Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Story's The Thing

What's all this bogus crap about old school not being about stories? I hear it everywhere from grognards far and wide. So much so that it makes me think I, as a relative grognard myself, need to address the issue and perhaps offer a tiny bit of perspective.

All role-playing is about story. Meeting a barkeep, investigating a forgotten tomb, searching for a lost magic item, hunting down a rogue troll. Whatever the hook there's a story behind it. And in my opinion the story should be pretty damn compelling, otherwise why waste your time on it? I think the problem people have with story is certain types of game that contain a prewritten story by the GM the players are "forced" into. That the introduction, buildup, climax and resolution are all predetermined by the GM and the players are just assigned parts in the drama. This is not RPG story it's crap of course, as players have free will. The story should be generated by the players, but in my opinion the GM has more responsibility than simply playing a neutral narrator.

It is the GMs job to know that the barkeep has a lame daughter he is dying to marry off, a mother-in-law that is trying to steal his tavern from him, and is secretly involved in an underground smuggling ring with the local thieves guild. That he has a habit of taking drugged snuff when he's nervous and to relieve his suffering from a rather vicious case of the gout. Spend very much time in his world and your pulled into a drama that extends far beyond trying to get information out of him from across the bar.

And that tomb hasn't just sat there waiting for you to loot it. It is currently serving as a goblin's lookout station for a coming excursion into the nearby farmlands. These goblins wan't nothing to do with the greater reaches of the tomb, but they know a way through all three levels to the caverns which allowed them access. Messing with these greenies might get you passage right through the tomb, and moreover allow an easy escape hatch should you need it. Or shadowing their doings, may uncover their intents to raid the surrounding farmlands. Farmlands currently under lien by a rather nasty and deviant lord who is having his way with the local teenage daughters of the populace. A lord who is placed nicely for the kingship should the king continue to take his evening meals in the company of his seneschal who is in the employ of the local assassin's guild.

And that magic item. Yep you guessed it. The magic item is being sought by the man at arms who is a son of one of the farmers. A magic item he hopes to use against said sicko-lord to protect his sister and the rest of her young friends from the lord's machinations.

There is no grand epic I'm planing here with these little examples. They are just life in a rather brutal fantasy realm that everyday people live and breath within. Get mixed up in all of this and you can't help but get involved in the lives of all those affected to a greater or lesser degree. These personal stories, some more or less important in the overall scheme of things, are the lifeblood of good adventure campaigns. They make things much more real and engaging. Old school philosophers are fond of referring to swords & sorcery fiction as the model for early gaming and that is a good reference indeed. But take any one of those stories and what you find is richly developed plot and undertones and an engrossing story in which our hero was swept up. Otherwise those stories would never have sold.

True, there is a difference between those kinds of stories and the sort of high fantasy save the world or universe type of thing. Maybe that's the kind of story that sticks in the old school craw. When you have invested in your heroes so much that if they die your whole world goes boom, well, then that's poor planning. The fact is the GM also controls the gods of the world. And those gods are smart. They can see the future. They know that people die and that they aren't always able to just bring them back to life, or deus ex machina their chosen heroes' butts out of danger. No, gods have a backup plan. That's the way real life works. And rarely if ever are we talking about the end of the world. We may be talking about a major world change, but that's good too. It just might make the players lives a little harder, but oh well--that's the price of failure.

Hitler might have won WW2 and then where would we be? Speaking German for one. Or maybe Japanese. The world would not have ended, but it would have been different. Sauron might have won the battle for the ring. And we'd have orc mayors and goblin lords to deal with on a daily basis. Middle Earth would have been a dark and malicious place. But it would have still been there. Just take the Shire as an example when Frodo and the guys got back home. Pretty nasty place, eh? But a good chance for another adventure! The fact is high fantasy just isn't realistic. And I mean beyond the magic and spells, and enchanted items and fantasy races and the like. I mean in basic human nature, basic politics, life itself. Just because we have all that magic and those fantastic beasties doesn't mean our essential nature changes much. Otherwise we have little to relate to in terms of a fantasy landscape. High fantasy goals and objectives are rarely carried out by one person or a small group of people. they are massive efforts that often climax in a spectacular bang. Sort of like Seal Team Six's role in killing Bin Laden. Never would have happened without alot of previous ground work.

So are there no stories in old school gaming? Of course there are stories. Gaming is full of stories and they make the game interesting and compelling. They are in fact essential. But it is never a GMs job to force a PC along a certain story arc. Sure, if you get involved with that barkeep you may end up having to deal with the thieves' guild and worse, the assassin's guild trying to kill off the king. At the least you are going to get mixed up with a lame daughter looking for an easy catch or an abusive mother in law. And those little factors may haunt you for some time, popping up again and again at the most inconvenient of times. But there's no forced storyline there. There's just unavoidable  everday reality happening to your character. And just like real life, sometimes reality sucks.

When I started gaming this sort of storytelling came naturally to me. Only once did I create a story driven campaign and though it was truly epic it never felt quite right. I sort of felt like everyone was running downhill on a railroad track just waiting till the train stopped. It was really the only game I've ever played that way. Noone died either. I'm not sure if I felt that everyone was too valuable to die, or I just wanted everyone to get to the end. But that didn't feel right either. But that's not even "story" so much as it is a script everyone has to follow. That kind of game is not what I mean when I say story. When I say story I'm talking about the backdrop, the setting with all its intricate details and goings on regardless of the PCs lives. The purposes of others and our own intersect on a daily basis. At times we are at the whim of forces greater than ourselves, and at others we steer the ship. And always we are immersed in the stories of everything going on around us. The GMs job is to give meaning and life to the world. And that, my friend, requires stories -- lots of them. Ultimately PCs have free will. They choose where they go and what they do. It is my job to be ready for whatever direction they head. For you can bet they are walking into a rich, story laden world wherever they go. And soon their story becomes an intertwined part of the greater fabric of that world. And whether their story lasts past a single day or not is up to the fates, not the GMs devices.

Friday, September 9, 2011

A Sad Letter: Game Club Canceled

For those who are interested, this letter went out to club members today:

Dear RPG Club Member,


I regret to inform you that the VJH RPG Club has been canceled for this year. I have run this club for 6 years straight now and have loved every minute of it. RPGs are a big part of my life and bring me great satisfaction. I have also truly enjoyed helping so many students learn to enjoy them as well. Unfortunately, professional demands have grown so much over the past two years that I simply don't have time to run a regular RPG club at the school. However, all is not lost.

Working closely with Mr. B. who runs Wild on Hobbies (our favorite local gaming store), I will be a part of a regular game scheduled to run at his hobby shop once a month. Details haven't quite been decided, but a group of 4 or 5 Game Masters are going to be running games at the store. There will be at least one RPG game a week run by various GMs from around the area. Check with me, Mr. B. or at the hobby shop for more information.

I also highly recommend getting together with your friends and gaming among yourselves. This is the way I gamed for years growing up. You can buy gaming rule books online or ask Wild on Hobbies to order them in for you. You can also download plenty of rules free from the Internet. Whatever the case, please continue to pursue your gaming interests. Don't let the club's cancellation curb your enthusiasm. As The Knights of The Dinner Table always say “The Game Must Go On!”

Thanks,

Mr. Jones
 
Lots of heavy sighs, sad faces and disappointment. Breaks my heart really. But hopefully they'll find the strength to carry on the flame for themselves. And of course they can always stop by and talk with me about games and gaming between classes. Feel like I'm reliving my own high school experiences when the principal kept us from having a club due to that stupid 60 minutes report.
 
More to come soon.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Quitting Gaming ... Not!

Not entirely anyway. What I have had to quit is the gaming club. And if you'll bear with me I'd like to vent about it. Gaming and life often intersect in unpleasant ways.

If you follow my blog at all you probably know that I am a gaming activist in my school and community. Which isn't really saying a lot because it's a pretty small community. Mainly I have dedicated the last 6 years or so to running our local school gaming club. It is by far the most active club at our school, and maintains the highest active membership. As of right now we have 17 members and about 4 pending applications. And that is actually a fairly low count. We are usually in the neighborhood of about 25. I do almost all of the DMing and run as many as four groups a week. Yeah. It's a big job. Especially since most of the members are 14 to 15 years old. Can you say _lots_ of drama?

At any rate I have loved doing it, in spite of the difficulties and the demands on my time. I don't get paid anything for the time I put in which is about 10 to 12 hours a week. It is, for me, a bonus my teaching job allows me. It's a definite and desirable perk to the job. Unfortunately teaching itself is, well lately ... crap. No, that's not exactly true. Teaching is great. But the pressure on teachers is becoming unbearable. Someone asked me recently if being in the military or teaching was more stressful. I didn't even hesitate: Teaching hands down. It's always been this way really, and I try not to complain. There are great things about the job, and of course making a difference in kids lives is certainly rewarding. However, it just keeps getting a little worse every year. We have been given so many extra things to do over the past three years or so that I simply am not getting it all done. And now they are micromanaging our classrooms to the point that I can barely breath, let alone teach. As the year started I worried that I might not be able to do it all. But I just told myself that every year seems to start this way. Just stick it out and everything will work. You simply can't give up the gaming club. But it has come to the point that by the end of each day I am absolutely hammered. I stay till five or six every night (2 to 3 hours after quitting time) in meetings, collaboration and trying to catch up on all of my grading, lesson plans and paperwork. I have had a headache by day's end everyday since school started, and I feel like I have been run over by an emotional Mack truck. I'm in no mood for anything but going home and collapsing.

Yeah I know, you may think I'm being overly dramatic, but I'm not. So, I've made the regrettable decision to stop the club this year. I'm going to have to explain to the kids that due to professional demands it just isn't possible for me to continue this year. However, there is one bright spot in all of this. My good friend and fellow teacher runs the local hobby shop and has about five guys lined up (of which I am one) to run one FRPG game a week on a five week rotation. Now that I think I can do. One game session a month is much more doable for me. Not as much as I would like of course, but it's doable. And thankfully I am going to be able to tell all 17 broken hearted club members that they will be able to game; it will just be at the hobby shop instead of school. Which is fine and actually better in a number of ways.

So, yeah ... life is like this sometimes. All gamers age and most of us grow up. And by that I mean we get jobs, married, careers, families and other responsibilities that come with life. If we're lucky gaming gets worked in there a little bit too. Truthfully I've been super blessed the last 6 years to be able to run this club for so many local kids here in our community. To be able to share gaming with so many new gamers and watch the fires in their eyes, the laughter in their voices and see that sense of belonging, of finding something you really love to do shine in their countenances. And heck, I got to game an awful lot too--that aint half bad. Right now my gaming has intersected with my career in a sort of unfortunate collision of time or the lack thereof. So I've simply got to cut back.

It'll be alright though, I'm sure. My gaming life has made it through much worse trials than this. And for those of you who may be wondering. The fact that the club wanted to play Pathfinder (a game I'm not too keen on) didn't figure into my desire to close the club at all. Okay, maybe a little ... no, just kidding. Pathfinder is a fine game for those who like it. But you can bet your bottom dollar the game I run at the hobby shop is gonna be on my terms. Gritty, hard hitting and scary as hell. But boy is it gonna be fun!

Old School Revisited

Some time ago I pondered the definition of the term "old school" and what it meant for the "old school renaissance". 'Course I wasn't alone or unique in my consideration. Just about every old school hack like myself has done the "old school definition" thing to death or worse. What we gain in such reconsideration, is I suppose like reflections in the ripples of the gaming pond. Each of our developing views are ripples in the concentric rings left by the dropping of the old school pebble.

When I last considered this I didn't come up with too much in the way of hard and fast definitions. But I did sort of satisfy myself with a baseline definition that old school gaming includes (1) actually playing with out of print materials or (2) playing games that simulate the style of out of print games or incorporate some of their elements. This is a definition at once exclusive and expansive and it keeps the definition of old school roted in what most people understand when they hear old school.

However, the expansiveness of such a definition in describing old school games requires we include every out of print game thus far produced. So, as I decided earlier, this definition is in effect useless. It does nothing to describe what old school play is like. What then does old school mean to the vast numbers of old school enthusiasts? The fact is it means different things depending on who you ask. Personally, I embraced the most excellent essay by Matt Finch entitled Quick Primer for Old School Gaming as the defining manifesto for what old school style gaming is. But this does not apply to all old school enthusiasts. Others embrace different definitions.

Old school AD&D 1e enthusiasts prefer a crunchier and delineated system than 0e enthusiasts. And some AD&D 1e enthusiasts avidly embraced UA and OA. Dragon magazine articles were gladly incorporated into their system as well. By the time 2e came out 1e was a rather massive system. 2e die hards appreciated the streamline, but 2e ballooned as well, and I personally know of people who gladly brought into the options rule book systems. By the end of the nineties AD&D was a huge system incorporating about every option an RPG had to offer. And there were aficionados of this version of play. A massively baroque, mazelike system that catered to just about any manner in which you wanted to play.

And then 3e, through an initial stumbling about, eventually created a option oriented system that was catered to very flexible character creation and expansion. Whatever people might have said about 2e needing a "boost" or "revamp" or " wholesale scrap" 3.5 would not have been possible without the ideas pioneered in 2e. The main thing that 3 and 3.5 effected by way of essential change was a simplified core mechanic via the d20 system. And now, with 3.5 gone we could say Pathfinder players are playing old school in regards to 3.5.

For me personally I really like the ethos of Matt's Quick Primer. It strikes a chord within me because that's the way me and my friends played. For awhile I was told that the reason I felt that way was because though I played with 1e rulebooks we were really playing more like basic. I wondered about that, but never really felt that it was true. True we didn't use weapon speed, but we used lots of other rules in AD&D. We also added lots of optional rules like criticals, fumbles, proficiencies, specialization etc. We also took great solace in the fact that most issues that might come up would be covered, implied or at least related to something in the rules. And of course there were tons of cool options in the system we rarely seemed to exhaust.

Since 2e was quite compatible with 1e we simply added in stuff from 2e that we liked and kept right on playing. By the 90's we were playing a game that literally seemed impossible to use in its entirety. And we liked this realm of endless rules and options. True we didn't always allow every option and we argued at times about the validity of a newly published rule or three. But we never felt like the system was broken. Sure there were contradictions at times, and power balance problems and some opportunities for min-maxing, but they had always been there. The concept of a perfectly balanced system never came into our mind. They were issues to be dealt with in-game.

I suppose that's why I liked Hackmaster 4e so much. All that crunchy goodness was worked into their system. Yes, it was designed to emulate the very period I'm talking about--late 90's 2e gaming. A system so massive and intricately impossible that you never reached the end of it. You could get lost in it. 3.5 perpetuated that style of play and in some ways exceeded it in terms of character development. And some people consider 3.5 D&D's most popular edition to date, but I don't really know the numbers on that.

My whole point here is: where do you draw the old school line? It seems to me a very personal matter. And in this way the OSR and the old school movements abroad serve one principal function: keeping out of print games alive and being played. They are not really in the business of saying this or that is or isn't old school. What the OSR does best is bring OS games back to life. At first the retro clone movement involved Hackmaster's endeavors to parody the "old school" style of the massively intricate 2e system. And they even amped that up, following the notion that old school meant huge, archaic, often contradictory rule systems that allowed min-maxing and rules lawyering. Then C&C came along to recreate AD&D in a d20 model. Later the true OSR began with an effort to foster new material releases for AD&D via OSRIC. All the time supporting AD&D. The first three systems reproduced were AD&D clones--a decidedly un rules-lite system. It was only later that the basic and 0e clones came along with their focus on fast and loose roleplay.

Others see old school more as a creative movement of people home-brewing adventures, campaigns, supps and even games in the true spirit of "build your own". I have a little trouble getting behind this idea as the core of the old school ideology though. RPGs have pretty much always been this way. Sure we always played with stock games and supplies too, but we also drew up our own adventures, created our own classes and races, built our own worlds and house ruled like crazy when we felt like it. So we've always been a build it yourself kind of hobby. Fewer of us have created full fledged games, but there were those of us that had a go at it.

I wonder though, if really aren't talking about an open source mentality. Which is a different thing altogether. Open source gaming isn't really old school per se, but the open source mentality is emerging if not fully developed in the OSR community. Early clone developers were more interested in creating open source gaming languages to write code for supplements for existing proprietary systems. In other words OSRIC was the language which allowed you to write compatible supps for copyrighted AD&D. Their intention was never for people to write adventures for OSRIC itself. But that was exactly how things went. This is what happens when the open source mentality takes hold. It's a good mentality really. But it isn't exclusive to anything "old school". Rather to systems that can be produced in open format.

So all of these old school terms we throw around may not mean exactly what we think. This has become increasingly apparent to me as I continue writing entries here; and when I enter discussions with people in person or online. When we say old school, OSR, or OSS or the like we're often talking about some particular style of play enshrined in one edition or version. And often it is a style of play as we see it. Even within the same game people often have varied interpretations of how the system should be played. We might reach agreement on some points, but rare is the person who can say they agree completely with someone else that a game should be played exactly thus.

Just where the heck am I going with all of this? Well, I'm not sure. I've been working on this post for days now, and it has been rewritten at least three times. I think I'm hammering out exactly what I think and believe in my own mind. I'm coming to general opinion that Old School is a nice concept, but rather useless to describe anything beyond "old" games. And I suppose it comes from talking with a brother of mine who has been lassoed into DMing a 4e game against his will, and is desperately trying to play it hard, fast and gritty. Like he used to play 1e. But he's struggling some. We've had some enlightening conversations about play style and how certain games help or hinder certain styles of play. This has made me wonder anew if any game can be played in any style.

And let's face it: old school isn't old any more. Almost every game is in print now in some form or another. And there are numerous new games on the market that are trying to embody hard hitting, creative play. Some are very rule heavy, others are rules lite. All of them are pretty darn well done. There are so many that I'll never be able to read them all, let alone play them. For now, my gaming is narrowly defined. But I will always play my style--whatever that is. Maybe that's what I should try and uncover next.

Club Re-Vote

Well, due to voting issues we all met as a club to re vote on a system. There were about 18 members present and me. I gave an outline of each game, and a brief explanation of the systems. Then I asked for members to introduce themselves and add their two cents. The Pathfinder devotees carried the day. They were very convincing and had some good points. I think they immediately converted about 10 or so people to their side with their advocations alone. Then as everyone else introduced themselves and said one after another that PF sounded good I think it changed the few others' minds that hadn't been yet convinced. One kid stuck up for S&W and three still voted for Adventures Dark & Deep. But in the end PF carried the day fairly strongly.

We started rolling up some characters and will be starting official play Thursday afternoon. There are three groups *whew*! Hope I can keep this up.

More soon --

Been Busy

Sorry everybody. I've been working on several posts, but it has taken forever to get around to them lately. I could throw out a tidbit, but I've been loathe to just add filler. Anyway, with both jobs going strong and trying to get the club up and running and a few family health issues I haven't been able to post with regularity. I should be back to normal now. Sorry for the days of hiatus. And thanks for being patient.