Thursday, June 30, 2011

Why "Old School" Games Suck

"Old School" games suck, and are a blight upon our hobby.  They are outdated, wrong-headed, and unfun.  And I will prove it.

OK, then, that ought to generate some traffic.  *grin*

What I'm actually going to say here is why *I*, specifically, don't like old school games.  I've come to several realizations of the underlying reasons why they don't appeal to me.

Source Material - When you read OSR blogs or listen to podcasts, the proponents often speak of capturing the essence of sword & sorcery classics such as Howard and Lieber.  I realized a while ago (specifically, about halfway through the interview with James Raggi on RPG Circus) that part of my problem is that I don't like Howard and Lieber.  I've tried several times to get into them, and get bored every time.  My inspirations are Burroughs and Lester Dent, Dumas and Sabatini, and, of course, modern epic fantasy like Pern and Melanie Rawn.  Once I understood that I wasn't interested in telling the same type of stories as the OSR, I became a lot more comfortable with the idea that I didn't need to enjoy their games.

Random Death - Many proponents of OSR point to modern games as being all namby-pamby with their protection of characters.  They want to save versus death, damn it!  And surviving an adventure only has any meaning if you could have died at any turn!  No risk, no reward!  I simply don't buy into that mentality.  I don't want my guy to be a hero because he was able to avoid dying.  I want my guy to be a hero because he makes tough choices and stands up for what's right.  I want to tell (and discover) his story, not just the random series of things that happen to him.  As such, I really don't like random death.  Been there, done that, have the chair reserved on the banks of the Styx to show for it.  (Seriously, one of my characters does.)  I'm not all about protecting my precious snowflake of a character.  I want risk, and even death.  But, I want it to be interesting and meaningful, not just a matter of a simple failed save.

Player Skill - One thing I find fascinating in browsing OSR discussions is comparing the oft-repeated refrains of "modern D&D is just a video/board game" and "old school gaming is about testing the skill of the player, not the stats of the character."  To me, video and board games are all about testing the player.  The character is largely irrelevant.  But, maybe I'm misunderstanding.  Or, more likely, it's not actually the same people making both statements.  Regardless, I want my character to be more than a window into a different world.  I'm looking to explore what it's like to live and succeed as someone else.  If I just wanted to find out if I could outwit/outlast the DM, I'd stick to chess or wargaming.

Exploration - Okay, this one I'm actually very sympathetic on.  Exploring the world is cool.  But, honestly, I'd much rather interact with people than environments.  I'd certainly play in a sandbox-y game of finding out what's just beyond the edges of civilization.  It just wouldn't be my first choice.

Fantasy - And we'll end on one that's 100% personal taste, and quite possibly a temporary situation.  I am bored to death of fantasy games, particularly in a medieval setting.  I want to at least move to a Renaissance-style swashbuckling game (7th Sea or Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies).  More ideally, I want to play urban fantasy (DFRPG) or post-apocalyptic goodness (Gamma World).  While you can play old school in a world with guns, it's pretty far removed from the assumed setting.

So, those are the reasons that I think old school gaming sucks is not for me.  Weirdly enough, I've found that by identifying these elements, I actually appreciate the OSR more.  I now seem to have the appropriate distance to evaluate what they are doing on its own merits, while resting secure that my rejection of their siren call has little to do with those merits.

In other words, guys, it's not you.  It's me.


  1. Hahaha I thought that was a bit of a reactionary title! (I bet it would generate quite a bit of traffic if you slapped it on Reddit/R/RPG).

    ... In fact it's son controversial... I might stay out of this one :D

  2. The old school is about player skill proclamation is one of those broad generalizations that I also disagree with. I think it is based on the way a shocking majority of gamers utilize skill rolls as a crutch for role playing.

    I agree with you that video games and board games ARE about testing player skill as well, so the comparison is more often than not complete bull shit. The comparison I think is directed towards button mashing video games, but once again, it is just a broad, and ignorant statement.

    Random Death however, I disagree. Avoiding death at the hands of a good DM with a penchant for brutality requires player skill in any edition.

  3. And when I see a phrase like "utilize skill rolls as a crutch for role playing" I have to wonder if you and I mean the same thing by "role playing." I also have to wonder about where these "majority of gamers" are, in that I've never encountered one, and have mostly heard about them in "Living" style games (which are their own weird breed).

    Avoiding death certainly requires player skill. But, I'm not entirely sure that should be a priority in the game. On the one hand, how is having a brutal DM fun? On the other, how is merely surviving all that interesting? When I'm done with a great campaign, I want to have moving stories to tell, not just a kill tally to boast of.

  4. my area is what I should have written. What Ive seen alot is, players saying something like, I use diplomacy on it. For a lot of newer gamers they seem to get the impression that you use skills like a button to be pressed.

    the death issue is a matter of taste I guess? Myself if I know a DM is willing to go out of his way to save my character for making a reaallly stupid mistake, I feel no weight to my choices. At that point I'm mentally mashing buttons. Death in rpgs is a good thing.

  5. OTOH, I don't see "I use diplomacy on it" as being any different from "I hit it with my sword." The mechanics aren't at fault, the lack of imagination and engagement is. That is completely independent of edition or system.

    I think perhaps we are using different definitions of "random death." I'm talking about walking down a dungeon hallway, falling down a pit trap, and dying. Or getting scratched by a giant rat, contracting filth fever, and dying. Or getting polymorphed, failing your system shock, and dying. Stupid, pointless, random deaths.

    Dying because the player is stupid or overly reckless is perfectly fine. Dying because the character is willing to risk it all to save the day is awesome. Dying because the world is a cold and unforgiving place means that world is not someplace I want to play.

    1. "I hit it with my sword" is a concrete action, the nature of which is relatively obvious and also easy to adjudicate. It may not be very creative, but that also might not be the place creativity is needed. For example, many great novels are perfectly fine with characters just "saying" things; they don't always need to "exclaim" or "shout" or "whisper."

      Diplomacy is a much higher level of abstraction so it is less clear what is going on. You can do retroactive explanations, which can be fun sometimes and even lead to emergent storytelling, but more often than not, in my experience, using a diplomacy skill like an attack is avoiding an opportunity for roleplaying. Sometimes that can be good (negotiating with a merchant maybe) but usually it is not (negotiating with a group of enemies).

    2. I don't think we're actually disagreeing here. It's simply that two different levels of abstraction are getting conflated.

      On the lower level, you have "I diplomacy the merchant into giving us a good price." There just isn't much intricacy within this action that is all that interesting to delve into. As such, it works on the same level as "I hit it with my sword" (or, for that matter, a climb check). It can be resolved with a simple declaration, single die roll for success or failure, and a simple resolution. And, in both cases, the player should be encouraged to add description and RP flavor.

      On the higher level, you have "I diplomacy the hobgoblins so that they stop attacking the villagers". This is a complex task, on par with an entire combat. There should be multiple tactics, opportunities for allies to assist, and reversals of fortune. Ideally, this should be resolved with some sort of "social combat" system that uses multiple rolls and tracks how each side is holding their own. And, just like regular combat, there should be ample opportunity for RP to be integrated.

    3. Traditional D&D does actually have a social mechanic: the 2d6 reaction roll (modified by charisma bonus). This is more about determining disposition rather than a full-fledged social combat resolution mechanic (something I've never actually seen done well in practice). Basically, it's just a way to determine if someone is friendly or hostile (or something in between) and is used for hiring retainers in addition to encounters.

      It's a really elegant mechanic actually. I use it for determining the weather too, interpreted based on the in-game season (no charisma modifier, of course).

    4. This conversation got me thinking more about social mechanics and led to a blog post. If you're curious, it is here:

    5. "I think perhaps we are using different definitions of "random death." I'm talking about walking down a dungeon hallway, falling down a pit trap, and dying. Or getting scratched by a giant rat, contracting filth fever, and dying. Or getting polymorphed, failing your system shock, and dying. Stupid, pointless, random deaths."

      1. Was the player not checking the ground for traps? 2. Common sense alone should make it obvious that choosing to engaged in a brawl with a filthy, vicious giant vermin might have some potential negative outcomes. 3. Did the player willingly subject himself to the spell? If so, his chance of dying is printed right there in black and white on the character sheet! If not, well, scary things can happen in fights with hostile magic-users! Avoid them at all costs if you're not okay with that!

      In short, the element of player choices makes all three of your examples clear instances of the player stupidity and recklessness that you claim to be alright with resulting in PC death.

  6. I agree, it is a system/edition independent. and thats my point, a lot of the broad generalizations made about skills are just that.

    I see what you mean about random death, though I think part of player skill is learning to avoid or take precautions against such situations. Those situations simply increases the difficulty of the game. Descriptive clues by the DM are also crucial.

    If players die randomly without any sort of clue or opportunity to avoid their demise it is more likely it is just a bad DM running the game. In any edition/system a good DM challenges the players, they do not arbitrarily kill them off in random deaths

  7. "I don't want my guy to be a hero because he was able to avoid dying. I want my guy to be a hero because he makes tough choices and stands up for what's right."


    And yes, I agree with the dislike of death by random, though I do agree with death by stupid.

  8. I just pitched an old school style game to my group and those were pretty much the reasons they weren't too enthused. But then I said what if we stuck to the good parts like easier rules, quicker play, faster character generation. Then they nodded and said that it sounded like a decent idea.

  9. @AHM - Okay, litmus test. How do you feel about random encounters? Do you use them? Can they be lethal?

  10. @Chuck - I'm not sure that those qualities are either inherent to or unique to old school gaming, though. 1e AD&D had very complex rules. A lot of modern games have very quick chargen. I'm pretty sure that, after the initial learning curve, FATE would fit your bill quite well. Gamma World certainly would, but it's kind of a unique beast.

  11. Hi Marshall,

    I enjoy playing medieval fantasy (and preparing games as DM) that fits the description of OSR. I returned to role-playing games as a method to practice language that did not leave me intellectually bankrupt by the experience as a native speaker leading inane cul de sac conversations in Poland. Because the last “fantasy” game I played was AD&D 1st edition I bought the latest version (3.5 at the time). I thought it was a good marketing move for me. I did not expect to be ruled to death and overshadowed by rulebooks and metagame talk.

    The first obstacle to my finding students was from the local RPG community, which I thought was a natural place to start. I could not understand their objections to RPGs in language practice in light of my OSR experience. They articulated their objection as “knowing the rules does not advance language practice.” I was so far removed from this RPG experience that I could not understand this thinking: a roll for this and a roll for that. Likewise, when I tried to comprehend and counter their stubborn objections they faced me with blank stares. Equipping was cosmetic (what I call paper doll role-playing) when players have tangible skill ranks instead. Who needs a 10-foot pole?!

    In the meantime, needing to eat and perplexed that my first target group were so resistant, I also persuaded students who had never heard of RPGs to use them in language practice. This was difficult because I had to amass players without any RPG contact to quickly form a group. Eventually I managed and these language students practiced descriptive narrative and dialogue, only pausing to determine a success chance by rolling dice. For them, equipment was very tangible. They understood what I had tried to explain the RPG could do without objection.

    At this point, encumbered by this dichotomy, I made the connection between my style of play and OSR. I do not believe Monopoly can be played as an RPG, as many say. My reasons are anti-player vs. player winners, rule as written worship, a board map which all drive players further away from their shared fantasy and not closer. I may not be an OSR guy, but, because of my experience above, I think I am more OSR than not.

    Yet, I do not see myself too far from you, who think OSR sucks. I have tried to read Vance’s boring work Lyonesse three times without success. I picked up Lieber in the bookstore but decided on buying Vance. I like the original Conan film but cannot imagine reading such a story. I like Game of Thrones, Shannara and The Belgariad books. I also have a hard time watching Stephen J Cannell’s shows that I enjoyed from the 70’s. Apparently, I share the enthusiasm Gary Gygax had for political intrigue over hack and slash.

    So the OSR source material sucks by my standards today. Maybe that’s not a crucial point and I can still be OSR.

    I applaud your comments on Random Death. But I must differentiate my space from people who think OSR sucks. I have no problem giving players and their characters Darwin Awards for being stupid enough to walk into a death trap they must know is there. I do not enjoy playing with lazy players – who are the ones that, instead of carrying a 10-foot pole, ask for a “save or die” roll on the skill chart.

    But I do not get the sense that you would enjoy such play either. So, again, I find we approximate.

  12. First, thanks for all the comments! Your work with language in RPGs sounds awesome.

    I'm going to say that you're not OSR. In elaboration, you are making the mistake that if you aren't into current versions of D&D, you must prefer older editions. There are entire other spectrums of RPGs that have nothing to do with D&D.

    If you really want to play with the language, I suggest you check out Daniel Solis. Most of his RPGs focus around word play as a core mechanic.

    For what you are doing, though, I would also strongly recommend FATE (that link is specifically for Spirit of the Century, one of the core games in the FATE line). The play of Aspects and stunts would, I think, help with understanding the nuances and connotations of many words and phrases. I also think that the level of crunch in the system would appeal to you.

  13. You're very welcome. I have to say I came to you via RPG Circus and your Shared Fantasy segment. I wrote a book on your post above because it resonates. Sorry to salvo you with so many posts at one time but I quite enjoyed your review of Shared Fantasy, and I am happy to find someone else who has read it.

    My post above is half of what I wrote you. The other half would not take. I will try again to post "part two" below. Also I will look up the helpful links.

  14. Player Skill is another chance to separate us. I definitely think that players who boil down RPGs to a Monopoly game are video gamers. If you want to play a Chaotic Evil thief one day and a Lawful Good cleric the next, it is best to bring a different mindset. Rather than testing the manual dexterity of the player with flashing lights and button mashing, OSR intellectually *stimulates* the role-player. If our cleric or thief is dependent on rolled scores, we have a game played by algorithm. Maybe video gamers put more emphasis on the character build than the “character” traits. A thief build algorithm won’t cut it as a tank. Maybe this is our disagreement? Is it the build that defines character or something outside the algorithm; something the player brings to the game that does not exist without him?

    But, again, I agree with you who say OSR sucks when commenting on DMs who are against players (or visa-versa) – going back to the player vs. player Monopoly analogy. I have seen this and I detest this. PvP is anathema to any shared fantasy in RPGs. (Exclamation point.) I chose the word stimulate over challenge above because that is precisely what happens in the context of a challenge in OSR (as I practice). The DM concocts a game to stimulate his players to operate their characters with that intangible soul-ness that are the hallmark of RPGs and the players stimulate the DM to do better and level up.

    Yes, if I wanted to simply challenge/beat players then a rule-filled move-constricted algorithm I could master would be the way to go. (Add maniacal WoW laugh.) Video games, chess and Monopoly will all fit the bill.

    I can add to your comment on Exploration by suggesting the sense motive skill check be scrapped as the lie detector. Let the players huddle in-game to discuss an NPC’s trust worthiness. Let the DM, who surely knows this answer, play the clues. What happened to charades? Are we so anti-social that a DM cannot give a performance from his chair? Have we lost so much attention span that players cannot sit still and observe – so much so we need to resort to “save or die” rolls?

    And here I have to reach for our differences by dipping into your comments. We are in agreement that imagination has no edition to it. I think falling down a pit and dying is a fine death. This accident is no less ignominious a statistic than the one that says “most accidents happen in the home.” Disease is a fact of life.

    But I cannot completely disagree with you, because a DM that does not somehow warn the player characters’ sensory perception about danger is not role-playing but is roll playing the saves column. How can a player deserve such an ignominious death to their PC when the DM avoids giving crucial information? It’s unfair. Worse, it is PvP. A DM who enjoys that is a sick puppy. That guy’s world is not fit for consumption.

    So let me make one personal observation because up ‘til now I have been trying to define OSR against your statement and reasons why OSR sucks. And, awkwardly, I find myself agreeing with your reasons but not your concluding sentiment. Let me observe that OSR requires trust between all players (including the DM as player) in that intangible soul-ness of RPGs, and a rule-filled algorithm fest only requires one to trust the rules as written.

    OSR to me is about trust. OSR players, in my experience, share this trait in abundance.

  15. Huh. I'm thinking there is something preventing you from posting twice in a row. The weird bit is that I'm getting the email notification of your comments, but then they aren't actually getting posted. I'm going to dig into the settings here to see what I can find.

  16. Hah, yes. Commenting twice in a row was getting this flagged as spam. I've released it now.

  17. I will agree with you that a game of conflicting algorithms is unsatisfying. However, I will disagree that this makes algorithms themselves useless or counter-productive. A strong set of rules, an algorithm, provides a strong method for the player to interact on the character level in an effective and predictable fashion. It is the difference between acting with a sock puppet and acting with a waldo.

    And it's not simply about trust. It's about consistency. Suppose I build a character based on Porthos from the Three Musketeers. First, I want to know that I can win nearly any swordfight I enter. Second, I want to know that I can use my reputation and skill as a braggart to intimidate foes. Third, I want to be able to easily sweep barmaids off their feet. In a rules heavy system, I would take skills or feats to represent each of these. Those rules would interact with the rest of the system to, hopefully, reliably produce results in line with my character concept. In a rules light system, I would declare that these are my core characteristics. The onus would then be on me, the player, to accurately bring those elements into the game, and on the game master to have the NPCs always react accordingly.

    It is a trade-off. In the first instance, the player has the support of the system to help him over rough patches like lack of player skill (say, in trying to seduce a barmaid) or just an off day (you had a rough day at work and don't feel like indulging in over-the-top braggadocio). However, the player has the drawback of having to fit the concept into the existing system (not always easy or accurate), and a rules heavy system can encourage lazy play ("I Diplomacy the king"). A rules light system gives more freedom, but requires more work at the table.

  18. To reply to your comment on sense motive, I think that you are overlooking a couple of important factors here. First, by removing the skill and putting it back on the players to decide if the DM is lying, you are violating immersion. In that scenario, it simply doesn't matter what my character is like; it only matters whether I, as a player, am able to see through you, as a DM.

    Second, you are, in my opinion, over compensating. Some groups will simply rely on the competing skill rolls to determine how the scene plays out. But, that is a fault in the players' ability, not in the fact that there are skill rolls in the system. It is entirely possible to have rich, immersive interactions and skill checks to guide play. There's no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater here.

  19. Finally, I wanted to continue to clarify my points on death in RPGs. You said, "I think falling down a pit and dying is a fine death. This accident is no less ignominious a statistic than the one that says 'most accidents happen in the home.' Disease is a fact of life."

    My entire point is that I want to play a hero. I don't want to die from an accident in my home. I don't want to die from disease. Those are terrible, unheroic, unsatisfying deaths. If I wanted to experience that, I'd just go out in the world. But, I want fantasy. If my character is to die, I want it to be a cool death. A meaningful death. A death that I can be proud of.

    For much the same reason, I don't want to play through my character paying taxes, or haggling for a room for the night, or performing maintenance on his gear. Yes, fine, that all happens. But it's boring. Those are precisely the kinds of things I'm engaging in escapist play to escape.

    When you watch an action movie, you know that there are dozens of ways for the characters to die. And, indeed, some minor characters do generally die along the way, especially bad guys. But, we as an audience know that the hero isn't going to die. It doesn't make it any less tense or exciting, though. So, why do my games have to include the possibility of death to be considered tense and exciting?

  20. "You're very welcome. I have to say I came to you via RPG Circus and your Shared Fantasy segment. I wrote a book on your post above because it resonates. Sorry to salvo you with so many posts at one time but I quite enjoyed your review of Shared Fantasy, and I am happy to find someone else who has read it."

    First, thanks for listening to RPG Circus! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    Second, never apologize for commenting. Even if you comment so much that it triggers the spambots. ;) If you saw my most recent post, I was just lamenting the low number of comments in my blog! I'm posting here to generate conversations, after all, not just to hear myself speak.

  21. Hi Marshall,

    My God you’re prolific. : -) I will reply to your first response. But I am long-winded too.

    “I will agree with you that a game of conflicting algorithms is unsatisfying. However, I will disagree that this makes algorithms themselves useless or counter-productive.”

    I think we are in agreement that a game, to be a game, needs an algorithm/rule set. A game is not a game if it does not have a set of rules. And I do not know if we have an actual disagreement if I say the rules are the dominion of the DM. “Rules” is one of the three cornerstones Fine states are necessary for an RPG. Let me quote Fine [bottom of pg. 7, Hardcover] for readers who are lurking because it is worth it and I feel educated every time I cite him:

    “The element of voluntary involvement (Huizinga 1955:7), rule-governed structure, and outcome unpredictability (Goffman 1961: 67) are the essential features of gaming. However, although these three components apply to fantasy role-play games, the later two [rules as written/published and dice] apply in special forms. In F[antasy]RP gaming rules and outcomes do not have the inevitability that they possess in most formal games; rather, both features are negotiated, and rules are adjusted by the referee2 and his group. As a result fantasy role-playing games are in some ways more like life, and less like games.” [Brackets mine]

    It is also worth noting how far away Fine’s definition of a referee is in his study, compared to the common definition of referee, as his note 2 states: “I use the term “referee” to designate the individual who structures the game players’ adventures.” This usage would not be appropriate to an officiating referee for a sport, for example, or any referee who is structured by (and held accountable to) the rules. For example, a referee cannot simply blow his whistle and call down the Angry Villager Rule on a team. The DM can.

    So rules are essential to an RPG. However, the way they are applied leads to player engrossment and identification with life. It is the DM’s rulings and interaction with the other players that simulates this life not a “lifeless” enslavement to rules-as-written (RAW) no matter how good the computer graphics….

    But whatever the rules turn out to be, time and again two words come up as the governing spirit of being a Dungeon Master player: consistent and impartial application. It is fine to negotiate a new rule or change an existing one but, once negotiated, the rule must apply to all. This is the trust handed to the one player chosen to be DM.

    “….the player has the support of the system to help him over rough patches like lack of player skill”

    A rules-heavy Porthos or a rules-light Porthos does not matter, as you point out. The result is the same Porthos, the character. However, it is not the same experience for the player of Porthos. One of the traits of the RPG subculture is it is a time intensive hobby, which relies on a DM/Game Master to help him over the rough patches as you describe. Trying to change the requirements of entry to a subculture will affect the subculture. I think this is clearly the message transmitted from the forced debates on video gamer vs RPGer. I say forced because they are two very different and independent subcultures, represented by two circles that intersect on a Venn diagram, being forced into one intersecting industry-created marketing segment.

    One person may belong to both subsets, of course, as both subcultures belong within the larger gaming culture. The games are different: DM’s run on collaboration and computers run on rules.

  22. “putting it back on the players to decide if the DM is lying, you are violating immersion”

    I think not but it does return the onus on the DM to role-play and involve the player in role-play. I had a role-play between two NPCs, who would be mentors to level up the PCs. Real old codgers but friends. They had an argument. One believed the gods were responsible for the problem (side quest) and the other believed the problem originated from a magician (side quest). I won’t tell you which one was the cleric and which one was the sorcerer. Some concepts were exchanged between them in a heated debate that foreshadow later events. Now, after this set up, I will ask for a Knowledge Check because 3 months down the road players OOC may not remember the conversation but IC might and it leads to a role-play discussion, aided by their memory (DM) in that discussion. I believe, as the time-intensive hobby RPGs are, this sort of engrossment is necessary.

    Funny enough, once the ball is rolling, it really does not seem so labour intensive.

    “Some groups will simply rely on the competing skill rolls to determine how the scene plays out. But, that is a fault in the players' ability, not in the fact that there are skill rolls in the system”

    I agree with you here, though more and more players are compensating for their inability to role-play with rolling dice – which is the boiled down focus of the rules. Consequently, new players may lack an appreciation for DM preparation, which feeds into players who later become DMs. (I hypothesize that rather than expanding the RPG hobby market, this shrinks it over time.) As far as my OSR leanings are concerned, I tend to see role-playing as a way of playing the game rather than the game (system) itself. Still, there are some rolls that remain secret IC, and should remain secret OOC. In the olden days, there wasn’t such a dichotomy between IC and OCC. My players either role-play or they watch. If they play a party of watchers, the party dies.

  23. “My entire point is that I want to play a hero. I don't want to die from an accident in my home. I don't want to die from disease. Those are terrible, unheroic, unsatisfying deaths. If I wanted to experience that, I'd just go out in the world. But, I want fantasy. If my character is to die, I want it to be a cool death. A meaningful death. A death that I can be proud of.”

    Three characters walk into the bar: a fighter, a thief and a priest… I know of quests to cure disease, resurrect the dead and atone for alignment changes. I know PC-henchmen who take on such quests on behalf of another. I don’t think this does any more than add to a character’s background story myself. Of course, my players who stay at the Hilton and swim in their pool won’t be as exposed to disease as they might in a world with only lean-tos and fetid swamps. It is a matter of world setting and player engrossment.

    “So, why do my games have to include the possibility of death to be considered tense and exciting?”

    This speaks directly to the question if you are playing a game or not. I like to gamble but I don’t think it is proper to lose everything when go all in. Should I be gambling? If the rules change to suit my statement, is it gambling? Emasculating the very possibility of PC death from an RPG, beit death from the world or by the sword, violates the cornerstone of an RPG game. (Goffman 1961: 67)

    I can only see myself empathizing with your statement IF the game is a variation of the “us vs. them” mentality. Meaning, I must interpret your statement as coming from an experience of masochistic games. That attitude, in my book, is anathema to role-playing. It is a sick, power-mad pathology for any player/DM, entertainment only for the no-life bully who identifies another player’s IC investment as a target. If the player/DM gets his jollies from pulling wings off of flies or bringing his OOC axe to grind IC, he has a problem bigger than Dungeons and Dragons. A good DM, when faced with behaviour repeatedly, ejects the offending player from the table. Players choose a new DM – IF they know any better (i.e. know the game can be played differently.)

  24. I think I can safely say that we are both prolific.

    Clearly you had an extremely bad experience with a rules-heavy group. However, rules-heavy play does not need to be "lifeless enslavement". What it can do is move a great deal of the onus of handling the mechanics off of the GM's shoulders. First, you have a rule book that actually has clearly delineated rules for how things work, instead of general guidelines and ad hoc subsystems. Second, in many of the current rules-heavy systems you have moved a great deal of the complexity onto the players' character sheets. In theory, at least, this puts some of the burden on the players to understand and use the rules appropriately, instead of always relying on the GM to translate the actions into and out of the language of the system.

    I think I'm going to skip the conversation on video gamers vs. tabletop gamers, and the marketing pressures involved. That's actually a huge and complex topic of its own. If I run out of queued up blog topics some day, I may tackle that.

  25. I'm not entirely sure what your point with the anecdote about the two mentors arguing was. Can you elaborate?

    As to your assertion that more rules leads to lazier play, I can't entirely argue. However, I will disagree with your assertion that this is shrinking the hobby. When the rules structure enables casual players to play easily, they are more likely to keep playing. That keeps more gamers in the hobby. Most of the players who are uninterested in putting in the effort to properly roleplay are extremely unlikely to be interested in putting in the effort to GM. I think that, rather than seeing a general dumbing down of the hobby, we are more likely to see the sort of stratification that Fine describes in the book. More experienced and more dedicated gamers will tend to become GMs. More experienced and more dedicated GMs will tend to become cornerstones of their gaming community (which, given the current age, may or may not be geographically defined). In theory, the lessons learned of how to engage in more rewarding game play will flow down that structure, through blogs, forums, podcasts, etc. We will end up with a pyramid with a large number of casual gamers at the bottom. But, in my opinion, that is much better than a pillar, that drives away the majority of the casual gamers in an attempt to intensify the lessons to the few who remain.

  26. Ah, let me seize on your analogy of gambling. My objection is that too many "old school" RPGs want me to go "all in" every single game. I can hedge my bets from hand to hand, but every time I sit down at the table I'm playing with every cent I have. Why do I have to play that way? It's nerve wracking. And, honestly, the chances of getting a great payoff are about the same as playing poker in Vegas. Jackpots are rare, going bust isn't.

    I would much rather play in a game where I can move around some of those assumptions. Instead of the assumption that the specter of loss feeds the adrenaline rush, why not go with the assumption that it is the mirage of victory? Arrange the game so that your characters are running towards glory, not running away from ignominy. Keep the same number of jackpots, but let me only go "all in" when I really think it's worth it.

    I will strongly disagree that removing probable, casual death undermines the cornerstone of an RPG. Note, I'm not saying removing death altogether. I'm just saying that death should be a spice to add tension to specific critical scenes, not a constant background flavor to the world. I don't want to play in a game in which any mistake is potentially fatal. Much like only gambling with the rent money, it adds a level of stress to the game that erodes the simple fun, and strongly discourages taking the big chances and engaging in high heroics.

    This doesn't come from a history of adversarial games. Actually, quite the contrary. It largely started with a 2e D&D campaign in which my character kept dying stupid, pointless, random deaths. I wasn't being stupid or careless. It was just a case of the dice being frequently unkind to the character. But, my character was key to the plot, and I loved my character, so the DM kept working on ways to bring me back to life. It just occurred to me during that period that all this would be much, much easier if D&D included more negative consequences that weren't fatal to the character.

    A curse is interesting, both in its application and its removal. Scars add to the character. Escaping from capture is a time-honored trope of fiction. Even losing the fight and being mercilessly taunted by the villain just serves as fuel for revenge.

    Death? Death just takes your ball and goes home. Death is just a way of saying, "Sorry, you don't get to play anymore, I guess you shouldn't have tried to be a hero."

  27. Why blog about something you either have no clue how to play or had a bad experience with.Those of us that have been Playing these RPG sets have a profound love for the game no matter the system.Please Blog on the real game and not your bloated opinion.

  28. I don't know. Why comment on a blog you don't read or don't agree with? Mostly because you have an opinion and an opportunity to express it. I have an opinion, and I created a blog to express it.

    This post was directly inspired by doing an interview with the guys from Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Vornheim. I didn't contribute to the interview because I hadn't read the material, and because I didn't want to derail the discussion into forcing the guys to defend their taste in gaming. But, during the interview, I paid a lot of attention to the points that were being raised and my reactions to them.

    I very specifically wanted to get feedback on my thoughts from members of the OSR community, many of which are on the RPGBA. So, I will admit, the title and opening paragraph were designed to be a touch inflammatory, as that's what gets displayed in the feed.

    I do hope that my comments at the end of the post redeem me at least a little.

  29. Ultimately, it all boils down to personal taste, which is a pointless debate which all too often, ends only one way: badly. The various aspects of this game or that which we each find enjoyable defy any attempt to quantify them, making it patently impossible to "prove" anything other than our seemingly inherent need for conflict.

    Marshall, you were clear from the outset that the views you expressed were your own, so on that point, I will not presume that my opinion carries any more inherent weight than yours.

    To those who felt obliged to defend their viewpoints from what they may have perceived as an attack, some words of wisdom. If you don't want to be swept up into a game of tug-o-war, then don't pick up the rope.

    Marshall's views are his; whether you agree with him or not isn't the point. There is nothing that he--or anyone else--can say which can make your experience or method of enjoyment inherently wrong or less valuable. And the reverse is true as well.

  30. It's true that original D&D is very heavily influenced by Howard and Leiber, and I understand that if you don't enjoy them then you wouldn't want to emulate them. But you also mentioned that you like Burroughs, and he was also one of the major original influences.

    Have you tried Vance? I actually find that OD&D and the basic lines are very friendly to post apocalyptic settings, and Gygaxian pseudo-medievalism only starts to dominate in AD&D and its direct children (2E, Castes & Crusades).

    1. I have not read any Vance. It has been on my reading list for a while, but I have yet to actually pick up one of his books. And, honestly, nothing that I have heard make me want to read them. I simply feel that I should read them.

  31. And on random death:

    One of the core ideas (as I understand it) about old school gaming is player freedom. This also includes the freedom to go places that are more dangerous ("higher level" or whatever) than would represent a fair challenge rating.

    A good referee and setting will provide ways for you to discover possible dangers before you make a choice about what to do. Thus, a random encounter might be deadly, but it was the player that decided to explore Mordor.

    Similarly, in a game with save or die giant spiders, if you are engaging in melee with a giant spider, you have already done something wrong. That spider is an obstacle, not a foe (most of the time). Whether the game is heroic or not is an orthogonal issue; if the referee just throws giant spiders at you to fight no matter what you do, that is bad refereeing because the player choice is subverted, not because the spider is deadly. (Lots of monsters or threats in new school games are also deadly, even if they only do damage.)

    Really, this just comes down to the social contract within the group, and you can have a meatgrinder adventure path railroad just as easily as you can have a meatgrinder old school dungeon delve.

    1. I'm not sure what I can say here, that won't result in us just talking past each other.

      You are positing a referee and party that operate on a level of maturity, awareness, and skill that I have rarely if ever actually witnessed. The referee sets up the "save or die" situation such that it will only kill the stupid. The players are not only not stupid, but recognize the situation before blundering in. The opportunity to avoid the situation is ably presented by the referee, and the players make an informed and sober decision whether or not to take that opportunity.

      If it was just a case of me never playing in a group like that, I'd write it off to my own skewed sample size. But, I have never played in a con game like that. I have never read an anecdote or actual play that played like that.

      Also, honestly, that sounds much more like a board game than any of the games that I've enjoyed. I don't want to "play smart". I don't want to pit my skill as a player against the GM's skill. I want to be bold, and daring, and maybe even a little stupid.

      And I don't mind getting punished for being stupid. That's perfectly fine. I just prefer to get punished in such a way that I can continue playing.

      "Save or die" is just a way of turning an RPG into a competitive sport: Win or go home.

    2. Well, there are degrees here. Not every challenge needs to be a mortal threat. Lethality is a gradient. I don't think it is very interesting to play at the "no threat" end of the gradient; I prefer something in the middle. Every threat being save or die (or even "just die") would be the other extreme end.

      Incidentally, I design games without save or die in the same way. My current game is a 4E hack, so there is no save or die as traditionally understood. Sometimes there are monsters that are way above the PCs power to defeat though. I never scale my encounters. It's not about my "skill" as a referee (it doesn't take any skill to drop a red dragon on a map) versus their skill as players in this case (though puzzles and traps can be more about player skill). Any encounter could result in the PCs making a new ally rather than a fight. I don't decide that beforehand. If the PCs are hired to hunt a vampire but decide to ally with the vampire in the end and fight against the church (or whatever), that's on them. I am neutral. The campaign is 23 sessions in, and no PCs have died yet, though some have come close.

      I can't say much about player maturity, but this is a totally viable method of play. It just requires communication, and it seems like that is needed no matter what style of game you play.

      Further, win or go home is missing the point. If you die, you make a new PC and keep playing. There is no "go home" (unless you are not having fun). Some heavier new systems can make the "make a new character" part cumbersome, but that is another topic.

    3. Just to be clear regarding making friends: there are some encounters that are implacably hostile and will attack the PCs no matter what (well, I suppose there is always a chance if the players are really creative, but something like a zombie is just malevolent). In the case of an outclassing encounter that is implacably hostile, PCs can always try to run or hide.

  32. Just out of curiosity, can anyone tell me who posted a link to this? I'm seeing upwards of 50 hits in the last couple of days, mostly coming from Facebook. I'd love to be able to thank whoever did.

  33. I'll have to agree with this post. Back in my days I never really got into D&D-esque games, since I hated playing a game based on dice roles (luck).

    What can I say? Play Oblivion and Skyrim if you hate number crunching.