Wednesday, June 15, 2011

In Which The Warlock Takes Issue with the Old School...

I've often stated that I tend to straddle the fence between the feel and conventions of old-school gaming and the streamlined, unique mechanics of more modern games.  I tend to find bits and pieces of various games that I like, then toss them into other systems if I need a mechanic to fit a unique situation.  Players around my table often end up tossing WEGSified Cold Rolls and INI rolls in the midst of my D&D games, and I use Savage Worlds style initiative when playing ICONS

I don't have much real affinity for the mechanics of the original versions of D&D, and have been a fan of the mechanical innovations that both 3e and 4e have brought to the table.  With a healthy dose of skepticism, I've felt that much of the "Old School Revolution" is a matter of nostalgia--it's an attempt by gamers to recapture some misperceived "glory days" of gaming, when in all actuality, they're wanting simply that feeling of novelty that comes with the first time fighting a dragon, the first time crawling through a dungeon, the first time they pick up a Sword of Sharpness.

Mythmere Press's
"Swords and Wizardry"
So, up late last night and poking around online, I stumbled across an essay that frustrated me greatly.  Two years ago, Matthew Finch of Mythmere Games put forward The Quick Primer for Old School Gaming as a "newbie primer" for old school games.  And, I've gotta say...most of what he's putting forward is biased in a manner that's damaging to all games, reflecting an aura of nostalgia that's cancerous to the idea of an 'evolving' game.

Finch attempts to put forward a veneer of civility, by putting forward a disclaimer before his 4 Zen Moments, stating that the examples he intends to use are hyperbole.  But, the fundamental ideas being put forward are still unchecked swings with no focus.

Let's take his first example:  a Pit Trap, shown in a monotonous "modern style", and then a zesty, descriptive "old style".  The peril here is that of a logical fallacy:  either you narrate your way through the trap entirely (the "good" result) or you let it come down to a series of die rolls (the "bad" way).  No middle ground is mentioned or described.  A good GM or player can describe a unique trap disarmament in 4e, just as easily as a poor GM can let that same trap become an uninteresting series of die rolls in 1e.
Holy logical fallacy, Batman!
Further, the insinuation is misleading--more modern incarnations of D&D  and other games have included the same fundamental determination charts, but the mechanics of that determination are the elements currently evolving.  Earlier editions didn't change because there was or was not a trap-disarming chart; rather, they just changed the mechanics of doing so.  Instead of consulting Sub-Table 43d (which wasn't fun for anyone), Trapfinding was streamlined to a "Thievery" check.  That doesn't preclude or eliminate narration; it simply puts a different structure to it.

Finch continues, extolling the virtue of player skill over character abilities.  He decries skills such as Bluff and Spot as cop-outs, provided in-lieu of asking questions and providing a narrative between GM and Player.  That's a wonderful ideal, but it's just ideal.  If you locked me in a dungeon room and told me that there was a secret door somewhere, I'm sure I could spend hours on end looking for it and never find it.  However, when that room is only being described to me, we're already in the realm of abstraction.  Expecting a player to search through rooms like that, time after time, not only borders on un-fun, but teeters towards GM-narcissism and unnecessary bookkeeping.  We end up sacrificing story and action for a focus on minutiae, when a balance of description and abstraction would serve better.

If what matters is the story, why are we putting additional obstacles towards telling it?

Finch further encourages the GM to throw balance out the window, and focus on the heroes as humanized figures.  Again, I find fault with this:  the fundamental idea behind a storytelling game is just that:  tell a story and be fun.  As I've ranted about earlier, sitting behind the fighter while you're out of spells is un-fun.  Playing the second-fiddle bodyguard to a powerful mage is un-fun.  Dragging 15 wild dogs through the dungeon with you, just so you can manage to survive a kobold skirmish is un-fun.  Yes, challenge is necessary, even vital--conflict is at the heart of any story.  But this?  This is excess.

Finch offers some quality GM advice at the end of his essay, particularly in his encouragement to add description to combat.  But, what he fails to take into account is that games like 4e already work to build this in.  A simple at-will power like Tide of Iron comes with pre-built descriptors, waiting for the GM or player to take advantage of them: 

How about this:  "You slam your shield into your foe's chest, driving him backwards." 
No shield?  No problem:  "You slash at your enemy's legs, then kick upwards, pushing him back a step."

Just because there are minis on the battlemat or power-cards in hand does not mean that narration becomes impossible or unlikely.  In fact, those are the hallmarks of good GMing.  But the fact that Finch ascribes these features only to old-school games is troubling, particularly when so many new games encourage this sort of behavior.

Since I've been on a Deadlands kick, it behooves me to bring up Savage Worlds.  The powers in Savage Worlds are specifically made to be generic and multi-purpose, with the player and GM coming to consensus on what exactly a "Bolt" looks like, and what effect it has. 

Even within the scope of the setting, I just yesterday put together a Deadlands Huckster specifically meant to defy traditional perceptions:  rather than visualize his Dealing with the Devil as a card game, he visualizes it as a fencing match.  Rather than cards appearing in his hand, he uses a Relic saber as an arcane focus, enhancing his spellcasting abilities.  Rather than a gambler, he's a student of the Destreza school of fencing, which was based around Greek philosophy and geometry.  All this, from just a simple series of generically-labeled powers:  Bolt, Quickness, Deflection, Smite, and Boost/Lower Trait.

Simply by adding description, even a decidedly modern and generic game like Savage Worlds brings forth creative, new ideas.  While Finch offers some good advice in his primer, his targeting is woefully off.  The problem doesn't lie with old-school vs. new-school gaming.  The problem lies with lazy GMs and players, unwilling to add in their own creative touches.  And those additions, my lovelies, are what takes a game from good to great.

No comments:

Post a Comment