Old vs. New School: The War for Control of Your Character
Dungeons & Dragons has changed a lot of the years. There’s a thousand small differences between each edition of the game: stat generation methods, class balance, hit point totals, power by level, etc. With that said, the biggest distinction is one of philosophy. This split is not the hotly debated one between 3.5 and 4e, but one between new school (defined here as 3e and later) and old school (pre-3e) D&D. The philosophical chasm that divides the two camps is the issue of control. Specifically, who controls the development and fate of your character. Old school D&D rests much of the control over the PCs to the DM. New school has it resting almost entirely with the person playing the character.
The clothes make the man. This is doubly true when they are magical. The magic items a character uses can have a huge a impact on his fighting style, mechanical development and even his personality. I would argue that in old school D&D that was even more true. Compare any random magic object from the 2nd edition Encyclopedia Magica to an item from the 3.5 DMG. I did just that, opening both books and reading the first magic item my eyes fell on. The Ring of Improved Jumping can be a fun magic item, but it has nothing on the old school Timeglass of the Wizard. That hourglass can slow, speed up and stop time. It can even reverse aging on the user, at the cost of levels! Any character who gains that hourglass will likely travel a much different story arc than one who had missed it. The same cannot likely be said for the Ring of Jumping. Cursed items add another dimension to this, often forcing a character down a new path. They are all but gone in the latest edition. The only things that simulate the effects are characters using evil artifacts.
Regardless of the relative power of artifacts, the important thing is the person who gives them out. In every edition of D&D, it is the Dungeon Master who has the task of handing out treasure including all magic items. This is true, but misleading. In old school D&D, the DM did it either by random chart, his or her own judgement or giving in to the pleading of players. In new school D&D, magic item creation is much more viable for players, it is generally easier to buy the items you want and in 4e players are even encouraged to submit wishlists for their DM to follow. The DM is still able to deny or overrule these methods, but he’s gone from making decisions on his own to approving the decisions of others.
Race, Class, and Stats
In the new school days, race and class combinations are limitless. If you wanted to be a Gnome Barbarian, have at it! It was not always so. What races could be which classes was tightly restricted, any deviations required begging the DM. Additionally, certain classes were highly restricted by the stats you had rolled. Good luck being a paladin! The DM had major control of the power level and classes available by what stat generation method he allowed. There’s a huge difference between rolling 3d6 in order and rolling 4d6 and assigning them. One of them produces a character, the other produces a character resembling what you want. The DM has that choice. These days stats require special permission to be rolled.
Old school D&D also carried different assumptions about books. Anything outside the main rules was considered optional and unavailable until the DM approved it. These days it is the opposite, all books are core and available unless overrulled by the DM.
Death Traps and Wish You Were Dead Traps
Nothing has a character impact on a character’s development that if he’s alive or dead. Killing a character has gotten progressively more difficult as D&D goes on. Characters have more hit points, especially at low levels. They also have more healing and defensive options available to them. Going from unconcious to dead is harder now than ever. Instant death traps and save or die effects are stripped out of the newest edition but were less common even in 3.x. If characters do die, it is easier to bring them back so long as they are willing to return. The big question has become “does the player want to keep playing that character?” rather than “will the DM allow us the means to bring him back?”.
The DM’s ability to inflict permant wounds on the character has also diminished. Monsters and traps that permantly drain stats or levels were diminished and then gone entirely. The longest lasting effect you can apply in 4e is a disease, which generally lasts only a few days and can be cleared up easily with a ritual. As long a character doesn’t die in a battle, they will come out the other side clean. Potentially character changing setbacks and changes are gone from the DM’s toolbox.
Where We Are
This is not meant to be a condemnation of either method, just an observation. I’ve met many players who would loathe a DM controlling the fate of their character. Some have a vision in mind of how they want the character to go from humble origins to being a great hero. Others just don’t want their abilities left up to someone else’s whims. I’ve also met players who don’t want to be in full control. They would rather have their character develop organically and be surprised at the results. Luckily, many of those sorts of people have continued to making games. People who would rather have control rest in the Game Master or have many modern options. Although old D&D is still a fine choice, don’t be afraid to branch out. You may find a game that maintains the old school flavor you love, but is an even better fit for you.
Personally I fall into both camps. Sometimes I have a vision for a character and would hate for it to be tampered with. I play those characters in 4e. I never like elements that restrict character creation (random stat gen, race or class restrictions), but I still want to be surprised at my character’s development. For those situations, I play Burning Wheel.
How do you feel about the difference between old and new school? Do favor one over the other?