Monday, June 8, 2009

What a Mess

The ongoing and evolving conversation on Edition and Play Style Wars, High Fantasy vs Swords & Sorcery, and Player Feedback has solidified several of my thoughts and feelings but also given me lots to ponder.

I firmly believe there are several orthogonal axis to play style, that the people who scream loudest about old-school is this way have a very narrow and often revisionist concept of how D&D was and could be played, that the old-school <-> new-school or sandbox <-> storypath or OD&D <-> "miniatures combat masquerading as an RPG" are false, incomplete, and ultimately worthless comparisons (because they fail to account for the various axis). And this failure is ultimately why the arguments and flames are endless.

I'm still ruminating and perhaps will never be able to articulate coherently what I'm feeling. But here are some thoughts, snippets that are driving my self-analysis.

I'm not a follower of fantasy writing / history. My impressions could be way off. It seems that majority of the literature in old-school times was S&S or at least grittier and freakier, while the majority of literature 2nd/3ed folks grew up with was Epic Hero type stuff. Even the art has a hint of this, compare and contrast Otis & Elmore. I also noticed a resurgence in Lovecraft and more recently Robert E. Howard occurring just before the surge in sandbox/S&S/old-school RPGs we are currently experiencing. Which (if either) is cause and which is effect I'm not sure.

"Without really noticing it, many people don't want to play sword & sorcery gaming. What they want, is to play a story about good winning the epic battle against evil." -- Santiago

"I am more of a roleplayer..." many times really means "I want to be a hero in an epic story."

If players end up not having fun with your style of play, let them go. (Don't fault them for giving it a try even though you told them what style it was up front. Norm's 7th Law: If you discourage people from trying new things, you suck, big time.) It's good to analyze what went didn't go right but don't let it devolve into how your former players were wrong and really should have liked your game, if only they...

So Many Ways to Play

All games have story. A big difference is "Does the DM know the story ahead of time."

“story-before”, which is when the GM has the plot pre-planned, “story-after”, in which looking back on the game, the players can tell the events as a story; and “story-now”, in which the creation of the story is the game. -- oberonthefool

Another axis separate from that is “story as major element.” That is characters are the focus, the world and events revolve around them, they are big H Heroes. Slow/”boring” bits are fluffed around or sped over, players have story based goals and the DM facilitates them. Those goals/destinations are what drive the game.

The other end is were characters are more or less regular folks that have decided they want glory and gold or have no motivations at all being simple 1dimensional "imaginative constructs" the player uses to play this game. Focus is on the players not the characters. Characters come and go(die) often, if they get to name level, they build a castle, and are retired. The challenge and fun is to survive, explore, and play. There’s a story here but it’s not the focus. This style is more of a "game", the play is the focus. It’s about the journey not the destination.

Another axis, atmosphere of a game, the setting, the fluff which often and rightly bleeds into the mechanics. But it's not a clean axis at all, more like a scatter plot. This is low-magic vs high-magic, the gritty vs anime, realism vs mythic dungeon, S&S vs high-fantasy, Ray Gun Wielding Monkeys vs get your sci-fi out of my focking fantasy, etc vs etc.

Another axis, rules-lite vs rules-heavy.

What a mess, huh? I'd rather it all go away and people quit arguing over it. I also wish people would give up greed and start taking care of each other. I know, two pipe dreams. I got sucked in because Tommi mentioned how to have a story-focused game without railroading something I have never been able to pull off.

Sandboxy/rules-lite DMs I Implore You

Please! Help and train players unfamiliar to exploration style. They will not know how to do it considering 90% of other games and 99% of other books, comics, movies, are all heroic storypaths. What chgowiz does with his wife is excellent example. Don't just give away clues (that is anti-training). Use those NPCs and retainers to show by example. Help players to start thinking tactically by having a short 5-10min analysis at end of session "Whew that sure was a tight spot, huh? Any ideas on what you could have done to make that easier".

When they get it. Make a big deal over it, congratulate them on a game well played.

Realize that many, many people are attracted to RPGs because they want to be that guy/gal from the book/movie/comic/computer game, they want to be a hero in a story. If you can't provide hero in a story feeling (it's not incompatible with sandbox exploration game) and/or teach them to enjoy a "tactical war/puzzle game played out mostly in the imagination" then understand you will have very few potential players and will probably become a lonely grumpy old grognard.


  1. Argh, I'm angry because I've been working on a post about the various axises of gameplay, and here you've scooped me!

    Nice work.

  2. @Dave The Game.

    You don't know how many times Grognardia has done that to me. That man is a blog writing monster.

    Mine is the forth post on this topic I've seen recently, it's an unofficial blog carnival! I say join the fun.

  3. A solid post, the importance of teaching to enjoy different styles of games rather than different rule sets is an interesting topic.

  4. The problem with using axis is it views everything as binary opposites. Usually the style of RPGs I prefer ( ) gets left out of the old/new or story/combat axis that are popular.

  5. @nharman
    wtf. I spelled fourth as forth, I dig the language and all but not as much as that one guy on the book cover. I also often mis-type they're their there and its it's even though I very much know the differences. And the damn grammer nazi's show no mercy, none.

    Thanks, nice summation of a point I didn't realize I had made. Proly could have just posted

    "Realize the differences between games is as much play style as it is rule set (although, they are often intertwined) and that it's at least as important to teach play style as it is the rules".

    Yeah. "One axis bad" is a big point of my post. To accurately peg someone's game style/play/whatever you want to call it requires > 3 axis and some of them aren't even clean gradients going from one extreme to the other. So, analyzing this multi-axis sphere you end up with a big mess. You realize it doesn't really help you or anyone else understand, that everyone is still arguing, you could have just said "my game is Fun-School" and spent this time being a hero, playing a miniatures combat game, taking stuff from monsters, or whatever is fun for you.

    For some people arguing is "the fun", others it's interminable analysis(and meta analysis of that analysis). The latter group should probably just be ignored. But the former should be kicked to the curb and urinated on.

  6. I think there are many, maybe infinite, ways of cutting the field of roleplaying to pairs of opposites (or trifectas, for that matter; see GDS, GNS, AGE, the three way model, etc).

    I think that doing such analysis can be generally useful, as long as one does not claim that the way other people play is bad or does not claim that other ways of slicing the activity into separate and distinct pieces are automatically invalid.

    Why are such distinctions useful, then? The most obvious way is that they allow people to say "I don't like blah." The most important, I think, benefit is that they allow people to explain new ways of playing to each other; that way, more people will stumble upon styles they can enjoy (or avoid like the plague). Further, understanding other people play in other ways sometimes makes it possible to enjoy playing with them, even if one would normally play in another way.

    I think the old school community is going through the same thing the Forge-inspired indie game community has went through; there is much online ink spilled before people simply learn to accept that there are those weirdos out there who actually enjoy playing those games and can by some miraculous way make them fun.

  7. @thanuir "there is much online ink spilled before people simply learn to accept that there are those weirdos out there who actually enjoy playing those games and can by some miraculous way make them fun."

    Dammit, you're probably right and I'm sure I'll contribute to that wasted ink. I'm such an inciter. Taunting frothing at the mouth extremists is an irresistible urge. I'm failing at keeping it off this blog.


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