Thursday, 14 June 2012

Beyond Generation Wars

"The problem with this new generation is that they grew up on computer games that hand everything to them. They don't have the gumption for old-school play!"

This is a common enough sentiment, but I had to question it recently after reading this article by David Wong. Granted, he admits to "pushing 40," but most of the computer games he mentions are hits from the past 10 years. And some of his criteria for a great moment in computer game play seem lifted straight from the Old School roleplaying ethos. Such as:
  • "When you feel truly powerful for the first time:" Means that you have to spend some time paying your dues, hiding and skulking and killing rats with a stick. Power is earned, not granted from the start.
  • "The first time you see an awe-inspiring enemy." Means that you have to face things you're not sure you'll survive.
  • "The first time you see the universe running without you." Right on. To continue: "Here's a quick way to separate good fantasy stories from bad: The good ones leave you feeling like the universe continues whether or not the camera is there to see it." 
These are all ideas behind old-school naturalism: the world is not composed of carefully measured, player-centric combats and artificial puzzles. You are let into a world where things can overpower you, where there are problems not puzzles, and you have to use all your guile, stealth and good judgment to survive. The computer gaming examples Wong gives here would also make great experiences in tabletop gaming - for example, running from the dragon only to have it fight the giant.

But here's my suspicion: there hasn't really been a change with the generations. Maybe there's less tolerance for pointless grinding at the tabletop because of the ready availability of electronic timewasters. But running a naturalistic world always has taken insight and a certain amount of grit when faced with the players' desire to win. Steering clear of pointless reward and pointless sadism as a DM - and of the self-consciousness that you might be indulging in one or the other - has never been easy. It's also not easy as a player to stick with such a campaign, even though it ultimately brings deep rewards.

You can see from the fulminations of Gygax in the AD&D books that many of his contemporaries ran overly easy "Monty Haul" campaigns. Dice fudging is openly discussed. Clearly, not all old-time players had the Old School mentality. And evidently, a minority of roleplayers today embrace it.

This way has never been mass-market - which is why Mike Mearls feels the need to surround his old-school advice in D&D Next with a slew of padded safety mechanisms. That's OK; those of us who care know how to unbolt the training wheels.


  1. I must admit that I was suspicious of the lure of the computer game when I started my son (then aged 7) on the tabletop path. I thought "Better catch him quick before the XBox wraps its tentacles around him" But here we are, two years later and although he likes his Skylanders (perhaps a bit obsessive about them but what the hell) he still sits down with four of his friends every couple of weeks and gives anything up to six hours of his time to D&D; maybe I've caught him young enough to show him that there are different ways of gaming.

    Many of the gang's greatest battles have been against wilderness encounters that the dice decreed, rather than stuff I'd put into a dungeon thinking that it should be a tough fight for them. I know that some people fulminate against encounters on the way to a dungeon, that somehow it 'spoils the fun' if a party is nearly wiped out before it even gets the chance to go underground but to my mind, not knowing (even as the DM) if the party is going to live or die when that dice says "Here comes trouble" IS the fun.

    1. Too right! The wilderness should be a dangerous place and characters need to keep on their toes and not be allowed to become complacent. There and back again is part of the adventure, the destination is just the focal point.