Monday, September 21, 2015

Defining Old School Gaming - an Edition/Game Independent Definition (Before the Reviews)

Disclaimer: I am not saying this is the only definition or the definitive definition. Everyone is welcome to their own definition. What I am saying is that this definition goes back to the early days while OD&D was being written and play tested and looks at two very different games: Blackmoor and Greyhawk and based on the information available to this writer defines what old school gaming is based on the things that two very different games by two very different referees have in common. It also looks at the things that to the best of my knowledge Arneson and Gygax had in common over 30 years later.  I also want to point out that this definition of old school gaming would allow you to play an old school game using any D&D Edition and any other rpg whose rules do not directly conflict with this definition. This means that this definition tells you specifically how you can play games that are greatly different from OD&D in an old school gaming style/manner.

So take a look and tell me what you think. I have seen a lot of different definitions, but I think this one is unique in being truly both Edition Independent  and Game independent. I have tried other definitions over the years, but they were tied to the game being played, this one starts with OD&D but then is extended to apply to any rpg game. I also believe that since under this definition you can use all kinds of game features that I do not like (such as skills and ascending armor class) and still have an old school game - because of this I think it is IMO the most unbiased definition to date since you can play your game in a way I don't like and I would still have to agree that you meet my definition of old school.

So here is the definition, part of it I derived myself and part of it I found in various places including on a non-old school focused forum.

Old school gaming is the way that Gary & Dave played in their own campaigns both before and after the initial publication of OD&D and throughout their lives. Some will point out that their games changed a lot over the years and that is true; however, that things I point to as defining old school gaming did not to the best of my knowledge change in their games.

In the beginning Old School Gaming was Original Dungeons & Dragons as played by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson and it was played in a sandbox, involved both prep work and improvisation (i.e. winging it) and each campaign was each refs own creation. House ruling/adjudication was done on the fly as needed and slavish By the Book adherence to the rules did not exist (was never a consideration). The style of play was test the player not the character which means that metagaming (using all player knowledge) was part of the game and an expected part of play.

A pure sandbox is anything from just a village and the surroundings up to a fully top down designed world that is fully fleshed out.

So here we go for the definition:

Old School Gaming is a sandbox game that involves the full range of the extremes between referee pre-designed and referee improvised (winged) materials where everything in the game is the referees own creation created from any number of inspirations. The referee does house ruling/adjudication on the fly as needed throughout the game. There is no BtB adherence to a rule-set and the game is house ruled and rule changes take place over time. The game tests the player not the character. So called "metagaming" is an expected part of the game on the part of the players.
This tells you how to play OD&D, any OSR game, 3.5E, Runequest, Gurps or any other game in an old school gaming style/manner. It does not tell you that you have to dump this or that rule(s). It is an open-ended definition that clearly defines a specific original play style and yet it is not about imitation since there is nothing in the definition that would require conformity between Blackmoor and Greyhawk or any other campaign to any greater degree than what actually existed.  Gary Gygax reportedly like to play in Dave Arnesons game because of how differently Dave did things from the way Gary did things. And yet they both had the same things in common that defined them then and defines old school gaming now.

So what is an Old School Game, any game that readily and easily lends itself to the Old School Gaming style as defined above. What is a non-old school game? Any game that does not readily and easily lend itself to the Old School Gaming style as defined above.


  1. Hi Halenar,
    It makes sense to define your approach prior to beginning. You've made an important distinction as "role" and "player" are blended and indistinguishable. Players would choose the role that seemed to suit them best, fighters were very popular for example but unlike a character part in which one immersed oneself, the "player as the character" is a very different approach indeed. We've obviously covered a lot of the same ground in terms of history. "The Game" as we undoubtedly played it was always tinted by the Referee to the point where I would say, and Dave Arneson's campaign is a good example of this, the Ref imposed their individuality on it, creating unique situations for players to react to, and in a really good campaign, the alteration of rules merely facilitated the fun. There certainly were rules lawyers as the fine points of fireball administration were debated when it came down to enclosed spaces. There had to be some grounding, some commonality, or you wouldn't have a game, but the over arching role playing concept cannot be bound by a single volume of rules, hence the endless variations, and enthusiasm for them. Refs inevitably modify rules, sometimes this comes with experience, or author their own variants. There was a very strong debate at one time intended to canonize rules in order to provide common ground, with tournament play in mind. This kind of flew in the face of the decentralization if you like of what Game Masters actually do. Your definition is broad enough to avoid edition arguments although I think mechanically congruence between the clones and the old games is something which requires discussion if only from an internally consistent point of view, balance is an internal discussion for each rule set. There are unconscious biases as well. Certain ideas persist through all versions, such as the armour restrictions for Wizards and in that regard most rule sets do not have the vision to step out of the canonical box, often disappointing me at least. I await your next writing with great interest. :)
    All the best,

  2. Hi Greg,

    Thank for the comments and for the interest. I love your comment "most rule sets do not have the vision to step out of the canonical box". I do not think that Arneson (or Gygax in the beginning) intended that there would be a "canonical box". As regards armour restrictions for Wizards as just one example I am currently play testing house rules that do not restrict the armour for Wizards along with a number of other things - I have posted a bit about that on my forum and will eventually be talking about it here too.

    Something that you may find of interest is the hostilty that some have reacted with to this definition. I was accused of trying to invalidate the way "that pretty much everybody else in the world has been playing the games for the past 41 years". I was told that my definition above would "require a genius-intellect referee who's probably devoting as much effort to it as a full-time job, a dozen or more dedicated players, and at least a year or two of playing time to develop and percolate and that those requirements effectively eliminate 99%+ of people who might be interested in playing the game.

    I completely disagree with that assessment, as I believe it that pretty much any group can play in the way that I define old school gaming. Would it help to have a genius-intelect referee and a dozen or more dedicated players and lots of tme, of course it would. However, those things are not required. I believe that anyone can play this way if they choose to. Some other people gave me more helpful feed back and I will be posting about that before too long.

  3. Hi Halenar,

    Well, if it helps the lesson I've learned as time has gone by is that I can't please everyone. When I wrote Fenris 2d6 for example I went way out in left field as far as "canon" goes. I've had responses to it, everything from enthusiasm to dead silence, mostly silence. That's fine, because I wrote it for myself; because I wanted to.

    I was listening to the SOD episode where they discuss the BlueHolme retro-clone. It was interesting listening. I noticed a couple of things about the rules myself one of which was as a complete rule set it doesn't have all of the content one finds in the Holmes Basic D&D edit. As an introductory game (box set), say it was the first one you see, it kind of fails due to that. The Holmes Box has rules and covers a sample dungeon in the booklet, then you get B1.

    These new games, well that's what I consider them, are quite different but then so is the generation that plays them in that I for example cut my teeth playing dungeons almost exclusively, and funhouse dungeons such as Tegel Manor were normal. Whereas now there seems to be interest in a different sort of epic anime fantasy in which such things as funhouse dungeons are disparaged. Quite a shift. The First Fantasy Campaign as published by the Judges Guild is an example of such things.

    I think Gary Gygax kind of set the game on the course of canonization with 1E when he cleaned up the rules and provided even more of them. The game lost some of the ad-hoc nature of it when there was suddenly a rule for every situation. It loses its magic and reliance on the GM when players can pick up a book (or series of books) and argue like lawyers. Personally, less is more.

    All the best,


    1. I agree with you Greg. Less is more! Why don't you visit my forum, it is the first one listed on the upper right side of the blog. I think you might find it interesting. :)