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Author Topic: The Grognard Speaks: System and Step on Up in OD&D  (Read 9556 times)
Sean
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« on: August 09, 2004, 08:42:01 AM »

There was something I really loved about 'old school' D&D that I think I just got a little clearer on. This may not make much sense to you if you started playing even in 1980, but it might, depending on when the customs of the group you played in got formed.

Okay: a lot of OD&D play - and here I guess I'm using OD&D to mean anything from when hobbits and balrogs still roamed the pages of the brown books up to the time when the very first AD&D books were published, assuming you didn't actually use most of the rules in the DMG, which my groups tended not to except for color (potion miscibility chart, random prostitute chart, etc.) - was decidedly 'gamist' in Ron's sense: the focus in terms of player-reward was on Step on Up.

But the weird thing was, the game itself arguably doesn't have any elements that facilitate this. Early D&D is a rules-lite game with almost no coverage of anything except combat and magic! Furthermore, combat is absurdly deadly at low levels if you run it as a he-hacks, she-hacks, it-hacks, take turns hacking kind of game.

So are you 'stepping on up' by rolling well? That did happen (note the visceral, orgasmic pulse so many get in their vitals at the phrase 'natural 20'), but that wasn't by any means enough to get the game its vast popularity.

A clue to a deeper answer is visible in Erick Wujcik's article on Diceless Play on this website. Note how he played his thief with crappy hit points: ask to describe everything; make sure not to commit until you're sure what's going on; and so on. Any old grognard like me immediately recognizes in Erick's article the sign of a good 70's D&D player. That was what you had to do to be successful: not get into the combat mechanics except on your terms.

But there was nothing in the rules to adjudicate this! The system here was totally, entirely, the verbal negotiation between player and DM. I found this to be true over and over as player and DM from my first games in '76-77 onward. You Stepped on Up by not playing the game!

A second way in which this was visible is the absolutely crucial role clever use of equipment - iron spikes, garlic, belladonna, ten foot poles, ropes with grappling hooks, etc. etc. - played in the game. This stuff was on equipment lists in the core books and supplements. Some of it had very slight rules-coverage, but most of it had NONE. Stepping On Up with your equipment was all about coming up with some zany-ass, A-Team-locked-in-the-barn scenario for doing something that was not covered in the rules AT ALL.

So here's the weird thing. Everyone back then used to talk about how 'being a good D&D player' was a matter of creativity - and with some justice. But the paradox is, what being a good D&D player amounted to was not gaming the rules, but avoiding the rules, and establishing a feedback-loop between party and GM where the party did cool, creative stuff to avoid or gain a telling advantage for the GMs crucial battles.

I loved this style of play, but I realize now that what I loved was the social feedback loop of doing creative things and getting positive feedback for my creativity and giving it for the creativity of others. OD&D 'facilitated' this by essentially giving you nothing to go on for this part of the game. Yet without this stuff, the game is just a bad wargame.

But what's really weird is getting your Step On Up on this way at all! It's essentially raw approval of creative performance that guides estimation of skill in this context - not 'game-play' ability in the sense of calculation or rules-driven tactics at all!

Questions:

- Do the other 'geritol gamers' on the site find this description persuasive?

- Are there ways for rules to actually facilitate these kinds of creative feedback loops, so that you have something other than mutual appreciation of human creativity to drive this kind of Step on Up?

- If so, can you recommend any games that have harnessed this well? T&T actually goes D&D one better here if you appreciate the power of open-ending the saving roll system, because that at least gives you a loose framework for crazy stuff, whereas OD&D had, literally, nothing. But that's still really just a 'roll and see if you do it' mechanic. Likewise we have the phenomenon of awarding bonuses or bonus dice for really clever play, etc.  Other ideas or thoughts?
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #1 on: August 09, 2004, 09:08:44 AM »

Hiya,

All of that accords with my experience, Sean, with the proviso that very different groups existed across the community I lived in. In the ones that follow the model you're describing, the real art came in matching such tactics to various points in the text that, while sketchy, very clearly "permitted" them to work without loopholes for the GM.

Not too long ago, I played a character in a game of Munchkin D20. I was the oldest fellow at the table by decades, and at one point I leaned back, dusted my hands, gazed back at the others, who were staring at me in admiring shock, and said, "That's how to do it, punks."

Here's what happened: the GM set us up at a rather tricky river crossing, fighting a horde of goblin-type guys, then hitting us with a Munchkin monster called "the Screaming Geek." Apparently this creature latches onto you, won't let go, screams whiny-gamer protests in a way which causes penalties of some sort or other (can't remember details), and if you hit it with a weapon (or something, ditto the details), its mother comes and kicks your ass.

Easy peasy. My character had a wonderfully high Constitution and was wearing chainmail. Deep breath, over the side of the bridge, fold arms and sink to the bottom.

By the rules, the Geek will not let go and "will not stop screaming." My various rules dictated I'd survive the submersion and easily walk to shore when I needed to. Ipso facto - the Geek drowns, and dies in such a way that its mother does not show up. I collect experience points.

The guys I was playing with had never seen anything like this before. They were 18-21, all come to role-playing via Magic: the Gathering, and generally pretty skilled at picking Feat combos as they levelled up. They also understood bullying that went straight to Social Contract: "My way or I'll stop being your friend," basically. But this was ... by the rules! But it bypassed the rules! But it was by the rules! Sput!!

It's kind of weird to realize that such play is back there on a low burner in one's mind, there to be utilized in when an old-school D&D rules-set is in operation.

Best,
Ron
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Sean
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« Reply #2 on: August 09, 2004, 09:25:34 AM »

Ron wrote: "In the ones that follow the model you're describing, the real art came in matching such tactics to various points in the text that, while sketchy, very clearly "permitted" them to work without loopholes for the GM."

This, together with the story that follows, is the needed addition to my original post. Thanks! That's right: the ground of the skill is in the creativity and negotiation, which then develops into finding minimal points of contact (proper usage?) with the rules to support the actions you're taking. This is the real 'art' of 'rules lawyering' - it's not about knowing what's on page 34 better than the DM and busting his ruling, but being able to invoke it at the right time and in the right way to enable yourself to do something cool and highly non-obvious.

(And the endless patching this entails! I remember some local kids whose group I wandered into in about '78 who just used Wall of Iron for every encounter, because the rules-text didn't stipulate that you couldn't create this thousand-ton thing in midair over someone you wanted to smash. The initial idea was great, but it couldn't be allowed to stand, because it wound up 'breaking the game' - by not forcing you to go back into the loop again and find something else.)

I find myself strangely inclined to actually play HackMaster again...

Edit: I forgot, I did play Hackmaster once before, but I realize now that the sessions I ran didn't push this aspect of the game at all - which surely is one primary justification for the ridiculously recondite and rococo rhodomontade festooning those rulebooks!
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ErrathofKosh
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Lest Darkness Fall.


« Reply #3 on: August 09, 2004, 02:42:28 PM »

This post needs to enshrined somewhere...

I giggled at Ron's description of play.  

I'm one of the rare roleplayers who didn't start with D&D. (My mother taught me that it was from Satan.)  I happily played Star Wars and other various games until last year.  That's when my old gaming group died and I had to find a new one.  The new one I found was heavily involved in a AD&D campaign, but they allowed me to join.

So, I made a first-level druid...

...in a seventh level campaign.

I survived the encounter at the haunted castle because the DM described a well in the courtyard.  While the rest of the players were fighting various undead, I slid down the rope into the well.  As I announced this action, everyone's mouth dropped open.  "Can he do that?" was the question.  The DM just nodded.

Now while this certainly less amusing and clever than Ron's example, it still demonstrates to me that "there are alternatives to fighting."  Avioding the encounter allowed my charcter to survive it.  Later I was reward well with XP.  (My, what a progressive DM!)

Cheers
Jonathan
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Cheers,
Jonathan
Sean
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« Reply #4 on: August 09, 2004, 04:07:45 PM »

Thinking about this a little more I wanted to emphasize that the phenomena Ron points to, while definitely connected to the ones I brought up, actually reflect a slightly different set of techniques. My friend Del plays like Ron's example - he was a true master of that kind of imaginative strategizing with the rules. I did that too, but I was a little more 'evaluate the act on the purely imaginary level and let it into game according to its coolness, independently of the rules'. You could almost provide some extra explicit system here:

- incredibly cool and imaginative tactics/equipment use: player gets the setup they want, go from there

- sort of cool and imaginative tactics/equipment use: make an ad hoc number based on stats/level/class and roll to see if they get the setup they want.

- lame stuff: just hose them!

I knew other people and groups who valued that kind of thing as a central part of game-play and treated it in this way too. (I learned this from them.) Almost like Sim/situation used as a subordinate mode for gamism - just see how weird a thing you can think up that makes sense with the situation and run with it.

Lord knows how you'd make karma or fortune-driven mechanics to facilitate this, but I wanted to mention it. Anyway, yeah, this was the kind of Gamism I enjoyed the most. I think Paranoia facilitated this for our group pretty well too, looking back.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #5 on: August 09, 2004, 07:25:25 PM »

Hello,

Now that I'm thinkin' of it, Elfs is designed as something of a celebration of these techniques, Sean, both the within-rules and around-the-rules versions. It's not as Director-Stance heavy as Donjon, just a wee bit, enough to let the player tweak the situations and make use of the immediate scenery. That's one of the reasons I love playing it using old-school modules, because they're so rich in plausible and colorful items in every room or corridor. When a elf character can kill a catoblepas (or whatever) by first crowning it with the chamber pot and thus rendering its gaze useless, you know that the spirit of winning via "work with me, ducks" imagination is alive and well.

Best,
Ron
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rafial
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« Reply #6 on: August 09, 2004, 10:07:48 PM »

Isn't this sort of thing instances of avoiding the uncertainty of fortune based resolution by temporarily moving the focus of play to drama based resolution?

And it's not just D&D.  These stories remind me of the Charnel Gods campaign I played in little over a year ago.  My character, a great hunter, needed the services of a mythical ox which was the only thing in the world strong enough to pull a giant rock away from cave which contained the remaning artifacts of the True Gods(tm).  The GM had set up a situation where the ox was being employed by a distant city to turn their great millstone.  So not only would I probably have to fight these people to obtain the ox, but by doing so I would condemn them to starvation.

Thing was, on the journey there I met and bound a giant to me for service of a year and a day.  So when I actually got to the city, I made a rousing speech I had worked out before hand, about the need to restore the true gods and cast down the false god kings, and how while I needed the service of the ox, I would leave the giant in its stead to turn the millstone, and by the way, you can send your greatest hero along with me to make sure the ox comes back (I can always use more muscle!).

The GM's response was "I probably ought to have you roll now, but I can't see why, you've sure convinced me!"

And that had pretty much been my goal in setting up an airtight case.  Why trust to the dice, when you get the result you want automatically?
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Callan S.
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« Reply #7 on: August 10, 2004, 01:13:53 AM »

Are we talking about a hostile and (so) simplistic system (that it has no real clever moves to make, like snakes and ladders) that it forces play to elevate to a creative grasp of all of the creative material submitted by players and especially the GM.

In other words, add your creative input or die (well, loose, actually).

I wouldn't say that really encourages being creative, but it does kill simply expressing oneself through the rules, and instead one has to express oneself as a creative being.

Not that wonderful really, as it's really a 'drift or have no fun/die' call. Not everyone will drift and will just walk away instead.
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Sean
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« Reply #8 on: August 10, 2004, 04:16:55 AM »

rafial -

That's an important play-phenomenon, but a little more general than the one I'm talking about. MJ Young has suggested that ultimately all resolution systems fall back on Drama - I don't know if I agree, but that would be the kind of example that supports his claim most strongly. If everyone agrees that a certain verbal description can enter the imaginary space, why do you need to roll for it? In a certain sense you only need to roll if two people disagree. Of course, a rules-text, in focusing on certain kinds of conflicts, tells you what the game is about, and therefore tells you what is most important to roll for. In Sorcerer you could run the situation you desribe as a Will contest with a 2-die bonus for good roleplaying, and maybe you should have - but it's not necessarily system-breaking to just go with the flow in that case, like you did. On the other hand if you skipped a Humanity roll in Sorcerer because a player described their character's guilt over an action really well, or just told a party of 3 3rd level characters in Dungeons and Dragons 'yeah, cool, you killed the wyvern and he's got a bunch of gems...' without rolling at all because they described a cool plan, you'd be using Drama in a pretty explicitly counter-systemic way.

What I'm talking about is a very explicit thing that happened in (some, not all, but commonly) early D&D where the real 'action' of play was a negotiation between players and GM over whether and when they were going to get into the combat mechanics, and one primary metric of that negotiation was the mutual evaluation of people at the table (but especially the GM) of how creative, entertaining, and cool (and yes, that's subjective, and that's part of my point) the players were being in describing ways to face their challenges, with only the slightest points of contact with any explicit rules.

Which leads me to Noon - yes, but sort of no, too. How old are you, son? I can't emphasize enough that OD&D was barely even a game. You're told to imagine weird stuff, given about 10 things to define your character, all of which except Class and Hit Points are left almost totally up to you to determine the meaning of (there are no Strength modifiers for damage e.g.), and then given a choice between the miniatures combat rules in Chainmail (which eliminates hit points, actually) or a weird little d20 roll high system where you do 1d6 damage.  And you die when you get to 0 hit points - 'death's door' was hotly controversial when introduced.

So yeah, a hostile and simplistic system with relatively few clever moves to make using the rules themselves - except that the system is supposed to mediate using your imagination to deal with various crisis/combat situations (primarily) and social interactions and other stuff. So actually there's a huge amount of clever input to make - on the basis that everyone there is introducing facts into the shared imagined space, or at least rolling to introduce them, and some things you introduce are funny or weird or cool or interesting ("I couldn't have thought of that"; "man, that's slick"; "weird! could that possibly work?"); and some things you introduce aren't handled by the rules at all so you need to figure out the texture of the social interaction (Erick Wujcik's realization that his DM would slow down play indefinitely to keep describing things upon requests for more information; therefore, 'ask for description' becomes an endlessly exploitable 'move' which vastly increases his chance of survival).

It did encourage being creative for a lot of us. The rules only 'facilitated' it in the loosest sense: "I'm playing a game; dying = losing; it's really easy to die if you just wander into combat; therefore, find ways to engineer situations in my favor and control the combats I get into". I agree that one probably ought to be able to do better in terms of rules supporting creative play, but in point of historical fact this worked for a while for a lot of people, and still works for some (I know a guy down in Texas who still plays with the brown books, supplements, and Arduin Grimoires, and has since '76 or so).

But I'm not sure it's a matter of 'drifting' to get to this point. Actually, you kind of have to 'drift' the rules to AVOID this kind of play with OD&D (though, again, there's also a sense in which you have to drift the rules to play anything at all with OD&D) which is what happened, with the AD&D DMG the beginning of the turning of the tide: the addition of layer upon layer of regulations, increased handling time, explicit codification of how to deal with different kinds of situations, and so on. Positively this gave the DM tools to deal with obscure points in play; negatively it was often poorly implemented, and even more often killed the fun of creative negotiation.

I mean, there's no game there, in OD&D. You move your mini around at a rate determined by the armor it's wearing, get into fights, cast spells, and so on. It's a lackluster wargame without the imaginary elements. But lots of people enjoyed it, especially in the absence of many other alternatives. Why? I claim that it has a lot to do with this cleverness feedback loop. And actually, you don't have to just listen to me: go read accounts of Gygax and Kuntz describing early forays into the Tomb of Horrors, where e.g. Robilar would send an army of orcs ahead of him to spring the traps. Where does the army of orcs come from? People get them by 'role playing', which in this case means negotiating. (Why were limits on number of followers based on Charisma among the earliest stat-based additional rules added? Because Gary's players were making an end run around the system by getting as many henchmen as they could for cannon fodder. Gary needed to limit that route so that the players would find other ones as well, I'm convinced.) You jockeyed for advantage early and often and in a relatively unconstrained way, based on verbal negotitaion and appreciation of the other guy's cleverness, and this dictated when and how you fell into the combat simulator. I think this kind of play was at the heart of the game for many groups from the beginning, though relatively few people realized it explicitly, and instead of designing new versions of the game to facilitate this, layer upon layer of crust was added so that the game gradually lost interest for people who played the way I did and became interesting to someone else instead (whoever bought all those 2nd edition books).
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rafial
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« Reply #9 on: August 10, 2004, 10:15:27 AM »

Quote from: Sean

What I'm talking about is a very explicit thing that happened in (some, not all, but commonly) early D&D where the real 'action' of play was a negotiation between players and GM over whether and when they were going to get into the combat mechanics, and one primary metric of that negotiation was the mutual evaluation of people at the table (but especially the GM) of how creative, entertaining, and cool (and yes, that's subjective, and that's part of my point) the players were being in describing ways to face their challenges, with only the slightest points of contact with any explicit rules.


Hmm... I'm not sure I quite see the distinction, it sounds pretty much like textbook Drama to me.  I think your point is that the lack of any textual direction forced the drift toward heavy use of Drama as a popular play choice.

Incidently, when you say "2nd edition" are you actually referring to the "1st edition AD&D" stuff?  Because my play experience started with the "purple box" Basic D&D, which was as you describe (no explanation for stats, 1d6 damage) and we migrated piecemeal to the original hardback AD&D books, but wound up ignoring most of the specialized resolution systems in favor of more of the play style you described.  I never did pick up 2nd edition AD&D.

This discussion reminds of the Engle Matrix Games which I discovered a few month ago because the guy who writes them sent a bunch to Clinton, and he gave me one.  Basically the entire resolution system for these games has the players making up arguments about what they are going to do using previously established facts as ammo for their cause, and then having the GM set the odds of a "yes/no" roll to see if things go to plan.  Argue persuasively, you succeed on a 2+ on d6.  Weak arguments, and you only succeed on a 6.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #10 on: August 10, 2004, 12:39:29 PM »

Hiya,

It might help to review my essay A hard look at Dungeons & Dragons for editions and names. For example, I do not think the terms "basic D&D" and "OD&D" are very useful. If you go with the authors and years that I list in the article, no one will be confused.

Best,
Ron
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rafial
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« Reply #11 on: August 10, 2004, 01:13:07 PM »

Quote from: Ron Edwards
Hiya,

It might help to review my essay A hard look at Dungeons & Dragons for editions and names.


Fair enough.  The editions I'm referring to are D&D 1977 (blue book, large box) and AD&D1 (I don't think you give a date in the article Ron, I think it was either 79 or 80 we got the PH).

BTW, did you know that your Castle Blackamoor link in that article points to a golf course ;) ?
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Sean
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« Reply #12 on: August 10, 2004, 01:59:16 PM »

Rafial - I meant the late eighties rewrite of the game. Your experience starting with the J. Eric Holmes boxed set and moving into first-printing AD&D is certainly part of the period in question. It sounds like you were using some of the same techniques too, so cool! I wonder if you were using them to facilitate Narrativism rather than Gamism though, in light of your post?

These are uses of Drama, yes. The distinction is just that I was talking about a particular application rather than the whole ball of wax. I guess I don't see your Sorcerer story as being quite about the same thing because (a) it doesn't sound like you were using the Drama-resolution to satisfy Gamist play-priorities and (b) you were reverting to Drama in light of good 'role-playing' (acting, passionate delivery, cleverness in working with imagined priorities of NPCs, etc) rather than clever/imaginative problem-solving of the types described herein (to deploy a Gygaxism). There are numerous similarities and they're 'of a kind' in some respects, they're just not the same thing.

Your point's still relevant, though, that lots of people like to default to Drama when certain things are 'arresting' or 'cool' enough in some broad sense in all sorts of games. Great issue to discuss in its full generality in a different RPG theory or actual play thread. Another great issue for another thread is the use of Drama-driven system-trumps in all manner of RPGs to support Narrativism in general, and why people who came to Narrativism using those kinds of techniques maybe have the hardest time of all 'getting' Narrativist-facilitating design.

But for another thread, please, if possible. I really want to keep this one focused on

(a) the play-style that I described in general

(b) that play-style in connection with early editions of D&D

(c) current games and systems and mechanics which facilitate that play-style

if possible. Thanks!
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kenjib
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« Reply #13 on: August 10, 2004, 03:08:22 PM »

I think that Gary Gygax still appreciates this style of play.  His current game, Lejendary Adventures, can said to still have some of these elements.  The rules framework is very minimal and open to broad interpretation, but being a skill based game some of this "out of the rules" negotiation has moved into the rules themselves.  For example, skills are very loosely defined.  Stealth is "all activities having to do with access, escape, evasion, lurking, silence, skulking, sudden unexpected atttack, being unheard in approach or departure, being hidden from view, undetected by watchers, and so forth..."  Other abilities, such as ranging and security, overlap many of these qualities.  The whole thing is so loose and vaguely defined that it encourages players to think of creative ways to make a given situation fit the definition of a skill.  What exactly does "access" mean?  Can a character use this to break into a locked house?  To bypass a trap on a chest?  To fast-talk his way past a guard?  The answer to these questions is intentionally left to a negotiation process between player and referree.

There are lots of other vague definitions.  "A low rating may mean the character has little knowledge of the field as a whole, or may mean that the character knows a lot about a single part of the field and nothing about the rest of it.  The player and [GM], together, will decide what the [PC] knows and what the Ability measures."

Further, the suggested modifiers of the percentile based resolution system range from -50 to +50 or more, which is such a large amount that it begins to really impact the significance of a character's Ability score.  The application of these bonuses is really arbitrary to the out-of-rules discussion as well.  For example, one suggestion for applying a bonus is "combat use of Weapons agains tan adversay whose flank is exposed to the attack," and yet such contextual details of combat such as attacking from the flank are by and large left to negotiation between player and referree.

The fundamental dynamic of the game is this out-of-rules arbitration between player and referree regarding what a character's statistical representation means, and how suited the character is to the given task.  A creative player whose character has Stealth ability will find far more opportunities to use his ambiguously-defined skill and obtain large bonuses than an uncreative one.  This has perhaps more impact on the game than the characters' statistical representation.  I think the fact that this is such a central part of Gary Gygax's current game, and is closely related to the phenomenon you're talking about, indicates that you're really on to something.
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Kenji
rafial
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« Reply #14 on: August 10, 2004, 05:31:52 PM »

Quote from: Sean
I guess I don't see your Sorcerer story as being quite about the same thing because (a) it doesn't sound like you were using the Drama-resolution to satisfy Gamist play-priorities and (b) you were reverting to Drama in light of good 'role-playing' (acting, passionate delivery, cleverness in working with imagined priorities of NPCs, etc) rather than clever/imaginative problem-solving of the types described herein (to deploy a Gygaxism).


Ah, I think I see now where our views differ.  In my mind, I was being quite the little Gamist bastard, as I wanted to:

1) Complete my objective (get the ox)
2) Defuse the "thematically interesting hard choice" that was being offered me (destroy a city to save a nation).
3) Avoid the dice mechanic, in which even scads of bonus dice leave you with an appreciable chance of failure (similar to the "dangerous combat system" issue with D&D you mentioned).

'Good role playing' was just one my tools to this end.  To me it was very explicit problem solving, just on a slightly larger scale than would have been typical for the type of play you are citing.  I think this highlights a point Ron has made in the past about the veil between Gamism and Narrativism being often quite thin.

Quote

But for another thread, please, if possible. I really want to keep this one focused on

(a) the play-style that I described in general

(b) that play-style in connection with early editions of D&D

(c) current games and systems and mechanics which facilitate that play-style


There's an interesting tension going on here.  If I'm reading what you say correctly, I think the appealing aspect of the type of play you describe was the fact points of contact between the shared imagined situation and the rule were few and far between.  Consider that in the period you describe, it was a mark of pride in certain circles to say "we didn't touch the dice all evening."

However, others reacted to this situation by elaborating the rules to cover more situations, and while the same clever problem solving can still go on, there are often many more points of contact between the SIS and system.  The intention was to be freeing (you now have more in system options that just hitting the monster with the sword), but it can also be seen as constraining (the system doesn't say you can do that, so you can't).  With early D&D, adopting the second view was quickly self defeating, because the system was so obviously incomplete.  With the greater detail of many current systems, it's much easier to become trapped within the box of system.

An opposite approach, less explored I think, would be to pare the points of contact back further, and use the system primarily as a randomizer of what would otherwise be pure drama/freeform play.  I think (although I have not played it) this is exactly what the "Engle Matrix games" system I cited above is trying to do.  Take a look through the online version of the rules that I linked to.  If nothing else its worth it for the odd style of presentation.
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