Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Styles of Play and Making the Most of What You Get

There's been a lot of talk in the blogosphere about the creation of something called the Old School Gaming Association, which would have the stated goal of promoting the style of play and/or rulesets that are variously defined as "Old School", as well as uniting the highly Balkanized geography of Old School gaming under one banner of shared objectives.

I like the idea, but as others have pointed out, a big part of the problem is identifying what Old School actually means. What exactly is this "style of play" which Old Schoolers venerate and New Schoolers (for want of a better word) despise? What is the Shared Vision behind which we are all supposed to unite?

For me, what it boils down to is one passage in the 2nd edition Player's Handbook, which had a great effect on me when I read it as a 12 or 13 year old, and which you could say has informed my D&D philosophy every since. Now, bear with me. I know that, for many, 2nd edition D&D is the point at which Old School is no longer Old School. Be that as it may, the writers of that book had been playing what we now consider "Old School" D&D for years, and the edition they came up with had many points of continuity with the older versions of the game.

The passage in question is What the Numbers Mean, and it can be found early on in the book just after the descriptions of the various Stats and what they stand for. The writers introduce a character called "Rath" - a recurring, enigmatic figure who reappears at various stages throughout the PHB and the DMG, although in various different incarnations (rather like the Eternal Champion or the archetypal characters in Viriconium). Rath has rather 'poor' stats - a Strength of 8, Dexterity of 14, Constitution and Intelligence of 13, Wisdom of 7 and Charisma of 6 - but the writers demonstrate both how to turn those stats into an interesting character (twice!) and how to have fun doing it.

The key section is this one:

Obviously, Rath's ability scores (often called "stats") are not the greatest in the world. Yet it is possible to turn these "disappointing" stats into a character who is both interesting and fun to play. Too often players become obsessed with "good" stats. These players immediately give up on a character if he doesn't have a majority of above-average scores. There are even those who feel a character is hopeless if he does not have at least one ability of 17 or higher! Needless to say, these players would never consider playing a character with an ability score of 6 or 7.
In truth, Rath's survivability has a lot less to do with his ability scores than with your desire to role-play him. If you give up on him, of course he won't survive! But if you take an interest in the character and role-play him well, then even a character with the lowest possible scores can present a fun, challenging, and all-around exciting time. Does he have a Charisma of 5? Why? Maybe he's got an ugly scar. His table manners could be atrocious. He might mean well but always manage to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. He could be bluntly honest to the point of rudeness, something not likely to endear him to most people. His Dexterity is a 3? Why? Is he naturally clumsy or blind as a bat?
Don't give up on a character just because he has a low score. Instead, view it as an opportunity to role-play, to create a unique and entertaining personality in the game. Not only will you have fun creating that personality, but other players and the DM will have fun reacting to him.

Don't you just love that? It is exactly the spirit in which I think D&D should be played and in which I love to play it, and if I could define Old School Gaming it would be in one line taken from that passage: if you take an interest in the character and role-play him well, then even a character with the lowest possible scores can present a fun, challenging, and all-around exciting time. In other words, what is important is what you, as a player, bring to the set of dice rolls that make up your character. The game is about you making the most of what you get. Later editions of the game changed the emphasis to the power of the character, and that is where, I believe, the line in the sand between Old and "New" Schools lies.


  1. It took me a moment to realize what you were linking to with "power of character". I'm slow, what can I say. But that's a very palpable hit. ;)

    Yeah, I think that's part of the appeal among grognards for the old "roll 3d6 six times in order". And while I never saw Raistlin's stats, if his CON was higher than 8, his stats didn't reflect the way he was played.

    I think there are other important aspects as well. A willingness to embrace a certain level of absurdity and anachronism is usually where I have the most trouble. But also a strong do-it-yourself vibe, which I think is challenged these days by adult schedules. Also, the notion that stories are for books and fun trumps plot are also central to Old School play.

    But those are just my ideas, and I don't always count as a true grognard, never having properly embraced oD&D. ;)

    - Brian

  2. I like the idea that "stories are for books and fun trumps plot". That probably makes me a "gamist", but the idea that role playing is story telling always struck me as a little bit pretentious. There are aspects of storytelling to role playing, but generally speaking it is retrospective - "Wasn't that fun game? Do you remember when your character did that cool stunt with the lasso?" - rather than a self-conscious play style.

    I'm not sure if that makes sense, actually.

  3. I think it does. Story is an emergent process in Old School RPGing. The DM sets up not a story, not a plot, not even really a path, but a situation. Then the players get involved, nobody's plans survive contact with each other, there's a mad scramble to salvage the situation/profit from the chaos, and voila! Story happens.

    It might not be Hemingway or Shakespeare, but it's still story.

  4. Yeah, that's a nice way of articulating it. "Story" is what happens as a result of what goes on in the game. If you spend too much time thinking about the "narrative" during the game itself, however, I think it'll end up being forced. (Which is what happens with a lot of supposedly "narrativist" games, much as I hate that label.)

    In other words I think story happens in the way you describe, but I don't want it to be self conscious.

  5. I usually don't beat the drum for my own blog quite so blatantly as this, but your post ties in very well with a recent survey I made of the "Hopeless Character" in various editions and games. Hope you don't mind me linking it in a comment.

    More generally, enjoying what you've been writing. The Shakespeare post is inspiring. Similar character "slogans" have come across as hokey to me, but I can't argue with the keenness of Shakespeare's rhetoric.

  6. Max: Thanks very much; now I just have to convince my players to adopt the Shakespeare Dynamic Facet idea...

  7. I like your take on this whole thing. I enjoy your blog, too!

    As has been pointed out to me recently, the general attitude has also changed, which I think was driven by the shift in emphasis to the power of the character, that being the change in emphasis to the power of the player.

    Tim Kask, and prior to that, Coffee at the OD&D board, both referred to the fact that in old school gaming, the DM's judgements were revered, and everything was deferred to the DM. There was no chance for rules-lawyering or bickering, the power was in the DM's hands as the author and judge.

    Somewhere along the way it changed. DM's are often now story-tellers and more or less referees in the true sense. They seem to be charged with some obligation to ensure the players have 'fair' encounters, and are destined to become heroes. Rather than simply making challenges, and rolling the dice.

    Thanks, this was the final bit I needed for a post about old school. I don't want to bash modern D&D, so I still need to work it out!


  8. I sometimes indulge in a bit of modern D&D bashing, but I suppose it isn't really fair; 3.X edition does its job very well. It absolutely isn't the job I want it to be doing, but that isn't really the point - much as I might wish it was.