Some time ago I pondered the definition of the term "old school" and what it meant for the "old school renaissance". 'Course I wasn't alone or unique in my consideration. Just about every old school hack like myself has done the "old school definition" thing to death or worse. What we gain in such reconsideration, is I suppose like reflections in the ripples of the gaming pond. Each of our developing views are ripples in the concentric rings left by the dropping of the old school pebble.
When I last considered this I didn't come up with too much in the way of hard and fast definitions. But I did sort of satisfy myself with a baseline definition that old school gaming includes (1) actually playing with out of print materials or (2) playing games that simulate the style of out of print games or incorporate some of their elements. This is a definition at once exclusive and expansive and it keeps the definition of old school roted in what most people understand when they hear old school.
However, the expansiveness of such a definition in describing old school games requires we include every out of print game thus far produced. So, as I decided earlier, this definition is in effect useless. It does nothing to describe what old school play is like. What then does old school mean to the vast numbers of old school enthusiasts? The fact is it means different things depending on who you ask. Personally, I embraced the most excellent essay by Matt Finch entitled Quick Primer for Old School Gaming as the defining manifesto for what old school style gaming is. But this does not apply to all old school enthusiasts. Others embrace different definitions.
Old school AD&D 1e enthusiasts prefer a crunchier and delineated system than 0e enthusiasts. And some AD&D 1e enthusiasts avidly embraced UA and OA. Dragon magazine articles were gladly incorporated into their system as well. By the time 2e came out 1e was a rather massive system. 2e die hards appreciated the streamline, but 2e ballooned as well, and I personally know of people who gladly brought into the options rule book systems. By the end of the nineties AD&D was a huge system incorporating about every option an RPG had to offer. And there were aficionados of this version of play. A massively baroque, mazelike system that catered to just about any manner in which you wanted to play.
And then 3e, through an initial stumbling about, eventually created a option oriented system that was catered to very flexible character creation and expansion. Whatever people might have said about 2e needing a "boost" or "revamp" or " wholesale scrap" 3.5 would not have been possible without the ideas pioneered in 2e. The main thing that 3 and 3.5 effected by way of essential change was a simplified core mechanic via the d20 system. And now, with 3.5 gone we could say Pathfinder players are playing old school in regards to 3.5.
For me personally I really like the ethos of Matt's Quick Primer. It strikes a chord within me because that's the way me and my friends played. For awhile I was told that the reason I felt that way was because though I played with 1e rulebooks we were really playing more like basic. I wondered about that, but never really felt that it was true. True we didn't use weapon speed, but we used lots of other rules in AD&D. We also added lots of optional rules like criticals, fumbles, proficiencies, specialization etc. We also took great solace in the fact that most issues that might come up would be covered, implied or at least related to something in the rules. And of course there were tons of cool options in the system we rarely seemed to exhaust.
Since 2e was quite compatible with 1e we simply added in stuff from 2e that we liked and kept right on playing. By the 90's we were playing a game that literally seemed impossible to use in its entirety. And we liked this realm of endless rules and options. True we didn't always allow every option and we argued at times about the validity of a newly published rule or three. But we never felt like the system was broken. Sure there were contradictions at times, and power balance problems and some opportunities for min-maxing, but they had always been there. The concept of a perfectly balanced system never came into our mind. They were issues to be dealt with in-game.
I suppose that's why I liked Hackmaster 4e so much. All that crunchy goodness was worked into their system. Yes, it was designed to emulate the very period I'm talking about--late 90's 2e gaming. A system so massive and intricately impossible that you never reached the end of it. You could get lost in it. 3.5 perpetuated that style of play and in some ways exceeded it in terms of character development. And some people consider 3.5 D&D's most popular edition to date, but I don't really know the numbers on that.
My whole point here is: where do you draw the old school line? It seems to me a very personal matter. And in this way the OSR and the old school movements abroad serve one principal function: keeping out of print games alive and being played. They are not really in the business of saying this or that is or isn't old school. What the OSR does best is bring OS games back to life. At first the retro clone movement involved Hackmaster's endeavors to parody the "old school" style of the massively intricate 2e system. And they even amped that up, following the notion that old school meant huge, archaic, often contradictory rule systems that allowed min-maxing and rules lawyering. Then C&C came along to recreate AD&D in a d20 model. Later the true OSR began with an effort to foster new material releases for AD&D via OSRIC. All the time supporting AD&D. The first three systems reproduced were AD&D clones--a decidedly un rules-lite system. It was only later that the basic and 0e clones came along with their focus on fast and loose roleplay.
Others see old school more as a creative movement of people home-brewing adventures, campaigns, supps and even games in the true spirit of "build your own". I have a little trouble getting behind this idea as the core of the old school ideology though. RPGs have pretty much always been this way. Sure we always played with stock games and supplies too, but we also drew up our own adventures, created our own classes and races, built our own worlds and house ruled like crazy when we felt like it. So we've always been a build it yourself kind of hobby. Fewer of us have created full fledged games, but there were those of us that had a go at it.
I wonder though, if really aren't talking about an open source mentality. Which is a different thing altogether. Open source gaming isn't really old school per se, but the open source mentality is emerging if not fully developed in the OSR community. Early clone developers were more interested in creating open source gaming languages to write code for supplements for existing proprietary systems. In other words OSRIC was the language which allowed you to write compatible supps for copyrighted AD&D. Their intention was never for people to write adventures for OSRIC itself. But that was exactly how things went. This is what happens when the open source mentality takes hold. It's a good mentality really. But it isn't exclusive to anything "old school". Rather to systems that can be produced in open format.
So all of these old school terms we throw around may not mean exactly what we think. This has become increasingly apparent to me as I continue writing entries here; and when I enter discussions with people in person or online. When we say old school, OSR, or OSS or the like we're often talking about some particular style of play enshrined in one edition or version. And often it is a style of play as we see it. Even within the same game people often have varied interpretations of how the system should be played. We might reach agreement on some points, but rare is the person who can say they agree completely with someone else that a game should be played exactly thus.
Just where the heck am I going with all of this? Well, I'm not sure. I've been working on this post for days now, and it has been rewritten at least three times. I think I'm hammering out exactly what I think and believe in my own mind. I'm coming to general opinion that Old School is a nice concept, but rather useless to describe anything beyond "old" games. And I suppose it comes from talking with a brother of mine who has been lassoed into DMing a 4e game against his will, and is desperately trying to play it hard, fast and gritty. Like he used to play 1e. But he's struggling some. We've had some enlightening conversations about play style and how certain games help or hinder certain styles of play. This has made me wonder anew if any game can be played in any style.
And let's face it: old school isn't old any more. Almost every game is in print now in some form or another. And there are numerous new games on the market that are trying to embody hard hitting, creative play. Some are very rule heavy, others are rules lite. All of them are pretty darn well done. There are so many that I'll never be able to read them all, let alone play them. For now, my gaming is narrowly defined. But I will always play my style--whatever that is. Maybe that's what I should try and uncover next.