Saturday, January 3, 2009

Grognards, Retro Clones, and the Old School Movement, Part I

I'm not sure when exactly the retro gaming movement has been with us; I imagine there have been retro gamers since the Holmes edition, and I know Dragonsfoot has been around for quite some time; I remember stumbling across it several years ago. Still, it seems to me that the movement has gained quite a lot of momentum in the last year. I think a number of factors are involved: the death of E. Gary Gygax, the coming of 4th edition, the Pathfinder/3.75 split, etc. It seems to me that a gauntlet has been thrown down. The hobby is moving in a different direction (or at least D&D, which I think makes up most of our hobby's industry whether you like it or not) and some people have simply decided not to get on that train, but rather to stick with an iteration of the game that has a different design philosophy behind it. Hell, maybe it is just a coincidence and the old school movement owes more to PDF publishing and the OGL than to anything else.

Ah, but just what the hell is "old-school"? For that matter, who precisely can claim the mantle of grognard? Is old school a matter of chronological time since that iteration of the game was in print, or is it a philosophy/gaming style?

From talking to self-proclaimed grognards (let's get to that definition in a bit here), reading blogs about old-school gaming, reading modules that are themselves from older iterations of the game or meant to emulate them, I can already see a schism in what it means for a game/module to be old school. Here are some various definitions, some implied, others related to me by old school enthusiasts:

1. The simplest iteration of the game possible; a game that is highly open to DM/Referee interpretation and requires extensive house ruling. The "point" of the game, according to this definition, is to explore the DM's world, to really role-play your character, and to just sort of experience the game.

2. The simplest iteration of the game possible, but because everything else that came afterward was a pollution and an abomination and totally ruined the game. (Anything after '74) Some variations of this put the "cutoff" point at a later point of the game's development: some cut it off at the addition of the thief (the thief seems to be taking a beating in old school circles in general lately, but I digress), the switch from a d6 based Hear Noise check for a thief to percentiles, the inclusion of the Secondary Skill system, AD&D itself, Unearthed Arcana, etc. The very edge of the cutoff points seems to be AD&D 2nd edition's Skills and Powers....the next step after that is 3rd edition, which the old schoolers seem to uniformly consider the Antichrist's own handiwork.

3. The iteration is irrelevant, but the old-schoolness comes from a devotion to dungeon delving, particularly the killing of monsters. Death, maiming, and constant misfortune for the player characters are all celebrated hallmarks of the game, and the relationship between players and GM is viciously adversarial Most of the dungeon crawling is also non-sequitur; the dungeon is there because it's there, and whatever fucked up monsters, traps, and situations you discover are to be taken on without a second thought. Magic items have as good of a chance of screwing you as helping you. HackMaster might be seen as the first retro-clone built to emulate this particular vision of "old school." (And say what you will about HackMaster being a parody game; nobody I knew who ran or played HackMaster played it as a parody of old school gaming, but rather as the Bible of How It Should Be Done.) The characters live only to kill monsters and loot.

4. Similar to three, but the game is treated as an exhaustively detailed tactical/economical simulation. The relationship between players and DM is still adversarial, but play contains less gleefully bizarre elements like reverse gravity traps and Cthuloid monsters or tridents of yearning. A large number of these types of games that I've read about, heard about, and even played in end up with the characters owning a town or keep or some kind of land. (Of course, this was built into the rules of every edition of the game prior to 3.0)I'm sure that there are many other definitions, some that I could think of and some that could be contributed by others. The point is that old school gaming is just as varied in it's trappings and goals as the things that are out now. Do we segregate ourselves into xenophobic sub-communities? (In many cases it looks like this has happened already) Do we live and let live knowing that we are a community of "grass roots" gamers who will not live under the Iron Corporate Fist of Hasbro/the LCD factor of the d20 system/whatever we view as the antithesis of what we are doing? Shit, look how many retro clones are all chasing the same pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: Microlite '74 vs. Labyrinth Lord vs. the Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game, all of which are emulating the same game. (Though BFRP has adopted more "modern" game concepts like ascending armor class...I guess you could divide the games between those that directly emulate via rules and those that try to capture the spirit like C&C but enough with the division already!) I suppose one could look at it this way: games of D&D were often heavily house ruled, so even if we all bought Labyrinth Lord or all managed to track down copies of the Mentzner sets, it is quite unlikely our games would exactly resemble each other.

I guess a less rosy way to look at it would be that everyone is chasing their own version of what "old school" is. I'm going to brush aside that cynicism and venture that old school gaming is, as described above, a set of philosophies/methodologies, and the rules set used to pursue them is largely irrelevant... or is it? Could you play an "old school" game with the current iteration of the game?

If anyone out there in blog world is listening, I invite you to weigh in. To be continued.

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