Monday, July 8, 2013

Further Thoughts on Brin's Dichotomy

One further factor that is present in the Old School games that struck me as egalitarian, but which I forgot while writing my previous post, is the presence of rival adventuring parties!  Our heroes are not the only heroes under these rules, while at least in 3.x it was a right royal pain to build mid-to-high-level rival adventurers (sufficient to deter many DMs from doing so, self included), and in 4e the complexity gap between monsters and PCs is even larger, and the rules they operate under are so different that I would be reasonably surprised to see a rival adventuring party built under the same rules as the PCs in a 4e game.

This lens has also allowed me to articulate a reason I so dislike Midnight's Hero Paths - namely, that they are essentially exceptionalist.  They say "Midnight is a dark and horrible place and it sucks...  but you few, you happy few, you get to be awesome, because it's fated."  They are counter-thematic.  They may serve a useful function in terms of making up for lack of magic items and spells, but that does not mean I have to like them, or that Iron Heroes wouldn't do it better.

Wish fulfilment - someone once wrote about wish fulfilment in new school games, as opposed to world acceptance in old school games (perhaps Brendan when he was still at Untimately?).  I recall that whomever it was was challenged about "what are new school gamers wishing for, though?"  I believe Brin's hypothesis may provide an answer - the Campbellian heroic demigodhead (I respectfully object to Brin's terming it Nietzschean; it is in some ways, but not in others).  To stand head and shoulders above the fellow occupants of one's realm, to be confident and assured in victory, to alter the world to one's will, and to have these be a given as the result of one's mere participation in the affairs of that world.

Finally, holy crap video games are rife with this same strain that Brin sees in Lucas' work.  Halo and its relatives all the way back to Doom, the MOBA genre with its towering champions wading through waves of minions, the Elder Scrolls with their prophesied heroes born under auspicious astrology...  Hell, I'll be the first to admit that part of the fun of danger-rooms in Dwarf Fortress is that it satisfies the aristocratic impulse by creating a cadre of demigods, individuals within the bearded sea who are picked out and cultivated into unbreakable, indefatigable perfection, without the risk of injury, defeat, loss, and death that combat (required for such gains) normally entails.

It really does all come back to risk and cost.  The Halo player is not made to endure the Spartan's training, nor are the physiological, psychological, or social prices of that power brought to his attention as more than a momentary joke.  Power is given to him freely, to enjoy as he sees fit, no strings attached except the limited destiny he must fulfil.  It is not fought for, and it is not earned, except inasmuch as real money was spent upon the acquisition of the game and hardware (speaking primarily of single-player; the development of skill in multiplayer is another matter).

This, then, is part of the essence of the Old School, to me.  Your fate is your own; neither your success nor your failure are predestined.  Any success you achieve is by your own luck, skill, and guile, and your failures are the result of your lack thereof.  The consequences of your actions are yours to either suffer or exult in.    TANSTAAFL; nothing will be given to you freely, but anything you earn, achieve, or build is truly yours, though you will pay a price for it sooner or later.  Learn from your failures and strengthen your resolve; improve thyself, eschewing cheap promises of unearned demigodhood in favor of that which is difficult, for that which is difficult will make you a better player of games and a more able human.  How can one strengthen one's kung fu, or approach arete by gaming, if excellence is a given without striving?  Here is the heart of "player skill" - not meta-knowledge about what types of golem are vulnerable to what types of magic, or that lightning bolts bounce, but the cultivation of ability to rapidly extract data from foreign situations and reach accurate inferences from it, the ability to improvise and repurpose tools to unfamiliar problems, a balance of courage with caution and tenacity with calm acceptance of occasional failure, rational self-interest tempered by loyalty to a group, a healthy sense of suspicion, a healthy ability to trust, accurate knowledge of one's own flaws and limits along with one's strengths, an understanding of and ability to accept risk, the ability to resolve moral quandaries rationally and live with one's conscience, the ability to define realistic objectives and push through to their completion, and knowing when to back off and reevaluate those objectives...  Above all, a willingness to experiment, to try, to make the attempt, to push one's own limits, to spit in Death's eye and hope for a 20.  Are not these things suitable, meet, well, and proper in a human being?  Are these not things that we should pursue in our gaming, if it offers us an opportunity?  And should we willingly pass that opportunity by, in order to...  what, tell a pretty story and experience a brief and fleeting happiness, made cheap by its predestination and lack of real sacrifice?

...  hell, should I be gaming at all, with that sort of mindset?  Perhaps I should add "ability to cope with doubt" to the list, exercise off some energy, and call it a night.  The joy and curse of freedom is that one much choose.


  1. I think it's worth pointing out that the best new school games are ones where it isn't so much pre-destination as the knowledge that what you do is immediately impactful. Consider that (take Tim's game, for example), rather than being told a story, the story is told by the party, created around the actions they're performing. In the old school, you claw your way up, and that's part of the story, and most importantly I think the world and the story exist independently of the characters you're playing, while in the new school the characters are entrenched in the world. In Tim or Jared's games, our characters were central to the world and the events happening in it, whereas in your game, we were experiencing it as it happened. Obviously railroading and such do happen, but that's not really something which is necessarily fostered by new RPGs so much as poor DM-ship. And I disagree that the experience of learning and building that skill are absent. A solid story, at least in the interactive sense (games vs film, etc), places you after all of that work: A) with the expectation that either you're familiar with the mechanics or are willing to learn them through failure and B) in a position such that your actions meaningfully alter the world, forcing you to at least consider what you've done. I agree that Halo might not be great in this sense, but I don't think that I would let that drag down, say, Dishonored, which I feel had a very nice system for world influence. In fact, I would divorce the entire spectrum of games which are simply telling a story that you happen to be playing (Halo, Half Life, Poorly Done DnD, etc) from games which allow for meaningful interaction (Mass Effect, Dishonored, Well done DnD, etc). I suppose in the end, it depends on how you're drawing the Old/New distinction.

  2. Something I thought of last night: basically the way I see it, the old school game style is about how characters interact with the world, whereas the new school is about how a world interacts with the characters.

  3. I apologize for being frivolous after M's deeper comments, but I'm glad to see that Philosophy Minor I paid for being used so well. Seriously. Nice posts. Too bad Brin's article is so old, you could have commented a link to your blog and really driven up traffic.

  4. I have on many occasions pointed out that in the Traveller universe, any weapon or gear or skills that the players can acquire can also be acquired by others. Since character generation is so easy and fun, cranking out NPC parties is no difficulty at all, and with the prior career approach to chargen as opposed to leveling-up, every character so generated is experienced and can possibly be a match for the PCs.
    So in that sense Traveller PCs might be exceptional (high stats or high skill levels) but most will be closer to 'average Joes'. When one of those Average Joes ends up owning an Imperium-wide shipping corporation or becoming the undisputed Dictator of a world or a Sector Duke or even just able to retire in comfort, it is because he worked and fought to get there. This is closer to reality that what you describe in the New School games. And that's the way I want it. Even in my fantasy gaming, I want a grounding in reality; the 'destined for greatness' that appears to hold sway in the New School goes against a hard reality - that which costs us little is valued little. I'm sure somebody's said that in a much more quotable form, but that's the truth of it.

  5. I'm interested in exploring the relationships between people, in my game. Systemically, the characters are destined for nothing except to be one crew, doing something, together.

    I guess I'm hoping that if people have to think about how a group functions under stress, and how secrets and diverse backgrounds influence that functionality, they may apply that insight in real life.

    But when it comes down to it, can't sitting down at a table to play a game with your friends be about spending time with people you care about? Getting to know them better? Their dreams, their fears, their fantasies?

    In my opinion, the game itself needn't aspire to anything, if it brings people together. Which isn't to say all games do that. I've seen many a game be divisive or awkward. Sometimes it's a matter of who you're playing with.