Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Once and Future Game. Old Guard Gaming isn't going anywhere.

I know a lot of old gamers worry about the future of The Game, but I’m confident it’s not going to die off anytime soon.

When we’re discussing the future of Old Guard gaming, I think we’re discussing three different, but closely related things. The future of Dungeons & Dragons, (OD&D, AD&D, and the Retro-clones), the future of Old School gaming style and philosophy, and also the future of table top Role Playing Games themselves.

Each of these is seen as under threat from the same sources. You’ve got computer role playing games and shooters, the merchandising mentality that tries to insert the need for continual purchases of add-ons like cards, minis, splatbooks and new editions, which fractures the hobby and creates factions, and the disinterest of the kids who are creating their own diceless and freeform types of role playing over the internet. I think each of these things will have its day, but I don’t think any of them are a lasting threat to Old Guard D&D, or table top role playing in general.

This is why.

Original Dungeons & Dragons is the foundation of role playing games. Love it or hate it, there is no going around that. All following RPGs are efforts to copy it, improve it, or defy it, and those that seek to repudiate its assumptions still owe their creation to the prior example of OD&D.

Because The Game is at the root of all the various forms that contemporary role playing has taken, it is the most broadly applicable. This is important because it’s not the super specialized form that survives over time, it’s the adaptable generalist. This applies to just about everything, not just rpgs. Music, art, science, work and technology etc... More and more complex forms of what ever you care to look at specialize in a smaller and smaller niches until the conditions that supported that specialization end and the super specialized form is no longer viable. Then the generalist fills the gap again, OD&D can be tweaked, modified, amalgamated, and kit-bashed to serve just about any style of play or genre of fiction.

Original D&D laid out the basis of role playing games. Imagination, negotiation, discussion, and adjudication hung on a framework of rules as guidelines, and the results of actions determined by the dice. The fashion pendulum of rpgs has swung over time, giving priority to different parts of this structure at different times. From story telling and the narrative approach which exalts imagination and down plays rules and dice mechanics, to the rules oriented near-wargame which disregards both story and the randomness of dice in favor of iron clad system. OD&D is the center point where the swing of the pendulum begins, and the appearance of the OSR is the first return to that point.

In my view, Old Guard gaming allows the DM to draw on each of these facets of good design as appropriate for his game. Rules, imagination, and dice driven randomness are a mutually supporting triumvirate which make for the best gaming experience when given equal weight at the table. This is what I mean when I say OD&D is a generalist system. Being small, open to interpretation, and without an assumed style of play that the rules enforce, it will always be able to provide a satisfying game experience when players become disenchanted with the play style du jour.
All subsequent rpgs distort this three-fold structure to some extent, in one direction or another. Doing this emphasizes one facet at the expense of the others, and may deliver a more sharply defined theme to the players, but it does so by limiting the greater utility of the game. Soon enough, some new fad of gaming will seize the attention of the larger population of gamerdom and draw their attention away, but it’s only a matter of time before the pendulum swings back through Old Guard territory again.

And it always will.
Table top role playing provides an experience that no other media can. It is active, uncertain, and collaborative in real time. With a crew of the sort of mad visionary weirdos that role playing games attract sitting around a table together, there is just no telling what’s going to happen. Movies, books and tv provide experiences that people may passively observe, and imagine themselves in, but have no ability to affect the outcome of. Channeling this same imagination through a game with rules and other players whose actions affect the events of the game creates a far more real and exciting experience.

I’ve often heard people say that the graphics of computer games are better than their imagination. I honestly find that a bit frustrating, they’re not better than mine. I find crpgs to be the poor cousins of table top games, confining and quickly drained of possibility. I doubt that the fans of crpgs are expecting the same things from them that the fans of table top are looking for. The utter unpredictability of face to face role playing games is the thing I most enjoy, and this is also the thing that other media cannot provide. This unpredictability is also the thing which Old Guard gaming excels at, while most contemporary game styles attempt to suppress randomness in favor of story, or system. That’s probably the reason that’s at the heart of why I think table top rpgs, OD&D, and Old Guard gaming are not going anywhere any time soon.

As far as its relevance to future generations of role players goes, OD&D is just as much the core idea of the role playing game as it is a specific set of rules for playing it. No matter what form the dominate style of role playing takes in the future, there will be a percentage of those players who have an interest in the origins of their hobby. These will be the players who keep The Game from fading into obscurity in between the swings of the pendulum of fashion after the last of the Grognards has gone to sit at Gary’s table in the sky.

The real dangers I see to table top role playing come more from Hasbro than from shifts in cultural tastes. WOTC largely gave up its ability to make decisions about how the game would be presented once it whored itself to big business. Hasbro is no more of a friend to the rpg hobby than Walmart is to Mom&Pop stores. By repeatedly altering the game with new editions that seek to capitalize on the perceived tastes of each successive generation of possible gamers, the current owners of the name move the game further and further from its origin. Each edition amounts to increasing specialization, in effect painting the game into a corner from which, at some point, it will not be able to escape.

Now, I pay little attention, generally, to WOTC editions of D&D, they do not provide what I desire. The thing that can’t be ignored however is that they control the public perception of what the name means and what is to be expected from playing Dungeons & Dragons. They will continue to publish new editions every few years in an attempt to keep the revenue stream steady, and each of these future editions will cater to whatever market research indicates is Trend of the Day. The game bearing the name, Dungeons & Dragons could become unrecognizable in a fairly short time.
This could still be circumvented by determined young students of the history of rpgs so long as copies of original systems are available. Of course, acquiring such materials was made that much more difficult when WOTC stopped sales of out of print edition materials in PDF. The retro-clones are the best that can be done at the moment, and I’m grateful for them. I just wish that their progenitors could once again be published directly.

The death and break up of Hasbro is one happy possibility I see in the near future. At the same time that escapism in all its forms becomes more popular as the economy deteriorates, Giants like Hasbro will become less able to capitalize on it. Toys are their major market, not rpgs, and they may well sell off underperformers like WOTC. Whether or not they would hang onto D&D, I don’t know. In the best possible scenario, a competent small company, run by someone who loves and understands The Game would acquire it.

Now that the feckless morons in Washington and the economic illiterates who advise them have committed us to facing a thing that will make the Great Depression look like a minor inconvenience, we’ll be able to test this theory of mine.

Won’t that be interesting kids?!


Jeffrey Runokivi said...

I always have to laugh when someone says that the graphics of a computer game are better than their imaginations. Rubbish. The problem is that they do not exersize their imaginations and there for it is almost as if they have none. They think that the reason the graphics are better has to do with the graphics, when it is in themselves that the problem lies.
If computer graphics are better...that is really just sad.

Zak Sabbath said...

I've just made a deal that will keep the Empire out of here forever.

☩ °°{▲bjps▲}°° ☩ said...

You have some interesting points although I feel you underestimate the power of the long term exploititive franchise that is D&D. The issue here is really the consumer - Hasbro will keep pushing products tailered for their contempory rpg target audience (Which is overwhelmingly the Crpg player) The reccession might well produce an upturn in esacapism, but the majority of consumers will still flock to the bloke with the biggest hat - WOTC.(and no doubt be comforted by how familier it all feels) Bemoaning this, sadly, is a little like pissing in the wind.
That said , it certainly dosent spell the end for ye oldye rpg. Obscurity perhaps, but as we all know, some of the best things in life are a fair distance from the mainstream

Norman J. Harman Jr. said...

> I know a lot of old gamers worry about the future of The Game

Really, why? That's silly.

Unknown said...

Great post, and full agreement from me.

@Norman: Quite a few gamers (at least the ones posting online) seem to get "my hobby", "THE hobby" and "the Industry" a bit mixed up.

Eldrad Wolfsbane said...

With C&C, OSRIC, LL, BFRPG, and S&W out there and it slowly gaining popularity and we the old school gamers still preaching the word it will not die right now at least not around me.

On the economy comment in which you are so very correct at that observation. We will need gaming and other forms of escape when the next wave of defaults hits the economy this year.

The people of the USA (except for gamers) are very sadly not going to be able to go through a disaster when the distribution system goes down. It's gonna get crazy in the big cities when food and fuel runs out.

I really hope I am completely wrong about this.

nextautumn said...

"...Gary's table in the sky."

Now THAT'S a heaven I can get behind.

Anonymous said...

Good post, but I have to hope that you are wrong about Wizards of the Coast. Admittedly they are a corporate machine, but I believe that the people who work there, at least, have the best interests of DnD & Magic at heart.

Yes, the corporate execs might be focused on the bottom line, but the quality of the products they put out (even if it is put out a bit too frequently, in my opinion) indicates that the content creators at the bottom levels really care about the worlds they are making.

Plus, unless I'm mistaken, they opened up the d20 system for the OGL. This new GSL is going to take a little bit more looking at before I can decide how I feel about it, but for most of the old school movement it probably isn't much of a concern one way or the other.

Anyway, great post, as usual!

Tarostar said...

For those who need it it's increasingly possible to introduce computer graphics into your sessions. Those playing online using virtual tabletop software there is already a plethora of beautifully rendered maps and miniatures available, and tools to design your own. Increasingly I'm sure these will be incorporated at the table too using tabletop computers.

Computer games can be a nice diversion, but they don't provide the open-ended creative freedom that usually attracts people to roleplaying games. Those who played RPGs mostly for the mindless hack and slash might play shooters instead, but the rest of us will just shrug and continue playing. I posted a bit about this on my blog (post 8 on page 2).