Sunday 15 April 2012

OSR Contradiction 1: Play vs. Fiction

Attempts to enforce purity in the Old School Ratatouille are doomed to fail. Why?  Because in its glorious diversity it's fallen into at least two contradictions that I've become aware of writing recent posts. These contradictions are not fatal, except perhaps to an exaggerated sense of traditional gaming orthodoxy, but they bear mentioning.

Contradiction 1 relates to something I noticed a while back: Old-style D&D combat (any kind of D&D combat for that matter) bears little resemblance to the give and take of pulp fantasy combat. OK, so it's not the most original observation that D&D combat is not realistic. But it's remarkable that even the general style of play of high-level D&D heroes is at odds with the cautious, life-or-death approach taken by even the greatest heroes of early 20th century fantasy literature.

But also, as Aaron Steele recently remarked, "One of the unique features of Dungeons and Dragons is the idea of the ADVENTURING PARTY." The vaunted pulp fantasy influences can't really account for this confluence of archetypes that quickly settled in a foursquare formation. Fafhrd and the Mouser, the Eternal Champion and his sidekicks are duos cut from essentially the same cloth. The Fellowship of the Ring may have contributed the "fantasy races," elf-dwarf ribbing and all, but their mission is completely different and they're missing a few key players.

I've personally rejected the neo-Old School arguments to drop thieves ("Hey, everyone's a thief") or cleric-types ("Hey, no room for goody-goodies in Hyboria"). Only recently have I realized why.

In the first place, even taking both measures at once will bring you no closer to your Weird Tales utopia; you'll look in vain for all those pulp adventure stories featuring the sword-wielding barbarian and his wizard buddy. Drop the wizard PCs, and you'll have a true pulp adventure game (resembling perhaps Searchers of the Unknown). But it won't be D&D, or even T&T.

In the second place, the four classes are classics because they set up instant character conflicts within the party, but on a tame enough level that the party can still work together. To illustrate:

Silhouettes by Telecanter & myself
The fighter-wizard axis is the classic Kirk-Spock, Aubrey-Maturin, Narcissus-Goldmund alliance of opposites. Not all fighters and magic-users fit the stereotypes, of course. But the classes as developed in fantasy gaming tend to bear out the roles by making the wizard the combat-weak master of powerful but limited resources, and the fighter the more durable frontline figure.

The cleric-thief axis sets up moral debates and conflicts, encouraged by the altruistic nature of the cleric's gifts, and the acquisitive, loner nature of the thief's methods. I've had to express these in two ways because different play groups work differently with them. Some see the conflict as between the thief and the party (the labels in parentheses), others as seeing it as between the party and the rest of the world.

The moral axis may not work sometimes. It lets clerics and paladins be asshats by insisting on moral action detrimental to the party, and thieves and assassins be asshats by insisting on selfish action detrimental to the party. Things work out best, perhaps, when the thief advocates for the selfish and immediate interests of the party (as opposed to robbing sleeping companions) while the cleric advocates for the long-term moral interests of the party (as opposed to telling the truth to the Dark Lord's guards).

Perhaps these problems with the moral axis, or its suggestion that there is more than the looter ethos, leads some to reject its classes completely. I can't ... because that's not D&D. Despite all those problems, and implementation problems that persisted for twenty years, thieves and clerics nevertheless stuck around. I just don't see it as a positive to insist that the long-lived and very resilient party structure of the game is some sort of tumor that has to be excised to reach purity.

Contradiction 2 is coming up, and it leads in to my review and play guide for Tomb of the Iron God.


  1. Interesting analysis on all counts.

  2. I liked Thomas Denmark's analysis as well, where he looks at the six prime attributes and attaches classes to each. Each of those classes have diametrically opposed classes.

  3. I started a new campaign on Saturday in my Shatterworld setting, and of course instantly came upon these conflicts with the players. Basically the party is divided between two magic users and a thief who want to recover and ancient artifact of power possibly associated with forces of darkness, and a ranger, bard, and paladin who have come along to keep an eye on things and try to make sure the evil does not get out of control.

    Most of the players are new, and I'm going to email this post to them so they can see how the conflicts are designed inherently in the game.

  4. Interesting theory. I like it. I think you're right to imply that the D&D narrative is an experience apart from fantasy fiction.

  5. The idea for the adventuring party is clearly demonstrated in The Hobbit, even down to the contract that was present in all the games I played in the 70s/early 80s.

  6. At the American Cultural Association/Popular Cultural Association panel on maps in RPGs we talked about how mapping-based exploration is also a D&D game construct (born out of Napoleonics fog-of-war techniques, Chainmail sapping, and Source of the Nile). In the megadungeons of fiction, making an accurate map is nowhere near the central concern it appears as in the OD&D text.

  7. I think Holmes and Moldvay (as much as I love their rulebooks; Moldvay is my favorite edition of D&D) did the game a major disservice with their description of the thief class. They explicitly mention that other members should not trust thieves, and that just seems silly for a game that if it is "about" anything is about teamwork.

    To be honest, other than the bold/cautious dichotomy, I've never seen any of these stereotypes come up in play. I've always seen clerics played more pragmatically (nothing like the paladin's code). More like Van Helsing or a crusader.

    The problem with the thief class as it developed is that it took trap finding and other player skill tasks and quantified them. This is a mechanical problem, not a thematic problem, I think, and is relatively easy to address through referee style.

  8. @Hedgehobbit: Yep, The Hobbit comes closest in its quest for treasure and blastier Gandalf. But where's the cleric?

    @Tavis: Also a good point. Graph paper mapping is such a pleasure that it bypasses realism for 10' measurements and right angles.

    @Brendan: I've gotten more lenient with treasure-filching thieves in my floating megadungeon campaign that has a constant flux of players, and that group also has its share of venal and psychotic priests. In my other campaigns there's been more role-playing investment and more differentiation along that axis. But yeah, if everyone's the thief in spirit you get a much less "heroic" style game.

  9. That matrix is deeply insightful. Very nice.

  10. You're on a hell of a roll lately.

  11. "@Hedgehobbit: Yep, The Hobbit comes closest in its quest for treasure and blastier Gandalf. But where's the cleric?"

    It seems to me that because Wizards are Pagan, the Cleric was included to keep the Christians happy.

    1. I don't think this is true at all. See here:

      Also, I believe Gygax was a man of faith, though I'm not sure about Arneson.