Tuesday, August 26, 2008

No Guarantees

I've got to step out for a while, so I'll be unable to respond to any comments here but a thought occurred to me this morning that I wanted to throw out there for discussion.

Two common complaints about old school gaming is that it lacks "story" and that there's little interest in character development beyond what occurs as a result of gaining XP. I've already, I think, argued that both these complaints are utterly mistaken and result from a misreading of old school games (not to mention a misremembering of the history of the hobby). The big difference between the old school and the contemporary one is that the old school assumes that "story" and character development are things that evolve organically through play rather than something one presumes before play. The old school also allows for the possibility that neither story nor development will evolve and isn't willing to find ways to ensure that either takes place through the imposition of game mechanics designed to do so.

Anyway, what I was thinking about is that what makes old school gaming so appealing for me is that notion that, if I create a 1st-level Fighter, whom I call Conan and say is a young Cimmerian warrior out to find his fortune in the world, I actually have to play D&D well -- not to mention get lucky -- in order to fully realize that character. That is, it's not a given that because I create this character with dreams of one day ruling his own kingdom that he will in fact one day rule his own kingdom. I don't sit down with the referee and agree that, yes, the campaign "theme" will be about Conan's rise from obscurity to his accession to the throne of Aquilonia. Rather, I, as the player, decide that that's what I want to do with my lowly 1st-level Fighter and then I play the game with that in mind, doing everything I can to make that "story" that I've chosen come alive through play, but with the understanding that an unlucky dice roll -- or the whims of other players -- might derail that story, even ending it forever.

My point is that one of the essential features of old school play is that there are no guarantees. I sometimes think the hobby has emphasized the roleplaying aspect of RPG to such an extent that it's forgotten what the G stands for. Old school gaming never forgets that games typically involve chance and the best gamers are those who can roll with the punches randomness throws at them and succeed in spite of them. To me, there's more fun to be had in the story of a would-be Conan who actually fails at his player's original intended "story arc" and then goes on to do something else as befits the circumstances than one whose story arc has a conclusion that's foreordained by mutual agreement with the referee at the campaign's start. If you know your 1st-level Fighter is destined to become King of Aquilonia and that the whole campaign is about the steps to achieving that destiny, why bother? I don't personally see any fun in that and I think one of the big dividing lines between the old and new schools lies here.

Anyway, this is a random, inchoate thought, so be gentle. And play nicely while I'm gone. It might be a while before I can wade back into discussing this.

61 comments:

  1. I don't sit down with the referee and agree that, yes, the campaign "theme" will be about Conan's rise from obscurity to his accession to the throne of Aquilonia.

    Either I've never really played "new school" games or you're slightly over stating it.

    In fact, I can't think of a game where what I set out to do was what I did. The closest was in an "old school" game and a die role (and one that I think was bad even "old school" because it made all of our actions ever irrelevant) killed it.

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  2. Either I've never really played "new school" games or you're slightly over stating it.

    Probably a bit of both :)

    I am master of hyperbole, as you should know by now.

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  3. True...it might also mean I can't imagine playing like that.

    The last new school game I was in (a Mage: the Awakening game) my character concept (plan if you will) lasted about 30 minutes.

    I'd hate a game where that didn't happen.

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  4. I totally agree.

    Was that gentle enough? ;)

    I actually believe that old school gaming more accurately reflects the real world, in that despite your best efforts (on behalf of your character), stuff happens.

    Sure, new school stories can play at being novels or movies, but they can't do that and bring the verisimilitude of the real world and it's randomness. At least not at the same time.

    It may not be heroic, but it's realistic.

    BTW, did you hear that the guy who wrote the book "100 things to do before you die" died at the age of 47? He fell in his home and hit his head.

    I rest my case.

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  5. From what I've seen, the folks who are most into creating "story now" games in the indie RPG scene, also tend to have the most respect for engaging in pure old-school "can I or can't I beat this damn dungeon?" challenge when that's what you want to do.

    Right tool for the right job. :)

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  6. It may not be heroic, but it's realistic.
    I'd put scare quotes around realistic but in essence I agree.

    I think it's cooler when heroism (or villainy, for that matter) happens because of the character acting on the game world instead of the other way around.

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  7. BTW, I'm *really* curious what you're specificially thinking of when you're talking about new school games where you decide beforehand that the game is about so-and-so's rise to power and then just watch it all happen as it's supposed to.

    Any particular systems in mind there?

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  8. Any particular systems in mind there?

    I have several game systems in mind, but I'm not keen to talk about them here at this particular point, because I prefer to keep the focus on the the "philosophical" point, namely the role played by randomness/indeterminacy in old school gaming.

    I realize this may seem like I'm being unduly cagey and, to some extent, that's a fair complaint. However, I really don't want to get bogged down in "Game X isn't really like that" arguments. Rather, I want to focus on two approaches to campaign play, one that I associate with the old school and one I associate with the new school.

    I'd also like to clarify that my larger point was that I don't think the notion of a "theme" or "story arc" is compatible with the old school. There's a reason why I find the old Dragonlance modules particular detestable.

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  9. The new Saga Edition Star Wars game has rules for determining the "Destiny" of each PC.

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  10. I have absolutely seen people determine beforehand what the character's story would be, and then make sure it played out so they'd end up there. It's not any one system, but more of a mindset. I can't fathom the appeal, either. I prefer the supposedly "old school" way of the game world being like a real world the characters live in as opposed to a book or movie style world that exists to tell their story.

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  11. "I realize this may seem like I'm being unduly cagey and, to some extent, that's a fair complaint. However, I really don't want to get bogged down in "Game X isn't really like that" arguments."


    heh. I specifically was wondering whether you were thinking about some game I'd want to defend from your accusation, or some game I'd heartily agree with you about. You saw *RIGHT* through me.

    I'd say that any game that says "X is going to happen" and then makes the point of interest the fact that X happens is way dumb. I never tried to run or play a Dragonlance module so I don't know if they do that, but the idea of trying to play inside somebody else's novel never appealed to me.

    I'm thinking on the other hand of things like My Life With Master, where you *know* the master is going to die, but you have no idea what is going to lead up to it, or what the consequences for the actual protagonists are going to be, and those things -- the ones you have no guarantee of -- are the actual points of interest during play.

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  12. From what I've seen, the folks who are most into creating "story now" games in the indie RPG scene, also tend to have the most respect for engaging in pure old-school "can I or can't I beat this damn dungeon?" challenge when that's what you want to do.

    Except, as a group, they reject the possibility of story rising organically from play or at the least consider the odds vanishing small. In their extreme case they contend D&D and similar games make it harder to get story. Thus, if you want story you need games that do it.

    That's where I part from the indie crowd (well, that and Ron's rant about WW games causing brain damage, which is really just the same idea on steroids).

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  13. My thought run similarly to James but perhaps the points can be stated differently.

    An important rule of the games I like to GM and play is that you accept the consequences of the premise of the game you are playing for good or ill.

    This is important because without consequences the challenges are meaningless. For there to be a challenge there must exist the possibility of failure.

    However like any maxim when you apply it to the real world you run into the gray areas. In this case the gray area is your limited time as a GM. (See the end of the post for a detailed explanation)

    Now what does has to do with "story". My definition of story in RPG is "Description of what the player DID while interacting with the campaign's plot".

    Plot, I define, as a series of future events extrapolated from the descriptions of the locales, geography, and NPCs of the campaign. These events are described as if the player were never "on stage".

    Like the plan for a battle, plot do not survive contact with the players. The player actions modify the course of the future events. So after each session the DM will have to decide how his future events are going to be modified or not.

    Now given this how can a DM prepare for anything? Players just don't act randomly. If they are roleplaying a specific personality then character motivations and goals will provide a clue. Finally as the sandbox campaign continues players will develop goals beyond those of the initial sessions. Of these can narrow the possibilities that you have to prepare for.

    Events, Player choices and GM reactions all combine into a rich narrative that describes the "story" of that campaign. But again the story emerges from the play not the other way around.

    Where story gamers get confused is calling plot, story. The worst examples abuse their authority as GMs to railroad their players along the preplanned events.

    MANY PATHS ONE DESTINATION
    I learned this while running NERO Boffer LARP. I have only so many people and so much time to setup. But yet I still have to make the event interesting and for the 40 to 100 attendees feel like they are making a difference.

    For old school the closest parallel would be a massive dungeon, locale, or city in the midst of a sandbox campaign.

    You could argue that it would be foolish to invest so much time in a locale in a sandbox campaign. But in real-life it happens.

    The solution I come up with is many paths and one destination. One hand it sounds like railroading as no matter what the players do they will arrive at the same endpoint.

    However in practice is works out for two reasons. First the players don't know what behind your screen so have no idea that the endpoint locale is fixed. Second in RPGs the journey is just as adventured filled as the endpoint. The player get the freedom of choosing their path and DM's prep time isn't wasted.

    For my tabletop game as a GM I rarely use many paths one destination. I spent many years accumulating what I call "bits".

    Bits can be combined in near infinite variety of locales and dungeons. In my early days it manifested itself in the props I use for miniatures (I use miniatures a LOT).

    Over the years as the number of books on history and the fantasy genre. I learned the different forms a peasant hovel could take. A tavern, and yes dungeons.

    What drove it home for me is the 12+ years I spent playing NERO Boffer LARP. Despite compromises on rules and realism there still nothing like using actual experience to describe things at the table.

    I been in the brush when a half dozen orcs are searching for me in the dark. I crawled through slime covered rock chutes in a cavern in ground.

    I think I rambled enough and hope this helps everybody

    Rob Conley

    I know this sound like an extreme activity to people haven't tried it. But in reality it share a lot with outdoor sports (particularly the emphasis on safety) and most people stay because they like hanging out with their friends.

    I think rambled enough and h

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  14. OK, I'm gonna bow out here, cause I'm not even sure what you guys are talking about anymore...

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  15. For my tabletop game as a GM I rarely use many paths one destination. I spent many years accumulating what I call "bits".

    Bits can be combined in near infinite variety of locales and dungeons.


    For a sandbox setting something similar to bits works well. Don't create plots per se but hooks with a brief plot attached and only work on the ones they the players bite on.

    A perfect example is the show Buffy. Willow turns gay and we can go back to the evil Willow vampire to see the preview. The First Evil's ability to appear as anyone and drive people insane? The season three Christmas episode. Angel's 1000 years in a hell dimension (and later Conner in the series Angel): season three episode one (different time in demon dimensions).

    So, Whedon planned all that. Sure, but he didn't know if Willow or Zander would be gay so if you go back and look the hooks for a gay Zander are there. Who else knows what other apparently throw away bits work.

    That's where story comes from...from giving the players tons of things they could run with and watch to see what they take and creating two or five next options on those plots and letting the others wither (or maybe advance with out them, but do this too much and you're forcing them into your story).

    That, to my mind, is why sandboxes with 100 kingdoms all with a single line are better starting settings than one highly detailed kingdom. The players can go anywhere and you figured it out as they go (and advance what they left in case they come back). Godwandaland and Pangea can be on the verge of war for 20 years in game if the players are across the world in Mu.

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  16. Few things are as confining to a GM than giving/getting expectations to/from the players as to how a game is supposed to turn out. Then you have to start deciding to monkey around with the game in order to fit the expectations.

    Now I'm not aware of a lot of games where this method is explicitly stated, but it has been implied in a few places (early World of Darkness being 1st in my mind for GM meddling over 'Plot'), and I don't think I'm wrong in saying it has definitely happened informally.

    It's neither good nor bad on its face, but it's definitely not Old-School, and it's something I'm growing to not be a fan of.

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  17. I would describe many of the campaigns a friend of mine runs this way:

    He creates a goal for the PCs to attempt to achieve. Plus some bad guys. The goal may be to stop the bad guys, or the bad guys may be out to stop the PCs from achieving a goal.

    (There will usually be other factions as well. Who is actually a bad guy or a potential ally is not always clear to the PCs either.)

    There will be some consequence to the PCs achieving or failing to achieve the goal.

    He usually doesn't just give them the goal upfront, but it gets revealed through play in the early sessions.

    How the PCs achieve the goal is left up to the players. The choices and success or failure of the PCs and the bad guys will decide where the campaign goes. The party almost certainly ends up making some bad decisions and having set-backs along the way.

    The PCs can even fail completely. It has happened. PCs in later campaigns have seen the consequences of such.

    (I could also get into success/failure not necessarily being an all-or-nothing affair, but let's keep it simple.)

    So, have I described an "old school" game or a "new school" game? (Or other—need more info, &c.?)

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  18. So, have I described an "old school" game or a "new school" game?

    I don't know if it's either.

    Here's a question: what if the PCs just don't care about the goal? What happens then?

    I think the issue is less are there plots for the PC than issues of the world's existence separate from the PCs. If it exists merely to provide the PCs with plot to work through it's new school. If it exists to exist and the PCs can change it or not at their will (and luck) that's old school.

    Take the Hobbit and LotR: what happens if Bilbo doesn't find the Ring? Does Sauron not rise until it's found so we can have the Fellowship and the war? If so that's new school. If he still gets driven out and rises in Mordor and there is a still a war over Middle Earth with the Ring hidden and unusable by both sides because the Bilbo character never found it then you have old school.

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  19. "So, have I described an "old school" game or a "new school" game? (Or other—need more info, &c.?)"

    Unavoidable goals are not old-school, IMO. A good GM sets up situations for the PCs that can be altered or discarded as needed to support what the PCs are doing.

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  20. So, have I described an "old school" game or a "new school" game?
    Maybe a look at an analogy that everyone can agree is old-school:
    In G1 the players have a goal - "punish the miscreant giants... deliver a sharp check, deal a lesson to the clan of hill giants...". What happens if they succeed/don't succeed?
    Likely if they succeed they are given a possible new goal. Do they accept that goal? What happens if they don't pursue the next group of giants? What happens if the fail in the rift?
    All of these are very "old school".

    *But*, going back to a post a day or two ago, I think another thing that has to be looked at is how is the interplay between the DM and players constructed as they pursue the goal? What I mean by this is: are the interactions between the players and DM a set of pre-planned events or are they the natural by-product of the characters moving/exploring through various locations? The former in new school while the later is old school.

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  21. While “must be a sandbox” could be a criterion for “old school”, I’m not sure it is one I’m comfortable with.

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  22. To clarify. Not Old School =/= EVIL

    It's just not old school. I've played plenty of games with plots, goals, and villains in mind, and they were quite fun. It just wasn't anywhere near the type of play that was more typical in the beginnings of the hobby.

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  23. “Here's a question: what if the PCs just don't care about the goal? What happens then?”

    Well, honestly, his group expects (perhaps even wants) to be given a quest. If you threw a sandbox style campaign at them without first explaining what it was and how it was different than what they expect, they’d flounder. They might even grumble that the DM isn’t doing a good job.

    Plus, he usually works with the players while they create their PCs giving them connections into the world that tend to me that they’ll be more likely to care.

    So, that question is kind of moot.

    Yet, the players all accept that the DM has final say. They accept the DM overriding the rules. They don’t expect that the DM will fudge to keep their PCs alive. They don’t expect him to scale encounters to them. They accept that they will have to suffer the consequences of their choices.

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  24. You know, as much as I hate to admit it, I have discovered that there were ways to play these games that I did consider wrong. As much as I like to believe I’m fair minded, I think I see some ways I haven’t been.

    So, I think I’m beginning to see that “challenge the character instead of the player” might be valid even though I had a really hard time seeing it as such.

    So, I don’t think “new school” is a dirty word. I don’t really care if anyone calls what I enjoy “new school”. It’s not about fashion or fitting in, it’s about figuring out what I enjoy.

    (So, maybe I shouldn’t be in this particular discussion at all, but I think I’ve got things to learn from it.)

    The original Greyhawk campaign had Xagyg. It had a goal (stay alive and gather treasure/power). With the Giants/Drow and Temple, there were plots. So, I’m not convinced these elements are so atypical of play “back in the day”.

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  25. So, have I described an "old school" game or a "new school" game? (Or other—need more info, &c.?)

    I think campaigns like that can be old school, but I'd wager that, in most cases where the referee has taken the time to create a "goal" for the campaign, he'll soon become invested enough in that goal that he'll start trying to ensure that that the players achieve that goal, possibly even in a certain way.

    I don't think this is a certainty, of course; skilled referees can keep the set-up you describe thoroughly old school, but there's a danger I see in ascribing a goal to a campaign independent of what the players decide through play.

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  26. While “must be a sandbox” could be a criterion for “old school”, I’m not sure it is one I’m comfortable with.

    I think sandbox play is probably the most "pure" form of old school play. After all, the classical dungeon, as a setting, is usually devoid all but the thinnest context and lends itself only to the "goal" of staying alive and getting rich/powerful. Likewise, well-designed old school dungeons let the players decide the proper risk/reward ratio they wish to undertake, by including lots of means to go from the easy, initial levels to the harder, deeper ones. It's very primal.

    I don't think sandbox style is the only "true" form of old school play, but I think it's the one that offers the fewest temptations for the referee to start directing the action and acting like a storyteller in which his players' characters are the protagonists.

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  27. To clarify. Not Old School =/= EVIL

    It's just not old school. I've played plenty of games with plots, goals, and villains in mind, and they were quite fun. It just wasn't anywhere near the type of play that was more typical in the beginnings of the hobby.


    Indeed. I should make clear that I have played and enjoy more new school approaches to roleplaying, but I recognize them as such. One of the things that irks me about 4e, for example, is the way so many of its proponents claim that it's somehow "old school," when it's clear that it's not. That doesn't mean it's a bad game or the people who like it are somehow deluded in their enjoyment of it. However, "old school" is a lot more specific a term than many people think it to be (or would like it to be) and I can't really think of any games published in the last 10-15 years that qualify. That's not a judgment against them, but merely a statement.

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  28. The original Greyhawk campaign had Xagyg. It had a goal (stay alive and gather treasure/power). With the Giants/Drow and Temple, there were plots. So, I’m not convinced these elements are so atypical of play “back in the day”.

    Leaving aside the fact that I think "stay alive and gather treasure/power" is too thin to be properly called a "goal," I agree with you. The difference, in my opinion, between what you saw in the old days and now, is that there used to be a common understanding that having a goal wasn't an excuse for the referee to arrange things so that a desired result occurred. Most people didn't analogize roleplaying with "being the hero in a book" or "the star in your own movie" or any of those other things people say nowadays. There was a much more "picaresque" quality to campaign than is used nowadays, which is why I think presuming a goal or a narrative at the start is usually a sign that the campaign will not proceed along old school lines.

    Not that there's anything wrong with that.

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  29. Hello, I've enjoyed reading your blog since I discovered it several days ago. I've read almost every single one of your blog entries. (Except for some of the reviews and the ones about contests.) To make a long story short, I agree with almost everything you've written. You have inspired me to start my own blog about gaming. I'm in the process of recounting some of my early experiences and will soon start writing about "old school" gaming and how it contrasts with "new school."

    (Forgive me for pimping my blog. But I think that you folks might find it interesting. I'm really enthusiastic about this subject. My reasons are too much fit into one comment here. Hence, my blog.)

    Anyway, I come from the perspective of a gamer who started playing D&D in 1981. I stopped gaming for a while and then started up again several years ago. Since then, I've noticed that times have definitely changed with regards to how modern gamers play D&D. I have been in the process of catching up with what's going in the gaming culture.

    In short, I don't like what I see. It's taken me a while to fully grasp what it is that has bothered me about it. And I'm so happy to see that there are other like-minded people out there.

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  30. There was a much more "picaresque" quality to campaign than is used nowadays, which is why I think presuming a goal or a narrative at the start is usually a sign that the campaign will not proceed along old school lines.

    I think the word picaresque is absolutely key to understanding the orientation of PCs to the milieu in old school style play.

    Many if not most of the pulp "heroes" that influenced early RPGs and character archetypes (Satampra Zeiros the Master-thief, Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser, and Cugel the Clever, most saliently) are all cut from the same cloth as Picaro. They don't have preordained destinies at all, their goals are almost always short-term, and they often are worse off materially and otherwise at the end of each episode in their adventures than before. Survival itself is their reward, and if they escape a gory end and grab a few gold coins or a magic item along the way, it bites them in the arse later on and spurs more hijinks.

    Conan, Elric, and some others fit this mold less well, of course.

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  31. I just realized that I totally forgot to makes my point, which is that the D&D character and the pulp hero share one destiny, which is continual ADVENTURE. Even the Eternal Champion (and who could have a bigger destiny..?) is doomed to struggle eternally. This is why I believe RPG characters should become NPCs once they settle down and establish a stronghold.

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  32. One of the great pleasures I always got from playing in more plot-driven games was the moment when you knew the group had diverged from the plot - often deliberately and abruptly. The DM might have had a prison break in mind, but instead the players derailed the tumbril, blinded the guards and/or summoned demons to carry them away. That just can't happen when there is no plot: a certain amount of emergent story is possible, but (in my experience) the story gears never really mesh where there's no plot to interact with (not "march through," interact with - it's an important distinction and one that I think is lost in this discussion). Long-term goals imply a long-term story/plot (not necessarily one on rails). Without them one can only make tactical decisions, not strategic ones.

    RPG characters should become NPCs once they settle down and establish a stronghold
    I think this could be a terrible waste, actually: the "points of light" conceit seems perfectly adapted to settling and expanding, to a style of play that really shares something with a military campaign. So you've cleared the goblins out of that old dwarven stronghold: if you don't occupy it, more goblins will move in. If you do, then you've got a place to keep your hirelings, a base for expansion, and home turf that needs defending. Sounds like complicated fun to me.

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  33. That just can't happen when there is no plot: a certain amount of emergent story is possible, but (in my experience) the story gears never really mesh where there's no plot to interact with (not "march through," interact with - it's an important distinction and one that I think is lost in this discussion). Long-term goals imply a long-term story/plot (not necessarily one on rails). Without them one can only make tactical decisions, not strategic ones.

    That's why I called my post "No Guarantees." There is no guarantee that a story will emerge from campaigns that are not plot-driven, but they can and often do emerge. I've seen it too many times to deny that it's a strong possibility. And in almost every case, the emergent story was much more interesting (to me anyway) than any one referee might have constructed beforehand.

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  34. Thank you all for what is a very provocative discussion. I'm just a little confused about terminology here.

    When we talk of goals that the DM lays out for the PCs, are we referring to goals at the level of the campaign or the specific adventure?

    In my understanding, the term "campaign" refers to an ongoing, open ended sequence of activities that the PCs engage in over a prolonged, potentially infinite, span of time. At this level, I don't think that the DM should impose or even suggest any sort of story arc or master plot.

    But at the level of the individual adventure, it seems to me that the DM has to offer the PCs a goal or choice of goals of some sort (quests, missions, objectives) just to get the ball rolling.

    To be sure, the PCs should be granted utmost flexibility when it comes to deciding how they interact with this original premise, but I'm not sure how we could completely dispense with DM initiated goals. Moreover, the DM inevitably creates a context within which some choices are going to make more sense than others.

    I just want to make sure that I completely understand the terms of this discussion. Does a sandbox approach to gaming mean that the DM does not present the players with goals and objectives at the level of the individual adventure as well as the entire campaign?

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  35. Although my friend’s campaigns have no guarantees, I think I would agree that they are not “old school”.

    I’m tempted to call it “middle school”. I think it does reject some new school concepts and embrace some old school concepts, but it is influenced more by Arthuriana and Tolkien than the old school.

    Though part of me feels I should just stay away from the “school” terminology. ^_^

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  36. On goals

    There is an interesting tension in this discussion between being influenced by the source literature but recognizing that literature is literature and games are games. No?

    Anyway, let’s take a look at goals in pulp fantasy stories. I would venture that the general pattern is that the hero comes into the story with his own goal. (Rob the Tower of the Elephant) The goal that actually ends up driving the story, however, is one that he chances upon. (Destroy the evil sorcerer.) This secondary (though primary to the story) goal may be something he is forced into (kill or be killed) or something that he chooses (righting a wrong; destroying something that should-not-be). In any case, it is something he couldn’t have really conceived as a goal at the beginning of the tale.

    If I try to apply this to the game, then I imagine each player coming up with some general goals for their PC. Accumulate treasure. Seek out and destroy evil. Build political power. Seek hidden knowledge and magical power. Civilize the wilderness. (All of which we see at least hints of in oD&D itself.)

    The PCs are then presented with the DMs world. They look for ways to seek their individual goals in that world. (Rob the mysterious jeweled temple. Clear the dark forest. Seek the late archmage’s hidden lair.) It’s the players choice, however, how they pursue their individual goals in the context of the DM’s milieu.

    As the PCs uncover secrets, they discover other goals. Sometimes they’ll find themselves in a tight spot that they have to face in some way. Sometimes they’ll have the choice to take on such secondary goals or ignore them.

    I dunno. Maybe it’s too late to be posting, but this seemed to make sense when I started it. ^_^

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  37. I just want to make sure that I completely understand the terms of this discussion. Does a sandbox approach to gaming mean that the DM does not present the players with goals and objectives at the level of the individual adventure as well as the entire campaign?

    It means you adapt your plot to the actions of the characters. You look at what they did in previous sessions and extrapolate from there.

    What you don't do is force your players towards the specific ending of the specific plot you created before the first session.

    For Borderlands in Points of Light is about two factions of a religous civil war. The leader of the "evil" guys is Count Travlin.

    Before running your campaign around Borderland you decide that the big ending will be a fight with Count Travlin during the seige of Tromar the good guy's castle.

    1/3 of the way through the campaign. The players sneaking around Darcion, the bad guys capital, and they meet with the noted outlaw Michael Greene.

    You intention with Michael Greene was to feed information about Count Travlin to take back to the good guys.

    However in the 2nd session the players unexpectantly comes with a reasonable plan that would allow them, with Michael Greene help, allow them to sneak and kill Count Travlin. Thus short circuiting the big climax you had planned.

    If the story is above everything else then then you would come up with enough obstacles so that Count Travlin doesn't die. Because the point of the campaign is to have that big fight at the siege of Tromar.

    If the plan is obviously good then the player will see this as railroading.

    A sandbox GM will accept the fact the players have come up with a good plan. Setup the challenges that would normally be found, probably hard.

    Then if the dice rolls work out and the players kill Count Travlin he would continue the campaign from that point with a drastically altered plot.

    Rob Conley

    P.S. One reason that some Sandbox DMs, like myself, like to detail their world to the Nth degree. Is because sometimes the players will try some damn fool thing, and when it fail spectacularly whine how the GM is railroading them.

    With the stuff written down the DM can show it and say "Look I had it planned long before you decide to hit Master Merchant Yelnoc Trebor's House. Your fault you didn't try to scout the place first.

    My own personal example is the city guard of Viridstan are chasing the players who are separated. One of the players goes down a blind alley.

    Hearing the guard he ask me Rob I find a door and go through it. I looked on the map said "Sorry no doors". Ok I find a window the player replied. Again looking on the map. "No Window"

    The player then goes oh come on Rob there had to be something here you are just messing with me. I go look at the map yourself. Here are the symbols for windows, and here are the symbols for doors. There are no doors or windows in that ally I am sorry.

    The player sat down and said "Damn I am in trouble."

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  38. The resourceful DM who is for some reason committed to that final showdown scene allows them to kill Travlin, but in doing so find a clue that hints he was merely a puppet for a behind-the-throne kingmaker. That way everyone's happy: the players get to take meaningful and surprising action, advancing the plot, and the DM is still on course for a showdown either with the power behind Travlin or with his successor-puppet. I don't see anything wrong with this sort of manipulation, although it's probably reprehensibly non-old-school. Of course, you can't let on.

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  39. First off, wow.. what a wonderful and fun discussion. Some darn smart gamers here.

    Next, my 2 cp.
    I think the transition from "old school" open ended style games, to plot oriented story style games came about for fairly organic reasons. The first generation of gamers, the "Grognards" as James names them, entered into a hobby dominated by adults. They were much more likely to have an older experienced DM. And running an open ended game is hard. Especially hard for the next batch of gamers, those who started with the Holmes box or the Basic/Expert D&D set, who I believe were much less likely to have an adult DM. More likely it was the oldest kid, or the one who owned the books. And it is much easier for an inexperienced DM to run a more rigid game. Especially when you're dealing with teenagers

    That being said, I like the earlier poster's term "middle school", to describe a game with an overarching plotline, but with plenty of room for improvisation on the players and DM's part.

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  40. Richard,

    That's almost as bad. It is still forcing the players towards some specific goal. In some ways, it's worse because now there is nothing fixed in the setting.

    Frank

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  41. That way everyone's happy: the players get to take meaningful and surprising action, advancing the plot, and the DM is still on course for a showdown either with the power behind Travlin or with his successor-puppet.

    Are you sure the players are happy? Did they get to take meaningful action?

    I think the answers are "maybe" and "not really". Sure, you can say "what they don't know can't hurt them" but what if they find a clever way to take out the power behind the throne early? Do they find the power behind them? Ad infinitum? Once will be fine but the second time the players will start to fell like their chains are being yanked and might decide to let those powers just take over.

    Certainly set the world in motion and plans within plans are part of politics but creating them to replace, whole and unmolested, the bad guy the players beat before you wanted them to (as opposed to new people filling the vacuum) isn't allowing them meaningful action. It's telling them you'll decide when it's meaningful.

    I really think some of Ron Edward's articles, from a guy at the heart of the indie movement, have the most honest assessment of how these kind of things play out. Especially this line from fantasy heartbreaker (which I'm sure I've quoted here before but it bears repeating:

    Each of these games is clearly written by a GM who would very much like all the players simply to shut up and play their characters without interfering with "what's really happening." They are Social Contract time bombs.

    While I don't contend his answer is the only or even the obvious one I think he's got the disease down. I think your solution is very much in the "quit interfering with what's really happening" school.

    That doesn't mean it's bad. Lots of people enjoy it based on it's commonness. However, I don't think the kinds of players looking for sandboxes or old school styles are among them.

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  42. Blotz,

    I started as a teenager from the Holmes box. I had no trouble running an open ended campaign. I did use modules a lot, and a session typically started with me showing up with module in hand. But once that starting point was set, it was up to the players how they interacted with the module.

    I did go through various phases of fudging to save the PCs, but very little fudging to save my "story."

    I have had an occasional situation where the players balked at a particular module. Sometimes I would just roll with that, but sometimes. The most notable time being with my Arcana Unearthed campaign which took tremendous prep) I had to state that if we didn't play the module at hand, we would basically have to skip the session. The interesting thing in that case was the impasse was caused by a player with an inflexible PC background. The player wanted to force HIS story, never mind whether it really fit within the campaign (in fact, it assumed a specific role for one of the races that was opposite the role I had determined). Oh, and that player had originally said he would not be at the session, then did show up and suddenly wanted to pursue HIS goal. That campaign died shortly after.

    I could point to the first time I ran D&D at a convention and wound up with 16 players, many (most) of whom were older than me (I was about 16 at the time). At the end of the session, I was complimented on handling the various directions the players dragged things. All I came to the session with was a dungeon. Now it helped that I had had a smattering of mentoring from older players prior to this, but nothing compared to the mentoring that would follow.

    Somewhere in those early gaming years of mine, I figured out that D&D could never generate the same kinds of stories that books had. I realized that a book story is created by a single person while an RPG story is created by many people.

    Frank

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  43. Are you sure the players are happy? Did they get to take meaningful action?

    well, that's all down to the social end of DMing, IMHO: the kind of thing the DM got spectacularly wrong in James' next post (An Example). If the players can see behind the curtain (in your example, because the DM runs out of new ideas and repeats an old one), then they're probably not happy (or if they are, they're avowedly "new school"). If they can't then they don't know that they aren't "beating the module" exactly as they should be. My comment was supposed to provoke a "no" response from people who are committed to the RPG being a game/arena of players vs dungeon (or mystery, or enemy army or whatever). This view plays up those aspects of RPGs that are like board games, with stable setup conditions and victory conditions. It was also supposed to provoke some thought about what an improvised affair DMing is once you get out of the pre-built dungeon, however, and about whether adventuring is so much like board-gaming.

    Did they do anything meaningful? Well, the players are co-creating the world: now there's an added layer of complexity in the evil court that wasn't there before. Maybe they've uncovered some surprising source for the evil. Keep that up and eventually you'll have a place so interesting players might want to draw their characters from it in future, and they helped build it (hopefully partly in ways less crude than the example I gave).

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  44. They are Social Contract time bombs.

    Shorter, clearer version of above comment: I think there are ways to sandbox, or collaboratively create, plots and stories as a dialogue between DM and players. Between the ideal cases of (a) no pre-written plot: all story is emergent through the players' actions and (b) railroading the players through a pre-written movie script there are all kinds of possibilities for fun. James has made a prescriptive statement: no guarantees, and I think he's basically right - if the DM thinks he knows the outcome in advance he's probably (a) doing it wrong or (b) in for a very challenging time, but that doesn't mean he can't have some idea of where you might be going. And if he somehow wangles you into that showdown encounter without tripping your bullshit detector, is there anything wrong with that? Isn't the real question "did you have fun getting there?"

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  45. So as an example, how might Ben's West Marches (ars ludi) fit into this template?

    Seems to me that it's rather rigid from it's inception. Am I wrong?

    To be perfectly clear, I love Ben's idea. I'm going to be using it in essence, but there are some holes in it that don't work well with what we've been talking about here.

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  46. Frank

    You were luckier than I was. My early D&D career, especially in school where one was often forced to play with people you didn't really like or who didn't like you (yes, even nerds have cliques), was so frustrating that I gravitated to more story based gaming out of simple survival. In fact I stopped playing D&D altogether and moved to Champions or Gurps for almost a decade until I fell in with the my current group. One which has been pretty stable for about 15 years now.

    Another thing that I think drove people away from "old school" gaming was the bad reputation D&D developed for hack and slash monty haulism. At my HS, our gaming club, the poorly chosen "Simulation Gaming Club"(insert your own joke here), couldn't even get into the yearbook until I was a senior because we could not convince anyone that what we were doing was even a little serious. They just saw us as a bunch of geeks who liked to pretend to kill monsters and take their stuff. So there may have been a natural tendency to move away from that style of gaming due to outside social pressures. And nobody at the age of 17 is immune to outside social pressures.

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  47. In my understanding, the term "campaign" refers to an ongoing, open ended sequence of activities that the PCs engage in over a prolonged, potentially infinite, span of time. At this level, I don't think that the DM should impose or even suggest any sort of story arc or master plot.

    But at the level of the individual adventure, it seems to me that the DM has to offer the PCs a goal or choice of goals of some sort (quests, missions, objectives) just to get the ball rolling.


    I think that's an excellent distinction and one well worth keeping in mind.

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  48. Though part of me feels I should just stay away from the “school” terminology. ^_^

    That's fair enough. I only use it because 1) it's common and 2) I do think we're talking about "philosophies" here, so the usage seems appropriate.

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  49. So as an example, how might Ben's West Marches (ars ludi) fit into this template?

    Hard to say, since I've only skimmed the relevant posts on Ben's site. I should examine them more closely.

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  50. Then perhaps the campaign was really a success. No amount of philosophy of any school will teach you how to be a better referee than actually diving in and making mistakes. ^_^

    Ask him how he would handle it differently in hindsight.


    This is true, but that's small consolation to those of us who entered the campaign expecting it to be one sort of thing and found it to be another entirely.

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  51. But I still dislike the OD&D mechanics. =P

    That's a different topic for a different day :)

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  52. Not to sound a little bothered, but flags is the needless enshrining in rules what should be the natural process of the PCs emphasizing, through their actions, what they want to do to a GM who should be paying enough attention to run with it.

    I agree. On the mechanical side of things, this is one of the dividing lines between the old and new schools -- the needless enshrining rules of "natural" processes. My guess is that the new school arose, at least in part, due to the breakdown of these processes, although exactly why that breakdown occurred I can't quite say yet.

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  53. For now, I'm soaking in 4e. I like how the rules are simpler than 3.5e. I intend to use 4e for 0e-style campaigns.

    OD&D's rules are simpler still -- if what you're after is truly simplicity, but my guess is that most people who prefer 4e to OD&D aren't in fact looking for simplicity.

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  54. My guess is that the new school arose, at least in part, due to the breakdown of these processes, although exactly why that breakdown occurred I can't quite say yet.

    Or disagreements about what constitutes natural processes and what doesn't.

    For example, I think when the C&C gang says SEIGE duplicates every thing the feat system in 3.x does without limiting people. When people bring up "but all X are the same" you hear "roleplay it".

    There are times I think things should have mechanical effects, such as a signature move that no other character has (which the feat system doesn't do, I know). It's a signature move for a reason: the character knows it brings success to him. So finding a way for something the player develops as a signature move to get mechanical bonus to me isn't replacing but reinforcing.

    I think the desire to reinforce or acknowledge natural processes as much as them breaking down is part of it.

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  55. My guess is that the new school arose, at least in part, due to the breakdown of these processes, although exactly why that breakdown occurred I can't quite say yet.

    That could be quite a topic. My quick thoughts on it.

    1. The difference from learning the game wholly from the book vs. having some link to Lake Geneva (or perhaps the wargamer → RPGer vs. starting with RPGs split)

    2. Forming expectations about what the game should be like without understanding why it was the way it was

    3. Adapting the game to genres other than pulp fantasy (e.g. Tolkien)

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  56. I'll add:

    4. A different set of priorities on what should be "roleplaying" and what should be "game".

    It's similar to your #2, but I think captures a lot of the early variants. Look at T&T or C&S compared to early D&D for very different directions. T&T is especially interesting as it very much draws on the same source literature but is very divorced from wargaming and thus draws the R box and the G box differently (yet remains "old school" by many measures).

    For example, T&T has a lot more player power in the Saving Roll system by stating you can try one for anything (a "there should always be a chance" philosophy) and by giving experience for SR and monsters but not treasure.

    You could say T&T rewards being heroic more than D&D based on that. When treasure is the main source of XP you look for the easiest path to it (sneaking over fighting) but when trying various stunts is the main source of XP (depending on how you do monsters in T&T it can be) you try to find ways to do things that are interesting.

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  57. Or disagreements about what constitutes natural processes and what doesn't.

    Almost certainly.

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  58. That could be quite a topic.

    Most definitely! I'm sure it'd be a contentious one as well, but the best topics for discussion usually are.

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  59. 4. A different set of priorities on what should be "roleplaying" and what should be "game".

    This is true. I'm of the increasing opinion that so much of what we lump under the term "RPGs" have about as much in common with one another as all the games you could lump under the term "card games." They're superficially similar, have common/parallel histories, and draw from a shared pool of mechanics, but are in fact many different types of pastimes.

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  60. I'm of the increasing opinion that so much of what we lump under the term "RPGs" have about as much in common with one another as all the games you could lump under the term "card games."

    Hmmm...except for some fairly out there indie games I'd say they occupy a space about as wide as all the trick taking games as opposed to all card games.

    Still, that means we have RPGs as spaced as spades, hearts, whist, and contract bridge. To the uninitiated they're the same (as opposed to poker which is clearly different) but to anyone who knows them the idea they are the same is dubious.

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  61. Still, that means we have RPGs as spaced as spades, hearts, whist, and contract bridge. To the uninitiated they're the same (as opposed to poker which is clearly different) but to anyone who knows them the idea they are the same is dubious.

    Just so.

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