Saturday, August 1, 2009

Old School vs. New School Game Design and What Separates RPGs from Other Entertainment Forms

The frickin dog woke me up so after gaming 14 hours yesterday, I only got four hours sleep as I prepare to game for 14 more hours today.

And for some reason, this is what I think of while stewing around the house. It was inspired by the comments of Grognardia. (I wish Maliszewski would lower the hammer on the retards that flood that place... there's a difference between "being open for debate," or even "allows dissent," and "letting people smear shit all over the walls.")

I was thinking about Robin's Laws of Good Gamemastering, video games, and how they relate to the RPG experience.

The thing about modern game design is that it seems to want to deliver a pre-packaged entertainment experience. "This is what the game is about, this is how we support that game experience we want to deliver." Targeted and neat and tidy.

But that isn't what role-playing games are about. That's what movies are about. That's what books are about. Plays. TV shows. Video games. The entertainment is made by other people and you experience it. RPGs shouldn't even be in conflict with these things, or try to emulate any of them, because it's a bottom-up experience, not a top-down.

In role-playing, as soon as you even ask, "What is this game about?" (on a system level; it's certainly valid on a scenario or perhaps even a campaign level) you've already failed.


  1. Man, I just posted a comment about this in that thread about exactly this.

  2. Hmm...I will have to (respectfully) disagree with you and chalk this one up to four hours of sleep. I think good RPGs ARE "about something" and seek to deliver a particular experience. Not as specific as a video game or another form of entertainment but still something (and for the record, I am NOT certain all art forms do try to deliver something specific...maybe a musical CONCERT hopes to deliver a jump up and down good time, but a musical ALBUM is a piece of artistic expression left open to the listeners interpretation).

    Examples (of course): My Life With Master. Dogs in the Vinyard. Sorcerer. 3:16. Grey Ranks. All of these games are ABOUT something (and pretty explicitly stated by their authors) and are designed to do something specific. And I believe they do an excellent job.

    D&D is also ABOUT something. One of the problems I have with the latest editions is that they are not "about" the same things the original editions were. I see retro-clones as an attempt to recreate the original ideas of the original designer through specific emulation of design.

    To be clear about what I mean:

    4th edition D&D is about "superheroic ass-kicking in the over-the-top fantastic way prevalent in modern video games." The system is designed to deliver that experience in a table-top format.

    Old school D&D is about "scurrilous rogues exploring unknown danger for possible reward and glory." It's a bit more nebulous (and certainly one's gaming group is going to put their own spin on how they get there), but it's still there. And I believe the system is designed to deliver that experience (and designed well).

    For me, the games that "fail" the hardest are those that simply try to emulate something withOUT being about something (say, GURPS). Now you may have a different opinion of that, much as we might have a different opinion of a particular packaged musical album. But there it is.

    Not trying to smear too much shit on your walls, man.
    ; )

  3. I'm in the process of having and internalizing this revelation myself. I got used to these campaigns that were tightly wrapped packages of dramatic excellence back in high school -- plot hooks for every character, worrying about "the arc," etc. -- and now I'm playing in Trollsmyth's crazy rambling Labyrinth Lord game, and man, it's like one life and game-style changing discovery after another with that thing.

    Mostly, I've realized that I'm really sick of that highly polished, highly engineered gaming style. It's a lot of work for limited payback for me as a DM, it's a recipe for boredom for me as a player. Trollsmyth's game risks ending anti-climatically -- there's always a possibility that the character I've spent half a year playing with all these goals and personality and stuff with get eaten by a troll -- but I'm okay with risking anti-climax for the freedom and the sense of reality that comes with it.

    And I'm starting to suspect that this style is, if not strictly incompatible with the "highly engineered" kind of gaming, then at the very least the opposite pole on a spectrum. The people who play D&D the way it was originally meant to be played are doing something that's fundamentally different from the styles that 4e and indie games and White Wolf promote. Not that it's impossible to run this style with those systems (probably tough, but not impossible) but it'd explain why those two groups tend to talk past each other a lot.

  4. I agree—and disagree with Mr. Raggi on this one. No way should an RPG be 'pre-packaged', with players railroaded into very specific plot lines or fore-gone conclusions. I've had GMs who have done this—with the result little more than them just 'reading' an adventure to the group and occasionally we made dice rolls. If that's the trend in modern gaming (which I'm not entirely sure it is) then I want no part of that.

    But as JB said, games should be 'about' something. Since my favorite game is Star Wars (d6) is is easy for me to say it is about 'heroic adventure in the star wars universe'. But even with open-ended games like D&D, I still consider it to be about something specific: either 'heroic adventure in a fantasy world' or JB's aforementioned 'scurrilous rogues exploring unknown danger.." Just because you're able to put a descriptor to it doesn't mean its generic.

  5. I'm not sure I understand what James is trying to say. I am sure that is related to four hours of sleep, since he is usually very understandable.

    If the idea is that a RPG should only be about being a game and not have a theme or a mechanic that supports a specific experience, i.e. what have been posted by others in this thread, then I also disagree. If that is related to four hours of sleep I don't know. I do think James will agree with us after some thinking about it or some more sleep. :)

  6. If the game has a predetermined aesthetic response (over-the-top adventure! or angst!) on the part of its audience, independent of the random interaction of dice and personalities, then it will necessarily be a niche game and one of limited iterability.

    A well designed game will not dictate to the players how it will be experienced. It just provides rules for how the game is played. GURPS has sold far more than any of the boutique games JB lists, for instance; it's hard to see how it has failed if those are to be considered successes.

    I think Raggi is right on the money with this post.

  7. I think it's generally just common sense to consider "what this game is about on a system level".

    What part of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS do people not understand when they complain about XP for treasure and the lack of rules for basket weaving?

    It says something when violence gets more rules not only than anything else but than all else combined. Afrika Korps is not about the Peace Corps, and most RPGs so far are not about peaceful solutions to problems. They are mostly inspired by "two-fisted tales" of frequently bloody adventure.

  8. I think your second paragraph and your third paragraph are in conflict.

    I think the fact that people often argue what D&D is about makes a case for it not really being about any one thing. Exploring? Combat? Running a dominion? Ascending to godhood? Killing things? Treasure hunting? Depending on your level and the exact version you use and your exact tastes, the answer is "Yes."

    The sad thing is, D&D could have been a truly universal/generic game if they followed up on their OD&D "Actually, the scope need not be restricted to the medieval; it can stretch from the prehistoric to the imagined future," line.

  9. Whether you are talking about a campaign or a set of rules, it's all about the scope of the thing as concieved by the designer.

    A modern game like My Life with Master, Kobolds Ate My Baby, or 4e is designed for a subset of very particular actions. If you look at a game called Pastry Chef: The Bakening, you can be pretty sure that its not really designed for carving out a star empire with laser-sword duels in the Horsehead Nebula. These games provides a very specific experience, and it may even provide it very well, but it doesn't really go much beyond that by itself.

    I think D&D partly has the split-personality it sometimes does because unlike tight, professionally designed games, it was designed from the start to be extensible by patchwork. Add more and more wacky rules for more and more wacky things, until you have a jumbled, Frankensteinian morass that covers nearly any scenario you'd care to play. *And that's not a bad thing!*

  10. I disagree with this post.

    First, minor, issue is that I don't think it is particularly fruitful to build walls between scenarios, campaigns and games (as in system plus maybe setting). All of them are subordinate to play. Play is what design is for. Good design helps good play (in some sense of good). Bad design fails to inspire play or makes it difficult. Designing systems, adventures and campaigns are fundamentally similar activities.

    Second, not quite as minor, point is that all roleplaying games, no matter how tidy the design, demand active participation to really work. The games simply demand the participation at different places, in different ways. In context of tabletop roleplaying, pre-packaged entertainment simply does not happen.