Saturday, October 15, 2011

The New Old School ... Meh ...

New school, old school, rules lite, crunchy ... meh ... Whatever, right? Well, I consider myself an old school gamer, but I'm not even sure what that means anymore. Some, I'm sure, will think that the New Old School is the old school renaissance movement and self publishing. That's cool. Whatever. Others might think it's about rules lite roleplaying. Awesome. Lots of good stuff can be done in rules lite. Whatever. Meh

What I do is my thing. It may be old school to some, new school to others, just plain screwed up to others yet. It's all really just relative isn't it? And let me tell you I've been all over this argument. Had it, won it, lost it, been utterly confused by it. There are a few wise people out there who'll try and tell you what you really need to hear: "If you aint having fun you aint doin it right." And that's all you need to know. It's a game after all.

The other day I had some kids come to my classroom after school and wanted to run an OSRIC game. The guy they had lassoed was actually a HS kid that had played some OSRIC with a couple other guys and said he would DM the younger guys. They were all stoked beyond belief. Since we had to cancel the game club at that time, they have all been hungering for any kind of game. So I listened in as I worked at my desk as he ran them through creating their PCs and starting the game. Let's just say it wasn't at all what you might expect from an OSRIC game. The DM was telling them all sorts of stuff I knew was not in the rules, and that had nothing to do with OSRIC, let alone D&D. I thought about correcting him, but that would undermine his confidence and maybe lead to a loss of their game if they lost confidence in him. So I stayed quiet and just smiled once in awhile. Because you know what. Noone cared. They were all excited and into it.
Someone might think he was just making it up as he went along, and maybe he was. Who cares? They were gonna go have an adventure and all they needed was common consent. They were all having fun, and that's all that mattered. Now, as time goes on for them, they'll start reading the rules and start rules lawyering and maybe even move onto other games. Who cares. That's cool too. As long as they are having fun.

Because any game and I mean any game is in the eyes of those that play it. It can be whatever you make it. Take for example what Paizo has done with their most recent release:


Now, maybe you might claim they are riding the wave. But honestly the beginner's box is a good example of what a game can be when you are willing to look outside of the box. Even thought the game is billed as an intro to the full core game, I see here a way to play Pathfinder rules lite if that is your thing. I'm not sure if Paizo will put out a separate line to support the boxed set, but it doesn't really matter. A GM and players can choose to play just boxed set rules and keep it much simpler as high as they want to take it. And this is an "official" change of perspective on their bread and butter game. Frankly I love it. Even though I would prefer to play the crunchier full PF rules.

For example, since a little time has opened up, I have started a once a week game for the kids in the school club again. It's a little bit of a logistical nightmare, especially with 12 players wanting to play right now in my game. But I decided to play the game they chose -- Pathfinder, and run with it. But we are playing full rules. We are even allowing lots of 3.5 stuff in if it's approved. But what I'm doing with the game is tricking it out to my liking. There are actually lots of optional rules out there for PF and more coming all the time. I'm ramping up combat and implementing an advanced critical hit matrix, and expanding the information on grievous wounding. I tend to be a GM that requires teamwork by constructing challenges that cannot be overcome alone. Going it alone in my dungeons is never a good idea. Challenges either have multiple layers, or require more than one person to navigate. I also strongly encourage intelligent roleplay. You have to be very careful and considered when confronting beasties in my dungeons. They are not plastic cutouts to simply be knocked over. They think, they strategize and they are evil. I also tend to make them tough. Currently I'm modifying B1 In Search of the Unknown, Hackmaster version. This adventure is excellent for all these purposes. 

Some might not consider such an approach Pathfinder-like enough. But what I see is a game that has maximized the munchkin factor, and it's just gonna get worse. 3.5 and now PF is a player's wet dream if they like an endless power curve. There's balance, yeah, to a point. But I'm not hung up on balance anyway. The fact is I'm a  DM in a system that gives the players maximal min-max power. Alright, kewl. But have you read the Gamemastery Guide? There are lots of prose in there about tweaking things to your liking and adding in little bits that aren't presented as such in the core rules. PF is telling you in so many words, that the GM has some power too. And all those annoying Dragon Disciples and Shadow Blades and War Mages all tricked out and riding through your dungeon like sweetened up low riders through the east side of LA--well, you can meet them on their own level.

Yes it does ...
Well, okay maybe not just kill him. But you have to meet him on his level. The power curve problem that has supposedly plagued D&D from the start has never posed a problem for me. That's because I believe the game was designed not to play RAW and only RAW, but to offer a continually challenging environment for the PCs no matter how far along they got. There are tons of ways to do that, some much simpler than others. But it isn't really hard. Any game worth it's salt allows that and builds it into the system, even if it is an open invitation to make it up as you go along.

Cause let's face it, the one thing that can kill creativity faster than anything is someone claiming authority over your creativity. Someone saying you can't do this or that. This or that isn't allowed. That's why so many artists are avante garde, out at the edge, pushing the limits. Not that it's always good to do so, there is a right and a wrong time. It has to be done artfully, not just for the sake of being rebellious. But artfully. An artists doesn't throw out the rules. She works with them in ways noone has ever thought of before. And in a way, authority is an integral part of this process. so I suppose that in a way authority is as much a part of the creative process as the rejection of it.

Work with your players to challenge them, not against them. Noone can really tell you how to do it. I mean they can teach you the basics of the game, but ultimately you will have to find your own way in RPGs. Along the way you will find people that like the way you do things, or learn to like it. That's cool, and in that way RPGs stay alive for us and the next generation. And remember that if you're not having fun you're not doin it right.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Gaming Buddies

Let's call a spade a spade. True gaming friends are more than just gaming friends. A good example in satire are the Knights of the Dinner Table. Though it is true gaming plays a big part in our collective lives, we also probably enjoy the same kinds of movies, maybe collecting comics, playing video games, reading the same kind of books, maybe even paintball, wargames, LARPing, the marital arts or even the SCA. Gamers tend to congregate in more than just one avocational arena. As a result our gaming companions are often involved in larger portions of our lives. I mean this isn't a necessity, but it often works this way, and if you ask me it's nice when it does. After all gaming is a social activity and expansion of such socialization is nice for people who often have a hard time coming out of their shells--that was the case with me in HS anyway.

And, as I've mentioned before I don't have gaming buddies right now. Although it brought a smile to my face to have one of my old gaming buddies comment on my last post. Unfortunately we're now over 1500 miles apart. Until we both get Skype, gaming aint happening.

And I should clarify slightly. I would love to play a game of my preference. As I've said before I would play Castles & Crusades or Hackmaster, if anyone wanted to play those games with me! But my Castles & Crusades game flyer has been up at the hobby shop for weeks now and no responses. Noone has even taken a call-back number. (You know--those little number tabs you can rip off at the bottom?) So what's a guy supposed to do? Well, I know that there are 4e gamers out there looking for games and there's tons of teenagers right now who want to play PathFinder. So I'm having to consider cashing in my memories and starting to build some new ones. I mean before all this came up I was doing pretty well anyway.

I've written about three entries now on "it's not what you game it's who you game with". Rarely does a game seem to be the problem so much as the people you are gaming with. I mean there are exceptions. Some people really dislike certain games. That's cool. If I could find enough who dislike 4e and Pathfinder maybe they would consider a change. But for now, I just want to game. And I was doing fine with both PF and 4e previously. Time to do so again. I suppose the rest of the gamers out there aren't Jonesin bad enough to play an unfamiliar game. Once a game is solid and friendships start to form then we can talk about trying out some other systems.

Lots has been made of tabletop gaming's power to bring people together. It has been called a social tool for the socially awkward. I don't think that's the case at all. I think certain people have similar interests, what they need is a forum to bring them together. Gaming has created that forum and it has expanded the interest base for many of us. As a social vehicle gaming does something for us beyond the fun of gaming itself. It creates friendships. And not just casual friendships as evident in so many other hobbies. Let's face it you can;pt crawl the much of a heavily trapped dungeon, sweat, bleed and often die together fighting off hordes of evil monsters and not come away better friends. Even beyond this however, is just having someone that is a little like you. To know that you are not the only one in the world who loves Tolkien, comic books, Star Trek, Star Wars, swords, magic, dragons and make believe. To know there are others like you that still want to play, have fun and imagine what could be. When you connect on that level you've often got friends for life. And you really need those, 'cause you never know what's just around the corner ... or under the ground ... waiting ... lurking ... just about to eat you ...

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Back in the day ...

There was one game. It was the game we all played. Not that others didn't try and break into the scene. Even the main game company was coming out with variations. But in the day I started it was with AD&D. Sure there was Basic and Expert, but they were "less of a game". At least it was in our eyes. AD&D was more expansive, filled with more possibilities--why play something that had less?

Gamma World got some table time, as did Star Frontiers. But not nearly as much. Top Secret once or twice. Space Opera, Rune Quest, GURPS, Champions, Shadowrun, Traveler, Marvel SuperHeroes, Call of Cthulhu, a tiny bit of Rolemaster, some Car Wars and we tried OGRE. They were all on the market. But what did we come back to? What was our collective world? It was AD&D. That was our game, and it was really the only one. We could tell even then which were the cheap imitations. Which ones were trying to make their own game different from but the same as AD&D. Everyone was following on the coat tails of a giant. And we could see through most of them. The ones we gave the most alternate play time, and it wasn't much, were non AD&D games. Gamma World mostly and Car Wars. But why play an inferior version of the fantasy game we all knew and loved? No, when it was fantasy it was AD&D.

So now, in this non-AD&D world, I look around and things haven't changed much. Still a bunch of copy cat games, variations on a theme and still no AD&D. Some new tricks have been introduced to the market. A few game changers, but not many. RPGs are the new board game. And like board games we are just reinventing the wheel. Over and over again. A board, some dice and a bunch of pieces. RPGs seem to be no different.

Maybe I'm stating the obvious, but aren't we all just trying to recapture the magic? Making our own variations because we can't play what we used to play. That wasn't the original purpose of the OGL. It wasn't was OSRIC was about or Swords & Wizardry either. At least not at first. They were supposed to be tools to publish materials for the original games. New adventures, new campaigns, new ideas that fit into the original model. Now? Well both Stuart Marshall and Matt Finch have both spoken to the fact that their clones have become something very different. They drive the market now. They have become an end unto themselves.

So look on the shelves now? Where is the game? What stands out above the rest? Nothing. It's like the game has disappeared and all that is left are the variations on a theme. It's like it never was. Everyone says, oh, but there are new and improved games. We've taken out the "fiddly bits" and cleaned up the contradictions, streamlined, rewritten, reorganized, re-re-re. Bullspit. They've erased it. It's gone and not a hint of it remains. Not even in OSRIC.

...   ...   ...   I have wondered if it's just the fact that it was the game I started with. I've wondered if it's just that everyone was playing that game. It's what all my gaming buddies preferred. And that I just went along with the crowd. If I could find a bunch of players right now playing say Tunnels and Trolls and they refused to play anything else that I would just jump on the wagon and play that. That would become the game, because it was what we are all into. It's the collective framework for our imaginings. But I can't really come up with any answers to that. Mainly because I don't have any gaming buddies.

I'm a convention organizer. I've got to keep over 20 different gamers happy. Offer something for everyone. Please the gaming masses. Now it's recurring at the hobby shop. Owner is more interested in me supporting the current editions and helping to organize weekly play for everyone else. Doesn't matter what I want to play. Matters what attracts everyone else. But in the end does it really matter what I want to play? I mean if a group can get together collectively and build a game the system is irrelevant isn't it? I mean in an ideal world if would be great if we all wanted to play the same game. But how often does that happen? Hasn't happened to me since the 80's.

My brother called me last night to tell me about his 4e session. Went 5 hours and very badly for the PCs. they went against all the signs in the Pyramid of Shadows, ended up with almost 3 party members dead and facing an ethical dilemma of alignment changing proportions. My brothers words? And remember my brother is a GM who has been fairly anti-4e for awhile; he was roped into the game by his players. Want to try and guess my brothers words on my answering service? "D&D is the best game ever!" He felt like it was one of the best sessions they have ever had! It was, in his more extended explanation when I returned his call, what D&D was all about. That kind of session was the kind of session he plays the game for. And he's technically playing a version he hates. Well, if you ask him now, he would say that he really doesn't hate it. He dislikes some of the combat mechanics, but he'll tell you now that he's making the game work. He's tried restricting races and classes and making other tweaks, but more and more he is playing the game as written and making it his own.

So in the end, when we all played AD&D back in the day, was it because it was the best game? Or was it because it was what we were all playing? Was it the game we played or the people we played with? What was it really? I know back in the day I didn't worry about systems, or editions or debates on which game was best. We just played. we tried new games and went back to the game we all had the most fun imagining within. It didn't matter that it was AD&D did it? It could have just as easily been GURPS or Rolemaster or whatever. Does 4e have problems? Yeah it does, so does Pathfinder and Castles and Crusades and Hackmaster. But am I going to be a stubborn ass and refuse to play what everybody else wants to play because I miss how things were back in the day? And if so, who's the real idiot here? Yeah ... me.

Not too long ago I thought about switching to 4e. About running a Wednesday night encounters game and playing 4e at the school club. I read through the books and got myself all in a sweating nausea over playing something I "didn't like". Despite the fact that I had played it less than two years prior and had some pretty good games with it. You know what switched my mind back then? Yeah, it was about a year after I started my blog. I was busily and successfully playing 4e and started my blog as a school club website to keep track of our games. Go ahead and read back to my 2008 entries. You can tell how much fun we were having. How much fun I was having. Does this sound like a guy who hated 4e? Sure there were things I didn't like, but we were having a good ole time. So what happened?

I'll tell you what happened. The OSR happened. Because for the first time I had begun reading about the old school movement, the rhetoric and the nostalgia and it hit a nerve within me. It brought up lots of good memories. It made me want the old days back. So I began thinking about maybe trying 1e again. And that seems to be when everything went to pot. I began to build myself as an OSR guy, and have been dissatisfied ever since. I feel like a gaming goth sitting around in the graveyard thinking about dead games. It's been depressing really. And I've spent the last couple of years wandering around from system to system, making my club members crazy, spouting old school rhetoric, trying to figure things out and feeling foolish thinking like I've got it when all that I've really got is my own tail.

I'll tell you one thing for sure. All this jazz about getting back to that feeling of being "back in the day" feels nothing like I felt "back in the day", when it was just me and a bunch of friends gaming the hell out of a game and telling stories to each other about our exploits. So I ask you, what was it really like "back in the day" and what are we all trying to recapture? 'Cause I for one aint found nothing yet but heartache and angst. And I'm getting a little sick of it all.