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Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Old School Player Manifesto: An Explanation

I’m thinking over some responses to comments on the Old School Player Manifesto, but wanted to expand on what I’ve already written first. The first half of the manifest was:
  1. You shouldn’t have to know the rules.
  2. You are not your character sheet.
I’m taking these two together because #2 is a special case of #1. The over-arching principle is that the rules are really meant for the GM, as a way to figure out what happens when a player says “I’m doing this.”

I’ve said it before: the old school vs. new school contrast, to me, is a contrast between fiction-first and system-first. Or, if you prefer, situation-first vs. game-first. What the players are supposed to do, at least in an old school game, is listen to the description of the fictional situation and think “What could I do about this?”
  • If it’s a bad situation, how could you avoid it, or turn things around to your advantage?
  • If it’s a good situation, what new things can you do that you couldn’t before?
  • If it’s a neutral situation, is there some way to benefit from it?
  • If it’s a potential future situation, how can you prepare for it or avert it it?
  • If it’s a past situation, how does knowing about what happened help you now?
The opposite end of the spectrum, new school, also involves fictional situations, but they are codified in rules known to the player, and players are expected to be able to use the rules to their advantage. It’s much more about system mastery. And, of course, there are groups that fit somewhere in between the two extremes, or that play PC/NPC interactions old school but run combat new school, or otherwise partition their play style in some way.

But the details of how different RPGs use an old school or new school approach are not what’s important here. What’s important is the side effect for old school play: rules are more a distraction from play than the main point of play, and player confidence in the GM’s knowledge of rules or strict adherence to rules is not really necessary. A good old school GM is not someone who sticks to the rules, but someone who sticks to the situation as it is imagined. A GM who changes the details of the situation after it was described in order to meet some metagame goal, for example adding trolls to a nearby room on the fly because they know the party didn’t bring any fire-based weaponry is cheating.

The character sheet is related to all this. Character sheets are meant as a memory aide, primarily for what equipment PCs are carrying and what spells they know. Players should be allowed to try anything they can describe, and the GM will figure out if it works or not. Players should not be looking on their character sheet to see if they have a +5 to hit; they should be using the weapons and attacks they feel are best in the situation.

Now, I was going to save #3 and #4 for a separate post, but you can probably see that I’ve already started to cover them:
  1. You’re an adventurer. Adventure!
  2. If you want to try something, try it!
Definitely, old school players should be trying things they think might work, or might look cool. Again, the character sheet does not define whether a character can do things or not. The rule about adventuring because you are an adventurer is definitely part of that, but it goes beyond: it’s the summary of what you are supposed to do. Sometimes, players, especially new ones, don’t know what to do in an old school RPG, especially if it’s a sandbox. The new school solution is to have explicit goals and to discourage “going off the rails”. But the old school solution is to always remember that your character is looking for fame, fortune, and excitement. If a player doesn’t know what to do next, they should ask themselves “What sounds like it will get me fame, fortune, or excitement? Which is more important to me?”

This doesn’t have to be a permanent goal. As players play their characters, in-game goals will pop up. “Man, I really hated The Blue Sorcerer of Powder Mountain. I want vengeance!” Or: “I wish I had a spell that sticks enemies to the floor. I want to figure out how to do that!” Those goals will drive the game, bringing up new situations, which creates more in-game goals, and the character will grow.

I said at the start of my manifesto post that it was overly verbose, despite being just four short statements. You can see now why: Pretending to be an adventurer and trying anything you can think of as that adventurer drives everything else about old school play, making rules mastery and character sheets unnecessary.

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