Thursday, July 7, 2011

Why Play Rules Lite RPGs -- Defining Old School

I realized something recently. Call me slow on the uptake, but it's not like I didn't know it before. It was just a revelation to me in a way it hadn't been previously. Must have never thought about it before.

At any rate, I have always made the argument that 0e, or the original edition of Dungeons & Dragons, was a work in progress evolving towards AD&D. What a putz I was. That's the exact argument 4e devotees make about their prefered version. Assuming a depracatory tone they spout drivel like "4e has evolved from it's more primitive roots." And of course they are implying that 4e is "better than" all that came before simply because they use the term "evolve". It doesn't seem to phase them that evolution has nothing to do with "better"--but we won't go there now. The point here is that I was making the same mistake the 4e drones were making ... *GACK*!

Yeah see, I was writing recently on the history of the game and talking about 0e play when it hit me. 0e was released in 1974. The AD&D Monster Manual was released in '77, the PHB in '78 and finally the DMG in '79. That means that the bulk of the RPG community was playing the white box for five years.  At that time the original edition was selling more and more copies and TSR could barely produce the copies fast enough to satisfy demand. The 0e supplements were being scarfed up as well and by all measures of success Dungeons & Dragons in White Box form was a hit!

AD&D as a stand alone game couldn't really be played until 1979! That meant that there could have been a major "edition shift sickness" as early as '78 or '79. I couldn't help but wonder how happy people were with 0e and disatisfied they were with the new roll out. But it would be difficult to determine if my suspicions were correct.

So this was my thought a day or two ago. And then just last night I'm reading through the old posts at Grognardia and come upon this. Yep, exactly what I thought. Thanks again to Jim for that post. Not sure how well researched the claim was but I tend to respect Jim's work and opinions. If nothing else it showed I wasn't alone in my assumptions. AD&D was the first step in a long line of revisions that would change the game. ... Wow. Or as they say in the South, smack me with a battered catfish and shut my mouth.

I was a bit stunned. I mean it made sense, but it always hurts a little when it's aimed at your preferred version. Of course, I could assimilate this new information and world view because of something else I realized as I considered why someone would prefer to play 0e. When 0e came out it was definitely a "rules light" game. Though they didn't really consider it that at the time. I mean they started playing with no rules! The game as published had all the rules they needed up to that time. However, what they may or may not have known at the time is that playing the game sort of required that you come up with your own setting. Settings back then were heavily slanted towards the dungeon and often times were nothing but endless mega-dungeons and maybe a small village or town or keep nearby that you could visit between forays. That was the initial setting Dave Arneson had played below Castle Blackmoor and later Gary below Castle Greyhawk.

In fact something that hit me as odd, at least something I had never before realized, was that Gary found it "strange" when he got repeated requests from players that they wanted to play in his campaign world of Greyhawk. This surprised him, as the game sort of assumed DMs would create their own settings and worlds. This goes to show that the idea of a "fixed" campaign world with it's own house rules was not an idea tied to the game at it's inception. This was a new development. I'm not going to say it was a bad one yet, but it was certainly not intended as the way to play the game.

Another de facto assumption was that you would customize the game as you went. There would be situations that would come up not covered in the rules and you would be expected to ajudicate the matter on the spot. You had to be fast and think on your feet as a DM. It was simply part of the job. If you wanted rules on crits or on hit location or on dodging, or on poison manufacture or healing rates you had to come up with those on your own. Now, to some people this may seem like a chore, or even evidence of bad design. But the fact was, people loved this stuff. They were improvising left and right, playing fast and furious on the fly and letting their imaginations run wild. It truly was as Gary would later tout it, "A game for the imagination."

And even though tournaments and small conventions were on the rise in those days, Gary was busy building a standardized model that would facilitate tournament and convention play. Why? Because everyone was playing highly customized and personalized versions of the game. They were taking ideas from books, from other games from Arduin, from Judges Guild, from anything and everything that they liked. It created a wild and crazy time and each GMs table could be in a world vastly different from the one right next door. That was something Gary decided to put a stop to. Now, I don't know for sure why (there were definitely some dark political/business reasons for doing so) but  I have to wonder if Gary wasn't simply trying to regain control of the game. If he produced "THE" version of the game then there could be no argument or dissent or individual manifestations of the game and how to go about playing it. Gary even says as much in the PHB,

"Authoring these works means that, in a way, I have set myself up as final arbiter of fantasy role playing in the minds of the majority of D&D adventurers. Well, so be it; I rationalized. Who better than the individual responsible for it all as the creator of the "Fantasy Supplement" in Chainmail, the progenitor of D&D; and as the first proponent of fantasy gaming and a principal in TSR, the company one thinks of when fantasy games are mentioned, the credit and the blame rests ultimately here. Some last authority must be established for a very good reason."

And he then goes on to talk about the need for uniformity in the game. Now, I've always sort of realized that AD&D was Gary's game. By that I mean it was the game the way he saw it should be played. That he had house ruled and tested this set of rules and decided that this would be the answer to almost all of the common questions that might come up in a fantasy game. Naturally, it could not be exhaustive. But Gary took pains to explain his rationale on items where he chose not to be exhaustive. Questions about combat that were not clearly answered in the rules could be dismissed with the paragraphs in the DMG explaining that D&D combat was abstract. Such an approach gives new insight to many of Gary's at times humorous if short remarks to questioning players.

Once when a young player asked how invisibility worked in relation to the physics of light, Gary simply replied--"It's magic." See, Gary could take such questions as an affront to his summation of the rules and dismiss all other questions out of hand. If this thoughtful player desired an answer in 0e, he could have said -- "You decide". And that might have led to a glorious melding of science and magic in that GMs campaign. But Gary effectively squashed that possibility.

See, there's a difference in approach betwen the two versions. In one, YOU are the master. In the other GARY is the master. sure, Gary says that AD&D can be changed to fit your whims, but he cautions against any changes that go against the spirit of the rules. He had enshrined that spirit in the AD&D bottle and it was not to be released or exchanged with spirits of your own devices. This was a bold departure from what had been previous to '78/'79.

So this got me to thinking. Was 0e really a product in development? I was no longer seeing it as such. I was beginning to see 0e as a free form framework to hang your fantasies upon; and AD&D as a bottleneck of rule manufacture. The game had become necesarily constricted by the infinitude of rules definition portrayed as "the way" to play the game. No wonder people were pissed off.

It also explained something else I never truly understood. Why was the Holmes version so popular? I had always assumed that the set was introduced as a basic entry to the game because Gary's version was too complex for new and younger players to grasp at first. That was the party line anyway. Now I have to wonder if they weren't trying to meet the demands of the 0e crowd by creating something much more like 0e than AD&D was. I mean it never made sense to me why race as class was considered "basic". And it was pretty readily apparent to conusmers that the "Basic" version was not a AD&D starter game. It was a game all to itself. Even today many gamers prefer Basic and Expert play. Now it makes sense to me. Because Basic and Expert play preserve a little more of that early old school 0e feel than AD&D ever did. It wasn't exactly the same, but it was much closer than AD&D was. Some even make the point that Basic was a good "updating" of 0e, and that it streamlined the game and was presented more "cleanly". That Basic is what the game should have been re-released as not AD&D.
In fact, Dave Arneson always loved 0e and preferred a highly loose and story driven game. Even though he parted with Gary on some rules preferences. Dave evidently really like hit locations and criticals. He included them in his Blackmoor supplement. Gary talked these rules down in his combat section in the DMG. I now have to wonder if that wasn't to take another step in ostracizing Dave from the D&D picture. If anyone should have loved hit location tables it would have been Gary. Maybe I'm wrong, but I'm just saying. My point is, if Dave, the Grandaddy of RPGs loved 0e and seemed to prefer playing in a rules lite style, what could be really wrong with it?

This realization was making me a bit nervous and sick to my stomach. I was beginning to see AD&D as a power play by Gary and an attempt to standardize the game. To *shudder* take some of the imagination out of it. A chill was beginning to set in. And I haven't quite warmed up yet. Because if this is the case, what really is Old School? How do we define it? It certainly seems like a rules lite approach at least to initial rules presentation is part of the bag. And moreover the focus is not on playing someone's version of the game, but playing a game that allows one to create and imagine adventure in their own mind. I mean Dave's world was semi-steam punk, and Barrier Peaks was his baby from the start. He wasn't limiting himself to just fantasy pulp fiction he was bringing in the Planetary Romances of Burroughs and heck even Vance.

Which brings me naturally to Appendix N in the DMG. Appendix N was given only cursory notice until recently as it has seen a resurgence among old school gamers. What Appendix N does is offer up a small sampling of inspirational literature that were the seeds of creation for fantasy gaming as a hobby. Early pulp fiction of the Swords and Sorcery, Planetary Romance, Adventure, Wierd, Horror, and Fantasy varieties were what inspired the original creators to create a fantasy role playing game. That the game is not about strictly defining a rule set so that it can only be played in one way. But rather to proved the basic framework so that gamers can recreate such adventures for themselves. If Appendix N can be said to be the true source of roleplaying than we have gone far afield indeed. And our straying from the path started with AD&D.

*groan* I gotta go take a tylenol ... no make that three.

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