Thursday, October 7, 2010

Modes of old school play

After talking to a few of my friends who are not that keen on the classic frp game setup, gaining gold and fame through spell and sword, I have been thinking of other ways to play.

Way back when I started to play rpgs, adventures were always sorted in three modes of play. Either you played dungeon adventures, wilderness adventures or city based adventures. I think that often we think of "old school" as adventuring in dungeons, even though that must not be the case. Frankly, I have no idea where that three fold model comes from, but it seem to linger on.

Those who claim not to like the old way have told me they prefer cities, and all the things you could do there. Personally being a big fan of Fritz Leiber's works of fantasy, I can see why that kind of setting would be enticing. But, what is it you do in a city you don't do in a dungeon?

Anyone who have been mugged in the dark alley ways of a medieval urban centre, or fought thugs in bars, knows that there are just as many excuses to swing a sword in a city and in a mine or abandoned temple complex. What distinguishes cities is of course the fact they are filled with people.

So, how do you play old school style among people?

I think the kind of game where you speak in funny voices, develop extravagant back stories and interpersonal relationships with NPCs are seen as quite foreign to many old schoolers. Considering we like to talk about games where the rules are more of a guideline than a crutch, older game without skills and "social combat" should be quite fitting, right? No damn skill that stop you from haggling with a merchant in downtown Waterdeep, right? Or is that so?

Having played a few of the "new school" storygames, where the mechanics is usually there to codify much of the interactions between players, and between player characters and non-player characters I wonder how that relates to games like Gamma World, T&T, OD&D and Traveller. Is something missing in those older games that makes them less useful for games in cities, where a lot of the game is about talking to people? Isn't talking to people all we do when we roleplay?


  1. Old school fantasy games in dungeons and wilderness were by default games of exploration; that made it easy for the GM to prep and kept the players focused on a common goal. The city is much harder not because you need rules to help with interaction, but because the GM has to prepare exponentially more stuff to have the same level of detail and if you don't give the players a strong reason to stay focused then party splits become the rule rather than the exception. It's not coincidental that city-based games tend to be much more plot-driven, since that addresses both complications.

  2. I think the kind of game where you speak in funny voices, develop extravagant back stories and interpersonal relationships with NPCs are seen as quite foreign to many old schoolers.

    Not so. The massively complex Empire of the Petal Throne campaign world predates the publication of OD&D, and was formally published in 1975 - only a year after OD&D. As well, Arneson's First Fantasy Campaign hints at tons of background, NPCs, and civilization-building gameplay occurring in the earliest days of OD&D.

    I think the viewpoint that old school games are not well suited for heavy roleplaying is a damaging and fallacious stereotype. I fail to detect a historical or mechanistic basis for this viewpoint.

    I suspect this stereotype comes from the fact that most bloggers and commentators these days started playing these games as kids under the kill-n-loot paradigm. There's nothing wrong with this, but the old games are very flexible and have a lot more to offer than this.

  3. @Joshua: It's true that cities are more difficult to DM than dungeons. However, city gameplay is as old as D&D itself. Traditionally, all EPT games began in the great city of Jakalla. And also we must not forget the epic City State of the Invincible Overlord.

  4. cyclopeatron,

    Note that I claim that "old schoolers" and sceptics of this type of play. I don't claim that the old school type of play is!

    But, like I say the game mechanics for social interaction is missing. What blame it has is up for debate. I wonder why the bloggers and commentators have the position they have.

  5. Joshua,

    Plot driven games do seem to be more common in cities, don't they?

    Sometimes I think the fear of "story" in our blogging circles are hurting us.

  6. I think when OSR bloggers talk about plot and story in a negative way, they're talking more about a railroad situation, such as in the Dragonlance modules where certain plot events have to happen at certain times for the story, etc.

    If I think of plots in city games, I'm thinking more along the lines of what does the duke want with all that silver and garlic, why does the ferryman refuse to ferry dwarves, why does the thieves guild keep following the party?

    I always remember enjoying city based games (Carse and the City State of the Invincible Overlord) because of the freedom to go anywhere, do anything, and talk to anyone.

  7. It's funny, when I was young we played a lot of D&D set in cities, much more than in dungeons. Now, I find it more difficult to do that, and keep falling back on the dungeon setting. It must have something to do with my changing perception of how the game works and was intended to work. I also suspect it has to do with reading so many grognard forums and blogs.

  8. I do think we have created an image of OSR play that always brings us back to the dungeon. Even while I like dungeons, I wonder if this really was the intention?

    Like newadventuresinfantasyfiction say, there's freedom there. The shadow railroading looms high.


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