On a Comment on Historical Clarity

I don't intend to offend people. But I firmly believe, that the burden of a free, cogent, citizen is not to be protected from offense, but instead to be able to hear ideas that are not his own and engage with them. Note, that I very literally mean what I say, I am discussing either my taste (which is not subject to debate) or factual statements (which are). This is about yesterday's post, which discusses how modern systems are about wish fulfillment and how old school gaming wasn't.

Jeremy Murphy made a comment that provides remarkable clarity to yesterday's post. He says:

"It's so nice to see that the lovely spirit of "you're playing it wrong" which so pervades the "OSR" is still alive and strong. 

Please, by all means try to convince yourself that your imaginary elf is somehow superior to another imaginary elf. And do your level best to convince yourself that you aren't in to codified make-believe for wish fulfillment. 

This sort of commentary is *exactly* why people are shaking their heads at "angry grognards". Wait... were you being sarcastic?"

I think this could not be a better opportunity to clarify what I mean.

Jeremy's argument, as I understand it, is that there is no type of wrong fun -- That there is no wrong way to play the game, as long as people are having fun.

This, obviously, patently, is false. There are wrong ways to play chess. There are ways of playing games that remove gameplay. There are ways of approaching a game with preconceptions about 'honorable play' or what play 'should be' like, covered extensively by Sirlin's Scrub Theory. There are ways of having fun like smoking crack or teasing the developmentally disabled. Clearly there are ways to play inappropriately.

The thing is, when I sit down to play Dungeons & Dragons, I am not doing anything not proscribed mechanically. I am playing a game. I play it by the rules. When I play games such as poker, Dungeons and Dragons, or chess, I screw around. I talk in funny voices and have a good time with my friends. This is not the play of the game.

There is one way to make a pathfinder character. Some options are selected and then the character is made with that. There are mechanical techniques for generating characters and handling combat in 4th edition.

If you decide to add something in the game and have it affect the game that there isn't a mechanical system for because you feel you 'should' or it seems like a good idea; then D&D is well structured to take that into account. However it is not playing the way the game is designed.

What I am saying, in yesterday's post is that the gameplay in a 0e, B/X, or even 1e, game is about gathering information and making choices. And that style of gameplay has nothing to do with wish fulfillment. It has to do with making decisions or accepting the consequences of your good or poor judgement.

For me, a person who is an adult with a job, family, and active life, it is a very satisfying and engaging way to play. I am empowered, both by being successful in the game and by knowing that if I fail in the game, it is because I have made a bad decision. It is a beacon of choices that have meaning in my life. A place where my choice matters, unlike the drudgery of the office, or shopping market, or thousands of other disempowering systems and structures of control we are exposed to in our daily lives.

4e, and to a lesser extent Pathfinder is not about that. Those games are about creating a powerful build and making good tactical decisions in combat. This can be fun, but in my opinion pales in comparison to the first type of play. My choices are constrained to which squares do I move to in combat? What combat actions do I take? And the consequences of those are statistically predictable ones, to the point where I know the break-point of when using [Power Attack] is mathematically more beneficial.

Of course I am aware of how Pathfinder and 4e support exploration and some of the similar decision-making processes in old-style games, but they do so in a mechanically slanted, character build focused way. At best it is less about your plan, and more about taking actions that target statistical likelihoods, because even if you search in the right place, you can still fail your roll.

Are their ways of working around this? Of course, but that is rule 0 and cannot excuse what is actually written in the rules.

So I can say that yes, if you want to talk about all the cool powers your elf has, than 'what powers you have' is about wish-fulfillment.

And I don't desire wish-fulfillment, because I am not a teenager. I am empowered and in charge of my life. What I seek is that my choices have meaning. What I seek is accountability. What I seek is adventure.

Not to move four squares and activate my daily that buffs my friend.


  1. C, I honestly enjoy your reasoning behind the old school way of doing things. As a kid playing 1e, I never understood the "why" behind certain things, we just accepted them and played anyway. We had fun even with all the mistakes made.

  2. Of course! Note that at no point am I saying anything is wrong with the way we played as kids. Nor is there anything wrong with the way kids play today.

    The comment I'm responding to is that there is no wrong way to have fun. And that isn't true in general and it isn't true when talking about how maybe, if you build up a game about wish fulfillment there are good reasons why people might look upon that with derision.

    I can't stand in judgement of what you did as a kid Anonymous, because I did the same thing. I no longer need my character to represent my ability to be powerful. I'd rather let my choices do that.

  3. The size of that fighter's sword!!! Is she off to slay something or up for a game of cricket?

  4. Maybe the problem is in your perception of what modern D&D is?

    1. I dunno man. I played 4 years of 3.0, 4 years of pathfinder, and 1 year of 4e. Weekly or more. I think I'm pretty well versed in the rules as written.

      Pathfinder SRD: "Refer to Table: Encounter Design to determine the Challenge Rating your group should face, depending on the difficulty of the challenge you want and the group's APL.", you know, so the encounter is guaranteed to be winnable.

  5. The same people who wrote that bit about Challenge Rating also put 1d4 Trolls on a random encounter table in a module designed for 1st level characters (Stolen Land).

    1. Good on them! This is opposite the design trend of 3.0/3.5 which went downhill after a roper (CR 10) was included in the Sunless Citadel. The outrage was so severe, the general trend of 'all level appropriate encounters' continues to this day.

    2. Kingmaker is a clear nod to "Old School" gaming.


  6. I said this on Google+, but I'd like to reiterate it here because I think its important.

    I like your style of writing, Courtney. What some have called trollish language, I call emphatic argument with a twist of wry humor.Have you stepped on my toes before? Absolutely. You've often written things which have bruised my ego.

    But the ego is a foolish thing. It attaches a person's identity to something as superficial as the tabletop game that person plays. The bruises you've inflicted to my ego have always, and without exception been constructive in nature. And whenever I've seen someone respond to your assertions, you've always made a cogent response which addresses their criticisms, rather than reacting on reflex. That's more than I can say for myself.

    1. Like LS said, some of these posts certainly bruise my ego--sometimes I have to close the page and wait fifteen minutes before I can come back and try and be objective. But I do come back. I come back because there is always something worth learning, some valuable piece of insight that I feel will make my games better, in these posts. It isn't easy, but it is certainly worth doing. So thanks for the article and its follow-up.

      And thank you LS for helping me realize all of this.

  7. As someone that started out on basic D&D, moved to AD&D for years, played 3e for about 2 years, 4e for about a year I can agree with everything you said. Infact just yesterday I said the same thing about encounters using formulas based on party level/size for balance.

    I want my players to use their brain to think of what they can do. Not look down at their sheet for some skill or game mechanic. Imagine, not script.

  8. Uber-ditto! As for the lady-barbarian's sword, that depiction is pretty much one of the main reasons behind my avoidance of Pathfinder. That might sound petty, but to me that image-placed so early in the Pathfinder Core Rulebook- is a symbol of all that is wrong with the last couple iterations of D&D.

  9. I think the biggest problem D&D 3 and 4 and their successors is that they try to have a rule for every situation. Additionally there is an overabundance of feats, powers, etc. each of which is a special rule that provides some exception to the regular rules. This has led to a large and cumbersome ruleset which (unless mostly ignored) reduces the game to an excerise in memorizing (and arguing about) rules.

    The intent of OSR games seems to be ditching the excessive rules.

    In ye olden times it was generally assumed that characters could do anything the player wanted unless the rules specifically forbade it. When the players came up with a tactic, trick or plan that fell outside the rules, the game master would figure out some way to handle it.

    In newer versions of D&D, with rules books trying provide rules for every situation, writers, players and GM's seem to have reversed this unspoken assumption. Therefore, many (but not all!) games using the newer D&D editions are poisoned by the idea that characters can only do what the rules specifically allow. In such a game, the players will avoid ideas that aren't enumerated in the rules, and often the GM will forbid such ideas if the players come up with them.

    However, with a group willing to drop this toxic assumption, there's no reason a D&D 3 or 4 game can't be played like an old style game.

  10. I agree completely with Raging Dragon. The current problem in game design is assuming the Game/Dungeon Master cannot think at all! You can take any game and play it "not following the rules", house rules, etc- but give me old school, with all the wholes!! I would rather encourage players and GM/DMs to think!!


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