Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What Qualifies As An Old School Product?

I was visiting The Sentry Box on Saturday. In the new releases section of the store I found two copies of Barbarians Of Lemuria RPG. While the RPG sounded vaguely familiar, and has a front cover reminiscent of your typical Conan-esque action scene, I put it down after briefly glancing through it. It had the 'feel' of an old-school game, but I didn't recognize the author as any of the bloggers I am currently following.

The game continued to stay with me over the last couple of days, so I did a quick search on the internet and found Barbarians of Lemuria has a loyal following among many old-school bloggers. Indeed, Steffan O'Sullivan, one of the bright lights of the rules-light approach to game design (his fingerprints are all over such games as FUDGE and GURPS Bunnies & Burrows) posted a rather glowing review of Barbarians of Lemuria on the Geekdo website. I intend to make a trip down to the Sentry Box today, to pick up a copy (for my wife to wrap for me and put under the tree). This RPG got me thinking about two things.

1. Since I had not suggested the Barbarians of Lemuria RPG to The Sentry Box staff, either they have started paying attention to the alternatives to 'commercial' products, or someone else suggested that they carry this. In either case, the appearance of this RPG on their shelves is a positive development. That is -- in part -- why I intend to purchase this RPG. I'm voting with my dollars, at it were.

2. Does this RPG "qualify" as an old-school product? I know the question itself is a minefield, since it re-opens the debate as to whether there is -- or should be -- some sort of litmus-test for inclusion in the old-school movement. My gut reaction to that would be to say that there should be no litmus test. If someone wants to self-identify with the old-school movement, or wants to brand their product in that way, they should be free to do so. Of course, one of the risks with an 'open' approach to the old-school movement is that it could encourage fuzzy-thinking, which may ultimately be detrimental to the promotion of an old-school style of design, and play. But the rewards of a more fullsome, vibrant community outweigh any dilution of the central principles of the old-school movement (if it, and they, even exist).

Still, for my own RPG-filtering process, I am wondering how others differentiate between old-school and modern RPG products? Undoubtedly someone in the blogosphere has already posted their thoughts on the matter. Here are a couple of points upon which I might build some sort of comparison model.

hobbyist vs. professional

class-based vs. skill-based

minimalist rules vs completist rules

random abilities vs. character-building

role-playing vs. roll-playing

homage setting vs. speculative setting

player skill vs. character skill

abstraction vs. realism

sandbox vs. adventure path

I know there is a Primer To Old-School Gaming, that discusses the differences in gaming. Is there a similar document that discusses the differences in game-design?


Christian said...

That cover looks great. I'm going to have to check that out.

Narmer said...

I've got the pdf and can't wait to play it, maybe with a Hyborian setting instead of Lemuria.

I haven't given much thought to the main question you posed but I think that although BoL isn't an actual old-school game it definately falls under the broader umbrella of "old-school style" and can be comfortably associated with old-school products.

Chgowiz said...

I apply the duck test to games. And I don't worry about labeling it. The movement, if you will, is more about the approach and the execution of rules that support the approach and execution. Does that seem recursive? In a way it is. You can play 1e in a very 3e way. You can play Savage Worlds in a very old school way. Some games can cross over. Many can't.

Now I'm going to have to check this out... I think Evil DM is the guy who posts a lot about this game...

P_Armstrong said...

Yeah, I saw that in SB the other day as well. I have two copies of the last edition but I am still considering picking up the new version.

I'm not too sure it is an old school game but it is a good game.

Jay said...

I've had this in my cart at RPG Now for a while. The only reason it's sitting instead of shipping is because I'm (mentally anyway) trying to make time for yet another game.

JB said...

Damn, Pal, I think this would be a fascinating discussion (or blog post), but I don't have the time to research it right now. I'll be following this thread.

J.D. said...

When I look at RPGs, I have one "filter" for schools: bare-bones vs. custom characters. This is somewhat related to class-based vs. skill-based, but more fundamental. Old-school RPGs give you the broad archetypes and leave the fine details to role-playing and imagination alone; new-school RPGs give you the tools to mechanically represent your ideas with the game rules via such things as perks, feats, classes, paths, what-have-you. Some of these details are present at character creation, and some come with character "advancement", whatever form that may take in a particular game.

As far as I've ever been able to see, that's the *only* demonstrable and empirical difference between retro and modern style games. Pretty much everything else (simple rules, DM fiat, infallibility of the dice, swords & sorcery atmosphere, sandboxes, hexcrawls, player skill) is so much superficial buncombe.

Tim Shorts said...

I agree with ChgoWiz on this one. You could use this in a old school way or not. Personally I like suppliments that don't have mounts of stat blocks, but system neutral. I like to think gaming for as long as I have I know how I want to approach a system or game I want to run where its OSR style, gonzoo, or tactical GURPS.

Alex Schroeder said...

I wrote some related stuff a few months ago on my blog. Essentially it oils down to listing the elements of the game that encourage a style you feel like calling old school. That shifts emphasis away from the label towards the characteristics of the mysterious thing formerly known as old school.

FrDave said...

Chgowiz is correct — it is possible to play virtually any game in an old school way; however, there are design elements that make doing so much easier. You can play 3.5e using old school principals, but its mechanics and other design elements make this far more difficult than the mechanics and design elements of 0e, 1e, etc.

JD Neal said...

I'm in the school where "old school" means you make up a character really quick and then spend all your time playing it. Imagination and creativity flourish because most things are based on your personal choices -- how you have your character act -- not choices regarding character development and design. Understand the limits and abilities of your character; but then use your brain to survive adventures.

New school is all about designing your character with umpteen options, down to the color of your character's panties. "If your character has pink panties, add 1 to reactions by elves and -1 to reactions by goblinoids." It encourages concepts like a "Dread Necromancer World Destroyer" who might need 1,000,000 experience points to reach 2nd level, but that's balanced out by starting with 10d20 hit points and being able to destroy all foes with a hard fart. That of course is a thoroughly logical character concept since it is so well balanced by numbers.

That is an exaggerated and unfair jibe; I've seen how some people play "newer" games and have fun and use loads of common sense and downright have a blast playing "old school". Their games offer them lots (and lots) more options.

And that is new school: being obsessed with lots and lots of options. Most old school games are actully about a few options and easy play. The main thrill of the players is the adventure, not character development.

Barbarians of Lemuria is throughly old school (at least the versions I've looked at) because it's all about "Make up a character fairly simply. Spend most of your time adventuring. Have fun with your adventures."

The author had some thoughts I found to be new and orginal (and some based on other games), but overall it's about game play, not character design.

Matthew Slepin said...

@chgowiz--EvilDM (Jeff Meija) not only posts about BoL, he rewrote his World of Broadsword setting for Bol as Legends of Steel.

As an aside from the "old school or not" question, BoL has a fascinating publication history that might have some bearing: Simon Washbourne wrote it as a free, unlicensed thing to play in Lin Carter's Lemuria and it stayed that way for years (with the hanging promise of making some better Alchemy rules). Meanwhile, he was writing and selling d20-based games, like Medieval Murder Mysteries and Go Fer Yer Gun!

I'm not sure quite why he suddenly returned to Bol--we had exchanged some thoughts when I asked him to take a look at my game--but he did and was self-publishing it for a short time and now it is is being professionally published by Cubicle 7.

What I find interesting is that this one game seems to replicate the whole trajectory of rpg development--from self-created little fan-thing, to self-published, to professional product.