The definition of "old school gaming" is a contested one. There are many interesting opinions out there, including the ones here. I would like to share some of those and some of my own. Eventually, I will discuss the ones described by Matt Finch in his Primer, which carries a great importance in the definition of OS. Although I might differ in some points, it is a very enjoyable read that I would recommend for anyone interested in OS gaming.
One aspect I really enjoy and identify with old school gaming is what I call "Story Later". This is a way to distinguish OS games from more modern RPGs that are focused in creating a narrative with beginning, middle, end, climaxes, cliffhangers, etc.
(Yes, the term is inspired by this article by Ron Edwards; I think my conclusions are quite different, thought. Instead of writing careful counter-arguments for a twelve-year-old article that has been discussed more times than I can count, I think it will be more interesting to talk about my own experiences. Since I don't fully subscribe to the theory, I see no need to adopt the jargon as well).
Some RPGs have mechanics to enforce a story "flow"; Robin Laws, one of my favorite designers, has created great games based on the idea that a session should be managed with "ups and downs" similar to the ones you can see in a play or a movie, for example. Other examples are Fate RPG and Lady Blackbird, games where the management of meta-game currencies (dice pools, fate points) makes you more likely to succeed after you fail many times and vice-versa. D&D 5e has something similar, to a limited extent, in the Inspiration mechanic.
|By Robin Laws - source.|
"No longer were adventures "modules," implying they could be swapped in and out of campaigns with minimal impact. Now, they had to tell a coherent narrative that was dramatically satisfying."
James points similar approaches in the Desert of Desolation and Ravenloft modules, for example. His stance is a critical one, although he recognizes the success of that approach at the time.
There is an important distinction to be made here, so you don't take this the wrong way. This early "story" modules are described as "railroad-y", meaning the players had little input in the story. Railroading has become some kind of offense nowadays, even though that are still people that don't mind it - although even of those people would probably be appalled by the idea of a PC dying by GM fiat. Now, I don't like railroading, but I will not tell others how they should play their games.
The important thing to keep in mind for the folks that eschew "story" is that railroading is not the only path to story creation. The "modern" games I mentioned above are great example on how to encourage story "flow" without resorting to railroads (some would say that they are incompatible, as there is no story creation if the story is already written). I would even say that this methods are better than the ones originally used by Dragonlance, at least for my tastes. The downside is that the "climaxes", resolutions", etc, aren't guaranteed without previous planning, but clever mechanics may enhance the probability that they should happen at the right time.
I think one way to explain the success of the "story" is that "a coherent narrative that is dramatically satisfying" is not a bad thing. In fact, it is often the way our brain works. We naturally expect such things, and I would dare to say that they can make our games a lot more fun - whether old school or new school.
Here is how Nassim Nicholas Taleb defines the narrative fallacy in The Black Swan:
The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.
The thing is, because our brains work that way, you don't actually need to pursue a narrative in order to create one. As far as my own experience goes, there is a natural pull towards "story" even among people that eschew the idea.
This is a point where I disagree with Edwards, as I think that story WILL, in fact, "consistently emerge from play that does not prioritize it". You see, story will even consistently emerge from our lives, because this is how our brain works. Our lives aren't stories, but simple sequences of events; still, when we think about the past, we cannot help but creating stories.
Whats more, we are creating stories during the events. I am having a change in my job next year, and I have thought a millions times about "how it will end". But it will not "end"; some things will happen, some things will be different, but most things will just continue, No true "resolution" other than the one I create in my head.
I believe this happens during old school games as well. Even if you character doesn't have a name, or dies in the first "scene", you will usually be thinking about what happens next, and will inevitably create a narrative to suit the events.
The difference, then, is one of focus. Old school players, the way I see it, aren't focused on creating a story during play, but they subconsciously create a narrative during the story anyway.
The question that arises is: are there any guarantees that the story will be "coherent" and "dramatically satisfying" enough? For me, the answer is NO, not necessarily - specially if viewed from the outside. In fact, games focused on creating stories might, well, create better stories (and that is a whole different thing, one I can enjoy too).
Think of it this way: I'm a regular guy. If I tell you some stories about my life, it might bore you to tears. Still, these stories are interesting to me because they happened to me. I didn't find a soul-mate, got a job, traveled around, etc, to create stories, but, ultimately, to be a part of something. If I were focused on creating a narrative during the events, I think it might detract from the whole experience; but the stories I can tell about such things are usually easier to remember than most stuff I have read from C.A Smith, R.E Howard and others.
Old school gaming, for me, is like that: it creates interesting stories not because they follow a three-act structures or use effective plot devices, but because we are focused on participating as they as they happen.
We have fun now, and tell stories later.