Friday, September 15, 2017

Old-School Heresies

I don't think druids and bards are lame at all.

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So I'm fine with druids and bards, yeah? But you know what I do think is kinda lame, though? Greyhawk. I've never been able to find anything really, truly interesting about it, and worse yet when I ask fans what is interesting about it they can never seem to articulate a reason. Sometimes I get a list of Proper Names as the reasons why it's a cool game setting, but when I press them on what's neat about those things I get back "Oh, those guys are an evil order of assassins." O...kay.

I've also noticed that Greyhawk fans also don't seem to even agree about the basic feel of the setting. I've had people swear up and down that Greyhawk is the epitome of D&D sword & sorcery...but then someone else will pop into the thread and tell me that it is D&D's best medieval society simulator...which the cover image above does do a lot to support, but come on, which is it?

I even think the names in Greyhawk tend toward the embarrassing. Fuckin' Wee-Jas, you know?

It turns out, for the record, that the official D&D settings I tend to like are the ones least rooted in traditional fantasy:

  1. Ravenloft
  2. Planescape
  3. Dark Sun
  4. Eberron
  5. Dragonlance

Yes, that's right, I think Krynn is way more interesting than both Oerth and Faerun. Don't @ me.

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Arguments about character skill versus player skill often seem silly to me because the "old-school tactics" held up as examples of player skill seem more like ritualistic behavior than inventive strategy. Maybe the first time lard and marbles were used to make a hallway tough to traverse was a novel event, but by the twentieth time you've seen that particular deployment of "player skill" it's just going through the expected motions. It's a lot like making the same fucking Monty Python jokes every game.

I also suspect that there is a certain type of old-school game master who prefers light, stripped-down rules just because it limits the stuff that characters get as they level up. Some people have a weird "But what if they get abilities that interfere with the adventure I wrote?" or "What if they break my precious dungeon?" or "What if they have fun I have not personally sanctioned?" vibe about them. If you're overly worried about the other players having too much fun, I admit I don't really understand your orientation toward gaming as a hobby.

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I honestly think this is the least appealing cover I can remember seeing on a game book. Yeah, there are probably some worse ones made with poser art that date back to the d20 glut, but that stuff is like doesn't stick in mind at all and once seen it is quickly forgotten. I feel bad saying that this is unappealing because someone obviously sank time and effort into making it, but, man, I just do not like that image. 

Chubsley the Cleric, those Escher Lite stairs, that masked elf no no. I do sort of appreciate the "someone touched my bottom" look on the dwarf's face, but even that can't save this one for me.

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Anyone who says that old-school D&D isn't concerned with balance is lying--if only to themselves. Old-school D&D is obsessed with balance; you can tell because it uses a ton of different ways to try to achieve balance between character classes: mechanical differentiation (this class gets a d10 hit die, this one gets a d4), advancement rate (this class needs less XP to level up because it's weak but you'll get more hit points quicker), mechanical restrictions for gear (this class can wear plate mail, this class can't), roleplay limitations (paladins get tons of powers but they are constrained by these moral restrictions or they get punished), etc.

So it isn't that older editions of D&D aren't concerned with balance, it's just that they're pretty kludgy in the way they go about the business of a balancing the game. 

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When a game reviewer associates themselves with a particular community or small niche within the gaming world, I find that I can't trust their perspective. The politics of minor difference and tribal thinking creep into everything. 

But then you realize that the "luminaries" in any small niche of the hobby will have an impassioned defense mounted for them no matter what they say or do, so it becomes harder and harder to even sympathize with the kind of sadness that lets these cults of personality flourish in the first place. People, by and large, seem to crave the intersection between authority and validation in a way that makes me deeply uncomfortable.

Related: I don't trust any manifesto or primer about "how games were played back in the day" written by someone with books to sell. As a wise man pointed out to me, the "old-school" way of playing games presumes a way of playing that has probably never held a majority stake in the hobby anyway. 

Similarly, I think there is a certain type of gamer who makes a show of trying games from outside their "camp" only to crap on them performatively. "We gave it a shot, we played their game, and look how bad it was!" is such an obviously disingenuous move.

* * *

I think Gary Gygax got lucky when he captured lightning in a bottle with the creation of D&D rather than it being the results of skillful game design. None of the games he did after are noteworthy, and there's a lot of badly explained concepts in OD&D and a megaton of cruft in AD&D. 

Bonus outrage fuel: I think the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide is a disjointed mess of boring random tables, poor advice that might make your games worse if followed, and amateurish writing.

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Attempts to make 5e D&D "old-school" almost always seem misguided to me, especially since actual old-school versions of D&D have never been more available. Sometimes it feels like people need a game to be tagged as explicitly "old-school" in order to feel like they have permission to enjoy it.

Also, repackaging the free basic rules for 5e as "old-school" and asking money for them is the opposite of a sound old-school ethos, just sayin'.

But when someone writes the history, that will be the shape of the narrative: when people smelled blood in the water after a couple successful Kickstarters made bank, something was lost in the old-school gaming community in the transition from homo reciprocans to homo economicus at the drop of a few stray coins. History repeats itself, I suppose; consider the Jekyll to Hyde transformation from the Gary of OD&D ("Don't let us to the imagining for you!") to the Gary of AD&D ("You must buy official AD&D products to really be playing the game.")

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I truly believe that some of the best advice on how to run a D&D game is found in books that don't say D&D on the cover. Check out the stuff on fronts in Dungeon World, the advice on failure on Fate Core, the general principles outlined in Apocalypse World (first edition, haven't read the new one) and Blades in the Dark.

Note: I'm not saying that these newer games invented better ways to play. I am saying that they offer clearer explanations of good practices that people have been doing since the beginning of the hobby than we have had in any edition of D&D.

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Many dungeon-based adventures, hexcrawls, and "sandboxes" strike me as railroads in the sense that none of the options presented in them ("Do we go left or right at the intersection of these fairly featureless corridors?") represent meaningful choices for the players to make.

Funny thing about actual sandbox wargames: they weren't completely open "you can go anywhere" scenarios. A sandbox has hard limits because it has walls to keep the sand in the box. There's a good metaphor in there if you want to find it.

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Yeah, I don't think wands look silly either.