Old School: Used, usually approvingly, to refer to someone or something that is old-fashioned or traditional. (Dictionary.com)
Old School: Anything that is from an earlier era and looked upon with high regard or respect. (Urban Dicitionary)
So, that's helpful. I kind of like the second one 'cause it makes it sound more cool. But we should probably go with the first as more generic and applicable in most people's eyes.
So what about old school gaming? Well, that would mean that old school gaming is gaming in an old fashioned or traditional manner. Using games from earlier eras. Now some might right away take issue with this definition because it implies you have to use antique games. Or the original games from earlier times. But I would say that any game that is designed very similarly to earlier games qualifies as old school.
The web has a little to say about this as well. First we get, from Wikipedia:
"Retrogaming, also known as old-school gaming, is the hobby of playing and collecting older computer, video, and arcade games. These games are played either on the original hardware, on modern hardware via emulation, or on modern hardware via ports or compilations. Participants in the hobby are sometimes known as retrogamers, in the United Kingdom, while the terms classic gamers, or old-school gamers are more prevalent in the United States. Similarly, the games are known as retrogames, classic games, or old-school games. Retrogaming is often linked to, although not the same as, indie gaming (the hobby of playing games that are not published by any conventional publisher). Additionally, the term old-school could apply to a newer game, but with features similar to those of older games, such as "old-school RPGs".
Now, granted this is from the computer gaming field, but I think it applies here. What we have is another admission that old school can "apply to a newer game, but with features similar to those of older games."
So what exactly are those features? Well, this is where I will defer to someone much wiser than me in game creation terms, and heck even in terms of life most likely. I'm not proud. Matt Finch. Matthew J. Finch to be exact. There is noone in my book that is more in tune with what old school means for tabletop RPGs than Matt. I say that because my favorite old school clone is Swords & Wizardry in any of its guises, and my favorite article on gaming period is Matt's "A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming". It has been to it that I refer when introducing anyone to old school gaming, especially newer gamers like flock to my student club each year where I teach. So if we want the features of old school gaming that any game needs to be considered old school we can find them from Matt. Matt first described them as the "Zen Moments". for that's what they were to him and to many others who finally "get" old school tabletop rpgs. They are in a nutshelled list:
- Rulings, not Rules
- Player Skill, not Character Abilities
- Heroic, not Superhero
- Forget Game Balance