Nothing says Old School to me like a level-based advancement system. For me, I just can't separate one from the other. Which is why in my mind, Palladium games will always be "Old School" no matter how many editions of Rifts they publish, and the oldest versions of Stormbringer from Chaosium still feels “new.”
I agree with James over at Grognardia…I think that Old School gaming could stand to have some more concrete definitions (it’s NOT just about attitude) and Level systems are part of it.
What do I mean by “levels” anyway? 4th edition D&D has levels, is it Old School? No…levels are only PART OF Old School play, not the whole enchilada.
When I’m talking about “Levels” I am talking about games that have tables that scale character effectiveness based on points earned in the game. That’s it…pure and simple. Many original TSR games fell into this pile: D&D, Gamma World (rank), Boot Hill (number of gun fights), Top Secret (level). Marvel Superheroes is where TSR starts stepping away from the level paradigm (but as Ron Edwards has pointed out, MSH is one of the first RPGs that has the ability to facilitate a Narrativist creative agenda. It is interesting for a lot of reasons besides its color-bar Action Table).
These games offer something very specific…a method of keeping score (points) PLUS a set and scaled type of effectiveness. A 7th level fighter is different from a 1st level fighter in the following ways: hit dice, attack effectiveness, saving throws. A 7th level cleric is different from a 1st level cleric in these ways: hit dice, attack effectiveness, saving throws, number of spells, turning effectiveness.
They have the same basic abilities whether they’re 1st level or 7th (they can attack, they can absorb damage, they can save versus effects, some can cast spells). But you know what to expect from the character…you are playing an archetype that simply becomes a better version of its archetype. Character is only a vehicle to explore the game.
Boot Hill, Gamma World, and Top Secret are even OLDER school in that there is so little that distinguishes one character from another. A 3rd level Investigator versus a 3rd level Confiscator? A rank 4 humanoid versus a rank 3 humanoid?
Don’t let the random trappings fool you into thinking something else “distinguishes” characters. Randomness is randomness. I could roll a human fighter with an 18/58 strength or a human magic-user with 18/58 strength. I could roll a humanoid mutant with Life Leech or a mutant animal with Life Leech. I could find a +3 sword in a treasure pile whether I was 3rd level or 10th level or regardless of class…these trappings are at the whims of fate (whether “fate” means the dice, or who you happen to have as a DM placing treasure).
Old School levels represent something left over from wargaming…the prominence of certain playing pieces compared to others. Are you a General or a Captain? A flunky or a hero?
How many gunfights have you had? (Boot Hill)
What level are you in the agency? (Top Secret)
What’s your status in the community (Gamma World)
This is why a game like Heroes Unlimited or TMNT is very Old School. Are you a 5th level superhero or a 1st level one?
This is also one of the reasons D20 is NOT Old School. In D20, Level can represent increased effectiveness and status…or not. Advancing in Level in D20 means giving your character more OPTIONS, more choices. Do you want to add a 2nd (or 5th or 12th) class? Go ahead. Do you want to keep improving the ranks in the skills you have? Or do you want to spread your points around new, non-class skills? Do you want to follow a particular Feat path or not?
New School play is about customizing a persona…any “Point Buy” system of character creation, whether its Champions, Vampire the Masquerade, or D20 Star Wars is about this. Anything where CHOICE in character development…making YOUR GUY...is New School, not Old School.
(and I believe it is precisely because of this that “personalization” = “attachment to MY GUY” = “no character death” in RPGs, which I personally don't like)
Even a game like 1st edition Stormbringer has more customization inherent in it…after all, you get to pick which skills you use (thereby determining which skills get better, thereby customizing your character)…but the high mortality rate keeps players from getting too attached in a true New School way.
Old School play is about the play itself, not about the character. Are you enjoying the challenge of play? Are you gaining points? Character becomes an afterthought (and achieves prominence) depending on results within play.
Games like Traveler and Marvel Superheroes, I believe, are effectively hybrid games…not quite Old School, but not yet New School. Chronologically and design-wise, they define a stepping stone in between…I guess you could call it “Middle School.”
Chew on that!