Thursday, June 9, 2011

System, Style of Play, and Heroes

So, yeah, a LOT of bloggers have written about their thoughts on the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG beta since its release yesterday morning. Akrasia put together a small list of blogs besides his own that commented on DCC, but now the number of bloggers that have “reviewed” the beta rules has exploded! Yes, for good or ill, the DCC RPG has stirred up the blogosphere. Every blog from Grognardia to Your Dungeon is Suck has chimed in on the subject.

I still think that it’s sort of gimmicky, and an attempt to tap into the ever-growing OSR movement. I’m not faulting Goodman Games for the attempt. But I think they really turned on the spin machine. The beta version of the game seems, to me, to be trying too hard to be old school, whatever old school really is. Seriously, the definition of old school (not that I think there should be one) is a moving target. Does old school refer to games from a certain era? Is it a style of play? Is it rules light? Is it a combination of these things? I suppose the real answer is that old school gaming is whatever each gamer wants it to be. So trying to publish a "truly" old school game is like trying to hit a rapidly moving target. What Goodman Games has done is put forth its own version of an old school game. I know that it’s great for people to be passionate about what they do. But I think Goodman went a little too heavy on the hype, and it may be that they’ve sort of created a level of expectation that no game can live up to. Or I could be totally wrong.

Some have taken issue with DCC’s statement that player characters using the system are not heroes. Again, I think the company took hold of what it thought are the foundation stones of old school gaming and ran with those ideas. But they might have run too far. Are they saying that in old school gaming the PCs are not heroic? Does game system determine such a thing as whether or not a player can create/play a heroic character?

I’m a huge Joseph Campbell fan. I loved Hero with a Thousand Faces. After I read that book, I looked at the early versions of D&D as being about playing archetypes. The strict division of classes brings forth very archetypal roles: the warrior, the healer, the trickster, the magician…and also mythological beings such as dwarves, elves, etc. I’m not really sure off the top of my head the genesis behind the classes that Gygax and Arneson created for their original game (maybe someone can enlighten me!), but they do seem to tap into some ancient archetypes.

Sure, those early versions of D&D gave you most of your experience from treasure and killing things. But is that because the creators were still steeped in the more mechanical world of wargaming? Did they not really consider the roleplaying aspect in those early days? I guess what I’m saying is that they probably didn’t purposefully make D&D just about slaying and treasure. The game was a new offshoot of miniature gaming, which probably never really involved a lot of roleplaying.

So for Goodman Games to make it such a badge of honor, and declare characters as not being heroes, just seems a bit, well, short sighted. It seems wrong-headed.

All of this makes me think of some recent posts I read regarding system and style of play. I totally agree that the rules of particular game systems can indeed lend themselves to different styles of play. The early D&D games lend themselves to more hack and slash styles of play, perhaps, as well as a focus on gaining treasure. But as time went on, some gamers sought to add more “depth” to characters and their games. The later versions of the game began to focus on making characters more like individuals, rather than broad archetypes. The characters started to develop whole lives, with backgrounds that could become quite detailed. I think Pathfinder made 3rd Edition more "cinematic," so characters are still individuals but more like those you see in movies (i.e. larger than life). Now, 4E has pushed the characters into the realm of superheroes, who are powerful right from the start.

And this is ok, because change is natural. This is why I’m a believer in the recent “I’m with D&D” pseudo-movement (something of a reaction against Edition Wars). There’s no reason to deride those who play different editions, because different editions facilitate different styles of play.

Now, can you play a long campaign that’s heavy on plots and intrigue and interaction with NPCs using OD&D? Absolutely. Can you use 3.5 Edition to just do dungeon crawls? Sure! Therein lies the power of imagination and the individual tastes of gamers. So it is possible to overcome the influence of system on style of play.

So I believe that gamers just need to pick the system they're most comfortable with and have fun. I think each system has its obvious pros and cons. But they also have their own variation on the theme of heroes. Yes, that’s right, I said heroes. There are many different types of heroes. And they all need not be knights in shining armor. Some can be uncivilized or even self-serving. But does that mean that they cannot be heroes? And speaking of knights, don’t they need to gather up treasure too?

So again, to assume that old school roleplaying is not populated by at least some heroes is sort of strange. It makes Goodman Games seem somewhat out of touch with the real roots and motivations of the OSR.

To take my own admonition to “play and let play” to heart, I won’t fault anyone who falls in love with DCC and makes it their game of choice. I just think it was a poor choice on the part of Goodman Games to make it seem like they sought to create the “perfect” old school game that would tap into some conception of an OSR zeitgeist. Now, I know that the company never stated such a thing. But it sure seemed like they were trying really hard to make all of us think so.

NOTE: The DCC RPG's stance on heroes has sparked something of a "side" controversy, and other people besides me are giving their opinions on the matter. Things are getting more and more meta all the time ;-) Take a look here and here, for example.


  1. I'm sensing a disturbance in the force...

  2. I think you're onto something here. I have noticed quite a bit of backlash this week against both DCC and LotFP, which is odd.

    But, I can see your point that I think a lot of people are hitching their cart to the OSR bandwagon (I think I may have just completely messed up that analogy, but I'm too lazy to look it up) just because it can create an instant target audience. If you claim that your product is "Old School", you're going to get the OSR blogosphere at least interested enough to look at it and start talking about it, because it's a passionate group of people who are seeking out new, fresh Old School material they can use.

    I'm not making a judgment, BTW, on whether DCC is old school or not. I think that's a question that can only be answered by the individual. As you point out, I just don't think the term "old school" stands up to a strict definition. It's been said many times before, but what's old school to me might not be old school to someone else. And, as you eloquently put it, it's more of a play style than a rules set. I can play an old school type of game using any rules set I want, if I choose to do that.

    Okay, I'm tired so I'm rambling. Anyway, good post. Lots to think about.