Saturday, January 2, 2016

The New Kid at the Old School - Part 1

As I sit and look at my bookshelf of RPG books, I'd say it's fairly well-balanced. There's a lot of GURPS hardbacks, as well as Legend of the Five Rings books and the Mongoose Publishing edition of the Traveller Core Rulebook. Then there's a divider in the bookshelf—it's an IKEA bookshelf that also houses my vinyl records.

On the other side of that divide is Swords and Wizardry Complete, the AD&D 1E PHB, the AD&D 2E trio (PHB/DMG/MM), then the 5th Edition trio of the same three books. Then sits the massive tome that is the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, a few published modules, then the smaller-format stuff: A Red and Pleasant Land, Lamentations of the Flame Princess - Rules and Magic, Fiasco and the Fiasco Companion, Savage Worlds Explorers Edition, Fate Core System, Reign Enchiridon, and Dogs in the Vineyard.

I have to move some of the smaller books because I just received my custom-printed copy of the D&D Rules Cyclopedia, which I had made once I purchased the PDF document online from Wizards of the Coast. Soon to be added to the collection are a boatload more things published from Lamentations of the Flame Princess. (They'd be there already except that they're coming from Finland.)

Many of the games I've mentioned, and those which I'm most excited about—particularly Swords and Wizardry, Dungeon Crawl Classics, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and the D&D Rules Cyclopedia—fall into a category known as "OSR." This stands for "Old-School Renaissance." Or maybe "Old-School Revolution," or "Old-School Revival." There's never been 100% consensus on what the "R" stands for, and perhaps that's appropriate.

The first RPGs I got to play used Dungeons and Dragons 3.0, followed by a very brief foray into 4th Edition, and eventually Pathfinder. I remember how Pathfinder seemed like a breath of fresh air at the time from the nearly-a-computer-simulation feel of 4th Edition. However, looking back on it now, I was still stuck in a system that consisted of massive amount of rules and numbers. Our Pathfinder group was fairly large—6 players—and every time we had a combat occur, I had to pull out my laptop to help keep my special abilities straight and tally up my modifiers correctly. I was playing a paladin, so I had a lot of bonuses bestowed upon me.

Also, despite the heavy focus on combat, it never felt as though we were ever in danger of having our characters die, either. Maybe the system is geared towards PC preservation, or maybe it was just unconscionable that we'd have to throw away a character we spent a few hours building. I can trace all the problems I had with the game being tedious to the fact that so much effort goes into building a character and optimizing statistics.

In short, the rules of the game were a more powerful entity than the game itself.

Many postmodern game systems* address the issues of Pathfinder and 3+ Edition D&D in different ways. Fate Core and the Fate Accelerated Edition are both very popular these days. In them, the narrative—including all its details—is built actively by everyone in real time at the table. You can spend the game mechanic's currency to declare a detail about a scene, or actively try to create advantages that you can use for the benefit of your character. Apocalypse World and its derivatives, in particular the popular spin-off Dungeon World, are built to systematically create a highly fluid but intriguing narrative. (In DW at least, the GM is forbidden from pre-planning a story, and has a finite list of actions s/he can take, although these can be broad, such as "reveal an unwelcome truth.") These postmodern games can vary wildly in their approach, but they all affect the narrative in different ways.

*—I've also called them "story games," which I've learned is a term that carries negative associations with a specific website with some bad apples, or "hippie games," which sounds rather pejorative. In contrast, "postmodern games" makes me sound like I might know what I'm talking about, so I'm going to stick with it.

The OSR philosophy of game design, speaking very broadly, is to revisit the era of gaming before there were rules governing virtually all of the possibilities that arise in gameplay. Earlier games had an array of ability scores, but not necessarily skills. Feats didn't exist. With a lack of rules governing every specific possibility, a lot more flexibility and freedom was in the hands of the game's GM. If you come across something there were no rules for, you made the ruling yourself. In these cases, the rules of the game are inherently pared down so that they do not overshadow the game itself.

My first time actually encountering "OSR" was the recent UCon 2015 convention, where I played, amongst other things, Swords and Wizardry. The game felt "old school" to be sure, because there wasn't a lot to the mechanics. Other than a few references to an unfamiliar character sheet to figure out attack bonuses and armor classes, I ended up playing my character, rather than my character sheet.

Furthermore, UCon featured an entire OSR track, meaning that every table in the room featured a game that would be considered "OSR." It was clear from watching the tables that everyone was totally immersed in the game before them. Contrast that with a few organized play tables (such as Adventurer's League or Pathfinder Society, for example) I saw later in the convention, when everyone seemed to be playing very distractedly, looking in their books or e-readers for rules or other details.

A common perception of the OSR community is that it consists of people who either regressed to earlier gaming editions after not liking new things, or simply never moved on from them out of nostalgia. I would argue that this is not true. Both the OSR movement and the postmodern RPG movement are reactions to the mechanics-supremacy and numbers-dominance of systems like D&D 4th Edition and Pathfinder. The postmodern RPGs tend to attack the problem from a standpoint of asking some of the most basic questions about what is needed to make an RPG. The OSR tends to correct the problem by shifting focus away from mechanics, taking out what is unnecessary and leaving the GM with a more adaptable rules framework than a complex and intricate rules machine.

Am I arguing, then, that the OSR method is a better approach? NO! In the end, my argument is that both the OSR and postmodern games are two sides of the same coin, which came about as a reaction to the rules-heavy trend that RPGs were taking. There are many gamers who can find RPGs in both genres that are fun solutions to the pitfalls of modern mainstream gaming.

Here's Matt Finch's Quick Primer on OSR Gaming (Free PDF), if you're looking for a more thorough introduction to some key OSR concepts.

I'm planning on a follow-up blog post in a few days where I discuss some of the different examples of OSR games, because there is actually a lot of variety.

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