… and immediately turn into a nerd vs. arsehole flamewar. At the Guardian there’s a relatively fluffy piece describing the D&D edition wars for non-gamers, in the context of the D&DNext announcement. It’s nice to see D&D getting a bit of mainstream attention, even if it is from the standpoint of an incomprehensible nerd conflict. However, within moments the comments degenerate into some arsehole telling gamers they’re a cancer on society:

This, and World of Warcraft, and everything else that attracts people who desire to actually live in Middle Earth, and wear cloaks and swords, and chase wizards and dragons around, is a social cancer. Its only purpose should be to identify such people to facilitate their incarceration in a secure unit. The average cocaine addict is a more productive and useful member of society, and much more fun down the pub. I hate the lot of them, every single one

Remarkably lucid for a comments thread of a major newspaper, but nasty despite that rare moment of English ability. The immediate response serves to put this idiot in his place though:

Looks like someone was kicked out of their guild.

Someone else offers us a list of famous D&D players:

Confirmed Players include Graham Linner, Vin Diesel, Dame Judy Dench, Mike Myers, Robin Williams, Kevin Smith, Joss Whedon, Ewan Mcgregor, Wil Wheaton, Stephen Colbert.

That’s a pretty cool list: imagine a gaming group consisting of Vin Diesel, Judy Dench, Robin Williams and Ewan McGregor, with Colbert as GM. That would be pretty entertaining. What characters would they play?

The author pops up in the thread, which is an awesomely rare event on Guardian “blogs,” and in addition to actually engaging with the audience, manages to explain the LARP game they’ve been running, that is surely too cool to be true:

We run a sort of bespoke, portable zombie apocalpyse with NERF guns. Basically, you get three games starting as a human survivor, and one as a zombie. The human players have to complete a pretty basic mission in order to open the doors/summon the helicopter/kill the massive super-zombie etc. Generally survival rate runs at about 10% if I’m doing my job properly.

We were running it as a day-long event at an abandoned shopping mall in Reading, but sadly we can’t get the venue for the next few months so are looking into an abandoned school and a derelict embassy building instead.

That’s cool!

I think this may be the coolest thread on a culture-related thing that I’ve ever seen at the Guardian. And yet, apparently, gamers are a cancer on society…

Power-creep, OSR-style

While preparing yesterday’s post I stumbled on a discussion of house rules and hit points at Grognardia, where James the Grognard describes his planned house rules for Swords and Wizardry. It’s old and I don’t know whether he ended up using them, but I noticed that his hit points rules induce a very strange, and in my opinion definitely not old-school, distribution of hit points. His proposed house rule is:

Hit Dice are re-rolled upon gaining a new level, but maximum hit points never decrease as a result of a re-roll, although they may not increase.

Example: Brother Candor of Tyche is a 3rd-level cleric; he has 15 hit points. Upon gaining 4th level, he rolls 4D6+4 for hit points. If the result is below 15 hit points, he gains no new hit points this level.

and one of the explanations given in comments is:

One of the goals of this campaign is to keep things as “middling” as possible. I think D&D works best when characters are fairly mediocre mechanically and the hit dice house rule is part of the plan to encourage that.

Now in fact, the hit dice house rule doesn’t do that at all – it does quite the opposite. It’s a fun[1] example of how a little bit of house-rule fiddling with dice can produce a result that is counter-intuitive and/or goes strongly against the original intention of the house-rule. In other parts of his post James makes it pretty clear that he is aware of the basic debate about the way hit points are defined (see e.g. comment 1) and shows an admirable commitment to the concept of abstracted rounds (see e.g. his rules for dual wielding). However, the hit dice design goes against the principles he espouses, and the way that it does this won’t be clear until his PCs reach higher levels. His hit dice rule essentially serves as a hit point boost for early edition characters, and is remarkably generous in the context of those rules. Here I will explain how. This isn’t a criticism of James’s rule,  or of the principles underlying his house rules, just an example of how fiddling with distributions isn’t always a good idea.

Basically, James’s hit dice rule is equivalent to granting all the players the chance to reroll all hit dice that fell below maximum every level. There is still, in theory, a chance of getting minimum hit points but this chance is so vanishingly small at higher levels that it is essentially zero. If you roll for HPs at level 6, you keep your previous roll unless the new roll is higher; but you did the same thing at level 5, and the same at level 4, and so on. This means, essentially, that at level k your hit points are the maximum of (k-1)dX and kdX. But at level 2 your HPs are max(dX,2dX). By induction it’s clear: your hit points at level k are:

  •  max(dX,2dX,…,kdX)

This does not have a central distribution: it reduces the probability of getting small numbers rapidly, and drives the weight of the probability distribution towards the maximum. By the time one reaches very high levels, the most likely roll will be kX+1dX, with a roughly uniform distribution within the maximum range.This is essentially equivalent to giving the players a chance to reroll their level 1 hit point roll k-1 times, their level 2 roll k-2 times, and so on. The chance of a 6 on a d6 is 1/6; if you give a 9th level cleric 8 rerolls of their first level hit dice, they are going to have a very very low chance of getting anything but a 6. This is going to push HP values to the right.

An example distribution is shown at the top of this page: the black line is the empirical distribution for 12d4 rolled classically, while the red line is for James’s version of 12d4. The minimum observed value in 100,000 simulations for 12d4 is 15; for James’s distribution, it’s 21. That’s the equivalent of nearly 3 hit dice for a wizard. The kind of effect this induces is visible even at low levels: Figure 1 shows how James’s system for 2d10 shifts all the probability weight for the fighter from the lower end of the distribution to the middle, with small increases in the probability of higher values. Note particularly that values of 2 or 3 are much less likely just at 2nd level.

Figure 2: Empirical Distribution for 2d10 using two systems (100,000 simulations, kernel density smoother with optimal bandwidth selection)

This power-creep grows with levels. Figure 3 shows how by 9d10 this weight is shifting to the right of the distribution, i.e. increasing the chance of very high values. Of course the effect stops at level 9, but by this time it’s powerful: the minimum value observed in 100,000 rolls is 15 under the classic distribution, and 31 under James’s distribution – the weight is seriously moving towards the right, to the tune of just over 3 hit dice for a fighter[2]. Probabilities of observing values over 60 are significantly higher in James’s distribution, and the most likely values are also shifted to the right compared to the classic distribution.

Figure 3: HP distributions for 9d10 hit dice

I think that the distributions shown here are not what James had in mind when he talked about “middling” values – the method he has proposed creates skewed distributions and shifts the entire distribution to the right, rather than narrowing the distribution and placing it in the middle. The best way to create middling values is to use large numbers of d4s: make Wizard hit dice 3d4/3, and fighters 3d4. Fiddling with maxima and exploding dice is not a good way to create a family-friendly distribution. I’m no OSR expert but giving players a chance to reroll all their hit points every level seems fundamentally at odds with the basic principles of old school play, and thus this house-rule is out of step with its intentions. I guess James was thinking that his method gives a high chance of HPs not increasing at any given level (due to the risk of rolling below your previous HPs) but this is only true if you’ve got average or above-average values to start with. Quite the opposite happens if you started with poor hit points. I think it’s one of those examples where the intuition about dice rolls and the effects are quite different.

On this note, I should point out that although the OSR likes this idea of pushing people into “average” values, the fundamental mechanic of AD&D – the d20 roll – is completely inconsistent with this. It forces high probability into the tails of the distribution, as do the uniform distributions of most damage rolls. It’s also inconsistent with the natural world – almost any experimental system you care to think of has normally distributed experimental error, not uniform distributed. If one is concerned with a “natural” approach to conflict resolution and encouraging middling results, one’s very first act should be to swap d20 for 2d10. It’s surprising that the d20 system has persisted through all the incarnations of D&D given its fundamentally unnatural and abhorrent distribution.

Finally, I’d be interested to find out if James is still using this hit dice rule, or whether he dropped it ages ago when he realized what it was doing.

Methods Note: the empirical distributions shown here were generated in R using 100,000 simulations. All charts are kernel density smooths, using R’s default kernel and optimal bandwidth calculation. Histograms are for losers.

fn1: for statistician-based definitions of “fun”

fn2: I don’t know exactly what the hit dice rules are for S&W – it could be fighters are also d6, but because all dice have a uniform distribution the effect is consistent – it’s only the exact magnitude of the power creep that changes.

Noisms at Monsters and Manuals has written a comparison of gaming systems with political theories, dichotomized into “top-down” games (D&D 3rd Edition) and thinkers (Marx) and “bottom-up” games (OD&D) and thinkers (Hayek). Noisms makes it clear what side he falls on (he’s a “bottom-upper,” oo-er), which he characterizes as “the right” (vs. “the wrong”), but even if you swap sides or dispute the particular product placement (I don’t believe Orwell is a bottom-upper, and others dispute Marx in the top-down category), the idea is interesting and has some bearing on a few common topics in the role-playing world. Noisms isn’t clear in the post about what this top-down vs. bottom-up distinction means, but in comments he adds:

The phrase “bottom-up” as I use it here doesn’t refer to the position of the agents of change on the social scale. It refers to the nature of the social change (i.e. not planned, emergent, incremental, intuitive)

which seems like a reasonable way of simplifying the political theories and the games.

I think in his post though, Noisms is ignoring the importance of structure and planning for achieving emergent or bottom-up change. I think this applies equally well to game systems, and I think a bit of new left anarchist debate (genuine bottom-upping, not the crypto-statism of libertarians like Hayek) can help to inform what I mean.

In essence, “emergent” social change that occurs genuinely without structure or within a limited set of rules leads to a type of tyranny; an unstructured and intuitive game system, without a reasonable extent of rules and systems, leads to a type of tyranny as well.

The Tyranny of Structurelessness

Back in the 1970s the feminist Jo Freeman wrote a little pamphlet called The Tyranny of Structurelessness, in which she described the problems anarchist and left-wing feminist groups faced in trying to do organized political activism from a framework of having no organization or rules. The key phrase in that pamphlet that critiques both the political theory of unplanned emergent change, and (implicitly) the gamer’s ideal of unplanned and intuitive play, is this:

A ‘laissez-faire’ group is about as realistic as a ‘laissez-faire’ society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can easily be established because the idea of ‘structurelessness’ does not prevent the formation of informal structures, but only formal ones. Similarly, ‘laissez-faire’ philosophy did not prevent the economically powerful from establishing control over wages, prices and distribution of goods; it only prevented the government from doing so.

In political systems we temper these effects by putting strict rules on how much can be achieved through individual contracts. You can’t sell yourself into slavery, there are strict rules about inheriting debts, etc. We further, in the modern world, introduce laws about manufacturing and employment processes – such as clean air laws and equal opportunity laws – because it is very very obvious (from long and painful experience) that without these kinds of structures, the powerful ride roughshod over the weak. Without these systems in place, society goes to the rich, the socially connected and the nastiest people, rather than to those who strive. This is the essence of most rational critiques of laissez-faire capitalism and systems of dispute based entirely on property rights and contract law. Creating a blank space for “intuitive” change opens up the social space to being captured, not by the most intuitive in society, but by those with the most power to act on whatever intuitions they do have.

In game terms this difference is summarized by Barking Alien in comments at the original post:

you get games in which the designers/creators try to govern play as much as they possibly can by coming up with a system that can cover many eventualities, and games in which the designers do not do so in favour of devolving the power to arbitrate, as much as possible, to individual DMs/game groups

What this means in practice is that in-game, the power and benefits accrue to the PCs whose players have most sway over the GM. And, given the fractured and socially backward nature of nerd social interactions, this generally means the most socially manipulative, or those with the loudest voices. It does not mean the most creative people, though it may mean this in a well-run group with a judicious and skilled GM. Even then, though, it rewards a particular creative impulse – the desire to express your clear plans in a way that influences the world. But there’s another type of creative impulse common amongst gamers, which is to enjoy the unfolding of the world through your actions even though you are not yourself capable of expressing your aims well. This type of person is stymied by an unstructured system of arbitration.They may be very good at describing what happens to their PC after the event, but not good at suggesting what they do before the event.

In short, this type of gaming rewards the expressive, not the creative. And it is especially vulnerable to exploitation by manipulative and bullying players, who are actually very common.

A good summary might be that, under one system the player suggests an action and then bargains the cost with the GM and/or players. Under the other system, the player suggests an action and then bargains the cost with the GM through reference to a well-structured system of action resolution. The former system rewards[1] good negotiators, while the latter rewards good ideas – or even, just rewards participation, which is what we want from a game.

The main way that this structure is reflected in practice is through the skill system and the magic system. An extensive, well-designed and well-described skill system gives the GM an excellent framework within which to handle novel tasks, to set the difficulty and to distinguish PC roles. And in terms of game enjoyment, the main thing this system prevents is a situation in which a single player gets to do everything, because they’re good at arbitrating with the GM over every single task. In open, purely “bottom-up” systems, the socially confident player is able to seize many fields of action for themself, such as trap-finding, diplomacy, fighting, information gathering, etc. while the shyer or less expressive players stand by and wait for the only time when they can fit their actions to a structure – combat. But once you throw a skill structure onto the PCs, suddenly the player loses the power to do some of these things well, and other players pick it up. Those other players may not express their actions so well, but they get to be a part of the group.

This is particularly noticeable in OD&D, which is one of the few old school games not to have a skill system of any kind. It seems to me that the OSR is full of comments and posts by people who exalt this ability to express actions and negotiate them with the GM over the desire to be involved effectively in a group (in the sense that I mean it above), and I don’t think this is a coincidence.

Essentially in these kinds of games, social ability is like temporal power in the real world, and the lack of structure in the game rewards social ability just as it rewards temporal power in real life. But this social ability doesn’t make you a better person, just a louder one, and shy or ineloquent people should be able to enjoy these games too. I think it was in response to those peoples’ lack of enjoyment of the game that the later systems incorporated much more extensive structure.

The Tyranny of Tyranny

The classic response to Jo Freeman’s article was the pamphlet The Tyranny of Tyranny, by Cathy Levine, that reads like a bit of a gender-essentialist screed (oh, radical feminism, how you have failed women…) and argues, essentially, that structurelessness is a cultural alternative to existing ways of thinking, and that small groups coming together in voluntary association without a movement behind them can both protect themselves from exploitation and generate new (revolutionary) social change. The key quote relevant to gaming would be this:

What we definitely don’t need is more structures and rules, providing us with easy answers, pre-fab alternatives and no room in which to create our own way of life. What is threatening the female Left and the other branches even more, is the ‘tyranny of tyranny’, which has prevented us from relating to individuals, or from creating organisations in ways that do not obliterate individuality with prescribed roles, or from liberating us from capitalist structure

Dropping all the politically specific language here, we find a claim that less rules governing interaction will give more freedom to individuals to create new social organizations and new ideas.

In game terms we see this with the common complaints about D&D 3rd edition, with its extensive feats and skills and every situation covered by a rule, in which people stop thinking about what they want to do and start worrying about what they can do. There is also a strong risk of gaming the rules when they’re at this level, and also of a type of regulatory capture – that if you can get the ear of the GM you can bend the rules in ways that others haven’t, and this will leave you significantly more powerful or capable than everyone else. I think in fact every GM in a system like Rolemaster or D&D 3rd edition has seen this happen – it happened to me in 2nd edition AD&D, for sure. Also, gaming under these rules systems includes a lot of “red tape” in the form of rules checking, character development, etc. that can be seen as a hidden cost or regulatory burden stifling creativity. This regulatory capture and red tape is exactly a common complaint libertarians make against organized social structures, which brings us full circle to Noisms’ synthesis of Hayek and OD&D.

The Balanced Approach: Social Democracy of Gaming

Of course, the most effective model we have for social organization in the western world is social democracy, which protects people from the worst excesses of laissez-faire society while protecting peoples’ freedom of action. Such systems are commonly misconstrued by libertarians as “central planning” or “socialism” (see e.g. Glenn Beck on healthcare), but they’re so far from such a scheme that the comparison is silly. In game terms I think the analogy is with rules-light skill systems, flexible combat and magic systems, and an immediate reward system for creative self-expression (stunting) that isn’t essential for game satisfaction. This rewards all the different social types at the table and guards against excessive effects of bullying and social manipulation without falling victim to regulatory capture or high costs.

In my view the games that best fit this model of a social democracy of gaming are probably the three versions of Warhammer (but especially the third), Exalted, the Japanese game Double Cross 3, my version of the d20 system (or in fact any version that isn’t loaded down with D&D’s heritage), and maybe (? I can’t recall clearly ?) Shadowrun. Original D&D is too unstructured to fit this description, and D&D 3rd edition has piled a huge edifice onto an otherwise quite functional system, so that it carries a high cost in-game and is vulnerable to rules manipulation. I think Rolemaster can meet my conditions for “social democratic gaming” if it’s run by a good GM with a lot of experience, but usually it’s the ultimate communist game – a good idea in theory but it doesn’t work in practice[2].

I think a lot of people who laud earlier versions of D&D are ignoring the often quite toxic social dynamics that sprang up in early gaming groups, and don’t care about the game being available to the shy or the socially inexpressive. I think that just as good GMing has to take into account the social dynamics at the table, good game design has to take into account the many ways the game design can reward or discourage certain types of personality type from playing. Being a good social democrat, I’m all in favour of equality, and I think the game should be available to as many different types of personality as possible, so I think we should eschew strong ideological brands like Marxism or libertarianism, and instead focus on practical, simple systems for enabling everyone to get along…

fn1: by “rewards” here we mean, “provides a chance to act and have your actions resolved in a way that you can have faith in,” not “gets to succeed at the action”

fn: I don’t actually believe this about communism, but I think it’s an excellent phrase.

During my otaku bonenkai party, Mr. Shuto opened one of his many storage cabinets and revealed a huge haul of old school gaming products, almost all Japanese translations of originals, that he had collected from Yahoo Auction over the years. Most were in near-mint condition, some he had never played, and some of them I haven’t seen since I was 12 or 13. Apparently they’re cheaper to collect in Japanese than English (less demand, maybe, or more books in good condition). We were all flabbergasted by his collection, and I thought it might interest English language viewers to see some of them here. Taking photos in the low light of his apartment was a challenge (especially after a few beers) so apologies for the glare and the blur.

Firstly, the Basic-Companion-Master-Expert sets:

Ancient Treasures

The red box in this picture is the first RPG I ever owned, and I had forgotten its contents. Unlike the D&D Rules Cyclopaedia, the red box has the same internal art (which I had forgotten):

Knock-kneed, like every Japanese girl ...

I remember how the pictures in this book opened up my mind to a whole new world of fantasy and adventure – I’d never read an adult fantasy novel before I somehow stumbled onto this box, and though I never got to play it properly (I moved on to AD&D early), it holds a special place in my heart… Mr. Shuto has never played this system, but it didn’t stop him from collecting a lot of modules:

Verisimillitude, in Japanese

Mr. Shuto’s collection didn’t end at D&D though. He also had an extensive collection of Cthulhu-related material (which he has played) and other boxed sets, some of which he arranged for us on his study floor:

Madness in Mie

Mr. Shuto’s boxed sets included some early Runequest, which I think he may have had a chance to play, and which I’ve always wanted to try. I think this is a very early edition, judging by the art:

Undiscovered country for me...

This boxed set included a book of secrets, I think, and elder lore:

Dark secrets in dark languages

My god, that artwork is bad. But such early Runequest! I don’t know how easy it will be to understand the rules, but I’m tempted to try and cadge them off Mr. Shuto and run a session sometime. Running early Runequest in Japanese has to be a rare experience…

Mr. Shuto also collected early Traveller, starting with the boxed set:

Remember this...?

I’ve played a lot of Traveller and I really don’t like the system, but the game itself is so romantic and such a classic representation of the joys of space opera that I will always remember it fondly. The great thing about these Japanese books is that they retain their western form, so looking on a Traveller rulebook for the first time in years could bring back all those thoughts and images from my early games even though only the title was in English:

So simple, yet so much within...

Exploring this boxed set was quite entertaining. Here, for example, is something I could never have imagined I would ever see when I first began playing – a star system map entirely in Japanese:

Find your way through this, intrepid scouts!

The interested reader will note that these games all follow a similar translation process, in which the English language components are often retained and the Japanese translation even subordinated to them. This is the translation style of the main importing company, Hobby Japan, which leaves a lot of the key English words in the translated edition for reference. This pattern has been retained in, for example, the Pathfinder Japanese wiki, which makes it easier for Japanese players to understand what words have been translated how, and also easier for me to read the trickier language. It also means that people who don’t read Japanese can understand what they’re looking at without having to rely on the artwork. This process is particularly important for games like Runequest and Warhammer, because the translation has attempted to incorporate the greater romanticism and historicism of the original works and sometimes includes generating new words in Japanese. They may have deviated from this a bit in early Runequest, and made it a more Japanese-only feel, like the D&D rules cyclopedia, which would make it even denser and more difficult to run an adventure with.

I have a bit of an interest in finding out whether there is a Japanese grognard movement and if so what its principles are. I’m pretty sure that Mr. 123 is a grognard and I’ve previously proposed interviewing him about his philosophy, because I think the Japanese approach will be more inclusive and less movement-ish than it is in the West. I think also the Japanese have largely rejected 4th Edition D&D, from my impression, and are diverting heavily into Pathfinder, partly because the cost of all those splat books is prohibitive but Pathfinder is free in its basic form. I detect zero interest in 4th Edition and in the 6 – 8 conventions I’ve attended never seen it being run. So I wonder if they’re essentially more amenable to some form of grognarding in any case. There’s also usually a very old school Japanese game being run at any convention I go to. Western games seem to be priced very high compared to Japanese ones (which can be very cheap) so it could also be that Japanese gamers reject new editions of games that they like – I’ve seen no later editions of Shadowrun since I came here either. So I do want to explore Japanese grognarding in more detail.

Who would have thought that, having come to rural Japan, I am suddenly exposed to the opportunity to play almost any of the key OSR games that I might want to? A fascinating coincidence of location, here in steamy Beppu… and one I may take avantage of when I have a little more time…

I mentioned previously that I think I have stumbled upon a Japanese Grognard, who I shall call Mr. 123, and it occurred to me recently that I could try and ask him some questions about his attitude towards gaming, his opinion of old school, etc. I’ve noticed that the people I play with here, though generally willing to try new games, are completely uninterested in D&D 4e, though some have made a major divergence into Pathfinder. Mr. 123 recently ran a game using the D&D Rules Cyclopedia, and is a big fan of Warhammer 2nd Edition (which is pretty old school, I think). So he probably has opinions on games and gaming connected with the period of the games. He’s playing WFRP 3rd edition with me, but this could just be because he’s willing to tolerate new rules in order to play Warhammer rather than GM it.

If I give Mr. 123 an interview, the basic questions I would ask would be:

  • The usual demographics
  • His gaming history
  • What sort of games he likes and dislikes
  • Whether he prefers games from a particular generation and, if so, whether this applies to Japanese as well as Western games
  • If he knows anything about the OSR, and if there is an equivalent thing in Japanese games

But I would like to find out if any OSR gamers reading this might be interested in asking additional questions, and if so what sorts of stuff they would like to know. Please let me know in comments!

In a related note, there is usually a Pathfinder adventure at my local monthly gaming convention, run by a Mr. S. This local gaming convention has been running for 25 years, and the most recent event was the 60th meeting (in earlier years it was much less regular than now). I discovered recently that Mr. S has been running this convention continuously for the last 25 years! Beppu has a population of 123000, so I think this is a pretty good achievement – let alone that it’s run by just one person. I wonder if Mr. S is also a grognard, despite his Pathfinder-y-ness? And I wonder if a survey of the local convention gamers might be a good idea…?

Is what happened today, at my monthly convention. I turned up at 9:30 with Ms. Uma, on time, carrying a huge bag of rice balls, and thus well placed to hear the introductions to the various games that were being played today. One of the choices, by Mr. 123, was a session of old school D&D, based on the Japanese D&D Rules Cyclopaedia, which you can see examples of here. Now, Mr. 123 ran a Warhammer 2nd edition adventure, in which I participated, two conventions ago, and now he’s running an OD&D adventure. Which makes me think: he is a Japanese Grognard. I think I will have to interview him about this.

I didn’t play in this session, because another DM was running a session of Double Cross 3, which I’ve been presenting piecewise on this blog, and which I couldn’t turn down a chance to join in (and it was worth the effort). However, during the breaks I managed to have a look at Mr. 123′s presentation style and it was the same for this OD&D session as it was for his warhammer session – a heavy focus on set-piece scenes and talking (as opposed to combat). My Japanese ain’t up to that style of play, especially in a small and crowded room, so I made the right decision (though I sorely wanted to do Japanese OD&D). However, I think it’s interesting if we can identify the presence of cross-cultural grognards. The Grognard scene certainly gives the impression of being transnational, but the possibility that it had hit East Asia hadn’t occurred to me before today. I now need to find out if Mr. 123 shares Mr. Maliszewski’s views on Conan, art, movies and Appendix D… stay tuned, gentle reader…

I don’t know the history or provenance of the Old School Renaissance movement, though it seems from the recent rash of “two years old today” posts to be about 2 years old. No-one in that part of the blogosphere is writing their own history, because they’re too busy writing hagiographies of Gygax et al, but while they may not be too interested in talking about how their movement started they do seem to be very fond of developing their own systems, essentially versions of their preferred flavour of original D&D. This is a pretty interesting project, not least because it’s hard to see how you can have versions of such a simple game – but they’re a creative bunch and I’m sure they can find ways.

This development process presents an interesting phenomenon, as does the renaissance approach to D&D generally. Compared to modern games D&D is very stripped back, and the people playing it in the OSR have gone back to it because they think of this as a good thing. They’re all big on house ruling too, and when they started this OSR process they seemed to have a few common views about a few aspects of the game, particularly to do with skills. The OSR generally rejected skill systems, there was a lot of objection to the thief class and the trend towards “role protection” that it started, and a general belief that all the mechanics of the thief class – picking pockets, disabling traps, finding secret doors, climbing walls, opening locks – should be handled by GM/player interaction. There’s still a lot of talk on OSR blogs about how crap skill systems are and how they should be avoided.

My view of the skill system issue is that skill systems are an essential part of a good role-playing system, and a really important part of making the game flexible and enjoyable for everyone. Sure, if you’re a mechanically-inclined or educated person who is good at arguing with the GM and imagining technical details on the spot then you can do this type of interaction, but in general players aren’t expected to know about the thing their PC is doing.  It’s worth noting too that the players don’t have to be ignorant of these things to fail continuously in game – it just requires the GM to be ignorant. I could, for example, run a game in a modern military setting, with all combat mechanics handled through GM-player interaction, and even if my players were soldiers the game would be a disaster because I would be required to pass rulings on something I know nothing about. That’s why skill systems were invented. Recently, I read an OSR blogger referring to this process as “ask mother” gaming, and it’s true – rulings not rules is a nice idea in theory, but in practice it just leads to a bunch of crap decisions by some guy who knows no more about anything than you do, which given the nature of most gaming groups leads to a lot of arguing and not much fun.

Original D&D had a skill system, of course, but the OSR don’t want to admit it (actually, a few of them do, like at Robertson Games). Combat is clearly a skill system, but outside of this there was the skill of find secret doors, find traps, etc. This can be presented as an act of DM fiat – you roll a 1 on a d6 and you find the door – but in reality it’s just a 6 rank skill system, with racially-based differences in starting rank (e.g. for Dwarves) and no improvements. i.e. it’s an arbitrary and naff skill system, which had the designers any precedents for thinking about, they would have extended to 2d6, applied to a wider range of skills, allowed attribute bonusses on, and given ranks in. They didn’t because D&D being the original game was arbitrary and naff, and needed a lot of exposure to players and their incessant, unreasonable demands before it could become good. It’s worth noting too that a task resolution system based on “GM sets a percentage chance of success, adjusted for how you approach the problem and your class” is a skill system of sorts, with heavy flavours of arbitrarity and stunting. So in  subsequent years, game designers (including TSR) developed new and better skill systems to encompass all the things they discovered their players wanted to do, and GMs didn’t want to adjudicate on. My contention is that this is a natural development in the game, in which the rule systems were modified to do what the vast majority of players want them to do; it’s inevitable and good .

If my theory about the development of the game is correct, open-minded people playing the original games will begin at some point to house rule in proper skill systems as a natural development of the game. So here’s the natural experiment: how long do people have to play Old School D&D for before they run into all these problems, and start developing a functional skill system, superior to the original, which handles all the things they’ve realised players want to do and GMs are uncomfortable adjudicating on?

Turns out, based on recent reading in the OSR, that it’s about two years.

I posted this initially as a comment over at Zak’s blog, but thought I’d put it here too.

There is a common view, I think, amongst role-players of all stripes, that later and newer editions of role-playing games encourage more “story-based” gaming than older ones, or that people who prefer to play later edition games are more likely to be “story-based” gamers. I don’t think that this is a result of system changes encouraging the development of story-based gaming, but a lot of people believe it is due to a kind of gamers’ version of the anthropic principle. When the game started it drew from wargaming, and story wasn’t a big part of it. As it developed over the following 10 years, particularly with the magazine-based theorising (in Dungeon, etc.) story-based gaming became more common. At the same time the systems developed, new ones were released, and obviously products were also released to cater to the wider range of gaming styles available. I think that this diversification, and particularly the interest in story-based gaming and character development, came with the increased maturity of the systems, and the development of the teenage audience into young adults looking for more meaningful social interactions than could be provided by gaming in which each player had 5 or 6 characters that died rapidly (again, I recommend this book as an insight into how the early games were played).

So, when the OSR decided to turn their backs on the later editions, they associated them with this “story” problem. But really the two developed side-by-side. I was doing story-based games with AD&D 1st edition in the 80s, and my reasons for switching to Rolemaster had nothing to do with story – neither did my reasons for switching back to D&D3.5 in the early noughties. I’m pretty confident I’m not unusual in this development process, I’m pretty confident as well that most people who switched away from AD&D 2nd edition did so because it was pretty complex, and more interesting (but often less playable) systems were coming out at that time. We grew up with the game and we diversified with the game.

Similarly this idea that OD&D is associated with regular PC death is also representative of the style of play at the time, not the system. Back when it was a wargaming spinoff, death was all the rage (e.g. the 5 or 6 PCs at a time phenomenon). As the gameplay styles diversified, DMs learnt to balance adventures to match the frequency of death they thought players would bear. It’s perfectly easy to play a D&D3.5 adventure and kill your PCs by the minute. But again, when the OSR decided to return to their 80s roots, they also returned (partially) to that wargaming style, and they associate (probably in some cases blame) the other styles with later game editions – not with, as is probably more likely, the maturation and diversification of a gaming crowd that was largely teenage when the hobby first developed.

Also I think when modern DMs dip into OD&D gaming, they often do so to experience that wargaming style of play, so when people sample OD&D, they often sample it with a particular historically fixed style of play. This doesn’t mean OD&D has to be played that way, or has to be representative of that punishing style of gaming. Compared to pure Rolemaster, OD&D is quite soft, for example. It is exactly the uncompromising harshness of RM which taught me to fudge dice rolls, something the OD&D crowd are very down on. Playing OD&D or AD&D, you can afford to be down on DM fudging (although the AD&D rulebooks are very supportive of this). Playing Rolemaster, not so much…

Anyway the point is that these two phenomena – story based play and the TPK – are not system-specific so much as era-specific. But, because the systems developed with the eras, they two are easily confused.

I am a regular reader of and occasional commenter at the left-wing political/academic blog Crooked Timber, though I don’t usually link my blog to them (the American political blogsophere is a bit scary). Recently, however, I discovered this post on the new Dante’s Inferno computer game, where anonymous commenter noen makes this great claim:

The repetition [in porn and in WoW][1], the dross, is important. It is through the repetition that one realizes the value of the object of one’s desire by failing to achieve it. There is a great deal of the obsessional repetition of “dross” in religious observance also. That’s the whole point.

The goal of religion, porn and gaming is the grinding. It is the core that is the real distraction.

This is surely meant to be an amusing aside, right? But it got me thinking about sandbox gaming, story-gaming, and the oft-repeated claims that D&D 4e has been designed to be like an MMO. Particularly, I notice in the role-playing blogosphere a really serious dislike of story-based gaming. Old-school gamers (who seem to dominate the blogosphere outside of 4e bloggers) are really anti-story. They seem to have a strong preference for individual modules, and for sandbox gaming without a plot. Stand alone modules are often (especially in the early days which the grognards valorize) just a vague story and plot-hook to get the PCs on a treasure hunt – i.e. a kind of pen-and-paper based version of World of Warcraft’s grinding. Story is often associated with the “faggy” elements of the newer games like the “storyteller” systems by White Wolf, not with the “pure” older systems (and yes, I have heard them contrasted in this way). So what’s going on here?

Fragmentary social relations and the Grind

I don’t think this type of play is that popular with role-players. I have played and DMd in earnest since 1986, and I can safely say that I have played in very few sandbox games. The vast majority of gaming I have run or played in has been story-based. Not necessarily of the “kill the bad guy and save the world” kind – indeed some was quite nihilistic – but always with a plot. People like story, and our models for role-playing are mainly novels, which are pretty heavy on the story. In later years I have often played with friends who aren’t hardcore players, and I’ve noticed that the further I drift from the hardcore gaming community the less they care about randomness, system, and sandboxing, and the more they want story, description, description and story.

But my experience was in Australia, where role-playing is not that popular or common and one often has to take what one can get, player-wise and system wise. My best players have (with a few shining exceptions) been almost invariably those who were completely ignorant of system, or the RPG scene. Now, something these people have in common is that they aren’t dysfunctional nerds, and they value coherent, wholesome social interactions.

Then I moved to England, and had within 1 year three really bad role-playing experiences – shitty DMing and shitty playing. Two of these experiences occurred in a story-free, sandbox type gaming environment being run by hardcore old-schoolers (one shitty player was just a classic example of a violent British idiot, so doesn’t really fit due to culturally-specific retardation). It occurs to me that this style of play is very compatible with the fragmentary, meaningless style of interaction which characterizes the social relations of early teen boys – the exact environment in which a lot of players of my age grew up, and which is very nicely described in this book. These are also the style of fragmentary social relations which one sees in WoW a lot – join a group for 2 hours, fuck around, disappear. I think there’s a relationship between these things, and the grognard school of role-playing thought, which is all about trying to hang on to your old school roots, is also all about hanging onto a social milieu which we remember from our early teens, when this sort of fragmentary interaction made sense to us. I think the grognards are valorizing a style of play which is at best out of whack with what most people I have ever played or DMd with want to do, and which is tied to a socially disruptive and transient stage of human development which, let’s face it, a lot of nerd boys have never grown out of[2]. Those fat bearded know-it-alls at the pub who have an opinion on everything (and God, did I meet a lot of these pricks in the role-playing clubs in London) love this kind of teenage boy interaction – they’re still doing it at 40. Those of us who have moved on from that have also, I suspect, moved on from the stand-alone module plot-hook-for-a-dungeon-crawl random-monster style of play, to something a bit more socially and intellectually fulfilling. Grognardia essentially admitted this today with his little rant against change.

Story-free gaming as religious observance

The other noticeable trait of these grognard blogs, of course, is their worship of gary gygax. According to a commenter in the “I Hate Change” thread of grognardia, “D&D divorced itself from Appendix N entirely” when in 4e “Ioun has become the goddess of magic”. You certainly hate change if this is a problem for you. You also have elevated a single edition of a single game to the status of a bible, complete with appendices. This is religion at its heart, and what do all religions have in common? Hatred of change, unwillingness to tolerate dissent, they’re a haven for people who seek shelter from the consequences of their own social problems, they are full of bullies and disciplinarians, and they tolerate no narrative that conflicts with their own. This is why they suit the “grind” noen refers to in the comments at CT; and why their adherents are so fond of story-free games and suspicious of any later innovations which dilute a game-style that was developed for a feckless audience of socially isolated and emotionally stunted early-teenage boys.

4th edition gamers and the story

A common complaint I’ve read about 4e is that it has reduced the rules to a style of computer game, like WoW, with tanks, DPS characters, etc, and this represents the lack of commitment to real gaming of modern youth, their attention spans are short, blah blah blah. The irony for me is that the blogs which are most resistant to story-free play are the ones by 4e players. In the socially isolating and confrontational context of the British pub gaming scene, the most fun I had in a game I played in was a 4e game. Why? Because the person who chose to DM it had been lured away from previous editions by the promise of simplicity and freedom for the GM, and the character traits which drew him to 4e make a good DM.  It’s the focus on the story, the primacy of social interaction and the shared nature of the game which makes 4e alluring to these people. Ironically, this is what the grognards claim that OD&D encourages, even while they are eschewing the story and engaging in a complex grind, similar in fashion to the MMO they hate 4e for having “become”.

I don’t intend to turn my gaming into a repetitive litany to Gary Gygax. Nor do I intend to reduce my DMing to a kind of sophisticated dice-rolling facilitator, or a disciplinarian high-priest of the Old School[3]. I will continue to DM for what my players want – an interesting story, in cool places, with high risks and high rewards, played in a way that is mutually satisfying for everyone involved, and not self-consciously situating itself at the heart of a geekish metaculture no-one outside of a few beardy opinionated fat guys gives two hoots about.

fn1: I think this is why you also see, in the threads of those blogs, a lot of comments about how players need to be “taught to be careful”, “disciplined”, “warned”, etc. For christ sakes, this is a game, something we do for enjoyment. This 80s British public-school model of “play” in which the bigger, stronger kids keep the smaller ones in line is not applicable anywhere in my life, and it makes me feel dirty when I see it being still enacted in my hobby.

fn2: I am a strong proponent of the claim that porn has important validity as a measure of social interaction and political currents. Porn has changed a lot over the years, and its current gonzo incarnation in the west is as much a product of industrial decisions and consumer powerlessness as is the current plot-free dross that we’re seeing in the computer game world. I inserted (pardon the pun) porn into this comment thread for that reason…

fn3: not that I’m suggesting anyone wants me to or is trying to make me do so. This is rhetoric by way of conclusion, ok?

This post at Grognardia reminds me of why I am uncomfortable with the “old-school movement” and its pronouncements on all things nerdy. Putting aside the strange fascination with naff artwork and Dr. Who style special effects, the weird, almost religious obsession with pronouncements by one strange, pedantic, over-opinionated game writer (i.e. Gary Gygax) is almost religious in its intensity, and disturbingly forgiving of his mortal traits. The thread in question, where people variously try to understand a completely pointless and meaningless quote by a man famous for his indecipherable prose, makes my point. But Wax Banks makes it better, with a few digs at Gygax’s noble character on the way.

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