Monday, March 05, 2012

The OSR and Me, part 2

I know it's debateable to what extent Matt Finch's A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming really represents the OSR, but for the sake of argument, I'm going to assume that it does, and deconstruct it a bit--going point by point through the primer and noting where I agree and where I disagree with what it says.  For a bit of context, I don't consider myself old school, but I do consider myself old fashioned.  I started gaming back quite a while ago, and most of my tastes and preferences were set fairly early on in that journey.

I fact, my first game of D&D was a game using the LBBs back in the late 70s sometime.  It wasn't until Moldvay boxed sets and AD&D books starting showing up at school in the hands of some of my friends a few years later in the very early 80s that I really "got it" though, and to me the Moldvay covered BD&D sets are really where "old school" starts and ends.  Of course, I probably played more AD&D because of the unfortunate naming convention that made it sound like it was meant to be a better game.  In fact, the BD&D line was really more my style.

That said, even those games aren't games I'd want to play today, and I find that the rules are not to my taste.  Many of the implicit playstyle elements, however, are hard-coded if you will into my gaming DNA.

So, let's have a look at the Primer, shall we?  The way it's structured, it has basically eight points: four "zen moments" and four "Taos of the DM."  Let's take them one at a time.

First Zen Moment: Rulings, not rules.  When I first started reading the primer, I thought it was off to a good start.  I've always played in such a way that the rules are somewhat handwavey and the GM's call is more important than anything in any book.  When 3e launched, it had the motto, "Tools, not rules." which I thought was at once both kinda clever and also kinda obvious, and was mildly surprised that it needed to be said.

That said, as soon as we get into Finch's examples, I find that despite my hearty agreement with the sentiment in the title, this isn't about what I want at all, really.  His idea of a "modern style" gaming is "pixel-bitching" with checks vs. a Find Traps or Disarm Traps skill, while his example of a preferred "rulings not rules" scenario is "pixel-bitching" with a 10-foot pole.  In other words, his "bad" modern example is merely boring--his "good" old school example is not only boring, it's also tedious, frustrating and time-consuming.  Having a tool to "zoom" through the lame elements of a campaign isn't a flaw, it's a feature.  Of course, a better GM would have eliminated such tedious stuff from his campaign already.

I know, I know.  Some people really like that.  But if that's what "old school" means, then it's not me.  And please don't conflate that with the "rulings, not rules" discussion, because they really aren't related.

His second example, with the "ninja jump" in combat is more sensible, although his caricature of a "modern example" so too laughably bad to be anything other than a strawman.  It's also obvious that the Primer was written in a D&D vaccuum, where "modern" means either 3e or 4e and makes no reference to anything else going on in the RPG industry at all.

Second Zen Moment: Player Skill, not Character Abilities.  I was quite skeptical of this one just based on the title, and sure enough, I don't have any use for it at all.  The entire notion of "skilled play" is one that I've always found tedious and boring.  Probably because I'm relatively unskilled, but there's a reason for that too--I don't think "skilled play" is any fun, and I've never made any attempt to develop player "skill."  Like many of my "generation" of newbies to the hobby, I was initially interested in the promise and potential of D&D because I was a fan of fantasy fiction.  "Skilled" play distracted significantly from that paradigm.  "Skilled" play probably has its roots in the wargaming culture from which D&D was formed, or the tournament style games from the early years, but it had no relation whatsoever to what I (and many fans like me) found appealing about the notion of the game.

I found that not only did I completely disagree with the premise of this section of the primer, I also found it insufferably smug and self-congratulatory.

Third Zen Moment: Heroic, not Superheroic.  This really didn't need to be said, in my opinion.  Not only does even "modern" D&D rarely get played at high level (according to numerous survey data released by WotC and compiled independently --although often not scientifically) but outside of D&D itself, it's not really a concern.  Unless you're playing a superheroes game overtly, of course.  Or Exalted or something.  In fact, saying this made Finch's manifesto seem somewhat ill-informed and "ax-grindy" rather than useful. 

That said, I certainly agree with the sentiment.  As a fan of darker, horror-themed fantasy, in fact, I thought even Finch was leaning way towards too much overt heroics, with his "zero to hero" paradigm firmly in place.  It's one thing to say that D&D characters shouldn't become Superman, but even Finch admits that he wants them to become Batman.

Maybe he's not as familiar with superheroes as he thinks he is.  Batman? Really?  How is he not a completely over-the-top superhero?

This also somewhat contradicts the OSR's fetishization of sword & sorcery paradigms, particularly the characters of guys like Howard and Moorcock, who were clearly superheroic, fantasy "Batmans" and "Wolverines" and whatnot.

Fourth Zen Moment: Forget Game Balance.  I've never completely understood the violent reaction many in the OSR have against game balance.  I certainly don't worship game balance, or even think that it's necessarily very important, but it makes sense to me that I'd want a game that was at least designed to be balanced from the get-go.  Game balance isn't a Holy Grail, it's also not a bad thing.

Finch ends this section with nine "tips for players."  I find that of the nine, I only agree with one of them--don't assume you can win every encounter.  The rest of it describes a game I'd find tediously boring and non-fun.

The next section; the "Taos" are colorfully and somewhat nonsensically named, in an attempt to be cute, I presume.  It makes talking about this section a bit more difficult, so I'll assume that you've actually read the Primer for me to comment on.

The Way of the Ming Vase.  This uses an example--that of a combat taking place around a Ming vase on a pedestal, and making the erroneous assumption that in "modern" games, if there's no rule to cover what happens to the vase as combat rages all around it, then naturally nothing does.  Which he says is nonsensical.

I also think that it's nonsensical to say that--there aren't any rules in his preferred ruleset either, and good GMing is good GMing, regardless of system.  In fact, in many discussions with OSRians, I get that kind of confusion--good GMing does not equal "old school GMing" and bad GMing does not equal "modern GMing."  I know that there's a lot of folks who are frustrated and perhaps even resentful of some of the developments that have overtaken their Favorite Roleplaying Game™ over time, but if you try to associate everything good about running the game with old school, then you've made the term old school a victim of circular logic and a useless label.

That fact of the matter is; nothing about old school gaming addresses the Ming vase question any moreso than does "modern" gaming.  If something is to happen to the standing Ming vase, it has nothing to do with old school vs. modern and everything to do with other playstyle and GM style considerations that can be equally valid and commonplace in both the old school community and the "modern" D&D community.

The Way of the Moose Head.  This refers to non-combat shortcuts.  The specific example is a hanging moose head that conceals a secret door.  Do you just make a Search check, or do you actually make the players verbally "search" the room for the secret door, and if they don't "look" in the right place, they don't find it?

First off, I'm not a huge fan of the notion of searching rooms for secret doors.  I think that's a silly paradigm.  My games rarely feature the search of empty rooms for secret doors.  Boring.  Given that, I think having a mechanic that "shortcuts" actually doing so makes perfect sense.  This becomes a bit of a slippery slope.  If I don't like "manually" searching the rooms and want to shortcut them, what else can I shortcut?  Combat?

This goes back again to the "tools, not rules" paradigm.  The Search check is a brilliant tool for players who find the searching of rooms to be a tedious part of the game (although again--then why are room searches appearing in their games?  There's a few reasons this could be, which I won't get into now, but if so, we're sure extremely grateful to be able to fast-forward through it."  But if "pixel-bitching" the room is fun for you, then you should also be able to leave that particular tool in the toolbox and not use it.  In general, I'm much more a fan of having tools that I don't need very often (if at all) than I am of needing tools that I don't have.  I like the fact that shortcuts are in the game.  If I don't want 'em, I can ignore them or specifically exclude them.

Your Abstract Combat-fu must be strong.  This I agree with heartily.  I've never much liked the tactical miniatures game of D&D 3e (and presumably 4e.)  Abstract "narrative" combat is the way to go.  But casting this as a dichotomy of old school and modern again highlights how blinkered Finch seems to be to the D&D world.  If you want to develop your abstract combat-fu, play some Feng Shui or something.  There's a lot of games that already make use of narrative combat much moreso than any version of D&D tends to.  In fact, if anything, I find this to be a more modern development than D&D uses.  The tactical miniatures of 3e (and 4e) was a natural progression of the miniatures assumptions already inherent in 1e, after all, and earlier D&D.  Fantasy miniatures started because of old-school D&D.  This is already a more modern development that started outside D&D--although modern is a relative term; it's been around for a long time now.

Granted, Finch is using old school to refer to "0e" or LBB style play.  LBB style play grew out of Chainmail, however--while the rules didn't really have much in the way of tactical gameplay, the assumption back then was that your background was.  I doubt that a truly modern "narrative combat" paradigm was a part of very many actual "0e" games during the later 70s, it certainly wasn't necessarily true during the mainstreamization of the game during 1e's years.  True, there's nothing there that prohibits it, but that's at best the tail wagging the dog to clim that old school was always about narrative combat.  Or abstract combat, as Finch calls it, since the word narrative is anathema to OSRians, for the most part.

While it's certainly a feature of the rules of the game, I think it's difficult to say that this is a case of an old school paradigm vs. a new school paradigm.  It makes much more sense to call this a D&D paradigm vs. a paradigm rooted in other systems, and OSRians claiming this for old school D&D is a bit revisionist.

In my opinion, this is another clear case of the OSR rewriting history to make it seem as if their preferred playstyle was always the case "back in the day" when those of us who actually remember "back in the day" know that clearly that's not true. While Finch says that the "I hit for 6 damage," "The monster hits you back for 4," etc. back and forth is to be avoided, in point of fact, most of the old school games I played in were exactly that. This is clearly another case of giving advice to "be a good GM" and mistakenly conflating that with old school. This is completely unrelated to old school. It's good advice--no matter what game you're playing--but it isn't any more important or any more associated with an old school paradigm than it is with any other paradigm on playing RPGs.

Way of the Donner Party.  This is all about the resource management "game within a game" of D&D.  I agree that many old school games featured this feature, and giving it prominence feels "old school" to me.

But I dislike resource management.  If I want a resource management games, there are much better games out there to play (most of them for my PC).  D&D is fundamentally a game where resource management makes it feel like accounting.  I hated accounting in college, and I certainly don't want to spend my leisure time with it.  While the designers of 3e and 4e may not have always gotten it right, the notion of packing more fun into your games--as Ryan Dancey once infamously remarked, of filling your four hour gaming session with something much closer to four hours of fun--is certainly the "right" idea.  Removing elements that aren't fun is a good thing.

I don't find resource management fun.  Therefore, I fundamentally disagree with this notion of the OSR primer.

The primer then ends with a plug for Finch's own retro-clone game, Swords & Wizardry.

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