Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Old School Game Theory V2

IN consideration of the previous thread where we had some good conversations on what is considered old school or not I'm developing V2 of the Theory here which should help clarify things.

Old School Game Theory: A theory that explains the how and why of game design for games written today to adhere to the flavor of games such as OD&D (and others). It also is used in retrospect to explain game design of similar games (OD&D AD&D 1E, etc) prior to the shift of primary direction from hobby game to money-making corporate policy.

Old School Game Style: A style of play. Has absolutely nothing to do with game system or design. Can be used with any game. Essentially playing an RPG in a manner where GM Fiat and Roleplaying can trump system/ mechanics. Playing loosely, where rules are more of a "guideline". Metagame thinking is by definition discouraged. Player knowledge and character knowledge are separate. This works with some games better than others. Some games encourage this style of play. Some discourage this style of play.

Pulp Fantasy: Books, novels, stories such as Conan, Fafnir, books by John Norman, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and many others. These books have a certain style and flavor to them that is unique. Gritty pseudo-heroes, and moral ambiguity is common. Stories often deal in shades of grey and are rarely clear cut as far as good and evil goes.

Pulp Fantasy Gaming: Roleplaying in a game that allows for an encourages settings and characters similar in flavor to pulp fantasy. Often having circumstances in game where the players/ characters have to deal with questionable issues and there is no moral compass in-system to enforce four-color play: It's okay to be morally ambiguous or altruistic as YOU CHOOSE...not as the game system/ mechanics/ setting tells you. Some game systems encourage this more than others.

Rules as Written: The game rules are the whole of the law. If it's not in the rules, it doesn't exist. Absolutely strict interpretation of the rules exactly as written. Black and white. Largely Objective.

Rules as Intended: The game rules are a guideline in order to maintain some sense of order and structure on a simulation. Subject to interpretation. Completely grey. Largely Subjective.

Game Theory:
What comprises the Old School Game Theory?
What I posit here is that for games to be designed using the Old School Game Theory certain things are primary considerations. Others are not.

Primary Considerations in Design:
1. Overall simplicity.
a. The main reason for this is that metagame thinking and inclusion of player knowledge is counter to what the game is trying to achieve. The goal is for Character Immersion: thinking in character and playing in character. This is how players seek to resolve conflicts in-game.
b. Fewer rules mean less system aspects for the player to dwell upon when playing the RPG. This way the Player is free to focus on Roleplaying and staying in-character.

2. GM Fiat is axiomatic.
a. The GM is the final arbiter of all decisions in-game. This includes trumping system/ mechanics if desired.
b. The GM is trusted and relied upon to do what they can to enhance the enjoyment of the players (and themselves), within or without the rules. A higher degree of GM skills are encouraged (opposed to other system which allow for lazy GMing).

3. It is preferable to keep rules fairly loose so that GMs can develop their own rulings than to develop a rule for everything: More Rules(from the developer) Does Not Equal Better.
a. See #1.
b. Being able to create ad hoc and homebrew solutions on the fly are explicitly preferable to creation of more rules by the developer.
c. Rules as Intended is preferable to Rules as Written.

4. Quality product from the perspective of the hobbyist gamer.
a. Good production values. Quality art. Clear concise rules are good.
b. A good product can have good art and layout.
c. Some people will prefer a certain style in art and layout that is similar to the original era products.

Secondary Considerations in Design:
Creating rules or addenda in order to sell more books.
Creating rules or addenda to cover all aspects of life. There's no need to cover everything, let RP handle most of it.

More rules to cover everything means that everything comes down essentially a die roll instead of handled via Roleplay.

More rules does not equal better.

The more rules you write and incorporate, the ammunition some players have to fight the GM: rules lawyering.

When the cornerstone of the game design is GM Fiat, you don't want to undermine that...leave most of the determinations vague/ ambiguous and up to the GM to resolve on his/ her own.

In order to keep from having an antagonistic relationship between GM and Players, keep most of the tools in the GMs hands.


Games built according to the Old School Game Theory-Swords and Wizardry, OSRIC, OD&D, AD&D 1E, AD&D 2E (until the flood of additional books/ rules started coming out). Stormbringer/ CoC/ Pendragon (Chaosium BRP systems) and several others.

Games NOT Built according to the Old School Game Theory- D&D 3E, D&D 3.5, D&D 4E, Dogs in the Vineyard, Sorcerer, My Life with Master, Primetime Adventures, etc. (There are several)

The difference?
Largely many games are built to create a perfect simulation of real life (or even a fantasy life). Rules for everything. Rolemaster and the Hero System are good examples of these. Several games are designed to be more of a contest between GM and Player (Agon) or balanced to the point where the GM is essentially another player (DitV).

There is nothing wrong with this. A lot of folks like games designed this way.

The goal of the Old School Game Theory is to have a plan when designing games that are made to emulate where roleplay gaming started in the first place.

If you are making something, like a game for instance, it's good to have a clear idea of what you are trying to accomplish so you can meet your design goals without wandering off target.

That is where the Old School Game Theory comes in. It's a blueprint for designing games like OD&D, S&W and OSRIC (and others). It gives (hopefully) a clear demarcation between Old School Game Design and the point where the design drifts away from its roots.

For example the Original Dungeons and Dragons game I'd say was designed according to the Old School Game Theory...even though it didn't exist in it's current form except maybe as an afterthought or vague concept.

Every edition of the game though drifted further and further from the original concept. Further from its roots. Now with D&D4E it doesn't even remotely resemble where it started.

Where did that drift start?
Ultimately it's conjecture and we can argue all day about it, but IMO it was the shift from a bunch of hobbyists making a game and improving it...to becoming a money-making company and a need to make more rules, to fill more books and sell volumes of additional stuff.

This is explicitly factored in to the Old School Game Theory. That's the line in the sand.

Improvement is a good thing. Clarity of rules and a product pleasing to the eye is a good thing. Cranking out more stuff to make more money as a primary consideration is where the line is crossed and IMO a game is no longer adhering to the Old School Game Theory. At that point the game becomes something else.

Game Play Styles:
The Old School Game Theory does encourage the Old School Style of play...but it's not necissarily the only way. Style of play is unique to every group. Some folks have played D&D to the letter, RAW, since the very beginning and that is expected to happen at some tables with games designed according to the Old School Game Theory forever. Same is true the other way around: Old School Gaming Style is played by people everywhere with games not explicitly designed for it. Age doesn't matter, experience doesn't matter. Game styles are a personal choice.

While the Old School Game Theory encourages a certain style of play, it's not a shackle. There is no corner on that market.

Same is absolutely true with a nod towards Pulpyness or Not. While the Old School Game Theory encourages pulpy themed play, it's not exclusive at all.

I hope that this V2 of the Old School Game Theory clarifies things. I apologise for my long-windedness. I appreciate the discussions we had in the previous thread regarding the Game Theory. My hope is that this draws some nice neat lines around it, keeps it clear without me rambling entirely too much. Previously I covered too much without really defining anything and it all got muddled up. Hopefully this clears that up.

*Please reserve discussion regarding The Old School Play Style, Pulp Fantasy, Pulp Fantasy Gaming, RAW/ RAI for another thread.

1 comment:

J.A. said...

I think that the Amber Diceless RPG is a good example of the kind of game you're talking about.