Thursday, June 23, 2011

Can Any Game be Old School?

Okay, so I go that out of my system (cf my last post). Well, somewhat at least. I mean what we really love to do is game, right? And as GMs we have to be willing to play the game our players are willing to play. After all, it's easier for us, one person (even if we are the GM and always right), to change than to try and get 4 to 11 others (especially if they are pantywaste min-maxers) to change. I mean we can just get outvoted. And in the heated discussion of what we are actually going to play we lose all game time and end up playing, well ... nothing, if we aren't careful.

I suppose that is why I gave in yesterday and agreed to play Pathfinder instead of trying to playtest Dungeon Crawl Classics or sticking with OSRIC which got outvoted by the Pathfinder devotees. And, heck, no skin off my nose. I was hacking a d20 dungeon anyway so it could easily go either way. I gave in and everybody is happy, right? Well, everybody but me. But at least I get to game, right?

Right ... ahem.

I mean let's face it I _have_ to act with a little integrity. Otherwise my credentials as a DM are poop and I become Monty Haul DM # 32,146 (or whatever number they are up to now). I do have certain well, beliefs, about what players should have to face if they want an authentic gaming experience. What, you may ask, do I mean by an "authentic gaming experience"? Well, glad you asked. Allow me step up on that soapbox there and share the light, my gaming brothers and sisters:

Authentic Gaming Experiences

Any way you cut it, players in a fantasy gaming world are seeking to be heroes. No matter how amped up on the power gradient the PC gen rules are, when the players walk their PCs out into the big bad world of danger, it is just that: dangerous! PCs should face a challenge, and be in fear for their mortal lives. I don't care how bad-ass they think their Conan clone is, they should at some point be in fear for their mortal lives, well vicariously anyway. But you get the point. Our JOB as GM is to challenge players. Some have accused me of being a killer GM. Others have accused me of just being sadistic, and out to get the PCs in my campaigns, even at times to get the players! Nothing could really be further from the truth. My desire is to actually help them. But consider me more of an unsympathetic drill sergeant not an antisocial psychopath.

My job is to throw the toughest crap at you that you can handle. And yes, you may make a stupid mistake and die. And yes, the dice may go against you and you may die. And yes, you may lose a limb, come out with half your constitution points intact, lower by a level or two, and barely clinging to the last shreds of your sanity. But that is the risk when we don our swords, pick up our spell books, slip on our holy symbols and head into dungeons inhabited by beasties and baddies that want nothing other than out hearts on a plate and our heads on a stick.

See, if I simply set up a field of kobolds that are willing to stand there like stalks of dry corn for you to come wack down then you should have been a farmer not an adventurer. Chests of gold, gems and jewels don't just lie waiting for you at the end of the corridor either. What monster of any kind of intelligence is going to leave his ill gotten gains just lying there for you to come and pick up free for the taking? You should have become a tax collector if that's what you are looking for. 'Course an RPG of farmers and tax collectors probably wouldn't be too exciting would it?Why? Because we want to play heroes! Real honest to gosh heroes!

Well, I got news for ya Cinderella man, heroes are heroes because they have faced overwhelming danger at risk of life and limb and come back to tell about it. Heroes are heroes for a reason. And that reason aint because you can fart fireballs out your wazoo and sneeze lightning. It's because regardless of your abilities, you face almost impossible odds and life shattering danger and came back home to share the tale over a cold one.

And I got some more news for ya. The tales of heroes are alot prettier than the actual actions themselves. Ask any grunt who's spent a night in a foxhole fighting off an invasion. You do whatever you need to in order to survive with your integrity more or less in tact. It's muddy, bloody, gruesome work and you'll even piss yourself at times, but you'll come out alive having beaten back the horde and you'll be hailed as a hero by one and all.

Heroic work isn't for the faint of heart. And it aint for pantywaste losers. Not long ago in a 1e campaign we had going there was a true gamer that played a halfling fighter. The hobbit's name was Seth and he made it as far as a wee folk can go as a fighter and braved much danger in his time. But you see, Seth ran away as much as he fought. When things looked bad he wasn't too proud to turn tail and run; live to fight another day as the wise ones say. While PCs died in hordes around him, Seth trudged on through the ranks of heroedom to earn a place of honor among PCs of fame and fortune. A hero I say? Yes, indeed. Even though he ran as often as fought. Because Seth listened to his intuition and it was almost always right. When your in over your heads boys it's time to show 'em your arses.

Sure if it would have been a Paladin he might not have had that option. Hero-hood is different for Paladins, has to be. That's the trade off for the Paladin powers bequeathed you. But Seth played his part well in a gritty and tough, old school campaign. Sure we still laugh about Seth running away in true Monty Pythonesque glory at times; but Seth is retired and living in relative luxury in his hobbit-hole; while the bones of many of his more foolhardy comrades are gnawed to dust but dungeon rats. And it's not like Seth didn't warn them . He almost always yelled "RUN!" as he was speedily taking his own advice. It's just that so few actaully listened to him.

And that, my friends is alot more true to life than some video-game induced assembly line of carefully balanced monster foes spit out by a digital brain for your slaughtering pleasure. No, you don't get a reboot, you don't magically appear back at home base with your power in tact. You don't have 5 lives waiting to be used up and then a play again button to push. You have one PC life if you're lucky, maybe a few more if you can wrangle a rather difficult resurrection process. But the point is this is for real boys and girls, as real as we can make it.

And let's face it, Monsters want you D-E-A-D. And likely on their supper plate with a nice cold side salad of your intestines. Most are at least as intelligent as you and some even moreso. They are going to use all their evil wit, dastardly guile and chaotic wiles to outsmart, beat, kill and eat you. To play them otherwise would be to give you an unrealistic challenge--far too easy and in the end unbelievable. They are going to litter their dungeon with traps only they know how to get past; they are going to poison the spikes in their pit with the vilest stuff they can get their hands on; they'll lob flaming oil at you; ambush you when you least expect it; rally their numbers and attempt to overwhelm you; magically shut off the lights and slit your throats in your sleep; and hide their treasure so well you'll never, ever, ever find it; and if you do you'll be sorry.

If you can get past a foe like that, you truly do deserve to be called a hero. And that my friends is exactly how I roll. But the question then is ... can I do that and not play a game inherently designed for it? Can Pathfinder offer me the media by which I can play a real, true hard core fantasy campaign? The reason I question is that I'm still getting comfortable with the PF rules. And every time I turn around a new PC power booster has been added to amp their survivor jets. Competing with that old school style is a bit hard.

Luckily my brother is leading the way. And by that I mean my actual real world brother. My brother lives states away from me, but we talk probably five times a week. Mostly about gaming stuff. And he thinks like I do on most accounts and has been finagled into running a 4e campaign, much to his chagrin. We've had numerous conversations about how to run 4e old school. For, you see, 4e has some built in problems when trying to construct PC humility and general campaign grittiness. But his last report to me were that things were going quite well. A couple of his players were a bit peeved at the unexpectedly difficult change; but they survived, even if they did have to really work at it this time. He's using Goodman Games' GM's Gems and Grimtooth's Wurst to throw some unsuspecting challenges their way in marvelously non-4e style. And he's got his PCs looking behind their backs, burning their backpacks, and howling in horror half the time. In the middle of the fury his PCs have no idea if they are going to make it out alive. And when they do, you can bet your last copper they know they have achieved something. And for those of you who say such play isn't fun: his players laughed and hollered and hooted the whole time keeping the rest of the house awake long after bed time they were having such a good time.

And what all this has done is make me really think about things. I mean if I _have_ to play Pathfinder, I should at least play it the way it should be played. They way any fantasy game should be played--full of mystery, wonder and amazingly thrilling danger. Even children's fairy tales contain all of that. Otherwise they would be dull, dead and long forgotten. Now, it's not as easy in a game like Pathfinder or 4e to play old school. I mean Hackmaster and Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG and Lamentations of the Flame Princess are designed with that in mind. Pathfinder and 4e aren't necessarily. So it may take some creative work on our parts to make it happen. But I'm beginning to think it may be possible to do so.

So the next time a new batch of players says to me "Let's play Pathfinder!!" I respond not with moans and violent retching, but with a hearty "You bet!" and grin behind my GM screen like the proverbial Cheshire Cat who is about to eat six PC canaries.

Mwuah Ha Haa HAAAA!!!!!!!


Master Of Grey Skull said...

Freakin' love it! Viva la realism!

I tell you what, any game can be played with some grit...something that requires true grit to overcome and leaves the PCs with something truly proud of when they decapitate Orcus at the end of E-3!

I'm now forced to integrate the "grit" without the PCs knowing it...which can also be done behind the Screen Of Doom!

Chris said...

Absolutely Grey Skull! And what I've found is that players usually love it, if they're smart enough to live through it :) ... And sometimes even if they aren't.

D&D 5e Official Alternate Classes

The Classic 4: Fighter, Cleric, Magic-User and Thief This started with one of my players wanting to play the new Blood Hunter class. I...