Thursday, March 03, 2016

Am I more OSR than I thought?

The title is a little bit tongue in cheek; I know exactly how OSR I am, of course.  I, at one point quite a while ago, decided to "rebut" a lot of the "How to play OSR style" advice from Matt Finch associated with Sword & Wizardry because although he said some of the right things, he generally took it in directions that turned me off of the OSR rather than turned me on to it.  Read that earlier reubttal here.  However, Randall S Stukey (I'm using his spelling, including lack of period after S), the author of Microlite74 has a slightly different take on the same advice, and... well, I find myself quite more or less in agreement with most of what he says.

Microlite74 is, as you'd probably guess, part of the Microlite family of games (which I'm already adopting in a big way and have been pushing for years here as the preferred system for any of my settings).  His version of the basic chassis is specifically designed to be a conversion of OD&D into Microlite, so it's a hybrid, if you will, of OD&D (or Sword & Wizardry if you prefer) and Microlite, using mostly the rules from the latter to attempt to reach a result much more like the former in feel, if not necessarily in every detail.  Microlite74 comes in three varieties: Basic, Standard and Extended.  As you can imagine, they get progressively more "rules heavy"—although only relative to each other and other very rules-lite games.  The Basic Game is meant to be a conversion of Microlite into the LBB version of the game, while Standard is meant to incorporate a more robust, full OD&D game, with the supplements and whatnot added in.  Extended incorporates a bunch of house-rules of indeterminate provenance; some house rules of the author's, stuff from The Dragon and even third party publishers of the late 70s.  Although not meant to shade into 1e specifically, by the time you're using Extended, I feels much more like AD&D than using the Basic or Standard would.

I'm happy enough with a more traditional(ish) interpretation of m20 as a very stripped down d20 rather than a conversion to another version of D&D, but I did peruse the Microlite74 document for monsters, spells, and other material that I could potentially use.  What I either missed before, or cruised over without it making an impact on me, was that there's a section that mimics Matt Finch's advice.  And that I like it a lot better.

Let me get more into the details a bit:
Heroic, not Superheroic: Old school play, especially at low to mid levels, is about fairly normal  people put in situations where they can be heroes, not about extraordinary people doing things that would make a four-color comic book superhero proud – and at first level yet. Just like in the real world, the more a character improves his abilities, the harder it is to improve them further, while new characters may advance rapidly, the higher their level the more effort and time (and XP) it takes to advance to the next level.
While this isn't really substantially different from what Finch said; it's better said, in my opinion.  It's not only more clear about what exactly it means, but it also doesn't use examples that kind of subvert its supposed intent.
Achievement, not Advancement. Many modern games are often all about what special feats, extra classes and special game mechanics the players wish to obtain for their characters as they increase in level. In old school games, a character’s abilities are generally predetermined by his character class, so old school games focus on the things that the characters wish to accomplish in the game world rather than on what game mechanics they want to acquire. Level advancement is often much slower than in modern fantasy RPGs which makes in campaign achievements even more important as a measure of character success.
And this adds a bit more to the concept.  I'm not sure that this is "old school" because it's not how I played it when old school wasn't old... but I certainly agree with the gist of this concept.  That said; it also has shades of "class as straight-jacket" which is, admittedly, an old-school concept, and one that I've very definitely eschewed.  While your abilities are certainly determined by your class (and race) they're also relatively modest in any game that I've kit-bashed out of m20, and therefore tend to be the opposite of a straight-jacket; anyone can do (or attempt to do) just about anything.  Members of certain classes will probably be more successful in the long run, though.  This also contradicts a point further down to some degree, but I'll save that until we get there...
No Skills: Unlike in most modern RPGs, there aren’t any skills in Microlite74 -- not even the streamlined four skills of Microlite20. Players are intended to have their characters act like adventurers. So don’t search your character sheet or the rules for the perfect solution in Microlite74. Instead, you just tell the GM what your character is trying to do. Note that you are assumed to be competent with all common activities associated with your class and background. If you need to keep a door open or shut, you might tell the GM your character is using a spike to keep the door open or closed. A ten foot pole is your friend for checking for traps. Searching a room means looking inand under objects, not rolling a skill check. While this may seem strange at first, you will quickly learn to appreciate the freedom it gives you. No longer are you limited to the skills and feats on your character sheet, you can try anything your character should be capable of trying. You might not succeed, but the rules generally will not stop you from trying.
I really don't understand the old school's almost allergic reaction to skills.  Skills are a useful tool.  While they're usually quick to point out that skills have been abused by some GMs to create a game that is nothing more than rules interacting with each other, that's no more true than any other aspect of the game.  Skills are merely a slightly different shade on abilities; they give you bonuses to attempt things.  Skills don't substitute for playing the game.  It's curious that nobody makes the same complaint—although it would be just as fair—about combat actions.

I think that the reason this is such a sore point to OSRians is subconsciously revealed in the examples that Finch (and Stukey) use; it's all about "pixel bitching" the dungeon.  Now, to be fair to Stukey, he specifically condemns pixel-bitching later on in his advice, but his example is still about searching a treasure chest for traps.  Blegh.  Boring.  I think that right there is my biggest fundamental disconnect with the OSR: the whole paradigm of playing in a dungeon and telling the bizarre (and tiresome, in my opinion) story of D&D.
Limited Magic Items: Modern fantasy RPGs often assume that magic items are easy to buy and/or to create. In most old school campaigns, magic items are relatively rare and hard to create. Only potions and scrolls are generally relatively easy to create or purchase. Other magic items are seldom found for sale (and are very high priced when they are found for sale) and are usually very expensive in money and time to try to create – often requiring rare ingredients that the characters must quest to find. Therefore characters are generally limited to the magic items they find in treasures or take from defeated enemies on adventures.
Keep in mind, that the particulars of my setting (and most other settings I'd care to dabble in) are such that magic is rare and scary—Cthulhu-esque, even.  But part of that is ingrained in me from the notion in older games (and most fantasy stories, for that matter) where magic is neither ubiquitous nor banal, and it's not supposed to be.  I do like one of the conceits of Eberron, though, that in a world that actually follows the D&D rules for magic, low level magic can be expected, to some degree, to mimic what technology has done in our world, though.  Things like magical streetlights, for example.  But that's a deliberately special case.
No Assumption of “Game Balance”: Old style game sessions aren’t about carefully balanced characters (who are all able to shine equally at all times) who only run into situations carefully designed by the GM to be beatable by the characters presently in the party and to provide treasure that fits their current level. Instead, part of player skill is learning to evaluate situations so situations well over the party’s current abilities or which will waste the party’s resources for little gain can be avoided. Don’t assume that you can beat every monster that you encounter, running away from monsters too tough to handle can mean the difference between character survival and character death. You can also get creative in how you defeat monsters. Perhaps those goblins you bypassed could be talked into (or tricked into) attacking that giant you know you can’t beat, perhaps killing it for you or at least softening it up so your party has a chance of defeating it and living to tell the tale. Also remember that treasure can be turned into XP, even if you can’t kill the monsters, perhaps you can still acquire some of their treasure. Part of the skill of playing “old school” style is coming up with creative solutions when a direct attack is likely to fail.
Here I certainly agree with the sentiment... but I'm not 100% sure that this is an old school paradigm or not.  Certainly old school games didn't have the tools to carefully balance your encounters—but one thing I've noticed frequently among OSRians is that they condense the entire RPG experience down to D&D—often down to 1e and other associated rule-sets vs. 3e and later.  3e's encounter balance rules are really an unusual rule that has very little precedent in the industry (not saying it leapt fully formed from the heads of Jonathan Tweet and Monte Cook like a modern day textual Athena, of course) so calling this an old-school vs. new school interpretation only makes sense in a very narrow context.  Outside of D&D specifically, there's very little that looks different than "old school", and "modern" is very specific to two (maybe three; I don't know 5e well enough to say) editions of D&D.
It’s Not All About Combat: Many modern fantasy RPGs have made combat the star of the system, combats in these systems are time-consuming and very crunchy with rules for everything. Microlite20 avoids this by having a fast-playing abstract combat system. Microlite74 takes this one step further, combat isn’t intended to be the main source of fun in the game. The game is as much about exploration and treasuring finding as it is about combat. Sure, you are going to have to fight things to explore and find treasure, but always remember that combat may not be the best or safest way to handle every situation. Think before you rush into combat. After all, it’s not the only way to earn a good pile of experience – and monsters don’t have to be killed to be defeated (and get XP for them).
Of course, this was true to a great degree for older games too; but the rules imbalance between combat vs. non-combat mechanics has gotten an order of magnitude more out of whack even since then.  Despite that, it's probably a poor straw man to suggest that new school games are all about combat.  That depends on the group more than the game, of course.  And even if you run published adventures, non-combat encounters and challenges are quite well represented.  In fact, you could fairly argue that newer games are considerably less combat oriented based on adventures published than site-based dungeon or hexcrawl games are.  A focus on combat is demonstrably old school.

He's completely right about the rules themselves, though, and the degree to which combat has become the centerpiece of the system.  Again; I don't know who he's kidding about "many modern fantasy RPGs" when clearly what he means is "3e D&D and it's derivatives and sequels."
Reality/Common Sense Trumps Rules: Old-school games use loose and simple rules that cover average cases and the GM and players are supposed to apply common sense and their knowledge of how reality works to cover the unusual and edge cases. “Reality/Common Sense” as interpreted by the GM always trumps the written rules if they conflict. For example, a character has a magic weapon and the rules for that weapon say it always causes its target to fall prone if hit. The character hits a gelatinous cube moving down the corridor toward them with the weapon. The rules say that the target should fall and be in a prone position. Reality, however, says otherwise. Gelatinous cubes don’t have a top and bottom (so prone penalties make no sense) and a 10 foot cube can’t fall when it is moving through a 10 foot corridor. In some modern games, the rules would be applied anyway and the cube would suffer the effects of falling prone no matter how little sense that makes. In an old school game, the GM ignores the rule because it makes no sense in the specific situation.
This is really more a question of good GMing vs. bad GMing.  I don't disagree with this at all, except to note that—as Matt Finch did in his "advice for would-be OSR GMs"—it's the conflation of "good" with "old school" and "bad" with "modern" that is a just-so story and simply not true. Of course the site-based combat focused old school paradigm is obvious in his examples.
Forget “Rules Mastery”: As some of the above differences have hinted, player skill in “old school” style games isn’t about mastering the game rules so you can solve any problem by knowing the right combination of rules from 20 different rule books. Microlite20 is designed to be rules light and Microlite74 tries to stress this even more by encouraging GMs to make rulings on the spot taking into account specific circumstances instead of trying to hunt up special cases in the SRD or a stack of optional rule books. This is faster and helps players immerse themselves in their character and the game world instead of in rule books. GM rulings will be based on specific circumstances and common sense, not just on the written rules and prior rulings. Just because it requires a certain roll to jump one 10 foot pit does not mean all 10 foot wide pits will require the same roll. After all, all sorts of variables can affect the roll (terrain, weather, lighting, pressure to jump quickly, etc.). Players need to remember that these rules are merely a tool for the GM. They are just guidelines for the GM, not something written in stone that the GM must obey. If something herein does not work right in your campaign (or the GM just does not like a rule), the GM is well within his right to change it. Microlite74 is not a game for rules lawyers or for those who believe that the game designer always knows what is best.
Rules Mastery is a function of how complex the rules are.  In order to accept this premise, you have to accept the absurd premise that 1e is not an old school game.  1e is an extraordinarily complex game.  It's also a poor game, with many holes, bizarre subsystems, and difficulty in even understanding, in many cases, exactly what the rules are that need to be applied (gasp! Burn the heretic! St. Gary wrote 1e!)  It also requires divorcing D&D from its history, in which the oldest of old school was more of a solo war game rather than a true RPG as the term was later understood following a bit of continued development, or the idea that tournament play is an old school paradigm.  Although I agree with this preference, it's really more to do with rules-lite vs. rules-heavy and is not something that is particularly associated with "old school."  Stukey in fact talks about both of these old school paradigms in gaming, yet somehow doesn't appear to suffer from cognitive dissonance; you can't have those paradigms without rules mastery.  I suspect he didn't play that way when old school was just "current school" (and to be fair, neither did I) but it's a mistake to assume that this is not an old school feature.
No Script Immunity: In most old school games, player characters do not have any form of script immunity. Player characters can die, lose equipment, suffer strange magical effects and other often unpleasant consequences if they are not careful or are just very unlucky. On the other hand, there are no rules limiting their success. If they take on an adult red dragon as first level characters and miraculously manage to win, there are no rules about level appropriate wealth or level appropriate magic items to interfere with their becoming rich and probably flush with magic items from the dragon’s hoard.
Ironically, it was the increased focus less on war-gaming and more on role-playing as old school started to evolve into what came next that led to the implicit assumption of script immunity in the first place.  Again; this is a play style preference that has more to do with who's playing the game than it does with what game you're playing, though.  I've been in old school games where script immunity was fairly obvious, and I've been in modern games where characters dropped like flies.  This is also another question that makes much more sense if you have a context where the entire industry is D&D and you don't actually know much of anything about other games and other styles out there, though.

Not Mentioned does not mean Prohibited: Many people seem to read RPG rules and come away with the idea that anything not specifically mentioned in the rules as allowed is prohibited. While this really doesn’t make much sense given that no set of rules could ever cover everything that characters might attempt to do in an adventure, it seems to be a very common way to view RPG rules. In an old school game like Microlite74, this is specifically not true: the millions of possible activities not mentioned in the rules are not prohibited, they are up to the GM to allow or disallow based on his knowledge of how reality works and how his specific campaign world differs from reality. Unless the rules specifically prohibit some action, players should ask their GM instead of simply assuming it is prohibited because the rules do not mention it.
I've never played in a game, except with really bad GMs, who ever thought that not mentioned meant prohibited.  It has nothing to do with old school vs. modern.  Also; and ironically again, the notion of not being able to do something that wasn't specifically clarified that you could do?  I first saw that with rogue abilities prior to the release of AD&D.  What he calls a "modern" problem is one that I see as firmly rooted in old school games.  Also: and again, ironically, "modern" games have developed a robust tool whereby this problem is specifically side-stepped, allowing any character to attempt any action: the skill system.  Which Stukey explicitly rejects, and in fact believes, as per above, to be the cause of limitations and prohibitions on what a player character can do.

While Stukey's analysis is easier to read than Finch's, it's mostly for two reasons: 1) it's much less smug and pretentious, and 2) I'm on the same page about what my preferences require of a system.  Ultimately, though, he makes the same mistakes: 1) conflating "good" with "old school" even if there's no good reason to do so, and 2) conflating "rules lite" with "old school" even though there are very good reasons not to.

Anyway, there's a fair bit more, but I've quoted and analyzed enough; I'll give it a rest.

1 comment:

Jeffro said...

If anyone can explain this stuff without invoking zen, then I'm all ears.