Enjoy your games, but don’t assume they’re better than mine
Let’s start today off with a statement of the blindingly obvious – Gamers are tribal.
Every game has a hardcore following, no matter the obscurity of the system, the density of the rules or the strange and distant unplayability of the world. Even if you were to seek out the legendary outliers of the gaming industry – the games that should have no defenders and a perfect world would have them fall into an oubliette of shame from whence there is no salvage or return – there would be a small community of people that would play it, love it, and defend it from the people that ‘didn’t understand its nuances’ or something.
Part of this owes to the ubiquity of the internet, with its ability to connect the unlikely percentages into what passes for a quorum of interest. Part of it also lies in the abilities of the scant few GM’s that understand a system and are able to make that system or world entertaining. I’ve spoken before of playing in a game of Top Secret where the rules had been quietly replaced with that of Phoenix Command and how this remains one of my favorite campaigns overall. I would never try my hand at running it, as it’s firmly anchored in the wrong end of the spectrum for my own interests, but the GM that ran those games for us was a master at making those rules work. I’d play again in a second.
I’ve seen a lot of games that fall into this ‘I love it, and I don’t care what you think about it’ mentality, which tends to be balanced with the strange mirror of hating any revision of the beloved rules they’ve grown so attracted to over the years. None moreso than the various iterations of Dungeons & Dragons, a phenomenon that I find very interesting on one hand and vaguely stupid on the other.
There is a movement in gaming that has taken on the acronym, OSR. This movement embraces the newfound ability of the OGL (Open Gaming License) to allow the creation of retro-clone versions of many of the older out-of-print editions of Dungeons & Dragons, the cornerstone of the early days of the hobby. This is all fine and good. There are a lot of fantastic adventures that were written using these rules (not that they’d be hard to upconvert, but that’s a case of personal taste and time usage), and the rules are pretty much dead simple. I’ve played older editions, and there are a lot of things to recommend the experience.
My problem comes in with OSR evangelism.The older editions are simpler. I view them as a ‘beer & pretzels’ experience. You don’t have the same sort of options open to you that the current editions (Pathfinder or D&D 3.5) would allow you to have, there isn’t much way to keep rational balance in your playing group, and non-combat options are something of a joke. But they’re quick and dirty and entertaining. Throw some dice, and try not to think too hard about what’s going on. It’s a great time waster if you don’t have anything else going on.
But like any edition, there is a tribe that will rise to claim its superiority. And this is the point that I start to feel my hackles rising. Not because there are people that honestly enjoy this particular rules set, but because they have to try to ram it down my throat. Oftentimes, they use such contorted logic to get to a point that I’ve given up trying to listen some time beforehand. And when it gets especially bad, they write smug little books to illustrate their point.
There’s a pamphlet that a friend of mine pointed me towards, which is just such an exercise in weirdly superior and smug thinking that it took me a full read through to realize that it wasn’t satire. It was, in fact, a serious attempt to justify the game that the author had done a lot of work on and justify the rule-lite aspect of it. (And no, I’m not going to name it or link to it here, as I feel that extra traffic, such as this blog could generate, is more than it deserves.) The underlying thought process behind the book is this: If you think the game that this pamphlet is trying to entice you to buy isn’t awesome, then the problem isn’t with the game, it’s with you. Because you’re stupid.
It then goes on to illustrate a couple of examples using weird logic and fascinating straw men. In what is arguably the best reason to not buy this game, the GM in the example texts has no idea what feats are or how they operate. There’s an underlying assumption that he’s not well-versed on combat modifiers, given the vague nature of the illustrated combat sequence, and his adjudication of movement makes little to no sense. His grasp of skills is questionable, as well. And at one point, he actively penalizes the example player for trying to do something interesting. So, yeah.
The examples parse out into four rough areas, each of which tries to demonstrate how to make an overly simple set of rules pass for a modern game. First, all power lies with the GM, rather than with actual rules. Any attempt to use actual rules can and will be met with the GM overruling you. Second, your character is only a vessel for your own experiences and knowledge as a player. If there is something that your character would logically know or remember that you, as a player, are unaware of… tough shit. Third, your character is only as good as the magic items that they have managed to accrue over the years. And fourth, killing off characters is an absolute right of the dungeon master.
The first ‘rule’ for enjoying this kind of game is an interesting one. Essentially, it requires the GM to remain blandly impartial and keep a running mental file of any and all adjudications that have been made over the course of the campaign. While interesting, this is either expecting the GM to do all the work that the game designers couldn’t be bothered to do. Want rules for how to handle this situation? Tough. Not only are we not going to bother making rules for that, we’re not even going to give you a framework to build from. Make it up as you go along.
The second ‘rule’ is something that I’ve already covered with Player Knowledge vs. Character Knowledge.
The third ‘rule’ runs directly counter to the actual experience of playing the old rules of D&D. I’m not really sure just what set of rules the author was referencing for his game, but when he states that a high level character in this sort of game isn’t invincible, he’s just being an idiot. The yawning gulf of difference between 1st level characters and 20th level is unbridgeable in modern rules; it was even worse in the older editions. But somehow, this guy wants us to believe that it all owes to his scattering of magic items and artifacts, rather than the inane hit matrices, untouchable armor class or the veritable stacks of hit points.
And finally… what may be the crowning bit of indefensible nonsense. I simplified it as being the GM right for TPK, whenever and wherever he feels the need. That may be unfair to what the guy was trying to get across, but the essence is the same. (And sadly, it’s one that I’ve heard elsewhere.) He tries to make the point that trying to balance encounters is a waste of time, since none of it matters in the long run. And once he’s thrown that particular idea into the mix, he jumps subjects to try to justify it all as a ‘story game’ experience.
This is the point where you can visualize me, the lone blogger sputtering and gesticulating at the screen as he tries to reach through the ethers to strangle the author. Seriously, man. Pick a damned argument and support it. If you want to run a D&D game where the dice fall where they may, do that. Don’t make an assertion and then change what game you’re actually playing! D&D is not a story game. It never has been. It’s a game about numbers, all of which matter. If it were a story game, it simply would not be D&D.
And when you try your damnedest to weld the idea of story games on simply to justify using a monster that would casually destroy the party without so much as a second glance, you’re no longer talking about having fun. You’re taking power away from your players, and there’s nothing in that idea that equals fun.