Monday, May 25, 2009

What Is Old School?

It's that time of year again...

Grognardia starts the latest round off with More Than A Feeling, which argued that the term "Old School" has actual meaning in it, and that it is more than just some abstract, subjective phrase.

The biggest response going the other way (barring trolls in Grognardia's comments) seems to be here, where it's argued that the term is so subjective that there isn't any real concrete meaning to the phrase at all.

Last July, I had two entries on this blog: What is "Old School? Who cares?, and "Old School" vs. New School" - Final Word.

I don't know that my thoughts are still identical to those expressed in those two entries, but I do have a bit more to say on the matter after the debate of the past couple days.

I Hate Fun came about because the word "fun" is so subjective that using it would effectively be a conversation stopper. For it to be useful in any conversation, the term fun itself would have to be defined by the person using it, and that never happens. It's always "I do that because it's fun." or "I don't like that because it's not fun!" "I only play games I think are fun." It kills conversation dead, and since message boards are (presumably) about conversation (in reality they seem to be about drawing lines in the sand and yelling "You crossed my line! You're an asshole!" and "Cross this line, motherfucker, I dare you!" with variable amounts of courtesy), fun is a toxic term. Thus, I Hate Fun was not literally saying "I hate fun," but hating the use of the word fun while at the same time defining what is fun for me and how that differed from what many other people seemed to consider fun.

The term "old school" is something like "fun." I think it could have a definition, and it should have. Grognardia didn't go so far as to define it, just saying that such a definition should be able to exist. But is the baggage that comes with using it worth it? I think so. There is a difference in style and tone between older games and newer designs. There should be a term that can sum up such things, a term with meaning, right? I understand the procession of games and the thinking that informed their creation isn't an either/or condition, but come on... there is a difference between mainstream then, and mainstream now (I have to say mainstream because these things have to be about the general atmosphere, not including every single exception and outlier) in terms of game design and game play.

If the viewpoint taken by the Wondrous Imaginings blog is correct, then the term Old School needs to be taken out back and shot, then cremated. Purely subjective terms are toxic to discussion and understanding, and anyone using them as an argument, rather than a punctuation to an argument, needs to be ignored lest they poison discussion going on around them.

Yet that's not the point. The fact that people could use a term incorrectly and often would does not suddenly make a term subjective. It just means a lot of people are using it wrong.I don't believe "Old School" is a purely subjective term, but I do believe it is a terrible term to use. I know I've been swept along and use the term "Old School Renaissance," but whatever term I'd use ("Classic" or "Traditional") will have the same problem of definition, even if I'd find it more pleasing and representational.But the argument of, "You're not using the right word," is hardly a conversation anyone enjoys. But what else to do about it?"The assholes can't admit they're understanding a concept completely wrong... best to just surrender it." As if!

Argue argue argue.

I still think the "good" versus "crappy" dichotomy would work better than the "old school" versus "new school." "B/X is a good game! 3e is crappy!" probably communicates a lot more about what the speaker is saying than "B/X is old school and 3e is new school!"

I guess it just depends on how long we want to argue about terminology instead of using the terms to actually make an argument.


  1. Assuming that system matters (which I do), I think we're better of trying to figure out what particular kinds of play the system affords and figuring out whether we agree. If we do that, we've also determined that we're using the right system for our particular preferences, and we can suggest the right system to people who tell us about their preferences.

  2. About to post exactly the same point as Alex... but he beat me to it. :)

  3. I agree with you that "Old School" isn't a subjective term, but an objective rational argument for why it's good (which seems to be what James M is calling for) is a hiding to nothing. You can't explain why bananas taste nice through appeal to reason, just like I can't explain why I enjoy AD&D more than 4e that way either.

  4. I love the unending old school definition war! All sorts of ideas and theories and opinions come flying out of the big dog pile of biting,clawing, crotch-punching gamers, and I can pick up the interesting ones and give them a good going over to see if they fit in my greater theory of stuff I like.
    Fight on! you crazy bastards! Fight on!

  5. My friend and I both listen to jazz. He claims that Kenny G. is a jazz artist; I beg to differ with him on this (actually, on this topic, I cry like a little girl while begging with him). "Jazz" has a generally accepted meaning but gets really fuzzy around the edges (just try using the term "smooth jazz" around serious jazz fanatics; it makes this old school debate look like puppies and sunsets).

    "Jazz" is useful; the little black signs--helpfully labeled "Jazz"--leads me to the Miles Davis CD that I might want to purchase. People I talk to understands what my meaning when I say "Jazz," even if my Kenny-G-loving friend and I differ about the particulars. I'm just not a fan of words like "indifferentism" (as used in the original blog). It is the sort of word fundamentalists use in derision of those they disagree with. No, let me correct that last sentence, as a fundamentalist in recovery, I can say that it is EXACTLY the the word they would use (along with Liberal, Crypo-Calvinist, Papist, and, my personal favorite, Enthusiast--only in religion can being an enthusiast be a bad thing). You can call me "indifferent," just don't call me an "Indifferentist."

    I wanted to put crotch-punching and Kenny G. in the same sentence, but I couldn't figure out how to do it (except there, in that last sentence).

  6. Excuse the typos in my recent post. I will correct them in the 2E Monstrous version of my comments. My Prestige comments will be available with 3E.