What’s meant by “old school”?

I’ve thought a lot about what, exactly, we mean when we talk about “old school” Dungeons & Dragons.  You could argue that the difference is merely chronological, but I think that definition would be unsatisfactory to a lot of OSR gamers, once they realized 3rd & 4th editions would also legitimately be old school after enough time had passed.  And we clearly can’t have that, can we?

Another definition — and one I think hits closer to the mark — could be based on ownership and publishing of the D&D trademark.  The game was invented by TSR, but is currently owned by Wizards Of The Coast,  All of the versions designed and published by TSR (Basic through Advanced 2nd edition) are considered “old school,” and the versions published by Wizards (3.0 through the looming 5th edition) are called (at least by polite grognards) “new school.”

There are significant design differences between TSR’s editions and Wizards’ editions. as well, and it’s many of these differences that the armies of the Edition Wars often battle over.  But to my mind, the difference that matters grows from the philosophy underlying these different designs, and not from the designs themselves.

New school D&D is about making the character you want.

Old school D&D is about playing the hand you’re dealt. 

Character optimization and system mastery lie at the heart of the 3.x & 4th edition experiences; feats, skills, templates, prestige classes, and so on are all meant to give players the power to  design the best, most effective possible characters.  This is why, in 3rd edition and beyond, the previously optional technique of distributing ability scores to taste became the official, default practice.

In the old school philosophy, a player was stuck with the ability scores they rolled, in the order they were rolled.  If you didn’t qualify for the wizard class because you rolled a 9 or less for Intelligence… well, then tough titty, kiddo.  You’d just have play another kind of character (unless you were lucky enough to have a compassionate Dungeon Master).

The new school emphasis on player empowerment and character optimization is one of the things that ultimately sold me on 3.x edition over my beloved childhood friend, 2nd edition AD&D.  In fact, I’d still argue that from the player-character design perspective, 3.x is among the best versions of the game.  It engenders maximum customization, and enhances  many people’s play experience by giving them exactly the character they envision.

But from the DM’s perspective, the new school’s power creep and book-keeping commitments are a nightmare… which is what made me start looking around for simpler versions in the first place.

So, bearing that in mind, my next post will talk about the things I liked and disliked about each of the different versions of D&D that I’ve played.  After that, I’ll start considering and reviewing the various OSR and retro-clone games.

About thebobgoblin

It's true. Birds are dinosaurs.
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3 Responses to What’s meant by “old school”?

  1. From differing sources I have heard and typically inclined to agree that ‘Old-School’ design focuses more on simulation, while ‘New-School’ focuses on characters and being heroic. In OS characters are a simple and made with chance, which is fine because at some point you’re probably going to die and need to reroll a character at the table. With NS things as a general rule aren’t as dangerous and it can be difficult to kill a PC outright, without specifically aiming to annihilate it.

    Neither is better or worse, just different. The advice I like is decide what kind of campaign you want to run/play and then choose the rules system that best evokes that feel.

    • thebobgoblin says:

      Hm, I kind of see that the other way around. 4th edition, to me, looks like it is trying to simulate the experience of playing a video game character, with all the buffs and second winds and so forth. Basically, it’s WOW or League Of Legends translated to analog. Older editions, to my mind, were more about heroism in the sense of having characters rise from humble roots and overcome their own weaknesses. I think 3rd edition saw the game starting to move away from a humble heroes motif,where characters are always cognizant of their mortality, and more towards a super heroes motif, where characters rarely have anything to fear..

      Not that a DM should actively be trying to kill off the PCs… but character deaths in combat were a lot more frequent in older editions.

      Though I agree, neither is better. I like 3.x and 4e’s focus on character optimization, yet prefer older editions for the ease of preparation. Many OSR games have incorporated elements from 3.x or 4e, trying to bridge the gap between editions. Which also looks like what Wizards is doing with 5e, if the playtest packs are any indication.

      • Poor explanation on my part. Simulation in this context is referring to attempting to accurately ‘simulate’ reality. Pay someone to teach you new skills at level up, etc.

        Boiled down the difference in the schools is probably easiest to see by their inspiration. OS was influenced by war games, attempting to model reality with dice and mechanics. Whereas NS relies a lot on video game design and creating something exciting and interesting takes precedence over accurately simulating reality.

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