Monday, May 25, 2009

The Definition of Old-School

This topic seems to make the rounds every couple of months, both in the blogosphere and on the many old-school-friendly boards. Of course, its usually expressed that old-school is too ephemeral to define concisely, and long lists of what is or isn't old school are surely to follow. I myself enjoy the discussion, because hey, it is the "theme" of this grossly extended play-date we've been enjoying for the last thirty years or so.

Nonetheless, a concise definition would be helpful, at least in terms of introducing new fans (or reintroducing "former" fans) to the hobby, so I would be in favor of reducing the whole blather down to its simplest distillation:

"Old-School gaming refers to content and/or tone that is from, or reminiscent of, pre-1984 Dungeons and Dragons."

Why 1984 specifically? I guess because it gives the "classic" era of D&D a nice, neat, even decade. Of course its arguable that great old-school stuff came out after (and is still being produced today), and that old-school references a much broader genre of RPGs, boardgames, novels, magazines, and such, but I think there's some merit in having a simple response to the question, "what do you mean by "old-school?" Let's not forget, most folks don't even really understand what the hell RPGing is to begin with ("is that like when you dress up at the Ren-Faire?"), so having a simple response can both explain the phenomenon and open the door for further questions and discussion.

How would you explain it to a 10-year-old? Keep it simple. Of course, in lieu of the above bolded definition, one could offer the cover/picture above.

I think it defines the whole thing very nicely.


  1. 1984 seems about right. Now, I'll admit that by then I had only been playing for a couple of years. But in retrospect I believe that Dragonlance (though I loved it) in 1984 and Unearthed Arcana in 1985 were two major forces that changed things in a big way.

  2. For me- the shift started when the Log changed from the "mans face" to the Angled downward from left to right TSR logo. Which I'm pretty sure was 1983.Aat this point Gary was pretty much hands off, and the type, nature, and volume of new products changed significantly. This is the point where D&D was becomeing so widely sucessful and mainstream, that it became much more "big business", than hobbyists writing prooducts for othe rhobbyists. Thats just my opinion of course.

  3. Gah..excuse the typos.

  4. RuneQuest came around in 1978 - so is 1st/2nd edition RuneQuest old school, or is there a separate old school RuneQuest category?

  5. Does it feel old-school to you? I imagine plenty of folks would list Rolemaster, Tunnels and Trolls, EPT, Dragonquest, and other RPGs of the era as old-school too. Hell, just having multiple systems on the shelves seems pretty old-school compared to today...;-)

    Runequest has stayed pretty true to its original design ethic over the years, even now in the hands of Mongoose. ICE earned some respect from me when they released an official, new "lite" version of RM, hearkening back to game's roots, something a certain corporate-owned game company could learn from!

    At any rate, my above definition is not intended to exclude other systems from the aegis of "old-school gaming", but to verbalize my conceptualization of the ethic in the simplest way possible.

  6. Well I can't agree that tacking on a date is particularly useful. Some games of that era were every bit as complex and rule heavy as recent ones - Chivalry and Sorcery for example - and frankly, so was AD&D if you actually played by all the rules. If you want old school to mean old... well okay anything counts. But if old school is meant to be a style of play that was once common but fell out of fashion then a basic definition might be more like "A rules light form of Role Playing games in which player creativity is stressed instead of formal game mechanics as was common in the early years of RPG games."



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