and encumbrance system. We are seeing a lot more tweaking of rules to support emergent play from long-term gaming, especially in terms of reward systems and balance issues. And there is, as always, just the usual playing with the aesthetics, especially with things like magic systems.

And I'm seeing a lot of stuff around the edges of the OSR that looks like brand new games with inventive new mechanics, things like the work of the Evil DM, Barbarians of Lemuria, Warriors of the Red Planet, The Metal Earth, and others. Even WotC is clearly trying to get its old-school on with its random character generation and frequent deaths in the new Gamma World game.

now I could just launch into what I think an OSR game is, and I kinda sorta almost did that I when attempted to define neo-classical gaming, but let's be honest here: any definition from me is going to be heavily influenced by the Silver Age and my love of verisimilitude. And I'm pretty certain that's far too limiting. The OSR so far has easily bridged the Gold and Silver Ages, and maybe even a bit of the Bronze as well.

So I toss this out to you: what are the bare minimum attributes of an old-school game? I'm tempted to say any true answer cannot be as specific as, "it must include random character generation." I think that gets too specific. I think the true answer has more to do with goals and attitudes than techniques and tools. But maybe that is too slippery. So what do you think?


Anonymous said...

I think one of the key features of the Old School Gaming is the lack of deep features. While Classes are somewhat defined, and your advesaries are given powers or abilities, the rules are not as clearly defined. Leaving the game unedited to the point of confusion or leaving large parts up to the individual group to decide seems to be a hallmark of old school gaming.

I mean, take Traveller, for example. The creators had a specific idea in mind when they created it, but I'll be darned if I truely understand the game, even after 25 years of exposure, through various incarnations. The whole Idea of running through a service till you are an admiral, and then having adventures in your retirement years just seems downright odd to me, but this is what gives Traveller it's charm.

This lack of clear definition of what exactly you are suppose to be doing I think is what people are looking for in the OSR. They don't want a game to tell them what kind of heroes they could have, or how the game world works or is even explained. They want to do it themselves. I admire that, even if I'm not fond of the older sets of rules.

About as Old School as I really want to embrace is a trimmed down OpenD6. I'm not sure if anyone considers it old school, really, but it's an old love, and that'll have to do for me.

Roger G-S said...

To me, Old School is a gaming mentality that pre-dates the greater attention to game balance and experience that developed in the 90's from the twin influences of European board gaming and CCGs.

The tenets of the 90's that Old School blissfully ignores:

* Game elements must be carefully balanced in power.

* Downtime and player elimination are anathema.

* Quirky, idiosyncratic, or complicated approaches to mechanics should be streamlined.

* As kensanoni notes, rules should be complete and developed to cover every angle and loophole.

To me this is the only definition of Old School that is not just synonymous with "rules-lite" or "D&D".

Pontifex said...

I tried to answer this a few days ago, Brian.

And I would like to believe my recent emails have had a hand in inspiring this post.

drnuncheon said...

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…"
— Justice Potter Stewart, concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio 378 U.S. 184 (1964)

Old School is not (and should not be) a rigidly defined wall to hide behind, so any of these characteristics should not be seen as definitive, only indicative. Elements or attitudes that produce an "old school" feel for me include:

* a strong and traditional division of the responsibilities of player and GM, with the players being solely responsible for their characters and their actions, with the GM holding responsibility for the rest.
* a lack of metagame mechanics that allow the players to blur that line (hero/plot points, etc)
* a focus on player skill rather than character stats for resolving certain types of challenges (roleplaying, tricks/traps/puzzles)
* a basic resolution system that depends on the GM to handle unusual cases rather than trying to cover all possibilities
* "balance" between player characters is not a primary goal of the system

x said...

There is no carved in stone 'old school' and that's the whole point. Just because we had hundreds of pages of rules in AD&D 1e doesn't mean we used them all. We ignored 2/3rds of the rules because we kept a fast moving game.

You can write as many rules as you like, but if by dropping one you screw up the entire system then it's not old school.

It's more about finding the balance that keeps playing fun and players happy.

And maybe I just found the one crate of sour grapes on the truck but the 4e fans are the most miserable people I have ever met. They HATE their system Hate the people working on it and HATE OSR because we're having fun and they're not.

OSR is also determined by a lack of computer game influence. Computers need tons of rules to try and emulate what the human brain does. That mentality that there must be a rule for EVERYTHING is the antithesis of old school gaming.

6 abilities a sword and armor-throw a 20. Done.

Notice how you can change that to 4 an axe and no armor and it still works.

Rules-lite, only those that your game needs, and the ability to think on the fly for the unpredictable are the only other ingredients.

Add players-mix until fun :)

--Oh, and balance-I told you outside the entrance to the cave you might smell dragon poop-that's balance :)

jgbrowning said...

IMO, the most important aspect is that the world doe not revolve around the players, it has a separate existence and the player's interact with it. They can change it, but it does not change FOR them.

Cameron Wood said...

My reply got too long for the comments section.

trollsmyth said...

Thanks, everyone. This is exactly the sort of stuff I was looking for. :D Especially Kensanoni's "lack of deep features" and drnuncheon's strong delineation between the roles of player and GM, AD&D Grognard's comment about mechanical robustness and flexibility, which really flows from Kensanoni's lack of deep features and the need to not cover every loophole.

Greg Christopher: Absolutely your emails have inspired this post. And I can't believe I missed your post on this topic from Tuesday. I'm further behind in my blog-reading than I thought. :p

Just in case Bigby's Left Hand's link isn't working for you, either, try this one. Sometimes the intrawebs acts stupid like that.

migellito said...

Two things come to mind right off:

1- If you don't use your head, you die. Staying alive is difficult, and it's something you'll have to specifically put effort into.

2- Real world experience trumps hair-brained schemes. Regardless of whether rules are abstract or specific, they are interpreted through a filter of intuitive reason. i.e. If someone could really do that, is that how it would happen? Does it make common sense in parallel with the precepts of the setting? Abstract, rules-light systems merely make this analysis easier for a group with good mutual trust.

migellito said...

I need to clarify what I mean by 'hair-brained schemes.' :)

- gadgets (powers, spells, items, etc.)
- character and game balance
- flash
- preset story elements

My point in the first reply is that none of these things are inherently, absolutely anathema to old-school feel, but that rather old-school weighs them against breaking suspension of disbelief and real-world common sense, tempered by the assumptions of the setting. On the other hand, I see new-school as applying these things regardless of breaking immersion or making any kind of sense, but rather as an end in themselves. I think this is what gives the impression that new-school features often seem more like the work of the marketing department than the game-design team.

christian said...

Why do there need to be any definitions at all? Why build more fences around an already niche hobby with definitions of old school, new school and OSR? Why not be a gamer and call it good?

Havard: said...

I agree to what Christian is saying about fences. I think a more inclusive definition could be employed. The OSR is about recognizing the quality of game produced in the 70s and 80s, in terms of concept, rules design and presentation. OSR games thus would be new games which look to the games of old for inspiration in those areas. With this definition we can still allow for inovation, which will allow the OSR to be an actual renessance rather than simply copying what has already been done.

trollsmyth said...

Christian & Havard: Why? Because it's helpful.

Yesterday, I picked up Goodman Games' Death Dealer: Shadows of Mirahan. As an old-school adventure, this thing is horrible! The "dungeons" rarely consist of more than a handful of rooms, which almost always must be encountered in a linear fashion. There's no decent eagle's-eye map of the location in which all the adventures take place, so if the players insist on going off the rails, the DM is on their own. And easily half the book is monster stats.

So am I upset with my purchase? Heck no, that would be silly, because it says "For use with 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons" right on the cover. I knew what I was buying and was able to value its worth to my and my gaming accordingly.

And I don't really understand the fences comment. It's not like categorizing things means they can never mix. Lots of people can happily play WoW on Tuesday, a 4e Encounters adventure on Wednesday, and Labyrinth Lord on Saturday. A little from Column A and a little from Column B isn't unusual, either. Chatty DM's been doing it for a while, and that sort of mix-and-matching was clearly an inspiration for the latest version of Gamma World.

But just as it's helpful to know if the movie you're going to see is a romantic comedy or a slasher, understanding what we mean by old-school and 4e is especially helpful when you want to mix them up. That way, you can have some idea in advance of what is likely to work, where the two styles conflict and where they can support each other, and what the people at your table are likely to enjoy.

migellito said...

Trollsmyth, I understand a lot better now the question you had in mind, and the purpose behind it. I was just kind of waxing off about what the experience of being in an old-school game is like, as opposed to being in current gen game.

Although, I think this is valuable too. People need to be able to communicate to others what sort of game they're interested in, or what sort of game they'll be running. Not to use as some sort of debate ammo, but so that you don't end up spending an evening doing something you have no interest in.

If I say, for example, 'I'm thinking about starting up an old-school game,' I'd be willing to be everyone here would make certain assumptions about what would be like, and would decide to take part or not depending on those assumptions.

What you're trying to do is determine some constants so that we don't have to make as many assumptions. And we all know what happens when you assume... ;)

trollsmyth said...

migellito: Yes, yes, yes! :D

This isn't about scoring points or winning arguments. It's about knowing what it is you're getting into. Right now, it's pretty easy when you're picking between 4e or Pathfinder or Swords & Wizardry. I expect, however, that a lot more people are going to be throwing their hats into the ring. There are a few tell-tales people use ("customize your character with hundreds of skills to choose from" vs. "roll up a character in less than five minutes" for example) but as things start to blur the lines, I think it'll be more and more important for each of us to recognize what it is we want out of a game and be able to communicate it to others.

'cause, you know, sometimes you feel like a nut... ;)

Havard: said...

I agree that definitions are useful. Perhaps subdivisions of the OSR can be the way to go?

DMWieg said...

"What are the attributes of an Old School game?"

I play it correctly.

You play it incorrectly.


Will Mistretta said...

First and foremost there must be a clear, immutable line between the roles of GM and player, with the GM creating and administering the game world and the players deciding how their individual characters behave within its confines.

In other words: None of this newfangled narrative control for players. The individual player's "zone of influence" extends to his or her's designated PC(s) only.

David The Archmage said...

This is is an interesting discussion, and I've really enjoyed the comments and posts it's inspired. I especially enjoyed Bigby's Left Hand's post likening D&D to jazz.

I have a really hard time defining what is old school. I have a hard time with the idea that 4e is old school, and I think most of the stuff I come up with is old school, but I don't necessarily feel that I'm the best judge. I have spent more time with 2nd and 3rd than I have with old school games.