Sunday, May 28, 2017

Jeffro Johnson on Old School vs. New School

Old School fun (uncredited illustration from the Basic Fantasy RPG)

In a recent post at Castalia House, Jeffro Johnson critiques some of the critiques of his book, Appendix N. Also buried in the comments is Jeffro's quick explanation of Old School vs. New School D&D. Many old schoolers have tried their hand at it. I did so here. But I think this effort is about as good as any:
The difference between old school and new school in a nutshell:
Old School: The players are given every benefit of the doubt. Every ruling and interpretation is made in their favor. They have planned for an hour, coming up with a sort of Rube Goldberg type scheme to do something. They go into the dungeon and things look like they will work. Then… something unexpected goes wrong. Something goes sideways. One player panics. Then another does something stupid. The dungeon master rules what happens next and the players are not surprised by any of the die rolls that are required– they knew the odds for various things from the beginning. But then an awesome conjunction of player choice, dungeon design, rules, and chance conspire to create something no one expected. Player morale plummets as things fall apart and player characters start to die. The party splits up to flee the dungeon at different movement rates, with wandering monsters greeting the stragglers as the mage and thief make the exit. When the delve comes to a close, players roll up some new characters while everyone argues excitedly about what a newer and better plan would entail.
New School: Everyone knows that there is some sort of “boss encounter” they are being shepherded toward. Players are almost guaranteed to level up after the first session– and maybe level up after the second encounter. Nobody dies and no one is surprised when the party has just enough hit points and so forth to defeat the big baddie at the end of the session. Everything feels linear and pre-plotted. Choice doesn’t seem to matter except at the tactical level. People don’t imagine anything, they just make skill checks for everything. There isn’t the same need to learn how to cooperate because everything is set up in advance for the players to pretty well win.
Now, as far as the first two sentences go, I wouldn't have put it quite that way (remember, it was a quick comment): "The players are given every benefit of the doubt. Every ruling and interpretation is made in their favor." I mean, I think I know what he's getting at - among other things, that players should be given the benefit of the doubt on the possibility of succeeding or for trying pretty much anything - but that every ruling or interpretation should go their way sounds more New School to me. I know when I was playing in a 4th edition campaign, I lost all interest in it when it became clear that the referee was interpreting all dice rolls - both open and secret - in such a way such that I would not die. And I know Jeffro doesn't advocate that. See the rest of his comment.

And of course, Jeffro arguably exaggerates the fun/deadly nature of many old school games and the goofy/clever plans and abilities of old school players, as well as the boring/stupid railroady totalitarianism of new school games - railroady totalitarianism in the interests of being nice, of course.

But exaggeration or, rather, highlighting what something is in its pure form, is exactly what one does when one tries to give an explanation or definition.

I can vouch for much of what Jeffro says from my own early games. In my first megadungeon, the first room after the entrance contained a number of stirges - it was quickly dubbed "The Stirge Room" and became a sort of legend. I didn't intend to make it a particularly tough room, but I guess I underestimated the power of those cute little bloodsuckers. There were two or three TPKs before a party made it past them into the dungeon proper.

Now, if you want to say that was bad dungeon design, you would perhaps be right. But the point is it ended up actually being fun (I think) for the players. They knew I wasn't out to get them, but nor was I going to hold their hands. The stirges were simply there, and they had to figure out how to get through them. And when they did finally make it through (I don't remember what the plan was, but it worked), there was a huge sense of accomplishment on everyone's part (including my own - it was my first dungeon, after all). And this was just one generic room with a bunch of fairly vanilla low-level monsters.

The fact that they had earned that (albeit with a bit of help from the dice), set the tone for the rest of the dungeon. Among other things, whatever tougher things they would go on to face, they all now had a bit more confidence in their own smarts and abilities.

And they would go on, many sessions later, to mount an attack on the Big Bad (or Big Bads - it was a huge goblin lair) somewhat before I thought they would ever dare to, or were ready.

They won, of course.


  1. Strategy versus tactics.
    Face-up versus face-down.

    I never did the "describe Old School" opus but I did a little of it here:

    1. Thanks for the shout-out. I really appreciate it. Blog added and MJ downloaded. I didn't follow OD&D Proboards very closely during that period, so I'm sorry I missed it at the time.

  2. The reason I give the benefit of the doubt to the players when it comes to anything remotely in a grey area is to make it clear that it is not my rulings or my game mastering that kills off pcs. The point of it is to give them a lot of rope... which they will invariably use to hang themselves with later.

    Also, I want stuff to happen that is outside the scope of the rules to happen, so I tend to rule favorably in that realm. It puts stuff into play that the players put there... and because they put it in play, I know it's along the lines of how they want to play.

    1. that's interesting because I came to a similar conclusion.
      Recently, we faced a TPK because of misconceptions in our group. We simply played different scenes at the same time.

      So, I offered to "alter" the scene in their favour, if it would ever happen again.

      But they refused, arguing one then just needs to whine enough to get one's will (they spoke of themselves, I guess?).

  3. That sounds like a difference in DMing style. I always perceived the difference between "old" and "new" or maybe TSR era vs. Wizards of the Coast era was the degree of options available to players. TSR era D&D had racial restrictions on class, alignment and level, while Wizards era D&D really gives players a lot more freedom in how they build their characters.

    1. I agree with you. Also I feel the old days of D&D were more dungeon focused. Now you have backgrounds to work with and dying on the first room of a dungeon feels like wasting a good character conception. It is not just a Fighter. It's a Fighter with ideals and flaws who was an acolyte and a mother who is sick as a bond. Of course you could have that on Old School games but it wasn't on the rules. You DIDN'T have to think of it. Now you do and for me it takes time to pull a character from zero to a good story. And if you would just kill my pc, or 3 pcs, on the first room of the dungeon I think I would leave the game.

  4. I think the primary difference between these two types of play is that, in 1st edition, the game was less story driven and more play driven, with an emphasis on dungeon crawling and monster slaying, so rolling up a new character was not much of a big deal. Currently, I am DMing for a party of adventurers in 5th ed., and their story---which is quite epic---has so far spanned the length of more than two years. Given where they have been and where they are going, I feel it would be anticlimactic, to say the least, to have one of them die because of a stirge encounter, or for failing to detect a trap, etc. I agree that the thrill of accomplishment is largely diminished, but it is the price to pay for a more story-driven game.

  5. That's a really interesting way to look at it, and I hadn't considered it before. I played some decades ago with the redbox, and then not again until 5e had just been published. I love 5e rules personally, and I appreciate giving though to my characters and their backstory, trying to weave it into the campaign. But you're right, by the time the first session happens I've already invested a lot into a character. I literally spent the entirety of the last session building a new character while the others played on after I failed my death save in the first 5 minutes. Like 2 hours of planning. Thinking back (and perhaps this is subject to the Golden Age Fallacy, but...) rolling up a new character was no big deal. The first few minutes of a new game session. There was little investment up front, really only after you had gained a few levels did a character death sting a little. This is good perspective, and it will be worth keeping in mind for future campaigns. Maybe deal out pre-rolled characters, or severely limit the options for creating characters, or play a front-page only game, ignoring all but the stats and basics. ��

    1. There's been a bit of an argument in the Old School Gamers group on Facebook (not sure whether you followed it) about whether or not characters died more or more quickly in the old days. I said, yes. But that sort of thing is difficult to prove, in a sense.

      I think it's obvious, though, that, as you say, if it takes a long time to create or roll up a character, any DM who is not a total jerk is going to be disinclined to favor quick deaths. So the mechanic acts against it.

      I think there's a funny paradox in Old School play between the player being MORE identified with his character - through the lack of knowledge checks and so on (it's YOU thinking, not just your character) - contrasted with the player being less identified due to the fact that he might have to "go through" a lot of characters, perhaps keeping a "stable" in reserve (as Ken St. Andre put it in T&T) or even playing multiple characters at once in case one or more died.

  6. This is idiotic at best, insulting at worst.

    1. Not sure if this comment really deserves recognition, but still...

      What's idiotic or insulting about any of this? Jeff's comment on a different thread? Or Oakes' thoughts on the comment? Or all the other comments ts on this post? Or the whole concept of classifying the OSR, new school or old school D&D, or what-have-you?

      There's a distinct advantage to labeling different D&D paradigms: it makes it easier for everyone to locate blogs that might be relevant to our own take on the game. Generally, I avoid anything 3rd Ed and beyond because it's highly unlikely to provide any kind of insight into how to make a better game. OSR blogs, on the other hand, are very relevant, and so the label is useful when searching for new material, even if most bloggers are painfully ignorant of their own shortcomings.

      Sorry, I'm assuming that you were commenting on the subject of new vs old school D&D. Because, you know, the other options are really just kinda rude...

  7. I think a solid session 0 where you lay down the expectation of a higher lethality game avoids a lot of the upset that is often involved with PC deaths. Another helpful thing is encouraging players to have several characters made during session 0 so when the game begins, they don't have to sit out for a session when their one and only super fleshed out character dies.

  8. I've been playing since '85 and have played a ton of different editions and I can honestly say there is no difference between then and now. Everyone plays the game in their own unique way and that's just fine.

  9. I love the description of OSR. Seems spot on to me. As a DM I definitely give the players "every benefit of the doubt", with "every ruling and interpretation is made in their favor." That's because I want them to succeed, try new things, and get deeper into the world, etc.. But that doesn't stop them from feeling like TPK is always just around the around, and that the odds are stacked against them. There is no 'game balance', and they know when to run. Most plans do go haywire. How they react, and the results that surprise both them and me are the most fun.

    When I was a 0th/1st edition player back the 80's, we died A LOT (every character did eventually), but I can still say that the player's story grows with time if they survive for a bit (ever heard of Tenser? Robilar?).

    First level PC's are fairly disposable, but make 2nd level and your chances of continuing to survive grow quickly. All my players are super-cautious, and very reluctant to take risks with there 5-7th level PCs---because it's taken them nearly two years of weekly play to get there.

    Every time the players try to synthesis a grandiose back story, it always feels contrived and quickly gets forgotten. However, they absolutely love meeting up with NPCs and telling them all the amazing adventures they have (actually) had. The 'true' events of their past games are way more improbable and interesting than anything they could have concocted up in a vacuum.

    PC wish-fulfillment (in terms of character identity) always comes off as a sad frog-claiming-to-be-a-prince. Better to be defined by their actions than any fabricated "past".

  10. My players talked about this last weekend, I just listened to see where they were going and didn't say anything. Just let them talk.

    I don't know what new school is, I play my game and am always refining it, but they liked the slow progression. To them, that is old-school. Many of them cut their teeth on 3e, I run 2nd Edition. I guess that progression ran really fast in later editions?

    I give XP only when it is earned. We enjoy a slow and deliberate pace, especially in relation to younger Dungeon Masters. The players can sit at the same level for years! That, you would think, would irritate them. It isn't intentional, I've got lower level PCs running with higher level PCs, so I capped the XP so that the lower leveled characters wouldn't skip levels or loose XP due to individual caps. I just wanted to make it easier for them to catch up! But the players interpreted this as them feeling like they are actually earning things more. I don't gift anything, just because they showed up that day.

    Some of us have been playing this specific campaign for many many years now, and nobody has yet to clear the 10th level mark, the original characters are getting close, but neither of them have leveled up in over a year.

    I got to thinking about back when I used to play. The highest level I ever got to was 9th, and then I died. I had played that character from 1st to 9th, and I played it for a very long time. I didn't really have a goal. I thought that the character was cool from day one. I usually played thieves and they can be very difficult to keep alive, if I had a goal, it would be that. Typically I met my maker at around 6th-7th level, so when I finally got one above that, it was a personal win.

    I remember when the character died, it was my fault, I took a risk and it didn't pan out. The DM wanted to save me, but I knew the results already, and told them that I was gone. I think that the DM was more upset than I was! As a group, that might had been the highest level that any of us obtained at the time.

    We'd roll up high-level characters to play specific modules, but we never really cared that much for those characters. There is just something rewarding about starting at 1st and seeing how long you can go.

  11. The opening paragraphs are hyperbolic over simplification of the differing play styles that show the author's bias.

    To say that all "new school" games don't have PC death or are some kind of agency-less, Disney ride is a straw man at best... or just plain bullish!t.

    1. No one is saying that.

      Jeffro's definition (and every other definition ever offered) is a generalization or description of a "pure" case. That's what people do when they come up with definitions. And, thus, his definition (and every other definition ever offered) will be an oversimplification, at least when compared with empirical reality. That's sort of the point.

      And of course it's biased. That's often the point, too. One comes up with these labels or handles in order to identify different styles of play, perhaps partly because one generally prefers one style of play over another.

      You seem to think Jeffro's labeling scheme isn't very useful. Fair enough. But you then use his labeling scheme, or at least some other scheme that makes use of the same labels - "to say that all 'new school' games don't have PC death (is) bullshit" - to get all insulted. With respect, I honestly don't understand why you can't see how silly that is.

      In any case, it seems to me that some of the new school games that you like contain some great old school elements. Good for you.

  12. I'm just here trying to figure out how the OSR stuff works. I've had a lot of experience with computer games lately that let the player down by being so carefully shepherded. One of the things that got me to Swords and Wizardry was the creator of Burning Wheel saying, to paraphrase, if you want a dungeon crawl, go grab Moldvay and run it exactly as written, no house rules.

    Thanks to some articles here and there, and some reflection, I am starting to see how New School fails, and why.

  13. I think your new school deffinition is little bit incorrect. I play ns, but I never plan linear story and the CR of the enemies isn't fitted to the PCs.

  14. New school is less about mechanics and more about story. Computer games have rendered much of the purely mechanical games obsolete. Whereas they still fail to deliver social and narrative nearly as well.