Friday, March 23, 2012

Pathfinder--Old School Style

Seeing that "Old School" seems to be a lightning rod for all sorts of opinionated criticism I'm treading on thin ice here by claiming I'm blazing new trails with Pathfinder by gaming it "Old School Style". But I'm actually in really good company. Take Goodman Games for example, or Thick Skull Adventures or Save Versus Death. Some high quality stuff coming out there for 4e and for 3.5 back when GG was writing Dungeon Crawl Classics. And of course there are all sorts of "old schoolers" (in other words gamers from the 80s and before) who still like and try to game like we did "back in the day"--whatever that means. And recently this became sort of clarified for me as I came across this article:

There and Back Again: The Construction of Nostalgia in Advanced Adventures

It's is downloadable for free from RPG Now and well worth the price (free). It is actually a masters thesis, so it's a bit of a dense read, with lots of academic tone but quite well written. It's premise is simple but direct--that the art employed in the Advanced Adventures modules was specifically designed to appeal to an old school ethos, and represent the experience the module hoped to serve it's consumers. I feel that Gillespie adequately defended his thesis, and moreover laid the groundwork for what might be called an academic approach to what "old school" really strives to achieve. That essentially there was a tone or a feel to old school gaming that can be captured in the art and presentation of a gaming experience. (Among of course other noteworthy implications apparent in his work.)

This paper really did something for me. I began to understand on a deep level what perhaps old school was all about. That it didn't necessarily mean rules lite, or a certain version of a game, but an emotive experience best captured by the very art used to symbolize the experience the module offered. Not specifically to the module in question (although that too), but endemic to the very nature off play itself and the assumptions of the genre. To tell the truth I think Dungeon Crawl does a good job summing this ethos up, but it isn't just that. Anyone who ever ran T1 Village of Homlett can appreciate how the feel  transcends mere dungeon setting and can be felt within a village setting (Homlett or Against the Cult of the Reptile God N1 or the keep in B1) or an island "paradise" (X1 Isle of Dread or WG6 Isle of the Ape). But the feel is one of dank, dark and not quite otherworldly mystery. The kind of atmosphere you would expect in a dungeon crawl. X2 Castle Amber is a great example of a crawl that while indoors is definitely NOT dungeonlike but still highly evocative of a "dungeoncrawl" setting.

I think this has a lot to do with the fact that all of these adventures are based on classic weird fiction of the 60's and 70's or earlier. A few off the top correspondences:
  • N1 = B movie Hammer Horror type setting
  • T1 = House of Usher like
  • X1/WG6 = The Land that Time Forgot
  • X2 = Clark Asthon Smith's Averoigne or Poe's Usher
 But, with the exception of Amber very little is directly taken from those works. Rather a weird and sinister feel is conveyed by each of those works. Even Gygax's Dungeonland and Beyond the Magic Mirror, both taken directly from Lewis Carroll are quite harrowing rides for any high level adventurer worth his salt.

All of which got me to thinking about my current games set in the Pathfinder universe. Could I take this tone, these tropes which Gillespie so clearly exposited and start designing or modifying my PF adventures around them? While not without it's challenges I think this is certainly worthwhile. And I think the guys at Goodman have done a good job of it with their DCC line. I'm not sure how intentional it has been, in the sense of Gillespie is talking about, but they've certainly been good at it. And I can attest to the "old schoolness" of several of those modules.So I'll be giving this a try more intentionally myself. Seeing how it feels in the PF skin so to speak.


Ozreth said...

I've gotta ponder this a bit more before leaving a meaningful comment. Until then I just wanted to be snarky and say that I think you'd have to consider players from the '90s's "old school" players as well. AD&D is AD&D no matter what :p

Brendan said...

You might be interested in checking out the modules. They were written for 3E, not Pathfinder, but should be compatible. I'm not sure if this is exactly what you are going for, as the Xoth modules are more intended to emulate the Conan setting and feel, but Howard has connections to the weird tales genre.

Note that XP1 for some bizarre reason does not include any maps in the book (though they are available as a separate free download).

Grognardia also has reviews of both, I think.

burnedfx said...

Hi Chris,

I'm sure you've heard others suggest Matt Finch's Quick Primer and have possibly read that (free) piece as well.

I was not aware of There and Back Again by Greg Gillespie and I appreciate you bringing this to my attention.

I had just commented today about how Barrowmaze has that "old school module" shared experience feeling throughout the product and made some poor analogy about how it reminded me of Keep on the Borderlands.

Obviously, the two modules are not similar in premise and so forth. I said something to the effect that it had a familiar feel and that hearing others talk about their expeditions tingled the right spots of the brain, because one had been there before too.

However, you could argue that it's possible to have "Been there and done that" with any published module. I still can't seem to articulate what I mean, but I suspect, based on Barrowmaze, that There and Back Again will have already put the words on paper before I find a way to have spit them out myself, much like Finch's primer.

Again, thanks.

burnedfx said...

And of course, as you are well aware, you have Finch's guide linked on your sidebar.


I've visited your site before and even referenced a post of your in February and now I'm seeing all the KODT and other such items?

Well, go ahead and poke fun at the blind man.


Stephen Newton said...

Hello there,

First off, thanks for the Thick Skull Adventures shout out. Always nice to see mentions in the blog-o-sphere.

Second, I downloaded that .pdf, and it indeed looks VERY interesting. I'm going to read it on my plane flight next week.

Finally: about old-school gaming. I touched a bit on why my own writing probably feels old school when I wrote about how I'm switching from D&D 4E to DCC. But I will say this: by and large, depending on what your game considers "old school", you can (generally speaking) adapt rules to fit a setting. For my own style, when 4E introduces some of the more interesting races like Dragonborn and Deva's, the game felt more "high-fantasy" and less Conan-style "sword & sorcery" for my taste. So, I basically just did not include them in any of my writings. There were some other things I did in the mechanics (writing "encounter transitions" to feed my cravings for wandering monsters, etc.)

In some cases, the mechanics can affect a game's mood (IMHO, "at-will" spells and powers immediately kill off any feel of the old-school, doesn't mean they're wrong or bad... it's just one man's tastes).

So all that said, I think with a little work you can easily make your PF games feel old school.

Thanks again!

Ieuane said...

I am endeavoring to do the same thing--old school PF--jumping in from a CnC campaign, so finding your post was cool.

Question - besides pub. mods, do you plan on doing anything different with core PF rules? Any house rules in the works or anything?


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