Friday, March 6, 2009

The line (a rant on the "fad" of old school)

"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.


Jeff Rients said...

I haven't devoted a post of my own to the subject because I didn't want to bring anyone down, but here's my own take: I just don't care one whit about what Necromancer and Cook are doing. They're completely irrelevant to the scene as far as I'm concerned.

Cook wants me to pay seven bucks a month so he can trickle out a dungeon while Amityville Mike and Greyhawk Grognard are already doing excellent work in the field and for free? Honestly, it smells of Monte feeling around for a business plan rather than a creative endeavor. And Clark Peterson seems stuck between the rock of needing to be relevant to the 4E folks and the hard place of wanting to participate in the old school scene. I actualy kinda feel sorry for the guy.

Anonymous said...

I have a hard time wrapping my head around what is old school sometimes; to a point where it almost becomes aggravating to hear the term.

I believe this is because old school is a relative term that depends on the unique perspective and experiences of the person holding the old school torch.

For me, old school is about barebones rules, where you make decisions on the fly about situations that are not covered (and are not meant to be covered) in a setting that has been created by the DM, and not using a slew of pre-made adventures. When I started out, a pre-made adventure was the mark of a lazy DM. You did things on your own.

So my question is what makes the adventures published in Knockspell and Fight On! old school? What makes a 4e adventure new school?

taichara said...

I'm not familiar enough with anything from Necromancer to really give an opinion one way or another (other than to say that Mr. Peterson is really pushing the GSL, which rather grates), but I admit that this dungeon thing Monte Cook is doing doesn't quite sit right.

I like/ed his work with Planescape; his 3e and d20 material not so much, although I've mined Arcana Evolved for ideas on a few occasions. But this dungeon subscription thing just seems ... strange. Not that the gentleman hasn't done huge dungeons/settings before; it's the old school comment that seems a little weird to me. I don't know why, though.

I think you have a good point, with the zines and the retro-clone systems and whatnot. The base is already growing nicely, there doesn't seem to be much of a need (to me) to parrot another publisher by starting a subscription megadungeon anything.

If it ain't broke ~

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

So my question is what makes the adventures published in Knockspell and Fight On! old school? What makes a 4e adventure new school?

To me, it's an easy question to answer. The adventures in FO/KS don't force you down a path, where the new adventures do (the one's that I've read - both 3E/4E). The adventures in FO/KS are based on player ingenuity, wandering monsters, whimsy and a philosophy of resource management and ordinary people plunging into depths and darkness. The new adventures enforce a mechanics driven solution and a superhero feel - the ones that I've read/played in. The old adventures echo Gygaxian/Arneson concepts and feel. The new adventures don't.

That's also my perception. You're right, old school is what we see it, but there's enough continuity between myself, Jeff Rients up there, James Maliszewski over there, AmityMike and ShamDave over there, that I feel they think like I do - and a great many of us think in similar terms - or are willing to accept someone else tearing up the rules and making their own, just like you do. With new adventures and new DMs, I don't get that sense - both from play and observation.

@Jeff - I'm not trying to bring anyone down. :( I just don't want to see us turning away from the good things we already have because of some shiny objects from people who, in my opinion, are starting from the opposite side of the line.

Michael Curtis said...

I'm leaving the idea of a old school megadungeon project safely in the land of make-believe for now. If it comes to be, I'll help haul some of the load but I've got enough pots cooking at the moment to keep me busy. I'll let others hash out the fine details and wait to see what develops.

As far as the sudden popularity of the "old school feel," I find it very hard to raise any vitriol about it. You use a car analogy in your post; I prefer to look at things as analogous to the punk rock scene of the late Seventies and early Eighties.

When record companies learned there was money to be made on this DIY music scene, they bought up who they could, but when that didn't work, they tried to create their own, more profitable version. And thus New Wave and era of the Skinny Tie was born. You'd never confuse one for the other, however.

One of the most endearing traits about the old school movement is that I no longer have any invested interest in what the big boys are doing. 4th edition's biggest impact on me is that I no longer have to check the Gaming section at Borders when I go shopping. Let the business models be drawn up and the projects written and, in the end, we'll see what there is to see. It'll probably not interest me or my wallet.

Anonymous said...

Having been to and posted on those boards, my opinion is that - label aside - he is not trying to create an old-school style game.

At least not the way you or I might use the term old-school.

Rather, the is trying to create a retro game which attempts to look at how 4E departed from the earlier editions and return the game to the feel of those earlier editions.

But not the oldest editions.

Rather, he is interested in a game that appeals to those who liked 3.x and felt that 4E went to far.

Not one that felt that 3.x was already too far down the wrong road.

At least that is how I see it.


Nope said...

@Syruso: agreed

Helmsman said...

I don't play d20 or D&D or anything like that so I can't speak on what I believe a D&D gamer feels is "old school", and I don't see freeform games where the GM is competent enough to go by the seat of his pants as old school either, that's just the mark of an experienced GM, and is about playstyle, not any particular "feel".

However there are a few things I feel make a game old school in terms of mechanics. New games that aren't heavily influenced by D&D have a tendancy to be dice light, and crunch light, they stick with a small number of stats and keep the modifiers simple to keep the narrative uninterrupted. Systems like FATE and Tristat, are an example of this, and the pinnacle of the new-school game mechanics is the diceless system.

Old school mechanics are heavier on the crunch, they include measurements of things like time lapse, distance, encumbrance, and apply modifiers based on those factors. These mechanical systems are derived from wargames.

Maybe I'm showing my age here, but when I skimmed D&D 4e, it felt newer than new school. It felt like a Pen and Paper rendition of the Modern MMORPG, where classes were strictly segregated and balanced to perform a very specific role within the group. For the life of me I cannot understand why people would find this fun. Computer game RPG's have the advantage in that their mechanics can be resolved instantly and you can see your avatar and require no prep from a GM. Pen and Paper RPG's have the advantage in that your actions aren't limited to what the computer coding allows you to do, you have a human being that can arbitrate the subtleties of character interaction as only a human can. To me this newest approach seems to try and mimic the computer game stuff and get rid of the tabletop interaction stuff... which baffles me. If I want to play WoW, I'll play WoW. Playing a tabletop game that tries to be WoW only on tabletop seems like a waste of venue.

trollsmyth said...

Two things. First, clearly the iron is hot, and if we're going to strike, we should strike now. Who knows how long old school will be the flavour de jur? Projects like Fight On! and Knockspell and especially Green Devil Face are needed to keep the fires going, to spread the word and interest.

Second, I'm going to be cheering Mr. Cook on. Anyone who's doing something to grow interest in the hobby and turn a buck while doing it is a hero in my book. It's great that there's all this free content out there, but our resources and output are limited to what we can afford to give away. Achieving the full potential of what we could be will only be possible when we've got the resources (time, art, production values, coding, connectivity) that only money can buy.

- Brian

Gamer Dude said...

I'm a firm believer that 4E can never play like earlier games. I'd rather stay away from the term "old school" because, like others, I think that it's often misused. Or at least certainly misunderstood.

Example: I posted a Gamers Wanted message to the local meetup and got a guy responding that he's interested in playing old school games...which was 3.5 Edition. He was in no way interested in playing anything earlier than that.

We've all heard of situations like this. But it just proves that the term "old school" is relative. Just like Syrsuro was saying, I don't think that he's interested in going much farther back than 3.X.

If he IS interested in going back further than that though I'd be hugely interested to see how he plans on doing it. I've given 4E a *chance, and frankly, I've found it seriously lacking.

*Played for 6 months, hoping all the while that the game would "get better". Unfortunately, it just didn't.

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

I'm less worried about Monte Cook's success or failure than I really am at how we might find ourselves overreacting to something that doesn't need to be responded to.

I'll help James in his megadungeon because I want to be involved in a project that creates stuff like this. I would much rather see it aimed at old-school 'zines than a similar vehicle like DungeonaDay, but we'll hash that out as we go. I just don't want us to lose sight of what is really neat about this niche of a niche.

With regards to 4E Classic, if they could do something to 4E like microlite20/microlite74 did to 3E/d20, that would be fantastic and I would wish them well in that regards. However, if you read back through the threads of how m20 came to light, you'll see it started with a philosophy than just "let's fiddle with mechanics" - and I haven't seen that approach from 4E Classic. But again, I'd rather the old school guys I respect devote their time/energy to the good things we have, than investing in 4E Classic that isn't on my side of the line. This is, of course, just my .02US$.

Joshua Macy said...

Old School is a moving target. To my step-daughter, Old School is her recorded music is stuff you download from the Internet. To me vinyl LP is still contemporary (maybe a little old-fashioned), but I seriously doubt she's ever handled one in her life. I think of 45s as Old School, and you have to go back to wax cylinders and piano rolls before it's archaic.

RPGs are much the same. I'm sure that to people whose first exposure to RPGs was D&D 3.5, and there are plenty of them, what Peterson is aiming for with 4e Classic is Old School.

That doesn't worry me or bother me, because Old School RPG isn't a movement or a brand. It's just a bunch of folks out in the long tail who've recently discovered "Wow, there are still other people who like this out-of-fashion stuff that I do. Cool." It doesn't need to grow, or keep up momentum...all that has to happen is for the people who enjoy it to keep in touch via blogs and forums and keep drawing enthusiasm and inspiration from each other. That's success in my book.

Zachary Houghton said...

I’ve been going back and forth on this: I really like a lot of Monte’s work, but honestly, as cool as this sounds, I don’t think I’ll be shelling out $7/month for it. The Mad Archmage project at Greyhawk Grognard has given me a bunch thus far with those monthly releases, and Fight On!, which already consumes part of my skimpy gaming budget, gives me some as well.

But I don’t have any ideological objection to what he’s doing. It certainly doesn’t rub me the wrong way—he’s presenting a model I’m sure a lot of folks and Cook fans will enjoy. I just don’t know that I’m personally that interested, really.

@taichara: Mr. Peterson is indeed pushing the GSL very, very hard. I know he's excited about it, but it is a bit irritating.

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

@trollsmyth - Achieving the full potential of what we could be will only be possible when we've got the resources (time, art, production values, coding, connectivity) that only money can buy.

I think you are very correct, which is why the 'zines and the lulu/POD projects are a perfect resource and a perfect vehicle for our small group. I don't think our niche of a niche depends on Monte Cook or Classic 4E - rather I think he/they have hooked onto "old school" as a marketing gimmick. I don't think establishing future interest in our small world should depend on big names getting involved, I think it should be about us spreading the love through our games and our 'zines and our blogs and our love of the game. Call me old fashioned or naive... I probably am both. :/

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

Quoted For Truth - jamused: It doesn't need to grow, or keep up momentum...all that has to happen is for the people who enjoy it to keep in touch via blogs and forums and keep drawing enthusiasm and inspiration from each other. That's success in my book.

Christopher B said...

"So my question is what makes the adventures published in Knockspell and Fight On! old school? What makes a 4e adventure new school?"

Seriously: Have you looked at Keep on the Shadowfell? If you want a good idea of old-school sensibility versus new school sensibility, you need go no further than comparing/contrasting KotS and its semi-namesake, Keep on the Borderlands. Whereas the latter is a mini campaign setting, a playground for players and DM's, the former is such a railroad, I'm surprised it didn't come packaged with a conductor's whistle.

I view the difference between old school and new school rules and adventures much like the difference between wooden blocks and Lego building blocks: they both let you build things, but the need to put a creative slant on that building experience has been replaced by a need to work within the logic of a new, more rigid methodology. In terms of blocks to Legos, that means learning how to build what you want within the confines of 90-degree angles and limited block sizes. I'm not saying either is better, or that neither of them require some creativity or logic. It's just that one (old school) is much more free-form than the other (new school).

Back to the topic at hand:
In terms of the old-school equivalent of Cook's idea, I think it's great - not simply because it's "old school," or that it does something that's already being done in a fan-zine or on a bunch of individual blogs. I think it's great because it's an opportunity to take all of these disparate (and amazingly talented) folks and put some of their work in one, free, content-focused, easy-to-access place. Fight On! and Knockspell are great, but they are not free. Nor are they weekly. Nor do they focus themselves on one single thing: consistently cranking out pieces of a megadungeon. The idea of a site that does what these awesome zines don't is aces in my book.

(IMHO, FWIW, YMMV, etc.)

Tom said...

The "old school" argument is rather tiresome, it's just soooo subjective.

Is 1e edition old school? Technically no, since it's not as old as basic, which isn't as old as orignal, etc.

I play a game I like or I don't. I don't concern myself with what it hearkens back, I especially don't care what other people like to play.

trollsmyth said...

I don't think establishing future interest in our small world should depend on big names getting involved, I think it should be about us spreading the love through our games and our 'zines and our blogs and our love of the game.

I absolutely agree. I don't see Monte's Dungeonaday thing doing much for old school, but I don't really see it hurting us, either, and just having any financially solvent gaming concerns is a step in the right direction.

Where I think we can benefit is in having a popular "portal" to old school, one with frequent new content that makes reference to and actively links to the other "tent poles" of old school like our magazines and blogs. A megadungeon project might do this.

Natalie said...

I honestly just don't get it. Why does everyone want to have the old school tag attached to them and their game system of choice all of a sudden? I assume that there's some kind of marketing angle to it, but honestly the whole phenomenon mystifies me.

Mr Baron said...

I am with trollsmyth on this one. I will be cheering both Monte & Clark on. Why? Because I believe that anything that creates buzz in our hobby is a good thing. It promotes interest, creativity, and it gives us something to yap/blog about. Will they be successful, who knows, and it does not matter. I will say that if James M has picked up the gauntlet and will be publishing his version for free because of what Monte did, that is a huge win. D&D at its heart is about the creative process more than anything else. During the past year, we have seen an explosion of creativity in this hobby of ours. We have had a whole series of retro clones created, we have Paizo working on Pathfinder, we have Clark working to improve 4th ed, and he was successful in pushing a new GSL, we have seen several new fanzines created, along with KQ and last but not least, we have dozens of new bloggers start up with excellent quality of content!

To me, this is all good stuff, and its ripe for picking up content for our next creative endeavour. We will not like all of it, which is fine, and that is to be expected.

While it is easy to look down on all this stuff, but to me, the creativity in our hobby has never looked better.

Without a doubt, it is time to Fight on!

Victor Raymond said...

The "old school" argument is rather tiresome, it's just soooo subjective.

Is 1e edition old school? Technically no, since it's not as old as basic, which isn't as old as orignal, etc.

This is, as my debate coach used to patiently explain, an example of a strawman argument: "because I consider this to be a completely subjective judgment, it's not worth debating."

But it's not completely subjective. Matt Finch's Primer for Old School Gaming is a good exploration of this issue - and it is not a complete exploration, either.

I just don't think it helps to not recognize real differences in play styles when they make a difference in what people are doing/writing/playing.

trollsmyth said...

Oddysey: I'd say yeah, a bit of marketing, but also enthusiasm is contagious. And right now, for all sorts of reasons (the death of Mr. Gygax and the aging of those who started way back when being chief among them, I'm sure) there's a lot of enthusiasm in old school. We've got a lot of bloggers and posters out there with a killer combo of good writing, interesting stuff to say, are actually playing fun games, and who have the skills and discipline to pull together projects like Swords & Wizardry and Fight On!

I think there's also a bit of a pendulum swing here. I had no idea that dungeon play had been so out of fashion. Your comments about how you'd never really done it much floored me. For most of us from way back when, dungeoneering is the default RPG activity. I can remember the first time I started putting together adventures for Star Frontiers and wondering how the heck you played an RPG without a dungeon to explore and gold pieces to loot. ;D Dungeoneering is back in, as you've pointed out, and, justified or not, the old school is heavily associated with dungeons.

Unknown said...

There are more than a few of us 4e players who enjoy the game, in part, because it has a feeling and philosophy that reminds of earlier editions of the game. I wouldn't call this "old school play", I love the way mechancis have evolved through the years and have little interest in going back in that regard, but it does have a certain feel to it. There is a lot of freedom for both player and especially DM that was seriously lacking in 3e.

As for comparing KotS to KotB, come on, really? It's pretty well universally accepted that KotS is a crappy module. KotB is a great one. You really think comparing a shitty module to a great module is a way to make a comparison of systems? There were plenty of shitty modules in 1e as well, and every other edition. King of the Trollhaunt Warrens, otoh, is brilliant, Thunderspire Labyrinth isn't bad and has lots of room for the DM to get creative...

satyre said...

@vraymond - I agree. Style of play is not bound to rule set. 4E is aimed to bring new players in and to give them a taste of something more.

@Oddyssey - The long tail or to give it a label 'amateur' hobbyist is a large audience for all the publishers. Old school infers an experience, gravitas & durability which a publish or perish business model lacks. Plus people object to buying the same content over and over again.

@helmsmith: What I find ironic is that there are so many references in 4E to classics like Dwellers in the Forbidden City yet people just assume it's for the Wow crowd...

To ignore the presence of WoW in the gaming cognitive map is to ignore a large audience interested in much the same things we are; to keep them at arms length denies us a bunch of fellow players.

@chgowiz - Hella post. Nicely done sir.

Unknown said...

I think you should try to make people feel bad here. If you guys don't stick up for what your 'old school' is really about (i.e. 'just doing things our own way and bidding you new schoolers good luck, but hey, if you ever wanna check some of your stuff, we're happy to show you a good dice chucking time!'), it'll get co-opted.

To be perfectly, honestly frank, this is the first time I've encountered a bunch of people with the 'old school' banner that hasn't engendered a sense of revulsion and desire to bust out four letter words, insult your geneology, and allude to your mothers being members of the world's oldest profession offering bargain basement prices for their time. Everytime before, 'old school' has just been a thin vehicle for rampant, ignorant hatred of contemporary gaming full of dishonest argumentation and pretentious elitism.

@satyre: The problem, really, is that a lot of old school people (or those who co-opt old school) who proudly label themselves grognards use WoW and video game-y as pejoratives and stigmatize any resemblance to either as a matter of course.

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

@andrew - I don't think I'm being unreasonable, just that I want us to work on things that are for our side of the line for us to enjoy, and not become another "fad"... :)

@all - thank you for the really great comments and debate. I've found it really wonderful that this post generated some really interesting thoughts.

In the end, I want the older editions to have life because gamers care to breathe life into it. For me, that means supporting the 'zines and other efforts. I think that those of us who hew to the editions we love are doing a damn good job regardless.