Thursday, April 2, 2009

Heavy thinking for a Thursday

If you haven't had a chance to do so, go read EN Shook's essay on Old School at LotGD. It's an interesting read. Go on, I'll wait...

I sure wish comments there were open, but since the turnpike is down, I'll post my thoughts here.
At one point I was probably judging Rob using half D&D, 1/4 Chivalry & Sorcery, and 1/4 rules I'd made up or borrowed from the dozens of games in which I was participating.

Tell me if it isn't true that this exact same openness to rules isn't still taking place right now, throughout the role playing community? One can only imagine the answer is “more so!” I can hear you all shaking your heads in agreement here.
I agree, and more importantly, I think this is exactly the thing that attracts me to the older rules, to the more open environment. When I sit down at my games, I'm running a rules set that has evolved from 30 years of doing some sort of RPG, whether it's D&D, Mechwarrior, Shadowrun, Star Trek, Star Wars, or LARP'ing. My game is the sum of my experiences and, more importantly, it's evolving. Jeff Rient's demonstration of the sublime simplicity of the d6, Alexis's hyperrealistic economic model, Stuart Marshall's inventive situations, Trollsmyth's Shields Splintering, on and on, all of these and almost everything I read affects me and guides me towards a game that I am continuing to discover and enjoy.

The thing that is fantastic is something that I read on Knights & Knaves (if I recall correctly) - that we are truly blessed to live in these times and we are seeing an intense democratization of our gaming. We've gone from regional games and word of mouth rules transferring to now instant access. If I have a question on how to run the economy of a town, or just how short a gnome is, I can find easily a dozen or more sources of information at my fingertips, as well as game systems that make it easy for me to run pretty much any genre with the results of my research. We don't have to wait for fanzines or official publisher's rags - we can read dozens of blogs to learn how other people do it, why they do it and how we can incorporate it into our games.

EN Shook goes on to say that perhaps "Old Guard" is more appropriate than "old school" - that by saying you are Old Guard, you are giving honor and respect to the past. He says that indeed, we of this "renaissance" are in fact varying off from the original intent, writing new "canon" instead of staying within the strictures of how it was played (ie., the rerolling of hit points prior to each adventure) and therefore by identifying "old school" is both limiting and (if I'm reading Shook correctly) fallacious.

I don't think that rewriting what "old school rules" are is a bad thing, or invalidates what I'm doing. If I read the history correctly, and how I interpret it is that the rules were always meant as guidelines. If I want to take OD&D and houserule the hell out of it, that doesn't make me any less an OD&D player or GM - I think I'm truly honoring the "way of the elders" by taking what works and spinning my own. I don't see anything inherently limiting in calling myself "old school" or "old guard" or "role player who likes to play rules that hearken back to 0e/1e" - unless there was a downside to it.

I'm not sure I agree that there is a downside to labels. Labels are both freeing and limiting, but it's how we approach the conversation and context of those labels that will help define the conversation, which is why THIS is what really stands out for me:
The coin of the role playing realm should be the world.
Applause. Not only for succinctly stating what I've been trying to express in my own fumbling ways, but also stating how I should state my preference for my rules.

Scott's Thool, for example, or Valley of the Snails, is exactly the kind of thing that I should demonstrate when I talk about old school. These are unique lands who speak to a type of play and a type of mindset/thought/approach that could span any game, and still express the wonderment of fantasy. Were it not for my active campaigns have players who read my blog, I would be more forthcoming about my own worlds...

Swords/Wizardry, OSRIC, 0e, Hackmaster, Tunnels & Trolls - these are just the tools we use to express our worlds. Old "whatever", to me, is an approach, a mindset and a way of presenting these strange and fantastic worlds, with a specific type of context and a specific type of feel. Take a dash of pulp, mix it with some "Yes or roll", "Save or die" mentality, some strange fantastic feel and you have exactly what I want to play, and you have the context by which I approach my mechanics.

So whether I'm "Old Guard", "Old School" or just an "Old Guy", this is the way I like to play and these are the worlds I like to express. My passion for promoting Swords/Wizardry, OSRIC and the "Old School Revival" is more about talking about the neat tools I have to express the wondrous worlds I have within my head and that I want to take my players to each time I sit down in the DM chair.

And just to put it into context, I find it immensely interesting that our hobby is going through very similar discussions of "Old Guard" versus "New Guard" that quite a lot of different social groups, lifestyles and hobbies are talking about. The Internet has shaken up the world and a lot of people are busy putting themselves into corners and labeling themselves as this or that. Most of the time it is truly limiting and divisive - the RPG world is one of the few worlds where I think it doesn't have to be. It's a convenient shorthand for saying "I do something that hearkens back to the past... but is full of life for the future."

36 comments:

Jeff Rients said...

Well said.

The Acrobatic Flea said...

Good comments! "old school" for me has always been a mood or a style of play rather than specific rules systems.

I want to recapture (or at least emulate) the freewheeling fun I had playing D&D (and other games) 20/30 years ago and that I read about in tales from the grand masters and creators of our hobby.

If I had the brainpower and patience to master a modern game system - and then teach it to my players - I'd still aim to run an "old school" game. As it is, I like to keep my systems simple - hence the recent switch to Labyrinth Lord.

Scott said...

Having grown up pre-internet, I'm happy and amazed to have such a wealth of accessible information. But I kind of miss the days of Balkanized tables across the country, when you picked up tidbits about other people's games from The Dragon or The Arduin Grimoires or spending part of the summer in another town. I miss the mystery, and I'm suspicious of anything that increases the level of standardization in gaming.

Of course, that doesn't mean I'm turning off my computer. :)

noisms said...

Nice post.

Christopher B said...

Sorry, but Shook's post lost me at: "Calling it old school is immediately limiting. At best, what we share is a certain sense and feeling of the game that we wish to return to, but that's not possibly achievable by settling upon a set of rules that wasn't even used for longer than a snapshot in time by its creators."

In order to buy into anything else he might have to say, I'd have to buy into the statements made in this paragraph. Which, if you hadn't guessed, I don't.

Calling a movement or a person or a set of rules "old school" is no more limiting than calling it "fantasy" or "sci fi" or "Fred." The label is nothing more than a convenient means of classifying the object in question for location and possible consumption. If I don't like Fred, I'm may not buy a Fred-based game. On the other hand, if I'm a Fred gamer, I might give it a look. The tag is just to help me know where said item might stand in terms of my personal likes and dislikes. But it in no way limits what the item may attempt or achieve.

As for the rules moving on beyond the creators' creation, I don't buy that, either. Sure, everything evolves. But I don't believe that said evolution is mandatory, nor in the case of D&D was it natural. Things evolve to adapt to new needs. In the case D&D, there were two driving needs: gameplay and marketing. Had the game evolved to meet the needs of gameplay alone, I'd have said it had evolved naturally. But since it also evolved to appeal to wider audiences (to ensure survival in a consumerist atmosphere) its evolution was not natural - it was forced. The game didn't evolve to ensure its survival on the game table, but to ensure its survival in the marketplace.

Therefore, I disagree with Shook's statement, and refuse to read the remainder of the post. To my mind, "old school" is just a term we use to help us define people and things that we may identify with. The end result, however, will be totally based on further investigation. The label doesn't preclude or force any outcome - it's just a convenient way for us to find one another...

IMHO/YMMV/FWIW

Ryan said...

Well played, O Wiz of Chgo.


Word Verification: Curtablo!

(Sounds like some kind of board game or Mexican wrestler)

Zachary The First said...

Very well said. Excellent post.

Chgowiz said...

@Chris In order to buy into anything else he might have to say, I'd have to buy into the statements made in this paragraph. Which, if you hadn't guessed, I don't.

I think we agree on a general disagreement with many on his views, but I don't think I have to take his word lock stock and barrel to agree enough with his POV on what is important in the older versions - the world and the play is the thing.

His viewpoint that the phrase "old school" is limiting is his opinion. I don't completely agree either, as long as it's just a descriptor and not a religion. I don't think labels are bad when used, as you put it, as easy descriptors, but I have seen them become a method for fundamentalism which becomes limiting.

I'd rather just use the massive amounts of good stuff out there, passionately speak to playing in a style that I enjoy, and let others argue about label religion.

Christopher B said...

"I'd rather just use the massive amounts of good stuff out there, passionately speak to playing in a style that I enjoy, and let others argue about label religion."

This was my sentiment exactly when I stopped reading Shook's post. :)

Philotomy said...

He says that indeed, we of this "renaissance" are in fact varying off from the original intent, writing new "canon" instead of staying within the strictures of how it was played (ie., the rerolling of hit points prior to each adventure) and therefore by identifying "old school" is both limiting and (if I'm reading Shook correctly) fallacious.

Yeah, Eric's comments on this had me scratching my head, somewhat puzzled. (I, too, wish I could comment, there.)

When I look at the "old school movement" I don't see the looming threat of fundamentalism that Eric does. On the contrary, I see very little "one true wayism," and a lot of "this is the way I do it," or "you know, this could be interpreted in a completely different manner than how it ended up in later editions." I see a lot of people using the older rules as a springboard for creativity, and making the game their own. Certainly I see strong opinions; there's plenty of "I like this way better than that way." But fundamentalism or canon-creation? I just don't see it.

With the original rules, in particular, I see a lot of people digging in and actively wondering "what if I took it in this direction...." I think a major reason for the rekindled interest in the OD&D rules is the uncertainties. I think people *do* realize those uncertainties are there, and exploring those (perhaps along lines that are different from the direction we know the gamer later took) is one of the attractions. I don't see this as embracing "excessive limitations of OD&D," but rather exploring the opportunities that the OD&D rules leave open. Challenging and maybe breaking down years of built-up assumptions is part of the fun. The example about rolling hit dice is an excellent case-in-point. There have, in fact, been multiple discussions in the various forums about different ways to roll hit dice. Rolling them once a day is one of the options that has been discussed (and that some are using). Rolling all the dice when a new level is gained is another (I use that one). I see plenty of people saying "check this out," or "this is how I'm doing it, and why," but I don't see anyone saying "this is THE old-school way...the RIGHT way." Eric says a new (and fallacious) canon is being created, but I don't see anyone propsing an "old school" canon.

In the end, Eric's blog post leaves me nodding in agreement with some of the ideas, but scratching my head and wondering if it is addressing a problem that isn't really there, or perhaps is rooted in a misunderstanding. No specific examples of what he meant were called out, so I'm not sure what to make of it.

I'm also not sure what to think about the criticism of the term "old school." (The terms seems to be coming under fire, lately.) Eric says that calling "it" old school is immediately limiting. "It" may be a nebulous and slippery concept, and might be more about attitude and approach than anything else, but it's also a useful concept, despite its limitations and inherent ambiguities. If the phrase "old school" is declared anathema (how's that for fundamentalism?) and abandoned, "it" will get a new label, and I suspect that new label will soon accrete the same baggage. Old school. Old guard. Well...okay... Again, I'm left shrugging and scratching my head.

Chgowiz said...

Philotomy - Thank you! I think for some reason, there's been a kneejerk reaction to "old school" - Jeff Grubb posted a somewhat similar point to Eric's post (and in parallel fashion, we can't comment on his post either):

I think part of it is because I see gaming as an evolving thing, sometimes smoothly, and sometimes (like in the break between the tankers and the D&Ders, the arrival of CCGs, or the current edition wars) with a sharp disconnect. Each new generation brings its own experiences to the party, and creates new things. I don't always agree with new developments, but I see potential solutions in the next generation beyond, as opposed to retrenching in the past.

I think you and I see it the same way. There is new growth, new development and new energy in this neck of the woods. I don't see the older editions as being anywhere near dead - fantasy is limited only by our imaginations and our experiences.

I'm also told that the "One True Wayism" is seen more in the forums than the blogs - but I don't see that happening in any forum I attend. When I read Grubb's article and Eric's article, I'm wondering where are these bad things happening? All I see are people who are busy creating, sharing and, most importantly, playing.

I really hope to meet you sometime and buy you a beer in honor of that comment (as well as your huge contributions to the discovery of new territory). Cheers!

Anonymous said...

He says that indeed, we of this "renaissance" are in fact varying off from the original intent, writing new "canon" instead of staying within the strictures of how it was played (ie., the rerolling of hit points prior to each adventure) and therefore by identifying "old school" is both limiting and (if I'm reading Shook correctly) fallacious.

When he used the word "canon", what he actually said was:

In all truth, I've noticed that much of the conversation about the old school is inaccurate. Folks are digging up the original game and making assumptions about it that were not present in that time, and therefore they are working a subtle revisionism. A canon is being created, not found.

I don't read that as him saying some people are playing the game wrong. I read that as him saying some people are getting their history wrong, and inventing a revised history that meets their expectations.

James Maliszewski said...

But fundamentalism or canon-creation? I just don't see it.

Neither do I, but then I'm a notorious fundamentalist, so I would say that, wouldn't I? My feeling is that a lot of people mistakenly read more into blog posts than the original authors intended. That's just the nature of the medium. My own posts, for example, are snapshots in time of my thinking out loud and it's very easy to take one or two such posts out of context and view them as "James issuing a Pontifical bull on Topic X," when in point of fact it's nothing of the kind.

Could be that that's the kind of thing Eric is reacting against. If so, he wouldn't be the first.

Philotomy said...

I don't read that as him saying some people are playing the game wrong. I read that as him saying some people are getting their history wrong, and inventing a revised history that meets their expectations.

I agree that's what he's saying. However, I think he's mistaken in saying that a revised or incorrect history is being created. I don't think that's the case. As James says, I think more is being read into blogs and web-sites that was intended. For example, see my conversation with Benoist, on his blog.

Chgowiz said...

What I'm really happy to see is a nearly universal "Huh?" response to EN Shook's essay. Philotomy, your link to Benoist was really heartening because here was someone I had never met saying almost the exact same thing.

That makes me think that for everyone of us that is vocal, there are a few other of the 137 that feel the same way.

So where are these fundamentalists that everyone keeps talking about? Or are people mistaking our content and our passion for something else?

Benoist said...

I agree with Eric in that there is a risk of creating alternate histories and giving some intents to the way the game was originally played that did not exist.

I further agree that the term of "old-school" points towards fundamentalism and stasis as well (once it is not old, but new, then it is no longer old-school, is it? How can participate on our own to the game's legacy under such terms?)

I think the greater the movement, the greater the risk to run into "One-True-Way"ism, as James earlier put it.

One of the points of my discussion with Philotomy was that, even when it is not the intent to create some sort of canon, it might come to exist de facto in the eye of the reader. So long as we are aware of this, we can avoid the pitfalls.

Now, fundamentalism is a part of the movement, for good or ill. The strong opinions some of us have been talking about. I think that anyone has a right to have whatever gaming preferences they want, but at the same time, I don't want to see this movement become a stale re-hash of what came to pass a long time ago.

I think the spirit's the thing. In this respect, the retro-clones provide an opportunity to light the flame anew and carry one with the spirit of the game, looking forward. Whatever strong opinions we have (and we all certainly do have some), what's important is to move ultimately move forward.

I think we've reached a strong consensus on this, and that's truly great to see.

Matthew James Stanham said...

I am in agreement with Philotomy (not sure there is much D&D related I do not agree with him about), I just do not see the things that Eric is talking about. There is a definite process of identity construction going on in various quarters, and "labels" (or adjectives) are being used to describe various like minded groups and methodologies, but canon and fundamentalist (in the sense of radically opposed to different points of view) approaches are not something I am seeing, that is to say beyond what already existed.

The whole idea of an "old school renaissance" or "movement" is a ill defined construction to attempt to describe what is currently happening; if it fails to meet the expectations of some people, it will fulfil the desires of others.

Spike Page said...

Chgwiz said it best.

And what makes it so funny is that I actually do agree with a tidbit of what Shook said concerning D&D "fundies".

Not so long ago, I opened up an ugly can of worms with my "descending AC" post on my blog and was surprised to discover how many folks use descending or THACO and embrace it, not because it necessarily works better or makes more sense, but because that's how they learned it or because it's "more old-school". Again, far be it from me to tell folks how to calculate AC, but traditions founded in reason are at least in my opinion more sensible than traditions founded only in tradition.

Believe me, I'm not at all about preserving the OD&D rules as written. I've read bits of a xeroxed copy of those rules and am rather glad that we don't follow them word-for-word. If the "old school" movement ever comes down to that sort of olde-testament spare-the-rod sort of thinking, I'll be the first to show myself tot he door.

Rich (aka: Francisca) said...

Just a thought I had in regard to differentiation between old school and new school, in support of what Acrobatic Flea and others have said:

One thing that defines old school to me is how the mechanics interplay with the game. For example, in an old school game, as a magic-user, you are told you had a mentor who taught you some spells (provided by the DM). If you want more, you must find them in scrolls and other's spellbooks, trade with other spellcasters, or do the research. In the new school games, you are told your character gets x number of spells from list A. The list of course, doesn't exist in the game world. It's an out of character mechanical construct.

In the old school way, the rules serve the game world. The paradigm of the game is creating a milieu to adventure in. In the new school way, the rules are the game, and the milieu is reduced to flavor text. Now, I'm not an "immersion" or "versimilitude" kind of guy, but the differences in approach to the game are stark, and defining, in my opinion.

On topic, it was hard for me to follow Shook's ramble. But I think his point is: back in the day, everyone had their own take on the game, and there was no "canon" way to play. OK, I'll not only buy that, but tell you most of us already knew that. Looking at the 3 little books, I'd have a hard time believing any 10 people reading them would interpret even 80% of it the same way, let alone letting their influences creep in. I would like to see him cite some specific examples of this fundamentalism he's on about.

noisms said...

Great discussion everyone.

From my own perspective, I think I understand where EN Shook and Benoist are coming from. As somebody who's on the outskirts of the whole 'old school' thing looking in, I can see an orthodoxy developing.

It's probably entirely unconscious, which is why you don't see any explicit 'fundamentalists', but it is there. I would say that its key points are:

- Sandbox play
- Tentpole Megadungeons
- Sword & Sorcery vibe
- A kind of cussedness about 'rules'

None of these are being explicitly promoted as 'the one true way', but because all of the big grognard blogs go on and on about them it begins to seem like that, quite undeliberately. The whole megadungeon thing, for example, has been over-egged to the point where it seems to have become synonymous with 'old school play'. Nobody set out with that in mind, but it just comes across that way.

Does that make sense?

Scott said...

It's probably entirely unconscious, which is why you don't see any explicit 'fundamentalists', but it is there. I would say that its key points are:

- Sandbox play
- Tentpole Megadungeons
- Sword & Sorcery vibe
- A kind of cussedness about 'rules'


Agreed. I'm sympathetic-but-ambivalent towards all four elements, and don't think any of them are in any way essential or 100% historically accurate.

Chgowiz said...

@noisms - that's a really interesting thought and I have to admit, I never thought of it that way. To be honest, if anything "took off" that would be old school unique, I thought it would be the world creation ala Thool. I see your four points as things we all seem to find common ground on, kinda like flavors of the month.

That whole flavor of the month thing is really common in small niche groups. In two years, we'll probably be waxing eloquent on hexcrawls and castle endgames. I can see where a focus on the flavor feels like OTW'ism.

I think we're witnessing a creative burst that has taken several roads, but I don't see it stopping at that point. I'm watching Fight On! and it has a definite wilderness hexmap vibe going (at least #2 and #3 did, I've not absorbed 3 to start on 4). I think there will be creativity going in many different ways. I think that there will be people who are basing their entire focus and game on those to the exclusion of others, but so far, in this little niche that we seem to inhabit, I haven't seen that. Maybe I'm being naive?

Matthew James Stanham said...

Does that make sense?

I think that you are talking about Maliszewskian Catholicism. :D

That is not a developing orthodoxy, but a "face of old school", one which is very visible to "outsiders", and so no doubt that is why it appears as though it is prevalent in the community as a whole.

Chgowiz said...

@Rich/Fransica: In the old school way, the rules serve the game world.

QFT. I really like that phrase and that is I think a good thing to promote.

Chgowiz said...

@Matthew: Maliszewskian Catholicism

I so want to make a TShirt with that phrase! Funny stuff!

Chgowiz said...

@Matthew - do you have an email address? I'd like to send something to you.

Chgowiz said...

@Spike - yea, I was a little surprised by that hoohaa too. I tend to avoid those arguments though (which is why I avoid forums like rpg.net - where I'm told much of the so-called fundamentalism is seen) so I stay away from that. If someone felt that strongly about DAC vs AAC, we'd probably not get along gaming wise so much.

FWIW, I use DAC in my Dark Ages campaign and AAC in my family Vale campaign. It's a number I look up on a chart, not a religious artifact. I'm good either way.

Philotomy said...

Francisa said...
In the old school way, the rules serve the game world. The paradigm of the game is creating a milieu to adventure in. In the new school way, the rules are the game, and the milieu is reduced to flavor text.

I agree with this, in general. In fact, I make this argument, myself, in support of separate subsystems that accurately model concepts, rather than forcing the concept to conform to a "universal mechanic" that may not model it as accurately or well.

However, I don't always insist on a concept, first. If I have a concept in mind, then the concept comes first. But sometimes, I'll use rules, rolls, or other similar techniques to help me form a concept. I've done that with areas of the OD&D rules that are open to interpretation, for example. I'll take the text as written and see if it can be interpreted differently (i.e. differently from the course the game took later).

For example, I might take the OD&D text on elves and use that as a starting place for brainstorming, ending up with a very different approach to elves than that which evolved in Supplement I, AD&D, et cetera. Here, I'm using the text of the rules as an aid to coming up with a concept. I think that's a valid approach, too. I don't see it being very different from using random rolls to help define a PC concept, rather than starting with a PC concept and "point buying" the numbers. Or using random tables as an aid when filling a dungeon. I usually have certain encounters and monsters in mind, and place those. But I also roll to see what comes up, and use that as a kind of challenge to my creativity: how can I make this into a cool encounter or setup? I think that kind of thing helps break you out of common habits of thinking; you end up creating stuff you might not have thought of, otherwise.

Matthew James Stanham said...

@Matthew - do you have an email address? I'd like to send something to you.

Sure. I have sent you an email.

James Maliszewski said...

I further agree that the term of "old-school" points towards fundamentalism and stasis as well (once it is not old, but new, then it is no longer old-school, is it? How can participate on our own to the game's legacy under such terms?)

The problem is that, without a term by which to describe this movement, it's hard to explain it to others and to promote. For good or bad, "old school" is what we're left with and any attempt to change that name would only result in even more confusion than their already is. And, from my perspective anyway, the important part of "old school" is "school," not "old" -- the point being that there's a particular school of thought animating these games rather than mere nostalgia.

James Maliszewski said...

I think that you are talking about Maliszewskian Catholicism. :D

That is not a developing orthodoxy, but a "face of old school", one which is very visible to "outsiders", and so no doubt that is why it appears as though it is prevalent in the community as a whole.


I agree. The problem lies mostly in the fact that very few people outside the existing community bother to delve very deeply into it. They see a few posts linked here or there or here second-hand reports of what one of us said and then suddenly it's "Those damned old schoolers say if you're not playing in a megadungeon, you're not playing real D&D -- the bastards!"

This is inevitable, given the nature of the blog medium. I also think it's inevitable when people come to peek in while the community is in a navel-gazing, self-definitional phase, as we have been for the last year so. We are searching for principles by which to define ourselves and to promote our interests. This is essential to our long-term growth, I think, but, to someone not already steeped in our months-long conversations and debates, it reeks of (phantom) fundamentalism.

James Maliszewski said...

I so want to make a TShirt with that phrase! Funny stuff!

Me too!

Philotomy said...

Maliszewkian Catholicism suggest that you issue the occasional "Maliskewkian Bull."
:)

Philotomy said...

FWIW, I just posted a new musing on my site that describes how I see OD&D not as a rules-straightjacket, but as a great foundation for playing D&D while making the game my own.

Chgowiz said...

Maliszewkian Catholicism suggest that you issue the occasional "Maliskewkian Bull."

Rim shot, Maestro! (That would go on the back of the Tshirt...)

Chgowiz said...

@Philotomy - I very much enjoyed your musings. I would love to see that added to the Old School Primer because I think it's as good of an explanation as any as to why OD&D is still so attractive 30 years later.

I also think it could be why Eric and RH and others may be wondering why we're making much ado about nothing. It's like discovering an old manuscript and reading it with the experiences we have - this takes our game in a completely new direction and in new ways that perhaps they hadn't gone, but for them, they're happy with where they're at. That's not a bad thing, but I don't think they're wrong, just happy with what they have.

We are searching for principles by which to define ourselves and to promote our interests. This is essential to our long-term growth, I think, but, to someone not already steeped in our months-long conversations and debates, it reeks of (phantom) fundamentalism.

I never thought of it in the way that I'm searching for principles. Something to consider - I saw it as more of trading "Look at what I thought of" experiences. I doubt we could ever truly develop "principles" because that seems like the dogma approach that none of us want? Or am I overstating the concept of priciples?