Wednesday, November 8, 2017

I've Become Quite the Gaming Curmudgeon Lately

On Mainstream "Role-Playing" versus OSR Gaming

I don't really make any bones about the fact that I've come to believe that the mainstream role-playing hobby and the old-school D&D hobby are actually two completely different hobbies.  It's not a popular opinion, but at this point I would have to be convinced that I'm wrong.

I've also realized that existing terminology is probably inadequate to the task of dealing with this.  When I made another recent post that touched on this idea, I made the mistake of using some of the RPG Pundit's terminology, which I now see is just plain guaranteed to tick some readers off.  Pundy likes to characterize old-school games as "role-playing games" because the players take a 1st person perspective (striving for immersion, making decisions from the character's perspective); and more modern, less traditional games as "story-games" because the players take a 3rd person or "authorial" perspective (they hover "above" their characters and participate in collaborative storytelling).

But if I'm trying to describe the difference between an old-school game like OD&D and a modern descendant of it like 3rd or 4th or 5th edition d20 D&D, I can't fall back on the role-playing game vs. story-game dichotomy.  The main reason for this is that "role-playing game" has come to refer not to old-school gaming, but to modern gaming (whether you choose to include "indie" and "non-trad" and "story-games" in that category or not).  Usage dictates that when someone says "role-playing game", they mean that hobby which includes FATE and Pathfinder and 4th edition D&D and Rogue Trader and Savage Worlds and Vampire and The One Ring and Apocalypse World, and if you try to say otherwise, they jump down your damned throat.

So be it.  That's what role-playing is.  Never let it be said that I wasn't all for descriptive lexicography (with one exception where I simply have to take a stand on historical and textual grounds, but I'll deal with that in a moment).

So what, then, are we to call what I do for my hobby, since I've decided that it's not role-playing and I don't want it confused with all of those "real" role-playing games that I just listed above the fold?  "Fantastical <insert genre> wargames campaigns playable with pencil and paper and miniature figures?"  That, at least gets to the heart of it; but it's a mouthful, the acronym would be ugly (FxWCPPPMF? No thanks!), and "wargames" wouldn't be strictly accurate anyway.

"Fantasy roleplay" is too ambiguous (and too British), "sandbox gaming" is too vague, and "OSR gaming" places too much emphasis on the revival/renaissance.

Maybe… maybe just "tabletop gaming."  The miniatures are optional but preferred, and yet, even when not using miniatures the game is never really divested from miniatures wargaming concepts and terminology, and you simply can't do it without a map and a tabletop.  At the same time, while in-character role-playing is highly encouraged, it must be generally understood acting isn't the same as role-playing (the former is portraying the character by speaking in the character's words; the latter is making decisions from the character's perspective), that LARPing isn't even close to the ballpark of this hobby, and that a certain degree of meta-gaming is unavoidable or even sometimes a good thing.

…Yeah.  "TTGs".  I like that.  It might not catch on, but it emphasizes the continuity between wargames and OD&D, and so it works for me.

Let's take it for a spin and see it in action.

If I define the "tabletop game (TTG)" as follows—"a transitional form of hobby game which sits in between the wargame and the role-playing game, lacking a board but occasionally making use of playing pieces, wherein an impartial referee creates a setting; players assume the roles of characters within this setting; and the setting is then allowed to evolve in a naturalistic fashion according to the actions of the players, to prescribed randomness factors, and to any processes initially set into motion by the referee at the game's start, but unaffected by further arbitrary interference from the referee (i.e. the setting is a 'sandbox'), over the course of many play sessions (a 'campaign')"—then I can say, for example, that I have a favorite TTG in Dungeons & Dragons, and I have a favorite RPG in Risus.

Playing these two games is quite different.  They share some paraphernalia (the dice of the six-sided variety, paper, pencils), but the experience of running these games is quite a bit more dissimilar than, say, playing gin versus playing whist, despite the common equipment.  If I'm running Risus, I have no qualms about fudging the dice, arbitrarily moving an encounter into the path of the player characters, or making a whimsical decision based on the "rule of cool". It's a role-playing game: everything the game-master does should serve the story.  But any of those moves would be a grave sin when I'm refereeing D&D, because it's just not the same sort of game.

My One Lexicographic Exception: On The Use of "OD&D" As a Specific and a General Term

A few times over the years, I've gotten into minor rows on game forums over the use of the abbreviation "OD&D", because it has two definitions.  The older definition (current on bulletin boards and usenet groups of the early, pre-www internet; and thus long predating the OSR) is that "OD&D" (interchangeably with the less common abbreviation "BD&D") refers to all TSR materials released under the "Dungeons & Dragons" (but not "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons") label—which is to say, all TSR D&D that is not AD&D.  This includes the LBBs, the supplements, Holmes Basic, B/X, BECMI, the Gazetters, the Rules Cyclopedia, the 90s boxed sets, and the Challenger Series.

This is what I mean when I say "OD&D"—the general sense.  This usage is even attested in the text, on p.63 of the Mentzer Player's Guide, which comes right out and says "you are playing the original DUNGEONS & DRAGONS game!" (as opposed to the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game).  And the continuity of versions is clearly backed up by the way that both Expert Sets explain how to use D&D Expert with earlier versions of D&D Basic (whether Moldvay or Holmes) and with what they term "the Original Set" (but never quite "OD&D" or "original Dungeons & Dragons").

Now, in a post-OSR world, the more widespread and accepted usage of "OD&D" is in the specific, restricted sense of just the LBBs and the supplements—it excludes both Advanced and Basic/Expert D&D.  This usage is perfectly valid as well, but it's a more recent invention—an artifact of intentional classification and the need to draw boundaries, close boxes, trace clades, taxonomize.  It's useful, I suppose, if one is terribly concerned with the differences between the white box and B/X and Mentzer, but if not, it's just muddy.  Why?  Because the continuity from the white box through the Challenger Series is quite real (these were all published by TSR under the same label, remember, as well as being attested to within the text of the Expert Sets), and yet nowadays, when they are all lumped together, they're called "Classic D&D".

My problem with this?  "The Classic Dungeons & Dragons Game" is a specific title.  This one.  It's the title of a single product, TSR 1106, and no others.  Again, it's right there in black and white.  "Classic D&D", to me, doesn't mean the white box or Moldvay Basic—it's the repackaged version of the Troy Denning boxed set with the hard-to-follow rulebook instead of Dragon Cards.

Is this a minor quibble, hardly worth anyone's attention?  Of course.  It's no more relevant how one applies these utterly arbitrary labels to games than whether BECMI and the Rules Cyclopedia are different editions because Charisma bonuses could suddenly go up to +3 instead of +2.  But I don't need to worry about details like that—I'm not participating in that conversation.  I don't care that 1982 clerics get 3rd and 4th level spells both at sixth level and 1983 clerics get them at different levels.  Doesn't matter to me.  We always just played with the newest books we had available to us, because that was what you did.

So I'll be damned if I have to suddenly change the terminology I've been used to for decades—since these games were still in print—just because some upstarts rediscovered their childhood and decided they needed to make a biblical exegesis out of it.  (And yes, the irony is not lost on me that I've used close reading to argue against it.)  At any rate, I'm pretty sure that I'm right to keep making the argument, purely because it pisses some of the right people off.  That alone is reason enough for me to keep insisting into perpetuity that "Classic D&D", last printed in 1996, was the final OD&D product published by TSR.  Yes, I'm a stubborn cuss, and yes, I'm proud of it.

On My Progress Towards Publishing Retro Phaze Sixth Edition

Just a little teaser.  I've finalized the mechanics and spell lists for three of the four new promotion classes.  Geomancers, Summoners, and Bards are all given free access to a special spell list containing one spell per spell level; these aren't learned like normal spells.  Instead, they're freely acquired as these classes gain levels, and they're cast spontaneously by giving up regular daily uses of known Black or White Magic spells.  The spell lists for each class are:

Geomancer (Monk promotion): 1. FLORA, 2. SAND, 3. AQUA, 4. GALE, 5. BOULDER, 6. MIASMA, 7. TORNADO, 8. TSUNAMI
Summoner (Wizard promotion, it will be portrayed something like a goði): 1. VÆTTR, 2. SURTR, 3. SKADI, 4. THOR, 5. YMIR, 6. ODIN, 7. FENRIR, 8. JORMUNGANDR
Bard (Scholar promotion): 1. ARIA, 2. MARCH, 3. DIRGE, 4. WALTZ, 5. HYMN, 6. DUET (this last one is a "mimic" ability).

I haven't finalized the Machinist's machine list yet, but right now I'm leaning towards using the Paladin/Ranger spell progression and allowing the Machinist to "fuel" (i.e. prepare at the start of the day, quite unlike the way other spell abilities work in Retro Phaze) so many charges of each machine type.  Since the Machinist is an alternative Rogue promotion, it makes sense to use the same progression as the Ranger, but I have to make sure that machines are slightly more powerful than low-level Black Magic spells, since the Machinist will both lack the Ranger's other advantages and have to prepare his powers at the start of each day.


  1. Although the way you describe Machinists could certainly work, you might get kind of frustrated with trying to balance yet another kind of ability system into the game? If that happens, another idea would be to simply have the Machinist special ability mirror the fighter's new Smash Dice mechanic; maybe the Machinist has fewer "smash dice" but has more versatility with them or somesuch (like the ability to focus the dice on one target, or spread them around over many.) In this way the player can describe the extra damage as anything from a chainsaw to an autocrossbow without adding any new mechanical complexity.

    Alternately, the Machinist ability could be similar to the new Summon ability, but done a little differently (I don't know enough about how you plan to handle summons to know if that would work.)

    Point is, don't feel like you have to re-invent too many different wheels. Sub systems that mimic other sub systems can make a game feel more symmetrical and easier to learn.

    Just something I wanted to throw out there, but I'm sure I'll be happy with whatever you come up with- I trust your talent with this kind of thing.

    1. Well my idea for the summoner is to keep it a little more like D&D monster summoning than the Final Fantasy, Shining Force "the monster shows up and then just throws an extra-powerful elemental spell" type deal.

      Instead, the summons will actually be monsters that stick around for a few rounds and which can themselves only be harmed by magical weapons or spells (like incorporeal undead). When they first show up, they'll always start by throwing a spell one level lower than the summon (so, e.g., SKADI is a 3rd level spell that conjures an ice elemental, so Skadi will always start out by casting the 2nd level spell ICE; then she'll use physical attacks or the equivalent of a FREEZE scroll for as long as she stays on the battlefield).

      As for the machinist, some of the machines will be single-shot attacks, but others will be weapons that remain in use for the entire battle once activated. It gives the Machinist more of a steady, "slow-burn" kind of a feel - kind of like the Monk, actually - compared to the offensive spell-casters.

      And, yes, I agree that the casters' promotion abilities always felt underwhelming, but that was because casters didn't need cool stuff - they got high level spells! NUKE and HOLY were why you played a Wizard or a Monk, and the promotions were just incidental bones thrown to tradition. But now that I'm giving each class two possible promotions, yeah, the Abbot and the Warlock need something to really make them special - hence ULTIMA and METEO.