Old School versus New School: The Fight Over the World’s Greatest RPG

This meme is not just about worldview…it is about play style and its consequences

I do not want to get into the political fight over this meme. From what I can tell it is a silly and stupid fight anyway perpetuated by people who don’t have a dictionary. Rather, I think this meme illustrates something much deeper at the heart of the #OSR and #dnd5e debate that seems to rage across social media. It is about playstyles and, as a consequence, what the game ends up becoming. This became crystal clear to me after I ran an introductory LotFP game for my players. While the one-shot was fun there was a palpable sense that, as players, they were deeply unsatisfied with LotFP.

During character generation, I saw the looks on their faces as they realized they had little choice in what they could make and what they could do. For those of you unfamiliar with LotFP, there are seven classes: Cleric, Fighter, Magic-user, Specialist, Dwarf, Elf, and Halfling. This is very similar to B/X, BECMI, and even Dungeon Crawl Classics. Each class has a specific set of abilities which loosely translates to a role they play in the group. For example, the dwarf gets a lot of hit points, they get the architecture skill and good saving throws. They can also carry a lot of stuff. They are not as capable at fighting like the fighter. The player who played a dwarf (with a 7 strength) bristled at the fact that his dwarf is a tough dude who couldn’t fight very well.

My LotFP game revealed to me a serious divide between the new school games and the old school games: newer games give the players a ton of options to develop the character that they want. This translates to game mechanics that allow them to more accurately and confidently interact with the world created by the Game Master. OSR just does not provide those options to the players.

Let’s compare a dwarf fighter in 5E: attack bonuses that go up with levels, second wind ability, multiple attacks, action surge, access to feats at higher levels, etc. At third level the dwarf fighter picks up an archetype which gives the dwarf fighter a host of additional options designed to give the archetype flavor and solidify a particular combat style. This is great fun for the player as he gets a badass character and he can think about the ongoing build.

It is a very “player centric” game design that, I believe, relegates the GM to the role of CPU, especially if you are a Rules as Written kind of GM. As a GM you are to remind people what the rules are, apply the rules, then adjudicate the outcome of a successful or failed roll. As a consequence, the players just look at their character sheets to see what they can and cannot do. For them, their character is the total set of options for them, nothing else exists. The modern games stifle creativity in player agency just like a drug does to an addict.

There are other criticisms to this playstyle as well: It doesn’t produce immersion. It encourages number crunching and gamesmanship. It encourages combat over role-play. At the higher levels 5E provides so many choices for a player it creates analysis paralysis, combats get drawn out, and we suffer from the tyranny of the grid. Not to mention that, at the higher levels, designing encounters becomes more like work for a GM as it is a challenge to make sure you create something challenging for players.

With all the criticisms of 5E from the OSR crowd there is one irrefutable fact that cannot be ignored and cannot be disregarded: the players are having fun, lots of fun in fact. The reason is that in exchange for player agency, they are seeking character development. Given the popularity of Critical Role and the Tasha’s Hideous Woke Cauldron (or whatever the hell it’s called), I do not see this changing anytime soon. If the OSR developers want to compete with WotC or if OSR GMs want to compete with 5e styled games, they are going to have to develop something to provide their players, especially those new to RPGS, something to play with…and that means options.

On a personal note, I got into the OSR because, for years, I had a nostalgia for something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. For years, there was a storytelling experience and gaming experience I just wasn’t getting from Pathfinder, 3e, and certainly not 4e. If I am honest, I kind of got that storytelling experience from 5e, but it always broke down once the players hit the higher levels. For years I would, every so often, make a suggestion to play an older version of the game. I had no idea that OSR existed. I guess that is why I’ve dived head first into this community. It is nice to see like-minded people talking about this play experience and style. What is really cool is that the community is not just composed of old grognards, there are younger people playing as well.

But I digress…the consequence of the 5e playstyle can be seen when you look at a module and how it is designed and compare it to a module published by an OSR company. When I read Death Frost Doom, I got a lot of backstory with some suggestions on how things ought to go but that was it. I had all I needed. I just had to wait and see what the players did and what they reacted to. Unfortunately, the players in my one-shot, in contrast, had no idea how to do anything because the were wedded to the 5e playstyle. Many struggled with the idea that solving the encounters in the module was only limited by their imagination.

In contrast, I have a Waterdeep: Dragonheist game that I do enjoy playing but something happened that really demonstrates the differences in styles. In Chapter 3 a fireball goes off killing someone and the big conspiracy begins. The design of the investigation at the beginning of Chapter 3 really pissed me off. There were really only a few options available to the players, i.e., what skills they were to use, what dice to roll, etc. There was nothing else available to me, as a GM, to pull from. Because of the design of the module there was a bottleneck. I had to either prompt the roll needed or ad lib some bullshit to get the players to do what the module said needed to be done. At no point did the players really figure out what they had to do because nothing on their character sheets jumped out at them to do. It was a very frustrating encounter.

It is one thing to design a module to fully prep the DM for those circumstances and it is another to expect a mechanistic resolution to an obstacle like this. Was that what WotC expected of me? To say to my players: “Oh? You wish to investigate the scene? Fair enough. Roll the following skills and I will tell you what happens…” How is that fun for anyone involved? Why not just go play a videogame? There is no collaboration at that point, just dice rolling.

Indeed, I am finishing up my very first module for publication on DM’s Guild. (Ironically, it is a 5e module. To quote Val Kilmer’s Doc Holiday: “Well…apparently my hypocrisy knows no bounds.”) My module involves investigation and, upon reviewing some playtest comments, I took great pains to make sure there were plenty of options to choose from in order to solve the mystery. I am a little flummoxed at how the Dragonheist Chapter 3 made it past the cutting room floor.

I’m digressing again, aren’t I. Sorry. The nostalgia for me, and why the Tracy Hickman’s meme is so salient is that, when I read Dragonlance it changed the way I approached my own story telling with my friends. They experienced agency in a way that was more powerful than just figuring out how to get around an obstacle to grab the treasure chest. They started thinking about ways to be heroes just like the Heroes of the Lance. Yes, some of them died and when they did it was tragic precisely because of the good role-playing that got the party to that point. This is what the OSR has to offer: an immersive collaborative experience for all.

I just don’t see that level of storytelling with 5e. I don’t. The players start out already as idealized versions of themselves. It is easy to get up in levels. Players focus on “their build” rather than role-playing. It is easy to meet the challenges presented because you just need to look down at your character sheet and roll the skill check your DM tells you to roll. A good 5e game to me is like a good rollercoaster ride, but it is not really storytelling. However, despite all of this, the players love the characters because of all the bells and whistles they get. They just love 5e.

Which brings me back to my original point: OSR is going to either stay a niche gaming community or it has to shed the orthodoxy of simplicity and provide the PCs with something. I desperately want to run an OSR type game. In order to so, I am either going to have to find some new players online who can appreciate the uniqueness of OSR play, or design something for existing players that give them some options for their character. Maybe I need to take another look at Dungeon Crawl Classics? Maybe I have to design some options to insert into Lamentations of the Flame Princess? Maybe I have to create my own 5E hack to make it more like OSR…I really don’t know. It is going to be a challenge regardless.

Challenge accepted.

2 responses

  1. Venger Satanis

    OSR usually has PC options like race, class, alignment, equipment, phyisical appearance, and personality. That seems lime plenty to me, but I’m old school.

    February 8, 2021 at 12:38 am

  2. For them, their character is the total set of options for them, nothing else exists. The modern games stifle creativity in player agency just like a drug does to an addict.

    Too true!

    I think the problem is that everyone who comes to the table has already had a ton of experience video games. They’re not just expecting a controller with buttons and a limited number of options, they’ve already developed a muscle memory for it. You’re either going to have to give them what they want or do the unthinkable and take away their controller – in this case the character sheet. Doing something inbetween is like giving a seasoned gamer an old Atari joystick and expecting them to have fun with it.

    February 8, 2021 at 2:31 am