Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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What Does “Old School RPG” Mean To You?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 11, 2011

I kinda tripped over this one working on the manual for Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon this weekend. Frayed Knights was inspired by favorite old-school RPGs, particularly games like the Wizardry, Ultima, and Bard’s Tale series. Oddly, when I first started I think I would have listed Wizardry VII: Crusaders of the Dark Savant was my biggest inspiration. It isn’t a game I actually ever played to completion (yet), nor my favorite of the series (that would be Wizardry 8). But I think I was entranced by the potential of the game even more than its actual implementation, and in many ways it epitomized this style of RPG for me. It represented a particular style of RPG at its height. Watching Demiath’s little video here still inspires me and gets me jonesing to pull up my most recent saved games and get playing it some more.

But as much as Wizardry VII acted as a representative for “old school RPG” for me, it’s hardly representative of even the games of its immediate era. It’s really hard for me to really put my finger on what characterizes an “old school RPG” because – seriously – the genre was a lot more diverse 20 years ago than it is today (unless you include indies, who are really bringing that back).

Let’s say you cut off “old school” at 15 years ago – approximately the halfway point of the life of the genre to this point. Now, as of today this would actually disqualify Fallout, Baldur’s Gate, and (by a hair) Diablo. What if we went a little further and just limited it to DOS-based games, eliminating the purely console games or the less popular games on other computer systems? Would there be any unifying characteristics that would set them apart from today’s games, besides purely technological ones?

I’m really not sure.  I played (and enjoyed) Al-Qadim: The Genie’s Curse back in 1994 or so, and that was way more “action” than RPG, D&D license or not.  As I’ve often mentioned, Ultima VII – still my favorite RPG – was almost ridiculously stats-light (and tactics-light) and story-heavy. The Elder Scrolls games are almost direct descendents of Ultima Underworld.  You have a genre that encompasses Rogue, Starflight, Dungeon Master, the AD&D “Gold Box” games, Beyond Zork (marginally), Darklands, Twilight: 2000 (with a 3D tank “simulator” mini-game), Princess Maker (it was released for DOS, after all), Journey, Hillsfar, Space Rogue, Betrayal at Krondor, and… well, you get the idea.

While some can argue about the “RPGness” of some of these titles (I still do), but the bottom line is that it’s a broad field. “Old school” is really either based on subjective preference, or in relation to certain features that were once popular but have since become pretty rare. Things like turn-based combat, or group-based adventures (somewhat distinguished from the player + companions approach found today). Big spell lists, and the need to return to a “home base” to rest up and prepare for the next fight comes to mind. These are hardly universal characteristics, but those are the kinds of things I think of when I think “old school RPG.”

Aside from low-res 2D graphics and ancient interfaces, what does “old school RPG” mean to you?  what features make you feel nostalgic? What game or games epitomize the “old school flavor” in your mind?


Filed Under: Retro - Comments: 20 Comments to Read

  • Shaf said,

    Old School RPG’s were games that required a pad of graph paper in order to properly map the dungeons.

  • Eldiran said,

    When I remnisce about old school RPGs, I think of Exile, Avernum, or Realmz (which I can now see is very inspired by Pool of Radiance). I was a Mac user, so my experiences were limited until recently.

    I also feel nostalgia for Ultima VII: Black Gate even though I first played it less than a year ago. I really miss that emphasis on dialog and the “do anything” design attitude in modern games.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    I guess “old school” for me would mean DOS era games, the ones I grew up with. Ishar, Eye of the Beholder, Ultima, Megatraveller.

    I was more of an adventure gamer back then (Sierra games), so most cRPGs passed me by. Would Quest for Glory count though? The first was released in 1989, but was quite unique (haven’t seen much like it since the series ended either).

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Was QFG an adventure game or RPG? It kinda straddled both sides. I used to think of them as being more adventure games, but I’m a bit mushier now.

  • RandomGamer said,

    I just wrote a bit on this on my restarted dev blog – I think to me, the nostalgic feature is TEXT. Like Fallout/Fallout 2, Baldur’s Gate or, especially, Planescape:Torment – the flavour text, the dialog text, the room descriptions. That’s something that is (mostly) gone from modern RPGs, in favour of voice acting and graphics. And I miss it.

    I stopped my previous dev based on lack of art assets (and the fact that Blender and I do not work nicely together), and my restarted effort is going to leverage text to gloss over the more limited art. 2D tile RPG, here I come.

  • Max said,

    Hmm … old school = antiquated interface and painful to play 🙂

    Personally I split games mainly by sandboxes/story driven. Old school generally means the interface was much less refined , combat awkward and cumbersome (generally turnbased).

    Pretty much epitome of story driven design for me is Darksun. -Fallout ,Baldur’s Gate, PS:T and so on basically all function on exact same template with exact same mechanics. Most of RPG games today are following this template

    There is class of now extinct games- EoB clones (eob’s ishars,lands of lore, etc) -basically dungeon crawlers. I would qualify wizardry in this category as well .When someone says oldschool EoB clones springs up to mind for me – not because it was particularly good games, but because those games are extinct now

    Sandboxy is pretty much Ultima 6-7, UW and Elder Scrolls 1/2.

    The games I feel nostalgic about are something unique (like Darklands) or carrying particularly attractive idea (while far from perfect in implementation like Arena/Daggerfall) . There are some nostalgia just about good games (like Betrayal at Krondor, Darksun ,etc). But frankly there are very few games I would play today- antiquated UI and game mechanics are more of a detriment than something nostalgic.

    Even the Fallout1/2 I could not play today because of turnbased combat . Something like wizardry hostility to player in terms of interface and obscurity of mechanics is a no-no.

  • RandomGamer said,

    Oh, and I know you didn’t consider those ‘Old School’, but I’d definitely slot anything 2D/tiles-based into that category

  • Menigal said,

    It’s not very scientific, but I think it’s the feeling that everyone involved was at least as into RPGs as I was. There’s not been a mainstream game like that in years, so I guess that’s why it’s so linked to the Old School feeling.

  • McTeddy said,

    I usually consider old school… free of modern constraints.

    Today, everything is measured by it’s universal appeal to each an every monkey on the planet. Every game NEEDS a skill tree… NEEDS randomly generated loot… NEEDS a tutorial… NEEDS a cover system… etc.

    Today, we have the rules that define what makes a good game. We have entire websites dedicated to what constitutes good design (e.g. Arrows should point to objectives so the player won’t get lost) and what is a terrible gaming sin (e.g. Killing the player is bad design because it breaks their immersion to the story.)

    So… old school to me… is a game that doesn’t force itself to be something else to fit into arbitrary rules of design. Old school games are things that exhibit a freedom to do things in the way that fits the game… rather than the way that fits popular “Rules”.

    Yes… my definition includes titles of today too. I find “Mount and Blade” to be an old-school game regardless of its age. It uses a unique and clunky combat system, doesn’t have a major overarching story, and doesn’t give the player any direction. These all qualify for “Bad Designer no twinkie”… yet they are what make “Mount and Blade” a special game.

    Oldschool doesn’t mean outdated to me… it means freedom to make the game into what it is supposed to be.

  • Greg Tedder said,

    What a fun Post!

    Wizardry 7 is certainly top tier in my book of favorite old games. Picking a favorite is difficult, because they were all so creative, fun, and still partly experimental. And the interface wasn’t that bad.

    I played MM Worlds of Xeen more hours than any of them. That game was addictive, and shouldn’t be legal in this country.

    The most intriguing was Lord of The Rings, but it was really hard to understand what was going on most of the time. One day I am going to bite the bullet and really dig in, because the atmosphere and feeling of adventure was excellent. The interface was not!

    Ultima 7 I have a love hate relationship with. This game should be remade so that the game play is equal to the game experience.

    Best all round goes to Realms of Arcania, Shadows over Riva. I could not stop playing this game until I beat it. That’s all I’m saying. Unfortunately that is over the limit, so can I throw one I still dabble with, Star Trail. 🙂 I have died more times in star trail over the years than I care to count.

    Daggerfall was huge, and allowed me to go where ever I wanted to go. That was fun!

    I played a lot, but these were the ones that were more fun that work to me.

  • gaiaswill said,

    I’m not that old school a gamer (post-DOS), but to me old school RPG means a combination of things, all of which would be present:
    – willingness to let the player fail (i.e. “difficulty”)
    – stat-driven
    – turn-based
    – text (props to RandomGamer)

    Some other items are commonly found, but not strictly necessary IMO:
    – multiple endings (“easier” to implement with text)
    – 2D, tile or 1st-person
    – dungeon crawling, especially in a tile maze
    – large randomness in stats/growth/loot/all (i.e. “quicksave/load spam” – something I’m personally not sorry to see gone)

  • EHamilton said,

    In addition to the above:

    Any CRPG that starts off feeling difficult and then eventually becomes easier as the system is “figured out” has an old-school flavor to me. Some portion of the emotional engagement in games like Wizardry and BT came from the desire for revenge against a game that seemed extraordinarily difficult the first few times I tried it! Most modern games refuse to allow new players to experience early failures. The “tutorial” or “noob zone” are the antithesis of old-school.

    If the first few times I played a game, I lost/died/restarted, then it feels fairly old-school. If I win it the very first time I play it, that’s modern design. Modern games scale the difficulty to your experience as a player, which takes away some of the satisfaction of mastering them. Older games required you to fight hard just to get a foot in the door.

  • EHamilton said,

    Also, getting lost.

    Early games seemed to delight in creating situations where you were separated from your “home base”, and really had no idea how to get back, or how long it would take. That forced a certain amount of strategic thinking, in that you didn’t have any idea whether you were trying to conserve spells/abilities to last for three fights, or for thirty. That doesn’t happen very often any more – partly because of overly-directive automapping (where every objective is labeled in big blinking symbols), partly because of more linear game designs, and partly because random encounters have been deemphasized to the point of just wasting your time without presenting a challenge.

  • Mark said,

    I came to RPGs through the path of consoles and handhelds, so for me, old school means Dragon Quest III. (Or Dragon Warrior III, they called it back then.)

    It means a world that feels bigger and more detailed than it is by being depicted with sufficiently low fidelity that your imagination fills in the rest. It means being full of secrets and small details, which you can seek out quickly and be rewarded for logically identifying. It means being written with such economy that every line brings you deeper into the world of the game, either by giving usable information, or exposing a portion of a small story that makes it all feel richer. It means being guided so subtly that you don’t even realize that 90% of it is mandatory. It means that there are more soft barriers than hard ones. It means you learn effective strategies by attempting everything you’re capable of, observing the results, failing a few times in the process, and logically combining what you’ve learned. It means that you have an easier time of it by playing the economy for a bit at the start.

    It means you can challenge yourself to an arbitrary degree; imagine an inverted triangle, with defeat at the bottom, and victory through strategy and victory through sheer force occupying the top corners. Your position on the triangle emerges naturally through your own actions in a classic RPG, whereas modern RPGs tend to be designed so that some parts of it are inaccessible. Most commonly, you can’t lose; in some cases, you’re always powerful enough to simply overwhelm the enemy; more rarely, there are games where power is insignificant and you can only win strategically. It’s anybody’s guess which way to play is superior, but old-school means that they’re all possible.

    Unfortunately for many classic PC RPGs, it also means being playable with as little as two buttons plus arrow keys. Early console RPGs, with their limited inputs, developed efficient but limited noun-driven interfaces, whereas PC RPGs tended towards expressive but complicated verb-driven interfaces. The former are characterized by context-sensitivity and, as such, tend to offer fewer options: you can talk to the old man, open the chest, or climb the stairs, but you can’t talk to the stairs, open the old man, or climb the chest. Classic games had no need for further complexity, perhaps with a bit of railroading (you’re the hero, so it doesn’t matter that there’s no way to attempt to murder civilians).

    A lot of old-school RPGs aren’t played any more for a good reason. The ones that hold up best today often exhibit the characteristic that I consider most emblematic of modern game design: consideration for user experience. This might be expressed through gameplay balance, reasons to avoid repetitive safe actions, an immediately comprehensible mode of interaction, early indications of the full size of the possibility space, or even just good graphics.

  • Jason said,

    My reminiscence of “old-school” brings to mind things like:

    * Difficulty: I died a _lot_ in games like Bards Tale. Especially in the early going, until I had some decent equipment. In fact, IIRC, BT2 and BT3 were so sadistic I never even came close to finishing them.

    * Strategic resource management. In the early going, spell management was a major challenge in most AD&D-based games. It seems to me that auto-replenishing resources is a post-old-school feature.

    * Combat tactics. The Gold Box games required lots of attempts at just the right tactics to complete certain battles. It’s been a long time, but I remember these as being challenging.

    * Party Differentiation. It felt to me like the differentiation between character classes was much stronger in earlier games. Now there’s so much of an emphasis on complete character customization that classes and attributes seem to blur together.

    * Party Roles. By the time BG rolled around (ha!), you could get through the game with wildly different party compositions, because so many of the characters were interchangeable. But in player-created party games, you absolutely couldn’t get by without a certain shape to your party. Some combats were simply impossible without something like Cloudkill to funnel the enemies into your fighters.

    * Text. No voice-overs and almost no cut-scenes.

    * Time & commitment. Most of these games took a LONG TIME to complete. They also weren’t “jump-in, jump-out” games – the opposite of “casual.” It usually took time to context-switch the game into your brain, and once you were on a roll, you wanted to get as much out of the session as possible.

    The first and last ones are the biggies for me. I own many of the games discussed (Gold Box, UU, BG, PS:T, Wiz, U3-7, etc.), but there’s no way I could devote enough time and brainpower to these games to finish them given my current life. When I was a kid, and could sit for 8+ hours at a time with my graphing paper and notepad, sure… but not any more. Which is kinda sad, because I have many fond memories playing old-school RPGs, but life moves on!


  • kalniel said,

    Whatever evokes that magical sense of wonder that I used to experience opening the game boxes and delving into new worlds.

    There’s no technical or mechanistic constraints on that experience for, but there is a certain amount of being transported to another place and style of story telling that the written word is able to convey to me that we still can’t match with the most lavish animation or world design tools.

  • sascha said,

    I like the graphics of Wizardry 7 very much. The pixely flip 3D style of the game world had always a special curiosity for me and made the world in such games look all the more fantastic. In comparison Wizardry 8 had very ugly 3D graphics which I didn’t like. But man, is W7 difficult or what?!!

  • Mndrew said,

    Just out of curiosity, have you ever published a review/write-up on the likes of Unlimited Adventures or The Bards Tale Construction Kit? I am always a bit surprised these don’t get mentioned more in these articles.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I loved Forgotten Realms Unlimited Adventures. A lot. Bard’s Tale Construction Set didn’t thrill me as much.

    And as a matter of fact… Skavenhorde has been cooking up some stuff in that respect for a little while now, since he’s pretty much done (for now) with the roguelike stuff. But I’ve got him playing FK for me, so he’s been a little busy. He thinks the difficulty of FK is perfect – but since he’s a roguelike fan, it probably means FK is way too hard right now.

  • Delve said,

    The to me old school means a reliance on stats, a requirement follow your archetype (mages are completely incapable of wielding a useful weapon, warriors look at locks in despair, etc), and *atmospheric* environments. 3D art assets simply cannot provide the kind of immersion into a world that old school descriptive text can.

    The epitome of the old school cRPG imo is the original Hero’s Quest… sorry, Quest for Glory 😛 by Sierra. We can argue all day whether it’s RPG or adventure, but I count it as an RPG. When I say original I mean the first edition purely text driven interface not the mouse based remake. Somewhere in the conversion to the mouse interface it lost some of its charm.