Friday, May 23, 2008

Old School Revisited


To borrow a term used quite often in OD&D circles, the game is a tool-kit. In the right hands, it is the perfect model for constructing the game that you want. This is OD&D in scope and in spirit. It’s the ephemeral definition of the old school philosophy in it’s purest form.

But, indeed, there is more to the story. As I was actually finishing up my four part OD&D article, I was enlightened by a few posts on the ‘net about other aspects which I have not given much thought to in the past, but are topics worthy of investigating further.

First was this excellent insight provided by Coffee of the OD&D forum, to quote and chop to taste:

I am increasingly of the opinion that the only thing that makes a game "old school" is the Gamemaster.

Look at the origins of the game: Dave Arneson's medieval Chainmail campaign. Dave was the referee and his decisions were final. Rules Lawyers needn't apply. In fact, Dave said in an interview that he had so ingrained the "decision of the ref is final" rule into his players that when they started running adventures in his game, HE didn't argue with them, either. It just wasn't done.

Sadly enough, it was Gary himself who allowed for the rise of the rules lawyer (albeit unknowingly, I'm sure) with the published strictures against the house-ruling of AD&D.

The problems of "new school" gaming, for me, boils down to this: There are so many rules, it truly takes a rules lawyer to master them all. And once that happens, you don't have an old-school game any more. You could, if that person is him/herself the referee, but how many times have we seen that happen?

This may sound like edition bashing; it's not.

The Old School DM is responsible for his campaign. He is also responsible to it -- if it comes to a choice between making the player happy or keeping his game intact, the Old School DM rules in favor of his campaign. Same with conflicts between the campaign and the rules as written -- the campaign wins.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that the motto of the Old School DM should be: The Buck Stops Here.
Coffee nailed it with this post. Again, this is not edition bashing, as mentioned. It is, more or less, another effort to add meaning to the oft quoted phrase, ‘old school’. I know old school is not for everyone, and this is not an attempt to prove any points, simply a look back at how things have, indeed, evolved.

The very next day, a few of my fellow bloggers pointed out a very interesting thread over at Dragonsfoot written by Tim Kask. Mr. Kask was relating a few tidbits of reverential knowledge that only one such as he might actually be able to lend credence to. To paraphrase:

AD&D…maybe isn't such a good thing; it seems to have encouraged a generation of players who enjoy fussing over the wording of the rulebook instead of deferring to their DM's judgement.

We had no idea [with the release of AD&D] that we were corrupting the original players into a flock of nit-pickers and rules lawyers.
Very interesting stuff, indeed. I’ve mentioned many times in the past that I often butted heads with people who knew the AD&D rules better than myself, but didn’t know D&D better. In other words, while I may never have been (or wanted to be) an AD&D rules expert, I surely knew how a good game and campaign was run. I never enjoyed having to crack one of the hard covers open mid session in order for a ruling, and I despised being called out in the same manner in mid combat. Even back then, in D&D’s early days, there was a certain attitude developing that the rules were the game, rather than the fact that, as written, the D&D rules support the game, but do not define it.

It’s terrible when you begin to think blasphemous thoughts. If I continue with this opinion, I’m afraid I’ll blurt out something insane like ‘AD&D is not old school’. How can this be? I was ALWAYS an avid AD&D player and DM. I love AD&D. I suppose this comes back to the whole ‘I was never really playing AD&D’ epiphany deal I’ve been coming to terms with here at the Grog ‘n Blog. The fact is, AD&D is old school, clearly. As Mr. Kask points out, they (TSR) had no idea at the time that the end result of adding such depth to the D&D rules would create rules lawyers. D&D should be the antithesis of such an approach to gaming. It’s not Advanced Squad leader, after all. Players are not competing with one another, or with the referee.

I was recently directed to this new blog which, by the way has some great posts so far and has been included in my blogroll. I found a nice little nugget of insight with this post by Noism. Again, to cut and paste and cut some more:

What is the Shared Vision behind which we are all supposed to unite?

For me, what it boils down to is one passage in the 2nd edition Player's Handbook, which had a great effect on me when I read it as a 12 or 13 year old, and which you could say has informed my D&D philosophy every since.

The passage in question is What the Numbers Mean, and it can be found early on in the book just after the descriptions of the various Stats and what they stand for. The writers introduce a character called "Rath" - Rath has rather 'poor' stats - but the writers demonstrate both how to turn those stats into an interesting character (twice!) and how to have fun doing it.

It is exactly the spirit in which I think D&D should be played and in which I love to play it, and if I could define Old School Gaming it would be in one line taken from that passage: if you take an interest in the character and role-play him well, then even a character with the lowest possible scores can present a fun, challenging, and all-around exciting time. In other words, what is important is what you, as a player, bring to the set of dice rolls that make up your character. The game is about you making the most of what you get. Later editions of the game changed the emphasis to the power of the character, and that is where, I believe, the line in the sand between Old and "New" Schools lies.
That’s some seriously great insight into the genre and the evolution of the game we all enjoy so much, old guys like me, and younger guys like Noism.

So, we see a delineation of the loss of reverence of the DM, as he is seemingly dwarfed by the sheer volume of rules in AD&D, and then further, with 3e in the rise of the importance and power of the character.

These two changes have surely led to one distinct change, the rise of the player. The DM’s role has been deemphasized by the rules, and the rise of the player has seemingly relegated the DM to nothing more than a chaperone, there to ensure some sense of ‘fairness’.

It’s a game, and it should be fun for everyone, DM and players alike. Old School or New School, OD&D or 3.X D&D, it’s all good. These games are meant to be fun, but it’s also fun at times to notice the many differences amongst the various approaches taken to pursue this hobby. The differences that perhaps help define the actual subgenres within our quirky gaming genre.

~Sham, Quixotic Referee

4 comments:

Robert Fisher said...

These two changes have surely led to one distinct change, the rise of the player. The DM’s role has been deemphasized by the rules, and the rise of the player has seemingly relegated the DM to nothing more than a chaperone, there to ensure some sense of ‘fairness’.

“Taking the DM out of the equation”—as (I believe) Monte Cook put it—is, to me, removing the essence of what a role-playing game is. “The judge as living, creative rulebook” is—I think—the heart of what I mean when I use the term “role-playing game”.

But this doesn’t mean a rise of the player. Because the player gets taken out of the equation as well. It’s all about building the PC instead of playing the PC.

Once you’ve taken the DM and the players out of the equation... (O.O)

Now, I don’t think many people actually play that way. There’d be little point. I think, however, that these two trends and an unconscious idea among some gamers that they are the ideal direction are the things that make me feel more and more frustrated with a game.

Sham aka Dave said...

"But this doesn’t mean a rise of the player. Because the player gets taken out of the equation as well. It’s all about building the PC instead of playing the PC."

That's a fair point, Robert. The act of building a character, crunching numbers and selecting options is the very rise in power fueled by the rules which I refer to. I think we agree that this evolution has detracted from actual game play.

Thanks for the comment! I agree with your thoughts here, but still maintain that deemphasis of the DM's role has led to emphasis on the players being more involved with the rules.

I probably wasn't clear enough in this post.

~Sham

Robert Fisher said...

Heh. I don’t think we disagree. I just refuse to call shifting the player’s role from playing to building as a “rise of the player”. (^_^)

Other points I think it’s worth keeping in mind...

I believe the 3e designers expected experienced players to put the DM back into the equation. “Taking the DM out of the equation” was meant to make the game better for novices. Which may have not been a good idea either, but the point is: They didn’t think that was the only or best way to play.

Secondly, in my experience, very few groups actually do play that way. Just as most of us played AD&D as if it were non-Advanced, lots of people play 3e in a much looser style than by-the-book.

Sham aka Dave said...

"I just refuse to call shifting the player’s role from playing to building as a “rise of the player”."

I see what you mean now. And yes, in that context it's hardly a 'rise' at all.

"...very few groups actually do play that way. Just as most of us played AD&D as if it were non-Advanced, lots of people play 3e in a much looser style than by-the-book."

Yep. I often lose sight of that, but the fact is we are all taking the rules and using them how our gaming group likes to.