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Saturday 16 June 2018

Classic Rant: "Old School" vs. "New School"

So, I have an earlier blog entry where I've told my readers that they can post questions and/or requests for rant topics from me. I will periodically respond to any of these I think I can do a good job at answering. So if you have something you want to ask me, or ask me to write about, go to that entry and put your question/request in the comments!

Today, we have a question from Omer G. Joel: "I'd like to read your opinion about "new school" D&D, that is 3.5E/4E, as I got the impression (am I right?) that you are closer to the Old School in your tastes and views."

Thanks! And yes, if you've read my blog, and especially if you've read my RPGs, it's no secret at all that I am an old-school gamer, and I always have been.

That doesn't mean that I have a dislike for new-school, just that I prefer Old-School a bit more. Well, OK, a LOT more.

I started playing D&D with B/X/C/M/I and 1st edition. When 2nd came out in '89, I followed along with it. As much of a bad reputation as it has today, in its early days and to a teenage gamer, it looked a lot like the old edition only with a few slight improvements. It incorporated a lot of stuff that a lot of us were already doing.

Shortly after, the Rules Cyclopedia had come out. By that point I was just starting to get to the level of maturity where I realized that more rules doesn't automatically mean 'better game', and having always had a great liking for the old basic sets and for Mystara as a setting, I got totally hooked on the RC. It would be my de-facto D&D ruleset for many years to come, though I still played 2e when someone else was running it.

Of course, over the next few years, TSR started to fall into the sinkhole of its destitution of good ideas and allowing White Wolf to steal the 'vanguard' of the hobby from them (and being completely reactive by just trying to steal style and concepts from them). In other words, TSR started to suck. For a period in the late 90s I pretty much stopped buying RPG products altogether, though I kept running games. Eventually, the 'White Wolf' effect had so altered the hobby that it was becoming hard to even interact with players who hadn't fallen for the whole 'storytelling' bullshit and expecting that from their game experiences. There was a while there where I was only running Amber, and then when the Amber campaign ended, there was a period of six months where I didn't play/run RPGs at all. This was, by the way, the longest period of my entire life since starting in the hobby that I went without gaming.

Then 3e came along. And at first, it was great! People tend to forget just how strongly it was a repudiation of the "storytelling" pretentious White-Wolf nonsense. The 3.0 DMG was all but explicit about that, calling it a "kick in the door" style of gaming, in contrast to the storytelling stuff. It felt, in those very first couple of years, like it was a return not mechanically but conceptually to an old-school style. I got back on the horse, and ended up running a D&D campaign. I also got into the D20 system as a whole, running various other D20 campaigns (including a very long Star Wars campaign). But by around 2004 I was back to running D&D old-school (mechanically old school with the RC, I mean; I had always been running it with an old-school style), and I think my last D20 game (Star Wars) ended in 2008 or 2009.

So anyways, the thing is that there's more than one 'new school'. Old-school is pretty definable; though you could divide it into games that are MECHANICALLY old-school and games that are old-school in style. 'New School' has several different forms: there was the 'new school' of 90s games, totally affected by White Wolf's style. There is the new-school of the 2000s, which started with 3e/D20, and which is pretty much continued in many games today, including 5e. There's even the possibility of incorrectly defining the Forge/Storygames as yet another kind of 'new school', though in fact it is best defined as "a totally different hobby". Even so, you can still say there are new-school games that are RPGs but have allowed themselves to be influenced by Forge/Storygame thinking in some way.

If you like Old-School, you can pretty much just say "I like old-school". On the other hand, you can't just say "I like new-school" and take that to mean anything at all; the most likely reason to say "I like new-school" is if you're really making the statement that you don't like Old-school The second most-likely is as a statement to say that you like some games other than Old-school. New-school has no positive definition, it is only defined by what it isn't (old-school).

In terms of D&D, I think the differences between old-school and new-school (that is, what isn't old-school) became apparent over time with 3e, when it was obvious that things like the emphasis on balance, rules-mastery, and character-engineering gradually took away a lot of the old-school style from 3e and turned it into a very different thing. Something that to me seems bloated and far less effective at immersion than OSR games. 

4e obviously doesn't count, it was largely a forge-influenced hijacking of gaming, and failed miserably.

5e has tried to keep a lot of the better elements of 3e, but pushed even harder back toward the old-school style (I helped a little with this). It is simpler, less dependent on rules-mastery (that is, the player who has read every page of every D&D book is not going to have an insurmountably better-designed character than the one who hasn't), and leaves a lot more room for the GM to maneuver. It isn't an old-school game, but it's design is very strongly old-school influenced (by myself, among others).

I liked 3e in its very nascent period. I like 5e today, and hope it won't eventually follow the same (flawed) evolution that 3e did.

There's a lot of other new-school games I like a lot. Amber is obviously one of them, and Lords of Olympus is proof enough of that. More recently, I've run a couple of different FATE-based games (Starblazer, and ICONS). When you take out the more storygame-influenced junk from the system, FATE isn't bad at all.


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Quiete Apple + Gawith's Commonwealth

(Originally posted March 10, 2016)


  1. Characters in D&D aren't randomly generated anymore?

  2. I'm honestly not sure what you mean by new school here. I'mm from the next generation, my first games were 2e, Cyberpunk, Rifts, Over the Edge, and Werewolf. I don't see them as different to OSR, which is my only frame of reference. The systems are more coherent, but the game focuses on the world. I see storygames as different (as the game focuses on the plot). But I genuinely don't get what you mean by old school here.