I recently listened to a podcast debating the old-school vs new-school approaches to role-playing. There’s a lot of heat and not much light in these debates, but it did start me thinking about what might be some useful guides to classification. So here are my criteria for where a game falls.
Setting out a spectrum
Old-School games – and their near relation – games that are part of the Old-School Renaissance – are often presented as embracing not just a particular approach to game design, but a particular way of playing. I think it’s this mix of design and play-style that marks the dividing line between Traditional and Old School games. All Old School games have a traditional approach to game design, but not all Traditional Games are intended to be played in an Old School manner – particularly ones published in the last few decades.
For convenience you can make a similar distinction between New-School playstyle, and Indie mechanics. Although ‘Indie’ suggests a particular form of commercial organisation for the publisher it’s really come to describe games that have narrative rather than game focused mechanics.
New-School isn’t a phrase that gets used anywhere except as the antonym to Old-School. Still we can use that idea to describe a ‘New School’ way of playing games, as an alternative to an Old School way.
So we can plot games like this…
Identifying Trad and Indie games
Obviously what we’re dealing with here is a spectrum, but here’s a checklist of characteristics games have. Answer these questions to work out whether your game is leaning to Trad or Indie design.
Does your game have a binary success / fail mechanic, or does it have shades of grey?
The most basic Traditional mechanics ask you to roll a dice vs a target number. Roll above (or below) and you succeed or fail. That’s it. More complex versions add critical hits and fails, and degrees of success, but the basic dichotomy remains.
The most popular Indie mechanic is the PBTA approach where you roll 2d6 and get one of the following results. 10+ is success, 6- is a fail, and the 7-9 range is ‘success with a cost’. It’s the appearance of that blurred area that makes a resolution mechanic indie in nature. Fighting Fantasy Games’ Star Wars RPGs use a pool of Narrative Dice, with a single roll producing a mix of icons that indicate success, failure, triumph, despair, advantage and threat. It’s that blend of possible outcomes that puts you into Indie territory.
Does your game have mechanics that support the creation of structured narrative?
Traditional Games do not have these mechanics. Indie games do, this might take the form of playbooks that push a character along a pre-determined dramatic arc as they develop, requirements to establish relationships linking characters before play starts and mechanics associated with them, or rules that explicitly divide play into dramatic chunks. If the rules say something like “You are now going to play out the finale” you’re playing an Indie game.
Any game of Lovecraftesque will follow a very clear narrative structure, where after a given number of turns the nature of the story changes. Supernatural elements cannot appear till late in the game, and the game always ends with a final descent into the horror.
If a Trad game falls into a narrative structure, then that’s a function of the scenario, the GM, or the players, not the rules.
Do the rules give players authorial rights over the world?
If the rules let players define the world as they go, then they’re leaning Indie. In Trad games the GM presents the world as they or the source material define it, and the players experience it. In Indie games players have more say. They might have resources that they can spend to specify things about the world, there might be specific domains for which they’re responsible, or parts of the game which are deliberately left vague for players to fill in as they go. In Lady Blackbird the titular character is a Master Sorceror with the Stormblood tag. There is nothing in the rules that explains what this might mean – it’s left up to her player to describe that.
Is there a GM and what do the rules say they do?
If there isn’t a GM, you’re firmly into Indie territory. But just because there is a GM doesn’t mean you’re playing a trad game. If the rules position the GM as an arbiter who is free to make rulings without the input of the group, then they’re leaning Traditional. If the rules position the GM as a facilitator, whose task is to move the players through a process, then they’re leaning Indie.
Characteristics of Old and New-School play styles
Again, we’re on a spectrum here, games can be played in an Old-School or New-School style or somewhere in the middle. And you can approach a Trad game with a New-School play style or vice versa. Here are some questions to ask about your playstyle to see where it fits.
Are we setting out to tell a story?
If you’re looking to finish your game with a story, that has a proper dramatic arc, a resolution and the like, then you’re going New School. If you’re simply planning to enter an environment and see what happens then that’s Old School. Hex Crawls and Randomly Generated Dungeons where the only thing linking events is the presence of the characters are definitely Old School.
In the middle of this spectrum is the pre-written scenario. These are stories, they have beginnings, middles and ends. They have antagonists, allies and mentors. They have set-piece acts and finales. Even putting the most powerful monsters at the lowest levels of the dungeon is, ultimately, a narrative decision.
Closely related to this are different approaches to failure. If the only way to continue into a dungeon is to get through a door and the party fail to open it Old School play stops there. It’s time for the characters to find something else to do. New School play would ‘fail forward’, the door doesn’t open, but since ending a story at a locked door is unsatisfying something else has to happen to move the plot forward. My preferred approach is to make things worse.
Is character death arbitrary?
I was once told about a Call of Cthulhu campaign, where, after many months of play, a character died climbing over a pointy fence. This, the players maintained, was fine. It sucked, but the rules said that was a possibility and the dice had come up bad. No-one had forced them to try and climb the fence. This kind of arbitrary outcome is a signifier of Old School play.
Omar Little’s death in The Wire is probably the most Old School thing in modern fiction. Just gone, his various dramatic arcs unresolved.
New School play doesn’t do this, if dying climbing the fence isn’t interesting for the story then it’s not an option. The flip side is that players of New School games sometimes find characters in a position where it’s clearly ‘time to die’. This isn’t a failure state, it’s a character reaching the end of their dramatic arc. Some games make this explicit, forcing characters to expire or retire once they’ve achieved certain milestones. They might still be alive, but narratively, they’re dead.
Is the GM a collaborator or impartial?
In New School play the GM is in the position of a collaborator, working together with the players to create a story that is narratively satisfying. That doesn’t have to mean one with a successful conclusion for the PCs – tragic stories are acceptable outcomes in New School play, and games like Grey Ranks and Montsegur set out to produce them.
In Old School play the GM is neutral, informing the players of the results of their choices, as determined by the rules or their rulings. When the players encounter enemies, the GM is expected to do their best to beat the players, whether that feels right for the story or not. This isn’t the GM being antagonistic, this is the antagonists being antagonistic and the GM representing that.
This means that when you play in an Old School style you can ‘win’, overcoming obstacles in the knowledge that you did so because you made the right decisions and had the dice to back them up. In New School play feelings of victory or defeat are always nuanced by the fact that narrative concerns played a role in whatever happened.
Characters or players?
Old School games frequently feature puzzles or riddles which the players are expected to solve themselves. This is the most obvious manifestation of the idea that the characters in the game are really just alter-egos for the players. The assumption is that the character is your avatar in a game and lacks any motivations of its own.
New School play leans toward exploring what your character would do in a given situation with players in search of ‘immersion’ where they make choices from the perspective of their character. Making poor choices because it’s in your character’s nature is a key element of New School play. At the same time, no-one expects you to solve a riddle yourself.
So what goes where?
I might spend more time on this in a future post, but here are some examples of games placed on the spectrum.
Old school play, Trad rules
Well, OD&D for a start. And I certainly think subsequent editions, all the way up to fourth continued to use both Trad Rules and to assume elements of an Old School play style. In here you’ll also find Dungeon Crawl Classics, Torchbearer, and Mork Borg. Slightly closer to narrative play but still firmly Old School are systems like Call of Cthulhu, Runequest and WFRP.
New school play, Trad rules
This is the space where things got interesting in the 90s. In particular White Wolf’s Storyteller system featured very Trad rules, but really wanted you to embrace a narrative based play style to create a ‘chronicle’ rather than a ‘campaign’, but the mechanics weren’t there to support that. Plenty of big mainstream titles sit in this space or just on the border with the ‘New School Play / Indie Mechanics’ box. I think Soulbound goes in here, I think Savage Worlds goes here, and I think Dungeons and Dragons 5e goes in here. It wants to tell stories, and so does the audience it’s pulled in, but there’s little in the mechanics to support this.
New School play, Indie rules
This is where the majority of Indie titles find themselves. This is where Fate goes, and this is where all the Powered by the Apocalypse games and Forged in the Dark games go. I think this is where a lot of the MY0 Engine stuff put out by Free League goes, but you could certainly make a case for them falling into the New School Play, Trad Rules box.
Old School play, Indie rules
And here we seem to have a blank space, but maybe we shouldn’t. An absence of narrative, arbitrary character death, neutral ‘judge’ style GMs and an expectation that players optimise their behaviour sit oddly with Indie mechanics, but I imagine it has been done.
Update: I think I’ve thought of one, but I’ll have to reread it to be sure. 3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars is my first suggestion for Old School Play meets Indie Rules. Hollowpoint might be a second.