What exactly is ‘Old School’ in D&D terms? Aside from being an overused, tired phrase that has permeated the English language, old school does have meaning and is understood in regard to much of today’s pop culture. But what about D&D terms? What actually constitutes Old School in this crazy pastime we all love so much? At face value, it can mean anything that is ‘older’ or not of the new editions. But that’s a simple way of tossing the term around when one could just really mean ‘old’ or ‘older’. No, Old School has meaning in D&D circles. That meaning, though, is one of personal interpretation. If we break down the phrase itself, perhaps we can identify a more cohesive definition.
Old: distinguished from an object of the same kind by being of an earlier date.
School: a group of persons who hold a common doctrine or follow the same teacher (as in philosophy, theology, or medicine)
Old School: Anything that is from an earlier era or previous generation, typically the very thing that started it all, is admittedly older and is generally looked upon with respect.
Retro Old School: Something that is new, but follows the doctrines of a particular ‘old school’.
With the above information in mind, we can see that it needs to be of an earlier date than the current, or latest D&D version. Technically, anything before 4th Ed is now old. Much in the same way that technically, my 13 year old son is old relative to my two year old son. In a vacuum with just my two sons, my 13 year old is old, yes. He’s certainly not old in the real world. If 13 years constitutes old age, then at 41 I’m a veritable relic. Old is a relative term in most respects. If we are simply establishing that something is ‘older’ it’s more clear. Just because something is older it isn’t necessarily ‘old’. Clearly, 3.5 D&D is not now automatically ‘old’ because 4th Ed is coming out this year. Older, yes…old, no.
I need to establish then what this relative scale of ‘D&D old’ is, exactly. Since we are comparing D&D to nothing other than D&D itself, we will look at 1974-2008. I’ll start with a list of major releases throughout D&D’s history.
OD&D Core (Vol. I - III) 1974
OD&D and Supplements 1976
Holmes Basic D&D 1977
Moldvay/Cook D&D (B/X) 1981
Mentzer D&D (BECMI) 1983
AD&D 2nd Ed 1989
Rules Cyclopedia 1991
3rd Ed 2000
3.5 Ed 2003
4th Ed 2008
D&D is now 34 years old. At it’s mid point, 1991’s Rules Cyclopedia was released. This was more or less a reedit of Mentzer’s BECMI D&D, though, without the I (Immortals). A better milestone then might be AD&D 2nd Edition, released in 1989. Like AD&D, 2nd Ed had an 11 year reign, so it’s a good milestone in my opinion. Clearly, there are other versions I omitted, mainly because these versions are more or less simply reedited releases, much like the Rules Cyclopedia.
Personally, relative to the fact that I had played OD&D, Holmes and AD&D before Moldvay/Cook B/X was even published, I consider this to be the true demarcation line between what is ‘old’ and ‘new’. This is, though, in D&D terms, and I realize this is a personal interpretation to the actual history of D&D. I think it’s more fair to say that anything before AD&D 2nd Ed is ‘old’, and anything after AD&D 2nd Ed is ‘new’. AD&D 2nd Ed is just what it represents here, neither old nor new. It is the relative center of D&D’s history for the purposes of comparison.
I copied an appropriate definition of ‘school’ for this post. In regard to this subject matter, ‘school’ refers to a doctrine or source of knowledge. I’ll group all of the above releases into categories arranged by ‘school’. Certainly others might not agree with my rough handling of their favorite rules set, but this is, after all, Sham’s Grog ‘n Blog.
Gygaxian School: OD&D Core, OD&D plus Supplements, Holmes Basic, AD&D.
Basic School: Moldvay/Cook B/X, Mentzer BECMI, Rules Cyclopedia.
Post Gygax School: 2nd Ed.
Wizards School: 3rd Ed, 3.5.
Future School: 4th Ed.
Future School will likely be a sub school of the Wizards School, but since it’s not released yet, it gets it’s own little campus for now.
Since I want to define Old School in D&D terms, anything Post Gygax School or later is definitely not Old School. I’ve already established that, in relative terms, AD&D 2nd Ed is not old. OK, so here’s what I am working with now: Gygaxian School, and the Basic School. The fact that the Rules Cyclopedia is lumped in with the Basic School shouldn’t throw you off as it’s a compilation of early-mid eighties rules. I will cull that version for now.
Here then is Old School D&D per Sham’s Grog ‘n Blog:
OD&D plus Supplements
Holmes Basic D&D
Personally, I have a hard time calling the last two versions on the above list Old School, but I could easily be convinced, especially now that I have broken down the versions over the game’s life. All of the above versions are, undeniably, old. They fall into a school of thought, or doctrine, and provide a source of knowledge that differentiates themselves, one from the other. Hence, they are all Old School, best as I can determine.
If you’re reading this Blog, chances are you are already a member of one of these two schools. As I’ve found, amongst us Old School D&D players, there are actually further defining categories. We can all agree, I hope, that any member of these two schools is undeniably Old School in D&D terms. Here’s the thing…even within this Old School category, we aren’t one big family. Nope. We actually have Old, Older and Oldest amongst our kind. The Basic guys are Old, the AD&D guys are Older, and the OD&D guys are Oldest! So, we are either Old School, Older School or Oldest School.
Truthfully, there probably IS a measurement or degree of our Grogginess. We are all, mostly, Grognards by definition (Old Guard Grumbling Veterans of D&D). But there are actual degrees to our Groginess.
Groggy, Groggier, Groggiest.
As you can tell by my other posts, I am a rules tinker. Not just a home brewer, but I dig around in the tool box of OD&D, and tend to apply duct tape here and there, sometimes replacing a leaky valve or tightening a squeaky joint. It’s still OD&D to me. I don’t play any of the Basic School versions, though. I do stick with the OD&D Core, but I home brew and tinker to the extent that I do believe at best I am Groggier, not Groggiest.
Groggy (Old School): Basic School. And players of Retro Old School games like Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, BFRPG, etc.
Groggier (Older School): AD&D, Holmes, OD&D with all the supplements, and guys like me that rules tinker and float a bit between versions are Groggier. This fits me well with my AD&D background and current preference of the OD&D Core.
Groggiest (Oldest School): OD&D Core. These guys are even Older School than Gygax himself, scoffing at the very house rules Gary used in his games. They play OD&D, and they like to play by the book. Rules tinkering is a no-no. CHAINMAIL is part of their OD&D tool box.
I envy the Groggiest guys, but I tinker by nature and end up not quite Groggy enough. I still enjoy rubbing elbows with all of the Old Schoolers out there, even though I’m not afraid to admit that I am not of the Oldest School.
~Sham, the Groggier Delinquent DM