Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Theory vs. Play Experience - I am an edition relativist

What Is "Old School Play"?

A lot of time has been spent on old school blogs over the last few years talking about what exactly the OSR is, what makes the earlier editions of the game different from modern iterations, etc.  This discussion tends to break into two main sub-topics; a discussion of the mechanics of old school, usually including fast and simple character generation, rules-lite systems, and relatively low-powered, high mortality games; and old school as an ethos, a system-less "style of play" or way of doing things.  As James over at Grognardia reposted recently, 
"We don't explore characters, we explore dungeons."  

There are definitely a lot of default assumptions as to style of play to that seem to go into most old school games, if I may broadly generalize from reading hundreds of actual play reports over the last few years here on the blogs.

I have noticed many times that my actual play experiences do not always match with the theoretical arguments advanced by proponents of mechanical old school definitions.  What I find is people looking at their actual game experiences, and attempting to explain how the mechanics of the game they are playing led to that experience.  For the purposes of a theoretical exercise, it is convenient to assume that there is a direct cause and effect going on there - the mechanics of the game = the play experience.  Of course, anyone who has ever played a role playing game knows that there is a missing variable in this equation; the face to face interaction between the players and the DM, and ultimately, how the DM as final arbiter of the rules parses the system as well.  

When you are talking about actual play experience, you are venturing firmly into the realm of the subjective; you may not even find consensus among a group as to what the play experience was to each member after a session.    So many things go into the experience for each person; how they interact with the other players, how they interact with the DM, the personal assumptions that they bring in to the game...

I Confuse Myself (and you?)

Switching gears here, I was once a philosophy major at Tulane University.  But the more I studied philosophy the less I became convinced that theoretical exercise was the path towards any kind of truth.  Ultimately I am an agnostic in the broadest sense of the word; I try to maintain a conscious awareness that I do not know anything for certain.  

That does not mean that I cannot have a discussion with somebody about the reality that we both assume each other lives in - it just means that I don't like to frame that discussion in any kind of universal terms.

Back to my point - while I would certainly agree that it would be ludicrous to suggest that game mechanics have NO impact on actual play experience, I would argue that they have such a minimal impact compared to the giant elephant of group/DM interaction in the room that it is either impossible or very difficult to make meaningful observations linking mechanics and the actual flow of play.

The reason this is true is because PEOPLE are just too damn complicated of a variable.  You would think this would be a simple matter:  IF Labyrinth Lord has fewer rules, AND 4e has more rules, THAN Labyrinth Lord will run quicker at the table.

But that does not take into account the wide variation among players and DMs.  There are groups of 4e players that have the rules internalized to the point that no one would ever have to open a book to refer to them, and there are groups playing Labyrinth Lord that have to constantly stop to refer to the rule books, or to explain how combat works, and what dice to roll again, etc.

Okay, now I am sure I have pissed off/lost a ton of people.  What do you mean there is no point in talking about mechanical differences!  How do you explain the fact that I like Labyrinth Lord and my group explores a sandbox and slays critters with alacrity, and yet I hate 4e and when I tried it it sucked; surely mechanical differences must have something to do with that!

Well yeah, sure, but...

The mechanical differences don't explain the differences in your play experience once the game is actually going.  I think there is a far more useful way to look at mechanical differences between editions.

Wherein I try to Wrap it All Up:

What the different mechanics do across the editions is they require more or less buy in from the player to be able to play the game.  Once the player has bought in (successfully navigated character creation and understands the rules), the game can be played and the mechanics may even cease to matter to the game play experience in any meaningful way (again, in my own experiences as a player and DM of old and new school systems).  If the entire group has "bought in" to the system, the group dynamic can easily cause the play experience to match the desires of the group.    Group/DM interaction is incredibly powerful and can make the lamest game rock and the coolest game suck, as long as everyone is invested in making it happen!

That does not mean mechanics or editions are not important.  On the contrary, mechanical and edition differences are very important!  They are so important that they can make or break the game for somebody before they ever get to the "actual play" part of the experience.  Most people can sit in on a pre-3e version of D&D and pick up the general rules within minutes of play starting.  Once the first combat starts, a few more details might need to be ironed out, but in general, there are very few barriers erected mechanically in the rules to prevent somebody from getting it.  So why would any game add rules and complications that might prevent a player from enjoying the game?  Ah, now the discussion might go somewhere besides a repetition of the same tired old song of "simple game mechanics = old school play and complicated game mechanics = new school play".  Some people shy away from a game that provides many tactical combat rules - just as many people may chafe at the lack of character options and abilities available in old school games.  There is a reason there are a ton of people playing 3e, and 4e.  The editions changed the way the have over the years because players DEMANDED more options, more rules, more mechanics!  The problem, in my opinion, is that rules lite and rules heavy are always framed as opposites.  Old School and New School are presented as a duality.  Why not have both in the same game?

  I firmly consider my 4e game "old school" - not in any mechanical way, but because the actual play experience is old school.  Unfortunately, I could never share this game experience with my good friend Carter (to pick on him for the umpteenth time today, because I know he is a good sport and is genuinely interested in this subject as well), because he simply does not like the default mechanical assumptions of 4e to the point that his mere presence at the table would grind the free-flowing game that I know and love to a halt.  I would love to get Carter to be able to experience how the game runs, but I don't think that would be possible short of somehow swapping his brain out with one of the players in my 4e game; if Carter could somehow magically ENJOY comparing the relative benefits of one feat choice vs. another, or the tactical implications of his movement in combat, he could play a session of the game and he would never have to stop to have the rules explained to him, and the game would run as it has run and he would think to himself, "Wow, 4e really is a great game, and it sure is old school!".   Well this is not the land of make believe and that ain't gonna happen, because 4e was designed with such a giant mound of potential barriers to players that many gamers will never get to enjoy what a 4e game could be like in actual play, and many others are so turned off by what was expected of them in char gen and rules mastery that they hate the actual play experience.

Why can't a game support a play style, "old school", for instance, through multiple mechanics?  Once we have accepted that different people enjoy different things, and that some people want the mechanics to be dirt simple as a player so they can just get straight to the actual play experience, and other people actually enjoy spending hours outside of the play sessions tinkering with mechanical options and choices and generally getting to interact with the rules outside of play - why can't we provide a game that gives both options to players?  Couldn't we then put the mechanical issues to bed and just focus on some good old "Old School" game experience?  

This is similar, in point of fact, to the original game - fighters were your basic dirt simple char gen, and magic users were for your "system mastery" guys.

I would love to see an old school game that includes a much more complicated char gen and combat rules set as an optional system to go alongside the basic char gen and combat that is so often assumed to be a requisite of old school games.  If you turn that default assumption on its head, I don't see why you couldn't do this.  Characters created through the complicated char gen would satisfy the players who love having multiple options to be able to fully create that character they envision; as long as this does not lead to the complicated char gen characters being more powerful in play than the simple char gen characters (and that is just a matter of doing the math right and playtesting).  I see no reason that a single game cannot both satisfy the guy who just wants to hit it with his axe and the dude who wants to make the perfect tactical choice of powers for the moment; and as long as both end up having about the same statistical chance of doing roughly the same damage, why couldn't it work?

This is actually how I suspect many old school games work anyways; players in the group that want to engage mechanically with their characters to a degree not supported by the rules usually figure out a way to do it with DM support, and this normally can go on side by side with players who put absolutely zero in outside of sessions without conflict.  This is one of the reasons long running campaigns tend to become such teetering constructs of houserules!

Anyway, I hope this long and rambling post has at least some kernel of interest that might be taken away by a reader.  I sincerely do not intend this post to be yet one more salvo fired in the Edition Wars - I am an agnostic edition relativist, and I game in peace.


  1. Addendum: A player might play a 4e character in my Mutant Future game shortly, which will be an interesting experiment in exactly what I am proposing above. 4e Characters level 1-10 are roughly equivalent in terms of Hit Points, damage output and general utility when directly compared to Mutant Future characters, and I am going to do one or two simple hacks to keep the healing surge mechanic from breaking the "no heals" feel of the Mutant Future game.

  2. Right. So if we need to come up with, e.g., a chargen mechanic for a 5e game that allows for the 4e folks to build in as much detail as they like while the 1e players can just jump in and go as they like, and it's balanced (or whatever the non-evocative term is), what would that look like? And this would be a system all GMs could apply, regardless of skill at GMing. (I mean outline here, not specifics.) How do we proceed with such a thing?

  3. @ Spawn - We don't. It would be supremely difficult to build such a game - it is difficult enough to balance the relative power between classes that use similar mechanics. I would still like to see it attempted, even if it was an utter failure.

    I think what would be doable would not satisfy the extreme outliers of any position - the people who really geek out on 4e would never find enough options in a game that attempted to do what I described, and the people who really like few rules would not be happy if play kept being interrupted by the other players who were using the more complicated rules module.

    But I think it interesting that nobody has even attempted this. Getting a group of like minded people together is no easy thing. It is hard enough to find a group of people willing to put in the time that a pen and paper RPG takes, without also having to make sure that the group all has uniform desires of and expectations for the game.

    I think if more people kept in mind that people react to the same stimulus in different ways, more game designers would try to present two approaches. Why not at least try to appeal to both the Carters and the Michael BJ Perrys of the world? Should a game designer just accept that a game will alienate many players just through mechanical choices?

    I would argue that in the case of 4e, the game designers made a huge mistake in terms of requiring far too much of new players. It would be relatively simple to bolt on a super simple, randomized char gen to 4e, and if that was done, I could actually invite Carter to play in my game and I am sure he would have a far better experience than if I were to make him play 4e as it currently exists.

    The reverse is not so easy - adding true complexity to a simple system is difficult, and there is a reason that Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast spent a ton of money developing and playtesting 3e and 4e - maintaining any kind of balance while increasing complexity becomes exponentially harder as you increase complexity.

    But does that mean that nobody should try?

    I am less sure of the value of what I suggest as an actual game, than of its value as a mental exercise to get beyond simply claiming that mechanics equal play experience and realizing that the main thing mechanics do is they either piss people off, or they don't. They don't directly impact style of play to the extent that the group dynamic does, but they sure could piss somebody off to the point that they won't play at all!

    Some people are pissed off at mechanics that do not follow some kind of internal logical unity - (unified d20 mechanic is WAY BETTER than random roll high, roll low on different dice...)

    Some people are pissed off at mechanics that are identical for all aspects of the game (stupid d20 mechanic SUCKS because all the whole game is is just trying to roll high on a d20)

    Simple char gen pisses some people off.

    Complicated char gen pisses some people off.

    Obviously, a game cannot exist that satisfies all people - but acknowledging that mechanical choices are potential exit points for prospective gamers, and attempting to minimize making mechanical choices that only satisfy a portion of your potential audience while alienating another portion, might not be a bad idea.

    Or I could be completely crazy and have thought about something for way too long.

  4. @ Spawn, part two - you and Carter have been basically doing exactly what I suggest, in terms of adding options to a game that does not have many. I'm not sure in your case if the motivation was simply unhappiness with the way the thief and bard worked to begin with, the sheer joy of tinkering with game mechanics (something I enjoy immensely), or something else... but in the end, you are helping to add options to player's in Carter's Labyrinth Lord game, which is more or less exactly what I was suggesting people should do.

  5. Hmm, that line of thinking has made me more or less realize that Carter's Arandish campaign is actually a form of exactly what I am talking about.

    You wanted an outline: try this on for size.

    Start with edition of choice.

    Identify its major weakness in terms of what mechanical choice(s) it makes that would piss people off.

    Either create whole cloth or hork sections of other editions/games that present an alternative to the major weakness of the system of choice.

    Playtest and fix issues that come up.

    This is basically what Carter did - he took Labyrinth Lord, but he wasn't satisfied with the class options, or the combat options (initiative, shields will splinter) or with the basic sanctity of the game mechanics (d30 houserule), and bolted a bunch of other player options onto Labyrinth Lord to make it a game more attractive to the group of players he had and the kind of game he wanted to run.

    This is the norm, not the exception; in play, people recognize that it is pointless to let dogmatic adherence to rules interfere with the "having fun" part of RPGs, and this holds true in every aspect of the game. So why not acknowledge it in game creation and give the DM and players more of a true toolkit? Why present only one branch of a fork? Why perpetuate the Old School vs New School schism?

  6. I really like your line of thinking here, for I agree that it isn't COMPLETELY about rules buy-in, though that can be a major factor in getting someone initially involved. Sure, I don't like rules-heavy systems in general -- i.e., for actual play I would prefer Tunnels and Trolls to Traveller -- but obviously, like most of us, I enjoy houseruling my "rules-lite" system of choice, LL, especially to facilitate more player class options.

    Truthfully, my resistance to 4e -- which actually predates those two sessions of it I played -- is as much about "flavor" and "feel" as it is about rules-heaviness, though as you correctly point out, the initial rules mastery learning curve is somewhat steep, which serves as a barrier for a guy like me to really investing in the game -- especially when LL-like alternatives exist. But my MAIN personal objection to 4e is not so much the rules dimension (though that is part of it) as it is that there are tieflings and dragonborn and feats in there -- factors which make the game *feel* un-D&D to me. So in that sense I am a true grognard, possibly stuck in my self-limiting ways.

  7. I would like to tease two things out of your non-mechanical dislike of 4e - one is the implied setting, and the other is the vocabulary of the game.

    Races (Tieflings, Dragonborn) are part of the implied setting of a game - the implied setting of Labyrinth Lord, and every pre-3e edition of D&D, was a boilerplate generic Tolkien template. Sure, Dwarves and Elves existed before Tolkien, but not like they are presented in D&D, and Hobbits/Halflings are the icing on the cake.

    What I think is interesting is that every edition of the game to date has included some kind of disclaimer aimed at the player, advising the player to check with the DM before making a character to see what races, classes, etc. are available in the campaign.

    In other words, changing the implied setting by changing race or class choices is a widespread and venerable way of making the game the DM's own - you did it in your own game, dropping Elves and Halflings as playable races and adding Rodians.

    I find it interesting that this minor change to the default setting (I personally find playable races with Satanic ancestry, or dragon blood, far more interesting than yet more dwarves and frakkin' elves) is part of your dislike of 4e.

    To my personal taste, there is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING evocative or interesting about the implied D&D setting as presented in Labyrinth Lord. Orcs and goblins do not inspire me. Dragons don't, even, to a lesser extent. A pseudo-western-medieval world and Vancian fire and forget magic don't inspire me. But I know how easy it is to rip out those things from a game - I pretty much assume I am not going to be using much of the assumed setting of any game, so that is pretty much irrelevant to me.

    Moving to the second thing I am teasing out of your dislike of 4e, the matter of vocabulary.

    Without stirring up one of the most contentious ghosts of the edition war (4e is like World of Warcraft/MMORPGs), I think I can safely say that the 4e designers borrowed heavily from the VOCABULARY of MMORPGs. They made a design decision; they saw a vast potential market (literally millions of people are online playing WOW at this very moment!) and they attempted to reskin (using a phrase from the parlance in question) D&D tropes in a manner that would be familiar to this target audience. In so doing, they lost you, but even if they had used the old language and tropes of D&D that you find so evocative, you STILL WOULDN'T LIKE 4e - the mechanical choices require too much investment from an old Grognard.

  8. One thought that I had as I was falling asleep last night:

    4e Character Creation / Leveling Up


    Blogging About Gaming

    (on a very simple level).

    What I mean is this - I am constantly engaging outside of play sessions with the mechanics of the games I play and DM. I do this primarily through blogging.

    The enjoyment that I get from hours spent thinking and writing about the games is part of the experience to me. My blogs shape my understanding of the game, and they impact play at my table.

    in a similar sense, many people spend hours outside of game sessions happily engaging with the mechanics of 4e by tweaking and retweaking their character build. The hours spent thinking and interacting with the game outside of sessions are part of the game. They shape the experience of the player, they shape the player's understanding of the game, and they change the play experience at the table.

    Now imagine if blogging was a requirement of playing old school D&D! If someone literally had to spend an hour or two coming up with some blog posts before the first session, and those posts had to conform to some minimum standard, and you had to write another post each time you leveled up!

    That would piss off and alienate many people.

    And yet you are not going to hear me railing against blogs.

    The point is, there is nothing wrong with a mechanical system in a game that allows a player to get hours of enjoyment and engagement with the game outside of the session.

    What is wrong is if that is REQUIRED of the player.

    The basic model of "start with a rules lite system and then house-rule on top of it" works because its default assumption is that all of the added complexity is OPTIONAL. Anyone who does not want to engage can simply play the rules lite game that is the foundation; other players can engage the game with the DMs help and try out new race or class options, playtesting and shaping them through gameplay, thinking about them and writing about them outside of gameplay, etc.

    What I am saying is that it would be a mistake to completely dismiss all the mechanical innovations of 4e or any "New School" system just because the designers made the piss poor decision of FORCING all this mechanical complexity and buy in on the players.


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