There is a thread on RPG.net about what defines “old school” as a play style.
One idea that has gotten a lot of props is “the world does not scale”.
One I haven’t seen enough of on the thread is the other side of “the world does not scale” and that is “being smart enough avoiding what you can’t handle means you get to avoid it”.
The importance of this was burned into my brain earlier this year. A large group (8) had been avoiding a threat for a couple of hours (real time…which was a couple of days game time). The party was split into a group of 2 and one of 5 (it was arranged to go 4/4 with two different GMs, one of whom was a player in the combined group). Another player, whose character had died a couple of weeks earlier, was going to come back in and the GMs decided to add him to the group of 2.
So how did he do it? By having the new character pinned by the very threat 8 characters spent two days avoiding. We tried to defeat it and the GM even admitted he couldn’t think of a better strategy than the one we used. Still the end result was my character and the one who was supposed to enter were killed.
I walked out and never went back. While admittedly it was more than just this one event that caused me to leave it was the final straw. As for the others beyond the encounter it was the first week of actual play after 3 rounds of character creation of 6+ hours each and I resented having wasted three weeks to create a character who was killed more or less by fiat. Also, the split had been arranged at a meta-game level the week before do to group size yet when the time came the GMs allowed “in character” opinions to change it to 5/2.
As I’ve taken to the “old school” movement more and more I wonder if I was right to be angry. Interestingly looking at it old school has convinced I was correct.
Too many people confuse “old school” GM with “killer” GM. This story demonstrates the key difference. We, as a party, have proven we knew to avoid this threat and done so with a mix of skill and luck. However, faced with a need to introduce another player into the game the GM choose to give two characters the following choice:
1. Actively attack a threat eight players worked to avoid because it was too deadly.
2. Leave another player’s character to be killed by the threat when he was placed there not by his own actions but by GM fiat.
This was not only unfair but it lacked impartiality.
An “old school” GM, who embraced “the world isn’t fair” but “the GM is impartial” would have chosen a different way to introduce the new character. Not because it was “fair” but because it would allow the players the ability to make choices to deal with how the world was unfair, just as he had the larger party for two hours (the GM for the smaller group was also running the unified group up to the split).
In that the “killer GM” and the “Monty Haul GM” are actually the same failing, just on different sides of the scale.