Oldschool Outside the Box

Sometimes I try to talk to Jenn about the whys and wherefores of old school.  One point I think we disagree on, or that I’ve been unable to communicate properly to her, is the idea that a simplistic system encourages cleverer play which in turn leads to more enjoyable roleplay.  For example, I make the argument that without a skill system the players can, and are encouraged to, try and do anything.  And when they try something that I never imagined and completely surprises me, I in turn am forced to be imaginative and create something exciting, and thus some of the best play emerges.

Her argument, I believe, is that system doesn’t really matter.  You can do anything in any game.  Nothing is preventing a good GM from making stuff up on the spot and handling unusual requests in a creative way.  Of course, she’s right, but I don’t think the two ideas are necessarily exclusive.

Frank Mentzer wrote an excellent post on Dragon’s Foot which is what got me thinking about this.  Here’s a little quote from it, but I recommend following the link above and reading the post in its entirety:

What about…
Expressive playing of a role (facial things, voice, whatever)?
Imaginative ‘what-if-I-try-this’ by players?
Alternate routes to success (out-of-the-box thinking)?
Shifts between in-character and out-of-character so the game event includes socialization and humor?

The answer (from newschool players) seems to be “It isn’t codified, so it’s irrelevant and not worth doing.”

And by contrast, 3.5-ish Pathfinder (sorry mods, just a fleeting comparative) does emphasize those things, as best they can, and with detailed Advice on how to do it.

Sure, we could think outside the box and do whatever we want that’s outside the rules as written in any system, but the modern games tend to completely ignore this and leave us to our own devices.  The old games actually talked about this stuff, warned us it would happen, and gave some little tidbits of advise on how to deal with it.  Can we take those lessons from the old stuff and bring it forward to the new stuff?  Absolutely.  But it’s harder.

Why is it harder?  I think it’s simply a case that the old games put our expectations in the right place.  The emphasis on the importance of these ideas is right there in the text.  Our brains are ready to deal with it when it comes up.  Let’s face it, this is not only the “best” of roleplay, as Frank puts it, but also the hardest.  We need to be mentally prepared for it.  By completely ignoring it in the text of the new stuff, we sweep it under the rug.  Out of site, out of mind, and soon it’s completely forgotten in favor of more time spent in complex tactical combat systems.

I’m sure some day I’ll be convinced by Jenn to run some Warhammer FRPG again.  I’m sure I’ll bring some of the old school lessons learned with me.  I’ll have to be the one setting the expectations, probably with some house rules and maybe a little discussion before we start playing.  It’ll be difficult, but I think I could handle it.  It is a little daunting though, and in the mean time I’m enjoying myself some good old Basic D&D.

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  1. I’m not sure you’ll ever convince me that it’s not a personal failing instead of a system failing.

    Out of site, out of mind, and soon it’s completely forgotten in favor of more time spent in complex tactical combat systems. – and that’s your failure, not the game’s, IMO. Well, not YOU specifically, as I think GMs like you are the reason why I argue it’s not the game, it’s the person – you’re the reason why I think it’s obvious that you can have fantastic play in ANY damn system.

    Of course, being contrary, I am predisposed to hate whatever your latest obsession is, so there is that factor in my resistance.

  2. There’s a compliment hidden somewhere in there, I can just barely see it. 🙂

    I guess I don’t see the two (the personal failure and the system failure) as mutually exclusive. The system can set up the DM for success or failure. A really good DM can succeed despite the system, but he will succeed more often if the system encourages it.

    DMing can be extremely difficult. I believe any good DM pretty much constantly doubts himself and is looking for ways to improve. If the system does something to push me as a DM to excel more often, and as a result I see a higher rate of success at the table, then of course I’m going to favor using that system even if I could succeed with another.

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