Friday, November 4, 2011

Put On Your Beret, Light A Gauloise, And Here We Go...


(circle one)
problem with / awesome thing about

...classic D&D is it's not focused around any one way of playing.

So I was walking around Montreal today, where everything is French, and I realized that the frequent inability of the garage rockers of DIY D&D and the prog rockers of story-games and other forms of aggressive new-schoolery to understand what each other are on about isn't just a philosophy of gaming thing. It's a philosophy thing. A French philosophy thing, to be specific.

I know, I know, but trust me. Trust me. You trust me, right? Hold on...


The Han vs. Luke issue points it up: Han is the Old School character whose heroism is basically incidental, whereas Luke has an epic heroic destiny from birth since his dad and the Force is strong with him and all that. The whole story is wrapped up with Luke the way Hamlet is wrapped around Hamlet.

Luke's dilemma has the symmetry, structure and choices of classic drama, Han's adventures (or the ones we imagine he has) are more picaresque.


So what Han is is an Existential character. Big "e".

We don't have to go into all the ins and outs of existentialism in this post on this blog about D&D, what's important here is:

It reached the height of its popularity around World War II when Jean Paul Sartre gave it it's most recognizable-to-us form and it was basically a philosophy that caught on in an environment where everybody was asking:

Hey, there are Nazis, what do we do?

So the idea is people are defined by their actions. You aren't your stats, you're what you choose to do with those stats. Existence precedes essence, as Sartre said. You don't have any "essential nature" aside from that which you've done. I very purposely--more and more so every time I do a script--give characters no back story. The way you find about these characters is by watching what they do, the way they react to stress, the way they react to situations and confrontations. In that way, character is revealed through drama rather than being explained through dialogue as Walter Hill said. Character background is what happens between levels 1 and 6, as Gary Gygax said.

More importantly--for this point I'm making here--than actually being sure of all the ins and outs of the philosophy is just being aware that certain aesthetic ideas were attached to the word "existential" in the public mind: The lone figure in a landscape, cowboy movies, bold abstract paintings, lone heroism. Individualism, too, to some degree.

Likewise we don't have to get into the real guts and history of the next philosophy to leach its way into the public consciousness over the course of the 20th century: post-structuralism (aka deconstructionism). We just have to know about it's pop version.

Basically post-structuralism was a philosophy developed while people were all asking the question:

Well, ok, those Nazis were bad, right, but can we be all smug and say we're not like them? No, they were products of an environment. How do we make the environment not produce Nazis?

The post-structuralist big idea is that everybody is enmeshed in social structures and they are affected by them and (according to some of them. anyway) there is no acting or thinking outside these structures and ideologies.

The pop version of post-structuralism is basically heavily associated with critiquing every cultural product from prison architecture to zombie movies from the point of view of how they might eventually make people act like Nazis. Some of these folks are lovely people and smart and clever, some of them are the kind of drooling submentals who call themselves progressives but still wish you would stop drawing boobs.

Post-structuralist aesthetics emphasizes groups, social behavior, the collective.

(Note every argument about edgy art in games seems to devolve to: "What's good for most people" vs. "Your right to like, make, or promote something without being considered a Nazi". Note both of these philosophies--like most philosophies that catch on with large groups of creative people--are generally philosophies of the left. They boil down to a more paternalistic left vs. an anarchistic one. Also: since we're talking about culture and not politics, and so the question isn't: What should the laws be? they're: What constitutes good art or good fun? these positions don't map cleanly onto existing nameable political divisions.)


To existentialists, art and things like art are, at most, a means to an end (the end usually being encouraging folks to hang Mussolini from a meathook or understand the nature of freedom) or an expression of what people are like. To post-structuralists, art and things like art are much more important: as important as art is to conservatives and traditionalists--and for the same reason--art is a thing that influences your behavior whether or not you want it to.

The same goes for rules: the existentialist sees rules as one more thing you might have to ignore or get past or weigh as the price of doing what needs done. To post-structuralists, rules create mental structures that influence people in subtle ways.

So: D&D.

On the surface level, the difference between existential and postmodern aesthetics is obvious in the actual games:

90% of what goes on in White Wolf games makes no sense outside a complex social context and social pressures, Dogs In The Ohmygodyou'replayingagameaboutMormons is entirely about seeing the social grid as an interesting and influential environment in itself, Type IV defines roles and teamwork more powerfully than any other combat game I know of.

Meanwhile, in classic D&D, beyond "never split the party" (whether issued for the DM's convenience or the PCs' survival), classic D&Ders as a group have no particular shared conception (that is--no conception they could all agree on across the DIY D&D world) of how the PCs should or shouldn't fit into a larger social context--how the PCs fit with each other or with the gameworld. It's a game full of tombs no-one else has picked over and clerics without congregations. (And the post-structuralist Newie would say that's because the rules don't suggest it, and the DIYer would say Well if I wanted to have my priest have a flock I could. And they are both right, they just care about different things.)

There's the question of freedom and creativity. To the DIYer freedom is the freedom of the PC to make the choice in the game and define the PC through those midlife choices (not through decisions made before the PCs "born"), to the Newie freedom is the freedom to define the nurture or the nature that decides which questions get asked in the first place--Sir Chauncey Middleton Paladin-Ackeworth probably won't ever have to make the whole steal-bread-to-feed-his-family choice. Both narrative control and extensive character building tools are about deciding the kind of story/genre structure you want you game to operate in.

The Newie seems to say: let's have a tale of ____ and ______. The Old Schooler says: whatever you've got, hit me, and we'll find out what I'm made of.


But this is all surface--there are many exceptions to these "rules". The biggest difference is in how the games are designed and how people evaluate these game designs:

The DIY D&Der will tell you that you can pretty much do anything with classic D&D.

The most important words here are "you"--that is, any individual, and "can"--that is, it is possible.

New schoolers will tell you that most people tend to do certain specific things with classic D&D.

The most important words here are "most people"--meaning, the community, the average consumer, the guys at your FLGS who answer the ads--and "tend to"--that is, what activity is encouraged.

To put it another way: DIY D&Ders are judging the game based on what can be done with it and judging it rad. The new schoolers are judging it based on what the social collective has, as a group, done with it, and finds it wanting.

The DIYers pull obscure games apart for their useful parts, the Newies judge famous or milestone games in terms of their impact.

(Not irrelevant: in the System Does Matter essays that were so important to the Forge, Ron Edwards talks a lot about disappointments caused by gaming with random people who had different ideas about how games should work--at conventions, etc. That is: the overall. Whereas in these blogs, people tend to talk about how this group or that group, specifically, worked or did not work. That is: the possible.)

That's why you see New School people writing articles saying "In truth, most old school games I've seen tend to..." and, if you're a DIY D&Der, you immediately scratch your head and go "Why would anyone care how most games tend to end up?"

DIY D&Ders don't care what the rules or the artwork or the setting suggest, they care what can be done with them. Newies ask: take away the rules, artwork and setting and what's left?

The question is how much communicating needs to be done by the game itself, as opposed to by actual human gamers.

Seen through this lens, the otherwise incomprehensible debate about James Raggi's version of D&D that I linked to at the beginning of this post becomes easier to understand. Why does this game have rules for investing in real estate and prices for 17 different kinds of boats if it's about Weird Fantasy? Because it's not really a Weird Fantasy Role Playing Game by your definitions, Newie. It's a game that is supposed to be able to do everything over the course of a loooooooong campaign, just like D&D does, but be Weird a little more often and maybe a little easier to run.

Newies imagine a world where you choose Weird Fantasy Role Playing off a shelf with every game in the world on it because tonight you want to grapple with the dilemmas specific to a world of Weird Fantasy. DIYers are imagining you'd get Weird Fantasy Role Playing off a shelf with 30 other flavors of D&D on it because during your next 90 weeks of throwing yourself up against D&D you'd like to push the Weird a little more than you did in the last 90.

The Newies tend to be obsessed with creating rulesets that will result in Exactly The Right Buttons Getting Pushed for anybody who buys it, no matter how dumb they are, whereas the D&Ders tend to focus on outlier customizations of their own game that they know might only apply to a tiny handful of campaigns.

The DIY D&Ders don't really care what the game (a device for communicating with a collective) is about, they care what the GM (a device for communicating one-on-one with a small group) is about and about creating repositiories of possibilities for all games. LOTFP can be seen in this way as not so much a new game as an attempt to export practices associated with the D&D GM known as James Raggi to your table.

The Newies appear to want a thousand different games that will each communicate transparently what they're about to anyone whereas the Old Schoolers seem to want one game that is specifically tailored to the very precise needs of their own single group and yet has the flexibility to go on and on and on with that group in an ever-changing campaign forever, being about whatever the group wants it to be about until they finally get to be 60 years old and kill Orcus.

Why is Carcosa or Plansescape a hack for D&D and not just a whole new game about whatever Planescape or Carcosa are about? Because then you can make one single campaign that's Vanilla and then Carcosa and then Vanilla and then Planescape and then Eberron and then Dark Sun and then d20 Stormbringer and then Vanilla and then whatever on and on forever.

So: A million rulesets that do one thing each, aimed at a million gaming groups, or one game that only works for one group but allows it to do a million different things.


Zzarchov said...

I have been gaming too much. That was the best explanation of existentialists and post-structuralists I have ever heard, and my best friend spent his university years in philosophy (so I heard such things a lot).

John Evans said...

Pretty thought-provoking stuff.

It might also be interesting to think of it from the perspective of game design. I consider game design to be a form of creative expression; what that means is that the designer creates a work which is meant to evoke a certain emotional response in the audience (players). I could do that by thinking carefully about the response I want and then crafting a game to evoke it.

On the other hand, perhaps I act as DM in a game where I modify a bunch of rules and think up a bunch of new content. In that case, I get the experience of tuning and modifying the gameplay to the needs of my gaming group. So, perhaps I create a game which is intended to evoke that experience--the customization and modification of the experience by the audience. That's certainly a valid means of creative expression--in fact, it's one that probably cannot happen outside of game design.

In other words: If you can't control the audience's experience, how can you get across your idea? Well, maybe giving up control is actually part of the idea.

I can see both sides of the argument here, but personally I'm more sympathetic to the post-structuralist side. The reason is that games have the opportunity to introduce us to new forms of play. For example, before I encountered Ars Magica, I hadn't thought of playing wizards who could just make up spells on the fly, nor had I thought about simulating the life of a settlement over years but now I can think about that. I don't think you can expect everyone to come up with every awesome idea on their own; sometimes they need prompting, sometimes awesome (or possibly awesome) ideas have to be propagated. So, I think it's important to have new ideas every now and then, to keep things growing and improving. Of course, you could have a bunch of new ideas in an old school supplement, but it would probably be a supplement with a post-structuralist flavor...

And now, for your amusement, something that may or may not have anything to do with this discussion: The Worst Tabletop Roleplaying Game Ever

Zak Sabbath said...

@john evans

Quite simply:

Depends who your players are.

richard said...

I echo zzarchov; best description of the declared and undeclared agendas of post-structuralism I've ever seen. Thank you.

Now can you explain why people read Heidegger?

As to the implications for gaming, this is also lucid & thought provoking, but I'll need a few days to process it. The existentialist gamer definitely dodges a host of issues by just saying "well sure you can..."

Peter D said...

I honestly never thought of my preference for one rule set that lets me do whatever I want with my gamers as having a connection to French philosophy. My brain kind of hurts.

Now I need to go watch that Monty Python episode where the pepperpots go see Jean-Paul Satre.

gregarious monk said...

I'm with Zzarchov, dude. Best explanation of this topic I've seen in a while. And Peter, my brain hurts a little, too.

I really like the way you hooked the synthesis of meaning into gamer choices.

Jeremy Duncan said...

I think I might have to use this when my "Swiss Army Knife vs. High-end Titanium Corkscrew" analogy sounds too simplistic.

OlmanFeelyus said...

I like the term "newie". Possibly less contentious label.

What are you doing in Montreal?

huth said...

The Newies appear to want a thousand different games that will each communicate transparently what they're about to anyone whereas the Old Schoolers seem to want one game that is specifically tailored to the very precise needs of their own single group and yet has the flexibility to go on and on and on with that group in an ever-changing campaign forever, being about whatever the group wants it to be about until they finally get to be 60 years old and kill Orcus.

So old schoolers have more free time is what you're saying...

(capcha: Immunl, wisest and most ancient of the seaweed apes)

John Johnson said...

Your Han vs Luke argument is the perfect explanation to me of why sandbox type campaigns can be just as deep and meaningful to players as highly plotted ones.

The one argument I'd make is that playing a picaresque (such a lovely word--thanks for introducing it to me) vs classic drama game has less to do with the type of game one plays than with the style one plays.

For example, I love to play narrative games like Fiasco. However, I don't go into them expecting to develop a plot arc for my character. To me the framework of the story we're setting up via group creation is the same thing as what a GM does when setting up a sandbox.

We're simply establishing the parameters of the story in a different way.

That approach may be unique when it comes to narrative game playing, but it's the one I like. It's the one I apply to more traditional games as well.

I don't know if that distinction makes any sense, or if it's even a distinction that needs to be made. For all I know it might simply be a "Well, duh!" type of comment.

Zak Sabbath said...


Dunno--it seems to me like Newies are always asking "have your tried this game?" "have you tried that game?" and I'm always thinking "Christ! Who has time to buy all these games plus teach their group a new one every week?"

The Secret DM said...

I think Zak's entire post can best be summed up by this quote by Zak:

"Christ! Who has time to buy all these games plus teach their group a new one every week?"

My sentiments exactly. I never thought D&D/roleplaying would be a justifiable reason for me to maintain a coke habit, but the number of games/systems out there is just astronomical nowadays.

Sometimes I long for the 80's. And not just to watch more Silver Hawks/Jem/Rainbow Brite -- but because the roleplaying market was a lot smaller, too.

And tube socks were amazing.

Mattias said...

Nice one.

And more monster paintings is what i want for x-mas.

Tedankhamen said...

Things to do in Montreal:

Go to Valet du coeur

Go to SKY: Big Time Fag Bar (if they're still extant - it's been a while since I hit la belle province)

Eat at Schwartzes if you're a meat eater. If you're a veggie killer, eat at Le Commensal.

Great explanation of post and plain structuralism. You should contribute to this:

Von said...


I don't know. The 'ie' ending makes it sound a bit diminutive and childish. I'm not sure what was wrong with 'New Schooler' and 'Old Schooler', at least there was an implicit equality of merit in those terms.


A thought that occurs about having One Game To Do It All: if there's something one/one's group just plum don't like about D&D, one's obliged to seek out some other game to take everywhere, do everything with &c.

If I'd gotten into D&D when I started roleplaying, I'd probably be asking of the other systems I came across: does it offer something substantially different in mechanics to D&D while having a similar level of potential?

Like, say, Savage Worlds, which has the similar breadth of potential but without the taxonomies of class and alignment and level that people sometimes object to; or even the newest iteration of the Storyteller system.

If decoupled from the World of Darkness or Exalted or magical Europe or whatever, what you have there is basically a roleplaying game that uses dice pools rather than single rolls and has a similarly broad potential, vis. what Harald does with it.

Having sort of drifted backwards into D&D after playing all this other stuff I'm inclined to see similar potential elsewhere, is what I'm saying. Whether that's remotely interesting or not I don't know, but I'm leaving the comment anyway so I can get the thought out of my head and maybe accomplish something else today.

Zak Sabbath said...


did 1,3, and 4, don't really see the appeal of 2

Parker D Hicks said...

Okay, so I'm going to be a "Newie" here and ask about a different game: have you looked at Burning Wheel at all? I ask only because it seems to straddle the line between the two fields you've set up here (which I think is an awesome construct). It's designed to be open and do a bunch of different kinds of stories within a broadly defined world that can be easily hacked, but uses player-defined flags to guide the story on a metagame level. Want to fight pirates? Write a Belief about "Killing the ancient Pirate King."

Also! Perhaps the thing about new games is tied into the thing about audiences of play? I know for the last several years, my play has been limited to public, random-participant settings like conventions, giving me the flexibility to try, learn, and teach different games. Now that I'm playing with specific sets of people more regularly, we tend to come together around one specific game and play it for a good while.

Zak Sabbath said...

Yes and yes.

Roger G-S said...

A lot of use are game designers so we'd like to design the perfect system that encapsulates how we play and what priorities we think there should be. But the DIY mentality says you can take a rule set that on the surface is about mindlessly hacking and looting and, with the right players and ref, work out complex practical, social and moral problems within it.

In fact, this is my experience with old school D&D. I am becoming more and more convinced that having explicit rules for things like social interaction or moral alignment kills the naturalism of playing it out human-to-human.

Peter D said...

"Christ! Who has time to buy all these games plus teach their group a new one every week?"

I didn't even have that much time when I was a kid, and every game that came out, every setting, was basically a new system. We played AD&D, Basic Set/Expert Set D&D, Top Secret, Gamma World, Judge Dredd, Gangbusters, Champions, Traveller, Marvel Super Heroes, Pirates & Plunder, Elfquest (yeah, sorry, but we did), Star Frontiers, GURPS (in its Man-to-Man days too), Rolemaster, and others I'm probably forgetting. I missed a bunch, too, I'm sure. So it's not like a plethora of systems, with a new system for every game, is a new concept. The idea of a single system for everything was a later idea, post-dating original D&D. It's interesting to see D&D get re-cast as a single system for everything since it wasn't sold to us that way when I got into the hobby as a kid. Not saying you can't use it that way, and it's clearly flexible based on how different OSR bloggers are using it, but Back In The Day everything came with a new system. I got into GURPS because I was damn tired of learning a new "to hit" roll and chargen system every time I changed tech levels or races or worlds.

How you want your system to work, though, does seem to be a divide - some people want a system tailored to a given game world or goal, some people want more of a toolbox or framework they can use with broader circumstances. I'm curious how many people cross over, though - they get a game system wedded tightly to a set of assumptions in the world and then bust out sideways from it and use it all over the place to do other things, and vice-versa.

Just thinking out loud here. I don't disagree with the post . . . just with nostalgia for the good ol' days when we had one system. :)

Peter D said...

@Zak: Sorry, not trying to put words in anyone's mouth. Just going off on a tangent from what TheSecretDM said earlier and my own memories of the hodgepodge of stuff we played.

Von said...

@Roger - yes. When I had a regular group coming together every week, it was World of Darkness all the way down. One system that we did a variety of more-or-less gonzo games with, and towards the end veering very much away from that 'you are a sexy supernatural but your conscience is going to smack you down' vibe that is arguably the game's Thing That It Wants You To Grok On Sight. And we used the formal systems, for anything, less and less. So I do think that the One Game To Do It All ethos works better when there's some sort of continuity.

thekelvingreen said...

I'm probably stating the obvious and it's a bit of a tangent, but that other discussion we've been having on G+ -- I don't know if you were involved, but your name was mentioned -- about amnesiac characters reeks of existentialism too. Certainly the idea of a character freed of class or even skill restrictions, who only becomes defined through play, strikes me as compatible.

Carry on...

James said...

"To existentialists, art and things like art are, at most, a means to an end (the end usually being encouraging folks to hang Mussolini from a meathook or understand the nature of freedom) or an expression of what people are like. To post-structuralists, art and things like art are much more important: as important as art is to conservatives and traditionalists--and for the same reason--art is a thing that influences your behavior whether or not you want it to."

For me, art is a vehicle to express, examine, play with, as well as manipulate, reorder and change my own ideas, mental constructs, feelings/beliefs.

Also, for experimenting with unused or new concepts and examining ideas expressed by others, as I comprehend or seek to apprehend them, which I may or may not have any intention of utilizing, beyond the level of imagination and fantasy, whether solitary or shared.

Exercises in ideation, of all sorts.

c.f. Dreaming and Day-Dreaming.

David Rollins said...

Framing the argument between Old School D&D types and the Newies in terms of philosophy helps it make a lot more sense. I don't think Sartre gives us what we need to get a grip on the whole thing, though.

Marshal McLuhan's theories show another side of the problem. (McLuhan was a Canadian Philosopher who developed the theory of media)

Basically McLuhan's idea was that method of consumption of media determines how a person sees him or herself in the world. Zak's explanation above got me thinking that this translates also to constructed worlds of RPG systems.

In a nutshell, McLuhan credits the printing press with the rise of the novel and the printed word as the most popular form of consumption of media for about 500 years. The novel, as an expression of the individual, influenced people to see themselves as individuals and relate to the world in terms of their own accomplishments. Until the novel, stories where shared in an oral culture and people defined themselves in terms of the group they were a part of.

With the coming of the electronic age (TV, internet, social networks etc) people have returned to a group identity and think of themselves in terms of the groups they are a part of again. This difference in relating to the world has created a huge gap between Generation X and Generation Y. Gen Xers made D&D and mostly started role playing in the 80s. Gen Y kids contributed to the WoD craze in the 90s and are probably responsible for all these new age, story-first games.

So in terms of McLuhan's idea. The rugged individuals of Gen X thrive in a system where they affect the game world through the choices they make as a player. The rules and system are less important. The game is what we make it.

The Newies prefer game systems where the group works together to create a story. Even if it's goal based like 4e, you are still using structured groups with roles that are defined in terms of the collective. For other Newies they want/expect the game system they are in to determine how they relate to the game and the way they play. They chose the group/game that creates the type of play they want to have. In this way, they are still using a group dynamic for relating to the imaginary world.

So the reason the Old School D&D people and the Newies don't relate to the kinds of RPGs each other play is that they don't even interact with reality in the same way.

That's kind of wild.

Lev said...

Fantastic article!

Not only do I want to reprint your article for an overdue RPG Review ( I also want to rewrite Sartre's "No Exit" as a D&D dungeon crawl.. Just imagine a party of four, of opposite alignments and backgrounds, of the classic classes, each of whom can't stand each other... Trapped for eternity with each other...

(nota bene: Your livejournal credentialing is broken; it adds an extra to user input)

Adam Thornton said...

This was awesome.

I don't have time to play all the games I have bought, not by a damn sight. But I have time to read, or at least skim, most of 'em. That's because I either am throwing money at people doing cool stuff now (_Fight On!_, LOTFP, Vornheim, etc.) or I pick up random crap from the couple-times-a-year game auctions my FLGS runs or I pick up random crap at the FLGS clearance sales.

I figure pretty much any book will have a dollar's worth of mineable ideas in it. The cool thing is, I never know, beforehand, what that dollar's worth is going to be.

I tried for a while to learn and teach new systems, and do do experimental Poison'd Dogs In Master's Wicked Age Roach Vineyard Over Jordan, but discovered the following things:

1) my gaming group doesn't give a wet fart about narrativism versus gamism versus simulationism.
2) No one wants to make the commitment to play a particular super-focused kind of game. Like being Mormons in the Old West, or being quick-witted mountebanks in The Dying Earth. Even Lovecraft was a huge stretch and usually devolved into Creature Feature Monster Movie sorta gaming.
3) If it's any sort of fantasy setting we're going to play D&D because everyone already knows how to play D&D
3a) Except we are playing a really minimalist D&D because everyone already knows how to play a subset of D&D and seriously, flanking rules? Attacks of Opportunity? Fucking grappling? Just roll a d20 and tell me what you got.
3b) And if it's not a fantasy setting, well, shit, we're probably still playing D&D because Gamma World or Boot Hill and your stats are 3d6 six times in order and you're rolling a d20 and want to roll high.


Anonymous said...

To avoid homework, I'll stick my two coppers in:

Zak's analogy (old school : new school :: existentialists : post-structuralists) is apt, but there are other reasons to read a whole bunch of other games:

1. Other games might have ideas or mechanics worth stealing.

1a. D&D's experience system encourages killing things and taking their stuff; maybe other games use another reward system.

2. D&D doesn't handle my favorite genre very well; what else is out there?

2a. There's this really cool published setting for some other rules; converting would be a pain.

3. D&D doesn't accurately capture medieval life and actual combat; it needs more rules.

4. I've got this weird-ass theme I want to explore; let me throw together some mechanics.

(I tried attaching art movements or philosophies, but they sucked.)

This list is roughly in order of my reasons (#2 was formerly #1). Collecting games and reading them for whatever does eat up time and money, and getting people to *play* them requires persuasive skills I apparently don't have. So I can see both sides of the debate to some extent ... although the really esoteric ones I have no use for. Some experiments should be taken outside in the middle of the night and quietly buried.

Zak Sabbath said...



Anonymous said...

You said "DIY D&Ders don't care what the rules or the artwork or the setting suggest, they care what can be done with them. Newies ask: take away the rules, artwork and setting and what's left?", and I want you to know that I totally 9000% agree with this, it is spot on in every way but one: You just described me, the 4th ed fan, as the DIY D&Der, and all of those OSR guys obsessed with the correct ideology displayed by art, what other peoples rules say, clerics-in or out? thieves, same deal.. Well, anyhow. I thought that was hugely insightful.

-Peter (not the same peter as in this thread)

Zak Sabbath said...


That is why I tried not to use the term "OSR", since the Old School Renaissance includes both Vinyl Fetishists (who like everything to be "right")(and who I understand so poorly I left them out of this entirely) and garage rockers (who like the simplicity of the old rules because they like to hack them).

So: if you're a rules hacker: congratulations, you're on my team.

Timothy Paul Schaefer said...

Would you say..?

Old School = Jazz ensemble. Bring whatever you can make a noise with. Jump in and let it flow. Can be born in the moment.

New School = Symphonic orchestra. Take your assigned seat. Stay in tempo and on the same page. Structured and rehearsed.

Both have the same goal to enjoy playing music together, but different expectations of the process.

trollock said...

I never experienced real old school, however as far as my experices with OSR go I think of it as "hipster shit" and this article is just another proof of that. It's just people being "sort of nostalgic" about somethinng they either don't remeber or (in more cases) can't even remeber. There might be some people somewhere who were playing continualy since the 70's, but I doubt they are part of OST or bother with reading OSR blogs. People mostly got into old school so they could feel superior to "newies" and "forgistas", while many "old schoolers" are actually ex-"forgistats" who jumped on the next hot thing when Forge became too mainstream.

And plese stop feeding me this bullshit that D&D is the only game you ever need. Can you play Star Trek game in D&D? NO YOU CAN'T!- case closed.

Adam Thornton said...


I've been playing D&D (not always well, and, yes, I was very young) since either 1979 or 1980, not sure which.

Continuously? No. I got embarrassed about RPGs when I discovered girls. Then I played GURPS in college, and fell back on AD&D in grad school because Everybody Already Knew How To Play.

You could totally do _Star Trek_ in Terminal Space, which is D&D the same way Gamma World or Boot Hill is D&D. 3d6 in order, try to roll high on this here d20.

trollock said...

@Adam Thornton

Why call it D&D when its just bare machanics? No classes, no spells, no monsters, not even gameplay and social dynamics, nothing that in my opinion makes D&D a D&D remains. D20 Modern ad D&D 3.5E use the same system, but are different games. You can't run Star Trek game in D&D because D&D lacks the rules for it and if you modifity, the changes would be so extensive it would no longer be D&D.

huth said...

Dunno--it seems to me like Newies are always asking "have your tried this game?" "have you tried that game?" and I'm always thinking "Christ! Who has time to buy all these games plus teach their group a new one every week?"

Nobody. Like most people who are talking about games on the internet, they're generally keen on the idea of GMing a game, and like all GMs, spend an amount of time thinking about games rather than actually playing them. So, instead of poking around for new random rumour generator tables, they poke around for new digest-sized pamphlets with character-motivation frameworks

huth said...

There should be the word 'inordinate' in there somewhere. Can someone insert that for me?

huth said...

Can you play Star Trek game in D&D? NO YOU CAN'T!- case closed.

Decipher's version was d20 with 2d6 and no BAB. I call for a mistrial.

huth said...

And then there's the d20 modern version of Prime Directive, which is either evidence for or against, depending on what you feel about Star Fleet Marines.

Adam Thornton said...


Nice tautology there.

I'm maintaining that all those games *are* D&D, precisely because if you know how to play D&D, you already know how to play them.

There have been interesting posts in the past about what the Irreducible Essence of D&D is. I'm pretty sure I'm at the minimalist end of the spectrum, in that it's not a whole lot more than: your character has attributes defining basic characteristics, which generally start in a range of 3-18, which range more or less defines normal human limits. Your character will get better at some stuff over the course of its lifetime, and that getting better happens in pretty large increments. Professions are mechanically important to your chance of success at various attempted actions. You use mostly a d20 for conflict resolution, and usually you want to roll high on it. There's a highly abstract mechanic for how much physical punishment something can absorb before it is incapacitated, and an equally abstract mechanic for how hard it is to cause something to take punishment in the first place.

If your concept of Irreducible D&D is "all that, and it's a kitchen-sink-mashup high-fantasy setting with Vancian fire-and-forget-magic," then I'll just shake my head and say, "OK, then your definition of D&D is narrower than mine, whatever."

On the other hand if you phrased it as "all that, plus, you idiot, it has *dungeons* and *dragons* in it!" then I'd come a lot closer to conceding the point.

I think what I want to call D&D has zero to do with setting, and everything to do with, uh, the platform. And WotC did a pretty good job of platformizing D&D with the d20 SRD, although that's still too genre-specific for me. But I think I *am* trying to make the case for it being, at its heart, a small set of core mechanics, around which you can build damn near any structure, which you can formalize pretty much as much or as little as you want. But as long as someone who knows how to play D&D can come along and say "oh, hey, I understand most of that character sheet; I know how to play this," it's still, in my opinion, D&D.

Zak Sabbath said...

@adam thornton

anyone who is named "trolloth", claims people play the games they play to "feel superior" to a bunch of folks they never heard of when they started playing that way, and uses quotation marks like that is obviously a lunatic and not someone worth talking to. Don't feed the troll.

trollock said...

@Adam Thornton

What you described there has nothinng to do with irreducible D&D. It can be described as irreduclible D20 System, however D20 System isn't the same thing as D&D as D&D itself is just application of D20 system.

Anonymous said...

I do purchase rule books quite a bit, although I have slowed down recently, because I read what they did and see if there is something that I can hack or draw inspiration from for my D&D/Fantasy games.

For my current game I am running I have taken shit from Pathfinder, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, this blog (and other ones), Crypts and Things (the beta), Vornheim, and Castles and Crusades. I have hacked what I liked and created something that I enjoy, but keeping with the normal feel of D&D. I haven't radically changed anything. Yeah I handle HP differently or whatever, but anyone one here could play it if familiar with any version of D&D.

What I've taken works well for how I run my games (allows me to experiment) but also is a unified mechanic. I really do get tired of games that have tons of rule=-sets with in the game to try and facilitate everything in a game. I'd rather rely on my own adaptability and arbitration.

Zak Sabbath said...


Back when you wrote:

"Of course the ‘emergent’ stories of dungeon crawls are going to seem more interesting and fun than, say, the moral loop-de-loops of My Life with Master or the austere character pieces in Mouse Guard; dungeon crawls are dead simple, and the stories are totally familiar.

They’re ‘boys playing in the woods’ stories, which appeal naturally to those prolonging their shared adolescence. They demand nothing.
Nearly every old-school campaign chronicle I read these days is like a heedlessly unironic Peter Pan story without the moral content, a geek-triumphalist Lord of the Flies narrated by Jack. (I can’t help thinking of these folks as Robin Williams in Hook, finding his inner child by throwing food and ‘never growing up.’) Even Maliszewski’s campaign recaps at Grognardia come off as children’s stories – there’s nothing to distinguish them from the slow-moving bits of Harry Potter, and if you assume that he knows it then it’s easy to see why he and his buddies obsessively return to the ‘but mass-produced juvenile midcentury sci-fantasy pulp is so daringly amoral…"

Anyone with any sense realized nothing you could ever say, ever, could possibly matter or be in any way sane.

You don't get to comment in this corner of the internet until you retake "Not being a braindead jackass 101" and present evidence of your attendance, signed by your instructor, to the head office.

Aaron said...

I really like both styles of game :) I love me some Apocalypse World, and Burning Wheel, and Mouse Guard, and Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and Pathfinder, and sometimes even the new 4e Gamma World, and I like them all for totally different things, at different times. I likes me "pop-existentialism" and "pop-deconstructionism", as you put it. All in all, I like gaming, and I hain't too concerned how I do it.

:D Love your blag, bee tee dubs!

Lev said...

The thread is getting a little long in the tooth, but the discussion is obviously still relevant (heck, post-structuralism and existentialism? That debate has been going on since I was born - and I graduated in philosophy almost twenty years ago).

Something that did come to mind is where does a game like HeroQuest (the rpg obviously, not the boardgame) fall into this?

In a sense HQ falls into the post-structuralist camp, will strong representations of the influence of the wider society, the narrative resolution method etc.

On the other hand it is very existential as well, these days pitching itself as a generic gamesystem and - I think this is very existential - the characters are quite openly and deliberately the heroes who will break the social norms of their day in order to deal with an existential threat.