Wednesday, September 10, 2014

D&D 5 vs. OSR Games

There is a harshness to OSR (old school revolution) games such as Basic Fantasy and Labyrinth Lord that appeals to me. I am a fighter, beside me stands a cleric, behind us is a magic user, and around here somewhere our thief lurks in the shadows.

We enter a room with four goblins, and it's on.

Yes, math and numbers matter, but I am the same as every other level 2 fighter, but with only slight differences in ability scores and hit points. My gear is probably the same, a shield, a long-sword, and plate armor. Magic gear? Gravy.

I don't have a character build, the 'story arc' does not matter, there is no way to 'interrupt' game rules, and my personality traits also mean nothing. This is a game of Monopoly, where the dice are cruel and my strategy of mitigating risk versus reward is the "play" of the game.

It's easy in game design to Homer Simpson in "wouldn't it be cool" rules and systems, spells and feats, powers and character classes until you have a game that isn't fun for anyone. The true spirit of the OSR for me embodies the opposite, the harsh but basic side of the hobby, where my character is a playing piece, and that playing piece loses when it dies. You laugh at your stupid luck, chalk it up to the danger of the game, and roll up a new PC if your group gets back to town alive.

In OSR games, it is probably best if you use a colored 'bowling pin' pawn for yourself than a detailed miniature, because you're not really supposed to be that attached to your character in the first place. Lose five PCs in a module? It's fine, really, it was just a dangerous place. Laugh, have fun, and chalk it up to dying multiple times in a game like Counterstrike. It's not a big deal.

If you go back to AD&D, you only got XP for gold pieces earned. The game did not care where you got them from either, there were no story awards, thieves could earn them in town by stealing from anyone, and splitting the loot at the end of the game meant splitting the XP as well. In short, your sole motivation was pretty clear.

Monster XP and "Challenge Rating" did not determine experience points earned. Fighting a strong ogre expended critical resources, and it was better to have the thief sneak in there and grab the bag of loot. XP for monsters feels like it was a "fairness rule" adopted from video gaming.

Avoiding a fight and getting the loot and XP? Priceless. And very old-school.

Now, story games, such as D&D 5. While D&D 5 wears the clothes of the OSR, there is a heavy emphasis on story here that makes this a different game. My character has a special "background" that gives skills and other mechanical benefits. My character has "characteristics" in four mental categories that determine how I should roleplay. Uh-oh, my good-natured aunt can't know that I am a thief and steal to make a living. My fighter is in love with the princess. I have a blind hatred for my enemies. I take what I want. I am a sage and feel I should protect my students.

None of that matters to my OSR "red fighter pawn" guy. While your D&D 5 fighter is thinking about how that expensive necklace will impress the princess, my OSR guy is sitting there staring at 500 GP and 500 XP for walking away with it. That's enough for level 3, and me staying alive down here a little longer. It is risk vs. reward in its purest sense, and it is also the attraction of true OSR games.

Oh, and the Pathfinder fighter is smiling at the money too to contribute to his +2 sword fund, but wondering if the Challenge Rating of the fight would make it worth his time to fight the ogre or not.

But see how a story game requires more 'death protection' for characters than an OSR game? See how your base motivations have changed? This is important stuff, like changing the goals and motivations for on-board Monopoly play. You are growing more attached to your playing piece, which is okay, but it changes the focus of the game from "game playing" to a "story sim." It should be harder for your playing piece to die in a story based game because the death of a major hero would invalidate the story arc. You get the 'action movie effect' in story driven games because you need to keep characters alive to further the narrative of the module.

This happened back in AD&D 2nd Edition, where a lot of modules inspired by the NYT bestseller fiction series felt like they were railroading you, and a lot of them did. It is why we may be seeing a return to those here in D&D 5 when I see criticisms of modules railroading you along a designer's preset story arc. In 1st Edition AD&D? Most of those modules were sandboxes, monster X with treasure Y, and you figure out how to separate them. They were simple, yes, but there was an old-school charm to those, and they also supported the simple XP for GP motivation built into the game.

With D&D 5, a lot of modules feel like they are making the AD&D 2nd Edition mistakes. Yes, story is important and the focus of the game, but it's not the module writer's story that should matter. The module's narrative should support the characters' stories. With D&D 5's generic and random character motivations, it's hard for a general purpose module to fill specific character motivations, so a lot of dungeon master interference is needed to create opportunities for those situations to mean things to specific character motivations.

I feel this is why our experience with the Starter Set fell flat, nobody realized that this on-the-fly DM story to character interpretation and 'interface layer' was needed, so the story and roleplaying parts fell flat for us. The motivations for each character never really came into play, and they were ignored for the action parts. Coming from D&D 3 and D&D 4, we were expecting to be blown away by the mechanics, but we weren't - since that isn't where the focus is now. I'm feeling for D&D 5 modules to be great adventures, they may need pre-gens with a set of story-friendly character motivations to use with them, and these motivations will have an impact during the module's story.

Story is much more important with this game. This needs to be highlighted in the rules and in the modules they publish. This is probably one of the disadvantages of having the DMG come out so late, it is hard to know how they want you to run this game for maximum enjoyment, so there is a lot of guesswork and going by previous editions. A lot of these assumptions are wrong.

None of this should be taken as one game is better than another, but it is a great study of the hidden motivations built into the games we play, and realizing that will help you find the game that matches your expectations of what fantasy gaming should be.

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