Straight Out of the Box!

One of the hallmarks of old school gaming, at least as its talked about on the net, revolves around the notion of DIY, or Do It Yourself. The DIY attitude might be summed up by saying that the Referee is best served when he makes up his own stuff for his campaign, including the rules used to run it. The old school, DIY attitude insists that the Referee does not need a canned game spoon fed to him, but should instead embrace the imaginative aspect of the game and make it all up as he goes along, or at least fill in the parts that are missing with his own ideas, rules, content, and so on. I am sure some might take exception to my admittedly limited and/or poorly written definition here, but I am not interested in dwelling on this too much as it is not the thrust of this essay.

However much I appreciate and even practice this DIY attitude myself (and I do very much), there is a fundamental flaw in this outlook as it pertains to new players entering into the hobby and what the definition of old school might actually be. Now to be perfectly clear, I'm not talking about the best ways of bringing new players into the hobby, any sort of felt need to evangelize for new players, or any movement to "preserve the hobby for the next generation."

Rather, I am simply speaking about the casual gamer, or maybe a better term would be the "contented" gamer. I would define the casual RPG gamer as someone that likes to play, or even Referee, The Game, but isn't all that interested in tweaking the rules to make a "better" game, or even a game that is "better for themselves and those they game with." This hypothetical gamer enjoys playing the game "straight out of the box," and is more interested in playing the game than playing with the game, if you take my meaning. This does not mean that the casual gamer lacks imagination, certainly not; to wit, the casual gamer may be very much interested in creating his own campaign world, monsters, dungeons, spells, character classes, treasures, and so on. In other words, the casual gamer does not necessarily have to be spoon fed content for their campaign, they simply work within the bounds of whatever system they have decided upon because they are content that the system serves their needs.

Certainly there are casual gamers who prefer to use campaign settings, supplements, adventures, etc., written by others (whether by professionals or hobbyists) for their own gaming sessions. Someone who has a very busy life may well enjoy playing the game, but not have the time necessary to devote to building their own campaign. But this does not mean that they are limited in imagination or enthusiasm either, as should be patently obvious.

This is where the DIY attitude fails as part of the definition of what makes old school... old school. Someone who is playing an old school campaign (with whatever tropes one believes must be included to be "old school"), using an old school rules set (lets say OD&D plus Supplements for the sake of argument, doesn't get much more old school than that!), and who is playing in an old school manner or style (however we want to define that), should rightly be said to be an "old school" gamer, regardless of whether they make up their own rules, tweak existing ones, spend hours every week making their own dungeons or campaigns, and so on.

The DIY attitude often insists that "making up your own stuff" is the way to go, but completely fails to take into account the guy who wants to play something straight out of the box. Some might argue that playing "by the rules" is lame, lacks creativity, indicates a lack of authenticity or enthusiasm for the hobby, and that playing certain games like Moldvay Basic or AD&D is not really old school because those games are "canned" or "dumbed-down for the general audience" or a "straight jacket for the Referee and/or players," and so on. But this is hogwash and is precisely the kind of elitism that makes the hobby unfun at times.

If a gaming group spent 20 years raiding Dungeons, & killing Dragons, and having lots of fun and camaraderie together, but never did more than crack open the Moldvay/Cook Basic set or the AD&D big three (PHB, DMG, and MM), and ran whatever modules they could get their hands on or create in their spare time, would anyone be so jaded  as to insist that this group is not "old school?" If so, then they are schmucks, or worse.

A hobbyist is not a person that constantly seeks to redefine the game, or exerts tremendous amounts of imaginative energy creating  new content for their game. A hobbyist is someone who participates in the hobby out of a love and enthusiasm for it.

In nearly any other hobby, playing a game "within the given rules" would certainly define someone as "part of the hobby" if that person has enthusiasm for the game being played. Someone who loves playing chess is considered a "chess player" and enthusiast, regardless of their level of skill with the game or attendance at chess tournaments. Finding great enjoyment in regularly playing poker or bridge would certainly indicate that a person is part of the card-playing hobby. A board game enthusiast does not need to tweak the rules of the games they play or invent their own board games to be considered part of the hobby. And so on.

And yet, "old school" is often partly defined by a DIY attitude, and there is at times an almost sneering contempt for those who are not interested in that aspect of the hobby. DIY certainly falls within the rubric of "old school," but it is neither synonymous with it, nor even necessary for it.

It is perfectly legitimate and consistent to say that a gamer that loves playing or Refereeing OD&D, or Moldvay Basic, or Call of Cthulhu, or Mutant Future, or AD&D, etc. is "old school," regardless of their penchant for rules tweaking or content creation. The lack of a DIY attitude does not indicate any lack of "old school" fervor or gaming style.

Indeed, it might even be said that playing "straight out of the box" is more fun, since that means more time for actually playing the game and less time for navel gazing. Now of course, folks greatly enjoy tweaking or creating rules and rule sets (I do!), as well as content for their own games or for publication (I do!), and thus that too should rightly be considered part of the "fun." Thus, the whole "navel gazing" bit I just mentioned  above is shown to be what it is, a stereotype that is as useful as yapping about how DIY is one of the true hallmarks of old school gaming, with the implication that non-DIYers are somehow not "old school." See how easy it is to create a meme?

My love and enthusiasm for The Game came straight out of the box, without any extra bells or whistles, and I have not become so jaded about The Game as it was originally presented that I find myself enjoying it only when I deconstruct it or remaster it.

Sometimes I like my gaming the way I like my booze; give it to me straight! How about you?

A love for The Game should be the most basic rubric for what "old school" means, and yet it is often the most overlooked.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! The DIY thing is definitely not a requirement to appreciate "the old school" and be a part of that community. And as you say, even if you don't alter the rules, even if you use a pre-fab setting, even if you stick to modules, the game remains an undeniably creative and fun experience.


Blog on the Borderlands is for the discussion of First Edition & various other incarnations of the Original Games created by Gygax & Arneson, "clones" based on these games, & 3rd party gaming material made for these games. Other games may be referred to on occasion as the site admin sees fit. Please keep comments civil, free of foul language, & within the parameters of the subject matter.

If you are not interested in First Edition, this blog is probably not the place for you to comment.