Saturday, 9 February 2013

Old School vs Old School!




The following is something of a reply to a post made here, by a blogger I have great respect for and have been following for some time. I don’t intend to refute any of his points nor to bring about any sort of internet flame war, but rather to explore some of the observations he makes and present my own thoughts as they occur to me.

If you haven’t done so, please read Dr Bargil’s post. He admits himself he’s engaging in a bit of hyperbole so take that into account. I’m sure he’s calmed down now! You might also find it useful to read our interview with Rick Priestley, here, wherein he talks a little about the early gaming scene in the UK.

So, Dr Bergil talks about D&D, WHFP1e, early WFB and W401e, as well as Fighting Fantasy, but I’d separate the GW examples from that list, not because they’re by GW, but because they’re British and have an entirely different sensibility. The more I’ve come to enjoy the ‘old school revival’, the more I’ve noticed an enormous trans-Atlantic divide in what we actually mean by the term. When I think about what I liked about games I played back in the ‘80s when I was first getting into the hobby, I think primarily of WFRP1e and 1st ed 40k. I also played West End Games Star Wars a lot, which shares the distinction I’m about to cite. D&D is, as Mr Bergil points out, a procedural game – its driven (if you’ll pardon the pun) by an exploration engine that is inextricably intertwined with the entire system, from experience and character progression to the acquisition of treasure. Characters can, as stated, die a pitiful and meaningless death, but lets not forget that these characters adhere to a strictly defined level categorisation and as such are exploring a level of the dungeon with very finely balanced threats. The obsession with balance is as much about threat management as it is about party composition and for me that puts player skill behind dice rolls when it comes to determining success.
 

I’ll back that last bit up – I found out some time in the late ‘90s, not long after the advent of the internet, that people play, or used to play, D&D competitively. This made no sense to me at all, and it took me some time to realise why. While I played D&D as a kid, I very soon moved on to WFRP, Star Wars, Rogue Trader etc, none of which had anything like the exploration engine I describe above. They’re all roleplaying games in the true sense of the word, where the interaction between characters drives the story and ultimately determines success or failure, not the procedural mechanics of looting a dungeon. That isn’t to say  D&D is devoid of any narrative, far from it, but once you’ve established the reason for the PCs to be in the dungeon in the first place you’re pretty soon down to exploring a map, rolling for monsters, fighting them and, if you’re lucky, stealing their treasure. I don’t have anything against that style of play, as Dr Bergil says, sometimes the joy is in the play itself, but it’s a world away from WFRP1e and Rogue Trader, both of which are often included in discussions about ‘old school’ gaming.

I agree, to some extent at least, with Dr Bergil’s distinction when it comes to playing low level characters. That’s absolutely part of the appeal and I think its true in the games of both UK and US origin. WHFP1e is well known for the fact that your PC could be killed by an angry dog in a dark alley, but lets not forget that that dog was not placed there according to a strictly balanced encounter system, it’s there because the GM and/or the scenario writer put it there, generally for the purposes of the ongoing narrative (it also doesn’t yield any treasure if you kill it!).

I also agree with the point about character generation – I’ve always enjoyed playing the hand I’m dealt in that regard. For me, you get to define and mould your character through the experience system, or you do in the types of games I enjoy. I’d suggest this isn’t really the case in D&D, where one 10th level Fighter looks pretty much any other. I know a lot of people dislike the advancement system in Necromunda, where you roll for new skills and the likes – personally I really like that, but I get why others don’t.


Ok, this ‘TEH AWESUM’ business. I get the point and it’s well made, but I can’t help take issue somewhat. Is not Conan, the archetypal old school barbarian, ‘TEH AWESUM’? The first or second (I forget which) story Howard ever featured him in begins with Conan as the last man standing of any entire army, literally hundreds of enemy dead piled around him. Are not the cosmic themes explored by HP Lovecraft ‘TEH AWESUM’? (his protagonists certainly aren’t, that’s a given, but his setting is vast!). Tolkien? He starts out small (pathetically so, you might say) but his work evolves to encompass incridibly broad themes, none of which I’d put down as ‘TEH AWESUM’. What about the aforementioned character advancement in D&D? They had to invent entire planes of existence and hollow out an entire planet to accommodate the power levels your PCs could attain, and given the obsession with balance in the D&D advancement system, there’s a good chance they will if the players don’t do anything too stupid. I take the point, really I do, but the pejorative and confrontational use of ‘l33t speak’ shuts the argument down before it’s been had and I personally see nothing wrong with exploring themes I’d far rather describe as ‘epic’. In fact, the smaller you start out the more of a journey it is, so isn’t that the best of both worlds?

So, what else? Art? That’s an interesting one. There’s certainly an old school aesthetic in play, though it’s hard to define it. It’s generally unpretentious, perhaps a little goofy and often distinctly ‘DiY’. I think most of the artists working at that time were just starting out (Jes Goodwin, GW sculptor extraordinaire, produced a module cover for TSR UK when he was still at school I believe!). Many of these venerated individuals might cringe at the work they produced back then and hope that we’d prefer what they’re doing now, but then I guess the same is true of the punk rock bands we listened to as spotty teens, most of whom have developed into accomplished musicians but lost the raw appeal they once had.

Narrative – well that’s interesting. The Magnificant Sven is cited as an example of a good old, old school scenario. But let’s not forget those early Warhammer scenarios were heavily themed, relying on a solid narrative and story driven goals. They most certainly don’t rely on the type of procedural mechanics central to D&D. Again, I take the point that they focus on the low level, and that’s one of the things I like about them too.

All of    this leads me to the point where I’d like to thank Mr Bergil for his insight, for while I don’t agree with all his points he’s illuminated something that’s been nagging at me for a while. D&D and its ilk are often cited as the nadir of ‘old school’, at least where roleplaying is concerned. The games being produced in the UK around the same time and largely independently were nothing like D&D. Rogue Trader bears little resemblance or relation to D&D. To see what I mean, grab a copy of Combat 3000 or Laserburn, both forerunners of Rogue Trader by the same group of people, and compare it to D&D. They provide rules for fighting, for wargear, for making your own characters and such, but absolutely no form of encounter engine. Instead of a finely tuned system for regulating exploration and encounters and earning treasure and advancement, they leave all that stuff to the players and the GM. That, for me, is the true difference. WFRP1e, Rogue Trader etc, are all about players playing with their toys, doing so in a consensual and mutual way, and they don’t need a rigid system to tell them how.

Is this a matter of national character? Possibly, to a degree perhaps. It seems to be the case that UK players prefer a looser more gentlemanly approach to gaming while US players prefer one where everyone visibly plays by the same rules, but to be honest it’s all too easy to overstate the differences and fall back on lazy stereotypes. I would say however that the ‘old school’ gaming scene would do well to consider just how different the roots of US and UK gaming really are, as well as acknowledge where they converge, and that might inform us more about where we are today.

So there we go – many thanks to Dr Bergil for his stimulating rant, I hope mine is even half as useful to anyone that might read it. 


 

18 comments:

  1. Hi Andy, totally agree with your sentiment on the UK/US divide. The US scene demands FAQ's, playtesting, perfect rulesets with little variants. Wargaming as glorfied chess. Of course, this is stereotyping, but from my experience, not too unfair! However, there are exceptions to that stereotype. Take Jeremy Vetock, a fantastic hobbyist, working for GW and very talented. I feel some kind of pseudo-cameraderie with him, regardless of the fact we have never met! His wargaming style is distinctly British, but more successfully than most gamers would normally achieve. His interest lies in creating characters, inventing names, making interesting stories and scenarios to play based on those.
    The odd tournament never goes amiss, but it *must* include that element of character. The points taken in for modelling, painting, character design and theming are all fantastic elements that I am pleased are being adopted by more and more tournaments.

    Equally old school though, what of DBA and the heartless Historical gamers? Setting up fights between Dacian Barbarians and Feudal Japanese? Their interest in modelling is usually nil, other than daubing Irregular Miniatures in thick layers of enamel paint and basing them on chopped up cornflakes packets...

    But anyway, I could go on! Interesting article.

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  2. What is this finely tuned D&D "encounter system" you speak of? Do you mean matching monster Hit-Dice with character level? or Don Turnbulls Monstermark system (published in White Dwarf)? Maybe as an Englishman, we always played D&D in a quintessentially English way and ignored it leaving our team of half-wit half-orc murder hobos to die from the bite of a rabid Kobold while stalking though sewers. Is there a section of the DMG I've been missing all these years? It's quite possible.

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  3. Hi, thanks for engaging with my rant. I'll try to engage with your response, but I'm afraid this first comment has ended up being a series of digressions. So I promise I'll be back to chat more.

    First, I agree with you about the UK/US divide. I think we Brits are far more accepting of the 'pathetic aesthetic' (and I know almost no-one likes the term, but go with me here) than Americans. I was watching Utopia on Channel 4 the other night, and two of the characters have very clumsy, awkward drunken sex. I couldn't imagine that a mainstream American thriller would show their heroes so... pathetic. And that's before we get to the heroes themselves - completely out of their depth and, while they might find hidden reserves of character, they seem unlikely to suddenly find themselves close-combat experts or naturals at gunplay. Later episodes might prove me wrong, and I might well be mischaracterising American TV.

    I'll say that my experiences of D&D are played through a British filter. However, back in 2010, when I started the blog, I wrote (explaining the title of the blog):

    "In two imaginary worlds, and their associated game systems, we have neat encapsulations of the gulf between American and British pop-culture. One the one hand you have the Justice League of America, on the other the Justice Department of Megacity One. The Known World of D&D is bright, clean, and [super-]heroic. The PCs survive (mostly), save the world, defeat the evil, and grow powerful and rich. The Old World of WFRP is dark, dirty, and a grim struggle. If the PCs survive (and there’s a good chance they won’t), they merely forestall the spread of chaos, before they are permanently disabled fighting a pickpocket in a filthy alley, grow sick, and die in poverty."

    Funnily enough, I never played D&D in this bright and shiny world, but then my introduction to fantasy was the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and my introduction to fantasy gaming was The Warlock of Firetop Mountain.

    I see your Conan, and I raise you an Elric. Actually, though, I'm not saying that we shouldn't play super-powered barbarians. Or have our characters experience the awesomeness of cosmic horror. I was trying to wind people up with TEH AWESUM, I'll admit, but then, I didn't think anyone was really reading. They weren't, but the rant has had as many hits in two days as the whole blog has in a month. TEH AWESUM was meant to be shorthand for a contrary aesthetic to 'the pathetic', a overwhelming mix of system, setting and art that actually renders that which should be awesome dull. In my opinion, of course.

    What has been disappointing - not this response, btw - as discussion of the rant has popped up on fora and Facebook, has been that quite a lot of people seem to able to read the self-deprecation. I do believe what I have written, but I'm taking the piss out of myself as I do it. And, actually, I think that self-deprecation, a knowing wink, or irony, is an important part of the 'pathetic aesthetic'. That was at least part of what I was trying to say that I don't want people to confuse the 'pathetic aesthetic' with simple grittiness or low fantasy.

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    1. "quite a lot of people seem to [be un]able to read the self-deprecation."

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    2. I got what you meant mate :-) Thanks for the reply. I admit my irony filter may have been set a little high as I didn't get the self deprecation, but on a re-read I do!

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    3. I'm afraid a lot of people missed it. I had hoped that writing, as the very first line, "A rant, in which I play the pseud, before growing tired and irritable", would make it clear that the *style* in which I am making my points is one that is designed to take the piss out of ME, and MY prejudices (even while I stand by the argument I am making).

      I've managed to piss off quite a lot of people, mostly people who are mad at some random guy on the internet who had about 30 people reading his blog (before James Raggi Googleplussed the post, that is) but also some people whose opinions on gaming I have a lot of time for!

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    4. Hardly any reason to get pissed at you - that's the interwebs I guess :-) (and geeks, lets not forget we're who we are because we're slaves to our geeky passions!)

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  4. I'll try to get back on topic and have a quick crack at your point about narrative (and GMs, I guess) in miniature gaming. That is interesting, as my first thoughts are that interesting as narrative elements have been under-emphasised in, say Warhammer, even 'plot' overwhelms player autonomy in contemporary roleplaying games. But then, a miniature game is a bounded system - you have the six-by-four table, the terrain, and the models, and player freedom is played out within that. 'Narrative' typically amounts to a bit of background setting the start point and goals. A roleplaying game offers players, potentially, limitless freedom, but 'plots' present the danger of limiting freedom to ensure that the (or one of the) correct paths are followed to allow to the narrative to play out. I think this links back to D&D and its procedural play - the procedures allow a GM to free-wheel and allow the players a great degree of autonomy; random encounter charts, treasure tables, a 'mechanical' method of calculating XP and character advancement... I'm not saying that it is the only way of allowing significant player freedom in RPGs, but it is one way.

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    1. Interesting - when I write RPG adventures I try to hit a balance somewhere in the middle. A completely open sandpit is, for me, unfulfilling, and a railroad equally so. I try to establish a open area for the players to explore as they will, but have specific things going on that they can choose to get involved with or not. Once they jump into the river as it were, they have less choice about the current takes them, but whether or not, or where, they jump in is up to them. Of course, writing a commercial product is another matter too...

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    2. I wouldn't want a sandbox run entirely by the procedural elements of D&D - didn't some early RPGs offer that as a form of solo play? Traveller, perhaps? In my own campaign I populate the world with a whole host of adventure seeds, often leading to (heavily modified) versions of commercial adventures. I had hoped that my group would take the bait and start on a train of events that might lead into Night's Dark Terror. But they choose to explore a ruined castle - and it's all good, I plucked out the maps for The Lost City, populated them with secret societies suitable for my own setting, and set them loose. But, if they'd decided to go off script, I could have run a wilderness adventure with a bunch of tables and a bit of free-wheeling invention.

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  5. I don't think the dichotomy between us and uk here is true. I started playing D&D as a youngster a stones throw from Lake Geneva, WI where the game was born, but we did not play it in the fashion you described, but more like your description of playing Warhammer. Of course, we played BECMI D&D, not Ad&d, so we lacked a lot of what you call procedural mechanics (and when we did play ad&d we ignored most of those rules anyways). I think the "competitive play" was actually Those who came to D&D out of Wargaming, which is a small but vocal subset. It's not fair to paint all old school American D&D players with their brush.

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  6. I don't think the dichotomy between us and uk here is true. I started playing D&D as a youngster a stones throw from Lake Geneva, WI where the game was born, but we did not play it in the fashion you described, but more like your description of playing Warhammer. Of course, we played BECMI D&D, not Ad&d, so we lacked a lot of what you call procedural mechanics (and when we did play ad&d we ignored most of those rules anyways). I think the "competitive play" was actually Those who came to D&D out of Wargaming, which is a small but vocal subset. It's not fair to paint all old school American D&D players with their brush.

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    1. The only D&D 'champion' that I have ever heard of is Joe Dever - the Brit who wrote the Lone Wolf gamebooks. I puzzled over the idea of winning at D&D when I read them in the 1980s, and it still doesn't really make sense to me ;-)

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  7. I think the us vs uk divide is a false dichotomy. The "competitive" D&D players were largely those who came to the game out of Wargaming or were inducted by the same. Having grown up less than 30miles from the birthplace of D&D, I never ran into this idea of competitive play until the advent of the Internet. Rather, our early games were much more like you describe your early games of Warhammer. I believe, based on my early experiences with the game, that the competitive players are just a vocal minority, and it was the rest of us who really shaped the hobby. I don't think this is an "American" thing at all, and it's unfair to paint us all with the same brush.

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    1. Agreed Rich, that's why I went to some length to say it only applied to a small degree, if at all. The difference is a point of historical detail when we examine the roots of both scenes.

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  8. Tabletop RPGs have certainly changed over the years. More recently there has been something of a shift but the why of changes may have more weight than what they were.

    I played D&D beginning in the mid 80's. For me it began with the red box. I was quite accustomed to high mortality among my characters; It came with the territory. I think adolescents and teens are quite malicious creatures and the omnipotent throne of sadism the DM role provided one of my mates allowed him to indulge his base predilections on our unfortunate avatars.

    In spite of many violent virtual deaths I didn't continue to play because I was a masochist. Even back in then there was an understanding that RPGs were a departure from most other games in that there was no way to "win". Yes, there were levelling mechanisms and the possibility of betterment but at the end of the day there was never an absolute victory, pack up my toys and screw all you guys moment.

    I played because I liked stories and being part of creating one. Watching a movie or reading a book can be rewarding but it isn't the same. For starters both are solitary activities. There is no choice or negotiation; You simply get what you got. Interactivity via computer at the time was pretty abysmal. Roleplaying on computers was often limited to feeding your party so they wouldn't get their health wrecked every step they took.

    More modern PC games because they are visually striking and for the most part linear share more with films and books than they actually do with tabletop RPGs. Over the years I rarely played in established campaign worlds. There were many out there but in spite of a lack of direction for the most part D&D seemed to encourage you to build your own worlds and adventures.

    In the 90s there was a movement in rpgs toward more storytelling focused systems. Fewer dice, simplified mechanics that encouraged participants to tell stories with fewer interruptions. I liked it. There were some pretty hokey games out there but in that time period there were some pretty inspired ones too.

    More recently pnp RPGs seem to take their cues from the video games they inspired. Mechanics have become very "plug and play". Levelling seems very gamey; You can almost hear the 8bit jingle when someone hits the next level. This evolution seems more a matter of marketing where earlier changes struck me as refinements to facilitate story telling.

    Old school games rewarded problem-solving and presented challenges. New games seem to cater to the instant gratification that has become more prevalent in our society. This latter movement seems a sign of the times.

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  9. Incidentally, when you wrote "...Rogue Trader [... is a] roleplaying [game] in the true sense of the word, where the interaction between characters drives the story", I was reminded of the days after I picked up my copy of the Rogue Trader. It was one of the first books I had bought from Games Worshop - up to then it'd been D&D (and a bit of MERP). I was baffled. Was this a miniature game? Was this a roleplaying game? What was I meant to do. I don't think I appreciated the freedom Rogue Trader was offering me.

    I was reminded of this blog: Oldhammer as an RPG [http://oldhammerasrpg.blogspot.co.uk/], which has made me dig out the copy of the white box 1e Warhammer (a nice eBay win a few years ago). In my RPGs, I rarely use miniatures, despite enjoying collecting and painting miniatures. I am minded, though to try something more ambitious in my miniature gaming - in terms of roleplaying, character, and narrative - the battle reports on this blog seem to represent an ideal of what I'd like to get out of miniature gaming.

    Anyway, that's all an aside.

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    1. That reaction was probably fairly common, and it certainly happened when Inquisitor was released in 2000 as well! Rick does say that RT was the culmination of the games he and his mates had been playing amongst themselves as well as something of a development of the UK 'Skirmish Games' scene of the '70s. Having come about independently from the US RPG and wargaming scene, its not a surprise they didn't completely mesh.

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