Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Overreaction Wednesday - Empty Rooms, Styles, and Substances

There was some discussion on a megadungeon-in-development last week. I mostly missed it because I don't spend much time on OSR sites or blogs anymore (other than Grognardia and Jeff's place) because though I feel a kinship with most of the people who write about it, I don't feel like I'm really a part of it - so, no OSR logo on the blog, no reviews of OSR products - you get the picture. Anyway, I was a latecomer to the hubbub so I got to page thru the full discussion and it's a little funny. Now I don't know Joe or any of the other players in the discussion but I may quote some of them below. Some thoughts:

One, I don't think anyone should be surprised at the nature of an old-school megadungeon, especially one written by someone who has a very popular OSR-themed blog and especially especially one that has been written about on that blog pretty extensively. I haven't read it but it sounds exactly like the kind of thing discussed in the AD&D DMG - for those of us who were playing and reading Dragon back then I don't think there was anything described that sounded out of place. Maybe Joe wasn't playing back then, or maybe he's just not interested in playing the game as-it-was-back-then today. There's nothing wrong with that.

Two, the debate expanded into other megadungeons, DM creativity, and the role of published adventures. The OSR has a weird relationship with published adventures: so many of the people touting the old-school are big on the do-it-yourself nature of the early rules that I'm surprised there is so much interest in someone else's work (Gygax/Arneson excepted), especially at a price, when it could easily be done for free with random tables and some borrowed maps. The free exchange of adventures and rules ideas is clearly accepted but I'm still surprised that so many people were willing to pony up for it. Similarly, I often get a sense that there is a disdain for published adventures among much of the OSR, but for some reason megadungeons have escaped this - at least until now. It's a weird thing, as in my opinion the older adventures serve as a touchstone for a lot of us whether it's the Caves of Chaos or the Giants - you can bet if two old D&D players meet up sooner or later the mad hermit or the big green mouth or the giant crab in the bubble are going to come up. They are part of a big shared experience, but there's a weird thing there with some people who just don't like published adventure material and it makes me think that this would be the least profitable or popular kind of product among old-schoolers - but apparently not. Notably, Joe mentions that he was not a backer in the kickstarter - that sounds to me like the system worked as intended, so everyone should be happy.

Three, the conversation also went into styles of play, and I think that's the biggest thing I wanted to note. It's been assumed to some degree (and I know I have done it before) that there is a set style of play that is Old School - resource management, exploration, and somewhat fragile characters, often in a sandbox, and typically in a lower level or grittier style than in newer RPG's. That may not be the case as much anymore. There may be a fair number of people that have been introduced or re-introduced to D&D style gaming via the OSR that have not been playing truly old school adventures - it's hard for an experienced DM to completely wash away the last 20 years of game time if they've been playing a variety of games over the years. Maybe a by-the-book old school dungeon just is not their thing, even if they've been using old school rules. Here's a quote from Joe:

Here's the thing--as a player, I want my character to kick some ass, be awesome, and have a tale to tell back at the tavern so he can get some action with the serving wenches.  You know, Conan, or Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser style.  That to me is the motivation to play an adventurer.

See that sounds a lot like the kind of thing that people complained about with 4th edition - that it caters to the "I want action now" crowd etc. who don't get what old school adventuring is all about. Now I'm not making the complete jump that people who dislike Dwimmermount should go buy a 4th edition PHB, but I'm leaning towards the idea that style of play may be more important than the rules for most people. Maybe, just maybe, some people have tried old-school dungeoneering and decided that it wasn't their cup of tea, leading to new approaches in new editions of D&D and other D&D-like games. For a lot of players, they will have a lot of fun with the same DM and group of fellow players regardless of the rules system in use, and they will happily change games multiple times over the years while staying with the same group and enjoying almost all of it. The exceptions may largely be driven by when something tries to enforce a style of play that the group does not like - like an old-school megadungeon. It's hard to be awesome when there's not that much to react against, whether you're an ace-kicker or a talker. If you're an explorer-type though, I suspect it would be right up your alley.

For example, I know my current group of players would never go for the Goodman Games RPG. Sure, rolling up a bunch of nobodies and seeing who survives to make it to 1st level could be fun once or twice but pretty soon it's going to get tedious. Similarly, old school AD&D would not be a sustainable campaign (even if I think it would be fun) because they don't want to spend their fun time on that kind of resource management and with that level of character fragility. They want action and interaction and a little exploration along the way. Now you can focus on that in any game, really, but it's easier to manage a group when there is mechanical support for it within the game. For us, 3rd & 4th edition D&D, Savage Worlds, and the boatload of Supers games I talk about on this blog do it right. Despite that mechanical preference and that style preference, I still see a lot of good material in  old adventures so I do a lot of conversion work in my campaigns, especially my D&D campaigns, because it's the best of both worlds - I get atmospheric descriptions (in some cases), a setting I am familiar with (in most cases), decades of supplemental material (internet!) and I get the benefit of the mechanics that support the way my players like to play now. 

Maybe Dwimmermount just needs some conversion notes to multiple editions and several different games. I think both 4E and Hero system and even Savage Worlds could benefit from a mega-dungeon option for a campaign. Think of the Traveller conversion - "Endless Tunnels of the Ancients". For Warhammer it wouldn't matter because everyone would be dead, mutated, or insane by level 3, but that doesn't mean that it's a concept unworthy of exploration!

That's probably enough on the topic. I just thought it was noteworthy that in this case the substance is the style - and I expect that it will come up again. Discussions on D&D Next are touching on a lot of similar ground though mainly regarding rules mechanics and not setting - yet.

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