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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

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I like Lew's articles specifically because they generate lively debate....

I suppose. But I think that could be done with a more broadly-considered starting position.

Nonetheless, he's got a point in that newer RPGs are designed to minimize TPKs as much as possible...

I'd say that's a fair and accurate point. And, given the breadth of playtesting and feedback, I think it also fair and accurate to say that most of the playerbase prefers it that way.

kind of like Lord of the Rings versus Game of Thrones.

While Game of Thrones has a reputation for death of characters, I don't know if the rate of "PC death" is actually all that high. Not to spoil, but look at the characters who have their names as chapter headings - how many of them have actually died?
 

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Henry

Autoexreginated
While Game of Thrones has a reputation for death of characters, I don't know if the rate of "PC death" is actually all that high. Not to spoil, but look at the characters who have their names as chapter headings - how many of them have actually died?

They might not all be "PCs", but the fact there are articles called "The top 100 deaths on Game of Thrones" is pretty telling in and of itself for a show that's only been around for 7 seasons. :) Named characters didn't die that quickly on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and that's a show that killed off a third of its main cast!
 

AriochQ

Adventurer
I view it more evolution than dichotomy. Early RPG's stemmed from war gaming, and the play style reflected that. As time went on, the role play aspect became more dominant as both player's and DM's honed their craft.

There is no wrong way to play D&D. I understand why certain styles appeal to certain players. Personally, I run a far more story driven game now than I did 40 years ago. Critical Role has likely led to a sudden influx of players who expect NS, specifically Critical Role-style, play. This is probably an unrealistic expectation, especially with a newer DM.

It all comes down to 'Find a group that plays the type of D&D that you want to play' and have realistic expectations about the game.
 

Kannik

Explorer
While on the whole I think this is a gross oversimplification, I'm going to focus on the X axis, and this assertion:

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 "sandbox" 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.)

This to me is an odd assertion, given the amount of 'narrative' and 'storytelling' based games I've read or played lately where the explicit intent allows for and encourages cooperative story creation (and to which I have seen and read certain 'old-school-type' GMs rail against, in a "Players should not have any power, GM word is law" kind of reaction). I counter-assert that there's nothing new-school about sandbox vs railroad, or environment/living world vs story, and, rather, that player-driven and player-involved story creation (aided by the GM) is by far more robustly supported by this author's category of new-school-extreme type games.

In addition, as others have noted fail-forward designs and less-random and less-instantly lethal (not that there is no lethality in the game, but rather the lethality is both more adequately telegraphed and/or extended in time to allow the players more agency), as well as more failures available other than death, also encourages more story (and thus character) development and engagement as the penalties for a single bad die roll is diminished. In other words, less lethality (not danger) is more freeing to "players writing their own story" thus further negating the premise of the graph.

I think it's great to explore different mindsets and adages that can shape different gameplay styles, and to even look at those in historical terms. I don't think creating a false schism between old/new-style gaming is particularly valuable, and I think this article particularly misses the mark when it comes to the styles of stories told.
 

Henry

Autoexreginated
They've at the very least dealt with player character permadeath, though, which should be condition them to at least expect that their characters _can_ die, if nothing else. :)

Considering that (in Crit Role, at least) in their first campaign, EVERY single character who died (from a current player) was resurrected, I'd say the big death in their second campaign was the first time they've ever dealt with that for real, and I was glad to see it - it was a good 'teachable moment' about the game play, I believe. Other streams I've listened to (Glass Cannon, for example) have had multiple character deaths, and they did a pretty good job of making an important story consideration out of it.
 

Von Ether

Adventurer
...and therefore, Rope Trick is a healing spell. :)

Sorry, joke from another thread...

I like Lew's articles specifically because they generate lively debate, not of the ever-present "Sharpshooter Feat is overpowered / Class X is underpowered" variety.)

I get the need for variety, but in this age of clickbait headlines, it would be nice to see some debate that was started without the hidden edition wars and get off my lawn themes.
 

I wonder if this topic would be improved by ditching the characterization of play-style into "old school" and "new school" and instead focus on the difference between sandbox and plot railroad. After all, the earliest adventure I'm aware of that can be considered a railroad is Dragons of Despair, which came out in 1984. It's hard to label a 35-year old adventure as "new school".

Aside from that, there's a fundamental weakness to the core argument. There's nothing saying that a storytelling-style game cannot end in failure. If the Companions get TPK'd by draconians, the adventure is over irrespective of the game-play style.

Another consideration is that many, if not most, of those old school adventures essentially were railroads in disguise. If you dump the PCs into a dungeon, you're severely restricting their options, just with stone walls and locked doors rather than heavy-handed plot elements.
 

Arilyn

Hero
They might not all be "PCs", but the fact there are articles called "The top 100 deaths on Game of Thrones" is pretty telling in and of itself for a show that's only been around for 7 seasons. :) Named characters didn't die that quickly on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and that's a show that killed off a third of its main cast!

The books actually have fewer deaths, and as Umbran states, not usually "PC" characters. I think Harry Potter might actually be as bad...
 

Flexor the Mighty!

18/100 Strength!
The danger of OS philosophy on character death is the often the opposite of what it is trying to achieve. If you know that there is a decent chance your character will die, probably through bad rolls or mischance, you stop engaging with your characters. They become game pieces. You bring a binder full of backups, or start creating Bob the 2nd, 3rd, etc. I've seen players deliberately kill off their current character, because they are bored and want to try something new. If you are on your third character of so, I would argue that there is probably not much suspense left.

In NS, you can't usually escape consequences. You failed to save the village, you backed the wrong noble who is an evil manipulator, the super villain has taken over your country...
Even in a game that has no player death, these are real failures that generate as much, if not more tension, than just dying from poor dice rolls, or a bad decision. Of course, OS can have these issues too. My point is that these kinds of failures are more interesting than dying.

Even in my loaded with save or die S&W campaign where the players are using their PC as a playing piece in the game, it sucks to die and they are not happy when it happens. The new PC is lower level, or the raised PC if they can even do that loses CON. So there is an in game mechanical penalty for dying. Plus they got beat by the rat bastard DM and their fellow players heap scorn upon them as they loot the corpse of the fallen then use the body to wedge open a door or something like that.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
They might not all be "PCs", but the fact there are articles called "The top 100 deaths on Game of Thrones"

Yeah, but then you're getting into counting the deaths of the orcs the party meets up with, which isn't really apples-to-apples in comparing to gaming.
 

AriochQ

Adventurer
Another consideration is that many, if not most, of those old school adventures essentially were railroads in disguise. If you dump the PCs into a dungeon, you're severely restricting their options, just with stone walls and locked doors rather than heavy-handed plot elements.

I recall reading that the exact reason EGG put players in a dungeon was to limit their options and make the game more manageable. (I think it was mentioned in Playing at the World by Peterson).

I think Sandbox v. Railroad is another false dichotomy. It is a continuum, not a binary choice. Character options are always limited by something, be it a pre-published adventure path or the DM's imagination. The degree to which they are limited is what matters. At some point, lack of choices takes the fun out of the game. Most DM's strive to both give the characters the freedom to make meaning choices and keep them from straying too far off the adventure path. It is rare to run into real sandbox style play (where the characters have the freedom to go, and do, anything). In most cases the DM has some sort of adventure path in mind and modifies it as needed based on player actions.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Another consideration is that many, if not most, of those old school adventures essentially were railroads in disguise.

Well, consider that several/many classic "old school" adventures started as tournament modules. In tournament play, you really need all the competitors going though the same basic experience in order to have comparable scoring - they pretty much have to be railroads.
 

Henry

Autoexreginated
Yeah, but then you're getting into counting the deaths of the orcs the party meets up with, which isn't really apples-to-apples in comparing to gaming.

That's not apples to apples, because Hodor/Joffrey/Ned/Khal/Walder/Oberyn/Ramsay/TooManytoList weren't nameless orc minions, either; they were often fleshed-out characters. Honestly, I quit watching because it was like a character abattoir. That and the rapes didn't help either.

Main point being: If I wanted a Game of Thrones style of game, I'd choose a system where you really weren't attached to your character, or any NPC in the game, really, because they'll be gone in two sessions. And in AD&D, I maybe got attached to all of three characters I had ever played.
 

Derren

Hero
The article mentions failure, while the chart shows danger -- these are VERY different concepts when discussing "old school" vs. "new school".

Failure is not only common in "new school", but at times is to be embraced. Because failure isn't the boolean "you're dead, game over" common to old school, but another fork of what's being told.

"Failing forward" is a concept very new school, where the idea is that the GM (see, still GM-lead in this) reworks failures that would stop a game cold. For example, if there's no adventure if the party doesn't find the hidden door in the bookcase, in an old school system if you fail the search roll then the game halts -- there is no way forward. No fun. But in a new school "fail forward" approach there's a cost to missing the roll but it doesn't stop the game. Perhaps they took so long that that the encounter a patrol coming out of the exit, and unless they work very quickly the hidden lair is now on alert.

And every challenge which arose through failure can also be failed forward so that in the end real failure is not possible.
Not to mention that if the failure results in a combat encounter its very often a bonus as many systems like D&D give out XP and loot for combat.
 

I

Immortal Sun

Guest
It is incredible these days, just how dangerous a combination ignorance and arrogance have become.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
That's not apples to apples, because Hodor/Joffrey/Ned/Khal/Walder/Oberyn/Ramsay/TooManytoList weren't nameless orc minions, either; they were often fleshed-out characters.

How many of those, other than Hodor and Ned, would be categorized as protagonists?
 

Saelorn

Hero
The danger of OS philosophy on character death is the often the opposite of what it is trying to achieve. If you know that there is a decent chance your character will die, probably through bad rolls or mischance, you stop engaging with your characters. They become game pieces. You bring a binder full of backups, or start creating Bob the 2nd, 3rd, etc. I've seen players deliberately kill off their current character, because they are bored and want to try something new. If you are on your third character of so, I would argue that there is probably not much suspense left.
If you know that your character could easily die through no fault of your own, then that probably contributes to not caring about the character. But if you know that you can't die no matter what, then that leads to much the same place, because you're protected from the worst consequences of your actions. (And forcing the character to stay alive, while everything they care about is destroyed, often just feels contrived and hokey.)

Ideally, the game should exist such that smart play has a very high survival rate, but bad things can still happen if you make too many foolish mistakes. In the moment when you're about to die, you should be able to look back and see what you could have done differently. It's a difficult balance to achieve.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
There's been a lot of discussion of Critical Role and other streaming shows as contributing to the popularity of D&D lately (past 3 years or so). I wonder what their fans' opinions would have been had they LOST their final fight with Vecna's Ascended Avatar at the campaign's end?

On a related note (I forgot to mention this before), remember how Matt Mercer issued a public apology after a character on Critical Role permanently died during the course of the campaign?

Critical Role fans have been left shocked, upset, angered, or a combination of all three following recent events in the series. The Dungeons & Dragons show, hosted by DM Matthew Mercer, recently featured a shocking twist during one of its episodes, where a long-term member of its party met their demise.

[...]

“I love my players, deeply. I am constantly checking in with them,” [Mercer] continued. “Our trust is endless and mutual, and is the nature of the game, not all ends are written. If you found this one, singular moment so strong to somehow break your trust in me, then… I am sorry. Genuinely."
 

Henry

Autoexreginated
How many of those, other than Hodor and Ned, would be categorized as protagonists?

I'd definitely call Khal Drogo one, but it's not just about protagonists - if you are in the situation where want to focus on story, your big villains should be robust enough to survive a casual stabbing or throat-slit, too. :)
 

Arilyn

Hero
And every challenge which arose through failure can also be failed forward so that in the end real failure is not possible.
Not to mention that if the failure results in a combat encounter its very often a bonus as many systems like D&D give out XP and loot for combat.

This is a misunderstanding of fail forward. Fail forward is not invoked to protect the players from losing. It exists to keep the game going. The obvious being failing to find the secret door, which leads to the bulk of the adventure, or failing to find a clue, which will bring the while adventure to a screeching halt. Old modules used to sometimes do this. Everyone blew that secret door check? Adventure over. With fail forward, there is a cost but the adventure can continue. The players can still fail to save the prisoners, or lose to the villain, but they are not going to lose in an anticlimactic way, like just not finding the bad guy's lair at all, or spending hours spinning their wheels cause they missed an important clue through a bad die roll. Failing a secret door check, which just leads to some extra treasure, can be simply left as a failure, since that extra treasure is not vital to the adventure.

As far as your D&D example goes, unnecessary combat has traditionally been used as punishment for players tarrying too long or resting in a dangerous location. Yes, there is exp. to be had, but those combats eat away at resources needed for the final showdown. Players who fail to quietly break into a keep, for example, are not celebrating because now they'll get more exp. for fighting guards. If they are looking for guard exp., they were probably, at least, trying to avoid fighting them all at once.
 

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