Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Somewhat Awkward Attempt at Explaining My Take on the Old School Approach to Tabletop RPGs

What follows is part of an emailed response to an inquiry about whether old school player would actually use the Dungeon Funk Table in actual play. Of course, I said we would, and here is my attempt to explain why. After I emailed it, I thought it might make for good comment fodder.

So, here it is:

Old school gameplay works only if all involved understand that we are in a session/campaign that will pose challenges that require non-mathematical thinking and problem solving, not just min/maxing numbers on a character sheet to try to "win" combats/encounters. That is "new school" playing—playing which attempts to defend the character sheet against DM-inflicted change at all costs.

Very simply, First Person Shooters and Computer Role Playing Games have changed what players expect from pen-and-paper RPGs. In a CRPG or FPS, the focus of the game is the Character—we are asked to assume a role of a Character, to take on an avatar, and become immersed in the game world in order to connect emotionally with the game narrative. We become more personally invested in the game because we start to care about the role we have assumed in the game world as the Character. Gamers entering the post-1990 gaming landscape now expect that their first priority is to monitor character stats to avoid character death so that they can "win" the game. Or, in a MMORPG like WoW, they expect to shepherd their character through a life-cycle to become as powerful as possible in the game world. The thrill of the game is an increase in the character's power, and we ourselves feel powerful when our in-game character prevails and becomes more powerful.

But what if we view PCs as Icons instead of Characters? Icons have no backstory—think of the playing pieces in Monopoly. No one creates a backstory about how the race car is a retired Gran Prix winner, or develops a complicated story of the breeding lines for their little silver doggy. We merely sit down, pick a piece, and play the game--the icons represent us, the players. Parcheesi, Sorry, Candy Land, Settlers of Catan, Chess—we don't get too emotionally invested with the game pieces because we don't make an emotional connection with the pieces.

The trick to playing old-school style is to think of your PC as an Icon rather than a Character. Disconnect the emotional attachment and investment in the character sheet, and you open up more avenues for gameplay, and you become more willing to take risks. That's why some old school players find minis so important to gameplay—they remind us that we are not our characters, that the game is about strategy in the face of obstacles.

The conflict, of course, is that tabletop RPGs are designed to make us care about our PCs as more than Icons to help us immerse ourselves in the escapist fantasty of the game world. That's why we play them in the first place—to have fun and escape the humdrum of our lives. We could have the same escapism through reading a book, but RPGs invite us to take part in the fictional realms of the imagination. But why should I be so emotionally invested in a character in a game I play only once a month for four or five hours, if that? The psychological connection and emotional release in a tabletop RPG isn't as immediate as in a FPS or CRPG.

So, there are different ways to have fun, to enjoy the escapism that games like tabletop RPGs offer. The goal of old school play is to enjoy the game as a series of challenges and puzzles (both traditional puzzles and the socio-political puzzles of the game world), not to make our character the most badass character possible.

That's not to say that making your character the most badass character possible is a bad thing. It's just a different goal, and a different style of gameplay, one more suited to the world of video games but that 4e style play attempts to emulate quite well.


Anonymous said...

I agree that from 3e onwards the focus of the game changed and levelling up became a major part of the game. I do think however that old school gamers can become just as attached to their characters as new school gamers.

The way I see it is that in old school gaming you create a character in order to have adventures, but in new school gaming you have adventures to create a character. The change of focus makes for a very different style of game.

Lord Gwydion said...

I see it a bit differently than you, Dave.

New school players, IME, create a character and then adventure to fulfill the potential of that character (the 20-level build plotted out from level 1, as well as the intricate backstory of slaughtered siblings and revenge and all that).

I agree with you about Old school players, though. They make PCs and adventure in order to turn that icon into a character.

Anonymous said...

I guess what I am saying LG is that in old school games character creation is mostly something you do at the start of the game and that's that, apart from a few tweaks to the character sheet every several levels.

In the newer games character creation is a big part of the game itself and carries on throughout. You could almost say it's a game within a game. Players look forward to levelling up, planning what skills and feats they are going to add in order to achiever greater and greater levels of complexity to their character as it rises in power.

So in comparison: Old school D&D character creation is a part of the prep of the game, but not so much the game itself. Whereas in WotC D&D character creation is not only an ongoing process (rather than just prep), but a large part of the whole fun of the game.

And of course one is not "better" or more "right" than the other, it's just a matter of personal preference.

Lord Gwydion said...

So we're more or less saying the same thing, just looking at it from different angles, then. :D

Anonymous said...

So we're more or less saying the same thing, just looking at it from different angles, then. :D

Yeah, I reckon. :-)

Anonymous said...

' in old school gaming you create a character in order to have adventures, but in new school gaming you have adventures to create a character. '

In most of my groups, people get pretty darn thespian about the whole thing. They chew the scenery. They don't just want to be the dwarf with a Scottish accent, they want to be the dwarfiest, most Scottish thing on stage. Likewise, they don't just want to be a pretty elf, they want to be the most ethereal, waiflike elf this side of Tir-nan-Nog. They want to make Galadriel feel like she's getting fat.

It's not so much that they hate dying - they hate the feeling that the show sucks. Striking an inappropriate note often gets their goats, not because they are sub-optimal, but because they feel it's been switched from Midsummer Night's Dream to Equus without giving them a chance to get in character. My players tend to play because it gives them another stage on which they can display their theatrical stylings.

My own gaming style tends to be less theatrical than that of my typical players. I try to be more of a cerebral strategist. But I fear that play style lacks the daring sort of Fafhrd and Grey Mouser spirit that D&D is suppose to evoke.

Matthew W. Schmeer said...

Good points, all.

I never got too attached to my characters--I have always been a "charge the room" type of player. If my character dies, it's easy enough to roll up a new character and keep playing.

In con games, though, I tend to be more careful.

I never got into the whole "assume the character's voice" aspect of role-playing. It's fun to do, but I find it hard to keep up the role for more than 15 minutes before I start looking at the game from a more strategic position. Many players at the tables I've played at have enjoyed speaking the parts, while others, like myself, prefer to play less theatrically.

I tend to see two ways that player approach characters: those who role-play and those who roll-play. (I've also run into a third kind--the rules gamer who is interested purely in the mechanics of the game, which 4e tends to encourage).

So what's the difference between the these two approaches?

Point of View. It's all wrapped up in how we see ourselves participating in the game narrative.

Role playing = speaking in 1st person--"I charge the room and plunge my sword into the gnoll, screaming 'DIEEEEEEE FOUL BEASTIE!' as I twist my blade in its gut."

Roll playing = speaking in 3rd person--"Gwain charges into the room and plunges his sword in the gnoll's guts as he screams 'DIEEEEE FOUL BEASTIE!" as he twists his blade around in the gnoll's innards."

If you are the first kind of player, it's easy to slide into LARPing, as you are pretty much LARPing while sitting at the table anyway. This sort of role playing IS more theatrical, and can quickly slide into the uncomfortable and weird when players begin to act out scenes and situations that we would not consider actually undertaking outside of the game (i.e. "in the real world"). This discomfort towards acting out in-game things that are socially taboo out-of-game points out the psychological dissonance that occurs when we invest ourselves in a game character; it becomes harder to separate ourselves from our roles. It is similar to Method Acting. When you literarily attempt BECOME the character you are hired to portray, it's harder to retain a sense of your OWN psychological schema.

Regardless of which type of player you are, you have to acknowledge the difference between your character's knowledge of the game world and your knowledge of the game world, and attempt to limit your character's actions and reactions so that they are logically consistent with what the character knows.

I find this easier to do when I "roll" play. I find it easier to make strategic decisions based on all the knowledge of what is going on at the table, but then only allow my character to interact in a way that is consistent with what the character might know. At the same time, I'm paying attention to the game mechanics--what I should roll and when, which opponent my character should attack first to best help the party, which spell might be the best spell against that enemy, etc. But I'm NOT worried about whether or not my character is going to survive, as that is up to the dice. I'm more interested in solving the challenges that have been placed before me by the DM.

Most of the groups I've played in have achieved a happy medium between both types of players. Some of the funniest moments have happened with players who prefer theatrical play, and it does liven up the game a bit.

If we get too emotionally attached to a character, then we risk disconnecting from the fact that it’s a game. If we come to the game with a bit of detachment to the character, however, then we are more willing to explore the possibilities of what the game can be.