Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Old School Essence

I like crunchy rules. So how come in my (short) publishing career I have done so many old school products?

One reason is that I run my campaigns using old school values. The best summary I can find is here

An Old School Primer

My hope here is not to advocate but rather show everyone how I run things in the hopes you find something useful for your game.

The first concept of "Rulings not Rules" is the one where my style diverges. Despite my use of detailed rules my style isn't the one given on Page 3.

The Pit Trap (My Style)
ME: “A ten-foot wide corridor leads north into the darkness.”
William: “We move forward, poking the floor ahead with our ten foot pole.”
ME: “Wait, you don’t have the ten foot pole any more. You fed it to the stone idol.” [if the
party still had the pole, William would have a good chance (bonus to skill check) of detecting the trap]
William: “I’m still am suspicious. Can I see any cracks in the floor, maybe shaped
in a square?”
ME: Mulls this over, Because it’s dark he has to roll perception (at a minus) to spot the trap)
ME: [Rolls the perception rolls for William and he fails] “No, there are about a million cracks in the floor. You can't see anything suspicious.
William: “Okay. I take out my waterskin from my backpack. And I’m going to
pour some water onto the floor. Does it trickle through the floor anywhere, or reveal
some kind of pattern?”
ME: “Yeah, the water seems to be puddling a little bit around a square shape in the floor
where the square is a little higher than the rest of the floor.” [This is the same as the Old School Primer because there is no random element involved here. It going to always work."
William: “Like there’s a covered pit trap?”
GM: “It is square shape on the floor, draw your own conclusion.”
William: “I go up and disarm it?”
GM: “How?”
William: “I don’t know, maybe make a die roll to jam the mechanism?”
GM: “You can’t see a mechanism. [I wouldn't give all the hints the example in the Primer gives”
William: “Can I walk around it?”
GM: “There’s about a two-foot clearance on each side.”
William: “OK then I walk around it.”[No skill roll involved here unless it was very narrow like less than six inches]

The use of skill rolls for a random element is the biggest difference between my style and the traditional old school style. There are two benefits here. First you can make characters that considerably better or worse in various areas. Second even the best fail at trivial tasks and worst succeed at impossible tasks. Third it allows a player to judge the odds for the situation. In the above example what William decides to do when he needs a 8 or better will be very different than if he needed a 18 or better (using a d20), plus he doesn't have to try to guess what going on in my head.

Rather then just a single perception roll I break the action down into its components like in the Primer because that helps with immersion. Immersion is an important goal for me when running my campaigns. That probably one of the prime reasons that Old School rulesets are showing a resurgance. Because using the 1974 rules of OD&D and other similar system the way you are forced to resolve actions enhances immersion. And most players like to be immersed into the character and setting they are playing.

Finally I will add not everything gets a roll. Only situation where there is a possibility of failure. Poking around with a pole for a 10 by 10 pit trap is a task where you have to critcally fail. In GURPs that means you only have a 36 in 1 chance of blowing it. Why even that 1 chance then? Will people get rush things on the 100th trap they are poking for. The door sticks a bit. There are dozens of reasons why a sure thing fails. But realistically you will succeed in the vast majority of cases.

Player Skill, not Character Abilities

I rarely just allow my players to make a roll and be done with it. As in the pit trap example above they need to break down what they do into its components. Plan out the individual tactics to achieve their strategic goal.

Despite my use of crunchy rulesets, much of my game is about the characters roleplaying their way through my setting. Just like a good old school dungeon trap, the players have to plan out how they are roleplay talking to the city-guard, or the local barons, or finding out info on the beggar gang down by the wharves. They have to adapt their plans when they find out not everything is as they expected or they critically fail a skill roll talking to the wench at the Rope and Anchor.

Heroic, not Superhero

The problem I find with superheroic play that it is not sustainable in the long run for fantasy campaigns. By long run I mean for campaigns that last for years. Also it isn't a balance problem either. There are plenty of RPGs that have superheroic play where it just as much of a challenge at the top as it is at the bottom. I find the more superpowers get interwoven into the mix of a fantasy game the more out into left field the game goes eventually breaking immersion.*

The first system I used after AD&D was 1st edition Fantasy Hero.I played a half dozen campaigns using Fantasy Hero in the middle 80s. But after a character was thrown through four brick walls and got up the game was felt to be too comic like. Later editions fixed the problem but by then I have moved on to GURPS.

I stuck with GURPS because it has the right balence of realism, and playbility for me. That high point characters still felt heroic rather than as a superhero.

Note that the issue of heroic realism is why D&D 4th won't be my personal choice for an RPG.

*I want to note that this about the fantasy genre specificaly D&D style fantasy. Other genres, particularly those based on superhero comics have a different set of issues than what I am talking about here.

Forget “Game Balance.”

This was always a hallmark of my Majestic Wilderlands campaign. Not only the player could easily get to place that would kill them in several seconds, in the City-State some aspect of society were more powerful than others. Priests of the various religions overshadowed mages using magic. Dozens of Royal Guards awaited anybody trying to take out the Overlord.

The key for me to make this work again is immersion. In past decade I made sure that everyone had one page of how their character fit in. It had useful stuff like the allies and contacts the character could go to for aid and adventure hooks. As well as warning as who disliked the character and who were their enemies.

This is an example of the type of background I hand out.

Edward's Background

Finally my fantasy setting continues to use standard tropes of D&D. Stuff that I borrowed from over the years (Harn, Ars Magica, etc) serve to flesh out these tropes rather than replace them. The problem I find with settings like 7th Sea, Exhalted, Eberron and others are that there is a learning curve invovled before the players get comfortable. By sticking with standard tropes new players can make assumptions about my setting that are valid. Sure there are differences in specifics but you can go a long way by remember that the core of my Majestic Wilderlands is a fantasy medieval setting with D&D monsters.


Nick said...

Good times. I hope to use these elements a lot in the RC D&D game that I am currently running.

David Larkins said...

I was definitely nodding along with this entry as I read it. I also walk that sort of "middle ground," where I don't reduce things to a single die roll, but at the same time I do call for rolls. I'll assign bonuses or penalties based on a player's description of his character's actions (I guess that would fall under the "ruling" rather than "rules" scheme), but there definitely needs to be an element of chance in my mind.

Having said that, I've actually eased up a bit on calling for rolls. I mean, I was never one to call for a Dexterity roll to cross the street or anything, but GURPS 4e's philosophy of having a skill level represent competency under stressful situations served as a reminder that sometimes it's best to just keep the narrative flowing, even if there would technically be a chance of failure (your example of not calling for a roll to walk along a fairly wide ledge, for example).

James Maliszewski said...

Brilliant. This is getting linked to Grognardia soon. Good stuff.

Jonathan Jacobs said...

"using the 1974 rules of OD&D and other similar system the way you are forced to resolve actions enhances immersion. And most players like to be immersed into the character and setting they are playing."

I couldn't agree more. Stressing the immersion aspect of most table-top RPG's (regardless of ruleset) is key to developing a good game, IMHO. I really think it is less about which rulz you use and more about how immersed your players are in their character's environment. Personally, I'm currently using 4E rule set - but we still have a good measure of immersion even though the RAW lean more towards having the game operate much like a board game. For new DM's (who will likely be using 4E or 3.75/Pathfinder) posts like this are instructional - immersion and imagination are the key elements for fun here. You've pretty much nailed it.

Oh, and thanks for the free LuLu download. Haven't read it all yet - but so far its excellent.

Anonymous said...

Since I have had the privilege of being a player in several of Rob's campaigns I can vouch for what he says. His City-State is a favorite of mine. He can go back two thousand years and tell you the history of things. Immersion is ease when the pool is that deep. Now that immersion can take a deadly dip if taken too deep. Rob, I would like you to tell them the story about the time you made us hunt for a cow. You knew I would bring this up and don’t fudge the dice on that entry because I will be reading. muhaha