Noisms is a brilliant and always interesting blogger with thought-provoking musings on the gaming hobby. I read his posts regularly, even though he primarily discusses games I don't run or play. I continue to visit his blog however because his ideas are well considered and his posts well executed.
In spite of all of that, there are times when our opinions and thoughts on a given subject don't jive. There is a disconnect; a difference of perception so wide it makes me feel the need to address the subject on his blog here on my blog.
He recently posted an entry entitled, 'On High Concept Campaigns and Plot Immunity'.
Please go read it before continuing. My main issue isn't with the post itself so much as its initial paragraph and how it applies to RPG gaming in general.
"Is there a Lagrange point between old school play, which emphasizes emergent narrative, sandboxes, and letting the dice lie where they fall, and the mainstream of the RPG hobby, which is all about pre-plotted story, pre-determined outcomes, character development, and fudging?"
Clearly his experiences in the gaming hobby have been very different from mine. His attitude towards what makes for a fun game likely differs as well. Given all of that I feel there a large gap between what he represents as Old School Play and what is Mainstream Modern Play.
First, aren't Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder (or as I call it 'The Other Dungeons and Dragons') the most popular RPGs on the market in most of the Western world (Call of Cthulhu holds that position in Japan as I've noted in the past). Isn't that Mainstream? When most of the people doing a thing are doing the same thing it becomes the Mainstream, no? Are the people playing Pathfinder pre-determining the outcomes of their games? Are D&D 5E players Fudging a lot? Maybe. I don't play those games so I don't know. One reason I don't play them...too Mainstream.
What games is he referring to that he believes are Mainstream? Monster Hearts? Blades in the Dark? Popular sure but I never thought of them as Mainstream. Maybe Blades might be considered that way now as it's become more widespread. Are sessions of these games Pre-Plotted? Do they have Pre-Determined Outcomes? I've played Blades in the Dark, MASKS, and Lancer in the last year or so and didn't find this to be the case with any of these.
As for Old School Play...I guess I was never really old school, even as far back as 1977. My games, as both a player and a GM have always included Emergent Narrative and Character Development. We've had PC Death and Fudging (of a sort). The only times I've ever played in games where you had to do it the Gamemaster's way or else, where you were railroaded into a particular plot was Dungeons and Dragons. To me, that's what Old School means.
Finally, this whole Plot Immunity/PCs Never Die thing...where do people get this? Oh I am sure it happens; I'm sure a lot of people play a completely non-lethal game but how common is it really. Also, what kind of game are we talking about? Is it a game where people aren't supposed to die or aren't able to like Toon or Teenagers from Outer Space? I've said before that very few people die in my games but that's partially because I run Star Trek, Star Wars, and Superheroes. It is built into these genres and often the games that emulate them that main characters dying is rare but yeah, they can die.
Just because PCs aren't meaningless Chess pawns, as expendable as used tissue paper and nearly as interesting, doesn't mean they have Plot Immunity. I've had and seen more characters demoted in rank, imprisoned for life, lose an NPC friend, family member, or significant other, or have their starship destroyed (basically their home AND a member of the party) more often then I've witnessed PC deaths in my 44 years in the hobby and guess what? I remember them all.
I recall them because they had more emotional weight then Nameless Fighter #5 killed by a rat or kobold or whatever. Doesn't matter. Another random, pointless death. Next.
When people say Old School Games they get this glint in their eyes that I can only imagine is largely nostalgia driven. I certainly don't remember most of the games I played in my earliest years being that great, which is why I largely stopped being a player and almost always GMed.
Nowadays my games have:
- A Theme and/or an Over-Arching Plot going on in the setting.
- An Emergent Narrative that can change said Over-Arching Plot or be affected by it.
- Character Development
- Sandbox elements
- As well as clues about Campaign-oriented and PC-oriented subplots (my Storybox)
- Rare but possible PC Death.
- Rare but possible Fudging for dramatic/cinematic effect.
Hey, it's your game. You do you. I'm just saying, there's more than one way to cook a dragon. Or something like that.