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Worlds of Design: “Old School” in RPGs and other Games – Part 1 Failure and Story

For me, the difference between Old School and anything else is not in the rules, but in attitude. Is failure, even losing, possible, or is it not? Is it a game, or is it a storytelling session?


Notice it’s “storytelling”, not storymaking. Every RPG involves a story, the question is, who creates the story, the GM or the players?

Inevitably, 40-some installments into this column, “Old School” would come up.

. . . role-playing games do not have plots. They have situations at the campaign, adventure, and encounter level which the players are free to interact with however they wish– as long as they accept the consequences!” - Jeffro Johnson (author of the book Appendix N)​

This will be in three (oversized) parts, because understanding of this topic is fundamental to discourse about what some of us (at least) call RPGs, and there’s too much for one or two columns (I tried). I think of a Quora question that asked what a GM can do when a player’s character does something insane or ludicrously inappropriate during a game. The answers varied widely depending on the goals of the answerer. The Old School answer is, “let the character suffer the consequences of the action”; but for those on the New School side, it was a much more complex problem, as the character’s actions would make it hard if not impossible for the GM to tell the story he had devised for the adventure.

Likely everyone reading this has seen and perhaps discussed the term “Old School” in connection with RPGs. When I started to reconnect with RPG fandom a few years ago, I wasn’t sure what “Old School” meant. There seem to be many definitions, but I now see the fundamental divide as not about rules. Rather, it’s about the attitude of the GM, and of the players, toward losing and failure. That’s at the root of Jeffro’s rant, though he puts it in terms of plot and story, which are closely related.

As I said, this is in three parts. The second will talk about rules, GMing, and pacing, and about non-RPGs reflecting the two schools. The third part will talk about differences in actual gameplay.

I’m not going to be “one true way” the way Jeffro is (“thieves must have d4 hit dice” is one of his rants). I write about RPGs as games, not as story-telling aids or playgrounds, but I am describing, not prescribing even as I obviously prefer the Old School. Let’s proceed.

If it’s a game (Old School (OS)), there’s a significant chance you can lose, you can fail. If it’s a story session, with no chance you can lose, it’s something else. This is like a co-operative board game that you cannot lose: why bother to play?

In terms of story, in OS the players write their own story, with the benefit of the GM’s assistance. The GM sets up a situation and lets the players get on with it. (This is sometimes called [FONT=&amp][FONT=&amp]"[/FONT][/FONT]sandbox[FONT=&amp][FONT=&amp]"[/FONT][/FONT] in video games, though video games tend to impose an overall story as a limitation of using computer programming instead of a human GM.) The other extreme is when the GM tells the players a story through the game. (In video games this is called a linear game, where the story always ends up the same way.)

If a GM is Old School and runs the same adventure for several different groups, the results will probably vary wildly. If the GM is at the other extreme, the overall shape of the adventure will be the same each time, with variance only in the details.

Old School adventures are usually highly co-operative, because the characters will DIE if they don’t cooperate. New School doesn’t require cooperation, you’re going to survive anyway.

Not surprisingly, as the hobby has grown, the proportion of wargamers (now a small hobby) has decreased drastically. Many players are not even hobby gamers, that is, they’re not quite “gamers” in the old sense because the only game they play is their RPG(s). Many people want their games to be stories, so the shift from Old School to something else is not surprising.

D&D 5e bears the marks of the newer playing methods, as there’s lots of healing as well as the ridiculous cleric spell revivify for mere fifth level clerics.

There are all kinds of shades of the two extremes, obviously. And all kinds of ways of running RPGs. Next time, I’ll talk about more differences between Old School and newer ways of playing such as Rules and Pacing, and compare with non-RPGs.

This article was contributed by Lewis Pulsipher (lewpuls) as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. You can follow Lew on his web site and his Udemy course landing page. If you enjoy the daily news and articles from EN World, please consider contributing to our Patreon!
 
Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio
/sigh. That is a problem. I have considered re-tooling the notion of the Crew and instead have it be about a Village. So instead of building up a Crew, you are building up a Settlement, Tribe, etc. And instead of dealing with other gangs, you are dealing with potentially other Settlements, Tribes, Clans, etc.

There are a whole bunch of fan hacks out there of varying quality and completeness. But there are a couple of games that kind of twist the concept of the Crew to be something else.

Scum & Villainy is a sci-fi, space pirate take on the game, and the PCs get a ship that they can improve and upgrade.

Band of Blades is a "Black Company" style game about a mercenary company making its way through harsh enemy territory in a dark fantasy landscape. It changes the idea of the Crew even more, as it's replaced with the Legion. Players have their own characters, but may also wind up playing "rookie" characters on some missions. Rookies can be promoted to Specialist status (what the PCs are), so it seems you kind of build up a stable of playable PCs along the way. Each player also acts as a role within the Legion's command such as Marshall, Quartermaster, Spymaster, and the like, and each has their own role in decidinig how the Legion progresses along the way, and so on. This game is not fully released yet, so I'm not entirely sure on all these points.

So I think the concept of the Crew can be altered to suit a Hack of the game. But as [MENTION=16814]Ovinomancer[/MENTION] mentioned, the mechanics and the theme of Blades are woven so tightly that changing things can be challenging. There are any number of incomplete hacks out there that show this is true. That being said, your idea of a Community of characters interacting with other Communities seems to be very suitable.
 

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Interesting.

Would the 'crew' concept be flexible enough to handle multiple parties with PCs who swap in and out every so often, all with a common home base? If yes, tell me more. :)

The Crew could certainly be made up of smaller groups if you wanted, with each player having more than one PC in play. Maybe you have two or three smaller cells of a Crew each working toward furthering the Crew's rep and stash. This would likely have an odd effect in that the Crew would advance more quickly than the PCs. I don't know if that's necessarily a bad thing, or if it would imbalance things negatively, but it's something to be aware of.

One of the first things you do after making characters and the Crew is to decide upon a lair for the crew. So the idea that they all have a lair is baked into the game. Here's another area that's a bit odd though; would each sub-crew have their own lair? Or would they all operate out of the same lair, and then have separate Hunting Grounds (their area of operation)?

I don't think you'd want to go too far with the idea of multiple squads, though, because the setting expectation is that the Crew never really leaves the home city of Doskvol. They're kind of trapped within the city (for the most part) by default, and they're going to face lots of pressure as things move along.

At some point, whatever narrative excuse may be in place for why all the PCs don't get involved in something will kind of break down. Sure, you could have the Crews separated by district, so that one operates in Crow's Foot and another in Nigtmarket, and so on....but then when one crew found themselves in trouble, or if the lair got raided, then why wouldn't it be an all hands on deck type of situation?

Having players each playing 2 or 3 PCs doesn't seem like something Blades is designed to handle. I don't think that would be a problem in small doses...one player with two PCs on a score every now and then....but at that scope it seems like it would just break down. I'm guessing at that because I've never seen this in play, and my actual play experience is pretty limited anyway.
 

Aldarc

Legend
I suppose you could have multiple squads use multiple crew playbooks. So you have a sub-squad that deals with drug deals, and another that deals with assassinations, and another that deals with smuggling. With all of them then kinda supporting the overarching goals of the operation. Or even have these multiple squads essentially representing alliances between gangs.

So I think the concept of the Crew can be altered to suit a Hack of the game. But as [MENTION=16814]Ovinomancer[/MENTION] mentioned, the mechanics and the theme of Blades are woven so tightly that changing things can be challenging. There are any number of incomplete hacks out there that show this is true. That being said, your idea of a Community of characters interacting with other Communities seems to be very suitable.
If you are interested, I discuss a bit about the inspiration behind the idea in this thread, though it's a tangent about a side-project centered around "hearth fantasy." I believe that discussion starts on the second page.
 

I suppose you could have multiple squads use multiple crew playbooks. So you have a sub-squad that deals with drug deals, and another that deals with assassinations, and another that deals with smuggling. With all of them then kinda supporting the overarching goals of the operation. Or even have these multiple squads essentially representing alliances between gangs.

That's a cool idea, for sure. It would likely require some tweaking of the game, I expect. Or at the very least, some of the setting expectations.

If you are interested, I discuss a bit about the inspiration behind the idea in this thread, though it's a tangent about a side-project centered around "hearth fantasy." I believe that discussion starts on the second page.

I'll check it out.
 

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