"The line must be drawn here! This far and no further!" - Capt. Picard, Star Trek: First Contact
A bit dramatic, but then, Patrick Stewart can deliver a dramatic line like few others in acting today. And that is exactly how I feel today - a bit angsty, a bit ranty and a bit like "Just call your spade a spade and get off my lawn!" Not exactly the most friendliest of beginnings, but there you have it. And yes, I have my coffee.
So what has brought this all about? It started earlier this week with an announcement by Necromancer Games about "4E Classic", an attempt to recreate the 4E rules to "old school", for whatever that means. I was curious. I've long said that 4E is not the game for me, but I do appreciate the time, effort and thought that went into making an RPG that is clearly selling like hotcakes. I was curious what a published RPG designer might make of it in an attempt to make it more "old school".
What did I see? Mechanics, mechanics and more mechanics. How to justify/make healing surges work, how to make the classes work in a 3E fashion, how to do this and that with yet more mechanics. I left saddened. I don't think they understand.
Later this week, Monte Cook announced he's going for an "old school feel" for his Dungeon-A-Day subscription service. Obviously Monte Cook commands a lot of attention and respect for his previous RPG work, so this annoucement has sent shockwaves throughout the RPG community. Yet, in reading Monte's announcements, I get a similar empty feeling. I don't think he understands.
They don't understand because they are across the line. It's not a line of mechanics or tables or dice rolls or having a formula that makes a game 'old school', it's having a feel and philosophy and an approach to gaming and the rules. I commented as much on the Necromancer boards, to a resounding, disappointing silence.
I don't know Clark Peterson personally, so I don't know if this is true, but his words leave me to think that he's missing the boat. You can't bolt on chrome and fuzzy dice and whitewalls onto a Scion and call it an old-school car. It may "look" retro, but it's not - the new Camaro (which is an epic of a fail as any auto maker has done) is proof of that. The mechanics and the fiddly bits aren't going to make 4E anymore "classic" than a good set of houserules. Publishing a dungeon and setting aren't going to make you anymore "old school" than the many "dungeon delves" that were published for 3E.
What distresses me most is that all these new shiny things that scream "I'M OLD SCHOOL!" are distracting. In some cases, they might be catalysts - the Monte Cook announcement had the old schoolers saying "Why didn't we think of that? We'll do it better!" and starting to talk amongst themselves about how to make something similar work. I fear, however, that all we're doing is getting distracted from some really good things - Fight On and Knockspell fanzines, new versions of Swords & Wizardry and OSRIC, continuing publishing of good adventures and good supplements and all of the independent individual creations that have really brought a bunch of us to life.
I don't think you can put lipstick on a pig and I don't think you can make 4E 'old school' until you go back to what old-school means to you and your audience and start from there. Most of the guys that blog about "old school" are the same guys who publish to the fanzines and OD&D boards and I think they could do it, if they wanted - they could truly create a 4E "Classic" - but then, I don't think it would be 4E - it would be OSRIC and S&W and we've already DONE THAT! I think we could put together a "subscription service" similar to Monte Cook's proposal, but with the fanzines and our articles, we've already DONE THAT! Yes, I'll help with my friends with this subscription idea, but that's because I respect them and I want to learn and share in experiences with them, but I don't want us to do this just because we're going "Why didn't we think of that?"
I know it's the neat, new shiny thing, but to quote yet another sci-fi classic, "Stay on Target!" We have a good thing going with what we've been doing. Yes, "old school" is the new fad of the day. There's now a lot of excitement and buzz and with that comes those who want to glom onto what we're doing. We have our line. We've got good things on our side. Let's keep focus on those things and keep on Fighting On.