Thursday, May 31, 2012

An Old School Gamer In A Modern Gaming World

Some time ago I made this as the subtitle of my blog. I have actually written several entries on just this concept, but I wanted to revisit this today because it has taken a new meaning for me. All things change. And the gaming world has changed as well. It took me a long time to admit that alot of my old school yearnings were bound up in nostalgia--not all of them mind you, but alot of them. It used to offend me when people would make this accusation about my old school rants and desires. And even then I knew that, yes I longed for the days of yore but don't dismiss my yearnings as mere nostalgia--that was insulting.

But they were right in great part. It took a lot of self reflection to see this, and to admit to myself that the past was the past. It also took several sessions of old school systems gaming with very new gamers to realize that system wasn't the only variable in the equation. I've condemned all sorts of games out of hand in the past because they didn't seem like what I was used to, or didn't produce the kind of game I enjoyed. But was the problem really the system?

Recently when I contemplated taking up 4e again--it was about a year ago--I wrote about how the game literally made me sick as I read it. It was a bit of an overstatement, but I did really dislike how it read. It just wasn't evocative for me, and read very differently from the D&D of my past. But what I didn't talk too much about was the fact that  had spent about the entire school year playing 4e and having a great time overall. Towards the end, I had been reading alot of OSR material and was pulling towards old school games again. And the things that were different about 4e--grid and mini based combat, surges and powers--began to stand out in stark relief, where before they were simply mere annoyances. The real fact was that we were telling a great story that all of us were really getting into and enjoying.

Reflection on these sorts of experiences have done something for me. They have helped me realize that what I thought were the important parts of D&D weren't really the important parts. Recall those questions to ask yourself about your gaming? Well here are a few answers I gave

1. What are the top 3 reasons you play RPGs? Rank your answers in order from 1 to 3, 1 being the top reason. 
  1. Fantasy, Magical Escape
  2. Communal Fantastic Reality--Intelligent, Collective Problem Solving
  3. Adventure--Facing Fear--The Hero's Journey

8. What level of lethality do prefer in your campaigns as a DM? What about as a PC?

That's a difficult one to quantify. I prefer a game where danger is ever present as a part of the adventure. I present opportunities a plenty for the rash and unthinking player to kill themselves all by themselves--they don't need anymore of my help. I suppose you could call this a fairly high level of lethality. I sort of expect the same thing as a PC.

9. What percent of all encounters (melee, i.e. direct combat,and non-melee, i.e. traps, etc.) should be near lethal and what percent should be "powder puff"?

Again, I don't like these kinds of things quantified. I mean the world exists. It is--in a sense it is a neutral force which challenges you. The further out you go into it, the deeper down the more dangerous it gets. Here be monsters and all that stuff. I don't engineer the environment to be easy or hard on you--it just is. Screw with it and you are gonna be in a world of hurt. You better be a big enough boy to handle it if you're gonna try. Otherwise you die, or worse.

12. On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being most important, how critical is role-playing (talking/acting/playing "in character") to you as a DM? As a PC?

Well I have a slightly different idea of "roleplay". Always being in character is a bit tiresome, especially if someone has adopted a special voice or mannerism for their PC. When I think of roleplay I think of dialogue. I think of verbally working things out with the rest of your party, with NPCs, with your environment. I contrast it with "rollplay", in other words using the dice to decide everything instead of verbal description and explanation. So in my terms roleplay gets an 8 or 9--it's what the game is about--not necessarily playacting. Acting in character all the time is more like a 4 or 5.

You see I didn't talk at all about mechanics. The way I approach the game was the same regardless of what I played. Yes, mechanics does have a bearing on play, but not nearly so much as we would think. In other words what I really wanted out of D&D was a coherent, immersive fantasy experience in which a fantastic story emerged from the synergy of the DM and the players. That's what I strove for, and though it was at times frustrating to achieve, could I really blame a system?
I've played pretty much whatever D&D system has been around since my entry into gaming long ago. And lately I've wondered or worried whether I should branch out of D&D altogether. But see, now I realize it doesn't really matter. I'm going to game pretty much for the same reasons and in the same style as I always have. When I started gaming it was AD&D, pretty much 1e but we added in lots of stuff that was 2e as well. Then I played 3.5, then back to 2e, 4e, back to 1e with OSRIC and finally Pathfinder (basically 3.5). The only other game I have any significant time with was Gamma World long ago, and Call of Cthulhu more recently. But those sessions were so limited that they almost don't count. And my point is that I have always strove for the same type of gaming, and gamed in pretty much the same style regardless of edition.
Now, if you're asking yourself then, how in the world are you old school? Well, though I haven't played the actual game beyond 1 session, Hackmaster captures my style better than just about any other game I have read in their foreword, introduction and the following quote,
"The rules contained in this book were purposely written in an engaging literary style rather than in dull and meticulously dry legalese typical of a software end user license agreement. For those players fond of twisting rules to their advantage by fallacious logic, duplicitous misinterpretation of synonyms or my favorite “It doesn’t specifically say I can’t…”, the following rules override all others.

RULE ONE: In HackMaster, any rule ambiguity related to character creation and PC powers is construed against the player character. If you, as a player, find yourself arguing that a rule is ambiguous, your GM must simply weigh both side's benefits to your player character and choose the most logical choice in his opinion. If one choice seems too heavily in favor of your PC and not directly stated in the rules, he has no choice but to rule against your character.

RULE TWO: A player may dispute a rule at any time as long as it takes less than 10 seconds to point out any perceived error. The GM may deny any challenge as he sees fit, however, if he denies a challenge the player has the right to make a formal challenge one time per game session by calling a 5 minute time out to look up the rule. If the rule is overturned, the player retains his challenge ability. If the ruling is not overturned, the player may not dispute a rule call again until the next game session. This rule is designed to keep the game flowing and fun for all involved. Yes, this rule is based on NFL rule challenges. I like football, deal with it." pg 9 AHMPHB Gary Jackson

Is that style bound to Hackmaster? Is it old school? What about Matt Finch's Primer? What about the FourthCore Manifesto? All these things speak to my heart, and are incorporated into my gaming to one degree or another no matter what I play.

So, if you've read my blog for any time at all you realize I've said similar things before. What's different this time? Well, what's different is that D&DNext is now being created. And say what you may it's being created in a more open and inclusive manner than any other game I have yet heard of. There are times as I hang around the forums listening to all the arguments about mechanics and I get a little sick. Or at the least frustrated. There are just so many little sniggling details that seem to matter so little to me. And so many people with ideas I would say run counter to my own. But in the end, what does it matter? I think the WoTC crew are trying as best to bring in a lighter game with lots of older school elements. Admittedly they are also trying really hard to keep the 3.5/4e crowd happy, but why should that bother me? As an old school guy that loves all those things I mentioned above and has gamed happily and successfully in just about every edition known to the D&D name I should be thrilled, that the past is getting more than a nod in the next iteration of D&D.

You want to know what my biggest fears are? I'll tell you. I too have a hard time with the overcommercialization of D&D, and the hard driven business model so many companies are stuck with. And I know WoTC is bound to Hasbro in ways that will affect its business model. I worry that this iteration of D&D will only last as long as 4e. I worry the brand will go under, I worry that everyone will hate so much on 5e that D&D will become a thing of the past.

But me, I think I'll just game. I'm so done arguing and fighting and waging edition wars. We are all gamers and we all just want to have a good time gaming. 5e is promising to allow each of us to be able to do that in the same game once again. I don't know how close they'll get. But I know I want to be a part of the effort. I'm glad that 5e will hearken back to a rules light time, and I'm perfectly okay with the fact that lots of modern ideas are also being incorporated into the game. The game will end up being a lot like me--an old school gamer in a modern gaming world.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Hard Part

So in case you couldn't tell, I'm checking out Dungeons & Dragons Next. I'm also seriously considering GURPS, especially GURPS Fantasy. And I finally broke down and bought my Hackmaster Players Handbook--awesome btw.

Friends if you're anything like me, finding a gaming home can be a bit difficult to say the least. I'm sure there are those who just call me wishy--washy. And I suppose that adjective fits me to a degree. In this day's world of countless game systems, gamers have tons of options to choose from. There is just about a gaming flavor for every imaginable taste. So I suppose I could be cut a little slack for not being able to make up my mind. Except I make it lots more difficult than it needs to be by dint of my personality. Hyperanalysis is one of my more pedantic weaknesses.

But now with the summer here, school out and time to actually think, I might make some actual headway. It was yesterday that I realized as I pondered this fact that the analysis isn't even the hard part. I can choose a game, as I did last summer. It was a compromise with myself, but I felt pretty good about it. I had decided to go with Castles & Crusades, and bought several C&C PHBs for my gaming club's use.

But that wasn't the hard part. When the gaming club met for the first time, and I looked 24 eager new gamers in the face I simply couldn't impose my will on them. There I was ready to declare C&C the club's official game; but as I welcomed them to the club the first time I found myself telling them we would be voting on which game to play this year. And then when we had voted I even changed again as popular pressure swayed the newcomers into playing their game of choice--Pathfinder.

And friends there is nothing wrong with Pathfinder. I've played 3.5 and there was nothing really wrong with that game either. I personally find Pathfinder a streamlined 3.5. Which is nice, because I can't even keep up with all the rules in PF, let alone the proliferation in 3.5. But both games play quite well. They weren't games I would have chosen however, but I didn't feel it was my place to force my personal gaming preferences on 24 different gamers.

Back when I had been the one to introduce my friends to gaming there was only one game I knew about. The choice was simple and clear. There was only one game to play--AD&D, and the only other option I was aware of was B/X and it was clearly an "inferior" game in my estimation--only partially complete. AD&D was the real game. This wasn't even an issue back then. Now things are a bit different. A lot different.

For all the noise I make about my gaming style being adversarial, about being tough on players and the like--it's just a bit of an affectation. I want my players to have fun, I want them to live and be victorious and see their PCs become heroes; and most of all I want them to be okay with whatever we play. Yes, I put in more time than any one of them to get the game ready week to week, but add up all my players together and their time matters to a tune at least equal as mine. I don't want them to have to sit at a table not wanting to play the choice of game we've made.

And that my friends is the hard part.

If I had a gaming group of likeminded old schoolers, friends maybe my own age or at least adults, I could probably play an old school game. Even then though, I would likely go with what they would want to play--it would just be closer to my liking. But the bulk of my gaming is with my gaming club, filled with adolescents about the same age I was when I began gaming. It is an exciting time for them, one I envy them in some regard. The time in their lives when they are just discovering gaming. Many great adventures await them, and I want their first experiences to be as good as mine were if not even better. So far, for most of them I think they are. But they are kids, and they love the new stuff, shiny full color books and eye catching gaming. So I usually end up giving them what they want.

So, here I am enjoying reading my Hackmaster PHB. It is closer to any gaming book I've read to my style and my liking. Not quite 100%, but I still love it. Its old school ethos and hardcore attitude fit well with many of my own preferences. The HMPHB book reads more like the old 1e PHB than any other book I've yet read on the market. I could so find myself playing a long term HM game, even exclusively HM. If there were others willing to do so.

And GURPS Fantasy, a recent discovery for me, has me very intrigued. Partly it's because of the steadiness of Steve Jackson Games. Back in the day, for me there were two central gaming companies, TSR and SJG. TSR has long gone the way of the ghost, yet SJG remains, much the same as it was when I was growing up. There's a special feel about the company, and I'm actually coming to really appreciate some of the gaming decisions they made. And Fantasy is a good read so far. One of my childhood gaming friends plays GURPS exclusively with two different groups. I can see myself doing the same--if others would join me.

Then of course there's D&D Next. I know the common consensus on the old school web is that WoTC is going to screw it up. That it will only be around 5 years or so before 6e comes out. I even heard speculation that Hasbro will shut down the line, shelve it for a time. Gad that makes me shudder. Because you see, it is still a portion of my desire that D&D become the game of the gaming public once again. I have high hopes for 5e, and should be more trusting than I am of Wizard's attempt to rebuild a game more in D&D's image. And truthfully I can see 5e shaping up to be promising. Thus far the rule set is hewing close to it's promise of a rules light core, and handing the reigns of power back to the DM. As Gary said long ago the DM should be the master of the game, and 5e is reaching for that once again. If they don't screw it up WoTC might end up with a game I could see myself playing--if anyone else I play with agreed with me.

For you see friends that's the hard part. Getting the fellow gamers, no matter their age, sitting around the table with you to agree to play the game that you think is cool. I recall back when I was a passionate teen gamer and AD&D was our game. I would come across a new game I thought looked cool and wanted to try--Gamma World or Star Frontiers and noone really wanted to give it a go. Certainly not long term,. Same thing back then--they had their game of choice. Anything else was a diversion only be endured for a session or two.

I've found myself bowing to this pressure of common consent again and again. I'll get everyone to agree to play Labyrinth Lord, or Hackmaster or whatever, but quickly bow to their pressure to return to what they all like better. Ultimately I'm victim to the implicit democratic agenda of  game choice. Near the end of my last gaming season, personally frustrated with the game we had been playing (altho' I'll now admit it was more of a frustration with my players) I determined to only play what I wanted to play. I was going to open it up so that groups could play whatever they wanted, but I would only GM games I wanted to play. But I know that in the end I'll probably end up caving to the common pressure of playing what most everyone wants. Otherwise I may not get a group to agree to play with me. And in the end playing a game you may not like too much is so much better than not playing at all.