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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

Henry

Autoexreginated
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?

I read the rest of his statement at the link - I get a hint of sarcasm in the full 'apology.' As in, 'if you found this ONE, SINGULAR MOMENT..." I think I commented to someone at the time, "The old-schooler in me wants to say, 'suck it up, it happens,' but at the same time I can get how when you're really invested in them, you absolutely hate when a beloved character dies." And it was a moment I hope that gamers who are new by way of Critical Role did learn from....Because based on some of the comments made by various posters at Twitch and Youtube and Reddit, some absolutely did not, basically trying to bully him into "bringing Molly back."
 

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Flexor the Mighty!

18/100 Strength!
I think I was never that invested in a particular character, even my name sake, I was into the game. Roll up a new PC and get payback on that dungeon...and DM. Then again I'm deeply hacky and slashy.
 

R_Chance

Adventurer
I think I was never that invested in a particular character, even my name sake, I was into the game. Roll up a new PC and get payback on that dungeon...and DM. Then again I'm deeply hacky and slashy.

I think it was more about the setting (and exploring it) than about the PC originally. If you enjoyed the world / game, you wanted to get back into it. I think the difference between OS and NS is the focus on setting vs. (player) character. Currently, I think most games fall into the center somewhere; you have to enjoy the setting / game world / story (and game system) and you have some level of investment in the PC. If you are heavily invested in the setting you are more accepting of PC death. If the main reason you're playing is character development, you are less accepting of PC death. My 2 cents, and, of course, all imho.
 

I find that the lethality of older editions is often vastly overstated. Yes, characters could die, and it could be fairly easy to kill them off....a first level Magic User could cast Magic Missile once per day and then started throwing darts at monsters, after all.

Those first few levels were dangerous. Then you got into Raise Dead territory, and a huge amount of risk vanished from the game.

Today’s D&D is largely the same. Although PCs are overall more durable, they’re still mostly vulnerable for the first few levels, and then the Raise Dead spells start. I think the game is slightly less deadly mostly as a side effect of making it less boring at lower levels. I never once played a Magic User in 1E....it just didn’t seem fun for the first couple of levels. The modern iterations have taken that into consideration. As a result, the game is more fun at lower levels. And also a bit less deadly.

I’d also argue that losing a character that you didn’t really grow attached to because the game was so lethal isn't really something I’d consider risky. If you simply crumpled up the sheet and wrote up a new one, then who cares if you failed or not?

But so far, it’s all about D&D. What about other games?

Blades in the Dark springs to my mind. It’s a storytelling game, but there is great risk to the characters, and they fail pretty often. They also suffer pretty strong consequences, which are (ultimately) unavoidable. Eventually, your character will accumulate enough Trauma that they simply cannot keep adventuring. They have to retire.

The game gives players great influence over if/when their characters are harmed, and also how much. That’s probably something that most “old school” GMs (as described in the article) would not be okay with. But the game is that dangerous to the characters that even when a player has mechanics that allow them to resist or avoid harm, eventually they’ll die or be forced out of action.

So in that sense, maybe what Lew is really trying to get at is the “player focused” aspect of his old school games, versus the “character focused” aspect of many modern games? Because I really don’t think that lethality is as big a deal as stated, and chance of failure I don’t see as a factor at all.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
The conflation between 'danger' and 'failure' in the article is, I suspect, no accident at all.

In OS games, danger leads to a risk of failure and failure leads to a risk of danger - they're very often interwoven. There's also no brakes or training wheels put on either one: failure can be just that - a complete dead stop where the only option for the PCs is to completely abandon what's being done and go do something else e.g. an entirely different adventure or mission; and danger can and does include TPK and much more often includes loss of a significant portion of the party - along with magic items, levels, major possessions, and so forth.

In NS games, danger is danger and failure is failure, and while one can still lead to the other it's not as clear-cut as with OS. And, in general, the brakes are on: the (IMO horrible!) concept of fail-forward means actual failure - as in a hard 'no' - is quite rare, and the usual options become 'succeed' or 'succeed with complications'; while danger - both in types and severity - has been very much mitigated. There's no more level loss, little if any magic item loss or destruction, and PC death is both rarer and easier to recover from. TPKs are also much less common, with the one bizarre exception of 4e D&D where in touch-and-go situations it seemed parties either all survived or all died.

So, where the article references either failure or danger it could just as easily be referring to both at once.

For my own part, as both DM and player I don't mind the concept of hard-no failure; if for no other reason than it's realistic: not everything you try will succeed. And if it's the scale of failure of a sort that means the party I play in has to find another adventure, so be it; and if this happens when I'm DM - well, that's why I've always got another adventure or two in reserve. :)

As for OS-level danger - as long as everyone is vaguely equal in their willingness to engage with it and take some risks and occasionally just be reckless, I'm fine with it. But I've come to loathe adventuring with cowards.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I find that the lethality of older editions is often vastly overstated. Yes, characters could die, and it could be fairly easy to kill them off....a first level Magic User could cast Magic Missile once per day and then started throwing darts at monsters, after all.

Those first few levels were dangerous. Then you got into Raise Dead territory, and a huge amount of risk vanished from the game.
Not all the risk vanished, though: you still had to make that resurrection survival roll and even if you did you still came back down a point of constitution - and note that both of these drawbacks to death have disappeared from the game over the years, further supporting the point the article is trying to make. Raise Dead cost a lot too, and Resurrection even more.

And Raise in the field took having a 9th-level Cleric in the party, which is pretty late-game for 1e.

Today’s D&D is largely the same. Although PCs are overall more durable, they’re still mostly vulnerable for the first few levels, and then the Raise Dead spells start.
At automatic chance of success and at much lower cost.

Blades in the Dark springs to my mind. It’s a storytelling game, but there is great risk to the characters, and they fail pretty often. They also suffer pretty strong consequences, which are (ultimately) unavoidable. Eventually, your character will accumulate enough Trauma that they simply cannot keep adventuring. They have to retire.
So, Trauma here replaces Sanity in CoC? :)

The game gives players great influence over if/when their characters are harmed, and also how much. That’s probably something that most “old school” GMs (as described in the article) would not be okay with.
Damn right we wouldn't! :) If I ever get to the point of having to say "Joe, can I please have permission to kill off your character?" then I'm doing it wrong on a host of levels right from square one - and Joe's probably in the wrong game, too.

But the game is that dangerous to the characters that even when a player has mechanics that allow them to resist or avoid harm, eventually they’ll die or be forced out of action.

So in that sense, maybe what Lew is really trying to get at is the “player focused” aspect of his old school games, versus the “character focused” aspect of many modern games? Because I really don’t think that lethality is as big a deal as stated
Yet as you yourself note, there's much more to danger than simple death. Level loss is gone. Magic item destruction is gone, or close enough. Limb loss is either gone or close to gone. Most save-or-dies are gone, along with many save-or-hosed; and those save-or-hosed that remain have been greatly mitigated in duration and-or severity.

There's just no denying that dangers in most NS games are less than in OS games.

and chance of failure I don’t see as a factor at all.
Chance of failure isn't a factor - 50-50 odds, for example, are the same in any system.

But what's become different is what a failure represents, and how the roll is interpreted.

What it represents:

In OS, a failure usually means 'no, you can't do it', whatever it was you were trying to do. You don't climb the wall. You don't find the secret door. You don't talk your way past the guards. You don't find the princess before her kidnappers kill her off. (as a side note, this is what 'failure' means - the opposite of success)

In NS, a failure quite often in fact means success (and is thus the wrong term to use) but with a complication. You climb the wall but there's a guard at the top waiting for you. You find the secret door because a monster comes out of it. You talk your way past the guards but one is suspicious and runs to inform her boss. You find the princess but she's been horribly disfigured. (note: none of these are actual failures!)

How the roll is interpreted:

In OS, in cases where success or failure is not necessarily a binary condition, many DMs would interpret rolls such that a narrowly-made success might end up with what we'd now call a fail-forward. For example, if you're trying to climb a wall and need to roll 11 to make it, on 10 or less you fail outright but on 11 or 12 - a narrow success - a DM might say you made it but there's a problem - you were too noisy, or you took longer than expected, or whatever. Failure was never mitigated, but success sometimes was.

In NS it's the reverse: success is never mitigated, but failure often is.
 

PMárk

Explorer
Interesting debate.

For me, the divide between new and classic design isn't even about lethality, though I recognize that angle, from the standpoint of D&D.

No, the main thing for me, is how much narrative power players get outside the immediate actions of their characters? How much the rules are about "telling a story", or presenting a world?

In that sense, "new school" games actually degrade my immersion. I prefer the game's world working on it's own inner logic and consistency, rather than the whims of the players. Also, if I made the wrong choices for my character, it suffers, or dies, the plan misfires, etc. I actually get to have more interest in the character like that, because I feel I'm playing a living person in a living world, not an artificial character in a story.

Falling forward is interesting. I recognize the benefits of giving incentive to the players to actually play out their character's flaws, something that often get neglected in classic-style rpgs. However, it could go into places I don't prefer, making the characters charicatures of themselves, or players getting the idea of not succeeding being "better".
 
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Shasarak

First Post
My feeling on Old School gaming is that it was not really "difficult" it was more "Nintendo difficult". If you step on the wrong place then you die. If you roll too low then you die.

It was more of a test of the Player then the Character.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
And every challenge which arose through failure can also be failed forward so that in the end real failure is not possible.

Only if you completely ignore the part where I said "the GM reworks failures that would stop a game cold".

During non-story-stopping failures, it's just good old normal failure. You fail. That's for playing, you don't even get a consolation prize.

For something that stops the game cold, there is still a heavy penalty for failure, it's just that the failure hits the characters in another way. Maybe it takes too long and the princess IS sacrificed to the summon the demon, and now the story is dealing that that. Still a failure, just one that will move a story forward in an interesting way.

So let's try this again. Failure STILL EQUALS failure. Always. Just that if it would end up being a boring failure that stops play, it's turned into an interesting failure that continues. That failure might even be worse, it's not coddling. It's just got to be interesting.

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.

True, many systems still use the old school paradigm of combat for XP system. Though it's an interesting take on risk that your default position that a combat encounter only ends up in XP and loot. That may be where your idea of real failure may not be possible is coming from - DMs who are coddling. And that happens in old school and new school games.
 

Not all the risk vanished, though: you still had to make that resurrection survival roll and even if you did you still came back down a point of constitution - and note that both of these drawbacks to death have disappeared from the game over the years, further supporting the point the article is trying to make. Raise Dead cost a lot too, and Resurrection even more.

And Raise in the field took having a 9th-level Cleric in the party, which is pretty late-game for 1e.

At automatic chance of success and at much lower cost.

I agree that AD&D is a deadlier game. I just think how much so tends to be overstated.

And I think what’s often overlooked is investment in character. As I mentioned in my post, and which you chose to not quote...if you don’t invest in your character, then who cares if he dies? I had a buddy who had Drexel the Fighter, who met a grisly fate. Then there was Drexel II, Drexel III, and so on. Eventually they were replaced with Lexerd the Fighter.

The game doesn’t really end, right? Is it really all that different for one player to make three consecutive characters that all die and another to play one character that has a couple of close calls?

And ultimately a lot of this comes down to optional rules and what’s implemented, right? A lot of the things you mention are options. I mean, critical hits weren’t an official thing until 3E right? And as much as they’re fun, they’re far more detrimental to PCs than to monsters. 5E has a ton of optional rules to make it more deadly.

So I don’t think it’s a matter of the system. At least not with D&D.

So, Trauma here replaces Sanity in CoC? :)

Not really, no. There’s a mechanic called Stress that each PC has. It’s a rrsource that allows them to resist harm or push themselves and their abilities. However, if they accumulate 8 Stress, then they’re out of play, knocked out or senseless or whatever. When this happens, the PC gains a Trauma, which is a permanent effect. Once you have four traumas, the PC’s career is over.

Damn right we wouldn't! :) If I ever get to the point of having to say "Joe, can I please have permission to kill off your character?" then I'm doing it wrong on a host of levels right from square one - and Joe's probably in the wrong game, too.

I wouldn’t say so, no. Therr’s more than one way to play, especially once you consider other games beyond D&D. If the game is designed to give the players some narrative power (like Stress in Blades in the Dark) then you’d certainly not be doing it wrong.

Yet as you yourself note, there's much more to danger than simple death. Level loss is gone. Magic item destruction is gone, or close enough. Limb loss is either gone or close to gone. Most save-or-dies are gone, along with many save-or-hosed; and those save-or-hosed that remain have been greatly mitigated in duration and-or severity.

There's just no denying that dangers in most NS games are less than in OS games.

Yes, there is. I am denying it.

How can we quantify and compare something like 1 point of Constitution to a more narrative element like failing to get justice for a PC’s murdered brother? Which is “worse”? You seem to be focused entirely on mechanics....failing a skill check, losing a level, and so on. But what about the story elements where a PC can fail? Or how they can be harmed in ways that don’t adjust their character sheet?

Again, limiting the discussion to editions of D&D then I would say that the older the edition, the deadlier the game. The size of the delta is debatable; the game has always included ways to come back from the dead, and optional rules to make it harder or easier, so i think many folks site it as sooo much deadlier when it’s really only moderately so. But that’s a matter of opinion.

But since we’re not solely talking D&D but instead seem to be talking about “classic” versus “modern” game design, I think the premise is simply wrong.

Chance of failure isn't a factor - 50-50 odds, for example, are the same in any system.

But what's become different is what a failure represents, and how the roll is interpreted.

What it represents:

In OS, a failure usually means 'no, you can't do it', whatever it was you were trying to do. You don't climb the wall. You don't find the secret door. You don't talk your way past the guards. You don't find the princess before her kidnappers kill her off. (as a side note, this is what 'failure' means - the opposite of success)

In NS, a failure quite often in fact means success (and is thus the wrong term to use) but with a complication. You climb the wall but there's a guard at the top waiting for you. You find the secret door because a monster comes out of it. You talk your way past the guards but one is suspicious and runs to inform her boss. You find the princess but she's been horribly disfigured. (note: none of these are actual failures!)

How the roll is interpreted:

In OS, in cases where success or failure is not necessarily a binary condition, many DMs would interpret rolls such that a narrowly-made success might end up with what we'd now call a fail-forward. For example, if you're trying to climb a wall and need to roll 11 to make it, on 10 or less you fail outright but on 11 or 12 - a narrow success - a DM might say you made it but there's a problem - you were too noisy, or you took longer than expected, or whatever. Failure was never mitigated, but success sometimes was.

In NS it's the reverse: success is never mitigated, but failure often is.

I’ll have to ask you to be specific; what game are you describing?

Again, to site Blades in the Dark, players roll D6s when they attempt an Action. On a 1-3, they fail. Often horribly so. On a 4-5 they succeed but with a setback or complication. On a 6 they fully succeed.

The better the PC is at something, or the more willing they are to push themselves and take some Stress, the more dice they roll. So their chances to succeed go up. But there is still plenty of chance for failure.

The other narrative games I’m familiar with like Dungeon World or City of Mist also allow for failure. Roll 2D6 and add a bonus, 6 or lower and you fail, 7-9 and you succeed with a complication, 10 or more and you fully succeed.

I’m not sure what game you’re siting that simply doesn’t allow for failure; can you be specific?

Also, to use one of your examples....”you climb the wall, but there’s a guard”; you describe this as not a failure. Why not? What’s the character actually trying to do? Simply climb a wall? Or climb a wall so they can infiltrate a location unnoticed? Probably the latter, in which case, a guard being there means they failed, or that they can possibly fail. So again, I don’t think that there is no failure in new school games simply because they function differently.
 

Rils

Explorer
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? There are a lot of new fans in the hobby who do want story more than game, or at least want the story aspects to be predominant - would they have been turned off by this? Are there a lot of new players in the hobby who assume you can't 'lose' in D&D because their favorite streamers haven't 'lost' yet?

Funnily enough, that was a no-win situation, and one that I think many people missed. Spoilers: At the end of the battle, the avatar was trying to gate out. The bard used his last spell slot, a 9-th level, to counterspell the gate. This kept the avatar in the battle, and allowed his team to kill it. However - story-wise, it WAS a loss. Later we find out he'd been saving that spell slot the whole battle to use for a wish to save one of the other players, who was on borrowed time and would be claimed by their god afterwards. By using the spell to stop the avatar, he was unable to save his friend. That character "died", and was removed from the campaign, which equals failure in the OP's language. And if you watched, both players were in tears as they played the scene out.

Moment of "loss"? Yes. Dramatic story moment? Undeniably. This is the intersection of 100% Danger/Risk and 100% Storytelling which the OP labels "Don't see how this is possible."
 

Aldarc

Legend
In NS it's the reverse: success is never mitigated, but failure often is.
I'm not sure if that generalization holds true. :erm:

Let's take the game Fate for starters. In the rulebook itself, Fate believes that players should be invested in failure. To that end, Fate encourages calling for rolls only when there are interesting results for success and failure. If the fail state of looking for unlocking a door in a dungeon crawl is "you don't find it, so the action stops," then the consequence of failure is not particularly interesting. But what if you fail but then trigger a trap in the process (e.g., Death Star trash compactor)? What if you succeed, but then break your locks in the process? What if you fail and then a patrol comes by? Or what if you succeed, but due to the time required, opening the door at an inopportune time causes a monster further down to catch your scent as a breeze flows past you into the freshly-opened corridor ahead? Or to change the scenario slightly, Han Solo is under fire on the moon of Endor while trying to open the lock of the shield generator bunker. He fails. Failure is not simply failure but, instead, results in an additional door closing.

Its dice resolution entails Failure, Tie, Success, and Success With Style, but players can opt for Succeed-with-a-Serious-Cost on Failure. Now you view Succeed-with-a-Serious-Cost as a mitigation of failure. I can see that. But in selecting this, you are inherently mitigating any success you would have otherwise achieved had you properly succeeded. The mitigation of failure inherently entails the mitigation of success.
You need to outrun the giant spherical rock that is chasing you through the ruins. You fail the roll. But this is way too important not to succeed at! So you choose success with a serious cost. The GM tells you that you succeed at making it out of the ruins in time, but your rival is there waiting for you with armed natives, and he takes the golden statue that you found.
These are the sort of highly memorable scenarios that Fate seeks to emulate.

Then let's move on to Dungeon World. Failure represents half of the possibilities for the dice resolution roll. Roll 2d6. Failure on a 1-6; Complicated Success on a 7-9; and Full Success on a 10-12. Failure will trigger a hard move (or counter-reaction) from the GM. This resolution would seem to run contrary to your assertion given how failure is not mitigated in this resolution, but success is mitigated on a 7-9.

Blades in the Dark also applies here. Roll a dice pool. Failure on a 1-3; Complicated Success on a 4-5; and Full Success on a 6. Again, the complication of success often entails the mitigation of success rather than the mitigation of failure. Another aspect that has not been discussed thus far regarding BitD in the mitigation of success entails several other facets of its dice resolution mechanics: position and effect. Position refers to your position of control in a situation: is it Controlled, Risky, or Desperate? Effect refers to the possible effect of your success: Great, Standard, Limited. The GM sets both the player's Position and Effect.

If you have a favorable position, but a low effect, the player character can even downgrade their position for increased effect. E.g., you are in a controlled position for crossing the courtyard, but you would have a limited effect, so you could not cross the courtyard in time; however, you could opt for a Risky or even Desperate position for your action to achieve a Standard or Great effect! That seems like mitigating success to me. The process entails the PC deciding which is more important: crossing the courtyard in time or crossing the courtyard safely. And the PC still has to roll, where failure and complicated success is still possible. :devil:

Overall, I think that a lot of Fail Forward and Success at a Cost/Complication emulate the flow of action in serialized action-adventure fiction incredibly well. To borrow from the Hobbit, it entails classic "Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire" scenarios. (And George Lucas clearly loved them for writing the adventure stories of Indiana Jones and Star Wars.) And given the serialized nature of D&D and many RPGs, often played in episodic segments, there is an almost natural fit here. As such, I am increasingly inclined to think that the purpose of these mechanics and GMing techniques is not about mitigating player success/failure, but, rather, about keeping the game interesting through meaningful consequences and maintaining a flow of action, opportunities, and choices.

GM: "You reach a door locked by a magic password. It says, 'Speak Friend and Enter.'"

PC: "I attempt to call upon my knowledge of lore and riddles to answer the password."

GM: "Okay, roll."

PC: "I roll a 3."

GM: "You consider everything at your disposal. You try spells. You try a series of passwords based upon your knowledge of dwarvish and elvish lore. But nothing seems to work as minutes seemingly becomes hours frustratingly sitting in front of this door. Finally after much deliberation, you realize the answer you need to get through the door was absurdly simple: 'Mellon.' It opens. But before you proceed, something begins stirring in the water..."
 
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Henry

Autoexreginated
Funnily enough, that was a no-win situation, and one that I think many people missed. Spoilers: At the end of the battle, the avatar was trying to gate out. The bard used his last spell slot, a 9-th level, to counterspell the gate. This kept the avatar in the battle, and allowed his team to kill it. However - story-wise, it WAS a loss. Later we find out he'd been saving that spell slot the whole battle to use for a wish to save one of the other players, who was on borrowed time and would be claimed by their god afterwards. By using the spell to stop the avatar, he was unable to save his friend. That character "died", and was removed from the campaign, which equals failure in the OP's language. And if you watched, both players were in tears as they played the scene out.

Moment of "loss"? Yes. Dramatic story moment? Undeniably. This is the intersection of 100% Danger/Risk and 100% Storytelling which the OP labels "Don't see how this is possible."

On the other hand, I’ve been re-listening to the end of that campaign now, and I have to ask: could Vecna have won? The way it played out, he had practically the entire world arrayed against him (Brass Dragons, a corps of Wyvern Riders, a freakin’ Anti-Paladin, several major NPCs) in addition to the PCs. There’s loss, and Pyrrhic victories, but unless the outcome of the actual final stakes is up in the air, is it risk, or is it just stage show?

In the case of this specific example, I think it was old-school style risk, but Mercer had to work HARD to make it that way — work against the system, in some respects. I do believe that, yes, the system is weighted in favor of the players, rather than just “giving them a fair shot”, but whether that’s a good thing is up to the elements you want out of the play of the game. In the case of someone who prefers the circa 1974-1984 or so idea of play balance, it’s not preferable. I would argue it’s preferable to the majority of people who would want to try D&D for the first time, too, so it’s probably for the best.
 

VengerSatanis

High Priest of Kort'thalis Publishing
As usual, I fundamentally disagree with some of the basis of the piece.

If we are going to break it down largely as you are doing it, I think you are confusing "New School" games in general with what for lack of a better term I'll call... green New School GMs.

An experienced GM working in a new school framework *DOES NOT* have a particular story they are trying to tell, and *DOES NOT* guarantee that characters will succeed or survive. A green, inexperienced, New School GM will lean on the side of ensuring survival or success, or forcing a particular story, as a crude tool for getting at the real point. But, an experienced, skilled GM doesn't have to.

A New School GM doesn't want a *particular* story, but they do want some cogent, interesting story to come out of play. They don't have a particular plot in mind, but they may be aiming for a particular flavor or genre or emotional beats. They don't mind if PCs fail, or die, but they want that failure or death to be meaningful to the player, the group, and be relevant emotionally and/or to the plot of the story.

To elaborate, let me describe to you an Old School game from my past. The very first game of a new group, back in college, playing 2E. The group came in... and we got completely destroyed. TPK in the first session. The next day, we rolled up new characters (which were pretty much the same as the originals, to be honest), and we tried again, and didn't die.

And, today, not a one among us can tell you a darned thing about that first TPK. We remember that it happened, but not a single detail. There is no war story of how we all died in that awesome fight. We just... all died, and tried again the next day. No big whoop. Overall, that TPK became irrelevant to our gaming experience. This *irrelevance* is the antithesis of New School gaming.

A New School GM worth their salt would look at that TPK and think, "What a wasted opportunity to make something memorable." In a New School game, if the PCs are going to lose or die, it should be in a manner that is dramatically satisfying, or funny, or... somehow leaves a mark worth talking about. Sturm Brightblade, standing on the parapet, facing down Kitiara, now *that* is a New School PC death. He died. He didn't win the fight. But the moment mattered.


Can't you see the glaring contradiction in your post?

BTW, I haven't read all the comments in this thread.

VS
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
I'd imagine a "very dangerous, high storytelling" game would be possible if the danger was mitigated by having more characters per player. I could imagine running a GoT-style game with a lot of death, cheap character life, and a lot of plot/storytelling... but I guess it wouldn't really be "dangerous" anymore if each player were running four or five characters they weren't particularly attached to, as it would be no different than having one character who was unlikely to die (from the player's perspective).

I've played in games like that. Character death is certainly meaningful, or can be. You lose whatever time invested in them and their story, and the group chemistry is often strongly affected. In one game my PC was a young paladin (kinda sorta modeled after Jeanne d'Arc). In the very first encounter, my mentor (another PC, a wizard who'd been my teacher) was killed. That stung for the rest of the game, even though a new and memorable PC showed up in the next session. PCs were altered by their experience in other ways: One was magically aged near the end of the campaign. We remembered our fallen, of which in the early levels there were several. This is a very good type of game that can draw on the best of "old skool" and "new skool" ideas but my feeling is that there has to be A LOT of player and DM buy in and there really needs to be a solid overall level of maturity among the entire group.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
And if you watched, both players were in tears as they played the scene out.

Those folks are all actors. Their tears while on camera cannot be trusted.

This is something that's been discussed elsewhere, but bears a reminder here - Critical Role is not just a bunch of folks sitting down and playing a game. It is a bunch of professional actors sitting down to make a show that is supposed to earn money. While it is a common referent, it isn't an outstanding example of how games do/should work at our tables.

Or, we can say that CR is not Old School or New School gaming. It is Media Gaming - gaming for an external audience's benefit, rather than for the player's. There's also out there now an idea of Sport Gaming - competitive play for an outside audience. Their dynamics should be different from what happens at our tables, and we ought to be careful when making comparisons. Not that they can never be made, but some consideration should be given to the different circumstances when we do.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
I find that the lethality of older editions is often vastly overstated. Yes, characters could die, and it could be fairly easy to kill them off....a first level Magic User could cast Magic Missile once per day and then started throwing darts at monsters, after all.

Those first few levels were dangerous. Then you got into Raise Dead territory, and a huge amount of risk vanished from the game.

Also, not to put too fine a point on it, but many DMs back in the day often used heavily padded boxing gloves in those early levels. A lot of folks didn't play "by the rules." I know one thing we did a lot was skip level 1 entirely because level 2 characters were much more capable of taking a beating. We also tended to downplay or disallow Raise Dead, but did allow for a reasonably generous character replacement upon character death. That helps a lot. You can maintain an Old Skool feel in the game itself but not have the players be totally knocked back by character loss. Players who are invested in their characters and their stories will feel a notable loss when one departs the game. We also had "story death" if it came to a point where a PC really wouldn't go down the road the rest of the group is going and it's time for them to leave, or where they're out for a while due to needing to travel somewhere, research spalls, etc. My favorite game type is what I think is actually close to what the old Lake Geneva crowd played. Ensemble cast, fair number of henchmen, lots of exploration and a sandbox but with some overall story going on in the background so the world is real and not just static waiting for the PCs to interact with it. It's hard to run, though.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
While I agree that Old School is matter of attitude, I have two demarcation lines:
  • The balanced encounters vs. environmental encounters. i.e. Every encounter the party faces is balanced towards their combat effectiveness as compared to encounters being designed to reflect the environment -- thus a party may get in over their head in a fight if they don't read the signs or refused to use other strategies (stealth, parley, etc.) The game world cherry picks between "simulation" and the game being just a game.
  • The game leans more on playing group's overall intelligence and knowledge and allows for lots of table talk so if the player of the dumb fighter figures out the puzzle, he can coach the wizard's player through the steps of the solution so as to maintain a suspension of disbelief.

I think that's a much more accurate representation.

This statement is exaggerated and completely discounts GM improv skills.

The original post had a lot of exaggeration. They always do but often provoke good discussion even so.

From what I've seen, a lot of old school GMs use the tables as tools for inspiration, springboards for improve, and to randomize some plot details, but they still make the final call if the results are to be used.

Definitely. I tend to be fairly "old skool" in my approach at least in one of my campaigns---as you said players need to be on board, and not all are, nor is it really suited for a "zero to hero" type game---but I use things like random encounter tables in exactly this format. I riff off them, things the players say, and various other bits of inspiration. There's an overall loose story/plot going on but mostly the campaign is about them going in various directions and trying various things out.
 
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Roger

First Post
In the design space of "Very Dangerous - More Storytelling" part of the chart, I would suggest that New School games like Polaris and My Life With Master -- among others -- fit the bill, as they make it either very likely or entirely-assured that everyone is going to die at the end.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
Those folks are all actors. Their tears while on camera cannot be trusted.

This is something that's been discussed elsewhere, but bears a reminder here - Critical Role is not just a bunch of folks sitting down and playing a game. It is a bunch of professional actors sitting down to make a show that is supposed to earn money. While it is a common referent, it isn't an outstanding example of how games do/should work at our tables. <...> Their dynamics should be different from what happens at our tables, and we ought to be careful when making comparisons. Not that they can never be made, but some consideration should be given to the different circumstances when we do.

Or, if you want your new SAT analogy of the day:

Critical Role : real RPG play :: pr0n : real sex

:p
 

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