OSR play, the draw - a concise formulation

edited May 2018 in Story Games
I came across this short article. It's very brief and to the point, but it cuts very nicely to the appeals of OSR-style gaming, in my opinion. If you're interested in what kind of fun you can get in this style of play, this is a great, short summary.

http://outforblood1.blogspot.ca/2012/04/my-trinity-of-old-school-gaming-part-4.html

The earlier parts are also interesting, but parts 3 and 4 are the more crucial bits, in my opinion.
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Comments

  • Interesting that what was the draw for me isn't there, and what's there are things that don't feature heavily in my game. And it also makes me see more clearly why my friend, who plays 5e with me and who I play B/X with, always says that 5e isn't an OSR game. (And I never insist that it is, I only say that it's my favorite system for running OSR modules.)

    For me the main draw is obv the mirror story. Am I super into the high mortality rate too? Yeah. But the degree of randomness in our 5e character generation is pretty low. We do AD&D 1e style (4d6-drop-the-lowest-arrange-in-order) which means that you can pretty much get what class you want.
  • 2097 said:


    For me the main draw is obv the mirror story.

    It's interesting that the author didn't write about this particular feature. My guess is that they don't see it as exclusive to this style of play, but who am I to know?

  • Right, generally the entire prep/agency angle is absent from that post, not just the "tangibility" aspect of that angle.
  • What is the "mirror story"?
  • I was a player. The ruleset was Lab Lord AEC.

    We were exploring a dungeon and came across a sealed room that was hard to get into. Inside was a covered object. We felt underneat but didn’t look and it felt like glass. We thought this is probably a super dangerous magic mirror that will zap everyone that looks into it. Like, we didn’t really have much to go on, except the fact that it was covered and that the room was sealed (I don’t remember fully but I think we had to saw through some bars to get there). It could just as easily have been some sort of scrying glass.

    We tied it to our cart and waaaay later, on our way home, we were attacked by some sort of toad like creatures. We revealed the mirror to them — for it was a mirror — and one of them dissappeared in a pop like a soap bubble bursting, and the mirror cracked from side to side. SO AWESOME.

    The tension of us caaaarefully trying to examine that glass surface standing under heavy velvet and then the payoff of our care and decisions was something that profoundly shook me. It felt so real.

    At this time, as a game master, I was running games in a very improvisational style. I would’ve come up with the velvet covered object without holding to any idea of what was under there. As they felt there, I would’ve come up with it being a glassy surface that they felt. As I heard them speculate that it was a mirror, and heard them being afraid of it having magical or dangerous properties, I would add (or contradict) such properties with the purpose of creating the most tension/payoff/arcs etc. ← This has been one of the biggest straw misunderstandings when discussing my mirror story experience here on S-G — the naysayers have sometimes said that they would’ve committed to the mirror’s properties as the characters entered the room. Sure, that’s great. But at the time I was more improvisational than that, I was going second by second, not room by room.

    I asked the DM if he had made that mirror up on the spot but he said that it was from the module. And years later I bought the same module, looked it up and yes, there it was.

    The amount of agency and presence and tangibility I felt in that moment, I had never felt before. I’ve felt it many times since because I now play in this sort of game as much as I can and aim for it when running. That’s why I play OSR.

    The merits of the “improvising the mirror’s properties” style and of the “committed to the mirror’s properties” style for various group’s expectations have been brought up in this thread: Four mirror scenarios and two groups - Story Games

    When I started learning about roleplaying games I was seeing three styles. Railroading a story didn’t appeal to me and everytime I tried it it obviously chafed and broke down. Building the entire world seemed completely impossible. So what was left was improvising, which I learned to do. I was improvising in a way that didn’t really build on the other people’s contributions, I was into rules-light games where I could determine the consequences of any action on my own to steer what was going on. I.e. zero agency. I then after a decade of this started kicking around with story games, Fiasco etc.

    But with the OSR came for me practical methods of prepping a world, or at least enough of a playground to do some cool things in. (Basically map + key + encounter table + improvise the rest — improvisation to add color to the prep, not replace the prep.) I had read hundreds of games but I had never read B/X or BECMI or any pre 3e D&D game until the OSR happened. Dark Dungeons was the first game I read but actually playing a couple of games was what led to this mirror story Damascus-road-moment. One game of B4 using BECMI that was an awesome session, a lot of actual tangibility there too, and then the next session was another module and we were using LL-AEC and the mirror story happened and it blew my mind.

  • edited May 2018
    Heh! Thanks for the shout-out, Paul. The blog is long defunct, but the campaign I started at the time is still going strong and has been true to my blog's motto "Out for Blood".

    (There’s a campaign log at inforblood1.blogspot.de but it’s in German.)

    I suspect that Sarah and I may be after the same thing: a game of consequences, where the players' choices and luck really matter (and not just as fodder for - or, more positively, contributions to - the GM's improvisation).

    However, I remain somewhat obsessed with character death because to me, it proves (to me, to my players) that we are playing a game of consequences.

    It's all well and good if the players' clever plan leads to great success … but that could theoretically be orchestrated by the GM (i.e. H => D, in the case of the mirror example).

    When bad things happen – i.e. things which suck for the participants, which are not enjoyable at the table --, that's when everyone knows the risks are real. And to me that’s part and parcel of the OSR style (just like playing volleyball: I don’t like botching a crucial serve-receive and my team losing, but without theses failures there’d be no game).

    I know no substitute for the death of characters in the context of D&D.

    After decades of illusionist play I work hard to build and maintain a legitimate OSR style game (or “killer DM” game, if you prefer and OSR means different things to you), and its legitimacy is affirmed by blood and more blood:

    The campaign is approaching 100 sessions and has seen scores of PC deaths. Still, I felt that its legitimacy was deepened when (1) a bunch of beloved high-level characters died last year and (2) when we had our second TPK (at mid-levels, the first one was a DCC level 0 funnel and hardly counts) only a few weeks ago.

    (Now we need a "TPK due to an atrociously overpowered random wilderness encounter". Not "Rocks fall, everyone dies.", but close. Fortunately, AD&D's random encounter tables seem eager to oblige. Sea-travel is especially promising. A kraken or ghost ship should do the trick.)
  • Well said. My feelings about character death are very similar. Because you're always winning in D&D as long as you're alive, it is necessary for death to exist for there to be an actual loss condition. Without that it's just a pastime, not a challenge with measurable results.
  • edited May 2018
    Johann said:

    I suspect that Sarah and I may be after the same thing: a game of consequences, where the players’ choices and luck really matter (and not just as fodder for - or, more positively, contributions to - the GM’s improvisation).

    However, I remain somewhat obsessed with character death because to me, it proves (to me, to my players) that we are playing a game of consequences.

    Yeah, I’m with you 100% there. Part of made the mirror story so tense was that we were playing in such a dangerous “killer” module.

    Johann said:

    After decades of illusionist play I work hard to build and maintain a legitimate OSR style game (or “killer DM” game, if you prefer and OSR means different things to you), and its legitimacy is affirmed by blood and more blood

    I think we see this pretty similarly. It was my past as an illusionist that made me work hard to establish transparency of method just so that death could have meaning in the games.

  • I should clarify that what's missing from my game is the fast & random char gen, not the lethality. But, having fast & random char gen would synergize well with the lethality. It's just that we're playing 5e and it just has more of a hassle when it comes to char gen.
  • edited May 2018
    Do any of you feel you're approaching OSR gaming with a more Hardcore Gamist attitude than the actual, original players of early D&D?

    While I've always seen D&D as a Gamist game, it's the Hard Core Gamist part that seems less common, even from the earliest days, save perhaps in a convention tournament-module situation.

    While it's a bunch of second-hand anecdotes, the older grognards I've met, the sorts who were already wargamers in their teens when D&D came out and became a phenomenon, pretty much collectively have an impression of D&D as a lightweight gamist game at best. Usually their criticism of D&D ( and RPGs generally, since that's the one they kinda-sorta know) centers around just how lightweight/flabby the gamism is in them.

    For the grognards who did adopt D&D ( and other rpgs), the trend seems to have been the fact that it was lighter weight gamism than "proper" wargames. They were an alternative to Hard Core Gamism, and a desirable one at that. ( The terms Beer n Pretzels, One Brain Cell, Just for a laugh with your mates are common in discussions of lightweight wargaming, and the people I spoke with seemed to toss RPGs in the same pile as other games with those descriptions).

    I only mention these things because this thread and others I've seen in a similar vein seem to be almost praising not just an OSR, but a sort of radical, fundamentalist OISR approach to Gamism.

    Edited to add:
    I guess that all just seems odd to me, having been there for part of the evolution in RPGs and RPG playstyles.

    I remember video games where you got 3 lives for your $0.25, and when they were gone you were dead and had to start over, from the beginning, paying another coin.

    Then they added a free life for certain goals being accomplished, adding another coin at the point your last man was killed to continue from that point on, pause buttons and save points on console and PC games, making it all a great deal less frustrating and, arguably, a lot softer of a form of gamism.

    It seems as if RPGs have likewise gotten softer in their gamism, and likely for similar reasons. I mean, it' still gamism, right?
  • Do any of you feel you're approaching OSR gaming with a more Hardcore Gamist attitude than the actual, original players of early D&D?

    I dunno (about the way D&D was played back then) but from what you say it certainly seems that parts of the renaissance are fundamentalist.

    And that's no surprise when we compare where many people were and are coming from: wargames and traditional/90s RPGs heavy on illusionism, respectively. The OSR is a reaction in that sense, and like many counter-movements, it is prone to overcompensation and stressing differences.

    My own fundamentalism is no doubt a reaction to illusionism. I think if I play this way long enough, the need to affirm legitimacy/hardcore-ness etc. may pass. As Eero points out, character death is still necessary as a loss condition, but perhaps I will be happy with easier games with fewer deaths, too (having established that death is indeed on the table, however unlikely).

    Also, it seems to me as if Gygax drifted towards illusionism ("A DM only rolls the dice because of the noise they make."), which would of course make him less hardcore, particularly to a wargamer, right?
  • edited May 2018
    Johann said:

    Also, it seems to me as if Gygax drifted towards illusionism ("A DM only rolls the dice because of the noise they make."), which would of course make him less hardcore, particularly to a wargamer, right?

    I'm not sure about illusionism in that case exactly.

    But soft core gamism? Sure. I've heard ( and I don't have a reference link for this sadly) that Gygax commonly stated PCs at 3rd level in his home games.

    That's soft core gamist tendencies showing up right there. So are things like allowing 4d6 drop lowest, or choices of stat arrangement. Things like moving away from a simple Zero Hit Points = Death, to all of the more convoluted negative hit point schemes. They certainly seem like a slide away from hard core gamism, rapidly, by the very guy most associated with early D&D.

  • Do any of you feel you're approaching OSR gaming with a more Hardcore Gamist attitude than the actual, original players of early D&D?

    I think so, yeah. To be specific: "original players" is such a vague and disparate crowd that I'm sure that you can point to all sorts of "more original than you" people with all kinds of imaginable play styles. Despite that, I cannot imagine even a plurality of the players having been as "hardcore" about it as I am myself. The majority probably were playing with gamist understanding during the '70s, yes, but they were also constantly inventing and trying new things, some of which point the way towards entirely different play priorities. Some started with those priorities, clearly.

    I'll also note that I do not personally care about the historical authenticity thing. I understand that it's really, really important to many people, of whom some are old D&D players and some are current; it is, in a way, much more important than any actual, practical play. But that's not the case for me, I just don't have the baggage that makes "being real D&D" somehow desirable. As one might imagine, I find it sometimes frustrating how much people care about faithfulness to how some other guy might have played 30 years ago, as opposed to trying to play well now.

    As for real wargaming, I can see both sides: D&D is very different from the mainstream thinking in wargames, and it does discard some things, but I also think that it's revolutionary in a way that is genuine to some of the most admirable creative goals that wargaming has. The best instances of D&D boldly discard impersonal chit-counting in favour of a much, much broader fidelity to real concerns of war. I am aware of few wargames that even attempt to give the players such a broad and flexible playing field in terms of humanist concerns (psychology, sociology, history, economy...). If your ideal in wargaming is to step beyond mechanistical boardgames and capture a real philosophy of war (or dynamic systems in general, really - that term should be interpreted very broadly in this context), then the approach D&D takes cannot be ignored. If you want a more complex Chess, then D&D is obviously not your cup of tea.

    (I have nothing against a more complex Chess, by the way - I play plenty of boardgames and the heavier variety of computer games. I just think that wargaming as an idea is at its most powerful when you're not satisfied with your game merely having the color of Napoleon - I want the game to address Napoleon, to teach and illuminate on human condition. This means a real connection to humanistic disciplines, not just a neat set of rules where you call one type of playing piece "artillery".)

    I do think that D&D could perhaps have presented itself in a less marketable and more high-brow way to begin with. I suspect that much of the early disdain for the game was because of its superficially frivolous subject matter. Classical wargamers value historical scholarship a great deal, so a game that bases itself more on fictional fantasy tales will naturally be viewed as a casual joke. Roleplaying culture has repeated the same sorts of prejudices often when a game has stepped outside the traditionally respected subject matters. I wonder how D&D would have been received by traditional wargamers if it told about a "serious" topic like say Spanish conquistadors during the age of exploration. Less popular overall seems like a given in hindsight, but what about the reaction from the pre-existing wargamer base... perhaps we could have seen a more connected culture that perceived wargaming and roleplaying as the same hobby. It would surely have been a benefit to the development of wargaming, we can claim in hindsight.
  • I feel like the real crux of D&D, and I am speculating with really little to back it up, comes from how easy it was to break coming at it from a "bespoke" wargame model...there's only so much "critical examination" you can do of dungeon fantasy as a tactical exercise before you start to get diminishing returns on it. New traps, new monsters, new hazards, don't really broaden the field much from that perspective *cough*codexcreep*cough*

    But in the process of trying to answer that question, dozens more new questions popped up, which is where the rest of the RPG hobby really took off from. That's not to say that the challenge-based problem solving approach of OSR is boring or played out (and especially not for people who started gaming long after RPGs had moved on to answering those new questions), but heck, even the OSR movement itself seems to have quickly moved beyond the scope of "hardcore gamism" to encompass broader questions of aesthetic and simulation.
  • I remember video games where you got 3 lives for your $0.25, and when they were gone you were dead and had to start over, from the beginning, paying another coin.

    Then they added a free life for certain goals being accomplished, adding another coin at the point your last man was killed to continue from that point on, pause buttons and save points on console and PC games, making it all a great deal less frustrating and, arguably, a lot softer of a form of gamism.

    It seems as if RPGs have likewise gotten softer in their gamism, and likely for similar reasons. I mean, it' still gamism, right?

    That's an interesting question for me because of how sceptical I am of this very claim: I think that it's pretty common to identify Gamism somewhere just because a win condition exists. I don't think that it's as simple as that.

    I have played old video games quite a bit over the years, all sorts, and classic arcade style games with high score tables and quick gameplay are certainly natural to play in a gamist context: I want to better my skills, improve my score and if not brag to friends, then at least have the satisfaction of mastery.

    You capture the development well, though: the addition of all sorts of softening features draws the nature of the video game further and further towards it being an activity or experience rather than a challenge. Ultimately, at the end of the road, we have the modern video game: roughly 40 hours of activity to be experienced, feel free to fine-tune the difficulty level so it keeps you awake but doesn't impede progress. I think we can agree that at some point between Gradius and Bioshock (to pick two arbitrary shooting games) there's a moment where "learning to be good" is replaced by "I want to experience playing this" as an agenda. I mean, sure, a "softer gamism" does exist, but I think much of what gets interpreted that way is actually Simulationism, you know.

    Relating this to roleplaying games, you might remember how I wrote about D&D 4th edition a bit a couple months back. Many would perceive and interpret 4th edition as precisely the sort of soft gamism as you suggested. I think that it feels more like Sim to me, though. I can't distinguish between playing 4th edition D&D and Dragonlance, and neither can I distinguish Dragonlance from Call of Cthulhu - it's all the same sort of Bioshock-type game-for-the-sake-of-experience to me.

    To bring that back to the topic: I have read early texts from Gary Gygax that are very "pure" in terms of meaningful challengeful wargaming. Keep on the Borderlands is an excellent example. I have also read increasingly equivocating and "impure" texts from him, ending up with late-era stuff that advocates for auteuristic Simulationism more than anything else. I haven't made a careful study of the matter, so don't bite my head off, but it seems to me that his rpg philosophy simply shifted over time: he started from a hardcore gamist position in the early '70s, but already in the DMG he's softcore at best, and he does follow the scene's mainstream into what becomes traditional gaming through the '80s. This is in no way exceptional, the same seems to have happened to many old-timers as they developed the possibilities of roleplaying games: it seems to me that many simply didn't care for the wargamey type of game as much as the newer possibilities. Just because you start with wargaming when it's the only game in town doesn't mean that you have to stick with it your entire life.
  • @komradebob
    I was there in the late seventies--a teenager doing wargames (counter & hex-board games, about 1976, and minatures starting, about 1980) and playing D&D starting around 1978 with a friend and then a year later in a bunch of different groups. I'm not quite in the first wave, but everything you said matches my experience exactly, and also matches my recollections of what my friends and especially the older members of our wargamming club would say. We played D&D as a break from "serious" gaming because there was a hell of a lot less rules-lawyering when we played D&D.
  • Do any of you feel you’re approaching OSR gaming with a more Hardcore Gamist attitude than the actual, original players of early D&D?

    Yes. I realized this halfway through this thread about dice shenanigans in the original Cook expert set.

    The OSR is probably very different from how the game was originally played. But it is this strict style that I want and appreciate.

    Johann said:

    My own fundamentalism is no doubt a reaction to illusionism. I think if I play this way long enough, the need to affirm legitimacy/hardcore-ness etc. may pass.

    I am similar to Johann in this regard. That isn’t meant to bring up long buried hatchets with illusionism, just me coping with my own varying play experiences on both sides of the screen over the years.

  • The comparisons with video games are apt:

    Just like Adam, Eero and others have pointed out, a lot of modern D&D is a pastiche of old D&D. It's "playing at playing D&D" (i.e. with all the trappings like mind flayers and encounter rolls, but none of the risk). Similarly, a lot of video games still provide extra lives and high scores etc. even when none of that has any meaning.

    A coin or green mushroom used to be valuable in the original Super Mario (and that's already a non-arcade, softcore game) but in later iterations, it's just bling to give the player that old school feel.

    (Like modern RPGs, many modern video games like "Flower" have done away with dying and score-keeping.)

    (And just like there is the OSR, there are speed runs, e-sports, 1CC (1-credit-clear) fanatics and so on, so 'gamism' is alive and well.)

    I think this 'softening' is a natural trend in entertainment and free time activities (e.g. mainstream movies, too, whose sequels are typically less bleak, such as Aliens compared to Alien) just as the attendant counter-movements.

    (And of course, there are pros and cons to both directions.)
  • I guess it doesn't have to be difficult as long as the stakes are real. But my game does have a pretty high death count
  • Non-lethal D&D (or D&D-like game, anyway) can be legit to my mind. The important thing is, as Sandra says, that the stakes need to be real, and we need to know what they are. The weak-sauce thing is this posturing at sword-playing heroics where orcs and other assorted ethnic minorities are just there to die gloriously to the swords of the posers. At least have the dignity of not playing at "combat" if you're not willing to have your guy lose at it.

    A merchant prince game about winning and losing lots of money, how about that? No death as a consequence, you can always get back into the game (at a lower level) even after a big setback.

    Or we could play fantasy cops who mostly deal with unarmed civilian trouble. Really low lethality, particularly for the cops; it's going to be a big deal when even one of the fellows bites it. Heavy on crime-solving, perhaps, but there's plenty of room for brawling sort of action, heavy takedowns of violent perps and such.
  • edited May 2018
    Eero:

    Yes, I suspect that a move from Hard Core Gamism > Softcore Gamism > Simulationism > Really Softcore Genre Emulation is a fairly common trajectory for games and game players.

    I suspect some of that is because very few types of games exist that provide that options. Most other types of games are some variety of gamist. Heck, lots of other activities can be made gamist. Sometimes ya just need a break from that, hence escapism.

    [ On a total side note, I have suspicion that what you find to be positives in D&D-as-Wargame are different things than I find as positive in D&D-as-wargame. Probably not appropriate to this thread, but maybe worth discussing in a new one?]
  • Eero, do the stakes need to match the colour to be valid?

    My experience with 4E is that it is a game you can be and get good at, but the stakes in a fight aren't really winning the fight vs. losing the fight, more like winning the fight cleanly and efficiently vs. winning it just barely enough to move on to the next one.

    So it does let you "play at combat" without ever having to lose it, but I think there's a genuine opportunity for skill to determine whether you get to feel "yep, nailed this" or "we messed up".
  • 4e is a very cool ambitious game and there's nothing like it in tabletop. But not sure the mirror story could've happened in it.
  • I don't think 4E has any obstacles to it, but I don't think it has anything to encourage it. It cares a lot more about making the fights real, than about making the exploration real.
  • edited May 2018
    shimrod said:

    I don't think 4E has any obstacles to it

    The obstacle, and with the caveat that this is a surmountable obstacle, is that with so many combat options to choose from, there's less of the "we can do anything" open-endedness of OSR play. Like when we played LL-AEC we poured glue and put up tripwires. It was the Home Alone of Barrowmaze.

    I've talked before about how having a selection of at will attacks doesn't appeal to me. The essentials fighter classes appeal to me more, where you're modding your basic attack with stances.
  • 2097 said:

    The obstacle, and with the caveat that this is a surmountable obstacle, is that with so many combat options to choose from, there's less of the "we can do anything" open-endedness of OSR play.

    While I see how that's a disadvantage in general, I don't think it's an obstacle to the mirror story specifically?

    The point of the mirror story was that the mirror had its real function decided and defined before anyone knew how it was going to be used, and when it was used, it functioned as originally decided, right? It wasn't really a story about "we can do anything".
  • Right, the glue&tripwires was other tangibility but there are similarities...

    The feeling of going up to a cloth-covered object, which could be anything, and feeling under it... and then tying it to our cart unseen...

    But OK, Perkins has a similar to the mirror story in 4e when the players took a living ballista and made it their weapon. So yeah, weird things can happen in every edition.
  • shimrod said:

    Eero, do the stakes need to match the colour to be valid?

    In the old, wargamey D&D sense? Yeah, I definitely think so: you're not playing a rules system, you're playing a world simulation. 4th edition D&D is a different sort of thing, and not "really D&D" in the sense of being the same game that the original is.

    4th edition is probably the worst possible version of D&D to play if you want to play in an old-school style. I know that some people disagree, but I am not satisfied that they're talking about the same thing. Not that anybody needs to satisfy me or play real hardcore original authentic paleo-D&D to impress me, but it seems to be a sort of recurring subject.

    I just used the word "legit" in my remark as a shorthand for "appropriate for challenge-oriented old school wargame D&D". Regarding gamist play in general, I'm sure that 4th edition can provide some challenges. I don't myself feel the challenge in it, but others do.
  • If you wanted Hardcore against D&D4E, couldn't you just use tougher encounters or fewer rests or some combination thereof? Or is there something in the game which still prevents serious challengeful play?
  • It's the type of challenge not the level within that challenge. Eero isn't challenged by selecting from a number of provided abilities and then applying those abilities in an optimal (or optimal-enough) sequence. It's the old Mastermind vs Zendo dilemma. Even if you add colors to Mastermind, add shapes as per Grand Mastermind, etc etc, once you know how to do it you know how to do it. But Zendo remains ever fresh.

    Interestingly the fourthcore subcommunity that did exist put a lot of the challenge in their games in the non-combat elements such as math puzzles etc.
  • Paul_T said:

    If you wanted Hardcore against D&D4E, couldn't you just use tougher encounters or fewer rests or some combination thereof? Or is there something in the game which still prevents serious challengeful play?

    I think that it's not really the difficulty level that makes me disinterested in "stepping up" when it comes to 4th edition. Rather, it is that I have no true respect for the type of challenge it offers: if I'm not interested in performing at high level, beating others and self-identifying as a master in it, then it is difficult for me to have a gamist attitude about it.

    As for why this is, I think Sandra's got the gist of it: 4th is pretty typical as a nerd game in that it's got a simple core mechanic, a considerable amount of randomness, and large expanses of mechanical minutia. I don't want to say that it's stupid to rise to challenge when faced with something like that, but for me it's mainly just disconnected busywork. I am not intrigued by the idea of "proving system mastery" by poring over hundreds of pages of rpg manuals (even worse if I was buying them myself) to pick up bonus feats for a one-trick character build. That's not skill or even daring, it's just patience. There's no real core conundrum to 4th edition D&D, your success or failure depends on actuarial optimization.

    (I'll note that many, many games in geek culture work on the premise that you should be celebrated as a skilled player thanks to having more patience for it than the average simian. I encourage everybody to stop and think at times about this: does this activity really have some sort of admirable skill component, or is it just that I have an edge because I've memorized all 550 Pokemon?)

    In comparison, old school D&D is a wholly different beast: it asks us to develop exploration and commando raid procedures, and prove them functional in simulated conditions. As the game expands with strategic concerns, it branches out to many interesting topics that tie to all branches of the sciences and humanities. It is intellectually invigorating, and mastering it as best I can, even with all its chaotic elements, seems like an interesting challenge and an admirable skill.

    That being said, I have been thinking about playing 4th edition as a challengeful gamist game for years. Here's what I've got so far on that front:

    Instead of having the GM balance the encounters, ask the players to participate in setting up the combat encounters with a variety of advance knowledge and methods of influencing what it'll be like. Fix the loss condition so it's actually manageable to lose. Reward victory in meaningful ways. Make passing on an encounter (because the players consider it too dangerous or unnecessary) a functional option.

    I can go into details on how one would do those things, but the core concept should be clear: the challenge in 4th edition D&D should, perhaps, be about rational risk-taking and correctly projecting combat outcomes. The game should not be asking the players the trivial question of "how can I pile more bonuses on my combat combo?", but rather: "How many of these orcs, for whom I have a mostly perfect stat block here, can our party take?" "All things considered, do we dare go against five? Six? Seven? Where's our limit?"

    I hope it's clear why I would consider that a much more interesting question than "What's the most optimal build I can make in this game?" Note how the question about predicting combat outcomes and therefore understanding the mechanical process of the game doesn't predicate on character min-maxing: we can very well create all sorts of characters, weak and strong, and still explore the limits of their combat performance. Instead of trying to make characters for whom the GM's encounters are trivial, we make encounters that are difficult to gauge and interesting to play through to find out whether taking on that encounter was a smart move in the first place.

    The by-the-book process of 4th edition, with its encounter balance budget and players using a pile of sourcebooks to construct characters, that game's best fit for simmy princess play of the sort I've described before. That is its entire reason of existence: we want a game where we can set up some miniatures, roll the dice, and at the end my character's going to blow the enemy away with his special move (which doesn't need to be objectively that special; the game tries its best to make sure any Daily I choose will be good enough). If this sequence of events does not happen, it's a huge problem for the game for all the reasons that have been discussed before.
  • I just used the word "legit" in my remark as a shorthand for "appropriate for challenge-oriented old school wargame D&D". Regarding gamist play in general, I'm sure that 4th edition can provide some challenges. I don't myself feel the challenge in it, but others do.

    I thought it was shorthand for "appropriate for challenge-oriented gamist play in general". For playing the challenge-oriented world simulation, I agree, 4E's really not the game to help you do that.
  • edited May 2018

    As for why this is, I think Sandra's got the gist of it: 4th is pretty typical as a nerd game in that it's got a simple core mechanic, a considerable amount of randomness, and large expanses of mechanical minutia. I don't want to say that it's stupid to rise to challenge when faced with something like that, but for me it's mainly just disconnected busywork. I am not intrigued by the idea of "proving system mastery" by poring over hundreds of pages of rpg manuals (even worse if I was buying them myself) to pick up bonus feats for a one-trick character build. That's not skill or even daring, it's just patience. There's no real core conundrum to 4th edition D&D, your success or failure depends on actuarial optimization.

    That description sounds more like 3E to me. There's a significant component to 4E that's captured in Sandra's description, but not yours: it's not just about the build, it's about applying the build in combat as it changes round by round.

    It's still pretty fair to characterise that as a "nerd game" in that you're very much playing the game rather than playing the world, but I think there's a challenge there that's fundamentally different than the actuarial one.

    In comparison, old school D&D is a wholly different beast: it asks us to develop exploration and commando raid procedures, and prove them functional in simulated conditions. As the game expands with strategic concerns, it branches out to many interesting topics that tie to all branches of the sciences and humanities. It is intellectually invigorating, and mastering it as best I can, even with all its chaotic elements, seems like an interesting challenge and an admirable skill.

    Whenever you talk about old school D&D like this, I find it it quite inspiring, but it seems to me to place the burden on the DM of being at least (all!) the players' equal in all these branches of sciences and humanities. Is that a requirement?
  • edited May 2018
    shimrod said:

    Whenever you talk about old school D&D like this, I find it it quite inspiring, but it seems to me to place the burden on the DM of being at least (all!) the players' equal in all these branches of sciences and humanities. Is that a requirement?

    It's been rough learning all that stuff yeah :(
    Last Sunday I was literally trying on plate armor to see if I could walk around. Not full plate, just heavy leather with metal plates sewn in. There's a museum here where you can try it.
  • edited May 2018
    I think that the traditional view of the GM as an authority works at cross-purposes with the creative agenda of play in this matter: if the players were more egalitarian as people and contributors, the GM wouldn't need to be such a big cheese authority on every possible thing under the sun. If the players didn't rip the GM apart and destroy the game the moment he shows any weakness, there wouldn't be such great necessity for limiting the game to the GM's limited understanding of the world.

    That is to say, my solution to the GM expertise issue is very much to foster a culture of play where there is no taboo for the GM to say it when he's beyond his depth, and for the other players to tell him when they know something better than he does. This practice opens up dialogues on important real issues that the game touches upon, which is actually a major reason to play the game at all.

    As a practical example on what I mean, I used to for the longest time over-estimate the amount of time that a skilled archer needs to set up a shot and fire. This wasn't because I didn't understand the mechanics of shooting or hadn't ever handled a bow - it was simply because I'd never accounted for the fact that you don't need nearly as much time to shoot a bow when you're shooting at close ranges; much of the time we spend while taking a shot is taken up by aiming in conventional bow-shooting competitions and such. In other words: you can totally shoot a bow "from the hip", and it's demonstrably a possible combat technique. (If you're interested in that issue in more depth, I recommend checking out some Youtube videos of what bow hobbyists get up to - might be illuminating.)

    So I had this misconception, and it influenced the rules and procedures and rulings I used in D&D. One of the people I play with called me on it and educated me on the issue. This didn't happen in play - we actually didn't live in the same area at the time, even - but it might as well have. It's a big and complex enough issue that we wouldn't hash it out to any finality at the gaming table, but as I've often described, you'd make a compromise judgement on the spot and then figure it out afterwards. Either way, we did the legwork on demonstrating what's possible (and historically likely, and realistically feasible, etc.) and that ended up with me changing my combat rules to account for close quarters bow fighting.

    Anyway, I found that pretty interesting - I learned something new about archery then, directly inspired by actual play and contributions of a player who had a better handle on it.

    This is not to say that it's not beneficial for the GM to be a strong, confident scholar with a thirst for knowledge and a solid base - all of that is of course a great help in simply being interested in running the game at all. I mean, I don't run a D&D campaign because I'm lonely or bored or something like that, there are many things we could be doing instead. I specifically enjoy the varied intellectual aspects of the game, which is what makes it feasible for me to be a pretty fair GM. I don't think that there is some specific minimum knowledge level that a GM needs to have, but they do need to be curious people who enjoy figuring things out and building consistent procedures.

    If I had to guess, the reason why GMs are so scared about being challenged at the game table is because they don't have the social and intellectual tools for handling a challenge in a positive way. If you've only ever thought about a challenge as something to be afraid of, then you might not be able to smile and thank another player when they correct you on something. This is simply flat out wrong, you're being a bad GM if you react this way when another player deigns to be an active and interested participant. It is ingratitude in a hobby where players being active and committed is constantly the one true bottleneck in improving play.
  • success or failure depends on actuarial optimization.

    (I'll note that many, many games in geek culture work on the premise that you should be celebrated as a skilled player thanks to having more patience for it than the average simian. I encourage everybody to stop and think at times about this: does this activity really have some sort of admirable skill component, or is it just that I have an edge because I've memorized all 550 Pokemon?)

    This matches my experience with 4e to a tee. I've played most of the official campaign (H1 to E2) and a series of brutal skirmish scenarios with a bunch of other dedicated simians. ;-) I poured around 50 hours into optimizing my character (studying char op forums, poring over the books and expansions, using Excel to calculate DPR etc.). I was gratified to find that I got returns for every hour invested - diminishing ones, of course - even after dozens of hours.

    (I totally understand Eero's disdain for this sort of thing. But even though I've soured on the char op thing and other aspects of 4e, I do have fond memories. Recalling how (and how often) the DM threw up his hands in despair still brings a smile to my face, albeit a somewhat guilty one.)

    What's missing, though, was an appropriate challenge on the battlefield. In the absence of such a challenge, the game of course turned towards seeing whose character shone the brightest, i.e. could perform the most impressive smack-downs, humiliating stun-locks etc.

    The modules were far too easy and we were not radical enough in ramping up the difficulty (by expanding the DM's budget, leveling up more slowly etc.) As Eero suggests, the game needs some mechanism for the players to decide how much they dare tackle.

    (And I agree that a decent loss condition would be required, too. As I wrote on the blog mentioned above, character death is not feasible when the characters are like a Magic: the Gathering deck, which you'd want to further optimize after a loss, not discard).

    I think 4e might be salvageable in this context if the challenge were hard enough to have massive character optimization as a baseline assumption, leaving only party optimization (i.e. synergies between builds) and tactical optimization on the battlefield (as Shimrod suggests) as a road to victory.
  • If you've only ever thought about a challenge as something to be afraid of, then you might not be able to smile and thank another player when they correct you on something. This is simply flat out wrong, you're being a bad GM if you react this way when another player deigns to be an active and interested participant. It is ingratitude in a hobby where players being active and committed is constantly the one true bottleneck in improving play.

    True enough, though some players argue only to their own advantage, particularly in the heat of the moment. Once/If you have players who will argue to the disadvantage of their characters, too, because they care about the fiction / military history / physics / integrity of the game world etc., that's when the sort of gamist play you describe and a healthy creative relationship between the participants can flower.
  • The process to fruitfully engage with questions of military history etc. etc. can and should be initiated from both sides of the screen. In my experience, setting an example as a player or DM and thanking others for their contributions, just like Eero suggests, will quickly rub off on other participants. It starts with small stuff ("Uh-oh. I guess we're out of torches." and can develop into intriguing conversations and research, like Eero's archery example.)
  • edited May 2018

    This is simply flat out wrong, you're being a bad GM if you react this way

    Are you kidding, I couldn't show these vultures a single crack in my armor. They'd tear me apart. Luckily there's never been any risk of that since I'm always streets ahead of them in all regards of life, being both the smartest scholar & the best at fighting. Hey wait where did you go? Guys?
  • edited May 2018
    We're on the same page about 4th ed., Johan - rock on [grin].

    As for players arguing in bad faith, my experience with that ties intimately with my infantilization theory of roleplayers. That is to say: GMs get caught up in infantile interactions with players first and foremost because they set the bar low and expect the worst of everybody, and generally treat players like children. The players pick up on this and, over time, start behaving like children: they try to get away with things and put one over the GM because they're not asked to contribute and take responsibility at a higher level.

    This is why my "D&D pedagogy" (the way I interact at a table through a campaign to influence how others play) is so relatively hands-off: I try to make sure that we get exactly as good play as we deserve to get, on the basis of everybody's contributions. If you play a shallow game, you get a shallow game, and the GM will not do the legwork to entertain you at a higher level if you don't contribute yourself. If you play well, you are creatively rewarded with support and excitement. Over time we gravitate towards the kind of game the play group is capable and motivated to play; not the dream game the GM might speculate about, but the real game this group of people here can make.

    A minor yet radical example of what I mean would be the way I handle character equipment. Check this out:
    * In chargen I tell the players to either roll a conventional budget and buy their equipment, or to "just give the character what is reasonable in the setting and character backstory; you can ask me and the other long-timers if you're uncertain about something. Remember that 13th century Sweden doesn't have plate mail as D&D understands it."
    * When characters buy equipment, there are no equipment lists. Instead, the players ask the GM for price points (from local merchants, in the fictional position the purchase occurs in), which the GM delivers on the basis of his economical simulation of the moment. The players can run their own models and argue for different prices out of character, or they can haggle in-character - it's all good, we're doing price discovery to figure out what stuff costs in this setting.
    * Once the players get a hang of pricing, I generally let them sell stuff to each other. They know what it cost the last time they bought it themselves, and they can do demand-based corrections and such just fine if you ask them to.

    The overall point of doing equipment purchase in that way is to a) get rid of the sucky equipment lists that come with D&D texts, and b) invite everybody to enjoy the economic model the GM runs throughout a campaign. It's simply interesting to figure out how expensive e.g. chain mail or a sword or a horse should be in a given setting, on the basis of what we know about it. It's interesting to build your character's strategic and tactical play on the basis of the campaign economy, which ultimately determines whether you have access to henchmen or burning oil or armor or carpentry tools or whatnot. All this then contributes ultimately to your dungeoneering doctrine and tactical goal-setting. In this way play in Carcosa really is different from play in medieval Sweden, in a way that was never truly realized by late-era TSR setting products. Whether Dark Sun or Planescape, it's always gonna be a 3rd level Fighter hitting an orc with a sword, and that's the game if you let it become that.

    So anyway, my point: after adopting this type of pedagogical approach I've found that the players are on average not nearly as much of cheating whiners as we generally think of them. The vast majority will do their best when you ask them to, and their best is generally speaking everything we could hope and desire for in a game like this - as I mentioned earlier, there's no minimum skill level, everybody can contribute. If not by teaching, then by learning.

    Adult players won't generally even try to make bare-faced judgements in their own favour. Children will try it just to see what happens, but when I've asked these players whether they really think that their judgement is fair, they will quickly admit it when it isn't. Sometimes we genuinely disagree on something, and I will as a matter of principle give way. As I've said before: always trade a singular ruling for the long-term rule.
  • I think that the traditional view of the GM as an authority works at cross-purposes with the creative agenda of play in this matter: if the players were more egalitarian as people and contributors, the GM wouldn't need to be such a big cheese authority on every possible thing under the sun. If the players didn't rip the GM apart and destroy the game the moment he shows any weakness, there wouldn't be such great necessity for limiting the game to the GM's limited understanding of the world.

    I was assuming a reasonably egalitarian relationship, and players who will honestly argue for their understanding, not just the advantage of their characters, but it seems to me that a game that's about developing approaches and proving them against challenges naturally spends a lot of time at the very limits of the players' (including the DM) knowledge.

    A quick compromise ruling and then further research means a lot of time the ruling will be flawed. It seems to me the largest draw in this kind of game is not the proving of the approaches developed (since the proofs themselves will often be riddled with flaws in the players' understanding), but in pushing the players' to refine their understanding (and then, the next iteration of the game).

    If I say "I've thought of this new archery tactic, I want to just shoot 'em up from the hip", then how we decide it fares against the challenges I'm facing right now isn't really the valuable thing here (since that decision is quite likely to be flawed), the value is that it will get us all thinking and researching how it should fare.
  • Whether Dark Sun or Planescape, it's always gonna be a 3rd level Fighter hitting an orc with a sword, and that's the game if you let it become that.

    But Dark Sun doesn't have metal weapons…?! All the metal on the planet are being used for steel strings and copper single-coil pickups, whose shredding accompanies the defiling devastation of Athas.

    And al-Qadim has rules for haggling for items at the souk. And orcs are enlightened beings in aQ, you can't just hit them.

    And even in 5e various locations on Chult in Tomb of Annihilation have their own pricelists. And the exorbitant prices listed in the village of Barovia in Curse of Strahd became a turning point for the players as they staged an elaborate heist to steal a crate of potions from him, only to later return with their heads hanging low after they had learned that the stockboy there was their divinely chosen ally against the vampire. (In CoS it's randomly chosen who is Strahds true enemy so this was unforseen on all parts.)
  • Yes, the real value is long-term. That goes for all aspects of play, really; although I value my accomplishment in getting a Magic-User to 3rd level at a very legit table (my best achievement as a character player - and the character's still alive, too!), the real pride for me is in the purity of method, depth of the campaign and high quality of the substantial issues in our play. These are all achievements that are developed long term, and not dependant on a single event in a single session of play. I value the skill more than the result.

    Something that goes for this style of play, but also many other types of role-playing, though: I think that people tend to worry too much about objective truthiness of their stuff, rather than enjoying the fact that their process is good. For example, I see this a lot when discussing historical settings in roleplaying games: many people are hesitant of playing in a historical milieu because they "won't get it right". There's an underlying assumption there that somebody somewhere could "get it right" in some authorial "real historian" sense. I like to try to convince people of an alternate viewpoint: that it's not about how correct you are, but rather about being correct enough to play meaningfully.

    Old school D&D, for instance, requires the exact same level of historical realism as a multitude of serious drama games do: you need to give it your best effort as a group, and that's that. If you're playing with teenagers and something like say the game's economics or understanding of medieval gender roles is objectively pretty simplistic, that does not actually break the game. It would be a problem if some of the players in the group knew better, but if it's the best level the group can achieve, how would they have any trouble with it? As far as they know, it's good enough.

    I'd like to emphasize that I do not disdain light-hearted topics and themes in D&D, or focused games that intentionally set certain facets of human experience aside. Your game doesn't need to be an extremely reality-based all-around universal sandbox to have nobility. I just think that whatever the actual subject matter of the campaign, that part should be tackled with a honest wargaming process, rather than e.g. forcing the GM's preconceptions on it.

    This means that if you're not comfortable or interested in the minutiae of medieval history or realistic world-building, why not play a dungeon game focused on skirmish tactics? Or vice versa. Pick your subject matter and game it out to learn how it works, that's at the heart of wargaming as I understand it.
  • 2097 said:

    Right, the glue&tripwires was other tangibility but there are similarities...

    The feeling of going up to a cloth-covered object, which could be anything, and feeling under it... and then tying it to our cart unseen...

    But OK, Perkins has a similar to the mirror story in 4e when the players took a living ballista and made it their weapon. So yeah, weird things can happen in every edition.

    Hi Sandra, I'd like to speak on this. I was a long-term 4E DM and ran the game regularly for several years, including multiple one-shots introducing newcomers to the hobby, from about 2008 to 2011 or so (when I switched to 13th Age when its playtest began).

    I feel the "weird things" you describe here are very overtly encouraged in the play culture and advice described in both of 4E's DMGs, but especially in the DMG2. Quite frankly, virtually all of the overt criticism of 4E I have come across online seems to me to be a product of basically ignoring its DMG advice and assuming "I already know how to run D&D" with, quite frankly, predictable consequences. Although, I would also add to that I felt many writing at WotC did not understand the system all that well and almost all of its written modules were pretty terrible at exploiting the strengths of the system (with the first one Keep on the Shadowfell being notoriously not-that-well-written).

    At the very least, as a novice DM I felt that 4E equipped me with the tools to adjudicate the weird things in a straightforward and sensible way and encouraged, at least in our home games, a social environment of "say yes to the players" at every possible angle.

    That said, I would agree the player-facing side of the rulebooks did not as good of a job communicating many of these things as the DM-facing side.

    ~ Trent
  • Most of my complaints about 4e fall away as I look at things later in the product line. Like I pretty much adore Essentials. And there are some other good later 4e stuff. I got into OSR right when essentials was coming out and I liked OSR games better, but... I almost.

    How about this. In the early Adventure System board games the at-will attacks are named "careful attacks", "twin shot" etc etc. And in the later games in that same series they're named "Sword", "Bow" etc. I like the latter a lot better. Items instead of macros.

    And, in Essentials and some other later 4e games that's what you get. Items and basic attacks, modded by stances etc. I like that better.
  • Sure, but other than interacting with opportunity attacks and charging, there is no mechanical difference between the two in 4E. Its almost totally an aesthetic difference.

    I actually think that's a good analogy to cultural reaction to 4E as a whole: most of the negativity boils down to presentation, not substance.

    ~ Trent
  • edited May 2018
    Trent_W said:

    Sure, but other than interacting with opportunity attacks and charging, there is no mechanical difference between the two in 4E. Its almost totally an aesthetic difference.

    My degree is in aesthetics (split major with computational linguistics). (Yeah, yeah, I know I suck, I didn't say I got good grades.)
    And the aesthetics of an interface with the world, the affordances of those aesthetics, can matter a lot to how I approach a game.
    Am I hitting the play button on canned sequences of some awesomer than me heroes doing awesomer than me stunts? Or am I handed a sword in hand, a bow and a quiver?
    etc etc.
  • Again, this is something that 4e addressed within its own lifespan so I'm not holding it as a criticism of 4e as a whole. I liked OSR better because it seemed simpler and easier to get into. But I like 4e more than 3e.
  • 2097 said:

    Trent_W said:

    Sure, but other than interacting with opportunity attacks and charging, there is no mechanical difference between the two in 4E. Its almost totally an aesthetic difference.

    My degree is in aesthetics (split major with computational linguistics). (Yeah, yeah, I know I suck, I didn't say I got good grades.)
    And the aesthetics of an interface with the world, the affordances of those aesthetics, can matter a lot to how I approach a game.
    Am I hitting the play button on canned sequences of some awesomer than me heroes doing awesomer than me stunts? Or am I handed a sword in hand, a bow and a quiver?
    etc etc.
    Hi Sandra, yeah I can see that.

    Although I think its important to keep in mind that 4E was pretty explicitly trying to simulate heroic fantasy action with a strong bent towards cinematic play. So, I would argue "awesomer than me heroes doing awesomer than me stunts" is kinda sorta the point of playing the game.

    A question: do you feel other "canned sequences" in D&D (in other words, almost all the spells and spell-like abilities in the game) are similarly constraining? I personally feel a huge disconnect when the Wizard can do "cool stunts" by pushing a button but the Fighter can only do "cool stunts" by GM fiat.

    ~ Trent
  • edited May 2018
    Trent_W said:

    A question: do you feel other "canned sequences" in D&D (in other words, almost all the spells and spell-like abilities in the game) are similarly constraining? I personally feel a huge disconnect when the Wizard can do "cool stunts" by pushing a button

    Well, I am doing the verbal, somatic and material components. And then only the effect is canned, not the action. I plead with my patron (the fay queen Chantarelle) for her mystical power and she is cruel in return. Questing for diamonds for the revivify spell was a big part of my corsair council campaign.

    It makes sense to me that the eldritch arts are formalized, ritualized, canned, whereas no amount of katas and rotes can capture the chaos of the battlefield. But as with much in the realms of aesthetics it's subjective.

    Like, for me there's a huge difference between a ranger going "Time for my Careful Attack™" vs "ok I send out my mage hand to feel the lever... does it move?". And obviously there was a spectrum in 4e groups, some refering to the power names, some saying "I attack it carefully" and some saying "I Attack it Carefully wink wink". 4e worked well for many people. And again, it does some things better than any other game.

    I was happy to see the ranger and fighter get some spells in 5e. For example, Hunter's Mark is now a spell.
    Trent_W said:

    but the Fighter can only do "cool stunts" by GM fiat.

    I was glad to see the 5e fighter maneuver list have a strong separation of action and effect. They give you more effects to invoke but the action is yours. Like, everyone in 5e can attempt to disarm, and the mechanic is similar (your attack roll vs their strength roll) but when you spend a superiority die to do so, you:

    1. save an action in the action econ since you can deal damage and disarm simultaneously
    2. deal more damage
    3. have a slightly higher chance of succeeding with the disarming (since they need to roll strength save, wereas normal disarming they need to roll athlobatics, often higher)
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