I think the key to understanding the “old school” vs. “new school” (I hear you groan already) is the idea of affordance.
Even if you don’t care about old schoold and new school – and I don’t care about the discussion, I just care about using Labyrinth Lord instead of D&D 4E – even if you don’t care, the idea of affordance is something you might find useful when picking the system for your next campaign, or when figuring out why a particular person is unhappy in their current gaming group.
James Maliszewski started the discussion by claiming that “old school” was more than a feeling; it had to be an element of the system used, otherwise all discussion is immedately made moot. Rob Conley replied by saying that it’s not necessarily an element of the rules, and not just a feeling, it’s an attitude.
A year ago, I would have agreed with Rob. I wanted to play old school games, but my players wanted to use D&D 3.5 rules. No problem, I thought. I’ll just run a game using my old school attitude. But it didn’t work.
The reason is that the system afforded (invited, encouraged, suggested) certain player behaviour that disagreed with my sensibilities behind the screen. I could have tried to fight them every step of the way, but I’m a casual DM. I have better things to do in life than waste time trying to educate grown up people who spend their precious time at my table. They, too, have better things to do.
It reminded me of my earliest attempt to use the Kitsunemori setting. My players didn’t enjoy the changed armor rules, the new weapon list, changed cleric abilities, removal of the monk class, changes to the magic system, and so on. Either it was too much to read, or they had strong desires to try this or that build, or they just didn’t care. Trying to use the setting crunch was a waste of time, and I quickly realized it.
Similarly, trying to use the new rules and play an “old school” game is going to waste a lot of your time. Maybe it’ll work if all your players are specifically interested in it. My players have not been as interested as I, and thus my attempts have fallen flat. My attitude alone was not enough.
It seems to me that you need all the players to buy into the old school attitude. And that, to me, seems to be the equivalent of heavily house-ruling the game, even if you never write down which parts of the rules you will not be using.
System does matter.
Update: For an example, check out 2009-05-25 B ⁄ X Affordances.