Saturday, January 24, 2009

Old School, New School

For a long time, I have believed that Old/New School in roleplaying isn't a problem with the rules, it's a matter of approach. I've been through several iterations of this theory and finally pared it down to a simple statement.

Old School is an adversarial relationship between the player characters and GM - the GM is an active obstacle to the (inevitable) success of the player characters. New School is focused on a collaborative story between players and GM.

That's my belief. The only difference is how the story is created. It is possible, and even likely, that in each scenario a party of ragtag misfits save the world, destroy the evil wizard, and rescue the fair maiden. The difference is in how that scenario is crafted: Old School will involve a list of notes or a published adventure including a list of things the PCs must accomplish before their final goal (defeat monsters, solve puzzles, overcome traps, talk past guards), while New School will change and alter the world around the actions of the PCs (if they check for traps, there will be traps; if they rush through a dungeon throwing caution to the wind, there will also be traps).

Rules have nothing to do with it. Some settings and rules lend themselves more towards one school of thought than another; Don't Rest Your Head's dice-lite system lends itself more towards the New School, as it doesn't rely on a hero's skills and abilities so much as tendencies, while All Flesh Must Be Eaten gleefully concedes that there's no way a party could prepare for every eventuality.

I think every group falls close to the middle of Old/New, and we're only aware a disparity because every system that comes out is, in its own way, an attempt to improve the way we tell stories, and they accomplish that in different ways. 4e is an Old School system because it has a lot of ways to hurt the PCs, while Fate is New School because it does not try to come up with everything.


Theron said...

I'm really surprised nobody has commented.

Anonymous said...

I'd characterise old school as being about players versus environment. There is stress on player skill, rather than mere character stats. Also, a prebuilt dungeon or sandbox setting is kinda assumed. I'm thinking about old D&D and such.

New school is ill-defined. Adventure paths are one style of play, Forge-style story games another, very different, style.

Theron said...

Honestly, I'd be tempted to go the other way. I am probably the only guy around who thinks of Old School as being more about figuring out what's on the page and how that affects gameplay and character choices. New School for me rewards roleplaying with "drama points" whether they're bennies or Fudge Points or whatever, giving players more power to affect the environment; Old School rewards storytelling ability with XP bonuses and situational bonuses.

Actually, the second part of your statement resonates strongly with me. Old School is more easily definable. The fact that New School defies definition helps make it New School.

Also, I am the only person who doesn't think of Old School as inherently superior or a better storytelling tool. I don't believe that for a second. The Old School gamers I play with don't treat games like a storytelling tool, they treat them as a release, which is kind of the point of gaming. The only thing I can't stand is people who insist that New School games don't tell stories.

d7 said...

This distinction I'd tend to call "trad(itional)" versus "indie". (I know, that's a horrible abuse of "indie", but for better or worse it has become the label of a distinguishable type that has nothing to do with publishing method.) RPGs traditionally pitted the GM against the players, while the indie movement brought cooperative story-creation to the fore.

I tend not to even talk about "new school", since I don't really think there's such thing. There's Old School, and then there Not Old School. For me, Old School has to do with how the players interact with the game side of roleplaying games: the game challenges the players directly to come up with solutions to puzzles, to play "well" in terms of tactics and strategy, and excel in their manipulation of the available tools (PC and environment) in order to overcome. That's why I think pinning down a "new" school is hard: it's just Everything Else, when the player-vs-game element is reduced into balance with story and immersion and all the rest of the elements.