Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

That Rule Ain't Old-School! (Not!)

Nothing too big, folks.  Yours truly is sleeping off a weekend at KantCon, where we play tested an upcoming adventure for Diceless Dungeons.  We had a great table with a fantastic group who creatively overcame terrible challenges and made me work for it, and Robyn joined the fun as an exiled noblewoman tasked with defending these reluctant heroes (they were all criminal, you see).  The Realm was saved and fun was had by all.

But now we're back, and I'm ready to tackle that old debate about what makes an OSR game, not by arguing its definition (I've already made it clear where I stand), but by discussing something I think doesn't make a good basis for one.  Namely, specific game play mechanics!  Now, I bring this up because a few weeks ago, someone argued against a certain game (as belonging to the OSR) because it employed dice pools.  I mean, c'mon people!  Dice pools are a modern idea, right?  New-school nonsense...

Wrong!  Dice pools go back to Tunnels & Trolls from 1975, making them old-school.

The court finds Ghostbusters
"Not Guilty" of being the first dice pool system to hit the 

streets (and the shelves).  It just wasn't...

Which brings up an important fact.  OD&D may have been the first commercially available game.  But rival systems began springing up almost immediately in its wake.  Moreover, the mechanical diversity of these early games was truly immense.  Kind of like the Cambrian explosion.  So here's a list of RPGs, each one released within five years of OD&D, and the innovations they wrought (and before their so-called time, might I add)...

Bunnies & Burrows (1976) - Likely the first skill-based RPG (a break from class)
Chivalry & Sorcery (1977) - Employed phobias (flaws) that would feature in later D&D
RuneQuest (1978) - An early percentile and roll under system.  Also, classless magic use
Superhero: 2044 (1977) - Divided points between ability scores instead of rolling dice
Traveller (1977) - Introduced life paths vs. class, but also employed target numbers
Tunnels & Trolls (1975) - Resolved combat by means of the aforementioned dice pools  
Villains and Vigilantes (1977) - Had pulled punches and other complex combat feats  

The fact is, there were many creative people ready to pounce on this new idea and build upon it with smart innovations.  And thus, we have dice pools almost from the start and shouldn't appropriate them for "modern" gaming exclusively, however intuitive that thought might seem.  Oh, and it does make the methodological OSR seem appealing...

Flaws seem pretty new-school,
but Chivalry & Sorcery had them (phobias) well
ahead of modern D&D.  Just sayin'...

I mean, if every mechanical approach was there right from the beginning, the only way to designate "old-school" in any meaningful way is to focus on specific systems (D&D) and the retro-cloning of the same.  Or old-school approaches to game design.

And I do accept that a methodological core exists.  But its boundaries aren't fixed.  The core has an outer periphery that overlaps the greater hobby; an overlap made up of hallmark approaches and assumptions that may or may not be shared by later systems, but that were still there from the start.  Approaches that have been abandoned by some new schools of thought.  I've already covered this.  But I'll say again that games that deliberately take up an old-school approach deserve a place in the OSR or in some adjacent category.  

But if there's nothing new under the sun, then what ideas are new-school?  I'd say three things at least, although I'm sure I'm also wrong about some of them:

(1) Consolidated mechanics (something D&D and its early peers weren't guilty of), 

(2) A tendency to automate social interactions and/or problem solving, and... 

(3) Breaking down the traditional division of labor between players and the referee and, in general, a greater tendency to approach the rules (and not the referee) as a final authority while making everyone co-equal partners within an emerging gameplay narrative.

At any rate, what's new is old, because innovation abounded in the early gaming scene, which saw a major creative explosion within its first ten years that isn't over by a long shot! 

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Methodological OSR?

So there's this ongoing discussion (and one fairly recently) about the OSR (Old-School Renaissance) and what it means or should mean, or whatever.  And sometimes, it devolves into horrifying exchanges by people who I can only assume labor under the delusion that gaming, however fun, is, well, important.  That is, important enough to brutally attack anyone over.  Watching mutual friends fight (not debate, that's another matter) over something as trivial as games where we pretend to be elves is sad at best.  Usually, it happens when someone insults someone else, and it quickly ceases being about the hobby and more about the fight, which is inevitable.  And sadly, I've gotten pulled in myself. 

This is troubling because I'd really like to see everyone on good terms.  And because our hobby should unite people.  That said, I'm feeling a bit self-destructive this week and think I'll weigh in.  This is just my opinion, and if yours differs, that's cool.  I'm not one for labeling those who disagree (or game) differently from me with distasteful epithets unless they map to dreadful behavior outside of gaming.  It's just food for thought and debate...

OK, so the Urban Dictionary defines old-school as:

"Anything that is from an earlier era and looked upon with high regard or respect."

Of course, that's painting in pretty broad strokes.  But in tabletop role-playing, it means the earliest state of the hobby and the games as they were played back in the day.  So yes, OD&D is old-school because it was the first commercially available role-playing game.  It's all a matter of timing, and if Shadowrun were (somehow) the first published system, we'd be calling that old-school.  That's not the way it happened, and we can't ignore our history.  But I point this out because it shows just how subjective "system-as-old-school" can be.

This matters a lot because the OSR began as a "D&D Preservation Society" committed to resurrecting older editions of that venerable game through retro-clones.  Later, this expanded to other early systems, be it RuneQuest, Traveler or whatever.  This is fine; moreover, I don't wish to denigrate any of these fine products (we've had quite a bit of fun with some of them, and that speaks for itself).  But there are some who want to say that these early games define the boundaries and parameters of the OSR, which I'm not so sure about.

Although we disagree with their
more fanatical voices, the gatekeepers do
have a point when taken in context...

To these gatekeepers, the OSR means retro-clones of early games, like White Box, or variations, be it Lamentations of the Flame Princess, White Star, or whatever.  And there's something to this, actually.  Back in the day, D&D was the common language, and each campaign, with their innumerable house-rules, was a regional dialect.  Sure, it's sometimes hard to hear through a thick southern drawl.  But once you get the hang of it, you realize everyone is still speaking English.  So yeah, this element really preserves something of the old-school environment and much of what I personally remember from 1978.     

Call it the methodological OSR.  And yeah, this rightly matters because, as at least one gatekeeper put it, you can't just stamp "OSR" and anything and pass it off.  Sure, I'll concede the point.  I mean, the OSR has to stand for something, am I right?

But then, are specific systems the only thing about the hobby that can be old-school?  What about the assumptions, approach to subject matter, and design philosophy of the early games.  Can't they also be considered old-school?  Especially since they can change (and obviously have).  I mean, 4th Edition D&D isn't an OSR game.  But why not?

Now, some have balked at these things as irrelevant.  For instance, the division of labor between the GM and the players was there from the start.  Technically, it's old-school.  But we're still doing this today and in contemporary games.  Even so, this fact is pretty much inevitable.  Homo erectus was an old-school human, but their genes live on in homo sapiens because it's an evolutionary process.  And I shouldn't have to point out that many newer systems (story games, in particular) are veering hard from this model.

Call it the philosophical OSR.  The idea that old-school can also be about the overall approach to design even in an otherwise original system.  And moreover, the idea that this can still inform a potential buyer and steer them towards systems they'll like...

If you lived in the 60s/70s, this
was the popular depiction of elves, and
Tolkien's original artwork readily
invoked these old-world conceptions...

Our hobby developed organically from Braunstein and Blackmoor.  These were games people actually played and developed from the ground up.  And this fact, alone, necessarily implies certain (perhaps inevitable) qualities, including the following...  

(1) The rules were just a guide for the referee to build their own campaign.

(2) Greater emphasis was placed on personal decision-making and problem solving, and conscious effort was made not to automate these processes with spot checks (or whatever) whenever possible.  These were games of strategy, after all.

(3) The referee had the final say because their job was to create a believable world, and this meant putting many things beyond the players.  And if the players hoped to change things, they had to do it through their characters and the choices they made by proxy.

(4) Things were approached from the perspective(s) of those living at the time.  Believe me, four decades of role-playing has given rise to many abiding conventions; among them, the idea that dwarves are miniature Vikings with a Scottish accent.  But back then, dwarves were more often based on the stuff of 19th century fairy tales.  You know, impish little people with colorful cloaks.  Look at the elf on page 32 of OD&D's Men & Magic booklet or the various depictions in TSR's Swords & Spells.  It was all tasseled hats and curly-toed shoes because back then, that's the antiquated lens we saw demi-humans through.

(5) And finally, production was amateur and primitive because that's all one could do.  But it nonetheless paid big dividends.  It felt accessible, like a peer-to-peer exercise.

But what if you grew up in the 70s and want to design games in that mold?  Games that might have been published back then.  Original mechanics derived from bona fide wargaming approaches of the time.  Games that emphasize decision-making and problem solving over the mechanical resolution of things that ought to be left to the players.  Games that approach their subject matter from the head of a 70s-occupant.  Oh, and rulebooks that deliberately emulate "amateur" design and production to top off the illusion.  Games that do #1-5, above, because they represent an intentional (and legitimate) design strategy...   

Would this be old-school?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  But if so, it belongs in the OSR!

Now obviously, quite a few modern games embrace at least some of the above and do so deliberately.  And, not surprisingly, many appeal to fans of the OSR.  So let's turn the hat over, shall we, because if you're a game publisher who does this by design, you'd be out of your ever-lovin' mind not to reach out to the OSR community.  After all, its devotees are more likely to appreciate your approach.  Oh, and buy and play your games!  That said, if you're designing specifically to appeal to these sensibilities, you belong to a wing of the OSR, even if it's just its philosophical wing.  But then, our foundational principles matter.

So is the OSR a methodological or philosophical thing?  In the end, I'd argue that it's both!

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A Barons of Braunstein Update!

Today we've released an updated and expanded Barons of Braunstein, adding two new appendices to round out the game, especially in the realms of combat and historical magic, because each of these was central to the medieval mindset... 

So first off, the new and improved Appendix II (Tactical Combat) offers alternate rules for greater lethality reminiscent of what we attempted in Opherian Scrolls, but also a table of situational modifiers tied to specific weapons when wielded in certain ways.  Now combat is faster and more deadly.  But only when the characters (and their enemies) can position themselves for maximum advantage and stay alert.  Thus, individual weapons matter more and without sacrificing the game's trademark simplicity and ease of play.

Next, Appendix III: Diving Spirits, introduces period-specific divination, whether reading entrails or casting runes.  And even Christian characters might receive visions in the mystic tradition.  Now this is a historical game, so every effort has been made to ensure that this can be interpreted as mere coincidence (much as it doubtless was in the real world) or taken as the real thing.  And if true sorcery and witchcraft are allowed, the new appendix goes into greater detail about culture-specific spirits and the limits of their knowledge when questioned, whether talking to the dead, foul demons, or immortal faerie spirits.

The expansion adds simple rules
to make combat faster, more lethal, and better
tied to the weapon(s) used...  

So there's history.  And magic.  And now there's historical magic; and here, the judge is encouraged to hit the books and build the sort of chronicle they want in the best game setting imaginable.  Real history in the real world of flesh-and-blood toil and intrigue. 

Now, we'd thought about adding a bestiary because, after all, these were considered scholarly truth back in the day.  But every time we tried, it ended up feeling like a fantasy game, and we've already published three pure fantasy-themed RPGs.  So a passing mention of magic and witchcraft?  Sure.  It's always possible that all the magic, faith, and appeals were little more than coincidence.  But even full-on sorcery is limited and understated, putting real history front and center.  And if you really want monsters, the gameplay mechanic is roughly compatible with Blood of Pangea, and we could totally see taking its monsters for a Game of Thrones-styled setting with ease!  In fact, some are already doing so...

After playtesting and putting it all together, Barons now feels complete, although we do plan on releasing a special hardcover edition complete with additional resources for discerning collectors wanting something special for their bookshelves (and their tables).

This is an update, so if you've already bought it, this is a FREE expansion to your OBS library.  But if you're new to all this, it's a great way to spend your $2.49.  Barons of Braunstein is Licensed by David Wesely, creator of the original Braunstein game and one of the founding fathers of the role-playing hobby.  So if history's your bag, check it out here...