Thursday, May 28, 2009

James over at Grognardia stirred up a hornet’s nest with his “More than a Feeling” blog. His basic premise was that old school play is more than just a nostalgic feeling, but rather it is a certain style of play that was very common back in the early days of D&D. He goes on to say that if old school really is just a feeling, then it would be difficult to argue what is really old school, as feelings are very subjective and almost impossible to quantify objectively. James strikes me as a guy that likes to look at things through an objective lense, and shies away from subjective feelings, which is difficult to form a defensible position in which to engage in a meaningful debate.

I agree that D&D is game that when it was introduced was like nothing else on the market. Created by wargamers for wargamers, it offered something very different from the traditional wargame that featured cardboard counters or historical miniatures.

But, with that said, it is still a game. New school or old school, whatever you want to call it, this is still a game. With that in mind, the enjoyment for me, comes not from the rule set, but from the folks around the table.

Originally, I was going to call this blog, “It’s all about the GM.” In my mind, the GM holds a significant place at the table. The GM is one part referee and one part story teller. There are GM’s out there that I would join up in a heartbeat. They have a special knack for pulling the players into the game. Not everyone has this. Their ability to provide that magical touch transcends rule sets. When I was younger, there was a GM in our group, Mike, who was amazing. Sure his stuff was completely off the wall, but he could weave a good story. He liked the high-level epic stuff, and it was frequently said that his adventures were the only ones in which a death salad was a wandering monster. He did not run 1st level adventures. When you joined his game, you knew that it was not going to be a standard adventure with orcs and trolls. This was going to be something else entirely. And by the way, characters died on a regular basis, but the treasure was always very cool. I lost an 18th level paladin in 10 minutes in one of his adventures. It was crazy fun, and it was his style of play that made it fun.

But that is really only half the story. For the GM, the fun is with the folks around the table. Nothing makes me chuckle more than when the characters blunder into something that turns out to be rather funny (like when paladin walked into the goblin trap that dropped a bunch of poop on his head - that was some funny stuff). To me, D&D has become the replacement for the guy’s poker night. Of course I like playing poker and drinking a beverage of choice as much as the next guy, and in that environment, it is still about the folks around the table. Winning the big hand is always a lot of fun. With the right folks around the table, D&D is a lot like that.

Now I will be the first to admit that there is a bit of nostalgia in those early games, and it is really hard to recreate that. I suspect that there are middle aged guys out there that played in the 80’s that are looking to recreate that spark, and my theory is that in some cases, this is what provides the fuel to the old school movement. This is definitely a feeling. But that feeling is hard to recreate without understanding what created that in the first place. I agree that the original rule set and the open style of play is at the heart of those early days. Everything was a bit looser, and the GM’s just made up stuff on the fly. This was all good stuff.

I think there is a natural evolution that creeps into games like this, and when more and more stuff gets published, the rule set gets longer and longer. I think that is the nature of the beast. With more rules, there is a sort of role playing physics that is created. Everyone knows the physics, as we all have the games. GM’s that deviate from these rules leave us a bit confused and may even create anger and disappointment. Things are not suppose to work like that we would argue. Magic ceases to be magic, and instead becomes physics that can be defined within a set of rules. I think there is a bit of fun that escapes when this happens. Rules Darwinism will eventually stamp out magic altogether, and the game magic that existed in the early days will go the way of the dinosaur, which would be a sad day indeed. Sometimes magic just needs to be magic.

So to come full circle on this blog post, it’s the people around the table that make the game fun. If you are going to spend 4+ hours playing this game, you really should like the folks you are gaming with. I definitely like a looser game, and I want to keep the magic in D&D. When I GM, I want to be fair and consistent, and I also want to be able to just wing it, and say “its magic” and not have to explain the theory behind it. In the early days, there was a feeling of adventure where anything could happen, and everyone at the table was aligned to this. The GM promised to bring the magic, and we promised to buy into his adventure.

In the early days, the fun was created by the people around the table, and today, for me, it is still about the people around the table.


jamused said...

I love the people I game with, but there are game systems I'd rather not play with them.

JoetheLawyer said...

very good post. I enjoyed reading it.

Anonymous said...

Good post.

But it’s always been about the GM, not so much the system. I’ve known that since I attended Dragonflight when I was 14 or 15 and found out that TWERPS Vikings & Beekeepers was the most popular, quickest-filled up game at the con. The GM ran that sucker like you wouldn’t believe. You could hear the players singing “Vikings and BEE-KEEPERS” to the melody of Ride of the Valkyries anywhere on the entire floor of the building.

I’m on the fence about how much utility will be garnered from some firmer definitions of Old School. James’ post is a bit of a frustrating tease. For someone who uses as much linguistic precision as he does, his posts are very focused on feelings and opinions, and not so much about objective concepts and concrete comparisons.

Restless said...

Not everybody likes "old school" because they are trying to recapture that feeling. After fifteen years away from gaming I came back and find the rules systems are epically and monstrously huge and bloated. I deal with maddening complexity at work; I don't want to do it in my free time, too.

It's got to be rules-light for me or I just won't game. Anyway, I already have a feeling for the rules, so I don't need to learn a whole new system, right?

jamused said...

@Restless I think you're looking at the wrong systems, then. Risus, for instance, is about as streamlined as a system could be and still be a system.

Restless said...

@jamused: To me, OD&D up to AD&D 1e (and their retro-clones) has several advantages over any game of that sort. First, it's the sort of game I enjoy and want to play. Next, as I said, I already have a "feel" for it, so I can play more seat-of-the-pants without things going off the rails. Also, and perhaps most importantly, I have at least a snowball's chance in hell of finding people to play with if I play a version of D&D.