Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Old school RPGs

In spite of the fact that I really don't consider myself an old school gamer at all, I enjoy reading James Maliszewski's blog, GROGNARDIA, which is a community hub of sorts for the "old school Rennaissance." Recently, he made a post in which he attempted to describe the need for a definition of "old school" as more than just nostalgia and emotion. He didn't provide such a definition, but he called out the need for one. Skimming through the comments, I think he's right. Very quickly, folks got side-tracked by what, exactly, was meant by the term. I don't know that I can add much to it, though, other than to discuss my own "old school" experiences and my own tastes today. Which, really, haven't changed much in over twenty five years, at least at a "high level." My preferred execution to get there has, of course, evolved significantly over time.

To me, old school is inseparable from a very gamist paradigm. The whole "challenge the player, not the character" concept (with which I'm not sure I agree) translated into traps, tricks and puzzles, which I very cordially dislike in my gaming. I take that back. I don't dislike it cordially at all, I flat out refuse to engage them. They literally turn me right off a game I'm playing. You never forget, in old school gaming, that you're playing a game. It's structured at all times to be a game. This leads old school gaming to resemble very little the very fantasy stories that brought me into gaming and made the concept interesting to me, so I wandered away from old school gaming back when it was still "current school" gaming, making me one of the few prodigal D&D sons I know who actually dislikes First Edition AD&D quite a bit, and its concomitant paradigm of playstyle.

Old school also means a great deal of arbitrariness. Stuff happens, most frequently, because it was the result of some die roll on some table. Old school especially means dungeoncrawling. I hate dungeoncrawling. A lot. There's no interesting narrative to be pulled out of a dungeoncrawl.

You'd think, then, that I'd be a strong supporter of "new school" gaming; narrative control mechanics, stuff like that. As it turns out, I'm not that either. I prefer narrative to be what happens in game, not something that is dictated by metagame concerns, or managed by actual mechanics. But, I can't be interested in gaming that doesn't incorporate interesting plots, interesting characters and interesting scenarios. Plots does not imply pre-crafted railroad tracks on which the players must run their course without deviation. Plot is what happens after you've played. But that doesn't mean that reviewing your play sessions shouldn't more resemble the outline of a cool story than it does the diary of somebody just wandering around doing random stuff.

I don't know what that makes me. "Middle school?" Perhaps, there is no school that applies directly to my gaming tastes. Be that as it may, I do really enjoy the discussion about what makes gaming fun to different people. For me, I think I've always approached the hobby as a would-be writer. I want my characters to feel like well-drawn literary characters. I want my games to develop plots organically that would be interesting to read if they were converted to novel format. And yet, I want it to be a collaborative effort, with the players themselves driving the plot, not the GM. I came to gaming already a fan of fantasy literature, and good fantasy literature has always been my benchmark for gaming as well. I don't care too much about tactical depth of combat in the game. I don't care too much about puzzle solving (in fact, I strongly dislike most of it) and I do care about motivations, intrigue, and social difficulty, as well as, of course, plenty of rip-roaring action.


Badelaire said...

I guess I also fall into the realm of "Middle School". I like a lot of the "old school" games well enough, but I like newer, much more different games as well, and I sorta pick and choose my philosophies - a lot of the "OSR" talk turns me off big-time, but the same goes for a lot of the "Indie Gaming" movement as well as the WotC Fanboy crowd.

Like so many others, I'm about gaming and having fun, and feel no need to tag what I do with a label-affiliation.

Joshua said...

Indeed, I'm not very interested in coming up with a label for my specific tastes. They just... are what they are.