Welcome to the Flaming Faggot

Callovia is called "the boundless empire" yet you have managed to find its northern border - a notorious roadhouse deep within the Madrasan Marches on the edge of the wilds of Llanvirnesse. The sign above the door reads "Flaming Faggot," which would suggest a cozy, homey inn with fresh biscuits served at teatime if not for the severed troll heads mounted on pikes at the gate.

As you cross the threshold the raucous din quiets momentarily as all eyes dart to the door and calloused hands drop instinctively to well-worn sword hilts. The threat, instantly assessed, is dismissed and roadhouse patrons go about their business hardly missing a beat.

Grim, hard-eyed men huddle around tables in close conversation thick with conspiracy; caravan guards gamble away their earnings; Caemric rangers sit close to the fireplace cooking the damp of the Black Annis from their clothes as they warm their innards with Red Dragon Ale; minstrels play and buxom wenches dance for the pleasure of men who pay them little attention - until they need a companion to warm their bed.

As you approach the bar, a huge, bald barman with a greatsword slung across his back slides a mug of freshly-pulled ale towards you, its frothy head dripping over the rim.

"Pull up a seat, lad," he says, "and let me tell you a tale of high adventure."

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Confessions of a Born-Again Old-Schooler

What the heck is 'old-school,' anyway?  There are lots of different opinions, and definitions vary widely throughout the old-school community.  As far as I am aware there is no consensus on what exactly the term means with respect to gaming.  There is discussion of 'old-school games,' again with little consensus of what makes a game 'old-school,' and there is 'old-school gaming,' which, to my mind, is something else altogether.  It is upon the latter expression that I wish to expound.

To me, old-school gaming isn't about a particular rule-system or game mechanic, it's a philosophy; a style of play that emphasizes the active involvement of players in the game, and the freedom of the game master to adjudicate situations without being hindered by a restrictive set of rules that dictates what is or is not possible.  This is a style of play that those of us of a certain age will remember from our youth and that has, sadly, fallen by the wayside in contemporary gaming.

Remember when we were kids, venturing into our first dungeon?  It wasn't a series of "encounters" calculated to provide an optimum "challenge rating," it was a dynamic environment filled unknown dangers and fabulous treasure for those bold, daring, and clever enough to win it.  Remember proceeding slowly through the claustrophobic corridors, far beneath the surface, lit only by flickering smokey torchlight, carefully mapping the path so as to find your way out?  I remember the palpable tension.  I remember the thrill of the unknown, and I remember facing threats far beyond the ability of our low-level characters to defeat in combat.  In order to not only survive, but to thrive and win those fabulous treasures we had to think.  Fair fights were for suckers and thinking outside the box was the modus operandi in the adventures of our youth.  Our characters didn't live or die, win or lose, solely on lucky or unlucky die rolls in a carefully balanced and scripted encounter, but rather because of the skill, or lack thereof, of we, the players.

A more contemporary style of play, exemplified by Wizards of the Coast's 3E and 4E rpgs, resolves nearly everything by a die roll to determine if the character succeeds.  Player skill has been all but eliminated, which by extension reduces active player involvement in the game.  Similarly, since these games attempt to codify and regulate every possible situation, the game master's role as adjudicator has been greatly reduced.  Thus players have been reduced to dice-rolling observers of their character's fates, and game masters are no more than Dorito-eating automatons.  This is in diametric opposition to the way that D&D was supposed to be played.  Gary Gygax intended for D&D to be a thinking person's game that provided intellectual and creative challenges for the players, not their characters, to overcome.  Likewise, gaining levels in D&D was a reflection of the player's skill, a hard-earned reward for having overcome many dangers and obstacles over long periods of play.  3E replaced this type of play with a series of carefully structured and balanced 'encounters' each designed, not to provide a serious challenge, but to deplete 'x' % of the party resources, and that each character would gain a level after every 'y' encounters.  What a bland and formulaic way to play what should be one of the most exciting games ever made.

I'm as guilty as anyone of having wandered off down this path, adopting the newly published 3E after a nearly 15 year hiatus from D&D.  I jumped headlong into the d20 system, playing it for many years and even writing articles about it.  Somehow I didn't even notice how 3E had changed the way I played - probably because I was too busy trying to keep track of NPCs with two-page long stat-blocks filled with feats and abilities from half a dozen different classes and whatever templates had been applied.  With all of that to juggle it is easy to lose sight of the fact that players are now making 'search checks' instead of actually searching for traps, treasure, or secret doors; or the nebulous 'knowledge dungeoneering' check instead of relying upon their own knowledge and experience.  Perhaps the worst offenders of old-school tradition were the social interaction skills, such as bluff and diplomacy.  With these you could dispense with a lengthy and amusing role playing interaction by rolling a couple of d20s to determine how it all turned out.  It used to be that if a player was trying to persuade an NPC he'd make a persuasive argument and leave it to the GM to determine how successful it was - no dice needed to be rolled.  If you wanted to distract your opponent, you'd think up a clever distraction instead of relying upon a successful 'bluff check,' to resolve the attempt.

Another consequence of the ever-growing feats, classes and abilities associated with 3E was the amount of time that the GM required to prepare for each session.  I remember spending all of my spare time between sessions statting out NPCs and thus the game was very difficult to run 'on the fly,' which was my preferred style of play.  Prior to adopting 3E, I had been running GURPS for many years, which is a very GM-friendly system, and I'd often sit down at the gaming table with no adventure prepared for the evening, trusting in my ability to wing-it and make up whatever characters or creatures I needed on the spur of the moment in order to follow the player's lead.  That all fell by the wayside with 3E; everything was plotted out from beginning to end and, ultimately, resulted in a lot less freedom for the players to do what they wanted.  Deviating from the plan meant a huge headache and an anxiety attack for me, whereas it was par for the course with earlier game systems.

My disenchantment with 3E and its style of play began to grow after the arrival of a new baby and my subsequent reduction of free time (most of which was used for sleep).  I began to resent the amount of time I had to spend to prepare for each session, and resented it even more when much of the prep work went to waste, as it often did.  I recall spending most of an entire weekend creating an awe-inspiring multi-classed and templated vampire lord for a set-piece encounter.  When the player's characters encountered this NPC they all won initiative and killed him before he got a single action - I didn't even get a chance to make the cool expository soliloquy I had prepared.  Personally, I am of the opinion that it shouldn't take longer to create an NPC than it does to kill him.

My disenchantment with 3E, its cumbersome play style, and 'tyranny of the d20' continued to grow until I just couldn't play it anymore and went looking for a new game system.  I'd followed the development of the upcoming 4E for a while, but quickly decided that it wasn't for me.  When I finally discovered Castles & Crusades it was like coming home; it felt like the D&D I remembered from my youth and had a simple, elegant, unified system mechanic that I found intuitive and easy to apply.  I'd found my system and re-discovered my roots as an old-school gamer.

Unfortunately, C&C can be a bit of a tough sell to players who grew up playing MMOGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Games) and whose only rpg experience is one of the WotC games.  For some, gaming is all about super-powers and the endorphin rush of fast leveling.  When you consider that a World of Warcraft player can gain seventy levels in just a few months of dedicated play, it must seem intolerably slow to have to play for several years to attain a mere twenty levels.  Likewise, MMOG play requires very little active engagement or creativity.  I've actually read books while fighting MMOG combats, cycling through the attack sequences without needing to pay attention to the screen.  MMOG quests are usually straightforward and you can always consult Thottbot to find out exactly how to complete them without any thought whatsoever.  Little wonder that an old-school game that requires you to think, has no 'kewl powerz,' and a comparatively glacial leveling rate has a tough time competing with WotC's MMOG-inspired games.

Here, I bear my share of guilt, having introduced new players to role playing by way of 3E and indoctrinating them into a lazy style of play that is very difficult to break out of.  I've tried running my C&C games as a sort of methadone clinic for 3E addicts, incorporating some of the rules from the d20 system, but slowing weaning the players off the junk, bringing the game more in line with AD&D over time.  In retrospect, I think this was a mistake - looking back I see that I tend to make a lot of these.  I should probably have started off running C&C with its rules as written instead of introducing them gradually, which is undoubtedly confusing.

Old habits are hard to break and I often fear that I've not adequately communicated what 'old school play' is all about.  There has been progress, but if my players knew how much treasure they've passed up for lack of looking, they would cry.  All too often they leave a room, after slaying its inhabitants, without taking the time to search it.  This, too, is a habit deeply ingrained from playing 3E: if there isn't a treasure chest with a flashing neon sign saying, "loot me!," one expects to be asked to make a search check.  I still hear "I search the room," from players from time to time.  That's nice, but it would be nicer still, and far more successful, to elaborate.

Fortunately, I've come across the Quick Primer for Old School Gaming written by Matthew Finch, author of Swords & Wizardry.  This explains the 'zen moments' of old school gaming far better than I ever could.  If you are new to old school play I highly recommend reading this excellent introduction to what it is all about.  Even if you are, like me, an expatriate old-schooler returning to the fold, the primer is full of inspiration and well worth the read.

Happy searching!


A Paladin In Citadel said...

In order to shake off all vestiges of the modern style of gaming, i'm intending to go all the way back to using Swords & Wizardry white box, and adding other bits on-the-fly.

That way (just like Chevski over at Grognardia) additional rules will evolve naturally, from game-play.

It will be an interesting experiment! Planning on doing this during the summer, with my extended family (we all have cabins in the Shuswap, within walking distance of each other).

Sean Robson said...

I think that really is a great way to go. Strip everything down to the bare bones and build it up from there. It's easier to add rules you like than remove ones you dislike. I found this to be particularly the case when tinkering with complex systems like 3E. Fiddling with the rules is like tugging on a loose thread - the whole sweater tends to unravel.

I've been eying the S&W white box with great interest for a while now, and I'm finding it sorely tempting.

Good luck with your upcoming S&W campaign - I look forward to hearing about it!