Thursday 5 April 2012

Old School As A Gamut Of Emotions

What's the essence of Old School style GMing? noisms thinks it's in being a dispassionate, deistic god who lets the world have its own reality. Telecanter weighs in with a comment: it's all about letting the players have fun.

I don't think it's about control, or fun. Simply put, it is to run the game so that the players can have a chance of feeling as wide a range of emotions as possible, vicariously through their PCs. Not just pleasure or mild challenge, but grief, anger, remorse, fear, side-splitting laughter. On a higher level, this experience translates into more than just the fun of completing an easy crossword puzzle, and evolves into the deeper enjoyment of engagement with serious literature or drama.

The autonomous world then becomes a necessary adjunct to this goal.

  • Sometimes it hands the players the fruits of their actions - pride, remorse, satisfaction.
  • Sometimes fate throws undeserved misfortune their way, whether they can see it coming - fear - or have to pick up the pieces afterwards - sorrow.
  • Sometimes they get more than they deserve - joy! 
  • Sometimes the world gives enemies - anger, hate - and other times allies - gratitude, respect, concern. 
  • Sometimes the universe lets them know just how enormous it is - opening up the twin feelings of awe and terror. 
  • Sometimes it's the people underfoot who get to them - pity, compassion, contempt.
  • And it's only against the serious backdrop of all these concerns that the true release of world-shaking laughter can come ... not the continual, gassy snickering that some hope to engineer through a relentless parade of ridiculous characters and cheap puns.

If you are fudging things or setting them up in the first place to make the game's outcomes fall within a certain range of cautious success, you are denying your players these experiences. If the players suspect that you are fudging things, you are denying them even the stage-managed satisfactions you intend for them to enjoy. If the world is not autonomous, it cannot inspire these emotions.

But also, the players must keep their feelings within the world in order to have the higher-level enjoyment that comes from experiencing even painful feelings as "theatrical emotions" or rasa (see here for an explanation of the Hindu concept). They must be mature enough to respect the separation of the world from the person of the Game Master.

If their grief is aimed at the dice, their anger at the GM's rules or interpretation, their gratitude at the module designer, then they are missing the point. Equally so, it is the GM's responsibility to demonstrate that all his or her choices are made out of necessity, drawing on the logic of the rules system and the logic of the imaginary world.

That, I think, is what distinguishes the old school GM from the balance-gamer who is trying to keep everything fair and manageable, and from the rail-greasing story-gamer who is denying the emotions that come from confronting meaninglessness or exerting true agency within the world.

The old school systems allow these heights and depths, but - like a psychedelic drug - can also go horribly wrong if not experienced in the right company. This is why they are and always will be an underground phenomenon.


  1. Awesome post. I shouldn't have used "fun" in my original comment because it's too vague and limiting. I agree with everything you've got here so I should have said something like "we're all here to enjoy ourselves and experience different things."

    Also, the rasa concept is fascinating. I wish I'd heard of it sooner. I have been using Zak's concept of ironic distance to explain what we're trying to do. And it works, but there always seemed a risk to take it too far-- a hipsterish "we're playing this because it's so stupid." (not that that was his intent)

    (I'm pretty skeptical we can provoke awe or wonder, though. Those seem to be related to scale and origin "How is this waterfall so tall!?" Scale is hard to invoke mentally and origin is mooted by the DM having made it up. Well, maybe you could achieve awe at multiple crits in a row or something . . .)

  2. Yes. Thank you.

    I'm almost sorry to add a trivial point, but I think it tends to get glossed over in these discussions, which are apt to jump straight to the literary/dramatic concerns:
    from my own, "middle school" roleplaying experience I'd say there's also an important procedural component to this, (a) without which the emotional content cannot arise and (b) which has merit all by itself. The procedural aspect is concerned with questions like "how might a vampire survive?" or "what could you possibly do to steal a big golden statue from a camp full of Nazi archaeologists" or stuff like that. These are practical questions not in the sense that you might have to do these things IRL but in the sense that they force you to think creatively, logically and morally in character, and having thought you come to understand the characters, their world and the situations better.

    If the DM is not impartial, or if they skip past this planning + execution stage, or if they pre-balance the world to encourage certain kinds of encounters, then this procedural working out gets short-changed.

    Two really trivial asides from the rasa article -
    1. ""emotions are conveyed by the performer and thus felt by the audience" - this is the basic difference between Latin American TV drama and North American. Brazilian telenovela actors have to be able to Stanislavski AND rasa! And they tend (therefore?) to play a stock palette of commedia dell'arte type characters. I wonder if there's a link to classes?
    2. "the emotion of Bhakti as a feeling of adoration towards God was long considered only a minor feeling" - I can think of no better thought for today.

  3. Fantastic post Roger!

    I've been mulling this over for a bit myself. At times it is very tempting to adjust things behind the screen when the results are still up in the air. Even if as DM's we think it would lead to a 'better' or more fun chain of events, to do so we would be denying a very important part of roleplaying -consequence-. Although the circumstances may feel painfully arbitrary, to bypass the rolled results is to immunize the players from misfortune, failure and lost. To do so would would strike the heart from the type of game we hold so dear.

    So thank you for this insightful post.