Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Alpha and Omega of Old-School...

So when does old-school gaming begin?  And when does it end?  This might seem like a trivial (or pointless) question, but either the designation means something or it means nothing.  And a relative, subjective definition is little better than none at all.  But first, some context to get started.  I recently spoke to a younger gamer who defined "old-school" as those old World of Darkness games he played in the 90s!  Clearly, this was his introduction to the hobby, so it probably seems downright primordial to him.  But if this is how we're gonna define things, then everything is old-school, which means nothing is.

Now, I argue that old-school refers to the first ten years of the commercial hobby, and this bears some explanation.  Wesely and Arneson were doing their thing as early as 1967 (earlier, actually), but their fabulous creations weren't available beyond a relatively small group of insiders.  Think about it.  The imaginary childhood games we all made up with our siblings are no different, and no one seriously suggests they should amount to a cultural movement.  But with the release of the first D&D rulebooks in 1974, the game was (at least theoretically) available to everyone.  Now that's a movement.  That's a bona fide thing, and it rightly forms an objective starting point for the hobby.  The birth of old-school.

From here, I say the next decade.  The first decade of the hobby.  Why?  Well, because ten is a nice, rounded figure.  I mean, why else would the gods give us ten fingers?  But it's more than that.  This first decade represented a certain state of the hobby.  Sure, the games were commercially available, but they were still largely an underground phenomenon.  Gaming represented a distinct subculture largely unnoticed by the world at large.  Now this changed as the decade wore on, but it holds for most of the period.  The Satanic Panic of the 80s could only begin once parents knew the games existed, and this didn't start to happen until the B/X set (more clearly aimed at younger readers) hit Toys R' Us.

Yeah, all old-school gaming groups looked like this...

But it's more than just an underground pedigree, and like I said, the hobby became progressively more mainstream as the decade rolled on.  Being an underground thing meant less money to invest in production, which resulted in an amateur look and feel.  RPG rulebooks weren't yet the slick products they would later become.  I don't mean to sound like a snobby purist.  Games are guidelines at best, and the real action takes place in the participant's heads.  But there's something about gaming-as-cottage industry that really speaks to its origins in the basements and rec-rooms of the early 1970s...  

Amateur production creates a sort of punk ethos.  Gaming as punk with all its purity.  But getting back to marketing, the hobby's first decade ended in a very different place from where it began.  D&D started as a sort of wargame (and never mind my previous postings to the contrary on this blog).  The rules referenced armor and weapons with an emphasis on historical accuracy and a wargamer's general sensibility, and one need only read the earliest issues of The Dragon to see that wargaming still featured often enough, or that so many readers were (still) interested in military simulation.  Indeed, remnants of this would show in 1985's Unearthed Arcana, where Gygax regaled us with his love of pole arms.  I can only wonder about this particular obsession, but then, who am I to judge?

So there you have it.  1974-84.  The hobby was an amateur, underground phenomenon with production values to match that retained strong ties to its wargaming roots...

But the scene would change.  And how.  Things would become mainstream enough for parents to panic about it, and with mainstream notice came money (and with money came better production).  At the same time, the games were increasingly appealing to non-wargamers more interested in the role-playing and storytelling aspect.  You see a noticeable shift to younger readers with the He-Man art of the BECMI set.  Indeed, Elmore's artwork became ubiquitous across the entire spectrum of TSR's growing catalog.  There was a D&D cartoon (I won't alienate friends by weighing in on that), AD&D action figures, stickers, and activity books.  I can only imagine D&D toothpaste and other (mainstream) marketing fiascos, but I don't have to.  It was clear that the hobby had turned a corner.  Not a bad one.  You can't stay young and hungry forever.  But it was no longer old-school as I knew it.  What do you think?  Did we get it wrong?  Share your ideas!  What's your old-school timeline?

ADDENDUM: To avoid any appearance of gatekeeping, anyone who plays and enjoys old-school games is an old-school gamer in our eyes no matter their age!  Game on... 

13 comments:

  1. Though i wasn't introduced to The Hobby until 1984 (with the red-box Basic Set), mid-70s to mid-80s seems like a reasonably good definition to me. From 84 onwards we were getting some high-production-value games, many of which are still iconic today (StarFrontiers and Marvel Superheroes immediately come to mind, with Gamma World behind that, though it had several "rougher" editions before i ever saw it). There are probably those older than i who would argue that Olde Schoole goes all the way back to Way Back When or some such, but i like your arguments for the timeline.

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  2. This is one of the best and most useful definitions of Old School that I've found. I'd still include things like RC that are basically compilations of pre-1985 stuff.

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    1. I think it has to come down more to the rules than the specific dates. The second printing of the Classic D&D Game (1996) is old school; Unearthed Arcana (1985) isn't so much. The difference between them is the ethos, the kind of game is each is meant to be used for.

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  3. I tend to work in cycles of seven years (something about *mumble*mumble* cellular regeneration), rather than 10. However, while I might feel that's the limit of what I consider "old school," I'm extremely hesitatant to lump everything post-1981 into a "new school" category of RPG play.

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    1. How can I argue with seven? It's a mystical number and pleasing in its numerous contours. And I agree. Just because there's an old-school period doesn't mean that people aren't employing old-school ideas today...

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    2. Actually, I meant that the seven year period following ‘81 feels like more of a “transitional” period before the seven years that I would consider “New School Proper” (beginning circa 1989 and evidenced in World of Darkness and similar systems; systems paying a lot of lip service to “story” and “role-playing” while continuing to be rules heavy, especially with large and complex skill systems as the mechanic of choice).

      But, yeah, I like the mysticism of the number 7, too.
      ; )

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  4. Old School can only define itself in relation to New School. No-one at the time ever thinks, 'hey we're living in the olden days'.

    So, maybe a better question is, what is 'New School' and work backwards. Where does Mentzer come? It's much more 'slick' than Moldvay or Holmes, and it marks the entry of D&D into mass consciousness. So is that 'New School'? If so, what comes before must be 'Old School'. Or does 'New School' come later, with 2nd Ed AD&D?

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    1. That's all anyone can do. Without any discernible change (which can only be understood looking back), there's no way to draw any meaningful distinction...

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  5. How about this: Old School is from Braunstein through the last woodgrain box printing (no printings of these were more than 1,000). 1967-1974.

    The first white box print-run was 25,000, so it's arguable that's the commercial tipping point, and it was all downhill from there. :-P

    That all being said, it seems pointless to me to define "old school" temporally. I've always seen it as a mindset as opposed to a timeline. I run a regular 5e campaign, and I'd say we're pretty old school...

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    1. True enough! We're merely citing the period in which such approaches originated and remained (at least somewhat) predominant within the hobby...

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  6. Old school ended sometime between 86 and 91. Despute their style WFRP and Talislanta were still old school and turned up during tis era. Old School ended when the concerns of people that were not veterans of gaming shaped the games that were published.

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