Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Matt Finch Podcast

The Game's The Thing has a nice interview with Swords & Wizardry creator Matt Finch. It's well worth listening to.

13 comments:

  1. Interesting interview. The idea of the 'essential campaign arc' of old-school games (culminating in high combat effectiveness and wealth-acquisition, basically, and the establishment of a freehold/fiefdom) is certainly distinct from the built-in arc of modern D&D (in which the world is saved a few times, and godhood achieved).

    But ironically enough, I'd say there's an unacknowledged-in-this-interview generational split among 'new school' gamers - well, there are several, but one springs immediately to mind - namely between very young players who view RPGs as optimizable combat games and those in their late 20s/30s who (for whatever reasons) quite happily play 4e and the like, but have no taste for the video-games-derived (and M:tG-derived) optimization approach of the young'uns.

    I still think Finch's Primer is a failure in the terms he's set for it, i.e. it's far more dismissive and chest-puffing than he's acknowledged. But this interview is a listener-friendly 'soft landing' by comparison, and makes the Primer more useful and palatable.

    Of course, the conversation is as limited as every such (e.g. the D&D retro-clones have a large amount of baked-in juvenile nonsense which almost all old-school breast-beating tends to gloss over), but it was nonetheless a good listen.

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  2. "the D&D retro-clones have a large amount of baked-in juvenile nonsense which almost all old-school breast-beating tends to gloss over"

    Oh, please do tell what exactly you're talking about here. I'm dying to know.

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  3. D&D has from its beginnings been a juvenile game - in its (implied) setting(s), morals, goals, power-increase model (wealth=experience? come on), magic model, sexual and racial assumptions, hide-n-seek model of exploration, etc., etc., etc. It's an adolescent power fantasy, and not a terribly complex one; starting with 4hp instead of doesn't change that. (After all, your fragile wizard is capable of making missiles out of air and making people he doesn't like fall asleep using only his mind.) That's not terribly interesting, nor should it be a surprise.

    The implication (and frequent explicit claims) among 'old school renaissance' folks that there's something more complex/adult about the Old Ways involves glossing over these problems, which have existed from the birth of the hobby. The same middle-aged men who laugh at teenagers for optimizing their characters' stats happily return with their friends to silly nonsense like Keep on the Borderlands.

    Not to say these things don't have value, but the difference between 'old school' and 'new school' approaches to Dungeons & Dragons is relatively small compared to their thematic similarities and shared silliness.

    Is this clarification really necessary?

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  4. @Wally

    Ok, but you're assertion would be more effective if you contrast D&D with another game/s. Just out of morbid curiosity what is a mature game to you? A specific game, not a hypothetical.

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  5. @Wally: Your ideas are intriguing to me and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

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  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  7. Wally,

    I have warned you before about your tone in the comments here. This is your last such warning: either behave in a more civil fashion or your comments will no longer be welcome here.

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  8. heh.

    I'm quite happy in the knowledge that I play GAMES for fun. In what way is it surprising that an acknowledged escapist activity is in part composed of power fantasy? Sheesh.

    At times bits of myself show up in games; a mistrust of authority, moral relativity, anti-oppression ideas all have shown up as color but rarely as full on themes. Well, ask my players.

    Back on topic:
    I passed on the interview to one of my gaming groups where we've been having something of a dialogue on what 'old school' means to us.

    I particularly liked one of Matt's criteria on old school: player freedom, not just on describing actions but on creating their goals and objectives. I'm co-DMing a sandbox and choose this form of campaign in direct response to adventure paths and module of the week type sessions.

    word verification: pedler. What, am I selling something?

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  9. @James - Yep.

    @Dan of Earth -

    Ok, but you're assertion would be more effective if you contrast D&D with another game/s. Just out of morbid curiosity what is a mature game to you? A specific game, not a hypothetical.

    While the D&D alignment matrix is an evocative tool and a useful scaffold for beginning gamers to think about the morality of their fantasy actions, a system that proceeds from more open-ended/ambivalent character morality will have an advantage in seriousness. I also appreciate games in which flaws and internal contradictions are baked into the rules rather than hopefully the responsibility of the DM and players. So I'm fond of the simple good/bad balancing in games like GURPS (in which psychological costs can balance physical advantages and vice versa) and the impressionistic character creation in Over the Edge and the Dying Earth RPG (for instance). Plus, Dying Earth explicitly counsels against violence as a problem-solving tool; this is a big win over D&D, in which combat is the rules' primary explicit concern.

    I also bitched about the power fantasy aspect of D&D, which extends in practice to stuff like Vampire (which poses as something else). The various Lovecraft-mythos games aim at something else, a darker fatalism of an intellectual sort, which - with the benefit of decades of hindsight - Ken Hite's Trail of Cthulhu makes quite explicit.

    (These games also demand far more of players in terms of acting, storytelling, and character conception, by dint of their character-creation and task-resolution rules, which privilege psychology over cool.)

    Look, here's my point in a nutshell. When we compare 'old school' and 'new school' D&D, we tend to get hung up on differences of play style, mechanics, Finch's 'old school gestalt' that's about DM fiat and the freedom of players to describe their actions rather than choosing from a menu, etc. But these differences might be much less important than the similarities between D&D editions, the things designers of post-1e editions have been bound to by history rather than design sense/strength. First among those similarities is that D&D's core 'simulated' activity is 'Enter the dungeon, collect stuff, probably kill monsters.' Complexity atop that model is an accident, dependent on the play group.

    I'm not saying Monopoly and Nethack and Candyland and baseball are any deeper. But tabletop RPGs are often touted as more mature or demanding entertainment than other escapist forms, and while that's true of some RPGs, I think D&D is probably more consistently juvenile over its history than 'old school' advocates remember.

    If you feel Firefly is a better and more interesting show than Star Trek, then my insistence on the relative shallowness of D&D should make sense.

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  10. But tabletop RPGs are often touted as more mature or demanding entertainment than other escapist forms, and while that's true of some RPGs, I think D&D is probably more consistently juvenile over its history than 'old school' advocates remember.

    Who claims that roleplaying, old school or otherwise, is "more mature or demanding" than other types of entertainment? I think most old schoolers would balk at that notion, since we're generally the ones who don't care much for "story" and prefer our games unambiguously escapist.

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  11. Who claims that roleplaying, old school or otherwise, is "more mature or demanding" than other types of entertainment?

    To clarify: RPG players talk up their hobby as more 'mature' in the sense of 'more freeform, more "imaginative," allowing for more complex decisions and player agency' and the like. But what's glossed over is the actual content of the actions and decisions in question - the mechanics of tabletop roleplaying appear to allow players interesting new responsibilities, but the morality of the most popular RPGs is generally childishly irresponsible, goth defensiveness about WoD notwithstanding. (Mopey narcissism is still narcissism.)

    Old vs new school distinctions also tend to carry this implicit dismissal of play-by-numbers gaming, but since D&D is the focal point for these discussions most of the time, we should be alert to just how not-terribly-mature the attractive fantasy of D&D's every edition has been. 'I'm totally in charge of this character' isn't that big a win if the character's a paper-thin wish fulfilled.

    And c'mon, James. You obviously believe strongly in (and subscribe enthusiastically to) taste hierarchies, your intellectual understanding of their contingency and subjectivity notwithstanding. Me too! I'm guessing - from your love of RPG play and your work within the profession - that you think RPGs offer something uniquely complex (not just 'extra fun'). I'm saying: 'Sure, some do. But D&D is way further down the complexity scale than this internecine bickering and boundary-drawing might lead one to believe.'

    Diminishing returns have set in here, huh? ;v)

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  12. So... Whether "old school" D&D or "new school" D&D, it's still just D&D, and D&D is silly.

    Thus, instead of using D&D when we pretend to be an elf, we should use a more mature game like GURPS to facilitate our pretending to be elves.

    Gotcha.

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  13. Wally's comments remind me of the age-old sentiment that DnD is not realistic. I went through that phase back in the early '80s, and eventually stopped gaming all together. Other activities became more meaningful to me.

    That said, it seems like every activity has its group that tries to dictate what qualifies as adult, esoteric, utilitarian, pedagogical, realistic, refined, [fill in your adjective here]. DnD is apparently no different. Like James, I've _never_ heard anyone that I know proclaim that RPGs are somehow a more complex / intellectually demanding form of entertainment than, say, playing the game of Life with the kids. However, I _have_ come across many flame wars on the internet that concern what makes for a "better" roleplaying system. I can appreciate the passion on both sides, while simultaneously thinking, "To each their own."

    Me, I occasionally play DnD because its a fun way to socialize with some of my friends. With others I go to bars. With others I play basketball. ...and so on and so forth.

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