I was visiting Facebook the other day and saw someone ask the question what is old school gaming? I read some of the comments and I started asking myself the very same question. After thinking on it a bit I decided to write a post about my thoughts on the subject. I figure that after 30 years of gaming I am fairly qualified to chime in on this issue. Not only do I feel qualified to write on the subject, I feel that old school gaming has a lot to offer people.
My Definition of Old School Gaming
My definition of old school gaming isn't so much a definition as it is about the spirit of old school gaming. There was a certain quality to table top rpg's back when I was a kid that seems to be lost now. While I don't debate that the gaming systems have gotten better in terms of clarity and function, there is a key element missing. It's hard to describe what this missing element is in one word, but I guess freedom would be the best descriptor.
Before RPGs became the slick focus group studied products they are today, they were about creativity. There were rules of course, but those rules had a different quality to them that seemed to encourage creativity. In fact the first edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master's Guide was crammed full of useful information on how to create a world. Not only was it crammed full of information it also gave you tons of handy charts to use to create your own stuff.
AD&D wasn't the only game that did that either. In fact during that time most games were much more about freedom and creativity than today's games are. Now don't get me wrong, some of those early systems were absolutely horrible and very unwieldy, but at their core they encouraged creativity. In short, I guess my definition of old school gaming is a gaming style that encourages creativity and freedom.
Why it Changed
I touched a bit on this already, but the fact is the game changed because the people making and playing the game changed. Dungeons and Dragons was successful beyond what anyone ever thought it would be. Not only was DnD successful but the role playing game industry in general has been not only successful, but influential in our culture beyond any one's wildest imaginations. While I think we all agree that success was a good thing, it also brought along the idea that these hobbies could make people a lot of money.
When people can make money at something they have a tendency to look at ways to improve something and this is exactly what happened. If you look at where DnD started and compare it to where it is now, you will see that the more money it made, the more money they spent on making products for the game. Not only that but they also improved the marketing of the game but to do this they had to provide a product that appealed to the largest amount of people possible.
At one time, RPGs were pretty much the sole property of "nerds and geeks". While times have changed and nerds and geeks seem to be the new sexy, there was a time we were social outcasts to the Nth degree. In order to grow as a hobby RPGs needed to reach out beyond their traditional market. I think if you look back, Vampire the Masquerade was the first product to really succeed in that and others followed.
This of course led to other games looking at the success of Vampire the Masquerade and changing how they approached the public. The biggest make over was DnD. Where at one time it had been the undisputed master of the rpg universe, it lost ground big time to the Vampire craze. Not only did it lose ground, but it almost ceased to exist and then boom! along comes third edition and once again we saw an explosion of the hobby.
The Old School Revival
While I think this explosion of popularity has been good for the rpg industry in general, I can't help but miss the old school "feel" at times. The nice thing is that I am not alone in this feeling. In fact right now we are witnessing a bit of an old school revival. If you look around the Internet you can see a renewed interest in what people call "old school gaming". you can browse facebook groups, personal blogs, Kickstarter projects and more and easily find things that classify themselves as either being old school, or having that old school feel.
I personally am happy to see this. While I enjoy what the hobby has become, it is nice to know that I can always turn the page back when I am in the mood. I feel that as the old school revival continues it will only help add to the entire history of gamer culture. I think it has opened doors once thought long sealed shut and allowed for a fresh burst of creativity and that is good for the hobby.
While I seriously doubt we will ever see anything that is considered old school see the same success as current RPGs, there is no doubt in my mind that a market exists for these products. I also don't have any doubt that the old school revival will last quite a while. In the end we gamers have long memories and while some of us may be getting old, we pass the torch on to younger gamers every single day.
In the end I don't think Old school gaming has really gone anywhere, I just think it has been in hiding for a little while. However, every day I see new signs of life in this aspect of the RPG world and it has me excited. Now, if only they would get back to printing Dragon Magazine again....