Yesterday while cleaning up I cleared shelf space for my Pathfinder books. The core book alone is a massive text; its chapter on skills alone is 26 dense pages. Plus, other chapters discuss how to use the rules. Compare that with Stars Without Number, where rules on skills — all of them — comprise a little less than 4 pages.
So, what’s going on here? Well, a lot is going on. And, it’s more than just nostalgia.
Full disclosure, first: My exposure to the OSR games is very limited — I’ve read Stars Without Number cover to cover and created a sector but haven’t played it with others yet. I’ve skimmed a few others (Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, & Into the Odd). I’ve been around RPGs since 1983 or so. A lot about these games is very familiar.
Tapping the Grognard Mind
Now, first of all, several OSR games clearly rely on the collective knowledge of experienced role-players. The texts are refreshingly succinct in part because there’s a bit of a wink and a smile that old schoolers will know how to handle things like creative use of skills or whether 0 hit points really is really dead-dead.
Sure, it’s “cheating.” It means that people unfamiliar with this style will be stumped sometimes. Probably not much interested in the games Maybe even aggravated by them. My own tendencies as a game designer lean toward more explanation of rules and accomodating new or more inexperienced players, for example.
But, the games don’t seem to be suffering for the approach. Why shouldn’t the publishers do exactly what they’re up to? They’ve got an audience in mind, and it seems to be going fairly well for them.
But, there’s more to it than being a role-player for 25+ years to “get it.”
Something else is going on here. It’s not just a celebration.
It’s a rebellion.
I’m not totally crazy. Go read this neat PDF A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming by Matthew Finch, creator of Swords & Wizardry. It’s a good-natured, well-meaning guide to, well, how much games like Pathfinder suck the creative spirit from the kinds of games these guys prefer to play. And, frankly, they have a point (says the guy who’s played Pathfinder happily for the last 2 years). It’s an instruction manual to re-educate gamers.
In with the New School
It gets better. This revolution isn’t just being fought by the old schoolers. The new schoolers — by which I mean indie RPG designers like Vincent Baker — are in on it, too.
This is a reaction away from codifying play experiences of every sort, a resistance to the mechanical deflating of fictional excitement. And, it’s very, very important. It is figuratively the tide shifting in the hobby (which it does inevitably — it’s just fun to recognize it).
I finally realized this is what I find so fascinating about all this. That Apocalypse World’s “barf forth apolyptica” and “always respect the logic of the game” mantras aren’t much different from A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming’s “Tao of the GM: The Way of the Ming Vase.”
Ok, so both involve barfing.
But, they both do something interesting. They are both a note to game masters re-acquiring a certain kind of authority (not absolute authority — something subtler). An authority where the GM’s quick-witted, creative hand guides players onto more exciting, slightly unpredictable play situations. Situations rich with fictional features, imaginary “footholds” that players can launch themselves from into still-better-fictional outcomes. You know, shared imagination. Role-playing.
Here’s a quote:
Bad rolls can spontaneously generate bad consequences (make sure you do this to both sides, not just the players). You don’t need a table to generate bad consequences – just make it up on the spot. Good rolls might get good consequences, such as disarming the foe, making him fall, smashing him against a wall for extra damage, pushing him backward, etc. Again, make it up on the spot.
And, no big suprise, that’s directly from the old school primer. But, does anyone familiar with Apocalypse World or Dungeon World think this is anything but great advice? And, yet, these things derive from different pressures in the hobby.
The old school scene is almost certainly reacting against D&D & Pathfinder games run in too-robotic fashion (I’m certainly guilty there). Whereas, I think Apocalypse World’s inspiration is coming from other angles, including some indie “story games” that missed the mark with mechanics that quashed fictional creation and consequence (damn, guilty again).
Viva la Revolucion!
I think this rebellion is a good thing, not least of all because I suspect it’s not only about re-acquiring some good role-playing habits, but also because it is the one think role-playing games can do that computer or console games cannot, at least in any foreseeable future.
If it means seeing games like Apocalypse World and Stars Without Number hit the table top, I say viva la revolución!
And, it’s a good realization for me — that my games lack a little fictional vitality, and there are thing I can do with fellow players to fix it.