Saturday, April 26, 2008


RPGnet's "D20/Dungeons & Dragons" forum is the poster child for how little the average Net-active gamer knows about the history of his own hobby. I've learned all sorts of fascinating "facts" over there that I'd never heard anywhere else, such as that OD&D was a miniatures wargame, for example. Now, I realize that not every gamer is as obsessive as I am about the history of our shared hobby and indeed that the vast majority of them could care less about the whys and wherefores of the past. Still, I find it frustrating when I see erroneous "facts" go unchallenged and used as the basis for bizarre discussions that touch on reality only in the most tenuous ways.

So, it was with some pleasure when I saw old school sage T. Foster pop into a thread about the definition of "Gygaxian." Amidst all the usual nonsense, he offered the following:
solutions coming the player's problem-solving ability rather than the character's stats, casual out-of-character/out-of-milieu anachronism, punning/word-play, and an affected appeal to a very old-fashioned "high cultural/literary" mindset
That's about as good a summation of Gygaxian old school play as I can think of and Mike Mornard, the "Old Geezer" and one of Gary's gaming buddies from back in the day agrees. I can certainly say that my own preferences tend toward the Gygaxian, right down to the old-fashioned literary mindset, which is why you'll hear me go on and on about pulp fantasy and the extent to which D&D has lost sight of its heritage.

The crux of it, though, is this: challenge the player, not the character's stats. That's probably the single most important difference between old school and contemporary roleplaying games. I think that it's at the root of why most old schoolers have an instinctive hatred of skill systems in RPGs. Skill systems often imply not just what your character can do but also what he knows. That creates both a powerful separation between player and character knowledge but also creates the expectation that a character's knowledge ought to be able to give the player the solutions needed to solve in-game puzzles, tricks, traps, etc.

Now, I don't think skill system necessarily have to work that way in play, but they frequently do. 3e is notoriously bad on this score -- beat the DC on a skill check and your character does X or knows Y. The player's knowledge or cleverness is rarely engaged and "challenges" are reduced to game mechanics. I haven't a clue how 4e handles such things, but I'd frankly be amazed if they were more in line with the Gygaxian heritage of the game than they were with 3e's approach. D&D is often accused in some circles of being "gamist," but the history of the game suggests that such narrow distinctions are predicated upon yet more ignorance about the history of RPGs and what Gary and his contemporaries did when they played.

As with all such things, I don't think this style of play is the be-all and end-all of roleplaying, nor do I think it's for everyone. However, I think it's mightily important that players and designers alike know where RPGs came from and what they were like in the past rather than relying on half-truths, misunderstandings, and outright slanders of what came before now. The truth is that old school play is not somehow underdeveloped or inchoate "modern" gaming. Rather, it's a totally different perspective on what an RPG is and how it should be played. But most importantly it's fun. Sometimes that simple reality gets lost in all the theorizing and polemics. If old school games weren't fun in their own right, the hobby would never have survived to reach its "culmination" in this or that contemporary game.

Once again, thanks, Gary.


  1. I have a love/hate relationship with certain elements of Gygaxian style. I love me some "Keep on the Borderlands" and "The Temple of Elemental Evil", but in those Gygax reins it in a bit. His "wacky" stuff is not really to my taste, and if the puns and anachronisms go too far, it ruins the experience for me. Gygax was not as rigorous about the verisimilitude as I am. I can be a real stick-in-the-mud when it comes to that sort of thing.

    That said, I absolutely agree with your larger point about challenging the players. The latest post from Delta's D&D Hotspot briefly touches on this as well:

  2. Verisimilitude is something I used to care more about when I was younger. Nowadays, I revel in anachronisms and out of genre references, because that's in keeping with pulp fantasy, which was far more interested in what makes for a good adventure tale than what "makes sense" within the context of the setting. Now, I don't think verisimilitude necessarily detracts from good adventures -- sometimes quite the opposite -- but I no longer worry so much about it. I have a tendency to be obsessive enough as it is without adding concerns about plausibility in a fantasy game to the list.

  3. I can certainly understand that. It's still at the top for me. Honestly, but for verisimilitude, I'd probably ditch the rules all together and go free-form. Most of my gaming these days can run for tens-of-hours of play time without touching any dice.

    Still, I can appreciate the pleasures of the game as a game. When I'm in the mood for that sort of thing, I'm more likely to turn to board games and such, but even then, I'm likely to turn the game into a story in my head, naming the pieces and giving them personalities. I'm a story-addict, what can I say? ;)

    - Brian

  4. The crux of it, though, is this: challenge the player, not the character's stats. That's probably the single most important difference between old school and contemporary roleplaying games.

    I really wanted to comment on this, because it actually has become a very hard divide for me to cross, and its probably my inexperience as a GM.

    Let's say I'm about to make Character X undergo the "Challenge of Dexterity" by which the player shows his prowess at dextrous challenges to then gain a dexterity attribute boost. I have two options, that I can see:
    1) Provide a skills (dice rolling) challenge which allows him the option to 'try again' if he fails a roll.
    2) Provide a challenge by which the player can 'metagame' and solve by what he knows, not by challenging the player to roleplay his character.

    Now this could be that I'm just not good enough at creating riddles that require solution without dice rolls (and to think I'm challenging myself to do this for all 7 D20 attributes), but it's a really hard thing for me to come up with.

    If I make a puzzle for a 'player' (as a character) to do something dextrous, or something that challenges his constitution, then it seems that I would have to place that chance. We're talking about describing actions. It doesn't put him to chance, it doesn't 'test' his character.

    For instance, one of my dex challenges is to run through a gauntlet and somehow avoid the smashing hammers - or choose to walk the narrowing, wobbly walkway above the smashing hammers, and possibly fall.

    Easy enough to just describe the basics of the room, make the player describe what they might do - but does that seem fun? I don't know - and that's my crux - it's easy enough to challenge someone with a mystery that they have to 'think' about, but if I'm trying to have players do something that is more about 'action', I'm stumped by the choice of either have to submit to the die/demonstration of skills in some form or fashion, or give them the cliche 'puzzle' that they can solve by googling an answer.

    I'm sure I'm just not looking at this the right way, or maybe I want easy answers and maybe there are none.

  5. "The crux of it, though, is this: challenge the player, not the character's stats. That's probably the single most important difference between old school and contemporary roleplaying games."

    That really captures it perfectly. I recently read it, almost verbatim, in the preface to this product:
    Unsurprisingly, you won't find that type of remark in the 3E version of the same module. :)

  6. "Let's say I'm about to make Character X undergo the 'Challenge of Dexterity' by which the player shows his prowess at dextrous challenges to then gain a dexterity attribute boost."

    I'm not sure that you can make a "challenge of dexterity" a challenge of the player instead of a challenge of the character's stats. We'll I could, but I'm not sure that I should.

    I was reading the original Spider-man comic books to my son. The thing that immediately struck me was that each villian was more than a match for Spidey's powers. They just kept getting more so with each new comic.

    Spidey didn't defeat those villians because he had extraordinary powers. Those powers only meant he wasn't instantly defeated. He then had to use his brain to actually defeat them.

    Look at the Fantastic Four. Even with a team of four heroes with fantastic powers, Lee and Kirby created a foe of literally cosmic proportions against whom their abilities meant nothing.

    I haven't thought about it much, but I think the same holds in most Howard or Leiber stories.

    A character's abilities are the color. The window-dressing. It's how the character uses those powers that makes the victory satisfying. Strict tests of ability aren't so satisfying.

    It's in the using those abilities to implement the solution to the puzzle that may involve action.

    I think this also plays into why, as GM, I tend to create obstacles without any specific way for the PCs to overcome them. I throw them a challenge, one that I don't even know if they can overcome. Then I sit back and watch them surprise me.

  7. Re: Challenge the player

    I can speak only for myself and my own experiences as a player and referee over the years, so take this in that light.

    Most of the time when people take about challenging the player rather than the character, they're talking almost exclusively about "mental" challenges -- puzzles, riddles, "moral" tests, and so on. One of the things you need to recall is that, in OD&D, where this style of play evolved, character abilities had almost no game mechanical effect whatsoever. Consequently, the only way to challenge a character's Intelligence, for example, was to challenge the player's. There was not even a hint of a way to mechanize the character's ability to solve puzzles in OD&D, so you instead challenged the player's ability to do so.

    This style of play carried over into AD&D long after ability scores started to be more and more important. AD&D also (mostly) lacked an explicit way to mechanize character challenges beyond combat and so people continued to use the "old ways," even though it was probably possible to abstract the whole thing into a dice roll of some variety.

    My point is that I don't ever recall challenges of Dexterity or Constitution in the old days. Likewise, when guys like me talk about "challenging the player," it's almost exclusively on a "mental" level. I hope some real old timers will chime in on this and maybe provide further insights, because I'm not sure my response is all that helpful.

  8. Challenges to the players also tend to be open-ended, or at least, they are in my games. For instance, instead of a riddle or puzzle that has one solution, a challenge to the players could be something like:

    "Your trireme sank and you're trapped on a tropical island. You can see the mainland just on the horizon. You can also see the many sharks feasting happily on the crewmen who didn't make it to shore. How do you get back to the mainland?"

    The trick is to be open to almost anything. Do they chop down trees and build a raft? Light a signal-fire with all the rum to flag down a passing ship? Have the druid use charm animal to get the sharks to carry them across?

    Games are about making choices. Challenging the players means opening those choices up and putting the onus of a solution on them, rather than the mechanics. For third-level characters, a dozen orcs is a challenge for the characters. They should be able to just wade in, swords swinging and spells flying, and prevail. For the same party, an ancient red dragon is a challenge for the players. How do you convince her to part with the princess? Bribery? Theft? Trickery?

    Now, it doesn't mean you don't touch the dice. Maybe the solution requires the thief to pick a pocket, or the fighter to crack a skull. The sharks get a saving throw against the druid's charm. But the players get a lot more leeway in picking which mechanic they want to use, assuming they want to use any at all. (Check out that article I link to in the first comment, and scroll down to where they discuss how they handled disarming traps.)

    Hope this helps!

    - Brian

  9. For instance, instead of a riddle or puzzle that has one solution, a challenge to the players could be something like:

    "Your trireme sank and you're trapped on a tropical island. You can see the mainland just on the horizon. You can also see the many sharks feasting happily on the crewmen who didn't make it to shore. How do you get back to the mainland?"

    That's what I had hoped to achieve, but now I wonder if I failed in an epic way.

    I had wanted these challenges to test the exact ability that the player(s) would end up getting improved. So if a player wanted to get that +1 to Dex, they had to survive a test of dexterity. Maybe that's the wrong approach.

    For instance, my Challenge of Dexterity starts off with a 'dodge ball' type of corridor, with statues popping out of alcoves off of the corridor and throwing 'balls' at the character. Provided he can dodge them to reach the end of the corridor, then he continues on to the first test.

    Now I had *thought* to force the test to be one of using dexterity (OK, they can catch the balls, roll to see if you catch them; he can jump and dodge around, roll to see if you dodge; he can just outrun them, OK, roll to see if you keep your balance while twisting and turning)... and take away the obvious 'cheats' (the people doing the tests wanted it to be 'pure' ability, no teleporting, magic shields, or melting the statues)... the point was to perhaps get players to not use the heavy nukes but try to figure out how to use 'natural' abilities to overcome obstacles.

    The second test and third test were more of the same... second was "OK, use dextrous abilities to either dodge the smashing hammers or walk along the treacherous walkway" The third test... either silently creep around a circular room with a nasty "whomping willow" in the middle that will apply the heavy smack of tree pain if it 'hears' you... or creep around another treacherous ledge that you first have to climb a rough part of the wall to get to.

    But again, it's all in the ability sandbox, which brings us back to just rolling dice. Is that fun? I don't know...

    Much easier to plot/plan a war party of orcs than to try and invent nefarious challenging puzzles which are fun to overcome, aren't just a bunch of boring die rolls, or aren't just 'forced encounters'. Maybe I need to rethink the whole challenges concept, because troll's example is a helluva lot more fun, and something I should work towards...

    "OK, you want the shiny +1 dex? OK, first go through the corridor of statues tossing balls at you, then figure out how to get through the room of smashing hammers, oh yea, then avoid the tree of grouchiness. Now ... what do you do?"

    OK, *that* sounds like fun.

  10. Keep in mind that the core of all games is making choices.

    Just saying, “Yeah, ok, I enter the arena…” and rolling a DEX check is kinda boring. What you need are ways to let the player make choices that have some sort of meaning in the contest itself, which is where it sounds like you're headed.

    For instance, have you ever read Gibson’s short story “Johnny Mnemonic”? At the end of the story, Johnny’s bodyguard has to fight a yakuza goon on a series of suspended platforms called “The Killing Floor” or something like that. As you run across the platforms, they tilt and twist, make musical sounds and activate flashing lights, to create a sort of post-modern artistic experience out of gladiatorial combat.

    You could do something similar with your Test of Dexterity. The PC must face a foe across a series of suspended platforms. Getting to the higher platforms is of course better, giving you a combat bonus for height advantage, but this requires you to risk making a leap up to them. Also, some of the platforms might be greased, applying penalties to that DEX check, or balanced on a single axel, so that they tilt if you land on the edge. The trick is to navigate the tricky platforms, balancing risk and reward, to get into the most advantageous position for the combat.

    You can also dress this sort of thing up in different ways. “Johnny Mnemonic” is a cyberpunk story where life is cheap and death is easy. When I used a similar idea in one of my campaigns, the players had found themselves involved in the birthday celebrations of a hedonistic fey prince. The combat was a complex pillow fight, rather than a deadly match with weapons, and the loser was the first to fall off the platforms and tumble into a pit of flowerpetals.

    With your hall of hammers idea, you can make it a timed event. They have to get through in one minute. Every six seconds they used timing the hammers, they get a bonus to their chance to pass the next series. So it becomes a question of balancing risk and reward. They can also, of course, try to hack through the hammers, or jam them up and slow them down, something like that.

    Fun comes from being actively involved, and in a game, that mostly means making choices. Letting the players think of clever ways to get through the challenges is not only more fun, it's got lots of mythological precedent. ;)

    - Brian

  11. Chgowiz, I hope this doesn't offend, but this "challenge of dexterity to earn +1 dexterity" is...perhaps...too much of something a DM would come up with than something an entity in the fantasy world would? Two points:

    (1) Passing a dexterity challenge to earn a dexterity bonus seems all kinds of wrong to me as a player. Not even considering that there may be nothing I can do to improve my chances of success. If I have dexterity, I don't need it augmented. (^_^)

    (2) Putting myself in the shoes of an entity able to grant increased dexterity, or similar boons, I'm going to want at test of worthiness (based on my own ideals) rather than ability.

    But I don't know if any of that is helpful. Maybe assuming too much.

  12. @robert_fisher:
    I'm not offended, and your thoughts gave me some reason to sit back and say "why" and it's a good explanation.

    To make a long story short, I'm redoing the Ultima CRPG series into a campaign. Now obviously not everything is going to fit, but I did want to try and make some things work. One of the 'quests' for Ultima 1 was to travel to 'signposts' where you would randomly receive a boost to your stats. Typical CRPG thing to do, as nobody wants to play for weeks and months (well, almost nobody, give me a sandbox like Morrowind and I would... but that's my thing) to get stat increases.

    So I wanted to include that concept in my interpretation. The thought was that you get the award by showing that you have some skill - just as someone who has skill in a sport gets the prize, so it would be here as well.

    Does it seem cheesy? Well, yea... but since we're talking about ancient Sosarians, I could come up with a bunch of justifications that would fit plotwise.

    Now could I remove this and still have a wonderful, immersive campaign? Yep, and I've even thought of a way of granting the stat increase without the 'test', but rather the use of an object at this shrine that is also part of the main campaign (for those you who remember Ultima I, I still have the gems from the Kings as rewards, I could use those as something to use at the shrine to get the stat increase).

    So that's my thought and reasoning behind it.

    @trollsmyth - Yes, that's what I'm trying to get to... give the player something to do that *could* *would* *should* require the use of the same attribute, but I understand the challenge now of presenting the challenge, and letting them solve it, versus forcing them down a path (which a CRPG would probably do... and I'm thinking too linearly.)

    Thanks for the comments. Sorry to hijack the post on my project - but the original point of 'challenging players' kinda brought all this out.