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.