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I recently read about D&D clones in another question (I forget where I saw it) and noticed comments referring to gaming systems that were clones of D&D as "Old School" while others incorporated more "Modern" styles of gaming.

I'm just getting back into playing after a decade or more hiatus and am curious to understand what characteristics are considered Modern.

For example, I assume after a decade of gaming system refinements, certain best practices have risen to the top that were noticeably absent in D&D 1st and 2nd edition (when I played last).

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10 Answers 10

up vote 61 down vote accepted

I resisted my initial desire to just jump in with the first answer I came up with. After a long period of consideration, I have the following to offer:

A modern game is differentiated by design intention. Here's what I mean:

Original games were designed to enable play. Period. They were creating a new paradigm, and the questions we ask about games today were inarticulable then - we didn't have the vocabulary to formulate them yet.

But modern games (by this definition) are designed to do more than just enable play. They are designed to facilitate (or sometimes, enforce!) a particular kind of play. They were designed knowing that system does matter. That means that their structure and mechanics are designed to create a certain kind of play. For example:

GURPS is an old-school game. It seeks to simulate reality by allowing characters to be defined by a small set of descriptive attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Health) and an enormous set of advantages, disadvantages, and skills. It provides a mechanic to determine success and failure, and a model for physical injury. In this way it seeks to enable the gamer to play any sort of story he would like.

Apocalypse World is a modern game. It seeks to model a certain kind of story. The Moves in Apocalypse World frequently have an impact on the structure of the narrative in addition to an effect in the fiction and simulation of the game. What I mean is, you might take an in-game action that forces you to change your relationship with another PC, because of the game mechanics. That's because Apocalypse World is designed to create that particular style of play, where what's happening between PCs is part of the tension that drives the world.

I'm not sure that it is possible any more to design an old-school game. If your design intention is to be "old school" and you power that decision with your game's structure and mechanics, you've made a modern game. I think that D&D 4e is a modern game, just for example.

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Generally, Old School refers to a style of play. Modern, when used for styles of play, has a much more nebulous collection of meanings. Modern, when referring to settings, generally means anything set post 1975 (a 10 year difference from the official historical definition of 1965 and on...).


That Old School style can be summarized with "Kill Them And Take Their Stuff" and/or "Prepared Environment." It also tends to emphasize "Let the dice fall where they may" and "Rulings, not Rules."

Most early games focused on the killing. While many groups didn't do so, the rules certainly did, and most of the early games look more like character scale minis games than a means of shared storytelling. The combat systems are usually almost purely battlefield action, whether it be mano a mano or army a army.

Prepared Environment, very much like the Montessori teaching method, you do lots of prep on the environment, and drop the subjects in to see what they learn by hitting the prepared encounters. The simplest to run is the classic dungeon; draw it, stock it, and coerce PC's into it. New school games often allow players to alter the setting on the fly, and frequently have methods of play written in that make most preplanning irrelevant.

Let the dice fall where they may... one of the attitudes often associated with "Old School Play," in part due to Gygax's admonitions to do so, means that once you roll the dice, you accept the results. If you attack the dragon, and roll a 1, you missed, now get ready for the GM to have him attack you. And if he rolls a 20, well, that's likely to be a critical hit... and a dragon doing a crit usually means time to let the dice fall where they may for the next character.

"Rulings, not Rules" is the motto of many in the "Old School Revival"... an attitude that it's better to have a light, simple set of vague rules and the GM makes rulings on the fly, rather than a heavy, comprehensive and detailed simulation ruleset.


The "Modern" school of thought focuses a lot on the nature of non-combat play. It's not a unified and codified group, but a clade of several related outgrowths of the 90's several styles. It's characterized by several different traits: Social Conflict mechanics, narrative structure as part of rules, new ways of looking at character definition, many delve into rolling or bidding for Narrative control, and many (including my own designs) have latched on to D. Vincent Baker's admonition of "Say yes or roll the dice," the "Yes, And" and "Yes, But" corollaries , and the Luke Crane axioms of "know your reward cycles," "write down what you want conflict over," and "Tell me what you want not what you try." Finally, many change who the final say is. (All of which see below.)

Social conflict is the most common "new school" element - extending resolution out of the realm of the physical and into social and emotional realms. Systems regulate those debates, so that the player who is a master debater with the CHR 3 character actually winds up losing, and the stuttering teen with the Chr 18 palladin actually wins them.

Narrative structure as part of several games is written into the rules. Rather than leave the narrative flow to the GM, many have quite detailed processes for narrative control. Some enforce scene budgets, others have shared GMing, and quite a few have ways for players to add things into the setting mid-session; Rather than making a knowledge roll and asking the GM, you instead make an assertion, the GM sets a difficulty, and if made, the assertion is true.

Narrative Control: A few games have a traditional GM, but instead of having him/her decide difficulties on actions of import, players either bid for, roll for, or some hybrid thereof, the ability to make the decision as to who succeeds and who fails. Some such systems can get rather involved... Several of John Wick's designs make use of this. You don't roll for success, but for the chance to decide.

Character Definition: many of the more recent games are doing different things in setting up how characters are defined. Some have no attributes, or attributes that don't seem to be innate. Smallville uses Relationships, for example. John Wick's Blood & Honor has no skills, and no way of raising attributes, but you have a raisable level in your job, and aspects that affect your ability to perform.

D. Vincent Baker's Admonition: "Say 'Yes' or Roll the dice"... often, many new school games point to "GM's shouldn't say 'no!'" If in doubt, go to the dice. And there are also ways to say Yes but not give in, such as "Yes, but ..." and "Yes, and then...". But, unless it's important to the story or implausible that they succeed, just let players have their characters succeed. Or let them succeed, and then something else mitigates it.

Luke Crane has several bits of advice peppering his very successful Burning Wheel and it's descendant games. Building on Vincent's advice, he suggests only going to the dice when failure is interesting. Luke also encourages people to know the reward cycles, and use them to drive the game forward, and to work them as both GM and/or player.

What you want, not how you try: Luke goes to great lengths, as do some other designers, about getting players to tell the GM what you want from a success. Rather than, "I attack the rope holding up the chandelier," instead, "I want to stop the duke from attacking the countess. I'll use my sword to knock down the chandelier, to trap him in it..." It's wordier, but it defines the goal... a failure then isn't leaving the chandelier up, but missing the duke, or hitting him but not preventing his attack on the countess.

What do you want to struggle with? This is the fundamental question in many new school games. In writing your character, you explicitly provide instructions for the "GM to poke here." Luke Crane makes extensive use of this in defining a character's "Beliefs and Instincts"... You define a belief and it's resulting action... and the GM uses that to bait you. And if you stick to the belief, you get a reward. If you instead act against it, you get a different reward. The FATE engine also uses a "poke me here" mechanic, called Aspects. Every aspect is a two edged sword - it can be used by you to enhance your character, and against your character to earn a reward....

Many also move final approval (of rules interpretations, of characters, of setting elements, even of bad guys in some games) out of the GM's hands, and to the group's hands as a whole.

No one game has all of these (tho' Luke Crane & Chris Moeller's Burning Empires comes pretty close).


In Between: in the late 1980's and early 1990's, a lot of very odd games came out. Most went nowhere, developing a few fans in a local area... but a few did things very differently, and made big impacts. Several are of note - they still go strong, in their fan-bases - and still get derided by many.

The White Wolf school of thought marries fairly traditional game mechanics to a story first mentality, and adds ways to bypass rolling the dice. Rich settings, rife with conflict, and setting books written from a non-omniscient, in world point of view, often contradictory to other sourcebooks.

The Rolemaster Mode: Tables for everything. Rolemaster gets started in 1981, but really hits its stride in the very late 1980s - 1988-1992. Tables for every weapon, lots of details to look up. If you can find the right tables when you need them, it's a fast and fun game... but it tends to bog down with new players due to the massive piles of tables. (Last time I ran it, for a party of 4, I, as the GM, needed about 20 tables to hand, each 8.5x11, and the players each had their one 1-2 weapon's tables copied and in front of them.)

Hero, GURPS, CORPS, Masterbook, EABA: The Universal Systems. Several games arose in the late 80's and early 90's using a single unified game engine for multiple settings, and use point based characters. EABA, one of the most recent, I happen to have playtested. Hero was one of the first point based systems, and Champions 1st ed was noted for incredible flexibility... so much so that they adapted it to other settings (Justice Inc, Danger International, Robot Warriors, Fantasy Hero) each incorporating a slightly modified version of the rules, and later released it as a core rules set and separately sold world books. GURPS started with Core and Worldbooks, each sold separately, and still works that way. Masterbook was almost always "Bundle the Core Rules in the box with the worldbook".

Palladium, BRP, Cortex, LUG's Icon, Decipher's Coda, GDW, and FFG's games- The House Engines: Several companies use the same core rules in all their games, but adapted to various settings, tho' not much; they reprint the core rules in each game. Palladium, once you learn one game, the only things differing are the magic lists, classes and races available, and sometimes a few genre emulation rules. BRP was skill based, but otherwise, each game included the same basic engine, but additions made to tailor it to the setting of that particular game - until recently, that is, when it went to core + worldbooks. GDW used the same engine with slight tweaks for Twilight 2000 second edition, Dark Conspiracy, Cadillacs and Dinosaurs and Traveller the New Era. Last Unicorn released 3 Star Trek games and a Dune game all using their Icon system; each was stand alone, but each used exactly the same skill and combat mechanics. Decipher only released two: Star Trek and Middle Earth, and there are slight differences between the two, but if you know one, the other's a quick pickup. The currently in print 40K RPG's by Fantasy Flight (Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, Deathwatch, Black Crusade) are another example of house engine, but one where character generation and growth varies, especially the power level and psionics rules, but the majority of the mechanics don't change. By comparison, FFG's Star Wars line is identical rules, save for a key flavor rule, and different classes, opponents, vehicles, and force powers in the (currently 2) core rulebooks. Note that FFG's Star Wars line uses a very close variation on their WFRP 3rd Ed system.

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Holy macaroni! That was a good long answer. –  Tobias Wärre Jun 19 at 8:23

Modern D&D

I think this question mixes up two things. D&D, old school vs new school, can be answered reasonably. RPGs in general, large scale trends then vs now, can also be answered. Mixing the two is pointless as they are in many ways contradictory. For example, games in general have gotten lighter and more streamlined over time (see my other answer), but D&D has gotten even larger and even more exception-based.

Specifically within the world of D&D, which is 99% of what is under debate in "old school vs new school" discussions, the progression of editions has been marked by more reconciliation of the core mechanic while also bearing an explosion of rules atop it. Though there are exceptions, and it's not always a linear progression, in general movement across the D&D decades has been towards:

  • Increased player entitlement vs DM control (less Rule 0/GM Fiat)
  • Focus on rules as written/rules mastery and emphasis on character optimization
  • Focus on tactical combat (esp. w/minis) over exploration
  • Focus on "genre" tropes over medieval historical authenticity and game world simulation
  • Greater character power especially at low levels; higher and more custom built stats and more powers and damage and gear
  • Plotted campaigns vs sandboxes (though this one is more variable)
  • Published material vs homebrew

Some of these changes in later D&D, especially late 3.5 and 4e, caused some analysis on the change in focus over the years, where people preferring the old school approach have published manifestos around an "Old School Renaissance" movement like A Quick Primer For Old School Gaming that attempt to define and capture the old school elements that are not the focus in the newer editions.

Of course it is possible to mix the old school vs new school approaches. Some "retro-clones" try to maintain the wonkiness of the original D&D core mechanics, but others like Castles & Crusades try to keep a lot of the old school trappings but also update the rules to be more unified. And some folks even try to make D&D 4e more Old School. There is a bit of an inevitable relationship, however, between in depth skill/feat/power systems and mechanization over imagination so there are a lot of campaigns that fall at various points on that continuum based on the D&D edition at hand and the experience and inclination of the players.

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Modern RPGs In General

As a completely separate answer for RPGs in general and specifically not including D&D - there are a lot of things in "modern" RPGs (defined as new games being sold today) that are not new. Back early on there were diceless games (Amber), super skill heavy games (Rolemaster), super point build heavy games (Champions), etc. And since there have been tens of thousands of RPGs published over the decades, in any given month you'll see a lot that share all kinds of old and new characteristics.

Modern RPGS fall into four major categories.

  1. D&D and related. A world unto itself, see my other answer.
  2. All the old games, in their 5th-6th edition. Shadowrun, Champions, CoC/BRP/RQ, etc. Largely like they used to be, with some minor cleanup.
  3. New skill based games. Long list of skills, some combat mechanics. Grouped in with #2 and sometimes #1 as "trad" games. "Average new RPG you find in a hobby store" probably falls into this category.
  4. Indie games. Experimental so there's a variety, but there are some very strong threads of convergence here, mainly moving away from simulation to a gamist/narrativist mix where stories are created by prescriptive mechanics and sometimes a single gimmick. You can see its imprint a little bit on D&D 4e. Fiasco/Dogs In The Vineyard/Dread/Poison'd/Grey Ranks/Primetime Adventures/My Life With Master/etc. The most "modern" by some measures, but still on the fringe of the hobby and not appearing in many game shops so most people haven't actually read/played one.

So really "modern" means...

  • Many gamers don't like modern things they play all the same games from the 1980s anyway
  • Skill system based games are the stock lowest common denominator for a new game
  • Gamist/narrativist systems on the edge influence some of the mainstream
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Your use of "Modern" isn't terribly clear.

I think what you may be talking about is an "Indie Style" game. "Traditional Style" and "Old School" RPGs mean different things, but the essence of the system is the concept of a game master who's a Super-Player and gets to make the lion's share of the decisions in the game. In an "Indie" game, the players influence the story every bit as much as the GM, and the GM is just another player who can take slightly different actions than the PCs.

You can argue that 4e D&D is more "Indie" since there are more rules for the GM to follow, but I don't buy it since the GM still controls the game by creating the world and the adventure for the PCs to explore so it's still "Traditional" to me.

"Indie" games let the players define the stakes of conflict and control the story as much as the GM. Dogs in the Vineyard focuses on player-defined conflict stakes, and that was my first solid introduction to "Indie" style games. I'm working with Leverage right now which lets the players decide when and how to introduce new elements and complications in the story.

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I think this generalisation about players defining the stakes in indie games rather too broad. Yes, it's often seen, because it's a useful technique. But it's far from universal. –  Dave Hallett May 3 '11 at 16:42
    
Player-defined stakes is what I think of when someone says, "Indie game." Like any other generalization there are cases where it just doesn't hold true, so I agree that it's not universal. –  T.W.Wombat May 3 '11 at 17:41

I think what characterises modern games most accurately, would be diversity.

Early games tended to stick within recognised patterns. Some games defined everything with linear classes, others relied primarily on improving individual skills, while others based everything on improving your stats. Many early games fell into one of these three.

These days though, we have an enormous variety of different styles and mechanisms. There is a much wider variance in the simple/complex axis and the realistic/cinematic axis. Indeed there are many more axes now than there were, narrative/simulationinst, clockwork/chaotic, action/introspection.

Since the beginning, new games have introduced new concepts to the hobby, new ways of thinking about characters, new ways of interacting with your environment.

I may not approve of, or care about all of these innovations, but it makes for a dynamic and ever changing hobby. I buy far more games than I can hope to ever run or play, but each one adds something to the corpus of our hobby, and ideas from one game can makes other games more interesting, fun or thought provoking.

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I think "modern" RPGs are more streamlined, meaning less (type of) dice, less (type of) throws, and general-sounding rules that can be applied to almost anything. For example, compare AD&D 2nd Edition vs D&D4. Compare MERPS to GURPS.

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So, more streamlined than 'melee' or 'Tunnels & Trolls'? Doubt it. –  LordVreeg May 1 '11 at 1:32
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Welcome, mate! I'm curious of your definition of streamlining. I can see some arguments that modern RPGs are certainly more accessable but I'm not sure what you mean. Could you give us some examples? –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton May 1 '11 at 11:03

Some of the differences tend to be more in view and play then actual game changes. There are some real differences though.

  1. Skills - Modern games generally try to define exactly what a character can do while old school doesn't. Both make sense for the reason they give. Modern games say they want to define things to show ability while old school tries not to because well, if you include a ride skill then hero's start falling off their horses.
  2. Character Generation - Modern games try to have all kinds of options so you can personally customize every little thing. While this can be nice it does take quite a bit of time. Older editions of say D&D take very little time to compared to the newer editions. Both methods are fine depending on what you want. Newer makes it easier to make create an epic hero while the older lets you get right into the game and when you die lets you get back in right away.
  3. Rules Density - Newer games tend to have a rule for everything and they try to make the rules as standardized as possible. This comes from the designers trying to make the games less reliant on a DMs skills. In old school games there tends to be a reliance on rulings not rules. I am a little biased on this one because newer games are trying to standardize fun and that sounds as fun as an educational game.

There may be more as I am not that up to date with the newest editions of D&D and that is the game where most of these things happen because other roleplaying games either have not changed enough or are new.

In reference to the clones you mention they are not in general older editions done with modern style of gaming. They are just the old games made in a form that is usable without bothering with copyright problems. An example would be Labyrinth Lords which copy the rules of the classic D&D as closely as possible using the OGL. The Wikipedia article does a better job explaining it then I could.

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No. Runequest is as skill driven as any, and that would be considered Old School, and Aftermath is ancient, and has more rulese denisty than most before or after. I respectfully disagree. –  LordVreeg May 1 '11 at 1:22
    
You are probably correct as my knowledge beyond D&D is lacking. –  Akhier the Dragon hearted May 1 '11 at 2:52
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I think this answer is correct for D&D and related, but that's different from the game landscape in toto. And that's OK, I'm not sure if there is a single answer to what a modern RPG is in general. –  mxyzplk May 1 '11 at 16:26
    
-1 for talking about D&D as though it were all RPGs, when it seems you have rather incomplete knowledge of D&D, let alone anything else. But edit to make this clear, and I'll happily change it to +1. –  Dave Hallett May 1 '11 at 18:17
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-1 multiple factual errors. {1} many modern games don't use skills (HOTB, B&H, C&C) {2} is overgeneralized. {3} Rules density is in fact just the opposite. Most are not rules for everything, but instead more consistent systems. –  aramis May 4 '11 at 5:55

I think one characteristic of the more modern PRG is, as DustinDavis outlines, an increased focus on the flow of the turns and a certain importance being placed in the flavour of skills and combat moves. So less number crunching and more action might be a good way of summarising it.

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In my opinion, a modern role-playing game is characterized by a highly streamlined rule system with few, if any, exceptions to the rules, and very little focus on simulation, thus providing fast gameplay.

In practice, there would be one mechanic to solve task resolution (a dice throw against a target number, details of which depend on the game system, obviously), with one way to adjust difficulty (Shadowrun and the World of Darkness games used to have two means to change difficulty: Changing the dice pool, and adjusting the success threshold), with not every little detail of the game world being modelled, which results in fewer rolls being made against fewer possible statistics (compare the skill list of AD&D with D&D4, for example).

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