Why Old School Is Bad For RPGs…and Good For Gamers

There has been a furore of late within the RPG Blogging community regarding “Old School” gaming.
The definition of “old school” remains vague, and everyone seems to have their own variation – be it homebrewed systems based on the Blue Box D&D, original World of Darkness, legacy GURPS or even classic Cthulhu. I’m not going to quibble over definitions however – for the sake of ease lets just take “Old School” to mean any game system that is still being played despite being replaced by a newer products or abandoned by it’s publisher, or any game which seeks to emulate such products (ie Pathfinder).

My recent survey regarding the age and length of gaming careers of RPG gamers, places the average RPG gamer in their mid 30s with more then 20 years of gaming experience. The respondents in their 20s were in a distinct minority.
On the other hand, Project Daedalus – a sociological survey of MMO players – places the average age of MMORPG players between 18 and 28 with 24% of surveyed males and 15% of females aged between 18 and 22. 23% of males and 27% of females were aged between 22 and 28.
Now, the numbers here aren’t very scientific, but this does suggest that I’m on the money. The average age of RPG players is continuing to rise and they aren’t being replaced by a younger generation because us young whipper-snappers tend to play MMOs instead.

This is a bad thing. As gamers get older and older, two things start to happen: we die and other interests take over. It also gets harder for younger people to get into the game if the perception of RPG gaming changes to it being an ‘old peoples’ game.

So what does thing have to do with Old School?

Well, Dungeons & Dragons, love it or loath it, is one of the most popular RPGs in the world and the best supported by a country mile. In my FLGS the only other games which comes close to the amount of shelf space D&D takes up is Call of Cthulhu and World of Darkness. If people pick up an RPG book because they think it sounds like fun, it’s probably going to be D&D and it’s inevitably going to be 4e rather then the legacy systems.
John Smith with his newly purchased set of core rule books and WOTC branded dice set will need some help trying to get friends together, writing a campaign and even just playing for the first time. He’s probably going to turn to existing communities for advice.

And he’s going to find quite a lot of blog posts and even businesses rubbishing 4e. Now, everyone is entitled to their opinion and no-one should be evangelising about 4e if they don’t like it, however we as a community have to recognise that 4e is the single best tool we have to get people into RPG gaming.

The drive to make 4e old school and the debate around it is not going to help. It’s only going to confuse new players and alienate them from more established players.

When someone looks advice on 4e on the internet, they should be finding a helpful and supporting community. A community which helps them hone their skills, find players and provides a bridge into other systems. Not companies producing a product based on the fact that they don’t like the Dragonborn as a race.

That is why I believe that the old school debate, the forthcoming “old school 4e” products and the whining about 4e in general are bad for RPG gaming – they are helping to turn new players away.

But (and this is a big but)…the old school movement is amazing for established players.

The old school movement is doing a lot for gamer choice.

It’s amazing that games that are 30 years old are not only still being played, but being promoted and attracting new players. You don’t like one version of a game? You can pick up the books for a different version of the same game for half the price.

So, that’s that. There isn’t a good and bad side to this debate. Moral of the story: don’t rubbish 4e, we need it because it helps get people into gaming. But don’t rubbish old school either, because it gives us way more choice.

23 thoughts on “Why Old School Is Bad For RPGs…and Good For Gamers”

  1. 4E is an easy system to get into. I find the critics of 4E are more concerned about issues like playability/feel and who are old hands who likely already have stable gaming groups. Not everyone is a gaming ambassador.

    That said, nobody lives in a stable group forever and that is probably a very good thing for all concerned. 🙂

    I suggest that the blogosphere does cater for 4E, while a lot of the big names are dismissive and WotC make it easy to do that since 4E’s inception, there are blogs that provide content – I know, I write one of them!

    And it’s not as if an increasing number of people are being savvy about the Net these days.

    Search facilities and tags make finding this content easy; if the new RPGer wants 4E, they can find it with almost no effort on their part. And if they’re really lazy, they’ll just type Dungeons & Dragons into Google.

    Incidentally, I’ve just found Jack Chick in the first page of search results. So maybe we do need to work harder…

    satyre’s last blog post..recession-proof gaming III: no money, no time, no problem!


    1. @ Satyre – I’m afraid I have to disagree with you there. Personally, I find 4e far harder to get into then 3.x. But thats mostly down to personal preference – I was talking to people last week who couldn’t get into 3.x because it was too full of rules. Takes all sorts.


  2. I’ve been saying it since I first stumbled on this network and began commenting regularly. Edition wars are for idiots. I’m almost positive that all sides have called for a seize fire after FINALLY realizing that it is a foolish pursuit to prove the superiority of your chosen rules set. Some might argue that we learned a lot from examining why we prefer our chosen systems but I think the approach that everyone took was more often than not self destructive to the hobby itself.

    To be honest it irritated me so much I almost quit the hobby altogether at one point when one after another posts kept popping up claiming how one edition is better than another. My wife convinced me that it is stupid to stop playing based on a bunch of quibbling gamers with nothing better to do than whine about how they think another games existence is destroying the hobby.

    Best thing to do is to stop addressing the subject of edition wars and old school gaming and instead post up helpful and or useful content.

    The one page dungeon contest is a good example of bringing the community together, I think the blogger community as a whole need to start actively fixing all the damage done since the release of 4e by promoting and supporting each other and the gaming community as a whole.

    kaeosdad’s last blog post..Roleplaying rewards solved!


    1. @kaeosdad – For reference, I don’t think this is an edition wars post. It’s just my thoughts on why we should all live and let live. Personally, I own three different editions of D&D, all of which have there advantages. I just believe that 4e is the best way to get people into the hobby and we need to give it a fair chance.

      However, it’s not going to stop me from ripping 4e’s rules apart and rebuilding them like the 6 million dollar man when I get round to organising a game of it though.


  3. so are you saying that 4e is a gateway drug?
    The one problem with the old school movement is that if people don’t buy the new books the companies that make them go under. Writing role playing games is very niche and every lost sale hurts. Also with the power of the internet people just download copies of the rules as pdf meaning no money for publishers.


  4. 1. It’s just a game, can we stop calling it a “movement” or “renaissance”. Sounds so pretentious.

    2. I don’t know what “old school” is, but 3e/pathfinder definitely isn’t it. Pathfinder is still in beta for pete’s sake!

    Play or don’t play whatever you like, and don’t concern yourself with what others do.


  5. “It’s amazing that games that are 30 years old are not only still being played, but being promoted and attracting new players.”

    It’s not amazing at all, but a simple fact that the older games are actually, believe it or not, good fun to play. What I find amazing is that no-one questions that people still enjoy playing Monopoly over 70 years after it was patented, yet seem to find it puzzling that folks actually enjoy playing a 30 year old rpg.

    @ohmz – I’m not sure I buy the argument that I should loyaly buy rpg books I don’t want, from a company that has no interest in producing the sort of game I like and certainly has no loyalty towards a customer like me. Besides which, the old school movement is a tiny niche within the rpg community, a niche that is hardly likely to buy the sorts of new books you are talking about and therefore unlikely to affect the sales of those books.

    Luckily for us though, there are companies beginning to produce old school products, as well as new publishing efforts getting off the ground. Given the niche nature of the old school movement, I’m sure this more than outweighs the negatives you envision.


  6. @ Tom – Well, yes it is just a game (many games in fact), but the fact that there are people advocating for older versions of D&D does make it a movement.

    @Omhz – Yeah, gateway drug would be a good term. D&D has been an entry to roleplaying for a very long time and it’s a big brand.


  7. @kaeosdad – My blog is where I write my opinions on things. If I don’t like something then you can guess where I’m going to write about it. I made one post a while back explaining why I wasn’t going to buy D&D 4e and was shouted down by various people for keeping the edition war going.

    Who cares if I don’t like it. It’s not for me going on what I’ve read and played so far. But to suggest I can’t voice any negative opinions on something no matter how trivial, and believe me most of my reasons are trivial, sounds wrong to me.

    If you can’t critise something without going ‘nah nah your rules are shite’ then theres a bigger problem there than just the edition war subject.

    As for dropping the old school gaming as a topic of conversation… Why don’t we just stop talking about Mechwarrior or Cyberpunk 2020. Or give up on talking about players having to carry 50′ of rope with them. It’s a style/system that people play so why not talk about it. It’s only been a topic of conversation recently because a lot of the bigger blogs are looking for something else to write about and as they can’t fight the edition wars they look for a new target.

    Every game/system has it’s place and players so every game/system has to have it’s voice.

    Bob’s last blog post..Suffering For His Art


  8. @David I wasn’t saying you should loyally buy new editions of games to keep the publishers floating. Heck if they are publishing crap they don’t deserve to have their product bought.

    I was just stating that people picking up 4e keeps wizards alive (I almost said TSR…), the fact is it doesn’t people buying “imaginary” Magic the gathering booster packs on magic online keeps WOTC alive.

    I’ve bought the core rule book for 3.0 and my Girlfriend bought the core rules for 4e but aside from that I’ve not bought any WOTC books since they bought over TSR. If I were to run a game I’d considder running it using 4e, but to be honest if I was running a game I’d probably not run AD&D/D&D because I’ve been there and done that and I think that other rules systems better suit what I am looking for in a fantasy RPG (Namely WFRP) Maybe if I was running High fantasy I’d resort to D&D, or I’d just use some other simpler system.

    This is a bit of a tangent but I’m much more a fan of character progression by picking up new skills, rather than the character getting a (sudden) huge power boost at some arbitrary point when they have killed enough goblins.

    Ohmz’s last blog post..I have no keyboard but I must Blog…


  9. I think regarding MMOs and 4e as a gateway to older RPGs is like advocating Twitter fiction as a gateway to reading Jane Austen. It ain’t gonna happen, and I don’t actually see any reason to cheer it on. I’m not about to recruit a bunch of 20-something WoW players into my game, I’m too busy recruiting my friend’s children.

    Joshua’s last blog post..I Need A Miracle


    1. @Joshua – I disagree. I would say a more accurate example would progressing from a magazine to a novel. It’s also important to remember that MMOs do have their own worth which is not necessarily the same as the worth of RPGs.

      And of course, when your friends kids are old enough, they may will be lured away from the true RPG path by MMOs :p


  10. I think a lot of the drive for the old school movement is about this fear. 4th Edition is a lot like an MMO in many ways. There is set HP at level-ups, Powers that can be printed out on little cards, mimicking the iconography of an MMO button layout etc…

    In essence: WoTC saw it’s demographic changing, and decided to capture it. It is easy to criticize it. But I don’t think the ones doing the criticizing have played it. They’re too ‘old-school’ for that.

    I Agree with you hammer, its a good thing to be attracting more players to table top RPGs. And if 4E is the gateway drug before they move on to more robust offerings, than so be it.


  11. @Joshua How exactly isn’t it going to happen? I got into roleplaying by becoming bored with playing text adventures on my PC. Theres only so many times you can go through the story before you ache for something more.

    It’s the same with Wow and other games. Once you get past the built in quests your very limited to what you can do storywise in most MMOs. Your going to get some folk that play those games being curious enough to try tabletop games.

    What’s the difference between a bunch of 20-something WoW players and your friends kids? Not very much when you come down to it.

    Bob’s last blog post..Suffering For His Art


  12. @Joshua As a matter of fact, that is precisely what I did two years ago. Got a half-dozen of my younger friends (it helps to put yourself in situations where your friends are all almost 10+ years younger than you are) and got them playing AD&D 1E. Only one person had ever clapped eyes on those rules before, and half of them had never played _any_ FTF RPG before (so they didn’t have any bad habits that needed breaking). That game is still going strong today.

    Joseph’s last blog post..AD&D, 3rd Edition


  13. I played WOTC editions of D&D and do not enjoy playing them. I do enjoy playing older editions of D&D. I talk about the RPGs I enjoy on my blog and in messages on forums.

    The tabletop RPG hobby is much broader than the current edition of D&D, after all. Those who don’t play the current edition of the D&D brand are just as entitled to discuss their favorite games online — and to compare them to other games if they wish — as those who play the current edition. I honestly do not care if such discussion somehow hurts WOTC and that part of the hobby that enjoys their products. I doubt it really does, however.

    RandallS’s last blog post..Playing Card Combat System for OD&D


  14. @Bob/Hammer: I didn’t label it as one. I realized you were saying people should live and let live which is a philosophy I always stand by, just throwing in my whole two cents in on the subject. And yea, I think people should just forget about the edition wars and old school vs. new school. It’s a waste of time. I was agreeing with you but I guess my post came off as disdainful because that’s how I feel about the whole subject.

    In short, I agree, but still feel that the war is over, and everyone should just move on already. I never took a side but coming across post after post talking about old school, new school, what we should do, which is best. blah….

    kaeosdad’s last blog post..Roleplaying rewards solved!


  15. While I agree with the premise of this post that we should “live and let live,” I disagree that we should keep quiet about things we find to be wrong.

    Our blogs are our little domain. People who to come my blog to disagree with my “new school” preferences meet my spam blacklist. I don’t have to put up with them more than once. Sometimes not even once, as I have preemptive blacklisting terms like “gygaxian” and “pulp fantasy” in there (added from personal experience with troll commenters on my blog, rather than any outright malice on my part, to clarify.)

    We should be able to say what we want in them, and people have a right not to read it. I’m very happy with 4e and honestly don’t care at this point whether Wootsie tanks or the RPG industry sinks or whatnot, because I feel I have a complete game with me. I have felt this way since the first few 4e books. Even so, I think the fear that 4e or Old School or whatever is going to kill the “Industry” or drive people from RPGs is paranoia. Perhaps very educated paranoia, but nonetheless.

    Wyatt’s last blog post..Races of Eden II


  16. @Wyatt: I’m all for free speech but believe that there is a fine line between posting about things that you think are wrong and condemning things that you believe are wrong.

    One defining trend of the edition wars is that both sides tended to demonize one another unnecessarily. This is a fine post with a good point that I agree with, but very few posts about edition wars focused on solutions. The majority of posts that I read just lead to people rallying around flags and chest beating.

    Perhaps live and let live should be followed by show respect to your fellow gamers. We all play the same games and there is no doubt that everyone can learn something from one another. I agree that people should stop taking a crap on 4e, OD&D or whatever people keep crapping on if it’s not their thing.

    kaeosdad’s last blog post..Roleplaying rewards solved!


  17. I for one won’t be rallying behind this call to champion 4e, a system I don’t use when I play D&D and nor should any one else. If champion they must (no means a given) then they should champion their system of choice and let people make their own minds up. If the RPG crowd is fragmenting then its probably inevitable anyway as more and systems appear on the market. No one wants to read fan boy vitriol and it’s pretty easy to filter that out.

    The Recursion King’s last blog post..Cave delving


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