Rulesets Have No Expiration Dates

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.

9 thoughts on “Rulesets Have No Expiration Dates

  1. Agree with you apart from CP2020, I haven’t see many punks walking down the street all cybered up lately. Our version of the net in 2010 is significantly different from that of the RPG but I think that’s more down to the 80s obsession with Virtual Reality. We haven’t really seen what the net will become and I bet it’ll get an extra dimension before too long, just like TV and movies are getting right now.

    At the end of the day all RPG publishers are in the business of setting out frameworks for you as a DM to hang your own universe onto. There’s no burning need for you to buy another product from them once you’ve got the core rules. As you say, those rules don’t have an expiry dates, but settings have a tendency to go out of fashion. One of my favourite 2e settings is Al-Quadim and I’ve used many different rulesets to play it.

    At the end of the day we in a hobby where the first requirement is an imagination. If you don’t have that you might as well play WoW.

  2. Well someone HAS to disagree, so why won’t I?

    I think we can all agree on the fact, that a certain game mechanic can always be written worse; more complex, unintuitive, slow to execute, memory eating, an abomination! And obviously the opposite has to be true then, yes, not?

    Let’s draw an analogue to the development of boardgames, and focus on differences between before and after of so called german boardgames revolution. (Settlers of Catan would be the most succesful herald of the new age)

    Prior to that, most games were total crap. Adults didnt play boardgames, because they were either simple child’s games, or overly complex, inherently flawed slow-motion shoot-me-in-the- head-strategy games.

    Even the most popular games, like Trivial Pursuit, Monopoly or Alias were often stuck or had stupid counterproductive incentives (in one Finnish game, Piirrä ja arvaa, best strategy was to do nothing). These games were succesful because there were no better games available or their main value was not related to game mechanics, but instead to verbal or mental showoff.

    In my opinion same development has happened within role playing game mechanics as well. Playstyles and settings aside, I’m 100% certain that the old game mechanics could’ve been done better, making both playing and adopting rules easier and more natural. Maybe some of the old stuff is still not yet crap, and some of the new stuff is, but time goes on, and while design principles advance, so does expectations.

  3. I have to disagree about death in Chargen. I loved it. It turned generating into a little mini-game, IMO.

  4. Sure, games don’t have “best before” stamps. No cultural thingie has. It doesn’t mean that they are always popular. One can read medieval hagiography texts, but that kind of literature doesn’t appeal to popular tastes. Culture changes and so do games. Sure, if you get your kicks from the old stuff, go ahead. But don’t be surprised when your fellows, who are interested in present-day stuff, consider your stuff “obsolete”.

  5. Tony, I meant that the aesthetic and technological vision of Cyberpunk 2020 is hopelessly dated from today’s point of view. NMT phones, laptops that weigh as much or more as my tabletop computer and have less processing power than my cell phone, the everpresent mullets and chrome… It’s so very 80’s. I thought the latest edition of Shadowrun did a pretty good job of transferring cyberpunk to the 21st century, though.

    Nuurori, I don’t think it’s fruitful to draw a direct comparison from board games to roleplaying games. The paradigm shift in game design there was more abrupt than anything the RPG field has ever seen, except the shift from Chainmail to Dungeons & Dragons and maybe the emergence of WoD in the early 90’s. An in-depth exploration of the topic is probably something best done elsewhere, such as a full blog post, or perhaps over a pint.

    Joseph, I think we can chalk that one up to differences in taste. Personally, I’m a fan of Pendragon’s take on death in chargen, where you track your grandfather’s and father’s histories and the battles they took part in. Of course, both die at some point, and the variable is how much Glory they managed to accumulate for you (and whether you hate Saxons a lot or even more).

    Sami, indeed, I’ve long ago ceased to be surprised at people being defiantly wrong. I wrote this post because of that.

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