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.