Old School: In reference to table top gaming old school refers to games and their play from earlier eras, that can also apply to new games with features similar to those of earlier games.
Of course that led us to consider what "features" we are talking about. Because truly most of the games we play in the OSR are variants of one type or another. In that sense they are new games with features of older games. I then quoted Matt Finch as our defining master about what features should be considered old school. His features were:
- Rulings, not Rules
- Player Skill, not Character Abilities
- Heroic, not Superhero
- Forget Game Balance
If we use this as a strict definition of old school then Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in the 1e or 2e variety is certainly not old school. And if you take games like GURPS that have been around since 1980, they can't be considered old school either. Add in RuneQuest (1978), Harn (1983), and Rolemaster (1980) and you get so rule intensive that these old games will never meet the definition of less rules not more. So really we become limited in our ability to define what old school is if we start adding features to our list of definitions.
I generally play 1e type games. I'm fond of 2e and I really like Hackmaster 4e because of its tone, style, and the depth of its rules. But I wasn't particularly fond of 3.5 or Pathfinder. Mainly because of what they did to the class based systems. I could have really gotten into it without feats and without the manipulation of classes, multiclassing, prestige classes and the like. But is it right for me to say that Pathfinder or 3.5 players of today are not playing old school? I think it would be wrong of me to say that. They fit the definition. They are playing a game of an earlier era or a new game with similar features to the old game.
And I might take offense if some devotee of 0e said I was not old school because I was playing 1e or OSRIC or Hackmaster. Sure they are crunchier by far that 0e or B/X but they are still old school after their own fashion. And compared to 3.5 they are rules light. See what we are beginning to get at here is that there is a spectrum of gaming structure regarding rules, characters skills, feats and abilities, character power and even game balance. All versions have had some notion of game balance. And as I tried to explain in my blog entry on the god-like Parlifin, even 1e, 0e and B/X players can become superheroic.
It's really a matter of preference of play. Whether we call a rules-lite free-form style of play old school or whether we call a crunchy 2e style of play old school is really a moot point. The definition of old school isn't too helpful when talking about styles of play. What we are tallking about is more complex than that. Bringing different styles of play together, much less understanding these styles of play is a challenge in and of itself. Here I quote Mike Mearls wrestling with this very issue among his own customers and players,
"I imagine that most people would prefer a game with a complexity level that they can set themselves. Traditionally, D&D has featured that by making fighters relatively simple and wizards more complex."
Mike Mearls, "The Incredible Expanding Gamer Brain" Legends and Lore colum 3/15/11
But Mike is talking about changing that approach. Later in regards to combat he says,
"Let’s extend that in the other direction, too. I think D&D should also enable groups to focus on tactical combat, or dial down to simple, fast fights. At the end of the day, the gaming group, rather than the rules or a distant game designer, should determine the game’s focus. You can play a D&D campaign set in Kara-Tur, with the characters rallying the daimyo’s samurai to throw back a horde of oni. You can play a campaign of courtly intrigue punctuated with flashy duels, drawing from the works of Dumas. You might play a campaign based on Indiana Jones, with the characters dodging traps and exploring ancient ruins to claim forgotten treasures with the rare, quick fight."
and in conclusion of his article Mike makes a unique and hopeful leap,
"All of those games are supported by the imaginative structure of D&D. In my ideal world, the DM would create a campaign concept and then tune the rules to match the exact type of game that such a concept embraces, from intense tactical combat to quick, sharp duels resolved in a few rolls of the dice."
Mike Mearls, "Combat and Other Forms of Violence" Legend and Lore Column 5/31/11
Is such a game possible? Not long ago here on CRPGR JD Higgins pointed out that when WoTC R&D tries to hint at a change, perhaps to more of a rules-lite structure, the 4e fanboys come out in droves to shout him down. They don't want a "dumbed-down" version of D&D. In spite of the fact that 4e is much less rule intensive that 3.5. So you could essentially say 4e was dumbed down. But it's okay Mike--don't sweat it. Every currently supported system has its devotees that don't want to see the system changed. Mike has to deal with this sentiment among 4e players as these are WoTC's current customers. He can't openly offend them. But he also knows he has driven hordes of gamers away from the game by going rules-heavy/mini-required/tactical/hi-power with the game instead of rules-lite/mini-optional/free form/lo-power with the game. What Mike is trying to do is strike a balance between the two and make both crowds happy.
I think it is possible. I hope his R&D department tries to do so. We have an endless procession of games out there these days, and many of them are trying to reinvent the wheel by adding this rule change or that system tweak. Others are trying to present their games within a given milieu. So they essentially rewrite an existing game to be played in a particular genre of fantasy. LoTFP fits this mold. It's a beautiful game, but is essentially Basic D&D set in a dark fantasy mold. Do we really need a new game to do this? Or could this have been done as a setting/world release? Wouldn't it be interesting to see a game that can be played lite or heavy, slow or fast, in any milieu you choose? I honestly don't think we have anything like that out there. We have universal systems, but the mechanics are fixed and closed; it's the setting options that are open-ended. GURPS is one such system that is crunchy. Savage Worlds one such system that is lite. But no game has open mechanics and open genre options.
Whether it will solve the dillemma of a different game for every preference or not remains to be seen. I don't think it will personally. There will still be lots of preferences out there for all those different expressions of games we like to play. That's ultimately a good thing I suppose. Gaming seems to be heading in the direction of an art form that mimics fiction writing and away from proprietary mechanical systems. I'm not sure how I feel about this truthfully. Lately I've been reading lots more. And I find myself reading games more for the settings and stories they tell or could tell than to play them. Because when you get right down to it all we're looking for is a good story to be a part of.
So, no you can't play 4e like 0e. If that's what you mean by old school. But you can certainly play 4e with a grittier, deadlier, and darker style of play. It's hard to get away from some things in 4e though. The system is more superheroic than heroic, is heavily based on skill/power-oriented PC development and it is and always will be a very tactical game. Some people don't like that, some really do. Thus, asking whether you can play 4e old school is a little misinformed. First of all it is a current version, so by our definition it can't be old school. It certainly doesn't fit most of Matt's features of 0e play.
But let's assume Mr. Mearls manages to pull together his team and community and imagine a game like he describes. A game where the players and DM can dial up or dial down the complexity. Where essentially you could play the game at any stage of it's development from 0e to 4e. So 5e won't really be a game in it's own right, it will be a meta-system that encompasses all versions of the game. I see enormous potential in such a model. For one there wouldn't be any default setting per se. They could focus on offering various systems based on the level of play you preferred. That oughta give 'em enough production possibilities to keep the printers busy for years.