A neotrad TTRPG design manifesto

clearstream

(He, Him)
In this thread I aim to make two arguments. In this first post, I aim to disambiguate neotrad and OC. In brief, I'll argue that "neotrad" labels a design trend, while "OC" is a culture of play. That will obviously relate to an excellent thread about OC play. Nothing in that thread other than choice of label is contested here. In an immediately following second post, I will outline a neotrad manifesto that represents not what any one game text or blogger necessarily says today, but a direction of movement for TTRPG design.

Without wishing to over-commit on definitions, in a nutshell "OC" stands for "Orignal Character" and "focuses on player aspirations and interests and their realisation" while "neotrad" design integrates innovations from indie-games (largely storygames) into enduring modes of play such as trad and sim.

Turning first then to semantics: the label "neo-trad" has sound provenance to a game designer's characterisation of their design approach.
In 2015, Tomas Härenstam speaking about his Mutant: Year Zero roleplaying game, defined it “neotrad” game for the first time. “it’s got the production values, ease of use and plentiful campaign material of a traditional RPG, combined with the kind of clever and thematic rules design usually found in the indie games”, he said.

In that interview, Härenstam also said that
Players Characters are created with a specific mission or assignment, or other meaningful tasks to fulfill in the game. They are not simply created as part of the fictional world, they have a close link with the game itself.
This "close link with the game itself" implemented into a design delivers strong utility to OC, but neotrad designs can also demonstrably favour non-OC play. An apposite example is Härenstam's Forbidden Lands, which favours sandbox/OSR-ish play with a lethality that works against OC play.

The conflation of OC with neotrad was introduced by the author of Six Cultures of Play, who on later reflection wrote that
If I were to go back and rewrite the essay, I would have avoided linking to the Brattit essay this time around. The author there is talking about a school of designing games, whereas I'm talking about a play culture in my essay. I originally put it in to show that people were using the term at all, but I think it confused more than it helped.

I agree with your characterisation of the neo-trad school of design as basically taking mechanics from story games and integrating them into more traditional RPG systems. My take is that it's not a new play culture, but still part of trad culture. It's a good expression of the permeability of the cultures, how they're not about specific mechanics, but about the goals of play. Methods developed in story games can be adopted and used in trad play, and vice versa (IMHO, a good thing for all involved).

For the play culture, one reason I proposed using the term "neo-trad" was to highlight that it's a closer evolution from the trad play culture than most of the other successors (story games, etc.). I've taken to mostly calling it "OC" after a number of people shared the confusion over the school of design vs the play culture, but haven't altered the original essay to avoid rendering a couple hundred comments using the term unintelligible. When I'm eventually able to write the follow-up, I'm probably going to suggest uniformly calling it "OC".
(Emphasis mine.)

Differentiating between a culture of play and a TTRPG design trend clears the semantic ambiguities that could otherwise bedevil post two, following this. I will be focusing on neotrad - a design trend - and not OC - a culture of play.
 
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clearstream

(He, Him)
In this post, I aim to present a "neotrad manifesto" driven by the ramifications of a contemporary trend in TTRPG design. Tomas Härenstam coined the term to describe his approach to design of Mutant Year Zero. Härenstam led design on Forbidden Lands, which also uses Free League's Year Zero Engine. Games I have in mind while writing this include The One Ring, Legend of the Five Rings (Fantasy Flight version), and D&D 4e, but be warned that no extant game text is presumed to fulfil the whole manifesto.

As a very general observation, neotrad game texts incorporate the results of innovation in indie games into any of the enduring modes of play. These innovations are very often sourced from what are sometimes called storygames. Three great examples are
  • Scene-closure-systems such as "momentum" in L5R, "skill challenges" in 4e, and journeys in ToR. These are related to mechanics in "storygames" such as clocks in Blades in the Dark, vows in Ironsworn, and perhaps fronts in Dungeon World. The job done by these mechanics is to say when enough has happened or been done toward an ends. They form a contract between participants as to what equals enough. When have we done enough to navigate through the Forest of Neverlight, and so on. They constrain and compel... in partricular constraining and compelling GM. Desiring to do that is one sign of a neo-trad design: it's not just - no rule zero - it's here's some boilerplate for your negotiations.
  • Flags as discussed here, for example dark secrets, pride and relationships in Forbidden Lands, or as stitched all the way through the game of twenty questions in L5R. These are related to mechanics such as beliefs, instincts and traits in Burning Wheel. Typically, flags are hooked into rewards (such as progression) and narrative force (so that when the player means it, their character means it). Players use flags to say what they want the game to be about. Sandbox GMs had grasped the notion of following player goals, but hadn't translated that into concrete mechanics.
  • In the Brattit essay, is a one liner - "No rule zero, or golden rule . Self-explanatory." But that isn't self-explanatory at all. In fact, it blows up the whole premise of a GM who is not a player. Players are those who pursue goals having put rules in force for themselves, which they do for the sake of the play thus constituted. No rule zero, or golden rule brings GM into the fold. One way to say it is that it is only as a player that we can bind GM to do what the rules say, and another way to say it is that binding GM to do what the rules say makes them a player.
The ramifications - what is at stake - with design moves like those above can be laid out fairly easily:

Where GM is not a player, they are part of the lusory-means and do not have goals they play toward. Rules don't bind referees: they uphold them. It is referee who says what the rules mean constrained by standards of conduct and in light of best practices. This offers a general solve for a wide range of problems that arise in play that is about imagining things.​
Where GM is a player, they must adopt some version of a lusory-attitude and -goals, albeit asymmetrical ones. It implicitly makes conflict with adversaries of the player characters a case of PvP. That isn't a bad thing! Rules bind players, including players taking on the role of GM. One consequence for game designers is that the GM's behaviour can be shaped and foreseen.​

A hallmark of neo-trad design is the reappraisal of GM via principles and/or mechanics. In many cases, GM is plainly called out as a player (ToR and YZE are examples, and Cortex Prime depending how you read it.) In other cases, GM is still cast with traditional powers, and then these are constrained and compelled by the mechanics (L5R is an example.)

Thus forming the manifesto: neotrad game designs ought to shift GM to or toward a role taken on by a player. At the least, a neotrad game text will contain rules that constrain and compel GM's voice in the ongoing negotiation of play... and GM cannot "rule zero" themselves out of that. No doubt the landscape is diverse and there are other hallmarks, too. I suggest that this one is central.

EDIT 13 Jan - see a more clearly stated version of the manifesto here. 18 Jan - I attempt to take stock of levels of agreement in #478.
 
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Golroc

Explorer
Supporter
I think the distinction between culture and design is important, and relevant. I feel that discussion about playstyles and the issues/opportunities inherent to various games can very easily become impossible if the people involved don't agree on what aspects are being discussed. I would perhaps suggest that it is important to consider that design is purely a matter of system design.

A game is an amalgam of setting, system, commentary and community. Explicitly or implicitly, the authors / game designers, will inject commentary and structure into their game, which will affect how the audience play the game. If the books are full of rich and detailed setting material, that tells players that the setting is important. If the books are full of crunch, clarifications and edge case rules, that tells players that the rules and their resolution is important.

I guess this means that I while I agree with your distinction, design does affect culture. The same system can be framed completely differently by different designers by their emphasis on various aspects of the game, and thus push players (who might not be aware of the cultures of plays) towards playing the game in a certain manner.

Something like the dreaded illusionist style is an example - the designers can, completely detached from the actual system, nudge players away or towards this kind of play. Players can of course do whatever they want in practice, and play anything as whatever variation of the original material. But we recognize this, then we should also recognize that any game has some level of intent in how it is played (which may or may not cover multiple cultures of play). So there is an interplay where it is a design decision how opinionated to be about the culture of play.

Given how much the intangible experience matters (something theorists tend to underestimate, in my opinion), I would say that the presentation, production values and intentional throwbacks to historical games really matter. I think the problem with describing everything in terms of culture is that it overlooks that not all game designs are equally opinionated. In fact some are explicitly not so in their design, telling players to make it their own and adapt it to their style and culture.

Inside a style (like OC) there is also the opportunity for a wide variety of design trends to manifest. An OC-opinionated game can appeal to varying levels of nostalgia. It can be more or less focused on setting. It might be presented in a format highly divergent from the classics (as an online resource, and not a book, for example).

And as always labels and categories are a model of reality. One possible way to delineate and describe. I do not believe it is useful to consider theoretical frameworks of RPG games as a discovery of an underlying structure of reality. It is an optic, and almost by definition a simplification and flawed in multiple ways. This does not make it useless. A model or theory can capture much that is valuable and make discourse more useful and accurate.

Does it add value to distinguish between culture of play and design trends? I believe it does.
 



In this post, I aim to present a "neotrad manifesto" driven by the ramifications of a contemporary trend in TTRPG design. Tomas Härenstam coined the term to describe his approach to design of Mutant Year Zero. Härenstam led design on Forbidden Lands, which also uses Free League's Year Zero Engine. Games I have in mind while writing this include The One Ring, Legend of the Five Rings (Fantasy Flight version), and D&D 4e, but be warned that no extant game text is presumed to fulfil the whole manifesto.

As a very general observation, neotrad game texts incorporate the results of innovation in indie games into any of the enduring modes of play. These innovations are very often sourced from what are sometimes called storygames. Three great examples are
  • Scene-closure-systems such as "momentum" in L5R, "skill challenges" in 4e, and journeys in ToR. These are related to mechanics in "storygames" such as clocks in Blades in the Dark, vows in Ironsworn, and perhaps fronts in Dungeon World. The job done by these mechanics is to say when enough has happened or been done toward an ends. They form a contract between participants as to what equals enough. When have we done enough to navigate through the Forest of Neverlight, and so on. They constrain and compel... in partricular constraining and compelling GM. Desiring to do that is one sign of a neo-trad design: it's not just - no rule zero - it's here's some boilerplate for your negotiations.
  • Flags as discussed here, for example dark secrets, pride and relationships in Forbidden Lands, or as stitched all the way through the game of twenty questions in L5R. These are related to mechanics such as beliefs, instincts and traits in Burning Wheel. Typically, flags are hooked into rewards (such as progression) and narrative force (so that when the player means it, their character means it). Players use flags to say what they want the game to be about. Sandbox GMs had grasped a similar notion.
  • In the Brattit essay, is a one liner - "No rule zero, or golden rule . Self-explanatory." But that isn't self-explanatory at all. In fact, it blows up the whole premise of a GM who is not a player. Players are those who pursue goals having put rules in force for themselves, which they do for the sake of the play thus constituted. No rule zero, or golden rule brings GM into the fold. One way to say it is that it is only as a player that we can bind GM to do what the rules say, and another way to say it is that binding GM to do what the rules say makes them a player.
The ramifications - what is at stake - with design moves like those above can be laid out fairly easily:

Where GM is not a player, they are part of the lusory-means and do not have goals they play toward. Rules don't bind referees: they uphold them. It is referee who says what the rules mean constrained by standards of conduct and in light of best practices. This offers a general solve for a wide range of problems that arise in play that - per the OP - is about imagining things.​
Where GM is a player, they must adopt some version of a lusory-attitude and -goals, albeit asymmetrical ones. It implicitly makes conflict with adversaries of the player characters a case of PvP. That isn't a bad thing! Rules bind players, including players taking on the role of GM. One consequence for game designers is that the GM's behaviour can be shaped and foreseen.​

A hallmark of neo-trad design is the reappraisal of GM via principles and/or mechanics. In many cases, GM is plainly called out as a player (ToR and YZE are examples, and Cortex Prime depending how you read it.) In other cases, GM is still cast with traditional powers, and then these are constrained and compelled by the mechanics (L5R is an example.)

Thus forming the manifesto: neotrad game designs are those that shift GM to or toward a role taken on by a player. At the least, a neotrad game text will contain rules that constrain and compel GM's voice in the ongoing negotiation of play... and GM cannot "rule zero" themselves out of that. No doubt the landscape is diverse and there are other hallmarks, too. I suggest that this one is central.
As a game designer who I think is probably described as "neotrad," I tentatively accept this thesis. One of the core things in my design work is ensuring that the GM has a fun game to play alongside the players, and that their job isn't necessarily to uphold the rules (which is part of their job ), but to have a role in progressing the game towards either the same goal of the players or a new goal entirely.

In my upcoming game, Crimson Catalyst, the goal is to win what's at stake for the players, as defined by one of 16 different character arcs, while racing against an extinction event and coming Cataclysms. The players are actively working towards this goal, and the GM is actively introducing ideas that add texture towards reaching this goal + propels the players closer to it. The GM isn't supposed to represent a world separate from this goal, though they can (as is the power of TTRPGS). Or, another way of putting it is, the world represented by the GM only exists in reference to the goal (and reaching it).

In the Batman RPG, the goal of the GM is to create a villain, a mystery, a spark, and a scenario for the players to interact with. The GM is empowered to create a living, breathing Gotham, but the game first informs the GM that they are the Villain before anything else, framing them similarly as a player might be.

Turning the GM from a would-be simulator engine into a player of the game is one of the great ideas of contemporary game design IMO.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Interesting essay. Thanks for posting.
In the Brattit essay, is a one liner - "No rule zero, or golden rule . Self-explanatory." But that isn't self-explanatory at all. In fact, it blows up the whole premise of a GM who is not a player. Players are those who pursue goals having put rules in force for themselves, which they do for the sake of the play thus constituted. No rule zero, or golden rule brings GM into the fold. One way to say it is that it is only as a player that we can bind GM to do what the rules say, and another way to say it is that binding GM to do what the rules say makes them a player.
I've seen similar thoughts around here before but as yet no one's come close to explaining how the players can force the referee to do anything. The rulebook, as an inanimate object, has even less capacity to force the referee to do anything. At best you get this weird loop of the players saying, "But the rules say so!" and the referee responding, "Yeah, so?" The closest the players can come to compelling the referee in any way is with their choice to stay at the table and play or leave and not play. Beyond that, the players have no real capacity to "bind" the referee in any meaningful way.
 

payn

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
What's up with the trend about starting essays but not providing definitions in the introductory materials?

I don't know what "OC" play or culture is.
I was going to start a thread in a more general way of discussing game design and play culture and folks perspective on them. I was certainly going to limit the jargon because I wanted to avoid posts like these above. Since we are here, I think the issue is that these terms are not widely used and accepted, even though they have a basis for it. A lot of gamers don't even understand the difference in game design and culture of play. Which is why you get games shot down for lack of play culture, when that play culture was never intended by design. Im not sure what the answer is to it. These arguments pop up from time to time in many other hobbies like video games. They just have wider accepted definitions and larger play base and industry that they don't step on each others toes as much. Best I can figure.
 

innerdude

Legend
. . . as yet no one's come close to explaining how the players can force the referee to do anything. The rulebook, as an inanimate object, has even less capacity to force the referee to do anything. At best you get this weird loop of the players saying, "But the rules say so!" and the referee responding, "Yeah, so?" The closest the players can come to compelling the referee in any way is with their choice to stay at the table and play or leave and not play. Beyond that, the players have no real capacity to "bind" the referee in any meaningful way.

Emphasis mine.

For Neo-trad game design, along with broader narrative-style designs, the "at best" proposition is, Players saying, "But the rules say so!" and the referee responding, "Oh that's right, we've agreed that in regard to aspects X, Y, Z, A, and B, I am just as bound by the written rules as you are, and if I choose to break those rules, I'm playing the game wrong."

This goes part and parcel with @clearstream 's proposition that neo-trad design pushes the GM---at least partially---into a role/space where they are viewed as a player, with the same constraints in regard to those areas. If the GM chooses to break those portions of rules that constrain them, it would need to be done with the full consent of the rest of the group. The GM cannot in good faith unilaterally ignore those agreed-upon constraints.
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
Interesting essay. Thanks for posting.

I've seen similar thoughts around here before but as yet no one's come close to explaining how the players can force the referee to do anything. The rulebook, as an inanimate object, has even less capacity to force the referee to do anything. At best you get this weird loop of the players saying, "But the rules say so!" and the referee responding, "Yeah, so?" The closest the players can come to compelling the referee in any way is with their choice to stay at the table and play or leave and not play. Beyond that, the players have no real capacity to "bind" the referee in any meaningful way.
You put light on a significant point! Something to reflect on is how the rules can force players to do anything? When it comes to games, what I take to be the mainstream view is that players are those who choose to put rules in force for themselves for the sake of the experience it affords them. No doubt social contracts and learned norms steer them in this.

What I suggest then is that it is only as a player that GM will do likewise, and that doing likewise makes GM a player. Then all the other elements of neotrad design are able to provide their benefits.
 

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