There’s a strange notion I’ve run into a couple of times during the latest bout of Old School Renaissance arguments – namely, that the rules of old D&D editions are somehow “obsolete”.
Let’s get this straight: no roleplaying game that I have ever seen has come with a “best before” date stamped on it. There is no exact science behind game rule development that has advanced by leaps and bounds in the last thirty-odd years, like computer or mobile phone technology has. Beyond the physical properties of the product, there is nothing, nothing, objectively better about a game that has been released in 2010 as opposed to a game that was released in 1978.
Some ideas are, of course, newer than others. There has, certainly, been innovation, with people coming up with new ways to do things and new things to do. Separate race and class, classless systems, logarithm-based systems, point-based systems, percentile systems, diceless systems, dice pool systems, storytelling mechanics. However, most of it is just applied mathematics (with the exception of the stuff that isn’t, like the fortune cookies in Tähti), and that crap has been around for some millennia now. Whether the execution of a ruleset is actually mathematically valid, whether you get the probability spreads you intended, is just a matter of numbers and if the numbers are wrong, they’ll be just as wrong if they were crunched today as they’d be if they were crunched thirty years ago. That is the only objective thing, and the rest is preferences, taste and fashion.
Then, there are some aspects of games that really do become obsolete, such as when the technological development passes a sci-fi game by (I’m looking at you, Cyberpunk 2020. It’s been ten years since I’ve even seen an NMT phone outside of a rerun on TV.). I am also told that a number of early Palladium games list homosexuality as a mental illness, and there’s probably any number of fantasy and semi-historical roleplaying games that have content loosely based on interpretations of history that have since been discovered to be inaccurate. I couldn’t cite any examples, but it’s my understanding that some of the armours in certain editions of Dungeons & Dragons fall into this category (though, if we’re entirely honest, a historical analysis of the equipment chapter of any edition of D&D would make anyone who seriously cares about such matters weep).
Rules, though… Rules keep. The OSR games are an obvious example, but they’re the ones that provoked this neophiliac brainfart in the first place, so let’s look at some others. Call of Cthulhu was first released in 1981. Now, six editions and 29 years later, it’s still the same game, it’s still good, and people are still playing it. Pendragon is another. 25 years and five discrete editions, and the brilliance was already there in 1985. The Traveller character generation system from 1977 still rocks, especially once they tweaked it to fix the death-at-chargen issue. Dungeons & Dragons looks actually anomalous in the extent of the changes between editions, especially between the second, third and fourth editions of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. They’re less separate editions of the same game than they are separate games.
Of course, different rulesets are good for different things. Pendragon has a laser-like focus on emulating the very specific tone of a very specific telling of the King Arthur stories. Some of the modern storygames are written for playing one single specific story. Deathwatch is probably completely pants for playing anything that doesn’t have Space Marines in it. The fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons is very good for annoying me. The interesting thing is that the different editions of D&D have very different focuses and support very different playstyles. Characters in the older editions tend to be fragile things, which gears the game towards a more careful, exploratory and cerebral approach to exploring a dungeon – and while they’re not exclusively dungeon crawling games, the environment does default to the dungeon. I don’t think this really changed until AD&D 2E, which seems to be geared to run any kind of fantasy game, as we can see from the myriad of innovative settings developed for the edition. 3E and D20 took this even further, redesigning the entire ruleset from the ground up to be a flexible, universal system. From this point of view, 4E is sort of a return to the roots in its tighter focus (namely, annoying me and tactical combat), except that they found some completely different roots to return to.
In short: just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s bad. Just because you don’t understand or like the playstyle doesn’t mean it’s bad. However, if the math doesn’t actually go the way they thought it did… then it can be bad.
In the interests of fairness and balance, I will soon be tackling an irritating rhetorical tactic often used by the other side of the debate.