There has been a lot of talk about what constitutes old school gaming. Instead of trying to define what old school is I thought it might be more useful to discuss what I miss from my early period in the hobby:
A shared literary language: Much of the old school talks about how early RPGs assumed a wargaming background. To a much lesser degree they have also discussed an assumed literary background. To me the orders of priority is reversed. I suspect there is the source of the differences James Maliszewski had after some posts on GROGNARDIA.
The biggest decline in the hobby has been the trend to taking it’s cue from visual media (movies, TV, anime) and, especially in the realm of fantasy as a genre, gaming itself. It is not uncommon for modern players to have not read much if any classic fantasy or science fiction literature that informed the entire hobby at the creation. Their formative views are Star Wars, Buffy, and The Lord of the Rings movies. Of course, this reflects reading as a past time being less common. However, tabletop RPGs are a medium of words and when you try to build without having words as a significant part of your inspiration you’ll run into trouble.
Characters were built of things they were good at, not things they could do: There is a longer more specific post about all this topic in the works so I’ll be brief. In outline form this can be summarized in the difference between 3.x feats and C&C SEIGE engine. In 3.x if you don’t have it on your sheet you can’t do it. In C&C if you can think of it you have a chance to unless it’s a defined ability of another class. Now, I think the SEIGE engine supporters who respond to claims that “this makes all characters the same” with “roleplay the differences” are still missing a big part of the point, but they on the side of the angels here. Unless the ground rules specify otherwise (such as the basic class system) anyone can try anything.
Mixed aged groups: I’ve discussed this before, but that is the difference between a real community and just people doing something. People of different ages have different goals and objectives and bring different types of creativity and energy to the table. Beyond just having less ability to bring and keep new people in the hobby the lack of age integration also means a loss of creativity and energy on one hand and the follow-through to get it all together. Imagine combining the creative genius of both SenZar and Dogs in the Vineyard together to create a gaming group. I know many of you are thinking utter fail but I’m seeing the potential for brilliance.
Clubs: Too often on internet fora the gaming world is seen as driven by the industry. This is a mistake. For a niche hobby like RPGs (or even hobby gaming in general) to survive the driving force must be actual participants. In the 70s clubs did this. Clubs transmitted the gaming half of the common culture (and often much of the literary culture especially if a sci-fi club was involved) and their revival (much more than internet community) is crucial to maintaining the hobby, much less reviving old school common culture.
Magazines: This is another place where the internet is a poor substitute. While I love fora I miss The Dragon, The Space Gamer, Ares, Different Worlds, Heroes, The General, Moves, Strategy and Tactics, and so on. Blogs and forums are great, but most websites still don’t hit the editorial level magazines did. More importantly, the internet becomes a background constant. The arrival of a new issue of a magazine brings with it a huge sense of specialness. It created a mental space to really put gaming, thinking about it and being creative, to the forefront of the day.