Monday, May 25, 2009

Feelings! Whoa-whoa-whoa, Feelings...

JoeTheLawyer kicked over the blognard anthill with his response to Grognardia's “More Than a Feeling” post. He's got a lot of interesting points, but I have to respectfully say that I disagree.

It might be nice to imagine a world with no judgments or categories, but we don't live there. More to the point, I don't have the time, treasure, or available players to play every RPG out there. In my quest for these feelings JoeTheLawyer talks about, it's helpful to me to know what sorts of games are most likely to produce them. In a broad sense, for instance, I know that modern-day special forces games don't do it. I can easily mark those games off my list for serious consideration. Sure, a friend or trusted blogger might convince me to give that sort of game a chance, but otherwise, I'm going to focus my time on those games in genres that are more likely to produce the feeling I want.

Old school isn't a genre, of course, but I think it can be usefully described in terms of mechanics and style that can help us judge the value of a game for us before we actually play it. This is the answer to JoeTheLawyer's query, “what purpose would a definition serve?” I know that games similar to BECMI D&D give me that feeling. So I'm going to go out and look for games like that, and supplements that support that style of play.

That style can be defined, and Matthew Finch's “Quick Primer for Old School Gaming” is serving as the nucleus around which that definition is slowly coalescing. It's a style based on rules-lite mechanics that are more concerned with giving players and GMs tools to build their own game than they are with elegant or unified mechanics. It's a style strongly geared to exploration-style gaming. It also promotes lateral thinking by shifting more of the challenges to the players rather than the characters.

What's interesting about this definition is how it seems to be drifting away from fitting other games from that early era of RPGs. Games like GURPS, with its extensive lists of skills and rules to cover every situation, are already slipping out of the “old school” definition. Ditto for Rolemaster, which uses charts in ways that are very different from what the old-schoolers are gravitating towards.

Here's another interesting thing: the process is largely out of anyone's hands at this point. The term “old school” is now being applied by lots of folks to describe, in very vague terms, what's happening with things like Swords & Wizardry and Fight On! It's becoming a short hand for the ethos, style, and techniques that make those things what they are. James Maliszewski is trying lead the discussion to shape that definition while we still can. He may already be too late. He's commented any number of times how he doesn't really like the term “old school” and thinks it shackles us too much to the ancillary trappings of the past that don't really have anything to do with how the game is played. It's far too late on that front; I don't think even the risen ghosts of Gygax and Arneson could banish the term “old school”. We're stuck with it now, for better or worse.

While I agree that a more rigorous definition will eventually have to define some things as “not-old-school”, I don't see this as being a nasty, exclusive tragedy. All of these games and mechanics and techniques are just bits that we all pick and choose from, assembling them together to create the experience, the feeling, that we are striving for. Just because 4e is described as being antithetical to the old school doesn't limit in any way our ability to steal things from it we like. In the end, these definitions serve us. They don't create impermeable barriers. They simply allow us to better shift through the endless array of options more intelligently, and help us find and play with like-minded folks who are searching for the same feelings we are.

UPDATE: Related thoughts from Alex Shroeder.

Image credits: Jimmy Joe, Matthew Finch, and ninahale.


Stuart said...

If the process is out of anyone's hands, and we're going by what the majority of people are talking about... then there are a lot of old school 4e gamers out thare. ;D

trollsmyth said...

There very well might be. I, for instance, played 1e for years while struggling against the rules to try and make a game more like Pendragon. I should have just been playing Pendragon, but at the time I thought I could browbeat and houserule 1e into the sort of thing I wanted.

Once a definition is settled on, as has happened for "cinematic" games and "storyteller" games and "Forge-y" games, it'll be a lot easier for those of us who cherry-pick to know what we're getting when a thing is described as "old school". The definitions will never be perfect, and will never by consistently used, and people will still argue and rant, of course. But a good definition will help us identify what we're seeing, and what we're looking for.

Stuart said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stuart said...

I meant more like this...

From a review of the new Monster Manual 2 that was posted this morning: "4E is the New Old School"...

trollsmyth said...

Ah, I see.

I still think my comment about trying to play a Pendragon-esque game with 1e still applies, but it's not quite clear-cut. Compared to 3e, 4e does take some strong steps towards what the OSR folks mean when they say "old school". It's a lot easier to play by the seat of your pants, the class concepts are more generic and open-ended, and skill challenges at least attempted a nod towards lateral thinking. In many ways, Paizo's new Pathfinder RPG and adventures are more the anti-old school than 4e. And that's before we get to the return of the rust monster.

Which of course just confuses the issue even more. How can a newer game be more "old school" than an older game? It really comes down to how you define "old school". If it's age, that's one thing, but if it's style and content, that's another all together. We're getting a lot of friction and cognitive dissonance from folks trying to use it both ways in the same conversation.

Andreas Davour said...

Our dear host is, I think, in his comment showing where I think the heart of this discussion lies.

Trying to make AD&D be Pendragon will work if you beat it enough, but it sure as hell is easier to find a game that support the style of play you want from the start. My two cents tossed in, is that System Does Matter. That is where that elusive feeling can be found.

trollsmyth said...

Andreas: Absolutely. I want games that work in certain ways and do certain things. I want a game that takes care of certain issues and leaves other things on the table. Labels like "cinematic" or "Forge-y" are a short hand that tells you something about the game, in the same way that saying a novel is paranormal romance or military sci-fi does. It doesn't tell you everything that's worth knowing about the thing labeled, but it gives you a better idea of what it is you have in your hands when you're trying to figure out what it does and how.

When people say that Swords & Wizardry and Fight On! are old school, they're talking about what's between the covers and the intentions of the authors.

I may need to rewrite this one, since that doesn't appear to be coming through.

taichara said...

Call it a knee-jerk reaction to what has to be my most ire-inducing part of the entire "old school renaissance", but I refuse to believe in or permit the (personal) acceptance of a definition of "old school" in terms of mechanics and system.


Because then the lines are going to be drawn. This game is "old school", and this game is not old school ...

Some of us are happy not going back to the very basic beginnings to find old school anything. Others -- if yon post on Grognardia is any indication -- seem to be slowly constricting that definition to what they want, and that pool is depressingly small.

But then, I should probably amble back to my critters. I seem to set the interwebs on fire every time I stick my nose in these things ~ *laughs*

trollsmyth said...

And I really don't understand why drawing lines is such a bad thing. Chess isn't an RPG. I am not a woman. Mashed potatoes aren't ice cream (though they sometimes play them on TV).

Saying that an RPG isn't old school isn't the end of the world. And almost no game is going to be purely one style or the other. 4e isn't old school, but it's got a lot of neat ideas in it, and elements that are old school. It's also got elements that are pretty darn Forge-y, too, but it's clear not a Forge game.

I hate confrontation as much as the next mild-mannered nerd, but I don't understand why defining a thing has to lead to acrimony. Really, people, green doesn't need to fight purple!

Ironbeard said...

Thanks for an excellent post. I agree completely. Iwould only add that definitions are not just useful for helping us to choose which games we want to play, they are essential if we wish to have a serious, sustained, analytical discussion about the culture and practice of old school gaming. This, of course, is precisely what the Grognardia blog is all about.

Sayings like "old school can't be defined at all," or "its what ever I want it to be," or "one persons definition of old school cannot be argued to be better more satisfying than another" are meaningful and acceptable in certain contexts )informal and less rigorous discussions)

But if one wishes to engage in a serious analysis of something (ie old school gaming), it is imperaitve that one defines and delineates ones terms and ones object of inquiry. This, I believe, is all that Malisewski was doing.

Anonymous said...

Great points, Trollsmyth. Ironbeard, I think that's what James was trying to do, but he strayed a bit off the path into some unproductive and inflammatory territory. One of the other commenters also pointed out that James is perhaps a little overdue to start some of that more mechanical analysis. He does spend the majority of his words (fine as they are) on feelings and opinion.

Badmike said...

"Some of us are happy not going back to the very basic beginnings to find old school anything. Others -- if yon post on Grognardia is any indication -- seem to be slowly constricting that definition to what they want, and that pool is depressingly small."


Who gets to be on the Council that decides the Ten Pertinent Signs You May Be Playing an Old School Game? Who gets to set the "objective criteria" necessary to pigeonhole?

I'll tell you right now, as much as I respect guys like James, I sure as hell don't want him deciding if my game is "authentic" enough to be considered old school.

You'll never get ten guys to agree on ten things that define "old school", and that's where the fracturing will begin....

taichara said...

It may not seem like the end of the world; but frankly, having someone say -- oh, as an example -- BEMCI isn't "old school" enough to make the cut would personally rankle.

Because the implication is that, yes, I and my chosen game wouldn't be "good" enough (pure enough? old enough? etc etc) to be able to play in the sandbox with everyone else.

Defining a thing may not need to lead to acrimony, as you say, but generally does. It's not the division itself, but the thrust behind it.

Blotz said...

I really don't have a dog in this fight, since I'm mostly a voyeur of the OSR (when I pitched the idea of castles and crusades to my group, they looked like I'd grown an extra head). That being said, I think some "broad" definition of what you mean when you say old school gaming is necessary in order to manage the expectations of new players, or old players coming back to the fold. The Finch Primer is of course a good place to start.

I will point out that Old School Gaming as a phenomenon is primarily an Internet Phenomenon, and as such every time the guys who carry the torch have a pissing match like this you make the whole movement look silly because you're doing it in full view of the public. If I'm trying to sell my gaming group on playing Labyrinth Lord and they Google "Old school gaming", the last thing I want them to find at the topo of the list is a lot of navel gazing debate about definitions.
(actually I just did that and the Finch document came up #3, behind two articles on old video games)

Thanx for this
"green doesn't need to fight purple!"
I haven't visited the Lurkers Guide in years. Mayhaps it's time to drag out the DVD's again...

Matt Finch said...

The Old School Primer was only ever intended for 3e gamers who wanted to try out 0e. I'd seen several people write that "0e is just an incomplete version of 3e - I had to import 3e rules to fill in the gaps." So all I was trying to do was describe the qualitative difference, the paradigm and mindset leap that's required in order to give 0e a fair tryout. It's been taken as both a polemic (which it isn't) and as an overall definition of 0e (and it veers toward that, but only for its limited purpose of describing the paradigm shift).

It's been downloaded just from lulu about 8000 times, and that's "unique" downloads, although obviously that "unique" thing is only approximate. And it's been posted lots of other places as well. My (least) favorite is, where it's titled "1e and 2e Rehashed."

I'm glad it's popular, and a lot of people have told me it brought them directly back to old school gaming ... but it's definitely being taken for more than it ever set out to be.

trollsmyth said...

Matt: Sorry, dude. You've become the voice... Er, I mean, the typey-fingers, I guess, of a movement. ;)

JP said...

Discourse exists for a reason of course, there is always a desire to categorise the things around us into classifications that order the world neatly. Naturally this has never been an accurate fit for all things and I suspect we all know that this will be the case with the 'Old School' tag.

Some people will care about the label and actively seek out old school games, and some people won't; neither party is right or wrong. The only problem is if people try and take this classification and attempt to turn it into some kind of 'clique'; berating games for not being 'old school' enough and holding old school as some kind of elitist benchmark.

Of course the answer then I guess would be to not play with those guys, but I'd rather not have to deal with their tremulous bleating altogether.