I published a post last year about what makes a game “old school.”
My thesis is that old school is a mindset, not a ruleset. It’s not the mechanisms of the game that make it old school. It’s the implementation of the mechanisms that make the game old school.
Part of my thesis states classic adventure games require player character “teamwork.” Last week, I had a lateral thought during a conversation with a friend that solidified that element of old school games in my mind.
A valid but insufficient argument.
You might be saying that many “new school” games and adventures have teamwork as a feature. I agree, they do. Teamwork is an element that exists in these games but not to the degree it exists in old school games. It’s a matter of intensity.
In old school games, teamwork feels like its is an absolute requirement. Each player character have individual goals but all of them are in service to or aligned with the group’s objective.
My experience of contemporary game design feels like being part of a group of individuals working toward the resolution of their individual character arcs while ostensibly serving some greater purpose. The group objective seems more like a superficial pretext for a group of protagonists to take turns showing off than an objective that requires the specific and different talents of each character.
I felt this was true for a long time. Intuition isn’t enough to make a solid argument. In my original mindset essay, I provide these elements as an argument for teamwork taking a central role in “old school” games.
- Each character has an area of specialization that is required for team success.
- Modern games tend to produce characters that are mechanically similiar.
- Scenario design in old school games tend to require a wider variety of character abilities.
- Many character abilities in modern games are mechanically the same even though they are labelled differently. (One character can use persuasion and another intimidate to get the same outcome.)
These are not strong arguments. There are a lot of caveats and exceptions. Still, for a long time, my gut feeling was that old school games required a deeper cooperation, collaboration, and teamwork than most contemporary games.
My conversation with my friend helped me find the missing piece to my argument.
Allow me to lay this out. It will take a few steps before we get to the reveal.
Our ability to cooperate is what makes us the dominant species on this planet.
Large groups of humans combining their individual strengths, contributing their specialized skills and knowledge, as a team, can produce astounding achievements.
The party objective is what drives the teamwork in many games. Each player contributes something to achieve the objectives of the group. Goals are achieved through teamwork.
Our first concern is survival.
We all have weaknesses. Without the contributions of our fellow humans, those weaknesses would be lethal.
Without teamwork, we die. An individual working alone can survive but usually not for long. A tribe of humans working together increases our chances of survival.
In old school games characters tend to be far more fragile than characters in newer games. There are many arguments for and against the character mortality that old school games have.
Here is another argument in favor of character mortality.
It is the lethality of old school games that produces the intense degree of teamwork that characterises those games.
- Each character has areas of specialization that are fenced off from other characters.
- The distinct strengths of each character compliment the different distinct strengths of the other characters.
- Each character has distinct areas of weakness that are different from other characters.
- Those weaknesses can have fatal consequences for the character.
- The strengths of of one character compliment weaknesses of the other characters.
Through cooperation and collaboration the player characters survive encounters that would have been lethal.
The magic user is an easy to hit target with few hit points.
The fighter has can only fight a few foes at a time.
The thief is vulnerable in toe to toe fights.
The cleric can only fight a few foes at a time and has fewer hit points than the fighter.
The fighter protects the wizard who can defeat/neutralize large numbers of foes with magic. The cleric keeps the fighter in the battle and protects the party with spells while the thief sneaks into place to take care of enemy spell casters from behind.
In non combat situations, the thief finds and disarms traps that would kill everyone else. The wizard detects magic, reads ancient languages to decipher riddles that helps the party to avoid dangers or acquire objects that will protect them. Dwarves can observe changes in the dungeon environment that clue the party into danger.
Team cohesion is knowing your mates have your back.
The real key to understanding why old school games demand teamwork isn’t that each character has something to contribute to the achievement of the objectives of the party; It is that each character has a fatal weakness and they rely on the other party members to survive.
The difference is subtle but it makes massive difference in the feel between the classic editions and the current editions.
The feeling of being part of a team isn’t only about winning and achieving goals. It is knowing that when you are at your most vulnerable, your friends have your back. The lethality of old-school games combined with the individual weaknesses of each character offset by the strengths of other party members helps to create the team-cohesion that characterises old school games.