Monday, September 6, 2021

Alternative Mainstream

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.

He writes:

"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. 

...and more. 

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. 

Barking Alien


  1. There is an odd tendency in our hobby to divide everything into opposing camps, but I think this mostly exists in the imagination of certain bloggers and game designers. I believe most players are unaware of these divisions and adjust the dials of each aspect of gameplay to suit their preferences. There's really no consensus on what "Old School" even means, and the effort to define it seems futile when one realizes that even in the 1970s and 1980s different groups played the same game in radically different ways, and there have always been games that emphasized different styles of play.

    1. Consider me a follower of the gospel of Gordon Cooper! :)

      Seriously, I am with you 100%. There have certainly been changes in the overall, widespread nature of play throughout the years and I wouldn't say 'Old School' and 'New School' don't exist. At the same time, those are broad terms and don't take into account the nuances of the many thousands of individual players and systems out there.

      Your Old School and mine likely differ considerably. Your New School and mine aren't exactly the same.

      I get passionate about this sort of thing because there are a great many gamers who view Old School as a style through Rose-Colored Glasses. My personal experience is that after playing under 'Old School' GMs in the 1970s and 80s I decided to be a GM myself almost exclusively and not play as a player anymore. That's how 'fun' playing Old School games was for me.

  2. I think some of what he is referring to here is the tendency among 5E D&D and Pathfinder publishers to stick to heavily plotted campaigns when it comes to publishing adventures. They are very much not sandboxes, to the point when they publish something sandboxy it is noteworthy and mentioned as something "classic" or old school.

    Most of the Pathfinder AP's are this way - remember they publish a new adventure every month - and the D&D stuff tends to be this way too. Example: Storm King's Thunder has a big section after the adventure begins that is pretty much "here is a key to The North of the Forgotten Realms - go explore and maybe check out some of the rumors you've heard and the things you've seen". At a certain point the plot picks back up as the party encounters certain NPCs. I thought it was a nice mix of approaches but I have seen multiple reviews criticize this part because the players and DM's didn't know what to do. Yes, really. There is a big chunk of the book describing the land, towns, villages, mines, temples, organizations, monster lairs, and the people and things you can encounter while travelling and because the dots weren't directly connected some people thought it was flawed.

    So I think his point is that old school as a style is much more about letting things happen in the game rather than having a set plot to follow. That's not just D&D - most Traveller games I have run or played tend to go that way. It's the way I run Rifts too.

    Modern RPGs, including modern D&D, tend to want to set up a plot and watch it play out. High Concept in this case (looking at the original post) seems to mean more that the players agree to some unusual starting situation - the curse or the family troubles he mentions, or just some general "trouble" scenario that is the reason for the PC's to be together and gives them some specific goal right from the start. That does seem to show up more in modern games than in older ones.

    I think it boils down to whether the GM is imposing this external thing on the group at the beginning rather than leaving it up to them to find their direction in the game.

    1. Blacksteel covered it very well. I just wanted to add some comments to this point:

      I have seen multiple reviews criticize this part because the players and DM's didn't know what to do.

      Sandboxes require a lot of commitment from the players to stay immersed in the game. You have to accept that some sessions may not yield anything interesting, or that you may find something interesting and have to prudently stay away from it for now. You have to set up your objectives and motivations or you can easily become aimless. Despite what ORS usually says, I find that gold is a very poor motivator to go on imaginary adventures (if nothing else, it is often safer and more lucrative to set up a business with the riches obtained in your first adventures).

      I haven't played Storm King's Thunder, but we are in the middle of a D&D Tomb of Annihilation and some of this is showing, despite the overarching menace in the background. I'll say that this type of game doesn't lend itself very well to short sessions and/or online play.

      On the other hand, having and overall objective helps a lot. Pathfinder's Kingmaker had its own reward in exploring, since you are setting up a kingdom and every hex explored can be annexed. At the start of The One Ring's The Darkening of Mirkwood you do a lot of traveling and exploring, but there are always missions and the common goal of restoring and revitalizing the realms of men and dwarves. And that leads back to Noisms' post, as those objectives often require the PCs to be invested with some degree of destiny or being part of an organization from the start, instead of just a bunch of adventures that just met.