Sunday, July 7, 2013

Aristocratic vs Egalitarian Games

David Brin is very opinionated about Star Wars.

I found the above to be a very interesting article particularly in the context of RPGs.  I am forced to conclude that the distinction in fiction that Brin articulates is present in RPGs, and is a reasonable stylistic differentiator between old-school and more modern games.  Consider:

Attributes - A system where you roll stats on 4 or 5d6, or where all stats start at 8 and you point-buy up, inherently says "We are only concerned with a certain quality of hero.  Deeply flawed characters, with a 6- in one stat, need not apply."  When you roll on 3d6, and your distribution is on par with the human average in your setting, the tone is much different - your heroes frequently end up flawed, even ones with one or two exceptionally high attributes.  They're more human.  Further, attributes exercise less raw power over the mechanics of most old school games, which decreases the gap between demideific and normal characters within a party.  You got Int 9?  Good enough to be a wizard with nearly as good a shot at eventual archmagistry as any other.

Henchmen - The New School tends to avoid henchmen; through Brin's lens, this is a concession both to the demideific (in that it keeps the action narrowly focused on a few superhuman individuals of interest) and to the limitations of the form (managing more than a handful of combatants in number-heavy systems is difficult).  The old school's use of henchmen is relatively egalitarian, in that it distributes attention across a broader set of individuals of more varying capability, some of whom may even surpass or betray their masters.

Death - is, as they say, the Great Equalizer, and in the old school, it is a relatively Frequent Equalizer too.  Nobody is predestined to kingship, and plot armor is nonexistent.  Even characters of exceptional ability, like the Albanian with his 18 Str and 16 Dex, end up dead sometimes.  Death is less frequent for main characters in the new school, and is considered a bigger deal because it threatens to derail the preordained plot.  Dying has gotten harder, and the penalties for resurrection have gotten smaller.

Gear Focus - The old school game presents relatively few things as inherent powers of a character; instead most of a character's capabilities, at low levels especially, come from their mundane gear.  This sends the essential message that "Anyone could do this with the right tools and a little elbow grease," which is essentially egalitarian.  By comparison, a 1st-level 4e character for example starts out with like four special powers that are inherent to their being what they are, and a pile more hit points than an average human, and their rate of divergence from the norm is much faster and more total.  A max-level ACKS fighter has probably 25 times as many HP as a 0-level human...  but he is still very terminable by massed missile fire from Joe Mercenary and his pals with non-magical bows.  I would be very surprised if a max-level (or even an equivalent / mid-teens level) 4e character still considered CR1 creatures in bulk an existential threat.

Really what it boils down to is equal opportunity and lack of predestination.  The L0 henchman who is hired because he was in good health and looking for work, out of rational mutual self-interest on his part and his master's, and who goes on to outlive his master and perhaps eventually rise to power, wealth, and rulership is, essentially, the Great American Egalitarian Rags-to-Riches Myth.  It is the elevation of one's station through risk-taking, hard work, good planning, and a little luck, with the full knowledge that the consequences of one's actions will come down not only on one's own head, but on the heads of one's companions as well, and that no higher power or predestination (coughElminstercough) waits in the wings to avert those consequences.  Had any other peasant been presented with the same opportunities, been willing to take the same risks, and been as clever and lucky, he could've done the same.

Where does your game fall?

(Man, this would've made a great 4th of July post, with title "4e Players - Why Do You Hate America?")


  1. My game is Classic Traveller, which is definitely Old School. The Official Traveller universe has Nobility built in, which I've written about here: and here:
    That must mean that I'm OK with Brin's 'elitist' approach to sci-fi, although I'm not sure I get all of his arguments. I don't see CT or most of the sci-fi I've read as being 'elitist' in tone. Of course, CT has very limited advancement rules, so anybody who ends up as an Archduke got there by the long route of hard work & ambition. Does that make CT elitist or egalitarian? I'm not sure.
    I have little familiarity with New School game systems, so I can't comment on the difference. I get the impression that New School games are more detail-oriented in character creation, which may make players more averse to having their characters get killed or end up working a desk job. Could you share some examples of New School games where the mechanics are weighted in favor of PC survival & greatness?

    Library Bob

    1. Traveller was actually the other game I was thinking about as egalitarian while writing this; its gear focus and random character generation make it a shoo-in. Yes, it has hereditary nobility, but 1) nobility is a relatively attainable reward for success in Traveller (was mentioned as a potential character goal in Trav20, for example - and I absolutely agree with the views you present in Social Climbing), and 2) Trav's nobility is not superhuman. Behind that Soc score, he's just a man like any other, not a Maud'dib or a Skywalker. The superhumans in Trav, the psions, are just the opposite - usually of low Soc within the Imperium at least. (Also, I think you'd find the Mongoose Traveller Noble career to your tastes - lots of Deception, Admin, Carouse, Persuade, and Diplomat, with very little in the way of technical skills and only Melee(Blade) for combat, presumably for duelling)

      As for the new school... I don't know which came first - destiny or character complexity. But they're linked. The canonical new-school example of a mechanic which provides plot armor to a fated few is action / hero points, as used in Pathfinder, Trailblazer, 4e, d20 Modern, True20, and others. Most characters in the world don't have action points, but the PCs and a few of their elite enemies do, and can use them to survive things which should not be survived. I would also argue that the new school's CR systems and 'balanced encounters' are mechanics which favor the PCs, by insulating them from their world in a bubble of balanced safety. Finally, the rules for death and dying have gotten consistently more lenient over time - in 3e, you died at -10 HP. In PF, you die at -Con score. 4e's system is complex and I don't have it at hand, but you got something like six rounds to bleed out on average, or max of -10 and a quarter of your (much higher than in previous editions) HP. A Trailblazer character can reach an arbitrary number of negative hit points without dying, provided that he is stabilized in 3 rounds by an ally and takes no further injuries. All far cries from immediate death at 0 HP! Such death mechanics favor the PCs in new school games because PCs tend to win most encounters, which leave them holding the field and able to tend to incapacitated allies, while monsters, lacking clerical support, are typically 'as good as dead' at 0 under any of these systems.

  2. Good article John. Though I must say I think Brin is a bit off his rocker with that old article.

  3. Definitely interesting things to think about, particularly when designing new games.

    One of my favorite things about our ACKS campaign was Corinth's ascension from first hench to kickass hero.

  4. Excellent article. I can't believe I missed this.